||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (May 2011)|
Brahmi script on Ashoka Pillar
|Languages||Saka, Tocharian, Middle Prakrit languages|
|Time period||c. 3rd century BCE to c. 5th century CE|
|Child systems||Gupta, Pallava, and numerous others in the Brahmic family of scripts.|
|Sister systems||Kharoshthi (?)|
|ISO 15924||Brah, 300|
Brāhmī is the modern name given to the one of the oldest scripts used on the Indian Subcontinent and in Central Asia, during the final centuries BCE and the early centuries CE. Like its contemporary, Kharoṣṭhī, which was used in what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and North India, Brahmi was an abugida.
The best-known Brahmi inscriptions are the rock-cut edicts of Ashoka in north-central India, dated to 250-232 BCE. The script was deciphered in 1837 by James Prinsep, an archaeologist, philologist, and official of the British East India Company. The origin of the script is still much debated, with current Western academic opinion generally agreeing (with some exceptions) that Brahmi was derived from or at least influenced by one or more contemporary Semitic scripts, but a strong current of opinion in India favors the idea that it is connected to the much older and as-yet undecipered Indus script.
The Gupta script of the 5th century is sometimes called "Late Brahmi". The Brahmi script diversified into numerous local variants, classified together as the Brahmic family of scripts. Dozens of modern scripts used across South Asia have descended from Brahmi, making it one of the world's most influential writing traditions.
While the contemporary and perhaps somewhat older Kharosthi script is widely accepted to be a derivation of the Aramaic script, the genesis of the Brahmi script is less straightforward. An origin in the Imperial Aramaic script has nevertheless been proposed by some scholars since the publications by Albrecht Weber (1856) and Georg Bühler's On the origin of the Indian Brahma alphabet (1895). Bühler's ideas have been particularly influential, though even by the 1895 date of his great opus on the subject, he could identify no less than five competing theories of the origin, one positing an indigenous origin and four deriving it from various Semitic models.
Like Kharosthi, Brāhmī was used to write the early dialects of Prakrit. Surviving records of the script are mostly restricted to inscriptions on buildings and graves as well as liturgical texts. Sanskrit was not written until many centuries later, and as a result, Brāhmī is not a perfect match for Sanskrit; several Sanskrit sounds cannot be written in Brāhmī.
The most disputed point about the origin of the Brāhmī script is whether it was a purely indigenous development or was inspired or derived from scripts that originated outside India. Saloman noted that the indigenous view is strongly preferred by Indian scholars, whereas the idea of Semitic borrowing is preferred most often by Western scholars. He agreed with S.R. Goyal that biases have influenced both sides of the debate. Bühler curiously cited a passage by Sir Alexander Cunningham, one of the earliest indigenous origin proponents, that indicated that, at the time, the indigenous origin was a preference of English scholars in opposition to the "unknown Western" origin preferred by continental scholars.
Among scholars who have taken the origin to have been purely indigenous are F. Raymond Allchin, who speculated in a personal communication that Brahmi perhaps had the Harappan script (i.e. Indus script) as its predecessor. However, Allchin and Erdosy later in 1995 expressed the opinion that there was as yet insufficient evidence to resolve the question, though they were confident that the development of Brahmi was earlier than and "quite independent" of the Aramaic derivation of Kharosthi. G.R. Hunter in his book The Script of Harappa and Mohenjodaro and Its Connection with Other Scripts (1934) proposed a derivation of the Brahmi alphabets from the Indus Script, the match being considerably higher than that of Aramaic in his estimation. The most prominent alternative view in the indigenous origin category is that Brahmi was invented entirely independently of either foreign scripts or the Indus script. This view usually accepts that the Mauryans were previously aware of the art of writing in general but proposes that Brahmi was created anew for the purposes of writing Prakrit, based on well established theories of Vedic grammar and phonetics, and probably on the order of the reform-minded King Ashoka. From this point of view, Brahmi might be seen as a successful attempt to remedy some of the apparent limitations of Kharosthi as a vehicle for writing Prakrit.
