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South Asian Writing Systems

Quick Facts
  Type   Syllabic Alphabetic
  Family   Brahmi
  Location   South Asia
  Time   5th century BCE to Present

South Asia is an area with diverse cultural heritages. Geographically, it encompasses the modern day countries of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan. Empires, religions, literature, sciences all flourish throughout its long history, and it is no surprise that South Asia's writing tradition reaches deep in time.

Writing first appeared in South Asia during the 3rd millenium BCE in the Indus river valley, but disappeared from the archaeological record by the 2nd millenium BCE. No other evidence of writing exists until 500 BCE when a new, distinctive type of writing system appeared in South Asia. By the 3rd century BCE, the two sister scripts of Kharosthi and Brahmi were inscribed in stones throughout the Maurya dynasty (which encompasses nearly all area of modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh). Both scripts already exhibit the unique features of a "syllabic alphabet", where a consonant letter carries a default or "inherent" vowel. To modify the vowel following the consonant, strokes called matras are added to the letter.

While Kharosthi disappeared around the 3th century CE, Brahmi evolved and branched off to become all scripts in South Asia. In general, Brahmi-derived scripts are divided into two broad groups, namely Northern and Southern groups. However, this division can be quite blurry as the scripts influence each other due to proximity and movement of people.

The Northern group includes ancient scripts such as Gupta, Nagari, and Sarada, as well as modern scripts like Devanagari, Bengali, Gurmukhi, and Oriya. The Southern group includes ancient scripts such as Grantha, Kadamba, and Kalinga, and modern scripts such as Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, and Sinhala.

You can also compare the same letter from different scripts by going to the comparison page.

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