Brahmi script

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"Brahmi" redirects here. For other uses, see Brahmi (disambiguation).
Not to be confused with Brahmic scripts.
Brahmi script on Ashoka Pillar, Sarnath.jpg
Brahmi script on Ashoka Pillar
Languages Middle Indo-Aryan (Prakrit) languages, Dravidian languages (Tamil et al.), Saka, Tocharian
Time period
3rd century BCE to 5th century CE
Parent systems
Child systems
Gupta, Pallava alphabet, and numerous descendant writing systems
Sister systems
Direction Left-to-right
ISO 15924 Brah, 300
Unicode alias

Brahmi (brāhmī) is the modern name given to one of the oldest writing systems used in South and Central Asia during the final centuries BCE and the early centuries CE. Like its contemporary Kharoṣṭhī, which was used in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is an abugida.

The best-known Brahmi inscriptions are the rock-cut edicts of Ashoka in north-central India, dating to 250–232 BCE. The script was deciphered in 1837 by James Prinsep, an archaeologist, philologist, and official of the East India Company.[1] The origin of the script is still much debated, with most scholars concurring that Brahmi was derived from or at least influenced by one or more contemporary Semitic scripts, while others favoring the idea of an indigenous origin or connected to the much older and as-yet undeciphered Indus script.[2][3]

Brahmi was at one time referred to in English as the "pin-man" script,[4] that is "stick figure" script. It was known by a variety of other names[5] until the 1880s when Albert Étienne Jean Baptiste Terrien de Lacouperie, based on an observation by Gabriel Devéria, associated it with the Brahmi script, the first in a list of scripts mentioned in the Lalitavistara Sūtra. Thence the name was adopted in the influential work of Georg Bühler, albeit in the variant form "Brahma".[6] 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 scripts. Dozens of modern scripts used across South Asia have descended from Brahmi, making it one of the world's most influential writing traditions.[7] One survey found 198 scripts that ultimately derive from it.[8]

The script was associated with its own Brahmi numerals, which ultimately provided the graphic forms for the Hindu–Arabic numeral system now used through most of the world.


The Brahmi script is mentioned in the ancient Indian texts of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, as well as their Chinese translations.[9][10] For example, the Lipisala samdarshana parivarta lists 64 Lipi (scripts), with the Brahmi script starting the list. The Lalitavistara Sūtra states that young Siddhartha, the future Buddha (~500 BCE), mastered philology, Brahmi and other scripts at a school from Brahmin Lipikara and Deva Vidyasinha.[11][9]

A shorter list of eighteen ancient Indian writing scripts is found in the texts of Jainism, such as the Pannavana Sutra (2nd century BCE) and the Samavayanga Sutra (3rd century BCE).[12][13] These Jaina script lists include Brahmi at number 1, Kharoshthi at number 4, but includes Javanaliya and others not found in the Buddhist lists.[13]


Coin of Vikramaditya (Chandragupta II) with the name of the king in Brahmi script 380-415 CE.

While the contemporary Kharosthi script is widely accepted to be a derivation of the Aramaic alphabet, the genesis of the Brahmi script is less straightforward. Salomon reviewed existing theories in 1998,[14] while Falk provided an overview in 1993.[15]

An origin in Semitic scripts (usually Phoenician or Aramaic) has 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).[16][17] Bühler's ideas have been particularly influential, though even by the 1895 date of his opus on the subject, he could identify no less than five competing theories of the origin, one positing an indigenous origin and the others deriving it from various Semitic models.[18]

The most disputed point about the origin of the Brahmi script has long been whether it was a purely indigenous development or was borrowed or derived from scripts that originated outside India. Goyal noted that most proponents of the indigenous view are Indian scholars, whereas the idea of borrowing or influence from some non-Indian (typically Semitic) script are mostly Western scholars, and Salomon agrees with Goyal that there are no doubt biases – nationalist or imperialistic – on both sides of the debate.[19] Bühler curiously cited a passage by Sir Alexander Cunningham, one of the earliest indigenous origin proponents, that indicated that, in his time, the indigenous origin was a preference of English scholars in opposition to the "unknown Western" origin preferred by continental scholars.[18] Cunningham in the seminal Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum of 1877 speculated that Brahmi characters were derived from, among other things, a pictographic principle based on the human body,[20] but Bühler noted that by 1891, Cunningham considered the origins of the script uncertain.

