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Introduction to the History of Writing in South Asia
Throughout the long spell in the history of South Asia, different writing systems developed with several changes. It was in 4th millennium BC that the writing system appeared for the first time in the Indus River Valley civilization. But the history of writing from Harappan civilization or 3rd millennium B.C. to the times of the rock edicts of Ashoka or 3rd century B.C. is blank.
No specimen of writing belonging to this long period has yet been found. But there is sufficient evidence to show that the practice of writing continued unabated in the Vedic and post-Vedic periods. A very early Buddhist work Lalitavistara mentions that as many as 64 scripts were in use in ancient India.
Then in 500 BC, the new forms of writing appeared, and in the 3rd century BC two scripts namely the Kharosthi and the Brahmi found their place in stone inscriptions of Mauryan Empire which have been found in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
The former was confined to the northwestern part of India and was used by Ashoka in 320 BC to spread his message through the Manshera and Shahbazgarhi rock edicts. Kharosthi became obsolete after 3rd century A.D. as no specimen after this period has been found. On the other hand, the Brahmi script evolved branched off and became the mother of all scripts from Afghanistan to India including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet.
These scripts have syllabic alphabets, in which the consonant letter carries an inherent or default vowel. The vowels coming after the consonants are modified by additional strokes or matras to the letters.
How the Tankari Script Appeared
5th century BC to 4th century AD
Variable (Horizontal), First Right to Left then Left to Right
3rd century BC to 4th century AD
Left to Right
4th century AD to 8th century AD
Left to Right
10 th century AD to 20 the century
Left to Right
8th century AD to 14th century AD
Left to Right
1300 A.D. to 1700 A.D.
Left to Right
South Asia in Western Himalayas
13th Century AD to 19th Century AD
Left to Right
South Asia in Western Himalayas
1. Kharoshthi Script
The Kharoshthi, Brahmi, and Bactrian scripts were used in the North West India and to write the Prakrit and Greek languages. The specimen of these scripts have been found on tribal, Indo-Greek, Indo-Parthian, Indo-Scythian, and Kushana coins and the rock edicts of Ashoka.
Both Kharosthi and Brahmi scripts appeared around 5th century BC in the Northern Pakistan, Eastern Afghanistan, and India. They were developed for Prakrit dialects of common speech as Sanskrit was the language of the learned. In the ancient kingdom of Gandhara, the Kharosthi script was primarily used for the Prakrit dialect of Gandhari language.
The letters in Kharosthi and Brahmi are nearly identical. Both represent a constant followed by the short vowel /a/ and denote the change in vowel by adding marks to a sign. The consonant clusters in both systems appear by juxtaposing two signs together. Brahmi had different signs for different initial vowels, while Kharosthi used the same marks to change the vowels. The former differentiated between the long and short versions of the same vowel and Kharosthi used the same sign for both versions.
Brahmi Branched off Around 3th century AD
2. The Brahmi Script
The earliest known script of Harappa in Indus Valley civilization in India has so far not been deciphered. The next one known as Brahmi and termed as the national script of ancient India is the first to have been deciphered by James Princep in 1837AD. In terms of time and influence, it is one of the most important scripts in the world.
It became the national alphabet in India, and the mother of all South Asian and Southeast Asian scripts and even the vowel order of Japanese has evolved from it.
It was the earliest post-Indus texts and appeared in India in 5th century BC, though its origin lies further back in time. It remained in use in India for several centuries from the times of famous edicts of Ashoka engraved on rocks and pillars from 4th century BC.
The historical inscriptions of Brahmi in several local variations could be found anywhere in India. The ancient epigraphs and literary records prove that it was popular in Western Himalayan region too.
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Brahmi- The Oldest Script of India
The script of Indus Valley civilization is a riddle, as it has not been deciphered till now. Hence there is insufficient information about the trade, literature, art, culture, traditions and other aspects of civilization.
But there is a possibility of its genealogical relation with Brahmi script, though the former looks like symbols and not letters.
In the absence of longer manuscript, the Harappa script could not be deciphered. The longest manuscript of seven lines on palm leaf containing the Harappa and Kohi scripts has been discovered from the site of Harappa in Afghanistan.
The close affinity between the symbols and letters of Harappa and Kohi scripts can help to decipher the former, but the latter too has also not been deciphered. The Kohi resembles the Greek, Brahmi and Kasoshthi scripts and was used in Gandhara from 1st to 8th century AD.
