One day, some Indiana Jones of the written word is going to set off into the northern Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, going from village to village, following up rumors, undeterred by shrugs and shakes of the head, until finally they are invited into the back room of a small, dusty house where an elderly person is sitting at a none-too-sturdy table, a lined book open in front of them, writing in Kaithi.
Back in the day (in this case, the sixteenth century), the Kaithi script was used for writing legal, administrative and private records across north and northeast India. It got its name from the word Kayastha, a social/professional group that traditionally consisted of administrators and accountants, employed by the princely courts and colonial governments of North India to write and maintain records of revenue transactions, legal documents, and title deeds; general correspondence; and proceedings of the royal courts.
Kaithi was the traditional script of the Bhojpuri and Magahi languages, and the popular script of the Awadhi and Maithili languages, and even of Urdu. It was the most widely-used script of North India west of Bengal, embraced by Hindus and Muslims alike. In 1854, 77,368 school primers were in Kaithi script, a fact that one evening will surely come up during trivia night.
The presence of the British Raj served to make Kaithi even more widespread, as regional colonial government standardized the script for use in education and then chose it as the official script of the judicial courts and administrative offices of the Bihar districts in 1880. The arrival of printing further entrenched Kaithi, with the development of metal fonts and printing facilities, used to print census schedules, accounting records and books, while Christian missionaries used it for printing translations of Christian literature in the regional languages of north India.
Hard to believe that any script could decline from such a strong position, but even authority can and does shift its linguistic allegiances. (See Manchu.) Beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, Kaithi fell victim to the general shift away from linguistic pluralism—surely one of the strengths and defining features of India as a nation—toward the growing dominance of the Devanagari script, associated then as now with homogeneity and Hindu nationalism.
Kaithi continued as the official script in the courts of Bihar until at least 1913, at which time Devanagari became the preferred script, though Kaithi was maintained concurrently. As recently as 1963 The District Gazetteer of Purnea states that while the Devanagari script is widely used, the “Kaithi script is in vogue but declining in use.”
Anshuman Pandey, researching for the 2007 Unicode proposal, learned of Bhojpuri-speakers who carried the Kaithi script with them when they migrated to Trinidad, Mauritius, and Jamaica, and concluded “It is possible that Kaithi is still used today in a very limited capacity in these districts and in rural areas of north India.”
In 2015 the Bihar Foundation noted “Aakhar, a Bhojpuri magazine, has started publishing one article in Kaithi every month. Ashwini Rudra who also designs the magazine worked for one year to learn the Kaithi script.” And when I was researching Kaithi in 2020 I found a Bhojpuri Facebook page in Kaithi, though, tantalizingly, it is no longer available.
The search continues. Cue the music.
BREAKING NEWS: the Bihar government has announced it will research and introduce measures to revive the script, equating languages and scripts with folk and tribal arts as important features of cultural heritage. Stay tuned.
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Images for Gallery: https://www.scribd.com/doc/52997045/Stotra-in-Kaithi-Script-Rajendra
Facebook: The Bihar Foundation is at https://www.facebook.com/BiharFoundation2015/