Mahajani [NEW]

With the possible exception of journalists’ and court stenographers’ shorthands, we don’t tend of think that scripts might be used specifically by certain trades.

Enter Mahajani (and Khudabadi, Sarrafi, and Baniautí), a specialized commercial script used across northern India for writing accounts and financial records in Hindi, Marwari and Punjabi. It was even taught and used as a medium of education in Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh in schools known as cataśālās, where students from merchant and trading communities learned the script and other writing skills required for business. And in fact its name, deriving from mahajana, or banker, refers to bankers and money lenders, who were the primary users of the script.

The majority of Mahajani records are account books, merchant diaries, financial instruments such as bills of exchange, and letters. Several lithographed books for teaching the script and explaining its use in accounting and letter-writing were produced in the late 19th century.

A mercantile script needs to be clear and unambiguous to those who can read it, but it helps if it is also sufficiently unusual to prying eyes to act as a sort of code. John Beames in his IndoAryan Grammar of 1872 wrote:

The Mahâjani character differs entirely from that used for general purposes of correspondence, and is quite unintelligible to any but commercial men. It is in its origin as irregular and scrawling as the Sindhi, but has been reduced by men of business into a neat-looking system of little round letters, in which, however, the original Devanagari type has become so effaced as hardly to be recognizable, even when pointed out. Perhaps this is intentional. Secrecy has always been an important consideration with native merchants, and it is probable that they purposely made their peculiar alphabet as unlike anything else as possible, in order that they alone might have the key to it.

Unsurprisingly for a mercantile script, Mahajani has its own symbols to denote fractions, digits, and currency marks.

The script’s use began to dwindle in the mid-twentieth century, and now it is used very little, mostly by elderly shopkeepers. When that generation passes, it may fall completely into disuse.

Most of the research for this profile was carried out by Anshuman Pandey.


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