Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Writing the Body: Cosmology, Orthography, and Fragments of Modernity in Northeastern India

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Writing the Body: Cosmology, Orthography, and Fragments of Modernity in Northeastern India

Article excerpt


This article looks at the orthographic debates within Meitei society, and shows how the cultural ideology of the sacred body was the pivotal factor by which the Meitei community made its orthographic choice. The article further elaborates on the importance of the human body image in Manipuri society, and how the body philosophy pervades different areas of life. It also examines how the philosophy of the sacred body is now secularized in children's alphabet books in order to be taught in the modern nation-state. [Keywords: orthography, cosmology, body, Meitei, India]

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We woke up to frozen dewdrops collected on the grass as dawn broke over our camp on Mount Koubru. Our team gathered for the morning ritual offerings, and we started climbing in a single file to the peak. At the summit, the stone formations are thought of as parts of the human face resembling twenty seven letters of the Meitei alphabet. I stood by and watched members of the group make offerings to the stone formations. As circles of smoke from the burning incense rose higher and higher disappearing among the clouds, the Iril river shone in the distance. "This is the letter 'na,' it means the right ear," said Ojha M., a prominent religious leader pointing to a stone formation; " this place where we are standing is the head," and pointing to the river, he indicated, " those are the nerves of the body." This moment has remained with me, during the course of my research on the body and the alphabet.

Orthography and Ideology in the Current Context

Studies in orthography are perhaps the first branch of Literacy Studies, which rapidly developed in tandem with the linguistic pursuits of the missionaries working on Bible translation projects in different parts of the world (Smalley 1964). In recent years, however, debates over orthographic choices have become integral to studies of language from a cultural perspective (Schieffelin and Doucet 1999). Ethnographic examples of mystic traditions that legitimize a writing system abound throughout the world (Smalley 1991), and the politics of nationalism have also been an intrinsic factor in the choice of orthography in many cases. In this article, I explore the cultural scenario that framed the contest over the choice of orthography of the Meitei language in Northeastern India. I argue against the grain of the popular assumption that language and writing is the exclusive domain of linguists. To achieve a fuller understanding of language and orthography, one has to take into account the cultural process that accounts for legitimizing a writing system in society.

Brinkley Messick (1993) has shown for example how the pattern of writing in a text could be a central organizing principle of a society in Yemen, while William Hanks (2000) has convincingly demonstrated that the orientation of domestic and social space in the Yucatan follows the unconscious linguistic structure in Mexico. These two cases illustrate separate patterns of language and writing with separate processes of replication in the cultural space. My concern in this article is with orthography and the patterns embedded in it. A study of Whitney's Sanskrit grammar shows that in the orthographic systems of Indo-Aryan languages, the letters of the alphabet are grouped according to their points of articulation (Whitney 1967).

Among other recent studies of literacy and culture, those of Niko Besnier (1995) and Laura Ahearn (2001) are also noteworthy. Besnier looks at the changing patterns of communication between individuals in Polynesia, concurrent with the introduction to literacy by the missionaries; Ahearn's work is a groundbreaking account of the acquisition of female agency through the introduction of literacy which has resulted in the changing marriage patterns among the Magars in Nepal. Literacy and gender remains a relatively unexplored topic but has found some attention in the series of works by anthropologists and language specialist focusing on the Nushu, a writing system used exclusively by women of China (McLaren 1996, Silber 1994)

My work aims to contribute to the larger discourse of the place of language and writing in India focusing specifically on the choice of orthography for the Meitei language in the northeastern region of the country. …

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