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Sharada script is a unique and important feature of the heritage of India. This script was mainly used to write Sanskrit and Kashmiri in the regions of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and the North Western Frontier Province for centuries and served as a vital link in the chain of communication of ideas, knowledge, and culture. The script is believed to have been evolved from Brahmi at around 9th Century CE.

The script owes its name, Sharada, to the region in which it was most popularly used, which was called Sharadadesh or Sharadamandala a country whose main goddess of worship was Sharda, or Sarasvti, the goddess of learning. The other name of this script is Siddha Matrika. This name was given because of the beginning line of the alphabet which is Om Svasti Siddham. Yet, another anecdote holds that the name refers to one Shardanandana, who first developed a writing system for the Kashmiri language. The name is not found in early sources and is believed to be of relatively later origin. The script is also referred to as ‘Kashmiri’ in  several European sources. The name Sharada appears in several English sources as ‘Sarada’ and ‘Sharda’, but the preferred form is Sharada. 

The earliest known records of the Sharada characters are the coins of the Utpala dynasty of Kashmir (9th century CE) and a brief record carved on the fragment of a broken jar discovered from the precincts of the Avantiswami temple and containing the name of Avantivarman, (855-883 CE) the founder of the temple. Of about the same date is the Sarahan Prashasti of queen Somaprakha, spouse of Satyaki, a ruling  chieftain of Sarahan, opposite Saho in ancient Chamba, Himachal Pradesh. Among the other records of slightly later date, mention may be made of the Dewai (NWFP) inscription of the Shahi king Bhimadeva (l0th century CE) and inscriptions of the reign of queen Didda (980- 1003 CE). The latest inscriptional record in Sharada is dated at 1789 and was found at Digom, Kapal Mochan, Shopian district of southern Kashmir in India. There are in all over 100 inscriptions found written in Sharada, 13 in North Western Pakistan, 34 in Kashmir, 6 in Jammu, 5 in Ladakh, 39 in Himachal Pradesh and 1 in Delhi.

The core geography of Sharada is roughly the area between longitudes 72° and 78° east and latitudes 32° and 36° north. Sharada inscriptions, coins and manuscripts have been found as far west as Afghanistan (Gandhara and Bamiyan), as far south as in the village of Palam, south-west of Delhi, and on account of the migrations of Kashmiri Pandits, as far east as Benares in Uttar Pradesh.

The development of Sharada characters is characterized in three stages: 1. Inscriptions and coins of 9th-10th centuries CE. 2. Records in 11th-13th centuries CE and 3. Literary and epigraphic records since the 14th century CE. Some modern Indian scripts like Gurumukhi are direct descendents of Sharada. Devanagari emerged around 1200 CE out of the Sharada script. Sharada script is first seen used in a manuscript discovered from the village Bakhshali in the Peshawar district of Pakistan. The manuscript, the title of which is lost, contains an important work on Mathematics, written in 12th century CE. Next in date is an old birch bark manuscript of Munimata- mani-mala which is the earliest known Sharda manuscript discovered so far in Kashmir, which dates to 14th century CE.

The other early known manuscripts are the birch bark manuscript of Shakuntala, birch bark manuscript of the adi and Sabha Parvan of the Mahabharata and the birch bark manuscript of Kathasarit sagara, all assignable to 16th century CE. The most famous Sharada manuscript, however, is the Kashmiri Atharvaveda, which contains one of the only two known texts of the Paippalada recension of the Atharvaveda. The manuscripts written in Sharada script are stored in various parts of the modern world, in different libraries in USA, UK, Germany, Nepal and of course India.

This script is a kind of Abugida system of writing, as is Brahmi, and has separate written symbols for vowels and consonants as well as for vowel + consonant combinations. The Sharada script is written from left to right. There are thirty-four consonant letters, all of which carry the inherent vowel sound a. This vowel can be overridden by attaching one of the thirteen vowel diacritics to the consonant letter. It can also be suppressed entirely by writing a virama sign to the right of a letter, to represent a word-final consonant or the first consonant in a cluster. Consonant clusters can also be written by stacking letters in a conjunct. Word-initial vowels, which cannot be written attached to a preceding consonant, are written using one of the thirteen independent vowel letters. Visually, the script resembles the Devanagari script, both in the shapes of some letters and in the use of the vertical headstroke that is characteristic of many Brahmi-derived scripts. There are no rules governing the use of the headstroke; some scribes write each letter separately, others use the headstroke to connect some letters, apparently arbitrarily, to those on either side, and others connect all the letters, even across words.

There are a number of non-alphabetic signs that are employed by the Sharada script. Avagraha is used to indicate the omission of a word-final a. The Devanagari signs chandrabindu and anusvara are used with vowels to represent nasalization, as in many other Indic scripts. Visarga is also used. Decorative marks are sometimes used in handwritten texts to mark the end of a verse or section. Four punctuation signs are used; danda and double danda are used as in Devanagari to indicate pauses in the text, and there are script-specific signs to indicate abbreviation and word boundaries where inter-word spacing is not used. Sharada employs a set of digits 0-9; the set is unusual in that a circle, which represents zero in many decimal number systems, represents one in Sharada. The Sharada script was accepted for encoding in the unicode standard recently with given range of U+11180..U+111DF. Researchers have also prepared specific Sharada fonts to write the Kashmiri Language.

Author: Malhar Kulkarni
Photographs © Sachin Naik, Sketches: Rasika Kale
Photo courtesy: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune
Source: Heritage India Magazine Vol 5, Issue 1 (2012)

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