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The Brāhmī alphabet - Origins and evolution

This article is adapted from the Wikipedia (which expounds the conventional  European view on the origin of Brahmi, which is laced with inconsistencies) . We are still in the process of discovery, but all indications are that the script like the phonetics of the alphabet is unique to the Indian subcontinent , and is also the reason why it was widely adopted by most of South East Asia, as an elegant solution to the problem of phonetics . the quest for a script which is WISYWIP (what i see is what i pronounce), a unique one to one correspondence between the written symbol and the sound it wishes to convey.

This article is about the ancient Indian family of scripts. For the Ayurvedic herb, see Bacopa monnieri.


History of the Alphabet
Middle Bronze Age 19–15th c. BC
Meroitic 3rd c. BC
Complete genealogy

Brāhmī refers to the pre-modern members of the Brahmic family of scripts. The Brahmi script is one of the most important writing systems in the world by virtue of its time depth and influence. It represents the earliest post-Indus corpus of texts, and some of the earliest historical inscriptions found in India. Most importantly, it is the ancestor to hundreds of scripts found in South, Southeast, and

The best known inscriptions in Brāhmī are the rock-cut edicts of Ashoka, dating to the 3rd century BC. These were long considered the earliest examples of Brahmi writing, but recent archeological evidence in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu may push back the date for the earliest use of Brahmi to the 5th or 6th century BC, however the dating methods used have a significant margin of error. The difficulty is the relative paucity of  epigraphic data in Brahmi, and to a large extent we are left with inscr4iptions of a fully  developed script and not one that is evolving

This script is ancestral to most of the scripts of South Asia, Southeast Asia, Tibet, Mongolia, and perhaps even Korean Hangul. The Brāhmī numeral system is the ancestor of the Hindu-Arabic numerals, which are now used world-wide.


Again from Wiki "This elegant script appeared in India most certainly by the 5th century BCE, but the fact that it had many local variants even in the early texts suggests that its origin lies further back in time. There are several theories on to the origin of the Brahmi script. The first theory is that Brahmi has a West Semitic origin. For instance, the symbol for a resembles Semitic letter 'alif. Similarly, dha, tha, la, and ra all appear quite close to their Semitic counterparts. Another theory, from a slightly different school of thought, proposes a Southern Semitic origin. Finally, the third theory holds that the Brahmi script came from Indus Valley Script. However, at least in my personal opinion, the lack of any textual evidence between the end of the Harappan period at around 1900 BC and the first Brahmi and Kharoshthi inscriptions at roughly 500 BC makes the Indus origin of Brahmi highly unlikely. Yet on the other hand, the way Brahmi, and its relative Kharosthi, works is quite different from Semitic scripts, and may point to either a stimulus-diffusion or even indigenous origin. The situation is complex and confusing, and more research should be conducted to either prove or disprove any of the theories. "

Brāhmī is generally believed by Western Indologists to be derived from a Semitic script such as the Imperial Aramaic alphabet, as was suspected in  the case for the contempory Kharosthi alphabet that arose in a part of northwest Indian under the control of the Achaemenid Empire. Rhys Davids suggests that writing may have been introduced to India from the Middle East by traders. Another possibility is with the Achaemenid conquest in the late 6th century BC. It was often assumed that it was a planned invention under Ashoka as a prerequiste for  his edicts. Compare the much better documented parallel of the Hangul script.

It is becoming increasingly clear at least to the Informed Indic that the speculations of the origin of the Brahmi by Western indologists have more to do with their prejudices rather than with objective scholarship. It is now generally conceded that Brahmi is the one script in  the world which was designed specifically by specialists in phonology and grammar and not the result of a random encounter by traders with a foreign script. Therein lies the rub. If indeed the script was developed by scholars, it was probably beyond the capabilities of  the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent, to the extent of being an absurdity or so the unspoken argument went, following the general dictum of the western indologists that nothing worthwhile or original originated from the subcontinent

Older examples of the Brahmi script appear to be on fragments of pottery from the trading town of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, which have been dated to the early 5th century BC. Even earlier evidence of the Brahmi script has been discovered on pieces of pottery in Adichanallur, Tamil Nadu. Radio-carbon dating has established that they belonged to the 6th century BC. [1]

A glance at the oldest Brāhmī inscriptions shows some similarity with contemporary Aramaic for a few of the phonemes that are equivalent between the two languages, especially if the letters are flipped to reflect the change in writing direction. However, Semitic is not a good phonological match to Indic, so any Semitic alphabet would have needed extensive (and perhaps planned) modification. Indeed, this is the greatest weakness of the circumstantial evidence for a link: the similarities between the scripts are just not convincing enough in view of the fact that if one were to go about designing a phonetic alphabets, they would hardly rely ona non-phonetic one to begin with  


The following examples are used to indicate a link. For example, Aramaic did not distinguish dental from retroflex stops; in Brāhmī the dental and retroflex series are graphically very similar, as if both had been derived from a single prototype. Aramaic did not have Brāhmī's aspirated consonants (kh, th), whereas Brāhmī did not have Aramaic's emphatic consonants (q, ṭ, ṣ); and it appears that Aramaic's extra emphatic letters may have been used to fill in Brāhmī's missing aspirates (Aramaic q for Brāhmī kh, Aramaic for Brāhmī th). And just where Aramaic did not have a corresponding emphatic stop, p, Brāhmī seems to have doubled up for its aspirate: Brāhmī p and ph are graphically very similar, as if taken from the same source. The first letters of the alphabets also match: Brāhmī a looks a lot like Aramaic alef.

