Development of Sharda Script

Shailendra Aima

November 2011

The present indigenous scripts in India have developed from Brahmi and the early Brahmi inscriptions in India date back to Mauryan period. It may not be out of place to mention here that the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka founded the city of Srinagar, then situated on the site of the present village of Pandrethan, three miles to the north of the existing capital.  Another view proclaims a much earlier origin of Srinagar, that a Pandava King Ashoka (not to be confused with Maurya Ashoka) built the city of Srinagari (Srinagar).

It is believed that there is a good haul of Sharada manuscripts in several places in the country like Nalanda, Hoshiarpur, Madurai, Chennai and Mysore, and in Nepal. Nothing has been done so far to trace and explore this rich treasure. George Buhler, it may be recalled had collected Sanskrit manuscripts from “Kashmir, Rajputana and Central India”, and published his report in 1877. Not many followed his lead afterwards.

SHARDA script was much in use not only in Kashmir, but also in North Western India (Gilgit etc.), the Punjab and Himachal Pradesh and even in Central Asia. This script enjoys a foremost position among all the ancient Indian scripts. It was evolved from the Western branch of Brahmi nearly 1200 years ago. It is an excellent ancient alphabet of Kashmir.  Almost all the ancient Sanskrit literature of Kashmir is written in this script.

The earliest Sharda inscription on a stone slab, dating back to 774 A.D., was discovered at the village Hund at Attock in West Pakistan.

“There successive stages of development of the Sharda alphabet can easily be discerned. The earliest phase is represented by the inscriptions and the coins of the 8th to 10th centuries; the second by those of the 11th to 14th centuries; and the third and final by the epigraphic and literary record of the 14th and the subsequent centuries.”

After the 11th century, Devnagari script also came into vogue.  Sharda continued to be used in Kashmir as the script for writing both Sanskrit and Kashmiri till the 17th century.  Alberuni records the prevalence of Sharda in the Northern and Nort-western India and has recorded that it was also known by the names of Sidham or Sidha-matrika.

A number of foreign scholars have done considerable work on SHARDA script: (1) George Buhler in his memorable work, “Indian Palaeography”, (pp. 76/77, (2) Leeche in his “Grammar of the Cashmere Language”, (Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1894, pp. 399 95), (3) Sir George Grierson in his paper in the “Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society” (1916, pp 677 95), and also in his note in the

“Linguistic Survey of India”, (Vol viii, p. 254). Credit should go to Dr. J. Ph. Vogel for discussing the development of the SHARDA script in detail in his famous wrok, “Antiquities of Chamba State”, (Part I) Gauri Shankar Hira Chand Ojha has also briefly discussed the SHARDA script in his, “Bharatiya Prachina Lipimala”, which is based on Vogel’s work.

According to Dr. B.L. Dembi: “In the second half of the 8th century we find in the Brahmi alphabet of North Western India a distinct development of a new alphabet which though agreeing in many respects with that used in the epigraphic and literary records of the 6th and 7th centuries, including the famous Gilgit manuscript, shows several essential differences in the forms of several characters. This alphabet is known the SHARDA alphabet. Though an alphabet of Kashmir, par excellences, the Sharda has remained for several centuries a popular script of an extensive area of North West India including Ladakh, Jammu, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Delhi’. This much is certain that it must have originated in Kashmir which from the earliest times has been the principal seat of SHARDA, or the Goddess of learning.”

The most early Indian stone inscription is of the time of the Maurya King, Asoka; this is called the Mauryan alphabet. Later, in the records of the 6th and the 7th centuries A.D., found in the North Western India, there is another alphabet, called as the Western Gupta alphabet. This alphabet finally led to the SHARDA alphabets in the 8th and the 9th centuries. Later, the coins of the rulers of the Utpala dynasty of Kashmir (2nd half of the 9th and the early I 0th centuries A.D.) also bear engravings in Sharda.

