Among the historical artifacts in Vikramsinha Mohite’s house in Pune is a letter written in around 1685, during the Deccan war of the Marathas against the Mughals. Vikramsinha could not understand the words until, in 2016, he started to learn an old script called Modi (Mōḍī). This is when the writing in dark ink began to make sense. The letter had been written by Hambirrao Mohite, Chhatrapati Shivaji’s and Chhatrapati Sambhaji’s trusted commander-in-chief, a veteran of many battles and Vikramsinha’s ancestor 13 generations ago.
The letter was from the day when Hambirrao received news that the forces from Delhi were planning to attack Hukeri, near Belgaum, in Karnataka.
Hambirrao wrote: “The Vijapur is ours and we will ensure that we protect the entire swaraj and the enemy will not succeed. I am here with our force so you have no reason to fear.”
“If anybody wants to know Maratha history accurately, it is necessary to first understand the Modi script. People like Hambirrao are hidden from mainstream historians in the pages written in this script. Hambirrao’s letter tells us how he managed troops and his generals, what motivated him, and his level of confidence in him. There are crores of documents like it,” says Mohite, who studies the Modi script at Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal in Pune from Rajendra Dhume, a history scholar and Modi script expert.
From another part of the city, Mahesh Joshi, a scholar of the Modi script, talks about the Damascus rose, whose saplings were brought to Nasik from Afghanistan and planted on a fertile patch of land. “The harvest was so bountiful that almost every farmer in Nasik began to plant Damascus roses and make gulkand and other rose preparations,” he says. He has an old document in the Modi script that contains a detailed recipe of gulkand, from how to separate the petals to how much sugar is needed to make it fragrant and delicious.
Modi was a script used to write Marathi for an estimated 700 years. Today, Marathi is written only in Devanagri. “All administrative paperwork of the Peshwas, for instance, were carried out in the Modi script. Documents and letters were constantly being exchanged between different corners of the empire and Shaniwar Wada, enabling the modern reader to see not only the history of Maharashtra but also of India,” says Dhume. The script continued to be used through the British era and was still taught in schools in post-Independence India before it was phased out in the 1950s.
“Before the printing press, all work done in the court had to be recorded on paper. Copies of the document would be given to all parties concerned. Writing in Devanagari takes time as each letter is written separately. Modi is a cursive script whose special feature is that grammar is secondary. It is meant for fast writing — you draw a line from left to right before writing without lifting your hand or lifting it very little,” adds Dhume. “The Modi script was created by breaking and twisting the rules of grammar in order to enable scribes and officials to write quickly and make multiple copies of a document,” he says.
There are around four crore papers in Modi script in the Pune Archives alone, pertaining to land deals, trade, property, revenue and income or rewards. The script was used for war correspondence and secret sociopolitical conversations between Marathas, among other subjects. Joshi has a copy of a book with stories such as the Monkey and the Cap Seller written in the Modi script. More documents can be found with families and archives in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana, Goa and Tamil Nadu, where the Marathas had a presence since the kingdom had expanded into an empire. Most of these papers have not been transliterated. “Wherever the Maratha empire stretched, work was done in Modi script,” says Dhume.
While some scholars trace the origins of Modi to the Mauryas, others think it was Hemadri Pandit or Hemadpant, a minister of the Yadava dynasty of Devagiri, who may have created the script. “This script is estimated to date back to the 14th century, although the documents that we have are from the 16th century. Even then, the documents from ‘Shivapurvakaal’ or ‘Before Shivaji’ period and ‘Shivakalin’ or ‘During Shivaji’ period are difficult to read as the size of the paper and the writing is very small. The documents from the time of the Peshwas are easier to read. After the British introduced the nib and, then, the fountain pen, the speed of writing increased so that the text is quite difficult to decipher,” says Dhume, who has worked on several government projects, including of Goa Archives, Goa University and UGC .
There are only a handful of people in the city who can read Modi expertly today. “Even those who have a casual knowledge of the script number less than 300,” says Joshi, who teaches the script in colleges and at workshops. Joshi brings out a newspaper in the Modi script called Vasundhara Vrutta. The first edition of the newspaper, published six years ago, featured the Modi alphabet. “You will not find political news in the newspaper as we focus on history. There were 188 readers in the beginning which has come down to 100. I do not advertise the newspaper because there is no staff to help me and it is driven by my passion for history,” he says.
“After 1818, the British began collecting and preserving the papers for revenue purposes. The papers in the Pune Archives include Maharaja Daftar, Peshwa’s diaries and Jamav Daftar, among others,” says Dhume. Modi script scholars spend a lot of time in these archives, poring through old manuscripts that are kept in fire-proof rooms.
How did Chhatrapati Shivaji, Sambhaji and Rajaram administer? The answer is in the Modi papers as is the price of gold in a particular era, the fashion of the day and the cost of clothes. Maharani Tarabai, the young widow of Chhatrapati Rajaram, who took on the might of Aurangzeb and his powerful army from him, would write letters in the Modi script congratulating and inspiring her soldiers in the trenches. The daily activities of Chhatrapati Shahu and the Peshwas were recorded in documents written in the Modi script. For those interested in Shivacharitra or the personality of Shivaji Maharaj, here is an aspect that few historians know of — temple management. “He not only established the Bhawani Mata Mandir at Pratapgadh, where he had defeated and killed Afzal Khan, but also created a systematic protocol and set up a new organization for the maintenance, upkeep and administration of the temple,” says Dhume.
After the British arrived in India, English began to rise in prominence as eminent and learned people began to write in the Queen’s language. “The printing press had been introduced in Europe and machines had made an appearance in India as well. The need for the Modi script was dwindling. It was also difficult to put the Modi script into typesetting and people used it less and less. In 1920, Charles Kincaid, who was the collector in Pune, called a meeting during which the Devanagari script was given prominence. Gradually, the Modi script started going out of use,” says Dhume.
Now, there is a crisis among historians as the older generation that had studied the Modi script in primary school has passed away and there are few people left to read it. In the 1990s, the Maharashtra government started exams to certify experts in Modi script, enabling them to work in archives and to validate old documents. Joshi, for instance, has appeared before court to certify the authenticity of a property-related document that was written in Modi script. “The judge asked if I could come over to help with other documents,” he says.
Does Modi have only archival value? Prasad Nandkumar Pale, who is preparing for PhD in history and studied the Modi script from Joshi, says that people in Maharashtra have to only look through their family papers to understand that Modi is a living script. He recently received a stack of papers in Modi script from a man in Ratnagiri whose grandfather had been given land from a zamindar after the Zamindari Abolition Act, 1950. “The zamindar had distributed the land among those who used to work and live on it. The papers were in the Modi script and I helped him decipher it as well as understand the historical event that resulted in his family’s owning land, ”he says.
Another young student, Om Kharade, who is preparing for NEET, says, “I am interested in learning various languages and scripts and always wanted to learn the Modi script. I had absolutely no idea that we could learn the Modi script nowadays because I thought it was ‘extinct’. In the summer of 2021, I stumbled upon a YouTube video teaching this script, so I decided to study it. I found it difficult at first and, then, I joined the online class Joshi sir conducted and learned it within a week,” he says.