Some Western Indologists agree that Brāhmī was a purely indigenous development, perhaps with the Indus script as its predecessor; these include the English scholars G.R. Hunter and Raymond Allchin.

Brahmi is a "syllabic alphabet", meaning that each sign can be either a simple consonant or a syllable with the consonant and the inherent vowel /a/. Other syllabic alphabets outside of South Asia include Old Persian and Meroïtic. However, unlike these two system, Brahmi (and all subsequent Brahmi-derived scripts) indicates the same consonant with a different vowel by drawing extra strokes, called matras, attached to the character. Ligatures are used to indicate consonant clusters.

The following chart is the basic Brahmi script. There are many variations to the basic letter form, but I have simplified it here so that the most canonical shape is presented.

And an example of strokes added to indicate different vowels following the consonants /k/ and /l/.

The Brahmi script was the ancestor of all South Asian writing systems. In addition, many East and Southeast Asian scripts, such as Burmese, Thai, Tibetan, and even Japanese to a very small extent (vowel order), were also ultimately derived from the Brahmi script. Thus the Brahmi script was the Indian equivalent of the Greek script that gave arise to a host of different systems. You can take a look at the evolution of Indian scripts, or the evolution of Southeast Asian scripts. Both of these pages are located at the very impressive site Languages and Scripts of India. You can also take a look at Asoka's edict at Girnar, inscribed in the Brahmi script.

Related links:




  • Kenneth R. Norman's, The Development of Writing in India and its Effect upon the Pâli Canon, in Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens (36), 1993

  • Oscar von Hinüber, Der Beginn der Schrift und frühe Schriftlichkeit in Indien, Franz Steiner Verlag, 1990 (in german)

  • Gérard Fussman's, Les premiers systèmes d'écriture en Inde, in Annuaire du Collège de France 1988-1989 (in french)

  • Siran Deraniyagala's The prehistory of Sri Lanka; an ecological perspective (revised ed.), Archaeological Survey Department of Sri Lanka, 1992.

External links


Examples of Brahmi script

An example of Brāhmī script - Ashoka's first rock inscription at Girnar.

An example of Brāhmī script - Ashoka's first rock inscription at Girnar.

Indian-standard silver drachm of the Greco-Bactrian king Agathocles (190 BC-180 BC), the obverse showing the Greek legend BASILEOS AGATOKLEOUS "King Agathocles", the reverse RAJANE AGATHUKLAYASA "King Agathocles" in Brahmi.

Indian-standard silver drachm of the Greco-Bactrian king Agathocles (190 BC-180 BC), the obverse showing the Greek legend BASILEOS AGATOKLEOUS "King Agathocles", the reverse RAJANE AGATHUKLAYASA "King Agathocles" in Brahmi.

Variation of Brāhmī with dates. The Kanheri Caves in Mumbai have samples of many of these scripts.
Variation of Brāhmī with dates. The Kanheri Caves in Mumbai have samples of many of these scripts.
Retrieved from ""


Inscription on Kanheri caves near Mumbai


Book Review

A New Theory on the Origin and Evolution of Brahmi Alphabet by Banerjee, Amalendu 2006, 25 cm., pp. ix+118, Black & White , 8189320106, US$ 8.24 or Rs. 350
Inscriptions have been discovered from Indus culture areas, belonging to the intervening centuries between the eclipse of this culture and the appearance of Asokan edicts. The author analyses them and shows a distinct continuity of evolution of the characters from Indus to Brahmi script in the lapse of 2000 BC to 500 BC. Phonetics of Brahmi characters have been successfully used by Professor B.B. Chakravorty as bridges to decipher Indus legends. Similarly, Dr. S.K. Rao has used the phonetics of a majority of Semitic characters similar in shape to the Indus pictograms and obtained the picture of a relevant logical pre-Vedic language on decipherment. The author has established that all Brahmi characters excepting three on four can be created by applying the principle of acrophony to the ancient Indo-Aryan language. The remaining letter were either created from Austric words or from other foreign languages, when trade contacts grew intensively around fourth-fifth century BC. Therefore, he concluded the source of both Brahmi and Semitic alphabets are the Indust character themselves. Contents : Introduction / Indus Characters Through the Ages / Brahmi Used as a Bridge to Decipher Indus Legends / Relation between the Indus Script and Semitic Alphabet / Antiquity of the Brahmi Script / Introduction and Evolution of Brahmi Letters / Creation of Vowels and Later Consonants / Evolution Chart of Brahmi Letters / Summary Sequences


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