Dialogue  July-September  2008, Volume 10  No. 1 

Sh‚arad‚ - the Alphabet Par Excellence of Kashmir , Himachal Pradesh, NWFP & Afghanistan

B.K. Kaul Deambi*

    Ancient Kashmir the land of Sh‚rad‚ or the goddess of learning and the celebrated home of learning made significant contributions to almost every conceivable branch of knowledge including religion, philosophy, ritual, science, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, literary criticism, erotics, art and architecture. While several works pertaining to these subject have already been published many are still in manuscript form awaiting publication. With the introduction of Buddhism in the valley the literary activity got further boost and Kashmir soon became the celebrated seat of learning for Buddhist studies as well and grew up into a stronghold of one of the prolific sects of Buddhism, the Sarv‚stiv‚da which made Sanskrit in preference to Pali the vehicle of its literature. Considerable volume of this literature is now preserved in the form of manuscripts discovered from several parts of Central Asia and China .

    The voluminous literature produced in the valley presupposes the existence of well laid out mode of writing. However, the history of writing in Kashmir in prehistoric and early historical periods is still shrouded in obscurity. Though the known history of Kashmir dates back to the prehistoric times no specimen of writing of the neolithic Burzahom culture of Kashmir comparable to inscribed Harappan seals has come to light.

      The period form 4th millinium B.C. (the date of Harappan civilization) to 3rd century B.C. (date of Ashokan inscriptions) is blank so far as the history of writing in India is considered as no specimen of writing belonging to this long period has yet been found. There is, however, ample evidence both indigenous and foreign to show that the practice of writing continued unabated in the Vedic and post Vedic periods. A very early Buddhist work Lalitavistara makes mention of as many as 64 scripts in use in India . However, specimens of only two have been found so far. They are the KharoshĽi and the Br‚hmi. The use of KharoshĽi was confined to the north western part of the sub-continent and the script was used by Ashoka the great to disseminate his message in this region in his famous Manshera and Shahbazgarhi edicts. The use of this script however, ceased after 3rd century A.D. as no record in this script in the following periods has been found. The Br‚hmi, however, rose to the status of the national alphabat in India and remained in use throughout the length and breadth of India for a number of centuries. The earliest examples of this script are found among others in the famous edicts of Ashoka engraved on rocks and pillars and found in a number of states in the Country.

      It is plausible to presume that both KharoshĽi and the Br‚hmi were used in Kashmir in early historical period though no record in these scripts belonging even to the Ashokan period has yet been discovered in the valley. It is pertinent to point out here that the enormous epigraphic wealth of Kashmir appears to have been lost since as compared to the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh the number of epigraphic records discovered in the valley is very small though a substantial number of the same was available and accessible to Kalhana Pandit even in the 12th century A.D. as according to his own explicit statement he made ample use of this enormous source for writing his famous R‚jatarangini It may also not be out of place to mention here that while in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh copper plate inscriptions recording grants of land have been found in hundreds of numbers not a single copper plate charter has yet been discovered in the valley. Even the famous copper plates containing the deliberations of the fourth Buddhist council held in Kashmir and referred to by the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang still lie buried somewhere in the valley. Even the famous rock, on which, according to tradition, the Shaiva Sutras were first inscribed, has not yet come to light.

     The earliest specimens of writing in Kashmir discovered so far are the remnants of a few engravings in Br‚hmi characters found by R.C. Kak in an ancient cave at Bastal on the old Kashmir Kishtwar road and reproduced by him with a photograph in his Antiquities of Marev Wadwan. The specimens represent the Br‚hmi characters of the post Mauryan period. The earliest specimens of the Kharoshti writing in the valley are the Kharosti numeral signs on the famous titles of Harwan and a Kharoshti inscription of thee Kushana period found at Khaltsi in Ladakh. Several hoards of Kush‚na coins belonging to the first and second centuries A.D. and bearing legends in Kharoshti script have come to light from different parts of the valley.

     As in other parts of the country the Brahmi continued to be the popular mode of writing in Kashmir throughout the ancient period as is indicated by several epigraphic and literary records discovered from different parts of the state. These include the famous Bower Manuscript (4th/5th century A.D.) written on birch bark and containing an important work on ancient Indian medicine, and discovered by col. Bower at Kucha in Xinjiang (Chinese Central Asia); number of votive inscriptions containing the famous Buddhist careed ye dharma hetu prabhava etc.; the rock inscriptions in Brahmi found by A.H. Dani at Chilas and the adjoining areas, the inscriptions of the Brahman Shahi dynasty of Gilgit; the famous Gilgit manuscripts discovered underneath a Buddhist stupa in Gilgit; and the legends on the coins of the rulers of Kashmir.

