The Kharosthi script, also spelled Kharoshthi or Kharoṣṭhī, is an ancient script used in ancient Gandhara and ancient India (primarily modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan) to write the Gandhari Prakrit and Sanskrit. It was popular in Central Asia as well. An abugida, it was in use from the middle of the 3rd century BCE until it died out in its homeland around the 3rd century CE. It was also in use in Bactria, the Kushan Empire, Sogdia and along the Silk Road, where there is some evidence it may have survived until the 7th century in the remote way stations of Khotan and Niya. Kharosthi is encoded in the Unicode range U+10A00–U+10A5F, from version 4.1.
|4th century BCE – 3rd century CE|
Kharosthi is mostly written right to left (type A), but some inscriptions (type B) already show the left to right direction that was to become universal for the later South Asian scripts.
Each syllable includes the short /a/ sound by default, with other vowels being indicated by diacritic marks. Recent epigraphical evidence highlighted by Professor Richard Salomon of the University of Washington has shown that the order of letters in the Kharosthi script follows what has become known as the Arapacana alphabet. As preserved in Sanskrit documents, the alphabet runs:
- a ra pa ca na la da ba ḍa ṣa va ta ya ṣṭa ka sa ma ga stha ja śva dha śa kha kṣa sta jñā rtha (or ha) bha cha sma hva tsa gha ṭha ṇa pha ska ysa śca ṭa ḍha
Some variations in both the number and order of syllables occur in extant texts.
Kharosthi includes only one standalone vowel which is used for initial vowels in words. Other initial vowels use the a character modified by diacritics. Using epigraphic evidence, Salomon has established that the vowel order is /a e i o u/, rather than the usual vowel order for Indic scripts /a i u e o/. That is the same as the Semitic vowel order. Also, there is no differentiation between long and short vowels in Kharosthi. Both are marked using the same vowel markers.
The alphabet was used in Gandharan Buddhism as a mnemonic for remembering a series of verses on the nature of phenomena. In Tantric Buddhism, the list was incorporated into ritual practices and later became enshrined in mantras.
|-i||horizontal||𐨀 + 𐨁 → 𐨀𐨁||a, n, h|
|diagonal||𐨐 + 𐨁 → 𐨐𐨁||k, ḱ, kh, g, gh, c, ch, j, ñ, ṭ, ṭh, ṭ́h, ḍ, ḍh, ṇ, t, d, dh, b, bh, y, r, v, ṣ, s, z|
|vertical||𐨠 + 𐨁 → 𐨠𐨁||th, p, ph, m, l, ś|
|-u||attached||𐨀 + 𐨂 → 𐨀𐨂||a, k, ḱ, kh, g, gh, c, ch, j, ñ, ṭ, ṭh, ṭ́h, ḍ, ḍh, ṇ, t, th, d, dh, n, p, ph, b, bh, y, r, l, v, ś, ṣ, s, z|
|independent||𐨱 + 𐨂 → 𐨱𐨂||ṭ, h|
|ligatured||𐨨 + 𐨂 → 𐨨𐨂||m|
|-r̥||attached||𐨀 + 𐨃 → 𐨀𐨃||a, k, ḱ, kh, g, gh, c, ch, j, t, d, dh, n, p, ph, b, bh, v, ś, s|
|independent||𐨨 + 𐨃 → 𐨨𐨃||m, h|
|-e||horizontal||𐨀 + 𐨅 → 𐨀𐨅||a, n, h|
|diagonal||𐨐 + 𐨅 → 𐨐𐨅||k, ḱ, kh, g, gh, c, ch, j, ñ, ṭ, ṭh, ṭ́h, ḍ, ḍh, ṇ, t, dh, b, bh, y, r, v, ṣ, s, z|
|vertical||𐨠 + 𐨅 → 𐨠𐨅||th, p, ph, l, ś|
|ligatured||𐨡 + 𐨅 → 𐨡𐨅||d, m|
|-o||horizontal||𐨀 + 𐨆 → 𐨀𐨆||a, k, ḱ, kh, g, gh, c, ch, j, ñ, ṭ, ṭh, ṭ́h, ḍ, ḍh, ṇ, t, th, d, dh, n, b, bh, m, r, l, v, ṣ, s, z, h|
|diagonal||𐨤 + 𐨆 → 𐨤𐨆||p, ph, y, ś|
|VOICELESS PLOSIVES||VOICED PLOSIVES||NASALS|
There are two special modified forms of these consonants:
Various additional marks are used to modify vowels and consonants:
|𐨌||◌̄||𐨨 + 𐨌 → 𐨨𐨌||The vowel length mark may be used with -a, -i, -u, and -r̥ to indicate the equivalent long vowel (-ā, -ī, -ū, and r̥̄ respectively). When used with -e it indicates the diphthong -ai. When used with -o it indicates the diphthong -au.|
|𐨍||◌͚||𐨯 + 𐨍 → 𐨯𐨍||The vowel modifier double ring below appears in some Central Asian documents with vowels -a and -u. Its precise phonetic function is unknown.|
|𐨎||ṃ||𐨀 + 𐨎 → 𐨀𐨎||An anusvara indicates nasalization of the vowel or a nasal segment following the vowel. It can be used with -a, -i, -u, -r̥, -e, and -o.|