Most scholars believe that Brahmi was likely derived from or influenced by a Semitic script model, with Aramaic being a leading candidate, but the issue is not completely settled due to the lack of strong evidence. Virtually all authors accept that regardless of the origins, the degree of Indian development of the Brahmi script in both the graphic form and the structure has been extremely extensive. It is also widely accepted that theories of Vedic grammar probably had a strong influence on this development. Some authors – both Western and Indian – accept the idea that Brahmi was not only borrowed from a Semitic script but it was invented entirely from it in a short few years during the reign of Ashoka and then used widely for Ashokan inscriptions, while some authors reject the idea of foreign influence entirely.[21][22]

Like Kharosthi, the earliest known forms of Brahmi were used to write early dialects of Prakrit, the lingua franca at the time. Surviving records of the script are mostly restricted to inscriptions on buildings and graves as well as liturgical texts.[23] Sanskrit was not written until many centuries later, and as a result, the original form of Brahmi is not a perfect match for Sanskrit; several Sanskrit sounds could not be written in Brahmi, though later forms were adapted to it.[23]

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. Bruce 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.[24] Justeson and Stephens proposed that this inherent vowel system in Brahmi and Kharosthi developed by transmission of a Semitic consonantal alphabet through recitation of its letter values. The idea is that learners of the source alphabet recite the sounds by combining the consonant with an unmarked vowel, e.g. /kə/,/kʰə/,/gə/..., and in the process of borrowing into another language, these syllables are taken to be the sound values of the symbols. They also accepted the idea that Brahmi was based on a North Semitic model.[25]

One of the most important recent developments regarding the origin of Brahmi has been the discovery of Brahmi characters inscribed on fragments of pottery from the trading town of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, which have been dated between the 6th to early 4th century BCE.[26] Coningham et al. in 1996,[27] stated that the script on the Anuradhapura inscriptions is Brahmi, but stated that the language was north Indian Prakrit rather than south Indian Dravidian. 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.[27] Salomon in his 1998 review states that the Anuradhapura inscriptions support the theory that Brahmi existed in South Asia before the Mauryan times, with studies favoring the 4th-century BC, but some doubts remain whether the inscriptions might be intrusive into the potsherds from a later date.[26]

More recently in 2013, Rajan and Yatheeskumar published excavations at Porunthal and Kodumanal in Tamil Nadu, where numerous both Tamil-Brahmi and "Prakrit-Brahmi" inscriptions and fragments have been found.[28] Their stratigraphic analysis combined with radiocarbon dates of paddy grains and charcoal samples indicated that inscription contexts date to as far back as the 5th and perhaps 6th centuries BCE.[29] As these were published very recently, they have as yet not been commented on extensively in the literature.

Semitic model hypothesis[edit]

The more popular idea among western scholars links the origin of Brahmi to Semitic script models and especially to Aramaic with which there was well established contact in northwestern India.[16] According to the Semitic hypothesis as laid out by Bühler, the oldest Brahmi inscriptions show striking parallels with Phoenician and Aramaic (Bühler generally used the umbrella term "Semitic") for many sounds that are congruent between the two languages, especially if the letters are flipped to reflect the change in writing direction.[30] (Aramaic is written from right to left, as are several early examples of Brahmi.)[31] For example, Brahmi and Aramaic g (ga and gimel) and Brahmi and Aramaic t (ta and taw) are nearly identical, as are several other pairs. Bühler also perceived a pattern of derivation in which certain characters were turned upside down, as with pe Pe and Brahmi p.svg pa, which he attributed to a stylistic preference against top-heavy characters.

Brahmi added symbols for certain sounds not found in Semitic languages, and either deleted or repurposed symbols for Aramaic sounds not found in Prakrit. For example, Aramaic did not distinguish dental stops such as d from retroflex consonants such as , and in Brahmi 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 Brahmi’s aspirated consonants (kh, th, etc.), whereas Brahmi did not have Aramaic's emphatic consonants (q, ṭ, ṣ), and it appears that these unneeded emphatic letters filled in for Brahmi's aspirates: Aramaic q for Brahmi kh, Aramaic (Θ) for Brahmi th (ʘ), etc. And just where Aramaic did not have a corresponding emphatic stop, p, Brahmi seems to have doubled up for the corresponding aspirate: Brahmi p and ph are graphically very similar, as if taken from the same source in Aramaic p. Bühler saw a systematic derivational principle for the other aspirates ch, jh, ph, bh, and dh, which involved adding a curve or upward hook to the right side of the character (which has been speculated to derive from h, Brahmi h.svg), while d and (not to be confused with the Semitic emphatic ) were derived by back formation from dh and ṭh.[32]

Bühler's Aspirate Derivations
IAST -aspirate +aspirate origin of aspirate according to Bühler
k/kh Brahmi k.svg Brahmi kh.svg Semitic emphatic (qoph)
g/gh Brahmi g.svg Brahmi gh.svg Semitic emphatic (heth) (hook addition in Bhattiprolu script)
c/ch Brahmi c.svg Brahmi ch.svg curve addition
j/jh Brahmi j.svg Brahmi jh.svg hook addition with some alteration
p/ph Brahmi p.svg Brahmi ph.svg curve addition
b/bh Brahmi b.svg Brahmi bh.svg hook addition with some alteration
t/th Brahmi t.svg Brahmi th.svg Semitic emphatic (teth)
d/dh Brahmi d.svg Brahmi dh.svg unaspirated glyph back formed
ṭ/ṭh Brahmi tt.svg Brahmi tth.svg unaspirated glyph back formed as if aspirated glyph with curve
ḍ/ḍh Brahmi dd.svg Brahmi ddh.svg curve addition