There is little intervening evidence for writing during the millennium and a half between the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization c. 1900 BCE and the first appearance of Brahmi in the 3rd century BCE (earlier dates are claimed, but not widely accepted—see South Indian epigraphy below), and there is no accepted decipherment of the Indus script, but similarities to the Indus script have been nonetheless claimed by scholars such as Kak, who did not even acknowledge the existence of the Semitic-origin theory. A promising possible link between the Indus script and later writing traditions may be in the graffiti of the South Indian megalithic culture, which may have some overlap with the Indus symbol inventory and persisted in use up at least through the appearance of the Brahmi and Tamil Brahmi scripts up into the 3rd century CE. These graffiti usually appear singly, though on occasion may be found in groups of two or three, and are thought to have been family, clan, or religious symbols.
There appears to be general agreement at least that Brahmi and Kharosthi are historically related, though much disagreement persists about the nature of this relationship. Trigger considered them, as a pair, to be one of four instances of the invention of an alphasyllabary, the other three being Old Persian cuneiform, the Meroitic script, and the Ge'ez script. All four of these have striking similarities, such as using short /a/ as an inherent vowel, but Trigger (who accepted the Aramaic inspiration of Brahmi with extensive local development, along with a pre-Ashokan date) was unable to find a direct common source among them. Gnanadesikan also posited a stimulus diffusion view of the development of Brahmi and Kharosthi, in which the idea of alphabetic sound representation was learned from the Aramaic-speaking Persians, but much of the writing system was a novel development tailored to the phonology of Prakrit.
The Semitic theory (Phoenician or Aramaic) is the more strongly supported by the available data. According to the Aramaic hypothesis, the oldest Brāhmī inscriptions shows striking parallels with contemporary Aramaic for the sounds that are congruent 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 are several early examples of Brāhmī.) For example, both Brāhmī and Aramaic g resemble Λ; both Brāhmī and Aramaic t resemble ʎ, etc.
Brāhmī does feature a number of extensions to the Aramaic alphabet, as it was required to write more sounds. For example, Aramaic did not distinguish dental stops such as d from retroflex stops such as ḍ, and in Brāhmī the dental and retroflex series are graphically very similar, as if both had been derived from a single Aramaic prototype. (See Tibetan alphabet for a similar later development.) Aramaic did not have Brāhmī’s aspirated consonants (kh, th, etc.), whereas Brāhmī did not have Aramaic's emphatic consonants (q, ṭ, ṣ), and it appears that these unneeded emphatic letters filled in for Brāhmī's aspirates: Aramaic q for Brāhmī kh, Aramaic ṭ (Θ) for Brāhmī th (ʘ), etc. And just where Aramaic did not have a corresponding emphatic stop, p, Brāhmī seems to have doubled up for the corresponding aspirate: Brāhmī p and ph are graphically very similar, as if taken from the same source in Aramaic p. The first letter of the two alphabets also match: Brāhmī a, which resembled a reversed κ, looks a lot like Aramaic alef, which resembled Hebrew א. The following table compares Brāhmī with Phoenician and Aramaic.
* Both Phoenician/Aramaic and Brahmi had three voiceless sibilants, but because the alphabetical ordering was lost, the correspondences among them are not clear.
Not accounted for are the six Brahmi consonants bh, gh, h, j, jh, ny, some of which could conceivably derive from the three Aramaic consonants with no obvious correspondence. (Brahmi ng was a later development.)
South Indian epigraphy
The earliest likely contact of the Hindu Kush region with the Aramaic script occurred in the 6th century BCE with the expansion of the Achaemenid Empire under Darius the Great to the Indus valley. It appears that no use of any script to write an Indo-Aryan languages occurred before the reign of Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, despite the evident example of Aramaic. Megasthenes, an ambassador to the Mauryan court only a quarter century before Ashoka, noted explicitly that the Indians "have no knowledge of written letters". This might be explained by the cultural importance at the time (and indeed to some extent today) of oral literature for history and Hindu scripture.