This manuscript strengthens the idea that a prototype of Brahmi script existed and was in use in Indus Valley. The signs of Indus Valley script engraved on tablets, seals, potteries and other objects discovered so far had no more than 18 letters or pictures.
The writing system in early Harappa age in 2700 BC to 2000 BC was from right to left, whereas after 2000 BC to 1500 BC these scripts changed their direction from left to right.
Like ancient Brahmi, this palm leaf script runs from right to left while the later Brahmi runs from left to right. It indicates that there were two scripts in use; the one ran on objects from right to left, while in others it was from left to right.
But despite the evidence, no object with bilingual scripts has so far been found in the Harappa period. Hence it is clear that there was only one script called Brahmi and the Harappa script was an older form of Brahmi called proto Brahmi.
It has become clear from the DNA analysis that the Aryan and Dravidians have the same genetic basis and were native to India. Contrary to earlier beliefs they did not come from outside. So the proto-Dravidian and proto-Aryan races were present in Harappa. Their language was proto-Dravidian and Sanskrit and the script was proto Brahmi.
New researchers will someday decipher the Harappa script found on mysterious seals, square pieces, pottery, coins and other objects.
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- When was Brahmi script first deciphered?
- Who deciphered the Brahmi script?
- James Princep
- Dr. Fleet
- Name the writing material that was generally used in the southern and the eastern parts of India before paper gained pop
- Birch leaf
- Palm leaf
- Which was the Mahajani script due to its use in maintaining commercial records or accounts.
- An official script for revenue records in India until 1947
- How many verses are there in Bhagavad Gita?
- James Princep
- Palm leaf
Influences of Brahmi
After 6th century onwards the alphabets of Brahmi went through several variations in different areas during the long period of its use. All the scripts of the Northern and the Southern India which mutually influenced each other are derived from Brahmi.
The old scripts in the Northern group are Gupta, Nagari, Sarada, Tankari etc., while the recent ones are Devanagari, Bengali, Gurmukhi, Oriya, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu etc. Similarly, the ancient scripts in the Southern group are Grantha, Kadamba, Kalinga etc., while the modern ones are Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Sinhala etc.
The Sharda script was the direct descendent of Brahmi and was used in a vast region extending from Afghanistan to Delhi. It’s had regional variations though the characters were similar to earlier Brahmi.
Origin of Brahmi
Brahmi might have originated from the West Semitic script of 1100 BC to 300 AD, which runs from left to right. The symbols or letters of Brahmi are found to be quite close to this West Asian script.
Another theory relates Brahmi to the West Asian Southern Semitic script of 500 BC to 600 AD in Arabian Peninsula, which also runs of from left to right.
The third theory says that Brahmi came from the South Asian Indus Script of 2600 BC to 1900 BC, which goes in a variable direction. But this theory is not plausible due to the absence of any written evidence between the Harappa period around 1900 BC and the appearance of first Brahmi or Kharoshthi inscriptions about 500 BC.
But it needs research to either prove or disprove these theories.
The Old Persian of 550 BC to 400 BC in West Asia and Meroitic if 2nd century BC to 5th century AD in Africa also have syllabic alphabets of variable direction. But unlike these two systems, the Brahmi and its offshoots have the same consonant with a different vowel which is modified by extra strokes or matras, while the ligatures indicate the clusters of consonants.
Each symbol of Brahmi has a special phonetic value as it can be either a simple consonant or a syllable with the consonant and the inherent vowel /a/.
3. The Gupta Script
In the group of North Indian scripts, the Gupta script or Gupta Brahmi or Late Brahmi evolved from Brahmi of Ashoka period and was used for writing Sanskrit.
It appeared with the rise of Gupta Empire in early 4th century AD, as the period was marked with material, religious, scientific and literary prosperity. The dynasty collapsed in 6th century AD, due to the invasion of the Huns.
It forms a crucial link between Brahmi and its offshoots and its several different variants like Nagari, Sharda and Siddham appeared in the 8th century. These variants evolved into other modern scripts like Devanagari, Gurmukhi, Bengali, Tibetan etc.
It works in the same manner like its predecessor and successors with a difference in shapes and forms only. To write quickly and aesthetically the letters became more cursive and symmetric in 4th century AD. The script itself had different regional variations throughout the Empire.
