Brahmi – the divine script

Brahmi – The divine script

Firuz Shah Tughlaq and Emperor Akbar were among the many who attempted to decipher the Brahmi script because they realized that it would reveal a wealth of information about the past. However, it was Sir James Prinsep who succeeded…and finally the script divine revealed itself.

Brahmi is considered to be one of the most ancient scripts used in the sub-continent of India. According to tradition Brahmā, the God of Knowledge, is credited with the creation of this script, hence the name Brāhmi. However, the antiquity of the writing system in India goes back to the period of the Indus Valley Civilization though the Indus Script has not been convincingly deciphered as yet.

The earliest surviving records of the use of the Brāhmi script are found in the form of the inscriptions of Aśoka, the Mauryan Emperor (c.269 B.C.E. to c.232 B.C.E.). He had his messages to his subjects written on rocks and pillars at various places in his empire. His inscriptions on the trade routes and at important Buddhist places have provided us with evidence of a completely evolved alphabetical writing system in ancient India. Over a period of time, with the regional preferences and specialties the script changed its form and developed into almost all modern Indian scripts.

Fragment of Asoka’s inscription found at Nala Sopara, Mumbai

Until the advent of the British, the natives had completely forgotten the Brāhmi script. Early British scholars like Sir William Jones had come across stone inscriptions written in Brāhmi way back in 1784. The initial attempts to solve the riddle of this script proved futile and the scholarly world had to wait until 1837 for the script to be deciphered. Sir James Prinsep (1799-1840) was appointed as an assay master in the Calcutta mint by the British Government. During the course of his work, he had to handle a number of different types of coins every day. Studying the characters of the inscriptions on them he began deciphering the script with the help of the coins of the Indo – Greek rulers.

The Indo – Greek rulers had ruled over the north western parts of India in around 2nd century B.C. They had issued their coins with the name and title of the issuer in Greek script and language along with his portrait on the Obverse and on the Reverse the same matter was given in Brāhmi / Kharoùñhi script and in Prakrit language. Such coins provided very important clues for Prinsep’s study. Apart from Brāhmi, he is also credited with the decipherment of the Kharoùñhi script, with the help of the coins of the Indo-Greek rulers, soon after 1837.

Brahmi inscription at Naneghat, Junnar, c. 1st century B.C.E.

James Prinsep was not the first person to have been interested in reading the inscriptions on the rocks and pillars in India. In the 15th century C.E., Emperor Firuz Shah Tughlaq (1309 to 1388 C.E.) made considerable effort in attempting to read the writings on the pillars of Aśoka. He brought two pillars of this Mauryan Emperor from Meerut and Topra to Delhi. Hundreds of his men and elephants were involved in carrying them. The Emperor appointed learned Brāhmins to tell him the meanings of the writings on these pillars. The Brāhmins somehow escaped the wrath of Firuz Shah and saved their lives. A contemporary account, Tarikh-I-Firuzshahi, provides some interesting details about these incidents.

Similarly, the great Mughal Emperor Akbar was also deeply interested in deciphering the same inscriptions. However, even scholars during his period could not oblige him. It was only in the early nineteenth century that the meanings of the numerous inscriptions could be understood.

Brahmi inscription in the cave at Kanheri, Mumbai, c. 2nd century C.E.

The deciphering of the Brāhmi script provided a key that could solve many complicated riddles in Indian history too. The most intriguing among these were the inscriptions written on the rock surfaces, pillars, walls of monuments and on coins. Since the inscriptions written by Aśoka were profusely available, James Prinsep took on the task of deciphering and translating them for the first time. A mine of information was brought to light from the inscriptions.  Rock and pillar edicts of Aśoka brought out very significant details of the history of ancient India. Hundreds of such inscriptions were deciphered and translated after this.

Coin of Western Ksatapa King Yasodamana with Brahmi legend, c. 3rd century C.E.

The discipline of Palaeography and Epigraphy were established during this period and studies of the inscriptions got a new impetus. Various native and foreign scholars made huge efforts to decipher and translate hitherto unknown data in English. The inscriptions were categorized into various types by the early scholars on the basis of the content of the inscriptions. They were two major categories – The Royal Charters and Donative Inscriptions. Along with these the praśasti s (eulogies and memorial inscriptions) were also studied in detail. Meanwhile, a number of fresh explorations and excavations were carried out and often the dates mentioned in these inscriptions helped in reconstructing the history of those sites.

Along with the content and relevance of the inscriptions, the palaeography was also studied minutely. Scholars then started thinking about the origin of this script. Some scholars argued that Brāhmi was derived form the script of the Indus Valley Civilization. As there was no similarity found in the characters of the pictographs of the Indus Script and the alphabets of the Brāhmi script, this hypothesis was immediately refuted. Considering the similarity of the characters of the Brāhmi script and those of the North Semetic script, many scholars were of the opinion that the traders of the Semetic world were probably responsible for introducing this script to India. Looking at some different letters in Brāhmi and the changes made to suit the Indian languages it was believed that probably in around 8th – 7th centuries B.C.E. the North Semetic script was introduced in this region by the traders of the ancient world. Later on the local scholars made certain changes (rather, additions), into the earlier established script, to make it more suitable to local Indian languages and dialects.