The first letter of the two alphabets also match: Brahmi a, which resembled a reversed κ, looks a lot like Aramaic aleph, which resembled Hebrew א. The lapidary (inscriptional) form of Aramaic aleph has also been described as a reversed-K shape, as seen in some pre-Islamic coins of the Hellenistic-era fort of Mleiha in East Arabia.[33] The following table lists the correspondences between Brahmi and North Semitic (exemplified here by an earlier form of Phoenician and the later cursive Imperial Aramaic) as proposed by Bühler.[34]

Bühler's Semitic-Brahmi Correspondences
Phoenician Cursive Imperial Aramaic Approx. Phoen. sound Direct Brahmi (IAST value) Secondarily Derived Brahmi
Aleph Aleph.svg ʾ [ʔ], M.L. Brahmi a.svg (a)
Beth Beth.svg b [b] Brahmi b.svg (ba) Brahmi bh.svg (bha)
Gimel Gimel.svg g [ɡ] Brahmi g.svg (ga) Bhattiprolu gh
Daleth Daleth.svg d [d] Brahmi dh.svg (dha) Brahmi d.svg (da), Brahmi dd.svg (ḍa), Brahmi ddh.svg (ḍha)
He He h [h], M.L. Brahmi h.svg (ha)
Waw Waw w [w], M.L. Brahmi v.svg (va) Brahmi u.svg (u), Brahmi o.svg (o)
Zayin Zayin z [z] Brahmi j.svg (ja) Brahmi jh.svg (jha)
Heth Heth [ħ] Brahmi gh.svg (gha)
Teth Teth [] Brahmi th.svg (tha) Brahmi tt.svg (ṭa), Brahmi tth.svg (ṭha)
Yodh Yodh y [j], M.L. Brahmi y.svg (ya)
Kaph Kaph k [k] Brahmi k.svg (ka)
Lamedh Lamedh l [l] Brahmi l.svg (la) Bhattiprolu
Mem Mem m [m] Brahmi m.svg (ma) anusvara
Nun Nun n [n] Brahmi n.svg (na) Brahmi nn.svg (ṇa)
Samekh Samekh s [s] Brahmi ss.svg (ṣa) Brahmi s.svg (sa)
Ayin Ayin ʿ [ʕ], M.L. Brahmi e.svg (e) Brahmi i.svg (i), Brahmi ai.svg (ai)
Pe Pe p [p] Brahmi p.svg (pa) Brahmi ph.svg (pha)
Sadek Sadek [] Brahmi c.svg (ca) Brahmi ch.svg (cha)
Qoph Qoph q [q] Brahmi kh.svg (kha)1
Res Res r [r] Brahmi r.svg (ra)
Sin Sin š [ʃ] Brahmi sh.svg (śa)
Taw Taw t [t] Brahmi t.svg (ta)
  1. Bühler notes that other authors derive Brahmi ch.svg (cha) from qoph.

"M.L." indicates that the letter was used as a mater lectionis in some phase of Phoenician or Aramaic. The matres lectionis functioned as occasional vowel markers to indicate medial and final vowels in the otherwise consonant-only script. Aleph Aleph and particularly ʿayin Ayin only developed this function in later phases of Phoenician and related scripts, though Aleph also sometimes functioned to mark an initial prosthetic (or prothetic) vowel from a very early period.[35]

Bühler distinguished the direct Semitic borrowings from secondary derivatives, characters which were derived from other Brahmi characters (e.g. ph from p).

Both Phoenician/Aramaic and Brahmi had three voiceless sibilants, but because the alphabetical ordering was lost, the correspondences among them are not clear. Bühler was able to suggest Brahmi derivatives corresponding to all of the 22 North Semitic characters, though clearly, as Bühler himself recognized, some are more confident than others. He tended to place much weight on phonetic congruence as a guideline, for example connecting c Brahmi c.svg to tsade Phoenician sade.svg rather than kaph Phoenician kaph.svg, as preferred by many of his predecessors.

