Puri Boli

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In the mid-nineteen sixties, when I went to Puri to teach at SCS College, I realized that the temple was almost a dual town. Not a big finding; it was so obvious. In any case, I noticed that there was – let’s say – an “inner Puri”, and there was an “outer Puri” – “inner” and “outer”, both spatially and culturally. Now, where did inner Puri end and the outer Puribegin? People would have their own answers but for me, it was the MochiSahi in one part of the town and the SCS College in another, etc. The servitors of, and others connected in one way or the other with, the temple of Lord Jagannath and some others, associated with pilgrim care, were the inhabitants of the inner Puri. They could be said to be the “original” locals. In the nineteen sixties, Puri wasn’t exactly a small town but it was by no means a big town either. Every celebrated place – from Chakratirtha to Sri Lokanath temple – was within walking distance – for those who had the time.

The wide beach was still a quiet place. In fact, it was possible to spend an hour or two on the beach undisturbed if only one knew which part of the beach to go to. A hundred years ago, doctors would advise their well-to-do patients to spend time in the healthy climate of Puri to regain their health. Thus the royals came from different parts of Odisha and the moneyed came from the far away Calcutta – “Kolkata” of today- and some of them came, not just to recuperate, but to live a quality life as well, and many of them built spacious houses along the seashore. This is how the outer Puri must have come into being. In due course came to live there retired persons, teachers, lawyers, doctors, administrators, office employees, hoteliers, and others following secular, modern professions.

The outer Puri flourished. The two Puris belonged to two different cultures; the inhabitants of the inner Puri considered those of outer Purias “culturally outsiders”, and the latter looked upon the former as culturally different from them. But there was no tension between the inhabitants of the two Puris; there just couldn’t be, because the outsider locals would go to the temple, and many of them every day, and the original locals had started coming to schools and colleges and some of them, like my batch mate and friend, Bhimsen Mishra, chose professions that required them to stay out of the inner Puri for a considerable period of time. My friend taught English at a college outside Puri. The bond of such people with inner Puri understandably weakened, although many of them would not agree. Some would deny it quite firmly.

The inhabitants of the inner Puri spoke a variety of Odia that has been called “PuriBoli” and it has no written counterpart. The word “boli” is used in many other senses in the language but let’s forget about them for now. PuriBoli has many words that the Standard Odia speakers find unintelligible – “amrutabehia” and “akhabaya” for example. The former means “totally shameless” and the latter means “mad”, as the academic and writer SiddheswarHota mentions in his important book “Puriboli”. He has listed about a thousand such words and it would be interesting to place them in a line of intelligibility, with respect to the Standard variety.

Now, PuriBoli must be distinguished from the “Jagannath Temple language”. Linguists, if you are interested, would say that this variety of Odia is a “register” of Odia; that is, it’s not a “language”. Fine. Needless to say, the servitors and even others, including the inhabitants of outer Puri who are conversant with this language, use this language, in the specific context of the Temple. The bathing of MahaprabhuJagannath is called “abakasha” and His sleep is called “pahuda”. When the Deities change clothes, it is called “mailama”. But no inhabitant of the inner Puri used these expressions to refer to their fellow speakers’ day-to-day doings, such as bathing, going to sleep, or changing clothes. Except for humour or irony, none of them would ask a fellow speaker when he woke up from pahuda or whether he had finished his abakasha or mailama. That’s why although the speakers of PuriBoli (and outsiders as well, as mentioned above), spoke the Temple language, this language cannot be said to be part of PuriBoli. By the way, for reliable information about the JagannathTemple language, one could consult Dr.Surendranath Dash’s valuable book “Srimandira Sabdakosha”.

Interestingly, there is no “Bhubaneswar Boli”. A servitor of the famous eleventh-century old Lingaraj Temple in Bhubaneswar once told me that there were a thousand servitors in the temple (in Puri, the number was three thousand, he said)and they lived around the temple for obvious reasons. A thousand speakers isn’t a small number for a language variety to emerge, but somehow no distinctive variety of Odia, comparable to “PuriBoli” in the relevant respects has emerged. Or if it has, it hasn’t received general attention. It is well-known that things come to be known when people talk about them. Otherwise, they remain hidden, waiting for someone, a scholar, or a writer to release them from obscurity. This is what B.P. Mohapatra, the well-known linguist and short story writer, who was a native of Puri, did to the idea of Puri being two cities in one and to PuriBoli. He wrote a beautiful piece on these.

Speakers of Standard Odiahave always found PuriBoli rude, crude, and uncultivated. Even outsider-locals, let alone outsiders to Puri, have always found embarrassing the ease and unconcern with which the speakers of inner Puri use some words considered taboo or near-taboo in other varieties of Odia, not just Standard Odia. Many dismissively called it pandaa padhiari bhaasa, the “language of the temple people”. The Standard Oriya speaking elite has succeeded, over the years, to a considerable extent, in persuading the speakers of Puriboli that they need to change and that they must use polite language while dealing with others. It didn’t surely impress anybody when some of the Standard Odia speakers said that what the others called uncultivated language is not so at all. It’s just different. As for the rude and taboo words, which variety of language does not contain them? And the speaker of which variety does not use them! Words in themselves are not taboo or acceptable, it is the powerful elite that decides which words are what. When I was there, some servitors told me that the traditional temple-centered economic activities were not going to provide their children a decent living; so they were encouraging their children to do well in studies and join modern professions.

And the language of education was Standard Odia, and modern, secular professions required competence in using standard Odia (and English). As a result, PuriBoli felt the heat. More than six decades have passed since I was there. In these decades, Standard Odia has entered even the home domain of the inhabitants of inner Puri. Already an endangered variety, half a century from now, it might become “severely damaged”, using the UNESCO terminology. What is worse, speakers of this variety might come to look upon PuriBoli in the way the Standard Odia speakers have always done.

We have an endangered language project, supported by the Government of India. And PuriBoli is already endangered. But the project would not be interested in dealing with it – documenting it, carefully and exhaustively – because it is concerned with languages, not language varieties. Our hope lies with our State Government, scholars like SiddheswarMohapatra and Surendranath Dash, and equally importantly, people’s support. It has to be appreciated that PuriBoli is a subject that is not important in just the local context of linguistic knowledge but in the much wider context of global research on language endangerment, language and culture, and related areas. 

Let me conclude with this: Puriboli is a colourful style of speech: exuberant, imaginative, witty, and metaphorical. When sarcastic, it can be devastating, and when friendly and welcoming, it can be charming, almost embarrassingly so, and in either case, it can be colourful. It is the carrier of rich culture, a way of life, and a worldview. If you are not acquainted with PuriBoli, please read SurendraMohanty’s novel “NeelaSaila”, an absolute classic, to have a feel of the charm and the energy of this variety.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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