       During the long period of it use the Brahmi alphabet passed through several stages of development and its characters assumed different forms in different areas of its use and by about 7th and the succeeding centuries the original appellation gave way to new regional denominations like Bangla, Oriya, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Nagari etc. These scripts though direct descendants of the Br‚hmi showed several characteristic peculiarities as to justfy new nomenclatures.

     The Sh‚rad‚ was one such denomination. It evolved as a direct descendant of the Br‚hmi and covered a vast region extending from Afganistan in the north west to Delhi in the south east. Though its characters showed remarkable resemblance with earlier Brahmi characters in use in the region they exhibited several peculiar developments as to justify a new appellation. It made its appearance first in the 9th century is indicated by the available Sh‚rad‚ records found in Afghanistan, NWFP, Gilgit and Chilas, Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. It remained an alphabet of Kashmir par excellence for several centuries and owed its name to the Valley which from ancient times bore the alternative name of Sh‚rad‚-desha or Sh‚rad‚-mandala. The other name of the alphabet was Siddha M‚trika by which name the script is referred to by Alberuni. This name is due to the fact that the alphabet starts with Om Svasti Siddham, the practice which is followed even to-day when a young student is first taught this alphabet on a wooden plank (takhti)  at the thread (yajÚopavit) ceremony.

       Sh‚rad‚ was the only alphabet in use in Kashmir from the 9th century till the advent of Muslim rule in the 14th century. The advent of Muslim rule led to the introduction of Persio-Arabic script technically called Nastalikh, in the valley by the Central Asian Sufi saints, scholars and Islamic missionaries. However, even with the introduction of the new mode of writing the use of the Sh‚rad‚ script was not discarded. Its use continued unabated and soon become popular with the Sultans and Muslim saints and scholars, just as the Persio-Arabic was in no time mastered by the non-muslim population of the Valley. Hence forth both the scripts came to be used side by side both in official and private documents. Many court documents belonging to the 15th and the subsequent centuries are written both in the Sh‚rad‚ and the Nastalikh and the popular use of both the scripts is amply demonstrated by the epitaphs of several graves discovered in different cemeteries in the valley which are written both in the Sh‚rad‚ and the Nastalikh. As an example may be cited the famous epitaph of one Said Khan incised on a grave in the cemetery near the ziarat of Baha-ud-din at Hariparbat in Srinagar which is dated in the region of Sultan Muhammad Shah (1484-1528 A.D.) The Sharada epigraphic records of the Sultanate period discovered so far belong to the reigns of Shahab-ub-din (1354/55-1373 A.D.), Sikander (1389-1413 A.D.), Zain-ul-abidin (1420-1470A.D. and Hasan Shah (1472-1484 A.D.) The famous will or wasiyatnamah of the famous Sufi saint Maqdoom Saheb is written both in the Sh‚rad‚ and the Nastalikh. Thus both the Sh‚rad‚ and Nastalikh became vehicles of communication in Kashmiri, Sanskrit and Persian languages. Many well known Persian texts of Central Asia and Iran on folklore, literature, medicine, science and technology were transcribed from Nastalikh into Sh‚rad‚ script and several known Sanskrit and Kashmiri texts from Sh‚rad‚ into Nastalikh to facilitate their study.

     The use of Sh‚rad‚ alphabet as a vehicle of mass communication among the cross section of the population of the valley suffered a steady decline since the beginning of the current century and finally went out of use with the declaration of Urdu as the official language of the State and with the popularisation of Devanagari script which eventually replaced the alphabet in the Valley.

      In Himachal Pradesh the Sh‚rad‚ continued to be in use till the 13th. century when it was replaced by its descendant the Devashesha which in turn gave rise to the modern T‚kari. Its use in Kabul-Gandhara region till late 15th century is attested to by the available dated records of the period from this region. Though no record in Sh‚rad‚ characters has been found in Panjab the use of the alphabet in this State is attested to by the Gurmukhi script several of whose characters are modeled upon their Sh‚rad‚ counterparts. The Sh‚rad‚ remained a popular script in Jammu and Ladakh as well though a very limited number of Sh‚rad‚ records have come to light from these two provinces. The use of Sh‚rad‚ along with the more popular Nagari in Delhi region is attested by the Palam well inscription which is dated in the region of Ghayas-ud-din Balban. Only the last line of the inscription is in the Sh‚rad‚.

