|Languages||Saka, Tocharian, Middle Indo-Aryan (Prakrit) languages|
|ca. 4th century BCE to c. 5th century CE|
|Gupta, Pallava alphabet, and numerous descendant writing systems|
Brahmi is the modern name given to one of the oldest writing systems used in the Indian subcontinent and in 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, dated to 250–232 BCE. The script was deciphered in 1837 by James Prinsep, an archaeologist, philologist, and official of the East India Company. The origin of the script is still much debated, with current Western academic opinion generally agreeing (with some exceptions) that Brahmi was derived from or at least influenced by one or more contemporary Semitic scripts, but a current of opinion in India favors the idea that it is connected to the much older and as-yet undeciphered Indus script.:20
Brahmi was at one time referred to in English as the "pin-man" script, that is "stick figure" script. It was denoted by a variety of other names 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".:106 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. One survey found 198 scripts that ultimately derive from it.
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 gave a thorough review of existing theories in 1998,:19–30 and only a limited overview of the more pertinent aspects of this very extensive topic can be presented here. Falk's 1993 overview of them, for instance, covers 59 pages.:109–167
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).:378  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.
The most disputed point about the origin of the Brāhmī script has long been whether it was a purely indigenous development or was inspired or derived from scripts that originated outside India. Salomon noted that the indigenous view is strongly preferred by South Asian scholars, whereas the idea of borrowing or influence from a Semitic script is preferred most often by Western scholars. He agreed with S.R. Goyal that biases have influenced both sides of the debate.:20 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. 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, but Bühler noted that by 1891, Cunningham considered the origins of the script uncertain.
The current position among most scholars outside of South Asia is that Brahmi was likely derived from or influenced by a Semitic script model, with Aramaic being a leading candidate, but they are usually hesitant to consider the issue completely settled due to the lack of strong evidence.:20 Virtually all authors recognize that the degree of local development in both the graphic form and the structure was extremely extensive. It is also widely accepted that theories of Vedic grammar probably had a strong influence on this development. Some authors, particularly from South Asia,:20 reject the idea of foreign influence entirely, and many of these attempt to connect it to the Indus script. In the West, it is difficult to find authors who categorically reject this possibility, but it is generally regarded as highly speculative. The particular arguments for these viewpoints are discussed in subsections below.
Like Kharosthi, the earliest known forms of Brāhmī 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.:377 Sanskrit was not written until many centuries later, and as a result, the original form of Brāhmī is not a perfect match for Sanskrit; several Sanskrit sounds could not be written in Brāhmī, though later forms were adapted to it.:377
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. 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.
Perhaps the most important recent development 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 to the early 4th century BCE; Salomon recognized the potential significance of the Anuradhapura inscriptions with respect to dating the origin of Brahmi but was cautious in accepting the early dates.:12–13 Coningham et al., in their thorough analysis of the Anuradhapura inscriptions, found that the language was Prakrit rather than Dravidian, but they were unwilling to draw any conclusions about the affinities of the script beyond its being Brahmi. 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. These discoveries are the only examples of Brahmi dated before the Ashoka inscriptions of the 3rd century BCE that have been widely accepted.
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.:378 According to the Semitic hypothesis as laid out by Bühler, the oldest Brāhmī inscriptions show striking parallels with Phoenician and Aramaic (Bühler generally used the umbrella term "Semitic") for the sounds that are congruent between the two languages, especially if the letters are flipped to reflect the change in writing direction. (Aramaic is written from right to left, as are several early examples of Brāhmī.) For example, both Brāhmī and Aramaic g resemble Λ; both Brāhmī and Aramaic t resemble ʎ, etc.
Brāhmī added symbols for certain sounds not found in Semitic languages, and either deleted or repurposed symbols for Aramaic sounds not found in Prakrits. For example, Aramaic did not distinguish dental stops such as d from retroflex consonants such as ḍ, and in Brāhmī 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 Brāhmī’s aspirated consonants (kh, th, etc.), whereas Brāhmī did not have Aramaic's emphatic consonants (q, ṭ, ṣ), and it appears that these unneeded emphatic letters filled in for Brāhmī's aspirates: Aramaic q for Brāhmī kh, Aramaic ṭ (Θ) for Brāhmī th (ʘ), etc. And just where Aramaic did not have a corresponding emphatic stop, p, Brāhmī seems to have doubled up for the corresponding aspirate: Brāhmī p and ph are graphically very similar, as if taken from the same source in Aramaic p. The first letter of the two alphabets also match: Brāhmī 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. The following table compares Brāhmī with Phoenician, Aramaic, Kharosthi, and Greek (which is not a Semitic language, but the alphabet belongs to the Semitic script tradition), as well as several later Brahmi-derived scripts.
* Both Phoenician/Aramaic and Brahmi had three voiceless sibilants, but because the alphabetical ordering was lost, the correspondences among them are not clear.
Not accounted for are the six Brahmi consonants bh, gh, h, j, jh, ny, some of which could conceivably derive from the three Aramaic consonants with no obvious correspondence, he, heth, and ayin. (Brahmi ng was a later development.):34
Later scholars have been hesitant to accept all of Bühler's conclusions, though the general idea of influence from 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.
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.
