The Kharoṣṭhī script is an ancient Indic script used by the Gandhara culture of ancient Northwest India (primarily modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and North India) to write the Gāndhārī language (a dialect of Prakrit) and the Sanskrit language. An alphasyllabary, 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, Gandhara (particularly in the period of the Kushan Empire), Sogdiana (see Issyk kurgan) 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. Kharoṣṭhī is encoded in the Unicode range U+10A00–U+10A5F, from version 4.1.0.
Kharoṣṭhī 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 Kharoṣṭhī script follows what has become known as the Arapacana Alphabet. As preserved in Sanskrit documents the alphabet runs:
Some variations in both the number and order of syllables occur in extant texts.
Kharoṣṭhī includes only one standalone vowel sign 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. This is the same as the Semitic vowel order. Also, there is no differentiation between long and short vowels in kharoshti. Both are marked using the same vowel markers
The alphabet was used in Gandharan Buddhism as a mnemonic for remembering a series of verses relating to the nature of phenomena. In Tantric Buddhism this list was incorporated into ritual practices, and later became enshrined in mantras.
Kharoṣṭhī included a set of numerals that are reminiscent of Roman numerals. The symbols were I for the unit, X for four (perhaps representative of four lines or directions), ੭ for ten (doubled for twenty), and ʎ for the hundreds multiplier. The system is based on an additive and a multiplicative principle, but does not have the subtractive feature used in the Roman number system.
Note that the table beside reads right-to-left, just like the Kharoṣṭhī abugida itself and the displayed numbers.
The numerals are encoded by Unicode at codepoints U+10A40 to U+10A47:
The Kharoṣṭhī script was deciphered by James Prinsep (1799–1840), using the bilingual coins of the Indo-Greeks (Obverse in Greek, reverse in Pāli, using the Kharoṣṭhī script). This in turn led to the reading of the Edicts of Ashoka, some of which, from the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, were written in the Kharoṣṭhī script.
The Indo-Greek Hashtnagar Pedestal symbolizes Bodhisattva and ancient Kharoṣṭhī script. Dated to 384 of unknown era. Found near Rajar in Gandhara, Pakistan. Original is exhibited at the British Museum.
Wooden Tablet Inscribed with Kharosthi Characters(2nd - 3rd century AD), Excavated at the site of the Niya Ruins in the Xinjiang, Collection of the Xinjiang Museum
Paper strip with writing in Kharoṣṭhī. 2-5th century CE, Yingpan, Eastern Tarim Basin, Xinjiang Museum.
Coin of Gurgamoya, king of Khotan. Khotan, 1st century CE. Obverse: Kharoshthi legend "Of the great king of kings, king of Khotan, Gurgamoya. Reverse: Chinese legend: "Twenty-four grain copper coin."
Scholars are not in agreement as to whether the Kharoṣṭhī 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 conquest of the region of northwest India in 500 BCE and evolved over the next 200+ years to reach its final form by the 3rd century BCE where it appears in some of the Edicts of Ashoka found in northwestern part of the Indian.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.
The study of the Kharoṣṭhī script was recently invigorated by the discovery of the Gandharan Buddhist Texts, a set of birch-bark manuscripts written in Kharoṣṭhī, 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
1. Graham Flegg, Numbers: Their History and Meaning, Courier Dover Publications, 2002, ISBN 978-0-486-42165-0, p. 67f.
Published - September 2013
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