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VITASTA ANNUAL NUMBER: Volume XXXIV (2000-2001)

The Sharada Script : Origin and Development

Prof. B. K. Kaul Deambi

Among the Western Himalayan scripts the Sharada alphabet has a place of pride. Evolved from north western Brahmi a millinium ago in the 9th century A.D. it remained in popular use for several centuries in an extensive area of Western Himalayas including North Western Frontier Province, Dardistan, Kashmir, Jammu, Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh. The epigraphic and literary records written in this script, that have been found in these regions, have thrown light on many facets of the history and culture of the areas of their provenance1. The inscriptions of the famous Hindu Shahi Dynasty of Kabul and Ohind and of the Shahi Dynasty of Gilgit, bulk of extant epigraphic and literary records of Kashmir produced from 9th century onwards, the inscriptions including the copper plate charters, fountain stone inscriptions and the temple inscriptions of the erstwhile Western Himalayan States of Chamba and Kangra, and the legends of the coins of the Shahis, the rulers of Kashmir and Mahmud of Ghazni are written in this script. This fact considerably enhances the value of the study of this important regional alphabet for the critical study and analysis of the valuable records written in this script and preserved in several celebrated museums and libraries of the world. Like the Brahmi and the Kharoshti in the ancient period, the Sharada script in the early medireview period formed a vital link in the chain of communication of ideas, knowledge, and culture among the states comprised in the Western Himalayan region. Unfortunately the knowledge of this important script is fast disappearing threatening thereby the loss of this rich and proud heritage of Western Himalayas to posterity for ever.

As in this part of the country, the Brahmi (the well known national script of ancient India) continued to be the popular mode of writing in Western Himalayan region throughout the ancient period. This is indicated by several surviving epigraphic and literary records discovered from different parts of the region (see infra). During the long period of its 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 Bangala, Oriya, Marathi, Tamil, Telegu and Nagari. These scripts though direct descendants of the Brahmi showed several characteristic peculiarities so as to justify new nomenclatures.

The Sharada was one such denomination. It evolved as a direct descendant of the Brahmi around 9th century A.D. and covered a vast region extending from Afghanistan 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 positive enough to justify a new appellation.

The earliest known records in which the Sharada characters appear for the first time are the coins of the Utpala dynasty of Kashmir (9th century)2 and a brief record incised on the fragment of a broken jar discovered from the precincts of the Avantiswami temple and containing the name of Avantivarman (855-833 A.D.) the founder of the temple3. Of about the same date is the Sarahan Prashasti of queen Somaprabha, spouse of Satyaki, a ruling chieftain of Sarahan opposite Saho in ancient Chamba (Himachal Pradesh)4. Among the other records of slightly later date mention may be made of the Dewai (NWFP) inscription of the Shahi king Bhimadeva (10th century)5, inscriptions of the reign of queen Didda (A.D. 980/1 1003)6 in Lahore Museum and S.P.S. Museum, Srinagar, the Brahmor and Sungal (District Chamba, Himachal Pradesh) copper plate inscriptions of king Yugakaravarman and his son Vidagdhadeva7, Barikot and Hund (NWFP) inscriptions from Hund including that of the queen Kameshwari Devi.9

Sharada remained an alphabet par excellence of Kashmir till the present century and owed its name to the valley which from ancient times bore the alternative name of Sharada-desha and Sharada-mandala owing to its tutelary deity Sharada, the Goddess of Learning. The other name of the alphabet was Siddha-matrika by which name the script is referred to by Alberuni10. This name is due to the fact that the alphabet starts with the benediction Om Swasti Siddham. The alphabet continued to be used in Himachal Pradesh and Punjab up to the 13th century when it was replaced by its descendant, the Devashesha which in turn gave rise to the modern alphabets of Gurmukhi and Takari. In Kashmir, however, its use continues to this day though it is confined to the older generation of the priestly class.

Considering the extent of the region over which the Sharada alphabet remained in use for a long time, the number of Sharada epigraphic records discovered so far is by no means very large. Hardly one hundred and odd inscriptions have been discovered so far, 13 in north Western Pakistan, 34 in Kashmir, 6 in Jammu, 5 in Ladakh, 39 in Himachal Pradesh and one in Delhi.

On the basis of the Sharada characters used in these records three successive stages of development of the Sharada alphabet can easily be discovered. The earliest phase is represented by the inscriptions and coins of 9th-10th centuries, the second by those of the 11th-13th centuries and the third and final by the epigraphic and literary records of the 14th and subsequent centuries.

