On the Probable Origin of the Letter 'Atiya'

James Oinam *

On the Probable Origin of the Letter 'Atiya'
On the Probable Origin of the Letter 'Atiya'

Most, if not all, of the letters of Meitei mayek (Manipuri alphabets) are pictorial in origin. This is pretty obvious when we look at the letter 'sam/sum' (hair) written like a person's hair parted in the middle.

Some letters can be 'understood' with some help (to associate them with the stuffs they are named after), while others are simply 'incomprehensible'. In this article, I want to take up one such letter, the letter 'atiya' (sky).

If we look at the letter, we don't have a clue: From what angle or perspective does this letter look like a sky?

I want to make a conjecture here that this letter is related to the Chinese character/word for heaven/sky called 'tian'. We at once notice the similarity in pronunciations.

Before taking up the usage of these words, I would like to focus on the 'look' of the characters. Chinese characters are pictorial in nature. Put it simply, if you want to write 'fish', you draw a 'fish'.

One Chinese legend says that a man called Cangie had the idea of writing after seeing footprints left by birds and beasts on the sand. The first letters/characters were crude, but relatable, imitations of the desired objects. But in time they evolved, sometimes involving loading them with characteristics or qualities, making them distinct from the objects.

According to some scholars, the word tian has undergone changes over time. It is said to have originated as a line art for a man with arms and legs outstretched. Later identified with 'great man' (king, kings), by drawing a bar over it.

If we compare the symbol 'tian' with the Meetei letter 'atiya' alongside the Chinese symbol for 'immortal', you will see what I'm getting at. If we 'merge' the symbol for 'immortal' (the souls of kings who have died and personified as a great god and living in heave/sky can be presumed to be immortal) so that the vertical lines on the left (of the two symbols) overlap then we get a character which is a bit similar to the letter 'atiya'.

Now, coming to the usage of 'tian', uniting many kings who have died and were living in heaven/sky, it began to represent the great god. Use of 'tian' to mean god is supposed to be comparatively recent, while its use as heaven/sky seems to be more widespread. This would more or less overlap with the usage of the Manipuri word 'atiya'.

The word usually refers to the 'sky', but add words like 'Guru' (teacher, I cannot help pointing the fact that 'ancestral kings' connotes 'teachers') and 'Sidaba' (one who does not die/immortal) to it and we know we are talking about the 'great' god 'Atiya'.

In other words, in both languages, these similar sounding, and similar looking if I may say, words are used to mean the sky (to a large extent) and 'great' god (to a limited extent). China is a geographically vast country in which many chieftains/kings ruled the provinces (and consequently many scripts/words/symbols which have evolved over a long period of time).

Also, in terms of word formation, unlike Manipuri, Chinese letters/characters represent words, not sounds. Put is simply, if you want to write one hundred different objects, you draw one hundred different characters. This means that a lot of characters were used and many became redundant in time.

Some Meitei letters (like atiya in the present case) may have derived from an old branch of this huge tree. Although Manipuri language use the letters as sounds to form words, the letters are read as words, not sound ('B for boy/ball', but 'Kok', and not 'ka for kok').

Just to note, in the BBC Sherlock Holmes episode called 'The Blind Banker', the Chinese hawkers use an ancient Chinese numeral system called Suzhou. The number five shown there uncannily looks like the Meitei letter for 'til' (final consonant).

Also, the Chinese character/word for ear, at some point of time, somewhat resembled the letter for ear (na) of Meitei alphabet. Maybe just a coincidence because they were attempting to 'draw' the same thing, or maybe it's more than that!



* James Oinam wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at
This article was posted on June 28, 2017.

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