Several gold coins of Gupta period were discovered in 1783 and about 2000 of them were found at Bayana in Bharatpur district of Rajasthan in 1946. Most of these coins bear the legends or historic events about the accession of Kings beginning from the first Gupta king Chandra Gupta I.
The stunted or truncated scripts on these coins are different from those on pillars due to space and to give them a national character of the kingdom.
The Gupta Script
4. The Kutila Script
The Gupta script which had evolved from Brahmi began to be written in a Kutil or crooked manner and was hence called as Kutil or Kutila script.
In Sanskrit the word Kutil means crooked. The name was due to the curving shapes of letters. The letters of Brahmi and Gupta script had straighter lines.
Being the predecessor of Sharda it was used until the end of the 8th or the beginning of the 9th century A.D.
The Kutila inscription of Bareilly of 992 AD provides a link that the Devanagari or the Northern script and the Bengali or the Eastern script have a common descent from the Gupta script.
Kutila, Ranjana or Lantsa
Kutila is also called the Ranjana script which further evolved in 11th century AD and was used in India and Nepal until the middle of 20th century.
It was named Lantsa script in Tibet and was used to write the titles of books translated from Sanskrit to the Tibetan language. It is used for decorative writings in temples and monasteries by the Buddhists in Japan, China, Mongolia, and Tibet. Several original Sanskrit manuscripts written in Lantsa could still be found in the old monasteries of Tibet.
The Phases in the Making of Alphabets
5. The Sharda Script
In Northern India, the Western variants of the Gupta script appeared in 8th century AD and continued to evolve over the next centuries in the form of Nagari and Sharda script. These descendant scripts evolved into several modern scripts.
The Sharada alphabets have a place of pride among the scripts of the Western Himalaya. It was also used in North Western Frontier Province, Afghanistan, Gandhara or the North-West Pakistan, Dardistan areas including Gilgit, Chilas, and Chitral; Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. It was a vital link to communicate ideas, knowledge, and culture among these states in medieval times as was done by Brahmi and Kharoshti in the ancient period.
It has evolved from the North Western Brahmi and was used in an extensive area for several centuries.The epigraphs and literary records in Sharda script throw a light on the history and culture of the areas where it was used.
The Variants of Sharda
In the beginning, Sharada was mainly used in the Kashmir region. In later centuries it evolved into several variants. The first variant named the Landa script appeared in Punjab and Sind to write the Punjabi language in the 10th century. In 16th century AD, the Landa became the Gurmukhi script, as the former could not represent the additional Punjabi sounds.
Similarly, in 20th century AD, the Sindhi language began to be written in the scripts derived from either the Devanagari or Arabic.In Kashmir region, other variants like the Kashmiri and Tankari appeared in the 14th century.
The Name Sharda
It evolved from Brahmi and was used in the vast region extending from Afghanistan to Delhi. Its alphabets had a remarkable resemblance with earlier Brahmi which was in use in the region. But several typical changes made it fit for a new name.
It got its name from Sharada, the Goddess of learning in ancient Kashmir. The land at that time was the celebrated home of learning and was known as Sharada-Desha or country and Sharada-mandala or division.
The famous traveler Alberuni gave it a name of Siddha-Matrika, as an invocation, Om Swasti Siddham, is used before the beginning of its alphabets. The practice of invocation is still followed on the occasion of Yajnopavit sanskara or religious chord wearing ceremony when a young student writes Sharda alphabets on a wooden plank or takhti.
The Scripts in Kashmir
Both Kharoshti and the Brahmi were used in Kashmir in an early historical period as several epigraphic and literary records have been discovered. Even in the 12th century A.D some ancient records might have been available to Pundit Kalhana, the author Rajatarangini, a historical treatise of Kashmir.
The famous copper plates containing the details of fourth Buddhist council in Kashmir as referred to by the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang and the rock on which the Shaiva Sutras were first inscribed have still not been discovered.
The earliest Brahmi scripts of Mauryan times in Kashmir are the engravings found in an ancient cave at Bastal on the old Kishtwar- Kashmir road. The earliest Kharoshti scripts in Kashmir are the numeral signs on the famous titles of Harwan.
The earliest Kharoshti scripts in Kashmir are the numeral signs on the famous titles of Harwan.
The Ladakh inscription of the Kushana period found at Khaltsi, several Kushana coins of first and second centuries A.D. bearing the legends in Kharoshti have also been found.