Later scholars have been hesitant to accept all of Bühler's conclusions, though the general idea of influence from North Semitic scripts (particularly through the literate Persian empire) continues to be one aspect that has general assent. One of the key problems with a Phoenician derivation is the lack of evidence for historical contact with Phoenicians in the relevant period, though Bühler explained this by proposing that the initial borrowing of Brahmi characters dates back considerably earlier than the earliest known evidence, as far back as 800 BCE, contemporary with the Phoenician glyph forms that he mainly compared. According to his model, the initial borrowing of Brahmi was by traders, who would have maintained the original system of limited vowel-marking. He saw the development of the characteristic vowel marking system as a later stage of development by Brahmans based on their grammatical and phonetic theories. Bühler cited a near-modern practice of writing Brahmic scripts informally without vowel diacritics as a possible continuation of this earlier abjad-like stage in development.[36]

The weakest forms of the Semitic hypothesis are similar to Gnanadesikan's trans-cultural 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.[37]

Some common variants of Brahmic letters

The earliest likely contact of the Hindu Kush region with the Aramaic alphabet occurred in the 6th century BCE with the expansion of the Achaemenid Empire under Darius I to the Indus valley. The Achaemenids spoke Old Persian but used Aramaic extensively for administrative functions, even though they had developed their own Old Persian cuneiform script in the early days of the Empire. Short fragments from 4th-5th century BCE in the Anuradhapura and the 3rd century BCE Ashoka edicts are the earliest inscriptional evidence for writing in South Asia after the evidence of the Indus script some 1,500 years earlier. The Prakrit/Sanskrit word for writing itself, lipi, is similar to dipi, which Hultzsch in 1925 proposed is likely borrowed from the Old Persian word dipi,[38] with some alteration, possibly by analogy with native vocabulary.[39] Dipi itself is thought to be an Elamite loanword.[40]

Falk's dating[edit]

Falk's 1993 review on the Brahmi script is widely considered a definitive study.[41][15] He provides specific dates to Brahmi's origin in South Asia:[22][42][43]

  • Brahmi script, written left to right, in Falk's dating proposal was entirely borrowed from Semetic scripts, but instead of copying it, the Indians invented the Brahmi therefrom, around and after 258 BCE (the era of Ashoka). After this invention, the Indians used it widely for inscribing the Ashoka pillars. This, says Falk, is revealed by the fact that, as of the time of his review, Ashokan pillars have been the only available evidence of the use of Brahmi script and these pillars show "a clear development in language from a faulty linguistic style to a well honed one".
  • The Sanskrit language on some pillars show a mix of Brahmi and Kharoṣṭhī, states Falk. The Kharoṣṭhī script, written right to left, is clearly non-Indian Aramaic influenced and it too is not much older, likely from about 325 BCE. According to Falk, states Salomon, the new Brahmi script was designed primarily from the Kharoṣṭhī, but with significant input from Greek. The idea of writing from left-to right direction was borrowed by the ancient Indians from the Greeks along with few other ideas to freshly create the Brahmi script for the Ashoka inscriptions. This combination makes Brāhmī, in Falk's view, an Indian adaptation of Semitic scripts.

In his 1995 review, Salomon questions Falk's arguments and writes it is "speculative at best and hardly constitutes firm grounds for a late date for Kharoṣṭhī. The stronger argument for this position is that we have no specimen of the script before the time of Ashoka, nor any direct evidence of intermediate stages in its development; but of course this does not mean that such earlier forms did not exist, only that, if they did exist, they have not survived, presumably because they were not employed for monumental purposes before Ashoka".[42] Falk provides a chronology to Brahmi script's origin, but does not provide details of which and how the presumptive prototypes may have been mapped into the individual characters of Brahmi. Further, states Salomon, Falk accepts there are anomalies in phonetic value and diacritics in Brahmi script that are not found in the presumed Kharoṣṭhī script source. Falk attempts to explain these anomalies by reviving Greek influence hypothesis, a hypothesis that had previously fallen out of favor.[42][44] Hartmut Scharfe, in his 2002 review of Kharoṣṭī and Brāhmī scripts, concurs with Salomon's questioning of Falk's proposal, and states, "the pattern of the phonemic analysis of the Sanskrit language achieved by the Vedic scholars is much closer to the Brahmi script than the Greek alphabet".[3]

Indigenous origin hypothesis[edit]

The idea of an indigenous origin such as a connection to the Indus script is supported by some Western and Indian scholars and writers. The theory that there are similarities to the Indus script was suggested by early European scholars such as the Cambridge University archaeologist John Marshall,[45] the Oxford University professor Stephen Langdon,[46] and it continues to be suggested by scholars and writers such as the computer scientist Subhash Kak, the German Indologist Georg Feuerstein, the American teacher David Frawley, the British archaeologist Raymond Allchin quoted as "another view" by the Cambridge University professor Jack Goody, among others.[47][48][49]

Raymond Allchin states that there is a powerful argument against the idea that the Brahmi script has Semitic borrowing because the whole structure and conception is quite different, and suggests that the origin may have been purely indigenous with the Harappan script (i.e. Indus script) as its predecessor.[50] 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.[51] 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.[52]

