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Pandit Raghunath Murmu: his psyche behind creating the Ol Chiki script

Updated: May 6, 2023

I vividly remember it was a fine Monday morning when my doorbell rang. I ran to open the door, hoping it was a cousin, only to see a strange man standing with a letter in his hand. He asked for my mother and before I could answer, she was already there. I had just learnt about letters in school, so my curiosity was at its peak. I snatched the letter from my mother’s hand and tore it open, only to find rather uninteresting pieces of paper, with writing I had never seen or heard of. Sensing my confusion, my mother explained that the papers were part of a Santali newsletter written in the Ol Chiki script. My seven-year-old self wondered why I never knew about this. I scrambled through my Social Studies textbooks and general knowledge charts in utter confusion, wondering why my mother tongue wasn’t even mentioned in the books I was supposed to read?... This question was among the several reasons why I took up the opportunity to write about Pandit Raghunath Murmu, the pioneer of the Santali language and literature.

A portrait of Pandit Raghunath Murmu.

The colonial era set the pace for a process of solidifying ethnological and sectarian identities. As the colonists sought to enumerate the strength, character, literature and laws of different groups and sects, different sects began asserting their dominance over others on a scriptural basis, which set forth a competition among the ethnologies in the then-Indian subcontinent. A strong need for strengthening and assertion of one’s ethnic identity was felt by almost everyone, and it was in this very context that Raghunath Murmu began working on the Ol Chiki script as the binding agent for Santalis across the subcontinent.

Raghunath Murmu was born in a small village called Dandebose, Mayurbhanj on 5th May 1905. His younger years were spent at the Bahalda School and at the M.K.C. High School from which he completed his matriculation. His work as an apprentice in Baripada Power House and then as an Instructor at Purna Chandra Industrial Institute, Baripada, proved his intelligence, and the fact that he was born with a rather brilliant mind. But it was in his years as the Headmaster of Bodamtolia Model School, that he really felt the need to develop a Santali script. His maternal uncle Sauna Murmu, who taught in the same school, also took a keen interest in the initiatives of Raghunath Murmu.

Pandit Murmu wrote a lot of works as contributions to the Santali literary corpus. He wanted to highlight the glorious heritage of the Santali Culture. In these works, he highlighted what he considered the malpractices of drinking too much Handia (rice-beer), that too outside the religious context, intra-sept marriage, individual morality and social ethics, the propitiation of gods and even physical culture. These included dramas, and prayer books containing songs to “thank” the “Creator”(1). Some of these major works include the Bindu-Chandan, Kherwal Bir, and Darege Dhan (plays). Hital (unpublished) was a prayer book and Bakhen was a collection of invocatory songs meant for different occasions. The plays became very popular among the people at that time, but did they have the intended effect that led people to adapt the script?

The assertion of a language by creating and adapting a script for it is a socially complicated process and this was a challenge that Pandit Murmu did recognise. Therefore, he paid special attention to details when he first created the script. He used nature as an inspiration to formulate the letters, with letters often resembling the object they are used for. Even the meaning of the word Ol Chiki reflects this phenomenon, as Ol means drawing an imaginary picture in mind without making any sound and Chiki means pictorial representation(2). As several scholars have observed, it was a rather scientific and systematic script, which had 30 letters including six vowels and 24 consonants.

The Ol Chiki script.

Pandit Murmu wanted people to understand the letters with the least effort, therefore, he created them as closely to resemble nature as possible. This was primarily because of two reasons. Firstly, many Santalis were illiterate, many had never even touched a pen, because it was never deemed necessary to procure textbook knowledge to run the basic chores of life, in the pre-colonial period. But as the need for primary education grew, Ol-Chiki could become a convenient means for spreading literacy as people were already familiar with the language.

A second reason for Pandit Murmu’s initiative was that he wanted to bring unity amongst the Santal people, who by his time had spread across several areas in the Eastern region of the Indian subcontinent. The more literate Santals would use their regional languages such as Oriya, Bengali, and Devanagari scripts to write the Santali language. The case with the foreign researchers who researched the Santal culture was even worse, as they used the Roman script to write Santali. This created the issues of miscommunication and lack of interconnectedness amongst different sects of Santalis which probably would have promoted sectarianism amongst the Santals. The urgency of this situation was recognised by Pandit Murmu. In fact, he asserted that the Santali language was so unique, vibrant and dynamic that the use of foreign scripts would diminish the value and beauty of the language so fondly preserved by its people for centuries. Therefore, to avoid the issues of distortion, Pandit Murmu felt it apt to create an entirely different script for the language.