While the use of the Sharada alphabet in the inscriptions dates from the 8th century A.D. its use in the manuscripts, however, is not known earlier than the 12th century when we find it first used in a manuscript discovered from the village Bakhshali in the Peshawar district of Pakistan11. The manuscript, the title of which is lost, contains an important work on Mathematics, but bears no date. On palacographic grounds, however, it can be assigned to the 12th century. Next in date is an old birch bark manuscript of Munimata-mani-mala which is the earliest known Sharada manuscript discovered so far in Kashmir, assignable on palacographic ground to the 14th century12. The other early known manuscripts are the birch bark manuscript of Shakuntala13, birch bark manuscript of the Adi and Sabha Parvan of the Mahabharata and the birch bark manuscript of Kathasarit-sagara15, all assignable to 16th century.

[For exhaustive details about the development of Sharada, which comprise continuation of this work, the original article may be referred to.]

References

1. See Deambi, Kaul, B.K., History and culture of Ancient Gandhara and Western Himalayas. Ariana Publishing House, New Delhi, 1985.

2. Cunningham, A, Coins of Medireview India : Hindu Coinage of Kashmir. Plates II-IV

3. Deambi, Kaul, B.K., Corpus of the Sharada Inscriptions of Kashmir. No. 33, pp. 133ff. Plate 13.

4. Vogel J.P.H., Antiquities of Chamba State. Part I pp. 152 ff. Plate XV.

5. Epigraphia Indica, Vol. XXI, p. 298 and plate.

6. Demabi, Kaul, op. cit. Nos. 1 & 2 pp. 97 ff. and plate 1-2.

7. Vogel, op cit. pp. 159 ff. Plate XVI; pp. 164 ff. plate XVII.

8. Epigraphia Indica, Vol. XXII, pp. 97 ff. and plate.

9. Epigraphia Indica, Vol XXI, pp. 301 f. and Plate; Abdur Rahman Vol. XXI, pp. 301 f. and Plate; Abdur Rahman, Journal of Central Asia, Peshwar, pp. 71 ff. and Plate.

10. Alberuni, Tahquiqi Hind, Eng. Translation by Sachau, vol. I, p. 173.

11. The manuscript has been edited with facsimiles by Kaye, G. R. in Archeological Survey of India, New Imperial Series, Vol. XLIII, Parts I & II.

12. The Manuscript in a deplorable condition is preserved in the Sanskrit Manuscripts library of the Department of Research and Publications, Jammu and Kashmir Government, Srinagar.

13. The manuscript represents the Kashmirian recension of Kalidasa's Abhijnana Shakuntala. Purchased in 1875 in Kashmir by G. Buhler the manuscript is mentioned in the Deccan College, Pune, Catalogue of 1875/76 under No. 192.

14. Deccan College, Pune catalogue 1875/76 no. 159.

15. Preserved in Sanskrit Manuscripts Library, J&K Govt., Srinagar.

16. For a comprehensive study of the subject see Author's Corpus of Sharada Inscriptions of Kashmir Section I : Origin and Development of the Sharada Script. Agam Kala Prakashan, Delhi, 1982.

17. Hultzsch, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, Inscription of Ashoka, pp. 27ff and plates facing pp. 44, 50.

18. Ibid, pp. 119 ff, and plates facing pp. 122, 123, 128 and 134.

19. Epigraphia Indica, Vol. XII, p. 116 and plate.

20. Gardner, Catalogue of Indian Coins in the British Museum, plates 3-4.

21. Epigraphia Indica, p. 119 Nos. 2, 5 and plates. Cunningham A. Archaeological Survey of India, Report, Vo. III p. 30 No. 1 p. XIII.

22. Epigraphia Indica, Vol. VII, p. 116 No. 16 and plate.

23. Kak, R.C. Antiquities of Maru Wadvan, pp. 25-26.

24. Epigraphia Indica vol. 1 pp. 371 ff; vol. II, pp. 195 ff. Plates.

25. Epigraphia Indica, Vo. XXX, p. 59 and plate.

26. Ibid. Vol. XXI, pp. 8-9 and plate.

27. Fleet, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, Vol. III, pp. 25-27, plate III A.

28. Epigraphia Indica, Vol. XVI, p. 15 and plate.

29. Fleet, op. cit. pp. 269-70, plate XL A.

30. Ibid pp. 282-83, plate XLIII A.

31. Hoernle, The Bower Manuscripts. Archeological Survey of India, New Imperial Series. Vol. XLII.

32. Epigraphia Indica, vol. 1, p. 239 and plate.

33. Fleet, op. cit., pp. 286 ff., plate XLIV.

34. Ibid. pp. 232. 32. plate XXXII B.

35. Epigraphia Indica, Vol. XXX, pp. 226 ff. plate XXIV.

36. Facsimiles edited by Raghuvir and Lokesh Chandra.

37. For detailed reference of the Sharada records belonging to this period see Author's op. cit. pp. 41-43 fnn, 67-84.

38. Ibid. pp. 50-51 fnn. 88-94.

[Excerpted partly from the book, "Jammu, Kashmir & Ladakh, Linguistic ...... pgs. 80-100 (1996) edited by P. N. Pushp & K. Warikoo. The author has been Director of Centre of Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir, Srinagar"]

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