After the 13th century, this alphabet underwent a development in the records of Chamba and the surrounding areas. According to Pt. Anand Koul Bamzai, Sharda alphabets were used in stone inscriptions even up to the 18th century; this is corroborated by his discovery of a Sharda inscription dated Vikram 1846 (1789 A.D.) The Sharda script is said to have reached perfection by the middle of the I 5th and the 1 6th centuries. However, the epigraphists Kielhorn and Hoernle hold the view that Sharda alphabet is a very conservative alphabet, as it changed very little across the centuries.

It is a well recorded fact that in the 12th century, Gajadhar, a courtier from the court of Prithvi Raj Chouhan, the King of Delhi, returned to Kashmir and wrote an account of Prithvi Raj’s victory over Mohammad Ghori in the first battle of Panipat.  The original text of this account was written in Sharda.  Nagri came into use in Kashmir in the 17th century.  It was introduced by a known Sanskrit scholar named Rattan Kanth who is credited for penning down Suryadarpan.  It was Rattan Kanth who transliterated the original text of Kalhana’s Raj Tarangani from Sharda to Nagri and later Aurel Stein used Rattan Kanth’s transliteration for his use. Stein observes, “Kalha?a’s account of Kashmir begins with the legendary reign of Gonanda, who was contemporary to Yudhisthira of the Mah?bh?rata, but the recorded history of Kashmir, as retold by Kalha?a begins from the period of the Mauryas.  Kalha?a’s account also states that the city of Srinagar was founded by the Mauryan emperor, Ashoka, and that Buddhism reached the Kashmir valley during this period. From there, Buddhism spread to several other adjoining regions including Central Asia, Tibet and China.”

In 1881, a farmer found- an old-manuscript inside a tree trunk in the village called “Bakshali” within fifty miles of the city of Peshawar.

The farmer handed this unknown manuscript to the local government and it was exported to the Bodelien library in oxford, England for safe keeping. Since then a lot of research work has been done on this manuscript which was written on birch-bark and only thirty five leaves out of seventy, were in legible condition. Written in early Sharada script, this manuscript has been claimed as a valuable mathematical treatise and its author is yet to be known. Recent scholarship dates it between the 2nd c. BC and the 3d c. AD.

One of the rarest of rare Atharvaveda manuscript that went out of India centuries ago in palm leaf came back to India, in CD-ROME.  This manuscript in Sharda script is one of the two Atharvaveda recensions that have survived.  Originally, nine recessions existed.  But only the recessions of Pipalada and Shaunaka survived.  .  It was in the custody of the Maharajah of Kashmir.  In the 1870, Prof. Rudolph von Roth, a German Indologist searching for Atharvaveda manuscripts wrote to the Maharajah asking for the manuscript.  After a long negotiation and after several rounds of discussions and offers, the Maharajah parted with the manuscript. It is now housed in Tubingen University Library, Germany.  This manuscript, in CD-ROM is now with IGNCA and is available for scholars for reference.

The Bhandarkar Oriental Research  institute Pune has a repository of Kashmir Manuscript collection (1875-76) that comprises of Birch Bark Manuscripts written in Sharada script, and comprise of Manuscripts related with Kashmir Shaivism, Jainism and the history of Kashmir.  Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, showcases a very important Manuscript  Paratrimshika Tattva Vivarana (Paratrimshika by Someshavar& Tattva Vivarana by Abhinava Gupta) treating Philosophical aspects written in Sharda Script. Besides the Institute also has Dhvanyaloklochana by Abhinava Gupta, a commentary on Dhvanyalok by Anand Vardhana; the oldest specimen on paper, written in Sharda Script.

In the National Museum Delhi is preserved the earliest manuscript in Sharda, which belongs to the 9th century A.D.  Dealing with astrology and written in Sharda script of Kashmir on the birch-bark in Sanskrit, it is a rare specimen of the art of writing.  The Museum also has the Manuscript of Mammata’s Kavya-prakash (12th Century) written in Sharda along with illustrations. Mammat’s ‘Kavya Prakash’ still remains the most authentic and authoritative work on poetics in the whole gamut of Sanskrit literature.

(This write-up is based on the seminal research carried out by the Kashmiri Scholars of Sanskrit and Sharda and some search on the Google)