|𐨏||ḥ||𐨐 + 𐨏 → 𐨐𐨏||A visarga indicates the unvoiced syllable-final /h/. It can also be used as a vowel length marker. Visarga is used with -a, -i, -u, -r̥, -e, and -o.|
|𐨸||◌̄||𐨗 + 𐨸 → 𐨗𐨸||A bar above a consonant can be used to indicate various modified pronunciations depending on the consonant, such as nasalization or aspiration. It is used with k, ṣ, g, c, j, n, m, ś, ṣ, s, and h.|
|𐨹||◌́ or ◌̱||𐨒 + 𐨹 → 𐨒𐨹||The cauda changes how consonants are pronounced in various ways, particularly fricativization. It is used with g, j, ḍ, t, d, p, y, v, ś, and s.|
|𐨺||◌̣||𐨨 + 𐨺 → 𐨨𐨺||The precise phonetic function of the dot below is unknown. It is used with m and h.|
|𐨿||(n/a)||𐨢 + 𐨁 + 𐨐 + 𐨿 → 𐨢𐨁𐨐𐨿||A virama is used to suppress the inherent vowel that otherwise occurs with every consonant letter. Its effect varies based on situation:
When not followed by a consonant the virama causes the preceding consonant to be written as a subscript to the left of the letter before that consonant.
When the virama is followed by another consonant, it will trigger a combined form consisting of two or more consonants. This may be a ligature, a special combining form, or a combining full form depending on the consonants involved.
The result takes into account any other combining marks.
|𐨐 + 𐨿 + 𐨮 → 𐨐𐨿𐨮|
|𐨯 + 𐨿 + 𐨩 → 𐨯𐨿𐨩|
|𐨐 + 𐨿 + 𐨟 → 𐨐𐨿𐨟|
Nine Kharosthi punctuation marks have been identified:
|𐩑||small circle||𐩔||mangalam||𐩗||double danda|
Kharosthi included a set of numerals that are reminiscent of Roman numerals. The system is based on an additive and a multiplicative principle, but does not have the subtractive feature used in the Roman number system.
The numerals, like the letters, are written from right to left. There is no zero and no separate signs for the digits 5–9. Numbers in Kharosthi use an additive system. For example, the number 1996 would be written as 1000 4 4 1 100 20 20 20 20 10 4 2 (image: , text: 𐩇𐩃𐩃𐩀𐩆𐩅𐩅𐩅𐩅𐩄𐩃𐩁).
The Kharosthi script was deciphered by James Prinsep (1799–1840) using the bilingual coins of the Indo-Greek Kingdom (obverse in Greek, reverse in Pali, using the Kharosthi script). This in turn led to the reading of the Edicts of Ashoka, some of which, from the northwest of South Asia, were written in the Kharosthi script.
Scholars are not in agreement as to whether the Kharosthi script evolved gradually, or was the deliberate work of a single inventor. An analysis of the script forms shows a clear dependency on the Aramaic alphabet but with extensive modifications to support the sounds found in Indic languages. One model is that the Aramaic script arrived with the Achaemenid Empire's conquest of the Indus River (modern Pakistan) in 500 BCE and evolved over the next 200+ years, reaching its final form by the 3rd century BCE where it appears in some of the Edicts of Ashoka found in northwestern part of South Asia. However, no intermediate forms have yet been found to confirm this evolutionary model, and rock and coin inscriptions from the 3rd century BCE onward show a unified and standard form. An inscription in Aramaic dating back to the 4th century BCE was found in Sirkap, testifying to the presence of the Aramaic script in northwestern India at that period. According to Sir John Marshall, this seems to confirm that Kharoshthi was later developed from Aramaic.
The study of the Kharosthi script was recently invigorated by the discovery of the Gandhāran Buddhist texts, a set of birch bark manuscripts written in Kharosthi, discovered near the Afghan city of Hadda just west of the Khyber Pass in modern Pakistan. The manuscripts were donated to the British Library in 1994. The entire set of manuscripts are dated to the 1st century CE, making them the oldest Buddhist manuscripts yet discovered.
Kharosthi was added to the Unicode Standard in March, 2005 with the release of version 4.1.
