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History of Letterform Design in India

Early History 2600 BC to 1800 AD:

Indus Valley Script - 2600BC:

  2600-1900 BC
Writings from Indus Valley civilisation

The earliest script in India so far known is the Indus
Valley pictographic script. Over 4000 symbol bearing seals have been discovered in the Indus Valley.

  2600-1900 BC
Writings from Indus Valley civilisation

Another seal from the Indus Valley
- the Harappan signs are associated with flat, rectangular stone tablets called seals

2600-1900 BC

Indus valley script

The script of Mohen-jo-daro and Harappa is called Proto-Indian. The script appears to be phonetic and has ideographic origin. The specimen are all in the form of seals.
The deciphering of the script
is still being done.

2600-1900 BC

Indus valley script

Indus Script it is said to be the
ancestor of the both, the secular Brahmi as well as the traditional vernacular scripts of India. (This theory is still being debated)

  Chart showing the development of Devanagari Letters from Indus script

Oral Tradition:

Even though the system of writing was known, the preservation of knowledge was mainly done through an oral tradition - this was because oral means was believed to be better than writing in terms of capturing the expressions and meanings of language.

 Ref:  The Book in India, edited by B. S. Kesavan, National Book Trust India, N Delhi, 1986

Scribe Recording

Perhaps this seems to be the earliest record of writing showing a scribe (on the left bottom corner) recording the event happennings in the courtroom of King Suddhodana.

Ashoka and the Brahmi Script - 3rd Century BC:

3rd Century BC

Brahmi Inscription

Asoka Edict on the Rummindei pillar
Brahmi, the script of the brahmans is written from left to right. It is the mother of all Indian scripts including the Devanagari script.
-Ashoka used this script for his inscriptions, carved into the face of rocks or on stone pillars
3rd Century BC

Brahmi Inscription

Fragment of the 6th Pillar Edict of Ashoka (238 BCE), in Brahmi, sandstone
3rd Century BC

Kharoshthi inscription derived from brahmi script

Rock Edict at habazgarhi
Kharoshthi or Zarthustri, the script of the clerks is written from right to left
another example of Kharoshthi inscription:

3rd Century BC

Girnar Inscription, Brahmi

Ashoka's First Rock inscription at Girnar
These inscriptions on rocks and pillars, proclaim Asoka's reforms and policies and promulgate his advice to his subjects.
3rd Century BC

Simplified Brahmi

This are the basic forms of the letters of Brahmi Script
3rd Century BC to 12th Century

Brahmi Development

This chart depicts the development of other scripts from the brahmi script

Ashoka to 14th Century - development of Brahmi Script:

3rd Century BC to 540AD

Brahmi Variations

These are the variations of the Brahmi Script

2nd Century BC

Barahut stupa, Brahmi Inscription:

The stupa contains numerous birth stories of the Buddha's previous lives, or Jataka tales.
1st Century BC
Phabosa Inscription, Brahmi:

Inscriptions from the temple of Parisnath at Phabosa
4th Century AD

Allahabad Pillar Inscription:

The stupa
is belongs to Samudragupta, Gupta Script

5th Century AD

Siddham Letter 'a' :

The siddham letterforms have been used for meditative purposes. These are a varient of the Brahmi script.
992 AD
Deval Inscription, Brahmi:

Inscription by King Lulla, Nagari Lipi, 992 A.D.
 Ref:  The Book in India, edited by B. S. Kesavan, National Book Trust India, N Delhi, 1986
11th CentuaryAD

Tamil manuscripts

Tamil inscription, from the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur
12 Centuary AD
Ratnapur Inscription, Brahmi:

Inscription by King Jajalladev, Nagari Lipi, 12th Century A.D.
1337 AD
Telgu-kannada script:

Donepundi Grant-deed of Namaya-Nayak,
1337 A.D.
1400 AD
Nandi Nagari Incription from Vijaynagar

14th Centuary AD
Veeraraghava Grant-deed Vettelulu Lipi,

  This chart shows the modern descendants of the ancient Brahmi script.
- Brahmi seems ancestral to most of the scripts of South Asia, Southeast Asia, some Central Asian scripts like Tibetan and Khotanese, and possibly Korean hangul (1444 AD).

Tamil Manuscripts - 6th - 18th Century:

16th CentuaryAD

Christian prayers written in Tamil, on palm leaf manuscripts
 Ref:  The Book in India, edited by B. S. Kesavan, National Book Trust India, N Delhi, 1986
18th CentuaryAD

Tamil manuscripts

Stack of manuscripts in Palm leaves enclosed in a brass frame
 Ref:  The Book in India, edited by B. S. Kesavan, National Book Trust India, N Delhi, 1986
18th CentuaryAD


Scribe using metal pen to write on dried palm leaves.

Devanagiri Manuscripts - 9th - 17th Century:

Bamboo pens - also known as Reed pens used for writing devanagiri script. The 45 degree cut is the reason for the thick and thin features of the letterings.
1630 AD
Devanagiri Manuscript
of Bhagavata Purana
16th CentuaryAD

Jain Instructions
using old Gujarathi prose describing how to live a jain way of life.
17th CentuaryAD

Devanagiri Manuscript
17th CentuaryAD

Devanagiri Manuscript

Details of the above Devanagiri Manuscript
18th CentuaryAD

Devanagiri Manuscript - depicting the battle of Kurukshetra
18th CentuaryAD

Devanagiri ManusScript

Details of the above Devanagiri ManusScript

Mughal Writings - 14th - 18th Century:

16th CentuaryAD

A page from the copy of the holi Quran - probably transcibed in Lucknow.
16th CentuaryAD

Detail from a painting depicting a massacre following the destruction of the tomb of Imam Husayn at Kerbela. 1595, India

Part II (to be continued)
The next section will illustrate the history of typography using the technology of the printing press.

  References for the above history and images courtesy:
Typography of Devanagri, Volume I, by Bapurao S. Naik
The Book in India, edited by B. S. Kesavan, National Book Trust India, N Delhi, 1986

Other useful Links:
The Ancient Indus Valley Script and Interpretations

Indus Script from Wikipedia:

Indus Script from Ancient Scripts:

Brahmi Script from Wikipedia:

Brahmi Script from Ancient Scripts:

Devanagiri Script from Wikipedia:

The Indic Language Fonts

Link to Typography in India:

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