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. Despite the evident example of Aramaic, short fragments from 4th century BCE contexts in Anuradhapura and the 3rd century BCE Ashoka edicts are the earliest dateable evidence for writing in Indo-Aryan languages. The Prakrit/Sanskrit word for writing itself, lipi, is borrowed from the Old Persian word dipi, with some alteration, possibly by analogy with native vocabulary. Dipi itself is thought to be an Elamite loanword.
Among scholars who have taken the origin to have been purely indigenous are F. Raymond Allchin, who speculated in a personal communication that Brahmi perhaps had the Harappan script (i.e. Indus script) as its predecessor. 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. 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.
This idea of a connection to the Indus script has a great popularity in India, and several South Asian authors have supported it. Similarities to the Indus script have been claimed by computer scientist Subhash Kak—who does not acknowledge the existence of the Semitic-origin theory— based on an interaction between the Indic and the Semitic worlds prior to the rise of the Semitic scripts. One self-published version of this hypothesis holds that the Harappan script continued in use up to around 400 BCE (much in opposition to the consensus view) and that the Brahmi script developed gradually "later on" by derivation from it. 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. There is also corresponding evidence of continuity in the use of numerals. Further support for this continuity comes from statistical analysis of the relationship carried out by Das. 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 undeciphered status of the Indus script.:20–21
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 1900 BCE and the first widely accepted appearance of Brahmi in the 3rd century BCE and perhaps the 4th C. BCE is very sparse. 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. 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. C.L. Fábri also proposed that some Indus-script symbols survived the Indus civilization collapse and are found on Mauryan punch-marked coins. 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."
There is some evidence from contemporary Greek sources regarding writing in India during the critical period in which the earliest dateable examples of Brahmi and Kharosthi appear. Megasthenes, an ambassador to the Mauryan court in Northeastern India only a quarter century before Ashoka, noted explicitly "…, and this among a people who have no written laws, who are ignorant even of writing, and regulate everything by memory." This has been variously and contentiously interpreted by many authors. Rocher almost entirely dismisses it via a chain of suppositions about the wording putatively used by Megasthenes' informant. Timmer considers it to reflect a misunderstanding "based upon the fact that Megasthenes rightly observed that the laws were unwritten and that oral tradition played such an important part in India." Scharfe though accepts Megasthenes' observation as being largely accurate and, from this and other evidence, concludes that no script was used or known in India, aside from the Persian-dominated Northwest, before around 300 BCE. Much like Timmer, Scharfe points out that Indian tradition "at every occasion stresses the orality of the cultural and literary heritage."  This statement by Megasthenes (as quoted by Strabo in the Geographica XV.i.53) is 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. Pāṇini as well noted the existence of scripts in his definitive work on Sanskrit grammar, the Ashtadhyayi, but the date of his work is uncertain and it is widely accepted that Pāṇini was born and lived in the Persian-controlled Northwest. Nearchus, a contemporary of Megasthenes, noted, a few decades prior, the use of cotton fabric for writing in North-western India. Indologists have variously speculated that this might have been Kharosthi or Aramaic, but Salomon regards the evidence from Greek sources to be inconclusive.:11 Strabo himself notes this inconsistency regarding reports on the use of writing in India (XV.i.67).
The most prominent alternative view in the indigenous origin category is that Brahmi was invented entirely independently of either foreign scripts or the Indus script.:21 This view usually accepts that the Mauryans were previously aware of the art of writing in general but proposes that Brahmi was created anew for the purposes of writing Prakrit, based on well established theories of Vedic grammar and phonetics, and probably on the order of the reform-minded King Ashoka. From this point of view, Brahmi might be seen as a successful attempt to remedy some of the apparent limitations of Kharosthi as a vehicle for writing Prakrit.
Several divergent accounts of the origin of the name "Brahmi" appear in history and legend. The Jain Agamas mention the Brahmi script (bambhī in the original Prakrit) in the 4th and 5th Angas, leading a list of 18 scripts, though it is missing from versions of the 18-script list in later commentaries. Jain legend recounts that the script was taught by their founder Rishabha to his daughter Brahmi, whence the name comes. A Chinese Buddhist account of the 6th century CE attributes its creation to the god Brahma.
Brāhmī 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.
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.
In English, the most widely available set of reproductions of Brāhmī-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.
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)." The language of Sri Lanka Brahmi inscriptions has been mostly been Prakrit though some Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions have also been found.
Brāhmī is usually written from left to right, as in the case of its descendants. However, an early coin found in Eran is inscribed with Brāhmī 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.:27–28
Brāhmī 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 Brāhmī 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 Brāhmī, 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/.:373–4 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, 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. 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.
It has been noted that the basic system of vowel marking common to Brāhmī and Kharosthī, in which every consonant is understood to be followed by a vowel, was well suited to Prakrit, but as Brāhmī 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 Brāhmī 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.
Punctuation can be perceived as more of an exception than as a general rule in Asokan Brāhmī. 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 Brāhmī 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:
Over the course of a millennium, Brāhmī 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.
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).
Brāhmī was added to the Unicode Standard in October, 2010 with the release of version 6.0.
The Unicode block for Brāhmī 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, and Adinatha which only covers Tamil Brahmi. Segoe UI Historic, tied in with Windows 10, also features Brahmi glyphs.
The Sanskrit word for Brahmi (IAST Brāhmī) in the Brahmi script should be rendered as follows: 𑀩𑁆𑀭𑀸𑀳𑁆𑀫𑀻.
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
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