The Unicode block for Kharosthi is U+10A00–U+10A5F:
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
Kharoshti script on a wooden plate in the National Museum of India in New Delhi
Kharoshti script on wood from Niya, 3rd century CE
Double-wedged wooden tablet in Gandhari written in Kharosthi script, 2nd to 4th century CE
Silver bilingual tetradrachm of Menander I (155-130 BCE). Obverse: Greek legend, ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΣΩΤΗΡΟΣ ΜΕΝΑΝΔΡΟΥ (BASILEOS SOTEROS MENANDROU), literally, "Of Saviour King Menander". Reverse: Kharosthi legend: MAHARAJA TRATARASA MENADRASA "Saviour King Menander". Athena advancing right, with thunderbolt and shield. Taxila mint mark.
Coin of Menander II Dikaiou Obverse: Menander wearing a diadem. Greek legend: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΔΙΚΑΙΟΥ ΜΕΝΑΝΔΡΟΥ "King Menander the Just". Reverse: Winged figure bearing diadem and palm, with halo, probably Nike. The Kharoshthi legend reads MAHARAJASA DHARMIKASA MENADRASA "Great King, Menander, follower of the Dharma, Menander".
- R. D. Banerji (April 1920). "The Kharosthi Alphabet". The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (2): 193–219. JSTOR 25209596.
- Daniels, Peter T.; Bright, William, eds. (1996). The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press, Inc. pp. 373–383. ISBN 978-0195079937.
- Glass, Andrew; Baums, Stefan; Salomon, Richard (2003-09-18). "L2/03-314R2: Proposal to Encode Kharoshthi in Plane 1 of ISO/IEC 10646" (PDF).
- Glass, Andrew; Baums, Stefan; Salomon, Richard (2003-09-29). "L2/02-364: Proposal to add one combining diacritic to the UCS" (PDF).
- Graham Flegg, Numbers: Their History and Meaning, Courier Dover Publications, 2002, ISBN 978-0-486-42165-0, p. 67f.
- A Guide to Taxila, John Marshall, 1918
- Dani, Ahmad Hassan. Kharoshthi Primer, Lahore Museum Publication Series - 16, Lahore, 1979
- Falk, Harry. Schrift im alten Indien: Ein Forschungsbericht mit Anmerkungen, Gunter Narr Verlag, 1993 (in German)
- Fussman's, Gérard. Les premiers systèmes d'écriture en Inde, in Annuaire du Collège de France 1988-1989 (in French)
- Hinüber, Oscar von. Der Beginn der Schrift und frühe Schriftlichkeit in Indien, Franz Steiner Verlag, 1990 (in German)
- Nasim Khan, M.(1997). Ashokan Inscriptions: A Palaeographical Study. Atthariyyat (Archaeology), Vol. I, pp. 131–150. Peshawar
- Nasim Khan, M.(1999). Two Dated Kharoshthi Inscriptions from Gandhara. Journal of Asian Civilizations (Journal of Central Asia), Vol. XXII, No.1, July 1999: 99-103.
- Nasim Khan, M.(2000). An Inscribed Relic-Casket from Dir. The Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. V, No. 1, March 1997: 21-33. Peshawar
- Nasim Khan, M.(2000). Kharoshthi Inscription from Swabi - Gandhara. The Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. V, No. 2. September 1997: 49-52. Peshawar.
- Nasim Khan, M.(2004). Kharoshthi Manuscripts from Gandhara. Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences. Vol. XII, Nos. 1 & 2 (2004): 9-15. Peshawar
- Nasim Khan, M.(2009). Kharoshthi Manuscripts from Gandhara (2nd ed.. First published in 2008.
- Norman, Kenneth R. The Development of Writing in India and its Effect upon the Pâli Canon, in Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens (36), 1993
- Salomon, Richard. New evidence for a Gāndhārī origin of the arapacana syllabary. Journal of the American Oriental Society. Apr-Jun 1990, Vol.110 (2), p. 255-273.
- Salomon, Richard. An additional note on arapacana. Journal of the American Oriental Society. 1993, Vol.113 (2), p. 275-6.
- Salomon, Richard. Kharoṣṭhī syllables used as location markers in Gāndhāran stūpa architecture. Pierfrancesco Callieri, ed., Architetti, Capomastri, Artigiani: L’organizzazione dei cantieri e della produzione artistica nell’asia ellenistica. Studi offerti a Domenico Faccenna nel suo ottantesimo compleanno. (Serie Orientale Rome 100; Rome: Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente, 2006), pp. 181–224.
- List of all known Kharoṣṭhī (Gandhārī) inscriptions.
- A Preliminary Study of Kharoṣṭhī Manuscript Paleography by Andrew Glass, University of Washington (2000)
- On The Origin Of The Early Indian Scripts: A Review Article by Richard Salomon, University of Washington (via archive.org)