Subhash Kak does not acknowledge the proposed Semitic origins of the script[53] based on an interaction between the Indic and the Semitic worlds prior to the rise of the Semitic scripts.[54] One self-published version of this hypothesis holds that the Harappan script continued in use up to around 400 BCE and that the Brahmi script developed gradually "later on" by derivation from it.[55] However, the chronology thus presented and the notion of an unbroken tradition of literacy is opposed by a majority of academics who support an indigenous origin. Evidence for a continuity between Indus and Brahmi has also been seen in graphic similarities between Brahmi and the late Harappan script, where the ten most common ligatures correspond with the form of one of the ten most common glyphs in Brahmi.[56] There is also corresponding evidence of continuity in the use of numerals.[57] Further support for this continuity comes from statistical analysis of the relationship carried out by Das.[58] Salomon considered simple graphic similarities between characters to be insufficient evidence for a connection without knowing the phonetic values of the Indus script, though he found apparent similarities in patterns of compounding and diacritical modification to be "intriguing." However, he felt that it was premature to explain and evaluate them due to the large chronological gap between the scripts and the thus far undecipherable nature of the Indus script.[59]

The main obstacle to this idea is that evidence for writing during the millennium and a half between the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization around 1500 BCE and the first widely accepted appearance of Brahmi in the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE. Iravathan Mahadevan makes the point that even if one takes the latest dates of 1500 BCE for the Indus script and earliest claimed dates of Brahmi around 500 BCE, a thousand years still separates the two.[60] Furthermore, there is no accepted decipherment of the Indus script, which makes theories based on claimed decipherments tenuous. 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.[61] In 1935, C.L. Fábri proposed that symbols found on Mauryan punch-marked coins were remnants of the Indus script that had survived the collapse of the Indus civilization.[62] Iravathan Mahadevan, decipherer of Tamil-Brahmi and a noted expert on the Indus script, has supported the idea that both those semiotic traditions may have some continuity with the Indus script, but regarding the idea of continuity with Brahmi, he has categorically stated that he does not believe that theory "at all."[60]

Another form of the indigenous origin theory is Brahmi was invented entirely independently the Indus script.[63] This view relies on the observation that the Brahmi script is a dramatic improvement over the Aramaic script, the latter does not mark vowels and has no mechanism to mark Indian aspirate conventions, but the Brahmi script includes these sophistications. From this point of view, Brahmi might be seen as a successful attempt to remedy the apparent limitations of Kharosthi as a vehicle for writing Prakrit, or alternatively as an indigenous effort "to preserve the exact pronunciation" of the Vedic hymns.[64]

Pāṇini (6th to 4th century BCE) mentions Lipi, the Indian word for writing scripts in his definitive work on Sanskrit grammar, the Ashtadhyayi; however, states Scharfe, Lipi and Libi are borrowed from the Old Persian Dipi, in turn derived from Sumerian Dup.[64][65] Scharfe adds that the best evidence, at the time of his review, is that no script was used or ever known in India, aside from the Persian-dominated Northwest, before around 300 BCE because Indian tradition "at every occasion stresses the orality of the cultural and literary heritage."[64]

Megasthenes observations[edit]

Megasthenes, a Greek ambassador to the Mauryan court in Northeastern India only a quarter century before Ashoka, noted "… and this among a people who have no written laws, who are ignorant even of writing, and regulate everything by memory."[66] This has been variously and contentiously interpreted by many authors. Ludo Rocher almost entirely dismisses Megasthenes as unreliable, questioning the wording used by Megasthenes' informant and Megasthenes' interpretation of them .[67] Timmer considers it to reflect a misunderstanding that the Mauryans were illiterate "based upon the fact that Megasthenes rightly observed that the laws were unwritten and that oral tradition played such an important part in India."[68]

Those who propose the indigenous theory question the reliability and interpretation of comments made by Megasthenes (as quoted by Strabo in the Geographica XV.i.53). It is, they suggest, even if accurate only in the context of the kingdom of "Sandrakottos" (Chandragupta). Elsewhere in Strabo (Strab. XV.i.39), Megasthenes is said to have noted that it was a regular custom in India for the "philosopher" caste (presumably Brahmins) to submit written advice to kings, but this detail does not appear in parallel extracts of Megasthenes found in Arrian and Diodorus Siculus.[69][70] Nearchus, a contemporary of Megasthenes, noted, a few decades prior, the use of cotton fabric for writing in Northern India. Indologists have variously speculated that this might have been Kharosthi or Aramaic. Salomon regards the evidence from Greek sources to be inconclusive.[71] Strabo himself notes this inconsistency regarding reports on the use of writing in India (XV.i.67).

