Key Questions

Why January 23rd?

The Destruction and Renaissance of Meitei Mayek

January 23rd is the perfect day for World Endangered Writing Day. It's the birthday of John Hancock, whose name, in the United States, is synonymous with "signature" as he was the first man to sign the Declaration of Independence, and hence it has also been adopted as National Handwriting Day. (And there are many who worry that handwriting, at least in the U.S., is an endangered art.)  January 23rd is also the day before the International Day of Education. But none of these reasons are why we chose it.

We need to look a little more globally.

Meitei Mayek (that is, the writing of the Meitei people) was a sacred script used for centuries, perhaps even millennia, to write the Manipuri language of northeast India, but it was lost almost overnight when Shantidas Gosai, a missionary, spread the Hindu religion in the region in 1709.

King Pamheiba, who converted, decreed that Meitei Mayek should be replaced by the Bengali script. Books and documents in the sacred script were burned—such a catastrophic and traumatic event in Manipuri history that even today events and marches are held to commemorate this destruction, which is called Puya Meithaba (The Burning of the Puya, or traditional Meitei scriptures), believed to have occurred on January 23rd, 1729.

After World War II, Meitei scholars began campaigning to bring back the Meitei alphabet. At a writers’ conference in 1976, scholars finally agreed on a reconstructed version of the alphabet with additional letters to represent sounds not present in Meitei when the script was first developed. Meitei Mayek is now an official script of the state of Manipur.

January 23rd, then, celebrates the only script in the history of the world to have been actively used, utterly eradicated, then completely revived to active use once again. Given that our aim is to draw attention to and support threatened scripts and, where possible, to help the communities that are trying to revive them, this seems like a good time and place to start.

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