Note on Sanskrit transcription and choice of script

I am perfectly aware that Devanāgarī has become the most widely spread script for writing Sanskrit online. The standardisation of its use had started during the colonial time, when big areas of South Asia were under the British Raj and apparently, this script which was also used for Nepali and Hindi, was more convenient when publications were industrialised.

However, Sanskrit was historically a spoken language and in the ancient world, Brahmins were reluctant to write down sacred texts into any script. Brahmic family of scripts evolved in a big range of writings anyway, and when people started to write Sanskrit, traditions were specific to places, regions, and related to the cultural context. In the South of India, people used a particular style of Tamil script to write Sanskrit, for example. In the North, different scripts have been used in competition with Devanāgarī.

Around the 6th century, one of the Brahmic scripts, known as সিদ্ধঁ Siddhaṃ in Sanskrit, or 悉曇文字 in Chinese, emerged from the Gupta script, in the North of India, and had an exceptional destiny in Asia since it was in this script that Buddhist texts started to spread in China, and from China to Japan. Siddhaṃ was going extinct in India when it actually became the classical script for Sanskrit in all Mahāyāna contexts.

Even though it moved away to China, Siddhaṃ still had child systems within South Asia, especially in the North East, and near Nepal and Tibet: Tibetan and Eastern Nāgarī scripts. Tibetan script didn’t maintain all the letters as they were used in Sanskrit because the script was first adapted for Tibetan language which is not an Indo-Aryan language. However Eastern Nāgarī had kept its role as a standard for Sanskrit – and other local languages – in the North East of India and parts of Nepal, before it was replaced by Devanāgarī in its turn.

Siddhaṃ is still in use in East Asia, especially in Japan and Taiwan, in temples, in manuscripts and is still chosen for pop art and tattoos in Buddhist context. The script has been implemented in the Unicode on computers and is theoretically available. However, it is still a rarely used script for which few fonts online offer compatibility. But it is still available on Unicode. This is the main reason why I didn’t use it to type on my blog in the beginning. When I lived in Nepal, I discovered that Eastern Nāgarī script was much more widely used before, and when I started to learn its characters, I realised how close it was with Siddhaṃ. Since Siddhaṃ and Eastern Nāgarī scripts have a direct historical link, they bear more resemblances together than with Standard Nāgarī. This is why I decided to use the Eastern Nāgarī script for Sanskrit on my blog, in order to get as close as possible to Siddhaṃ characters shapes – given the digital and internet conditions I have to deal with. I still learn Sanskrit through Nāgarī since modern material keeps on using this script. However, since I updated my own browser, Unicode Siddhaṃ clearly appears now and it makes more and more aesthetical and historical sense for me to use it. This means that the script might, in some posts, appear with squares instead of characters, for readers who don’t have the font that completes the Unicode. Here are two potential solutions, if you want to read it.

You may first download the 【Noto Sans Siddham Regular】 font and install it on your computer. Then you might also need to change your browser settings.

For those who do not want to download the font but want to check the pronunciation or the equivalence in Devanāgarī, the 【Aksharamukha Script Converter】 is a very convenient tool. You just need to copy and paste the squares from my text into the converter and choose the output script or transliteration you need.

I hope purists will understand my reasons for choosing the different scripts I may use for transcribing Sanskrit online.

JSD


From left to right, the word ‘Siddhaṃ’ in: Siddhaṃ, Eastern Nāgarī and Devanāgarī.

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