      The inscriptions and the coin legends of the rulers of the famous Hindu Shahi dynasty of Kabul and Gandhara (NWFP) are written in the Sh‚rad‚ script. The history of this famous dynasty which stood as bulwark of Indian defence against foreign invasion for several centuries was little known till the time of Alberuni who in his famous magnum opus Tehqiq-i-Hind  gave an illustrious account of this dynasty. His narration is aptly supported by the Sh‚rad‚ inscriptions and coins that have come to light. The king Mahmud of Ghazni known for his depredatory incursions into India was obliged to adopt the Sh‚rad‚ alphabet for the legends of his coins in circulation in this region.

    Chamba in Himachal Pradesh situated in the immediate neighbourhood of Kashmir is the only place in western Himalayas which has yielded pretty large number of Sh‚rad‚ records of diverse types consisting of rock and stone inscriptions, image inscriptions, copper plate inscriptions and the fountain stone inscriptions. These records have provided a solid base for the reconstruction of the political and cultural history of this ancient hill state from 9th century onwards in a continuous strain.

      The most important and the well preserved Sharada records in Kangra another ancient hill state are the well known Baijnath Prashastis incised on two large stone slabs in the famous temple of Baijnath (ancient Kiragr‚ma) in the Kangra district. The records give a detailed account of the construction of the temple and the large donations made to it by the people and the ruling family of Kiragr‚ma (the ancient name of Baijnath). The temple as per these records was constructed in 1204 A.D. The official tourist guided of Himachal Pradesh trace the origin of the temple to the Pandavas which is obviously erroneous.

      While the use of the Sh‚rad‚ alphabet in the inscriptions dates from the 9th century, its use in manuscripts, however, is not known until the 12th century when we find it first used in a birch bark manuscript discovered from the village Bakshali in the Peshwar district of Pakistan. It contains an important work of mathematics and is known for its several distinct peculiarities not traceable in the early Indian Mathematical treatises. Next in date is an old birch bark manuscript of Munimata-maĶi-m‚l‚ which is the earliest known Sh‚rad‚ manuscript discovered so far in Kashmir and assignable on paleographic grounds to the 14th century. The other early known manuscripts are the birch bark manuscripts of Kath‚sarits‚gara, AbhijÚ‚na Sh‚kuntala, B‚labodhini, all assignable to 16th century.

      The foregoing account would show that the Sh‚rad‚ alphabet has a pride of place among the Indian scripts. Though evolved from north western Br‚hmi more than a millinium ago in the 9th century it remained in popular use till the first half of the current century. Though an alphabet of Kashmir par excellence it remained for several centuries a popular script of an extensive area of north western India including Afghanistan , Gandhara or north western Pakistan , the Darad territories of Gilgit, Chilas and Chitral, Ladakh, Jammu , Himachal Pradesh, Panjab and Delhi .

      The epigraphic records written in Sh‚rad‚ script that have come to light in these regions have thrown welcome light on many facets of the history and culture of the area of their province. The same have been subjected to incisive study by the present writer in his ďHistory and Culture of Ancient Gandhara and Western Himalayas Ē. Nearly the entire extant manuscript of Sanskrit and old Kashmiri texts and historical and scientific works of Kashmir are written in this script, which fact considerably enhances the value of the study of this important alphabet for the critical study and analysis of these valuable manuscripts.

      Again like the Brahmi and the Kharoshti in the earlier centuries the Sh‚rad‚ script in the early medieval period formed a vital link in the chain of transmission of ideas, knowledge and culture between Kashmir and neighbouring states of Gandhara and western Himalayas .

       Now that the knowledge of the Sh‚rad‚ script is fast disappearing it is still time to popularise the script and launch a project of the transcription and publication of important and valuable manuscripts preserved in the celebrated museums and libraries throughout the world with the help of the still available though scarce expertise. For otherwise the rich and the proud heritage of Kashmir will be lost to the posterity for ever.

     Before we conclude it is worth taking note of that Kashmir is the only state in the country which has discarded the use of the indigenous Sh‚rad‚ alphabet with a long history and roots in the soil in favour of the imported scripts of Persio Arabic, Roman and the Devanagari.


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati