Nepal Lipi (that is, “Nepal writing”) has several names—Prachalit, Nepalakshara, and Newa—and it consists of a family of closely-related scripts. From its name, you’d imagine it has long been an official script of Nepal, but such is far from the case.
Nepal has traditionally been a rich and complex linguistic culture. The Newar languages alone, in the Kathmandu Valley, have been written in a total of nine closely-related scripts: Ranjana, Bhujinmol, Kunmol, Kwanmol, Golmol, Pachumol, Hinmol, Litumol and Prachalit Nepal. Collectively, the Newari family of languages is called Newari or Nepal Bhasa; the scripts are collectively called Nepal Lipi.
From 400-750 CE, Nepal scripts were widely used as the main medium for trade, literacy and communication.
Use of the Nepal scripts began to decline when Prithvi Narayan Shah defeated King Jayaprakash Malla of Kathmandu in 1769, leading to the Gorkhali conquest of the Kathmandu Valley. He began to eliminate the use of Nepalese language and scripts in administration and trade. Once the Rana dynasty came to power, the script was completely replaced. The Newari language was banished from education, and the government abolished the use of textbooks and documents written in Nepalese scripts in favor of Devanagari.
In 1912, Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shamshere officially nullified all property ownership documents and deeds written in any language other than Gorkhali (the Rana dynasty was descended from the Gorkha kingdom), and any script other than Devanagari. The assault on the script continued for decades: in 1941, all writers and poets using it were thrown in jail, and their property confiscated.
“Books were seized and burned, but many Newar families hid their books in their dhukus, secret wardrobes, while others, to save their ancestral texts, cast them afloat in rivers,” said Niranjan Tamrakar, current president of the Nepal Lipi Guthi, or Institute of Nepalese Epigraphy.
Even after the fall of the Rana dynasty in 1951, King Mahendra introduced a policy of, “One country, one language, one script” in the 1960s. Devanagari was enforced. “An entire generation never learned their traditional script and languages,” explained Sunita Dangol, a language activist, “pushing many languages and scripts to the verge of extinction.”
“Even after the transition to democracy, people were still not learning Ranjana, claiming that it is “too difficult, impractical, and,” she paused, ironically, “…out of use.”
“That’s when the Nepal Lipi Guthi came into the picture,” said Sharad Kasa, librarian at the Asa Saphu Kuthi, a public library of Nepali manuscripts and a teacher of the Nepal scripts. “In 1980, Bikash Man Sheshya started the institution and played a significant role in spreading awareness about the importance of Nepal Bhasa and the history it carries. Today, the institution continues to teach people how to write in Nepal scripts under the leadership of its various guthi members,” said Kasa, who has been teaching Nepal script for 27 years now.
More recently, the cause of Nepalese scripts has been taken up by Callijatra, a youthful group consisting of artists, architects, engineers, photographers, calligraphers, designers and app developers. Callijatra has taken Nepal Lipi back to the streets, running workshops and demonstrations of writing, calligraphy and type design, often in markets and open public spaces in and around the Kathmandu Valley.
Apps and interactive video tutorials have been developed to teach both Ranjana and Nepal Lipi, a Newa font is now available for Android, and local government has shown signs of interest in bringing Ranjana and Nepal Lipi into school curricula.
“It is also being taught in schools as a part of a Nepalbhasa course in Kathmandu both private and government from grade 1 to grade 8, both Nepal Lipi and Ranjana Lipi scripts,” explained Ananda K. Maharjan, a calligrapher, type designer and writing teacher. “Other states are also starting to teach these scripts and languages. We did lots of open workshops to learn the scripts, teachers training for teachers, also online workshops classes to promote the scripts.”
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