Dipan Kumar Rout

Living life between backspaces.

John Beames: The Britisher Who Saved My Language

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with literature and language. There’s something magical about the way words can transport you to another world, evoke deep emotions, or even change your perspective. It’s like having a superpower, but one that everyone can harness. Among all the languages I’ve dabbled in and admired, there’s one that holds a special place in my heart—my mother tongue, Odia.

Odia isn’t just a language to me; it’s a part of my identity. The lilting rhythms and rich vocabulary of Odia have been my constant companions during my very formative years on my interest on literature. The stories told by my grandparents, the songs sung during festivals, and the everyday conversations that fill my home have all been in Odia. It’s a language that carries the history, culture, and essence of my people. During my school days, we went through many anthologies and specifically this book called Galpa Ekankika(a topic that I will take up some other time), which furthered my love for the language. My emotional connect with the language has been since the days of my childhood when my mother used to read the Odia version of Shakuntala, a book that is still in my collection, that serves as a memoir of my mother. Yet, despite its beauty and significance, Odia once faced the threat of being overshadowed and forgotten. That’s where an unlikely savior stepped in—a Britisher named John Beames.

Now, you might wonder, what’s a Britisher doing in this story? It all started with a very old book on the archives of the Internet called, “Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian” by John Beames, the lively narrative of a Victorian district-officer.

Specifically, chapters 15 to 19, that specifically dealt with the regions of my home state Odisha.

To understand his travels, one has to understand the contextual integrity of the regions during that era.

An era during which, there were no states, rather provinces and districts. An era where India was not a standalone entity rather a region comprising of princely states (again, a controversial topic in itself). Not deviating more, let me jump to the part of how Odia as a language was threatened during his times.

In the 1860’s, Odia as a language was itself going through its identity crisis. During those times, there was Odia – Bengali language conflict and the Bengalis had a natural advantage in terms of administration. Language hegemony was on the rise and it was deeply embedded in the very fabric of linguistic and cultural identity. Some of the earlier examples of this conflict was back in 1867, Rangalal Bandhopadhyay, the then Deputy Magistrate spoke in a public meeting about the dominance of Bengali over Odia. There’s another well documented episode wherein a Bengali scholar, by the name of Rajendralal Mitra, who was assigned the task of studying the temples of Cuttack declared that “there here was no need to have a separate language for a mere 2 million Odia population”.

“Odisha was doomed to remain backward so long as it had a separate language.”

Rajendralal Mitra

A similar mission was being headed by Pandit Kanti Chandra Bhattacharya, a teacher from Balasore Zilla School. He took efforts into publishing a pamphlet named, “Udiya Ekti Swatantray Bhasha Noi”, that translates to Odia is not an independent language. This pamphlet spoke about how Odia is an inferior language, which wasn’t even a separate or original language. He mentioned Odia as a mere corruption of the Bengali language and advocated in his suggestions to the British Government for the abolishment of all Odia vernacular schools from Odisha and to get them converted into Bengali Vernacular Schools.

John Beames, during his times understood the socio-cultural impact of this. He was different and unlike many of his contemporaries, who viewed local cultures and languages with indifference or disdain, Beames had a deep respect for them. Beames didn’t just see Odia as a language; he saw it as a crucial thread in the cultural fabric of the region. During his tenure in Odisha, he realized that Odia was at risk. The dominant languages, Bengali and Hindi, were overshadowing Odia in administrative and educational contexts. This marginalization was pushing Odia towards the brink of extinction. Beames took it upon himself to study and document the language meticulously. He became fluent in Odia, understanding its nuances, syntax, and lexicon.

“Uriya extends along the sea coast from Subarnarekha to near Ganjam.’ Landwards, its boundary is uncertain, it melts gradually into the Boud (Boudh) and other rude hill dialects and co-exists with them.”