The Sharda script made its first appearance in the 9th century in Afghanistan, NWFP, Gilgit, Chilas, Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh.
Paleography of Sharda in Kashmir
The history of Kashmir dates back to the prehistoric times, but the history of writing in Kashmir in early times is unknown. Like Brahmi and the Kharoshti, the Sharda script formed a vital link between Kashmir and the neighboring states.
In Kashmir, the Sharada characters appear for the first time in 9th century A.D. on the coins of the Utpala dynasty. The next oldest manuscript of 14th century AD on birch bark is called the Munimata- mani-mala in Kashmir.
The 16th-century birch bark manuscripts of Shakuntala, Mahabharata, and Kathasaritasagara have also been found.
The contribution of Kashmir in the fields of religion, philosophy, ritual, science, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, literary criticism, erotic, art, and architecture is significant. Some of the works in these subjects are still in manuscript form and almost all of them are in Sharda script.
The advent of Buddhism gave a further boost to the literary quest in the valley. Soon Kashmir became a hub of Buddhist studies and a center of Sarvastivada, one of the prolific sects of Buddhism. Instead of Pali, they opted for Sanskrit as a literary medium.
A bulk of such literature discovered from several parts of Central Asia and China has been preserved in the form of manuscripts.
From the 9th century AD, the Sharda script was used in Kashmir. But the Muslim rule in 14th century AD brought the Central Asian Sufi saints, scholars and Islamic missionaries to the valley and a new Persia-Arabic script called Nastalikh was introduced.
Several private and court documents in Kashmiri, Sanskrit and Persian languages after 15th century were written in both these scripts.The famous Persian works of Central Asia and Iran on folklore, literature, medicine, science and technology were translated into Sharda script. The Sanskrit and Kashmiri texts became available in Nastalikh.
The Sharada alphabets were used in Kashmir until the 20th century, though presently it is confined to the older priestly and Brahmin community. In the beginning of the 20rh century when Urdu became an official language of Kashmir and the Devanagari script became popular.
Paleography of Sharda in Himachal Pradesh
Situated in Western Himalayas in the immediate neighborhood of Kashmir, the erstwhile Chamba state of Himachal Pradesh has yielded enormous record in Sharda script. It consists of inscriptions on rocks, stones, images, land grants on copper plates and fountain stones. It is due to these that the political and cultural history of the state from 9th century onwards could be reconstructed in a continuous stretch.
In Bhuri Singh Museum Chamba, the Prashasti or eulogy of queen Somaprakha, the spouse of Satyaki, a ruling chieftain of Sarahan opposite Saho in ancient Chamba belongs to 9th century A.D. is the earliest known Sharada script in Himachal Pradesh.
The copper plate inscriptions of King Yugakara Varman and his son Vidagdhadeva found in Brahmor and Sungala in Chamba.
Another most important and well preserved Sharda specimen in Kangra is the Baijnath Prashastis of 1204 A.D on two large stone slabs. The ancient name of Baijnath is Kiragrama, and the eulogy is about the details of construction of Shiva temple and the large donations it received from the people and the ruler.
The Sarada script remained in use in Himachal Pradesh till 13th century AD.
Sharda Script the precurser of Tankari
6. The Devashasha Script
Sharada underwent slow changes in the characters until the beginning of the thirteenth century A.D. It took the form of Devashasha or later Sharada and was used in Chamba and the neighboring hill states up to 1700 A.D.
The term Devashesha is used for the sake of convenience and is not well defined outside Chamba in Himachal Pradesh. It is sometimes called Takari or Tankari.
But the Takari developed at a later transition stage.In paleography, the Devashasha script is also used in copper plate of Rajah Bahadur Singh of Kullu.
The treaty in Devshasha, between King Rajasimha of Chamba and Rajah Sansar Chand of Kangra, is a specimen of the cursive handwriting of Rajasimha.
In 1440 A.D, the first verse written in praise of goddess Jwalamukhi of Kangra was in Devashesha.
The Tankari and Gurumukhi have sixteen common alphabets. The Gurumukhi script is also an offshoot of ancient Sharada and is used to write the Punjabi language. Earlier the Sharada script was used, both in the hills of Himachal Pradesh and the plains of the Punjab. But later they became Gurmukhi and Takari or Takri or Takkare or Tankari in different hilly regions. The knobs and wedges of Sarada script gave way to loops and triangles of Takari alphabets.