The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Apr 12, 2010

Burn 'Em All

I recall reading somewhere that the reason ancient documents of the lives and administrations of various kingdoms of India haven't survived the years is that, in keeping with the Hindu/Buddhist doctrine of life, death, and rebirth, archivists tended to destroy records when one ruler or dynasty was succeeded by another.

There are parallels elsewhere in the world, even if the destruction is due to different reasons. The first emperor of China, 秦始皇, Qin Shi Huang, is said to have feared that access to histories of his land would undermine his legitimacy, and ordered the wholesale purge of books predating his rule. And, of course, there are any number of examples of book-burning inspired by some ideology or the other, including religion. Egregious cases would include the burning of the Maya sacred books by evangelical Spaniards, the destruction of the library of Nalanda by Muslim invaders, sundry excesses by the Nazis, and the wholesale extirpation of Iraq's national library after the US invasion in 2003.

This is not to covertly imply that Hindus have been any more enlightened than the other zealots. From Manipur's history, we have a good example. [1] From about the 16th century onwards, Sanskrit scholars from Bengal began to settle in Manipur, and, having influenced the then monarch, Kiyamba, proselytised amongst the people in that land. The people had been worshippers of an animist faith of Sanamahi, and some of them converted to Hinduism. Kiyamba's successors allowed still more Sanksritists to preach, until in 1704, the king, Charai Rongba, was formally initiated into the faith.

The local language, Manipuri, already had a long and energetic literary tradition. It had its own script, called Meitei Mayek, and one of its great texts was the Cheitharon Kumpapa, the Court Chronicle of Manipur, tracing the genealogy of the monarchs from 33 to 1763 (more recently extended to 1955). [2]

After Charai Rongba, his son Gareeb Niwaz fell under the influence of the Chaitanya school of Vaishnavism. He decided to no longer support the Meitei Mayek script, and - fearing that the old texts would undermine his efforts to establish Hinduism among the Manipuris, and quite probably encouraged by his Brahmin adviser Shantidas Adhikari - ordered the burning of documents written in it. Large numbers of histories and texts of the old faith were publicly set aflame. In view of the supposed prestige of the languages of the incoming new faith, Manipuri began to be written in the Bengali script, which along with Sanskrit, assumed greater importance in ritual matters.

One consequence of this was the translation of sacred Sanskrit texts such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and their publication in Manipuri's new script. Furthermore, a large number of Indo-Aryan words were adopted in Manipuri, a Tibeto-Burman language.

Despite Gareeb Niwaz's efforts, Meitei Mayek didn't entirely die out, although it was largely displaced by the Bengali writing. It continued to be used in secular documents, being much more suited to its language. With the advent of printing, Manipuri texts were almost all published in the Bengali script. The trouble ever since has been that not all the Bengali letters are used, and there are several Manipuri sounds that do not correspond to any Bengali characters.

Recently, there has been an attempt to revive Meitei Mayek among school-children, and to promote it in public signs. Simultaneously, there have been woefully inevitable outrages. When linguistic chauvinists decide that one script is superior to another, inevitably there's burning of books. Linguistic terrorists of the MEELAL organisation (Meetei Erol Eyek Loinshillon Apunba Lup, or the United Forum for Safeguarding Manipuri Script and Language) in 2005 decided to 'reverse' Gareeb Nawaz's book-burning. Demanding the immediate restoration of the old script, they set the Manipur State Central Library on fire, with the ensuing destruction of more than 145,000 books. [3]

What goes around, evidently, doesn't fail to come around.


[1] Devi, Hajarimayum Subadani. 2004. Loanwords in Manipuri and their impact, Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, Volume 27, No. 1, pp. 29-60

[2] Parratt, Saroj Nalini. 2005. Court Chronicle of the Kings of Manipur: Cheitharon Kumpapa: 1 (Royal Asiatic Society Books). Routledge, London.

[3] Pradip Phanjoubam, An Incendiary Script, Outlook Magazine, Apr 26, 2005.


Anonymous said...

What I find here is that u know u just float!And nothing!Thats I called it too much of "kok" cant change anything of significance!Anyway I like the way you chose for safe play!

Post a Comment