Social Science Baha

Script and Orality in the Kiranti Language Movement

12 April, 2006

Martin Gaenszle
Script and Orality in the Kiranti Language Movement

The culture of the Kiranti groups in East Nepal is characterised by rich and vivid oral traditions, generally known as mundhum (or related terms). Among both Rai and Limbu, the spoken word – as transmitted by the ancestors – is highly valued: myths and legends are widely known and recounted, and there is hardly a ritual without lengthy recitations that the practitioners know by heart. And yet, the existence of a script of one’s own has played an important role in Kiranti self-representation and the formation of identity. The lecture deals with this seeming contradiction and draws on the ethnography of oral tradition and the history of the Kiranti language movement in order to clarify the reasons for this valuation of scriptural texts. The scope of the oral tradition is illustrated with examples from fieldwork among various Rai groups. The Limbu script has a history that goes back to the famous Srijanga in the 18th century, but its effective dissemination took off only in the 20th century through Phalgunanda and I.S. Chemjong. The Rai script is a fairly recent invention and its history appears to be modeled on that of the Limbu’s. In any case, in recent times, there appears to be a revaluation of the oral, as modern media and technologies facilitate documentation and conservation of speech in its performative context.

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Martin Gaenszle is Professor at Heidelberg University and affiliated to the South Asia Institute. As a social and cultural anthropologist, he has done fieldwork in East Nepal and Banaras in India. Presently, he is employed with Leipzig University and works together with linguists in the Chintang and Puma Documentation Project, carried out in collaboration with Tribhuvan University. His publications include Ancestral Voices: Oral Ritual Texts and their Social Contexts among the Mewahang Rai of East Nepal (2002) and Origins and Migrations: Kinship, Mythology and Ethnic Identity among the Mewahang Rai (2000).

(This lecture was organised in association with Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies, Tribhuvan University; and South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg.)