John William Beames

In his assertions, he wrote three important notes, namely, ‘On the relation of the Odia to the other modern Aryan language,’ ‘On Odia language, script and literature’ and ‘Urya.’ These proved to be irksome to some of the Bengali intellectuals during the times as this directly disproved their claim of Odia just being a dialect of Bengali and their conspiracy of abolish the Odia language. Beames made many further arguments ti support the cause of Odia that I quote below:

"There exists in the present day an active controversy between the literary heads of [Bengal and Orissa]. The Bengalis assert that Oriya is merely a dialect of Bengali, and has no claim to be considered an independent language, and they mix up this assertion with a second to the effect that if it is not, it ought to be, mainly because they wish it was, and secondarily because the population of Orissa is so small as compared with that of Bengal that they think it useless to keep up a separate language and written character for so small a province.

If Oriya is to be suppressed because it is only spoken by a few millions of people, it might also be urged that Dutch, or Danish, or Portuguese, should be obliterated also. Basque should also be stamped out, and the same argument would apply to Romaic or Modern Greek, and would justify the Russians in trying to eradicate Polish, or the Austrians in annihilating Czech.

Moreover, it is far beyond the power of the handful of English and Bengalis to stamp out the mother-tongue of all these millions, and it may be added that any forcible measures of repression would be entirely foreign and repugnant to the spirit of our policy.

The result of teaching Bengali in our schools, to the exclusion of the local vernacular, would only be that the small proportion of Oriya boys who attend those schools would know the former in addition to the latter, that they would learn to despise their mother-tongue, and that a gap would be created between the mass of the peasantry and the small body of educated persons."

His most significant contribution was his scholarly work, “A Comparative Grammar of the Modern Aryan Languages of India,” published in 1872. In this monumental book, Beames dedicated an entire section to Odia, comparing it with other Indian languages and showcasing its unique features. This work was instrumental in proving that Odia was not a mere dialect of Bengali, as many had erroneously claimed, but a distinct and rich language in its own right.

Beames’ efforts went beyond academic recognition. His advocacy for the preservation and promotion of Odia played a crucial role in its revival. His work laid the foundation for later scholars and activists to continue the fight for Odia’s rightful place in the linguistic landscape of India. Thanks to Beames and the tireless efforts of many Odia speakers, the language not only survived but thrived.

Today, Odia is one of the official languages of India, spoken by millions and celebrated in literature, music, and daily life. And as I sit here, writing this in English—a language Beames also knew well—I feel a profound gratitude towards him. Without his intervention, the language that I hold so dear might have been lost to time.

So here’s to John Beames, the Britisher who saved my language. His story is a reminder that passion and respect for cultures can transcend borders, and that sometimes, heroes come from the most unexpected places. And as I continue my own journey with language and literature, I carry his legacy with me, cherishing every word of Odia that flows through my thoughts and into my heart.


  • John Beames’s Essays on Odisha History and Literature : Edited by Kailash Patnaik, Published by Prafulla Pathagara, Jagatsinghpur, Cuttack, 2004
  • Prof. (Dr) Jagannath Mohanty (Odisha Review), Nov 2013
  • Special thanks to my Odia teacher, Mr. Ashok Patel, who brought in me the interest towards my language through his narration of folk tales and his deep insight into the language itself. Some of his teaching and stories will be an essay in itself for later.

To be Continued Part: Will be writing a next part to this article, wherein I went through a rather interesting journey in tracking down the current generation of John Beames, in order to thank for the contribution for saving my language.

Update: 21st June 2024; I hit the block with the fourth generation of the Beames with Mrs. Margaret Christina Beames, passing in 2018. Fortunately, in US and UK, Family Search has an excellent record maintenance in tracking ancestry. You can find her profile here and here Obituary here. She is survived by two sons and two grandsons, to whom I’m trying to reach out via social media. Will post a update once I get a reply.

Update: 22nd June 2024; Hit another block with one of his descendants(Arthur Vincent Beames), who passed away in 2003.

Update: 22nd June 2024; Another block again with John R Schober, whose none of the numbers are working.

Its a bit frustrating, how up to a generation back the indexing of the genealogy of person is so well documented but for the current generation its not. (Probably from the fact that they don’t go to the church anymore, where these records are maintained.)

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