There have been claims that fragments of Brāhmī epigraphy found in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka date as far back as the 5th or 6th century BCE. Recent claims for earlier dates include fragments of pottery from the trading town of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, which have been dated to the early 4th century BCE; from Bhattiprolu; and on pieces of pottery in Adichanallur, Tamil Nadu, which were associated with radiocarbon dates to the 6th century BCE. The claimed pre-Ashokan Bhattiprolu and Adichanallur inscriptions have been widely reported in the press, but do not appear to have been academically published so far. Saloman recognized the potential significance of the Anuradhapura inscriptions with respect to dating the origin of Brahmi but was cautious in accepting the early dates. Coningham et al., in their thorough analysis of the Anuradhapura inscriptions, found that the language was Prakrit rather than Dravidian, and they were unwilling to draw any conclusions about the affinities of the script beyond its being Brahmi; no claim was made that it is Tamil Brahmi. The historical sequence of the specimens was interpreted to indicate an evolution in the level of stylistic refinement over several centuries, and they concluded that the Brahmi script may have arisen out of "mercantile involvement" and that the growth of trade networks in Sri Lanka was correlated with its first appearance in the area.
A date for Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions in Palani as early as the 6th century has also been claimed, but as of its 2011 announcement, Iravatham Mahadevan, "a leading authority on the Tamil-Brahmi and Indus scripts," and Dr. Y. Subbarayalu, Head of the Department of Indology at the French Institute of Pondicherry, cautioned that it was difficult to reach a conclusion on the basis of one single scientific dating.
Overall, evidence for pre-Mauryan Brahmi inscriptions remains inconclusive, restricted to pottery fragments with possible individual glyphs. The earliest complete inscriptions remain the 3rd-century-BCE Ashokan texts. Many early post-Ashokan remains show regional variation thought to have developed after a period of unity across India during the Ashokan period.
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.
Early regional variants
The earliest Ashokan inscriptions are found across India—apart from the Kharosthi-writing northwest—and are highly uniform. By the late third century BCE regional variants had developed, due to differences in writing materials and to the structures 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. The Bhattiprolu script was written on an urn containing Buddhist relics, apparently in Prakrit and old Telugu. 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.
Sri Lankan inscriptions
In English, the most widely available set of reproductions of Brāhmī-script texts found in Sri Lanka is Epigraphia Zeylanica; in volume 1 (1976), many of the inscriptions are dated from the 3rd to 2nd century BC.
Unlike the edicts of Ashoka, however, the majority of the inscriptions from this early period in Sri Lanka are found above caves, are only a few words in length and "rarely say anything more than the name of the donor (who paid for the renovation of the cave, presumably); sometimes the donor's profession and village-of-origin are added, and sometimes the reader may be unable to guess if they are looking at the name of a person, profession or village, but can see that it is a name in any case (and not a philosophical statement)." Earliest writing in Brahmi was found in Anuradhapura, Sri lanka in Prakrit language, ancestor of Sinhalese language.
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 called mātrās in Sanskrit, except when the vowels commence a word. When no vowel is written, the vowel /a/ is understood. This "default short a" is a characteristic shared with Kharosthī, though the treatment of vowels differs in other respects. Special conjunct consonants are used to write consonant clusters such as /pr/ or /rv/. In modern Devanagari conjunct consonant are written left to right to join them as one composite character whereas in Brāhmī characters are joined vertically downwards.
Vowels following a consonant are inherent or 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.
It has been noted that the basic system of vowel marking common to Brāhmī and Kharosthī, in which every consonant is understood to be followed by a vowel, was well suited to Prakrit, but as Brāhmī was adapted to other languages, a special notation called the virāma was introduced to indicate the omission of the final vowel.
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|The Brahmic script and its descendants|
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 the 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 interpunctuation 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
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. A Northern Brahmi gave rise to the Gupta script during the Gupta period, sometimes also called "Late Brahmi" (used during the 5th century), which in turn diversified into a number of cursives during the Middle Ages, including Siddham (6th century), Sharada (9th century) and Nagari (10th century).
Southern Brahmi gave rise to the Pallava Grantha (6th century), Vatteluttu (8th century) scripts, and due to the contact of Hinduism with Southeast Asia during the early centuries CE also gave rise to the Mon script in Burma, the Javanese script in Indonesia and the Khmer script in Cambodia.
Also in the Brahmic family of scripts are several Central Asian scripts such as Tibetan and Khotanese. 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 (see origin of hangul).[dubious ]
Unicode and digitization
Brāhmī was added to the Unicode Standard in October, 2010 with the release of version 6.0.
