In 1837, an ancient mystery was finally solved. In a paper, rather verbosely titled, Interpretation Of The Most Ancient Of The Inscriptions On The Pillar Called The Làt Of Feroz Shah, Near Delhi, And Of The Allahabad, Radhia And Mattiah Pillar, Or Làt, Inscriptions Which Agree Therewith, James Prinsep, the founding editor of the Journal Of Asiatic Society Of Bengal, announced that he had cracked the abiding mystery of the Brahmi script.

This mystery had first captured the popular imagination in 1354, when Feroz Shah Tughlaq brought an iron pillar from Ambala to Ferozabad. Tughlaq offered a reward to anyone who could decipher the writing on the pillar, but none could. Close to half-a-millennium later, an Englishman had solved the mystery. Before Prinsep put it all together, a Norwegian called Christian Lassen had made some headway by deciphering a few Brahmi letters. But it was Prinsep who went the whole hog and decoded it in its entirety. Aided by Pali texts from Sri Lanka, Prinsep was, in the next couple of years, able to connect the inscriptions to the Mauryan emperor, Ashoka (reigned 268–231 BC).

In the years to come, many Ashokan rock edicts, almost all written in the Prakrit language and the Brahmi script (a small number were in the Kharoshthi script, mostly found in the regions of present-day Pakistan) were read and the history of that period could now be reconstructed better.

The origin story

Virtually all of the earliest available evidence of the usage of the Brahmi script seem to be from inscriptions that date back to the Ashokan times. Prior to the Brahmi script, the only evidence of writing in the subcontinent is the as-yet undeciphered script of the Indus Valley civilization. But when and how the Brahmi script actually originated seems to be a matter of conjecture.

Georg Bühler, the German Indologist, protégé of Max Müller and author of On The Origin Of The Indian Brahma Alphabet (1898), posits a Northern Semitic (Phoenician) origin based on certain observed similarities of the letters. This hasn’t been fully accepted by scholars. Others have opined that the script probably did not develop from an earlier one and, instead, was an invention on the orders of a Mauryan emperor, possibly Chandragupta Maurya, or even Ashoka himself. In order to create this script, the theory goes, the older Kharoshthi script that was mostly written from right to left may have served as a model, though Brahmi itself was written from left to right. There is some evidence to support the invention theory. Megasthenes, who visited the court of Chandragupta Maurya, is said to have observed that there was no prevalent writing system extant at that time (fourth century BC), indicating that the system was developed later, possibly for administrative reasons, to govern the large and diverse empire the Mauryas had created. Still others have opted for a fifth century BC origin, indicating the possibility of some borrowing, though it is unclear from where the latter took place. This dating is also mere supposition, lacking hard evidence.

Initially, Brahmi was referred to as the “pin-man" script or the “stick figure" script, a clear reference to the appearance of its letters. Bühler preferred calling the script “Brahma". But the name “Brahmi" stuck after scholars associated the pin-man script with the Brahmi script mentioned in the list of scripts in the Lalitavistara Sūtra, a Buddhist text dated to the third century AD. Interestingly, the Lalitavistara Sūtra mentions as many as 64 scripts, among them the Dravida script, which is perhaps a reference to a script used in the southern part of the subcontinent.

This southern script, which is a variation of Ashokan Brahmi or Northern Brahmi, has been discovered in inscriptions in the Tamil region and is called Tamil Brahmi or Southern Brahmi. It incorporates certain distinct sounds clearly intended for a Dravidian tongue and was fully deciphered only in the 1950s.

For long, Tamil Brahmi was thought to have been derived from Ashokan Brahmi, but recent evidence suggests the possibility of a pre-Ashokan origin. Perhaps both northern and southern Brahmi were borrowing from a common source which is as yet unknown. What is clear is that both scripts are related and later evolved independently to eventually develop into various other scripts, descendants of which are widely prevalent today.

The line of influence

A later, more refined, version of the Brahmi script, called Gupta Brahmi, was widely used between the fourth and sixth centuries AD at the time of the Gupta dynasty. The Allahabad inscription, which Prinsep mentions in the title of his paper, is an example of Gupta Brahmi, but the language is Sanskrit, unlike the Ashokan inscription on the same pillar, which is Prakrit.

The Gupta Brahmi script then evolved into three separate scripts: Nagari, Sharda and Siddham. The Nagari script evolved into Devanagari, the present-day script of Hindi, Nepali, Marathi and Dogri (a variant of Devanagari is used to write Gujarati as well). Besides Devanagari, the Nandinagari and Kaithi scripts too are derived from the original Nagari. Nandinagari was for long used to write Sanskrit in southern India. As for Kaithi, or Kayastha, it was at one time widely used and was a close competitor to Devanagari to write Hindi, even as recently as the early 20th century.

The Sharda script influenced Gurumukhi, the script used to write Punjabi in Indian Punjab (Pakistani Punjab uses the Shahmukhi script) and also survives in documents of the Kashmiri Pandit community. The Siddham script gave rise to the Bengali, Assamese, Tibetan and the old Maithili scripts (Maithili is mostly written in Devanagari now).

Southern Brahmi, on the other hand, evolved into the Pallava-Kadamba script and also the Grantha and Vattezhuthu script. Grantha, Vattezhuthu and the Kadamba script grew into the modern-day writing systems of Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam, besides influencing the Odia script (Odia was also influenced by Bengali). Additionally, the present-day Sinhalese, Thai, Khmer and Burmese scripts also owe their origin to the Southern Brahmi writing system. The now extinct Javanese system of Indonesia is also clearly a descendant of it. While, by and large, Brahmi’s influence seems to have been restricted to areas which have a marked early Indian influence, the exception is the Baybayin script system of the Philippines. From modern-day Punjab and Kashmir to South-East Asia and beyond, Brahmi’s oversized influence remains discernible to this day.

The writer is an editor with a publishing firm based in Bengaluru.

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