Brāhmī script: Wikis


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Type syllabary
Spoken languages Early Prakrit languages
Time period perhaps 6th, and certainly 3rd, century BCE, to c. 3rd century CE
Parent systems
Child systems Gupta, Pallava, and numerous others in the Brahmic family of scripts.
Sister systems Kharoshthi
ISO 15924 Brah
Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode.

Brāhmī is the modern name given to the oldest members of the Brahmic family of scripts. The best known inscriptions in Brāhmī are the rock-cut edicts of Ashoka in north-central India, dated to the 3rd century BCE. These are traditionally considered the earliest known examples of Brāhmī writing, though recent discoveries suggest that it may be somewhat older, dating back as far as the 6th century BCE. It is also thought that the script found at Bet Dwaraka dated to 1528 BC is not a late Indus script but related to Proto-Canaanite. (see Tamil-Brahmi).

The script was deciphered in 1837 by James Prinsep, an archaeologist, philologist, and official of the British East India Company.[1]

Like its contemporary in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, Kharoṣṭhī, Brāhmī was a syllabary—a consonantal script augmented by diacritics for vowels.

It was innovative in its presentation, with the alphabet arranged in a grid (varga) according to phonetic principles.[2]

Brāhmī was ancestral to most of the scripts of South Asia, Southeast Asia, some Central Asian scripts like Tibetan and Khotanese, and possibly influenced Korean Hangul (which was developed in 1444 CE). The alphabetic order Brāhmī was adopted as the modern order of Japanese kana, though the letters themselves are unrelated.[3]



Like Kharoshthi, Brāhmī was used to write the early dialects of Prakrit. Its usage was mostly restricted to inscriptions on buildings and graves as well as liturgical texts. Sanskrit was not written until many centuries later. As a result, Brāhmī is not a perfect match for Sanskrit, and several Sanskrit sounds cannot be written in Brāhmī.

The earliest contact of the Hindukush region with Aramaic script took place in the 6th century BCE with the expansion of the Achaemenid Empire as far as the Indus valley under Darius the Great. The development of the script between the 6th and the 3rd centuries BCE are obscure. There are some claims dating fragments of Brāhmī epigraphy found in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, as far back as the 6th to 5th centuries BCE, taken as evidence for the early spread of Buddhism.[4] But evidence of pre-Mauryan Brahmi inscriptions remains inconclusive, restricted to pottery fragments with possible individual glyphs. The earliest complete inscriptions remain the 3rd century BCE Ashokan ones, and arguably the Bhattiprolu script which may slightly predate Ashoka.[citation needed] Many early remains show regional variation thought to have developed after a period of unity across India during the Ashokan period.

Pre-Ashokan epigraphy

Recent claims for earlier dates include fragments of pottery from the trading town of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, which have been dated to between the 6th and the early 4th centuries BCE;[4] Bhattiprolu;[5] and on pieces of pottery in Adichanallur, Tamil Nadu, which have been radio-carbon dated to the 6th century BCE.[6]

Aramaic hypothesis

Brāhmī is believed by most scholars to be derived or at least influenced by the Imperial Aramaic script, as was clearly the case for the contemporary Kharosthi alphabet that arose in a part of northwest Indian under the control of the Achaemenid Empire.

A glance at the oldest Brāhmī inscriptions shows striking parallels with contemporary Aramaic for the phonemes that are equivalent between the two languages, especially if the letters are flipped to reflect the change in writing direction. (Aramaic is written from right to left, as was Brāhmī originally, whereas Brāhmī later came to be written from left to right.) For example, both Brāhmī and Aramaic g resemble Λ; both Brāhmī and Aramaic t resemble ʎ, etc.

The Brahmi script does feature a number of extensions compared to the Aramaic alphabet.