The Unicode block for Brāhmī is U+11000–U+1107F. It lies within Supplementary Multilingual Plane. Only one major font for Brahmi is available non commercially called Adinatha font. It only covers Tamil Brahmi as of April 2013.
Unicode.org chart (PDF)
- More details about Buddhist monuments at Sanchi, Archaeological Survey of India, 1989.
- Richard Salomon, "Brahmi and Kharoshthi", in The World's Writing Systems
- Salomon, Richard, On The Origin Of The Early Indian Scripts: A Review Article. Journal of the American Oriental Society 115.2 (1995), 271–279
- Bühler, Georg (1898), On the origin of the Indian Brahma alphabet (2nd ed.), Strassburg: Karl J. Trübner, p. 2
- Salomon, Richard (1998), A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan Languages, Oxford University Press, p. 20
- Goody, Jack (1987), The Interface Between the Written and the Oral, Cambridge University Press, pp. 301–302 (note 4)
- Allchin, F.Raymond; Erdosy, George (1995), The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia: The Emergence of Cities and States, Cambridge University Press, p. 336
- Hunter, G.R. (1934), The Script of Harappa and Mohenjodaro and Its Connection with Other Scripts, Studies in the history of culture, London:K. Paul, Trench, Trubner
- Salomon, Richard (1998), A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan Languages, Oxford University Press, p. 21
- Scharfe, Hartmut (2002), Education in Ancient India, Handbook of Oriental Studies, Brill, pp. 11–12
- Kak, Subhash (1994), "The evolution of early writing in India", Indian Journal of History of Science 28: 375–388
- Ray, Himanshu Prabha (2006), "Inscribed pots, emerging identities", in Patrick Olivelle, Between the Empires : Society in India 300 BCE to 400 CE, Oxford University Press, pp. 121–122
- Trigger, Bruce G. (2004), "Writing Systems: a case study in cultural evolution", in Stephen D. Houston, The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process, Cambridge University Press, pp. 60–61
- Gnanadesikan, Amalia E. (2009), The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet, John Wiley and Sons Ltd., pp. 173–174
- Coningham, R.A.E.; Allchin, F.R.; Batt, C.M.; Lucy, D. (1996), "Passage to India? Anuradhapura and the Early Use of the Brahmi Script", Cambridge Archaeological Journal 6 (1): 73–97
- Subramanian, T.S., Skeletons, script found at ancient burial site in Tamil Nadu
- 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 0-19-509984-2 at pp 12–13
- ;Subramanian, T.S (29 August 2011). "Palani excavation triggers fresh debate". The Hindu (The Hindu). Retrieved 7 October 2011.
- Richard Salomon, "Brahmi and Kharoshthi", in Daniels and Bright, The World's Writing Systems
- "The Bhattiprolu Inscriptions", G. Buhler, 1894, Epigraphica Indica, Vol. 2
- Buddhist Inscriptions of Andhradesa, Dr. B.S.L Hanumantha Rao, 1998, Ananda Buddha Vihara Trust, Secunderabad
- Epigraphia Zeylanica: 1904–1912, Volume 1. Government of Sri Lanka, 1976. http://www.royalasiaticsociety.lk/inscriptions/?q=node/12
- http://a-bas-le-ciel.blogspot.ca/2012/05/ashokas-edicts-dead-languages-and.html with an annotated photograph of one of the Sri Lankan cave inscriptions at the top of the article.
- Passage to India? Anuradhapura and the Early Use of the Brahmi ScriptR.A.E. Coninghama1, F.R. Allchina2, C.M. Batta1 and D. Lucya1a1 Department of Archaeological Sciences University of Bradford Bradford BD7 1DPa2 Ancient India and Iran Trust Brookstands House Brooklands Avenue Cambridge CB2 2BG
- Daniels, Peter T. (2008), "Writing systems of major and minor languages", Language in South Asia, Cambridge University Press, p. 287
- Ram Sharma, Brāhmī Script: Development in North-Western India and Central Asia, 2002
- Daniels & Bright, The World's Writing Systems, Oxford University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-19-507993-0
- Adinatha font announcement
- 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.
- P.G. Patel, Pramod Pandey, Dilip Rajgor, The Indic Scripts: Palaeographic and Linguistic Perspectives. D.K. Printworld, 2007.
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