India is a country of rich cultural diversity where 22 officially recognised languages and over 1650 dialects are spoken across 29 states and 7 union territories, as in 2019. The 2011 Census of India last listed 1369 ‘mother tongues’, however, our country has been a witness to a great number of tongues over the centuries. One such distinctive and culturally rich language is Maithili.
Relatively little is known about Maithili and especially its history, due to lack of written records, the earliest of which date back only to the 8th century AD. A language spoken by at least 15 million people across India and Nepal, it is not only one of India’s 22 official languages, but a popular one in Bihar and Jharkhand. Despite it being one of the oldest languages of our civilisation, the Mithila culture by itself is sadly unpopular among Indians, especially the younger generations. So let’s see a fact or two about this language from the prosperous Mithila region.
The what, the where, the how many
Maithili is an Indo-Aryan language that is primarily spoken in India and Nepal, and is interestingly, one of the oldest languages in India, after Tamil. In India, it is spoken in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand and a few neighbouring cities, while in Nepal, it is spoken in the eastern and Outer Terai and is notably the second most prevalent language of Nepal. It is not only one of India’s officially recognised 22 languages, but it also one of the 122 recognised Nepalese languages. Janakpur, a popular religious and cultural tourism centre in Nepal, is an important linguistic centre for Maithili.
Tracing back the links
The Mithila culture or Maithil culture originated in the Mithila region of the Indian subcontinent. Interestingly, the name ‘Maithili’ was also derived from the word Mithila: the ancient kingdom ruled by King Janaka (refer to Ramayana). This kingdom’s northern frontier was marked by the Himalayas and the southern by the river Ganga, whose land and fertile soil were marvelled by the Aryans after having waded through the parched lands of Central Asia. As for other facts, Maithili is also one of the names of Sita, the wife of King Rama and daughter of King Janaka. Furthermore, scholars in Mithila used Sanskrit for their literary work and Maithili used to be the language of the common folk (Abahatta).
Tirhuta (or also referred to as Mithilakshar – the script used for Sanskrit & Maithili, originating in the Mithila region of Bihar) was formerly the primary script for written Maithili. Sometimes it was also written in the local variant of Kaithi (also known as “Kayathi” or “Kayasthi“, a historical script used widely in parts of northern India, primarily in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar). Today it is written using the Devanagari script.
Other cultural aspects
The Paag is a popular headdress worn by the Maithil people, and is native to the Mithila region, where it is a symbol of honour and respect. On the other hand, women are known to put lanterns made of clay on their head and balance them when dancing, especially when performing Jhijhiya, the cultural dance from the Mithila region of India and Nepal. As regards creative arts, Madhubani art (or Mithila painting) was traditionally created by the women of different communities of the Mithila region as a form of wall art, and is often practiced here.
It is not news that many of the not-so-popular languages around the world are melting away in the heat of globalisation, paving way for new ones. Most of us have forgotten to look into our baggage of cultural treasures when it comes to food, travel or discovering another culture, and flock to everything that is seemingly foreign or shiny. With this, let’s make an effort to know more about the beautiful cultures around us, in our very own country.
Content curated & SmartRead by: Team Vernac
Author: Alifya Thingna