For several years this theory was accepted by scholars in the field. Recently some western and a few local Indian scholars have proposed a new theory for the origin of this script. On the basis of the lack of concrete archaeological and literary evidence they believed that this script had originated during or shortly before the Mauryan period. Although this theory is very radical and controversial some scholars are still inclined towards it even though it has not yet been completely accepted by academicians.

After the Mauryan period Brāhmi script was used all over the country. We find an extensive use of this in the post Mauryan art, architecture and coinage. It has also been noticed that some changes were made in the use of the diacritic marks for the addition of vowels especially in the case of the alphabet for consonant ‘ja’ (j).  Instead of elongating the middle line for the addition of the vowel ‘aa’, a fourth line was used in the inscriptions on the railings of the stupa at Bharhut. This change indicates some confusion in the earlier form of some characters of Brāhmi. So this need was probably felt and the writers in Central India made these changes. This could also suggest a regional variety of the script. In this way as the need was felt and as the popularity of some regional varieties increased some changes took place in the form of the script. As the practice of writing inscriptions on coins became more and more common letters were made more bold and stocky probably for the sake of clarity.  Similarly, in the case of rock inscriptions in around 1st – 2nd century C. E., we notice a nationwide change in the script. The letters are more deeply carved. The curves in the letters have been made angular. The height of the two vertical strokes of different height are made equal – the character for ‘pa’ and ‘sa’ for instance.

In this way, over a period of time, many changes were made in this script. From around 3rd century C.E. the practice of recording grants on copper plates probably became more popular. Very few records have been found in this material prior to this period. The Traikåñaka, Vàkàñaka, Chàlukya, Ràùñrakåña and many other rulers recorded their donations on copper plates along with the stone inscriptions. Other than these, the ancient inscribed records were also found on the relic caskets, pedestals of images, sculptures, victory pillars, memorial stones, bricks, metal objects like caskets of gold, silver and copper, coins.

The Brāhmi script was used to write documents throughout the Indian subcontinent and in many neighbouring countries. In the post-Gupta period, that is after c. 5th – 6th centuries C.E. Brāhmi passed through various developmental stages. Scholars have called it Siddhamàtçkà, Kuñila among other namesThe changes that took place in these variations were also due to the pen technique. This can clearly be seen in the form of letters becoming more decorative and the medial signs becoming more ornamental. From the 8th century C.E.., the Siddhamàtçkà script developed into øàradà script in Kashmir and Punjab, into Proto-Bengali or Gauói in Bengal and Orissa and into Nàgari in other parts of north India. The Nàgari Script was used widely in Northern India from the 10th century C.E. onwards. The use of Naïdinàgari variant of Nàgari script is mostly confined to the Karnataka region.

Some regional variations and popular forms of the script were also noticed in 4th – 5th centuries C.E. Two different regional types have been observed – the box headed script and the nail headed script. It is observed that in Central India during the reign of the Vàkàñaka rulers and the kings of Sarabhapura and Kosala both of these varieties of Brāhmi were used.

Some of the earliest inscriptions of South India, particularly from Tamil Nadu, which are found engraved on the stone-beds in the caverns, are in Brāhmi script with some additional signs corresponding to certain sounds which are peculiar to the Tamil language. Hence, this script is popularly known as Tamil- Brāhmi.

The trade and mercantile activities in ancient India made the spread of this script easy in South and South – East Asian countries. Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Nepal, and Java have derived their scripts from Brāhmi with some changes made due to the regional, temporal and linguistic variations.

In this way this script, the name of which claims a divine origin has influenced the ancient world of alphabets. Along with Brāhmi another script was extensively used in some parts of ancient India, especially the North – Western regions and it was known as Kharoùñhi. This script was based mainly on the Aramaic – an ancient script used in Persia. Unlike Brāhmi this script was written from right to left.

Chart showing Brahmi alphabets with transliteration

The use of this script was limited only in the North – Western regions including modern Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sindh, Punjab and Rajasthan to a certain extent. Kharoùñhi is also found quite often on the coins of the Indo-Greek, Kuùàõa and some local rulers in North India. It was in use till c. 3rd century C.E. and later on it seems to have vanished from the scene. Meanwhile, Brāhmi also developed into various regional forms and after the 8th -9th centuries C.E. the Nàgarã script was used widely all over the country. By 11th century C.E. Brāhmi had completely vanished from the scene, only to be deciphered in the 19th century.

Who knows? In time experts may establishing further connections of this ancient script to times still hidden in the shadows of history and the world will one day become aware of its roots stretching into the past, revealing worlds now gone and the saga of the script will continue to write itself.

Author: Dr Manjiri Bhalerao
Photographs © Hrishikesh Talwalkar, Amol Bankar, Parag Purandare, Dr Ambarish Khare
Source: Heritage India Magazine February 2009