Issues with current theories on Brahmi script origins[edit]

Kenneth Norman – a professor and the President of the Pali Text Society, suggests writing scripts in ancient India evolved over the long period of time like other cultures, that it is unlikely that Brahmi was devised as a single complete writing system at one and the same time in the Maurya era. Norman suggests that it is even less likely that Brāhmī was invented during Ashoka's rule, starting from nothing, for the specific purpose of writing his inscriptions and then it was understood all over South Asia where the Ashoka pillars are found.[72] Reviewing the recent archaeological discoveries relating to writing scripts in South Asia particularly Buddhism, Norman writes, "Support for this idea of pre-Ashoka development has been given very recently by the discovery of sherds at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, inscribed with small numbers of characters which seem to be Brahmi. These sherds have been dated, by both Carbon 14 and Thermo-luminescence dating, to pre-Ashokan times, perhaps as much as much as two centuries before Ashoka".[73]

Jack Goody – a professor of Social Anthropology, similarly suggests that ancient India likely had a "very old culture of writing" along with its oral tradition of composing and transmitting knowledge, because the Vedic literature is too vast, consistent and complex to have been entirely created, memorized, accurately preserved and spread without a written system.[74][75] Walter Ong – a professor of Literature and Religious History, and John Hartley – a professor of Cultural Science, concur with Goody and share the same concerns about the theory that there may not have been any writing scripts including Brahmi during the Vedic age, given the quantity and quality of the Vedic literature.[76]

Falk disagrees with Goody, and suggests that it is a Western presumption and inability to imagine that remarkably early scientific achievements such as Panini's grammar (5th to 4th century BCE), and the creation, preservation and wide distribution of the large corpus of the Brahmanic Vedic literature and the Buddhist canonical literature, without any writing scripts.[77] Johannes Bronkhorst – a professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, acknowledges that Falk is widely regarded as the definitive study on this subject, but disagrees and states, "Falk goes too far. It is fair to expect that we believe that Vedic memorisation — though without parallel in any other human society — has been able to preserve very long texts for many centuries without losing a syllable. (...) However, the oral composition of a work as complex as Pāṇini’s grammar is not only without parallel in other human cultures, it is without parallel in India itself. (...) It just will not do to state that our difficulty in conceiving any such thing is our problem".[41]

Origin of the name[edit]

Several divergent accounts of the origin of the name "Brahmi" appear in history and legend. Several Sutras of Jainism such as the Vyakhya Pragyapti Sutra, the Samvayanga Sutra and the Pragyapna Sutra of the Jain Agamas include a list of 18 writing scripts known to teachers before the Mahavira was born, with the Brahmi script (bambhī in the original Prakrit) leading all these lists. The Brahmi script is missing from the 18 script list in the surviving versions of two later Jaina Sutras, namely the Vishesha Avashyaka and the Kalpa Sutra. Jain legend recounts that 18 writing scripts were taught by their first Tirthankara Rishabhanatha to his daughter Brahmi, she emphasized Brahmi as the main script as she taught others, and therefore the name Brahmi for the script comes after her name.[78]

A Chinese Buddhist account of the 6th century CE attributes its creation to the god Brahma, though Monier Monier-Williams, Sylvain Lévi and others thought it was more likely to have been given the name because it was moulded by the Brahmins.[79][80]

The term Brahmi appears in ancient Indian texts in different contexts. The Vedic era Vajaseneyi Samhita of the Yajurveda, for example, uses this word in the sense of "Brahmanical, holy, divine.[81][82] According to the rules of the Sanskrit language, it is a feminine word which literally means "of Brahma" or "the female energy of the Brahman".[83] In other texts such as the Mahabharata, it appears in the sense of a goddess, particularly for Saraswati as the goddess of speech and elsewhere as "personified Shakti (energy) of Brahma".[81]

Ashoka inscriptions[edit]

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.

Brahmi 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.[31]

Early regional variants[edit]

Ashokan inscriptions are found all over India and a few regional variants have been observed. The Bhattiprolu alphabet, with earliest inscriptions dating from a few decades of Ashoka's reign, is believed to have evolved from a southern variant of the Brahmi alphabet. The language used in these inscriptions, nearly all of which have been found upon Buddhist relics, is exclusively Prakrit, though Telugu proper names have been identified in some inscriptions. 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.

Tamil-Brahmi is a variant of the Brahmi alphabet that was in use in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and parts of Sri Lanka during the Sangam period. The language used in most of these inscriptions have been identified as a form of Tamil with a heavy admixture of Prakrit words though there are a few which are exclusively in Prakrit, as well.

Sri Lankan inscriptions[edit]

In English, the most widely available set of reproductions of Brahmi-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.[84]

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)."[85] The language of Sri Lanka Brahmi inscriptions has been mostly been Prakrit though some Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions have also been found, such as the Annaicoddai seal.[86]

The earliest widely accepted examples of writing in Brahmi are found in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.[27]


The Brahmi symbol for /ka/, modified to represent different vowels
Variants of Brahmi over time

Brahmi is usually written from left to right, as in the case of its descendants. However, an early coin found in Eran is inscribed with Brahmi running from right to left, as in Aramaic. Several other instances of variation in the writing direction are known, though directional instability is fairly common in ancient writing systems.[87]

Brahmi 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 the components of a conjunct are written left to right when possible (when the first consonant has a vertical stem that can be removed at the right), whereas in Brahmi characters are joined vertically downwards.