In 1935, he created a letterpress for the script, because he realised that the script cannot be asserted over people and had to be gradually introduced through textbooks, storybooks etc. During the last years of Pandit Murmu, it was the Adivasi Socio-Educational and Cultural Association (ASECA) which took up his work and put efforts into expanding his initiatives. It was the perseverance of the leaders and people of these groups that Santali was eventually added in the eighth schedule and Ol-Chiki was adopted as its official script. Soon, Santali also became one of the mediums for attempting the UPSC Civil Services Examination.

Pandit Murmu never claimed to be a hero or a divine figure introducing something heavenly to the native people. He was a rather humble and rational person, whose aim was to establish the Santal identity in an ever-competitive world of eroding ethnicities. The language and the script have come a long way, thanks to the efforts of this brilliant person. But certain obstacles remain unphased. One issue that I have thoroughly observed is the lack of material available for the founding father of the Santali script. If people don’t recognise the father of the script, it is very unlikely that they know about the script as well, since it is so closely associated with him. This is a rather serious challenge, as it defeats the very purpose Pandit Murmu had worked his whole life for.

Secondly, learning the Santali language and its script has very rarely been the priority of most people, even the Santalis living in the urban setting. Santalis in the rural setting also does not seem to have enough time and energy to devote to the learning of this unique script. Although few people have tried learning the script for good intentions and exam purposes, these cannot be the driving forces for a large-scale societal change for the adaptation of the script. The priority is often given to languages that are more universal in nature, that can provide them with a job or a livelihood and through which they can contact the people outside the community often involved in their lives. Does this make the Santali language and its script any less important? The answer is no, since firstly, no language could be deemed inferior and secondly, practicality doesn’t define the importance of a language. The promulgation of the script does require a little extra effort from the side of the natives, once universalised and embedded in the social context, the script and the language will probably gain popularity(3).

As we approach the birth anniversary of Pandit Raghunath Murmu, a realisation must strike amongst the Santals, the Adivasis and the public in general, as to how some people have relentlessly worked towards upholding an identity so unique and precious to thousands of people. This is a calling for us to carry out the legacy of these legends and pioneers who have worked for the betterment of the society we are presently a part of.

Stone bust of Pandit Raghunath Murmu in the Odisha Tribal Development Society (OTDS), Bhubaneswar office


  1. Karua, Subash Chandra and Nakul Seth. ‘Guru Gomke Pundit Raghunath Murmu: the Inventor of ollchiki and the forerunner of Santali Renaissance’, JETIR November 2018, Volume 5, Issue 11. 2018. Pp. 438-448.

  2. Mahana, R.K. ‘The Politics of Difference: Ol-Chiki and Santal Identity in Eastern India’, International Review of Social Research. 2020. Pp. 136-146.

  3. Mahapatra, Sitakant. ‘Mythology of Culture: Raghunath Murmu and Tribal Solidarity’, Indian Anthropologist, June 1979, Vol. 9, No. 1 (June 1979). India: Indian Anthropological Association. 1979. Pp. 23-34.


  1. Mahapatra, Sitakant. 1979. ‘Mythology of Culture: Raghunath Murmu and Tribal Solidarity’, Indian Anthropologist, June 1979, Vol. 9, No. 1 (June 1979). Pg-28. Although the description has been taken from the above source, the emphasis added is mine, to highlight that the notions of thanking and the idea of the Creator are different among different groups, often within the Santal Community itself.

  2. Mahana R.K. 2020.’The Politics of Difference: Ol-Chiki and Santal Identity in Eastern India’. Pg- 140.

  3. The debate and arguments around the status of a language and its scripts and its popularity in a particular social context form oa huge corpus, which is highly contentious and is beyond the scope of this article.

Koyel Hembram is a second-year student pursuing a B.A. Hons in History from St. Stephen's College, Delhi University. Originally from Mayurbhanj, Odisha, Koyel currently resides in Ranchi and completed her schooling at Delhi Public School, Ranchi. She is an NTSE Scholar and loves to express her thoughts and ideas through the written word and is always on the lookout for new topics to write about.

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