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Brahmi - The Mother of Indian Scripts

Last Updated: 18 May '09
Brahmi - The Mother of Indian Scripts

Late Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterji
National Professor in Humanities
Government of India

The sub-continent of India is a vast region, now embracing the three independent States of India proper (or Bharat), Pakistan and Nepal.  It shows, in its natural of geographical setup as well as in its population, a unique diversity against the background of a remarkable unity which is basic or fundamental.  Almost all the various types of climate, excepting the arctic, are found here; and in her population India is a veritable museum of races and languages, cultures and religions.  Yet, there is an underlying unity behind all this variety. Different people came to India at different times, each with its special racial type, language, region and culture, but after they settled down side by side, a great intermingling of races and cultures started from prehistoric times, resulting in the emergence of a mixed Indian people with a composite culture of its own, in the evolution of which all the component elements were represented. In the evolution of development of languages in India we see this process of miscegenation at work.  The Aryan speech, after it came to India, assimilated with the pre-Aryan languages-the Dravidian, the Austric and the Indo-Mangoloid- and a common speech, gradually evolved.  It had some common characteristics, although in their own region, in their roots and formative elements, as well as in their words-their sprachgut or "Speech-commodity"- they were different.

In the matter of writing, we find a long history from prehistoric times before the coming of the Aryans down to recent years.  Until the discovery by excavations of the pre-historic and pre-Aryan city cites of Mohen-jo-Daro in northern Sind and Harappa in South Punjab, the oldest writings known in India was the Maurya script, used in inscriptions of Ashoka and in a few old coins and inscriptions which date back to the 3rd Century B.C.  Here we are in broad daylight, although it was only over century ago, in 1837, that the Brahmi script could be read and understood for the first time.  Throughout the whole of India, we have inscriptions of Emperor Ashoka in different forms of Prakrit in Brahmi script and decade-by-decade and century by century, this script has gone on evolving on the soil of India.  In North India, through various stages like Kusana Brahmi; Gupta Brahmi and Siddhamatraka of 7th century A.D., we arrive through the Nagara style of writing at the Siddhamatraka and through the Sharada and the Kutila styles at modern North India scripts.  All these are related  to each other as distant cousins  and going back to their common source, the Brahmi of Ashoka-scripts like the Nagari (or Devanagari) Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Maithili, Sharada, Gurumukhi, Landa etc. 

In South India, there was a similar development of Brahmi, and by the middle of the 6th century we come to the Pallava script, whence originated the modern Telugu and Kannada scripts, the Malaylam and the Grantha script (Sanskrit is written and printed in the Grantha script in the Tamil country) and the Tamil script.  We have no inscriptions or other writing prior to the Ashokan Brahmi of the 3rd Century B.C.  Long ago, there were discovered in grave sites in South India, painted on potsherds, certain letters like symbols or signs, mostly occurring singly. They do not seem to be letters of any alphabet or syllabary or system of writing, but rather appear to be individual signs or marks, such as are, for example, used in branding cattle to indicate ownership.  Similar symbols are found on the oldest coins of India- the square or oblong pieces in silver or copper known as puranas which go back to the centuries just before the Christian era.  Then quite a mass of short inscriptions came to light after the Mohen-jo-Daro site was discovered in North Sind, and in Harappa in South Punjab.  These were found on seals of soft stones, and they look like simple letters and combinations of letters.  An inventory has been made of these letters, and their number comes up to over a hundred.   In the Mohen-jo-Daro script, which goes back to 3500 B.C. and beyond, several strata are noticed.  The one which is supposed to be the youngest or most advanced in development (following the first stratum in which the signs appear to be pictograms or crude pictures of objects, and the second stratum which might represent syllables rather than pictures or simple alphabetical letters) has simple shapes for the signs, depicted like linear writing.  There is a superficial agreement between this youngest or linear phase of Mohen-jo-Daro writing of the period before 1500 or 2000 B.C. and the Brahmi script of the 3rd century B.C. Some of the Mohen-jo-Daro signs resembles or are almost identical with Brahmi letters.  Some others are a bit complicated.  What is most important, in some of Mohen-jo-Daro signs, it would appear that the Brahmi characteristic of tagging on vowel signs to the consonant letters is also found, besides combinations of two or more consonants.

