From a line of traditional scribes

Whether one likes it or not, caste is a huge deal in India. Growing up reading stories of caste-based discrimination and atrocities, I always wanted to be as far away from the whole business as I could. The first time I ever thought about my own caste was when I was about twelve and a conversation about it came up while my cousins were visiting in the summer. I had no idea what caste I belonged to. I was subjected to more than a few jibes, and more importantly, now for the first time I had a name. The name meant little to me over the years, and I practically knew nothing about where ‘my caste’ stood in the social hierarchy. Looking back, this enforced ignorance seems rash and rebellious – it would’ve been smarter to read and ask as many questions about it as I could. This post, however, is not about my struggles with the Indian caste system, but about my caste itself; and as far as facts go, I’m a Kayastha.

Legend has it that our ancestor, Shri Chitragupta emerged from the body of Lord Brahma to keep a record of the good and evil deeds of people, to help Yama decide their fate after death. His progeny were christened by Brahma as Kayastha (created from the body, kaya). Quite obviously, this story of the origin of Kayasthas (and their social status) is controversial, but historically, they have been known to be involved in administrative affairs of the state. Kayasthas were clerks and scribes. Suddenly, my caste seemed exciting; being from a line of traditional scribes – that would be something.

One day while reading about Hindustani, and the language conflict between Hindi and Urdu around the time of the independence struggle and thereafter, I came across the name of a script I had never heard before – Kaithi. I immediately knew that I was on to something. Kaithi or Kayasthi is a cursive variant of Devanagari, that was popular in North and North-West India between the 16th and 20th centuries. Its name came from the word Kayastha, because the script was primarily used by the people of this community.

These image are from the book, A concise Grammar of the Hindústání language by E. B. Eastwick, which has been digitized by Google Books and can be found here.

Not only were my ancestors scribes, but they had an eponymous script as well, and I had no idea. Sadly, I am not the only one in the dark. Alok Rai, writes in his book Hindi Nationalism

[Kaithi] is a cursive variant of the Nagari script – but its very memory has been all but erased, so that one can have a whole room of Hindi intellectuals who have never seen a line of Kaithi, yet alone being able to write one. Yet, till a century back, this script was better known and much more widespread than Nagari.

He goes on to discuss the reasons for the disappearance of the script. Kaithi was one of the many variants of the Nagari (like Mahajani, Khatri), which became victims to the sanskritization of Hindi, which took place in the late 1800s in order to differentiate it from Hindustani and Urdu. There is also the theory that Nagari (which was earlier known as Bhabani, or the script of the Brahmins) became the dominant script as a result of caste politics between the higher caste Brahmins and the Kayasthas, who were gaining affluence.

I’ve been speaking to elder members of my family, hoping that someone would know how to read/write the script or know of people who do. I have found no success so far. They have told me about a Chitragupta temple in Delhi, which I’ll visit soon. There are also community organizations they’ve introduced me to. I’m still to see where all these leads take me. I’m reading Anshuman Pandey’s proposal to encode Kaithi [PDF], which is proving to be very informative. It has some wonderful images of Kaithi manuscripts as well. For now, I leave you with written samples of Kaithi from the book by Eastwick –

This post has been languishing in my drafts for a very, very long time. Clearly, I am still uncomfortable writing about caste and language politics. There are always so many sides to every story and I am an expert on none. But, it would be a complete shame if I am not able to share my adventure.


Comments 7

  1. vijay May 5, 2011

    Good research Pooja. Though I am not able to decipher the Kaysthi looks like you have done some good work. The conflict between Brahmins and Kayasths was probably a designed event by the ruling Rajputs!

  2. எருமை மாடு May 15, 2011

    This is fascinating, Pooja! May I share some of this on the blog I curate? Titled ‘Writing Caste’, it is intended to carry personal narratives of caste. Your research would be a very meaningful addition to it.
    You can also reach me at malar[dot]jayanth[at]gmail[dot]com

    • Pooja May 20, 2011

      There are more scripts besides Kaithi, which were tied to caste, and have almost disappeared in the last century. I’ve been addicted to reading about this stuff since I found out.

  3. Pingback: From a line of traditional scribes « Writing Caste

  4. Prashant Srivastava November 25, 2013

    My grandfather wrote two books titled ‘Kayastha Community(Vol-I,II) and he has mentioned this script I think..also he has given ‘vanshavali’ and other such things. Sadly he is no more with us. I’ll see if I can upload the books. We could not promote it well but almost all of it got sold and we hv sent the book overseas also on demand.

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