One of the disadvantages of the remarkable deep allegiance a people may feel toward their writing system is—what if they have more than one? What if a widely-scattered minority community supports or creates one writing system in one area, and a different one in another?
Roughly half a million Gurungs live in Nepal and the surrounding region, of whom perhaps two-thirds speak Gurung, a number that may be declining. Gurung culture was traditionally oral, and until World War II its language, Tamu kyui, was generally written in the Devanagari or even the Latin alphabet, but this changed owing to the creation of a fascinating linguistic subculture in which Tamu kyui temporarily became the norm rather than the exception.
In 1944, when Jagan Lal Gurung was fighting in Burma in a battalion composed primarily of Gurungs, he began to communicate in Tamu kyui. By the time the war ended, he had acquired a newfound interest in his native tongue, an interest that led to him developing a Gurung script, today known as Khe Prih. When Jagan Lal returned to Nepal, he began teaching Khe Prih to the children in his village of Hyanjakot.
“It was still the Rana regime in Nepal at that time,” said Man Bahadur Gurung, president of the Tamu Language-Script and Culture Development Foundation and a long-time advocate of Khe Prih. “Jagan solti received a lot of threats from the [government] for teaching the children, but he didn’t budge. When he was about to be arrested and his life was at stake, he ran away from Nepal, back to his duty in the Indian Army.”
Jagan Lal returned to Nepal in 1965 and began lobbying for and teaching his script, but as with many indigenously-created scripts, its radius was limited. After his death in 2011, Man Bahadur edited the Khe Prih script into its current form and began to propagate it.
“Jagan solti did a lot to teach Gurungs to write in their own script,” says Man Bahadur. “But at that time, people cared less about having a cultural identity.”
When a language community is scattered, rural, and in the minority, consensus and uniformity are hard to come by. But that lack of a coherent core population became a force in itself. As economic necessity drove many Gurungs to seek work in the cities or abroad, losing their mother tongue, the fear of cultural erosion—especially as Tamu kyui was not generally written down—a committee was formed in 1977 to create a Gurung script. And as Khe Prih was barely even known, let alone widely adopted, Bal Narsingh Gurung, under the supervision of Guru Pim Bahadur Gurung, was tasked with creating a Gurung script, which he did in a year.
The result was Khema Phri, which in 2022 was chosen as the official script for the Gurung language. The fate of Khe Prih, its usage, and documents written in the script, is unknown, but is surely in jeopardy.
28.2967° N, 83.9069° E