This brings us to the question of the origin of the Brahmi script.  Most scholars until recently thought that the Brahmi scripts was derived from the ancient Phoenician script of, say, 1200 B.C., itself a derivative of the still more ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, through the later Demotic style.  A direct Mesopotamia was thought possible.  About the middle of the first millennium B.C., or little earlier, it was believed that Indian merchants who used to go by sea to Baveru or Babylon saw that writing was in vogue there, and got both the idea and the very simple Phoenician letters in Babylon and modified it to suit the Indian Prakrit they spoke, and so evolved the Brahmi writing.  Others thought that the South Arabian form of Phoenician was the immediate source of Brahmi.  But there are some basic divergences between Phoenician writing on the one hand and Brahmi on the other, which make this affiliation a little difficult to accept.  On the other hand, the agreements between the linear and later Mohen-jo-Daro script and Brahmi would suggest that Brahmi was derived from the former, and was gradually perfected by 300 B.C. it would appear very reasonable to think that sometime in the 10th Century B.C. the compilers of the Vedic literature of songs and hymns and short prose directives in connection with the ritual of their predecessors evolved a kind of Proto-Brahmi script from the latest linear Mohen-jo-Daro writing, and this is how Brahmi come into existence.  Of course, to start with, it could not be a perfect or full system of writing, expressing in all its niceties the entire sound-system or Phonological habits of the Aryan speech of the time, which was a late form of Vedic.  There was also a suggestion that the Brahmi letters originated independently in India from pictures of objects, the initial sound of the Sanskrit names of which was associated with the picture, which finally became the letter for the sound.  Thus the Brahmi letter for dh, which was shaped like the Roman capital D, was a picture of the bow, Dhanu, and then this picture became a letter and the value of dh.  So Brahmi n is shaped like the Roman capital inverted T, L, and this denoted the nose-nasa; and so on with most of the letters.  But this is extremely fanciful, and there is no evidence to establish this kind of derivation.

The Brahmi letters have the great beauty of simplicity-they stand bold and clear, statuesque and columnar, like Greek and Latin letters (capitals) or ancient Phoenician letters.  There is no matra of top-line or flourish and compared with Brahmi, Nagari or Telugu, Sharada or Grantha, are very complicated and cumbersome scripts indeed.  Brahmi letters are so simple in their structure that an Indian familiar with any of the modern descendants of Brahmi can pick it up in a few hours.  It lends itself to decorative treatment in its grandeur of simplicity, and the acquisition of Brahmi by an Indian intellectual of to-day can be a very easily acquired accomplishment with its attendant historical and cultural value.

So far as we know, the Aryans had no system of writing of their own when they came to India and all their literature was, as in the case of many primitive people, entirely oral.  But there is evidence that, as in some of the most ancient countries outside India like Egypt and Babylon, Asia Minor and China, pre-Aryan India, too, had her own system of writing.  The oldest Sanskrit script goes back to the early centuries of the Christian era and Sanskrit inscriptions are written in the characters of that period which are but modifications of the earlier ancient Indian Brahmi of the 3rd Century B.C.  and between the coming of the Aryans which might have happened round about 1500 B.C. and the use of Brahmi as in the Ashoka inscriptions of the 3rd Century B.C. what was the script in which the Aryan speakers wrote their language?  Until now, European scholars thought that Indian merchants going to Mesopotamia and to some of the western countries like Egypt from the beginning of the first millennium B.C.  learnt the art of writing from there and that they modified some form of Phoenician writing into the ancient Indian script-Brahmi, which may have taken its rise sometime before 500 B.C. But we have now found out that there was this Mohen-jo-Daro system of writing in its various stages of development and in the last stage, there appears to be some agreement with the Brahmi writing of the 3rd century B.C.  It would be most reasonable to assume that the Brahmi script in its very ancient form as a sort of Proto-Brahmin was developed out of the youngest form of the Mohenjo-jo-Daro script.  Thus, the origin of the Brahmi script and its subsequent developments in the succeeding centuries was native Indian.  Step by step, thus original Brahmi went on changing.  It was ordinary Ashokan Brahmi in the 3rd Century B.C.  about time of Christ, it became modified into what is known as Kusana Brahmi, then about 400 A.D. it became Gupta Brahmi and then in the 7th Century A.D. it came to be known as the Siddhamatraka form of writing.  Ultimately, by about 1000 A.D. it became a kind of Proto-Nagari and a Proto-Kutila script, which is the ultimate mother of Bengali-Assamese, Maithili, Newari and Oriya and also of the ancient Sharada script of Kashmir, and of both the Kashmir scripts still known as Sharada and Gurumukhi.  In South India, the history was somewhat analogous.  In the middle of the 7th century A.D., it became the developed Pallava script which is the ultimate mother of the four great systems of writing in the South - the Telugu, the Kannada, the Tamil including Grantha and the Malayalam.

(Courtesy: Devanagari - Development, Amplification and Standardisation. Published by Central Hindi Directorate Ministry of Education & Social Welfare 1977)

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