Siddhaṃ (Sanskrit सिद्धं, “accomplished” or “perfected”; Tibetanསིད་དྷཾ།; Chinese: 悉曇文字; pinyin: Xītán wénzi; Japanese: 梵字, bonji; Middle Chinese (Baxter-Sagart): sit-dom mjun-dziH), also known in its later evolved form as Siddhamātṛkā, is the name of a North Indian script used for writing Sanskrit during the period ca 600-1200 CE. It is descended from the Brahmi script via the Gupta script, which also gave rise to the Devanāgarī script as well as a number of other Asian scripts such as Tibetan script. There is some confusion over the spelling: Siddhāṃ and Siddhaṃ are both common, though Siddhaṃ is correct. The script is a refinement of the script used during the Indian Gupta Empire. The name arose from the practice of writing the word Siddhaṃ, or Siddhaṃ astu (may there be perfection) at the head of documents.
Siddhaṃ is an abugida or alphasyllabary rather than an alphabet because each character indicates a syllable, but it does not include every possible syllable. If no other mark occurs then the short ‘a’ is assumed. Diacritic marks indicate the other vowels, the pure nasal (anusvāra), and the aspirated vowel (visarga). A special mark (virama) can be used to indicate that the letter stands alone with no vowel, which sometimes happens at the end of Sanskrit words. See links below for examples.
Many of the Buddhist texts which were taken to China along the Silk Road were written using a version of the Siddhaṃ script. This continued to evolve, and minor variations are seen across time, and in different regions. Importantly it was used for transmitting the Buddhist tantra texts. At the time it was considered important to preserve the pronunciation of mantras, and Chinese was not suitable for writing the sounds of Sanskrit. This led to the retention of the Siddhaṃ Script in East Asia. The practice of writing using Siddhaṃ survived in East Asia where Tantric Buddhism persisted.
Siddhaṃ manuscript of the Heart Sūtra. Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Kūkai introduced the Siddhaṃ script to Japan when he returned from China in 806, where he studied Sanskrit with Nalanda-trained monks including one known as Prajñā. By the time Kūkai learned this script, the trading and pilgrimage routes over land to India, were closed by the expanding Islamic empire of the Abbasids.
In Japan the writing of mantras and copying of Sutras using the Siddhaṃ script is still practiced in the esoteric Buddhist schools of Shingon and Tendai as well as in the syncretic sect of Shugendō. The characters are known as shittan (悉曇) or bonji (梵字, Chinese: Fánzi). The Taisho edition of the Chinese Tripiṭaka preserves the Siddhaṃ characters for most mantras, and Korean Buddhists still write seed syllables in a modified form of Siddhaṃ. A recent innovation is the writing of Japanese language slogans on T-shirts using Bonji. Japanese Siddhaṃ has evolved from the original script used to write sūtras and is now somewhat different from the ancient script.
An early Siddham manuscript, dated to the first half of the 6th century (the so-called “Horiuzi Palm-leaf MSS” preserved in Hōryū-ji monastery, Japan). It contains the Sanskrit text of the Heart Sūtra and the Uṣṇīṣa Vijaya Dhāraṇī. The final line is a Siddhaṃ alphasyllabary.
It is more typical to see Siddhaṃ written with brushes like Chinese writing, and is also written with a bamboo pen; in Japan, a special brush called a bokuhitsu (朴筆, Chinese: Bóbǐ) is used for formal Siddhaṃ calligraphy.
In the middle of the 9th century, China experienced a series of purges of “foreign religions”, thus cutting Japan off from the sources of Siddhaṃ texts. In time, other scripts, particularly Devanagari, replaced Siddhaṃ in India, leaving East Asia as the only region where Siddhaṃ is used.
Chinese use of the Siddhaṃ script for the Pratisara
Chinese use of the Siddhaṃ script for the Mahapratyangira Mantra. 971 CE
Siddhaṃ alphabet by Kukai (774–835)
Some sample syllables
Siddhaṃ is still largely a hand written script. Some efforts have been made to create computer fonts though to date none of these are capable of reproducing all of the Siddhaṃ conjunct consonants. Notably the Chinese Buddhist Electronic Texts Association have created a Siddhaṃ font for their electronic version of the Taisho Tripiṭaka, though this does not contain all possible conjuncts. The software Mojikyo also contains fonts for Siddham, but split Siddham in different blocks and needs different fonts to render one document.
A siddhaṃ input system relies on the CBETA font, Siddhamkey 3.0 has been produced.
Siddhaṃ is not yet encoded in the Unicode standard. A proposal to encode the script has been developed by Anshuman Pandey and submitted to the Unicode Technical Committee. The script block is tentatively allocated to the range U+11580-115FF, as showed in the SMP Roadmap.
Published - August 2013
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