Vowels following a consonant are inherent or written by diacritics, but initial vowels have dedicated letters. There are three "primary" vowels in Ashokan Brahmi, which each occur in length-contrasted forms: /a/, /i/, /u/; long vowels are derived from the letters for short vowels. There are also four "secondary" vowels that do not have the long-short contrast, /e/, /ai/, /o/, /au/.[88] Note though that the grapheme for /ai/ is derivative from /e/ in a way which parallels the short-long contrast of the primary vowels. However, there are only nine distinct vowel diacritics, as short /a/ is understood if no vowel is written. The initial vowel symbol for /au/ is also apparently lacking in the earliest attested phases, even though it has a diacritic. Ancient sources suggest that there were either 11 or 12 vowels enumerated at the beginning of the character list around the Ashokan era, probably adding either aṃ or aḥ.[89] Later versions of Brahmi add vowels for four syllabic liquids, short and long /ṛ/ and /ḷ/. Chinese sources indicate that these were later inventions by either Nagarjuna or Śarvavarman, a minister of King Hāla.[90]

It has been noted that the basic system of vowel marking common to Brahmi and Kharosthī, in which every consonant is understood to be followed by a vowel, was well suited to Prakrit,[91] but as Brahmi was adapted to other languages, a special notation called the virāma was introduced to indicate the omission of the final vowel. Kharosthi also differs in that the initial vowel representation has a single generic vowel symbol that is differentiated by diacritics, and long vowels are not distinguished.

The collation order of Brahmi is believed to have been the same as most of its descendant scripts, one based on Shiksha, the traditional Vedic theory of Sanskrit phonology. This begins the list of characters with the initial vowels (starting with a), then lists a subset of the consonants in 5 phonetically-related groups of 5 called vargas, and ends with 4 liquids, 3 sibilants, and a spirant. Trautmann attributes much of the popularity of the Brahmic script family to this "splendidly reasoned" system of arrangement.[92]


Punctuation[93] can be perceived as more of an exception than as a general rule in Asokan Brahmi. 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 Brahmi period, the existence of punctuation marks is not very well shown. Each letter has been written independently with some occasional space between words and longer sections.

In the middle period, the system seems to be developing. The use of a dash and a curved horizontal line is found. A lotus (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.

Baums identifies seven different punctuation marks needed for computer representation of Brahmi:[94]

  • single and double vertical bar (danda) - delimiting clauses and verses
  • dot, double dot, and horizontal line - delimiting shorter textual units
  • crescent and lotus - delimiting larger textual units



Letter IPA Unicode Trans Letter IPA Unicode Trans
𑀅 ǝ a 𑀆 aa
𑀇 ɪ, i i 𑀈 ii
𑀉 ʊ, u u 𑀊 uu
𑀋 r r 𑀌 ɽ rr
𑀍 l l 𑀎 ɭ ll
𑀏 e, ε e 𑀐 ǝi ai
𑀑 o, ɔ o 𑀒 au au


Plosive Nasal Approximant Fricative
Voicing Voiceless Voiced Voiceless Voiced
Aspiration No Yes No Yes No Yes
Guttural 𑀓 ka/k/ 𑀔 kha/kʰ/ 𑀕 ga/g/ 𑀖 gha/ɡʱ/ 𑀗 nga/ŋ/ 𑀳 ha/ɦ/
Palatal 𑀘 ca/c/ 𑀙 cha/cʰ/ 𑀚 ja/ɟ/ 𑀛 jha/ɟʱ/ 𑀜 nya/ɲ/ 𑀬 ya/j/ 𑀰 sha/ɕ/
Retroflex 𑀝 tta/ʈ/ 𑀞 ttha/ʈʰ/ 𑀟 dda/ɖ/ 𑀠 ddha/ɖʱ/ 𑀡 nna/ɳ/ 𑀭 ra/r/ 𑀱 ssa/ʂ/
Dental 𑀢 ta/t̪/ 𑀣 tha/t̪ʰ/ 𑀤 da/d̪/ 𑀥 dha/d̪ʱ/ 𑀦 na/n/ 𑀮 la/l/ 𑀲 sa/s/
Labial 𑀧 pa/p/ 𑀨 pha/pʰ/ 𑀩 ba/b/ 𑀪 bha/bʱ/ 𑀫 ma/m/ 𑀯 va/w, ʋ/

The final letter does not fit in to the table above- it is 𑀴, "lla".


Main article: Brahmic scripts
Gupta script on stone Kanheri Caves, one of the earliest descendants of Brahmi

Over the course of a millennium, Brahmi 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 Empire, sometimes also called "Late Brahmi" (used during the 5th century), which in turn diversified into a number of cursives during the Middle Ages, including the Siddhaṃ script (6th century), Śāradā script (9th century) and Devanagari (10th century).

