Have you heard of the word Paataa? Well, neither did I until I read about this dying script of the Maithili language known as Mithilakshar or Tirhuta, the script of the land of Tirabhukti, present day Tiruhut or Mithila. Today the script Tirhuta exists only in form of art works like paataa which is a handwritten invitation card. Maithili language is widely spoken across the states of Bihar and few regions of Janakpur (Nepal). But due to the negligence of Government and lack of scholars, the decrease in use of Tirhuta is quite evident. Going back to its past, Tirhuta script was historically used to write Maithili which is an Indo-Aryan language. In Mahabharata one can get the oldest references to Tirhuta script in the Janaki Mandir (temple of Janaks) of Janakpur where Rama and Sita wed. This place had a major role in the development of Sanskrit language.
Not surprisingly, Mithilakshar has a lot in common with the Bengali script. The related script used in West Bengal and Bangladesh is commonly called Bengali alphabet. Bengali alphabet has many letters which are written similarly in both Tirhuta and Bengali. Tirhuta script has a style of writing from left to right. It has an Abugida (segmented) system of writing comprising of eighty-two characters with consonant letters and vowels.
We all have heard of the Braille system but very few of us know about metal fonts of a script that were cut in 1920s. Fonts for this script were developed in 2003 and in the same year the Government of India included Maithili in the eighth schedule of the Indian constitution as a scheduled language and independent of Hindi. Devanagari is the script of Maithili which has been officially recognized in primary and secondary education whereas Tirhuta is recognized optionally. Although Devanagari script replaced Tirhuta, it is still used by Pandits for writing ceremonial letters and documents sometimes.
While we learn a language in depth we look at the basic elements in its script. Tirhuta is purely alphabetical and is divided into three groups: Vowels, Consonants and Semi-vowels. When we take the numerals of this script, it uses its own signs for the positional decimal numeral system. A very curious note about Tirhuta is that it abounds in angles and has no circle.
Until the advent of Kaithi (another script of Maithili), Tirhuta was used for all purposes throughout Mithila for a long period. It was later confined to academic and cultural affairs as Kaithi occupied the domain of administration, trade and commerce. The two dominant castes who used the Tirhuta script were Brahmans and Kayasthas, but allured by the printing facility they took up Devanagari, also called as Nagarakshar as an alternative script. Tracing back to its evolution, Tirhuta has its development rooted in the Brahmi script. It is interesting to note the changes in order.
- Brahmi was found in the edicts of Ashoka inserted on the Stupa in Lauria village.
- Gupta script or Kutilakshara is seen in numerous seals found in Vaishali excavations.
- Videhi or Gaudi appears in inscriptions of kings of Pala dynasty scattered in eastern and southern Mithila and Magadha.
- Magadhi (common source of early Bengali, Assamese and Oriya) appears in manuscripts of Nepal.
These images illustrate the history of Mithilaksharin its own script.
This image is a sacred sign of Lord Ganesha (Anji) used for millennia by students before they begin Tirhuta studies.
In modern India, we don’t find such scripts used in language medium but there are many who live and carry their dedication for dying scripts of ancient history. Anshuman Pandey, a researcher at MIT Media Labs and a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts is working on projects to enable the representation of Tirhuta script in digital media. It is not uncertain to find someone belonging to a certain community being amateur to his/ her language. The Maithili script in a similar manner is obsolete in India even among Maithili speaking population. Thus, his inspiration to save the script. After much research and consideration in 2014 Tirhuta script was added to the Unicode standard.
Mithila Makhan, a Maithili film by director Nitin Chandra on the backdrop of the 2008 Kosi deluge, the film captures the plight of those who faced the river’s wrath, losing lives, land, and livelihood to it. Use of Mithilakshar in credits of the movie by Nitin certainly needs to be appreciated. The film brought us a National Award for best film in Maithili. The film was one among the three films that had a world premiere at the recently concluded International Film Festival of South Asia (IFFSA) in Toronto.
Tirhuta, a dying yet surviving script still exists among the traditional norms that people follow in ceremonies and in few rural communities in Bihar and Nepal. Let’s keep using the script for invitation cards and other ceremonial activities as much as we can so that we can keep one of India’s classical script alive.
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