For example, Aramaic did not distinguish dental from retroflex stops; in Brāhmī the dental and retroflex series are graphically very similar, as if both had been derived from a single prototype. Aramaic did not have Brāhmī’s aspirated consonants (, ), whereas Brāhmī did not have Aramaic's emphatic consonants (q, ṭ, ṣ); and it appears that these emphatic letters were used for Brāhmī's aspirates: Aramaic q for Brāhmī kh, Aramaic (Θ) for Brāhmī th (ʘ). And just where Aramaic did not have a corresponding emphatic stop, p, Brāhmī seems to have doubled up for its aspirate: Brāhmī p and ph are graphically very similar, as if taken from the same source in Aramaic p. The first letters of the alphabets also match: Brāhmī a, which resembled a reversed κ, looks a lot like Aramaic alef, which resembled Hebrew א. The following table compares Brahmi with Phoenician; Aramaic is generally somewhat closer in appearance.

Possible derivation of Brahmi from the Phoenician script
Greek Α Β Γ Δ Ε Υ Ζ Η Θ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Ο Π Ϻ Ϙ Ρ Σ Τ
Phoenician Aleph Beth Gimel Daleth He Waw Zayin Heth Teth Yodh Kaph Lamedh Mem Nun Samekh Ayin Pe Sadek Qoph Res Sin Taw
Brahmi Brah a.svg Brah b.svg Brah g.svg Brah dh.png Brah dh1.png  ? Brah v.png Brah d.png Brah d1.png  ? Brah th.png Brah th1.png Brah y.png Brah k.png Brah c.png Brah l.png Brah m.png Brah n.png Brah n1.png Brah sh.png  ? Brah p.png Brah ph.png Brah s.png Brah kh.png Brah ch.png Brah r.png Brah s1.png Brah t.png Brah t1.png
Tamil ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? தா
IAST a ba ga dha ḍha va da? ḍa? tha ṭha ya ka ca la ma na ṇa śa* pa pha sa* kha cha ra ṣa* ta ṭa
  • Both Phoenician/Aramaic and Brahmi had three voiceless sibilants, but because the alphabetical ordering was lost, the correspondences among them are not clear.

Some scholars, such as F. Raymond Allchin, disputed the script's Aramaic origin, taking Brāhmī as a purely indigenous development, perhaps with Bronze Age Indus script as its predecessor.[citation needed]

Ashokan inscriptions

Connections between Phoenician (4th column) and Brahmi (5th column). Note that 6th- to 4th-century BCE Aramaic (not shown) is in many cases intermediate in form between the two.
Brāhmī script on stone Kanheri Caves

Brāhmī is clearly attested from the 3rd century BCE during the reign of Ashoka, who used the script for imperial edicts. It has commonly been supposed that the script was developed at around this time, both from the paucity of earlier dated examples, the alleged unreliability of those earlier dates, and from the geometric regularity of the script, which some have taken to be evidence that it had been recently invented.[7]

Early regional variants

The earliest Ashokan inscriptions are found across India—apart from the northwest—and are highly uniform. By the third century BCE, regional variants had developed, due to differences in writing materials and to the structure of the languages being written. For example, Tamil-Brahmi had a divergent system of vowel notation.

The earliest definite evidence of Brahmi script in South India comes from Bhattiprolu in Andhra Pradesh[8][9] circa 300 BCE.[10][11] The Bhattiprolu script was written on an urn containing Buddhist relics. The languages were Prakrit and old Telugu.[5] Twenty-three letters have been identified. The letters ga and sa are similar to Mauryan Brahmi, while bha and da resemble those of modern Telugu script.


Some common variants of Brahmic letters
The Brāhmī symbol for /ka/, modified to represent different vowels

Brāhmī is usually written from left to right, as in the case of its descendants. However, a coin of the 4th century BCE has been found inscribed with Brāhmī running from right to left, as in Aramaic.

Brāhmī is an abugida, meaning that each letter represents a consonant, while vowels are written with obligatory diacritics. When no vowel is written, the vowel /a/ is understood. Special conjunct consonants are used to write consonant clusters such as /pr/ or /rv/.

Vowels following a consonant are written by diacritics, but initial vowels have dedicated letters. There are three vowels in Brāhmī, /a, i, u/; long vowels are derived from the letters for short vowels. However, there are only five vowel diacritics, as short /a/ is understood if no vowel is written.