Southern Brahmi gave rise to the Grantha alphabet (6th century), the Vatteluttu alphabet (8th century), and due to the contact of Hinduism with Southeast Asia during the early centuries CE, also gave rise to the Baybayin in the Philippines, the Javanese script in Indonesia, the Khmer alphabet in Cambodia, and the Mon script in Burma.

Also in the Brahmic family of scripts are several Central Asian scripts such as Tibetan, Tocharian (also called slanting Brahmi), and the one used to write the Saka language.

Several authors have suggested that the basic letters of hangul were modeled on the 'Phags-pa script of the Mongol Empire, itself a derivative of the Brahmic Tibetan alphabet (see origin of hangul).[95][96]

The varga arrangement of Brahmi was adopted as the modern order of Japanese kana, though the letters themselves are unrelated.[97]

Unicode and digitization[edit]

Brahmi was added to the Unicode Standard in October, 2010 with the release of version 6.0.

The Unicode block for Brahmi is U+11000–U+1107F. It lies within Supplementary Multilingual Plane. As of August 2014 there are two non-commercially available fonts that support Brahmi, namely Noto Sans Brahmi commissioned by Google which covers all the characters,[98] and Adinatha which only covers Tamil Brahmi.[99] Segoe UI Historic, tied in with Windows 10, also features Brahmi glyphs.[100] It's also supported on iOS mobile devices The Sanskrit word for Brahmi (IAST Brāhmī) in the Brahmi script should be rendered as follows: 𑀩𑁆𑀭𑀸𑀳𑁆𑀫𑀻.

Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+1100x 𑀀 𑀁 𑀂 𑀃 𑀄 𑀅 𑀆 𑀇 𑀈 𑀉 𑀊 𑀋 𑀌 𑀍 𑀎 𑀏
U+1101x 𑀐 𑀑 𑀒 𑀓 𑀔 𑀕 𑀖 𑀗 𑀘 𑀙 𑀚 𑀛 𑀜 𑀝 𑀞 𑀟
U+1102x 𑀠 𑀡 𑀢 𑀣 𑀤 𑀥 𑀦 𑀧 𑀨 𑀩 𑀪 𑀫 𑀬 𑀭 𑀮 𑀯
U+1103x 𑀰 𑀱 𑀲 𑀳 𑀴 𑀵 𑀶 𑀷 𑀸 𑀹 𑀺 𑀻 𑀼 𑀽 𑀾 𑀿
U+1104x 𑁀 𑁁 𑁂 𑁃 𑁄 𑁅 𑁆 𑁇 𑁈 𑁉 𑁊 𑁋 𑁌 𑁍
U+1105x 𑁒 𑁓 𑁔 𑁕 𑁖 𑁗 𑁘 𑁙 𑁚 𑁛 𑁜 𑁝 𑁞 𑁟
U+1106x 𑁠 𑁡 𑁢 𑁣 𑁤 𑁥 𑁦 𑁧 𑁨 𑁩 𑁪 𑁫 𑁬 𑁭 𑁮 𑁯
U+1107x  BNJ 
1.^ As of Unicode version 9.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

See also[edit]


  1. ^ More details about Buddhist monuments at Sanchi, Archaeological Survey of India, 1989.
  2. ^ Salomon 1998, p. 20.
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  4. ^ Keay 2000, p. 129–131.
  5. ^ including "lath", "Laṭ", "Southern Aśokan", "Indian Pali" or "Mauryan" (Salomon 1998, p. 17)
  6. ^ Falk 1993, p. 106.
  7. ^ Patel, P.G., Pandey, P., Rajgor, D. (2007) The Indic Scripts: Palaeographic and Linguistic Perspectives. D.K. Printworld.
  8. ^ Trautmann, Thomas R. (2006). Languages and Nations: The Dravidian Proof in Colonial Madras. University of California Press. p. 64. 
  9. ^ a b Georg Bühler (1898). On the Origin of the Indian Brahma Alphabet. K.J. Trübner. pp. 6, 14–15, 23, 29. , Quote: "(...) a passage of the Lalitavistara which describes the first visit of prince Siddhartha, the future Buddha, to the writing school..." (page 6); "In the account of prince Siddhartha's first visit to the writing school, extracted by Professor Terrien de la Couperie from the Chinese translation of the Lalitavistara of 308 AD, there occurs besides the mention of the sixty four alphabets, known also from the printed Sanskrit text, the utterance of the master Visvamitra,...."
  10. ^ Richard Salomon (1998). Indian Epigraphy: A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan Languages. Oxford University Press. pp. 8–10 with footnotes. ISBN 978-0-19-535666-3. 
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  13. ^ a b Richard Salomon (1998). Indian Epigraphy: A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan Languages. Oxford University Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-19-535666-3. 
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External links[edit]