Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mainwaring's Rong Grammar

The Lapche (Anglicised Lepcha) is an appellation given to the Rongs by the Nepali society. They prefer themselves to be called the Rong i.e. the squatters, and their country, the land of caves. History regards and proves them as the early settlers in all the hills of Darjeeling and Sikkim. Most of the name of the places in Darjeeling and Sikkim derive from the Lepcha origin. A few on the tip of the tongue are Badamtam (the bank of the Padam bamboo), Chungtong (the arrow headed place i.e. a site at the junction of two rivers), Lebong (Alibong i.e. The tongue like spur), Mahaldiram (the source of the river Mahaldi), Phalut (Fak–lut, the peeled summit mountain), Rangli (the Lepcha's house), Rangpo (the wandering or shifting river), Rongtong (the southern river), Senchal (the damp misty hill), Sonada (the bear's lair), Tendong (the uplifted horn – a sacred mountain which saved the Lepchas by miraculously rising above the great flood), etc.

They have a language of their own called by them Rong-ring. It is another major Tibeto-Burman language belonging to the Sino-Tibetan languages family, spoken in Eastern Nepal, Sikkim and Darjeeling, other than Newari. Robert Shafer, an American scholar on Sino-Tibetan studies has stated that Lepcha is really a branch of the Naga group of a Tibeto-Burman as opposed to a general belief of associating it with the Austro-Asiatic speech family. He has expressed his wonder in the following words, “It is remarkable how this Naga language has found a home in Darjeeling, so far away from the Naga hills.” The national professor,Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterji regards it as one of the oldest Sino-Tibetan Languages to find a home in India, showing no evidence of Austric contact and influence.

'A Grammar of the Rong (Lepcha) Language, as it exists in the Dorjeeling and Sikkim Hills' by Colonel G.B. Mainwaring of Bengal Staff Corps is the first book in the linguistic study of Rong language. By the favour of the British government in India, he was enable to present to the public a short grammar of the Rong in 1876, fifty six years after the publication of the first Nepali Grammar by J.A.Ayton, both printed at Calcutta.

In his preface, Colonel shares some acquired information relating to the Lepchas and their country. Having no written, or authentic traditional oral records, the pioneer grammarian, is not able to discover the exact period at which the first migrated into the Darjeeling and Sikkim Hills. An important piece of information shared by him is their history from the time of the Lepcha King, Turve, who apparently ruled them about six centuries ago, and about this period, they probably entered the untrod hills.

The Lepcha language is a monosyllabic one and is unquestionally far anterior to Hebrew or Sanskrit.Colonel Mainwaring pronounced Rong-ring to be the oldest language in the world. His high regards for this language could be underlined in his words, “Of the language I cannot speak too highly. The simple and primitive state in which the Lepchas lived is admirably shown by it. It has no primary words (beyond the words for gold and silver) to express money, merchant or merchandise, fairs or markets. Their peaceful and gentle character is evinced by their numerous terms of tenderness and compassion, and by the fact that not one word of abuse exist in their language. Neverthless the language is most copious, abounding in synonyms and possessing words of meaning, it admits of a flow and power of speech which is wonderful, and which renders it capable of giving expression to the highest degree of eloquence. The language also attests the astonishing knowledge possessed by the Lepchas...It is invaluable to the philological world. It however recommends itself to us on higher grounds; it possesses and plainly evinces the principle and motive on which all language is constructed.”

Colonel Mainwaring states that the advent of the Europeans was the first real blow the Lepchas, the free sons of the forest, the hearty yeoman of the land, the lords of the soil received. They became the servants of servants. Their language which was once the lingua franca, which all Tibetans, Bhutias, and other who entered the hills acquired and spoke, in which business was carried on under Colonel Llyod's time, and justice in the English Courts were administered and documented was set aside, and Hindi was made the chief language in Darjeeling. Later on,Tibetan became the medium of communication between the Sikkim and Darjeeling Governments, consequently the Lepcha nationality and language dried up. The ravages of time have not spared the Lepchas, too. The present day socio-political developments are leading them to cease their identity. That is why an elite Lepcha, Mr A.R. Foning feels his tribe “vanishing”.

The Rong Grammar is simply written to assist the learner, not to challenge the strictures of the critic, painstakingly their own Rong script, which derived ultimately from Tibetan, hence, of the Brahmi origin, is printed with its Roman equivalence with diacritical marks, and English gloss. The Lepcha Script is said to have evolved after the roundular variety of the Tibetan script known as bu-can (pronounced U-che) in about the middle of the 17th. century.

Out of the deep regards and humane sympathy for the Lepchas and their language Colonel G.B. Mainwaring has further stated, that “a dictionary will follow if his health and circumstances follow.” He feels "to allow the Lepcha race, and language to die out would indeed be most barbarours, and inexpressively sad.” His primary objective in bringing out the Grammar was to revive the employment of the Rong language and welfare of the race, both of which have been too long neglected; if, its mission would be fully gained.

It is highly desirable to set up a Lepcha Study Centre under the Human Resource Development Ministry in Sikkim as to preserve and promote the Rong as one of the world heritages.

(This write up was written in 1998. Thanks to Rupesh Rai for digitalisation from remington typeface on butter paper).

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