Punctuation can be perceived as more of an exception than as a general rule in Asokan Brāhmī. For instance, distinct spaces in between the words appear frequently in the pillar edicts but not so much in others. ("Pillar edicts" refers to the texts that are inscribed on the stone pillars oftentimes with the intention of making them public.) The idea of writing each word separately was not consistently used.

In early Brāhmī period, the existence of punctuation marks is not very well shown. Each letter has been written independently with some space between words and edicts occasionally.

In the middle period, the system seems to be in progress. The use of a dash and a curved horizontal line is found. A flower mark seems to mark the end, and a circular mark appears to indicate the full stop. There seem to be varieties of full stop.

In the late period, the system of interpuctuation marks gets more complicated. For instance, there are four different forms of vertically slanted double dashes that resemble "//" to mark the completion of the composition. Despite all the decorative signs that were available during the late period, the signs remained fairly simple in the inscriptions. One of the possible reasons may be that engraving is restricted while writing is not.

Four basic forms of the punctuation marks can be cited as:

  • dash or horizontal bar
  • vertical bar
  • dot
  • circle


Variants of Brahmi over time

Over the course of a millennium, Brāhmī developed into numerous regional scripts, commonly classified into a more rounded Southern India group and a more angular Northern India group. Over time, these regional scripts became associated with the local languages. Alphabets of the Southern group spread with Hinduism and Buddhism into Southeast Asia, while the Northern group spread into Tibet. Today descendants of Brāhmī are used throughout India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and in scattered enclaves in Indonesia, southern China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. As the script of Buddhist scripture, Brahmic alphabets are used for religious purposes throughout China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Gary Ledyard has suggested that the basic letters of hangul were taken from the Phagspa script of the Mongol Empire, itself a derivative of the Brahmic Tibetan alphabet. Canadian Aboriginal syllabics also show systematic similarity with principles and characters of Brāhmī.

See also


  1. ^ More details about Buddhist monuments at Sanchi, Archaeological Survey of India, 1989.
  2. ^ Frits Staal, The science of language, Chapter 16 in Gavin Flood, The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism Blackwell Publishing, 2003, 599 pages ISBN 0631215352. "Like Mendelejev's Periodic system of elements, the varga system was the result of centuries of analysis. In the course of that development, the basic concepts of phonology were discovered and defined." p.352.
  3. ^ Daniels & Bright, The World's Writing Systems
  4. ^ a b Salomon, Richard (1998), Indian Epigraphy: A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the Other Indo-Aryan Languages, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195099842  at pp 12-13
  5. ^ a b Antiquity of Telugu language and script:
  6. ^ Subramanian, T.S., Skeletons, script found at ancient burial site in Tamil Nadu
  7. ^ Richard Salomon, Brahmi and Kharoshthi, in Daniels and Bright, The World's Writing Systemes, 1996
  8. ^ The Bhattiprolu Inscriptions, G. Buhler, 1894, Epigraphica Indica, Vol.2
  9. ^ Buddhist Inscriptions of Andhradesa, Dr. B.S.L Hanumantha Rao, 1998, Ananda Buddha Vihara Trust, Secunderabad
  10. ^ Ananda Buddha Vihara;
  11. ^ Epigraphist extraordinaire;
  12. ^ Ram Sharma, Brāhmī Script: Development in North-Western India and Central Asia, 2002

Further reading

  • Kenneth R. Norman, The Development of Writing in India and its Effect upon the Pâli Canon, in Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens (36), 1993
  • Oscar von Hinüber, Der Beginn der Schrift und frühe Schriftlichkeit in Indien, Franz Steiner Verlag, 1990 (in German)
  • Gérard Fussman, Les premiers systèmes d'écriture en Inde, in Annuaire du Collège de France 1988-1989 (in French)
  • Siran Deraniyagala, The prehistory of Sri Lanka; an ecological perspective (revised ed.), Archaeological Survey Department of Sri Lanka, 1992.

External links

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