Sanskrit Lesson 3 – Sanskrit Alphabet and Devanagari Script

In Sanskrit Lesson 1 we learnt that Sanskrit is unlike any other languages where in objects do not have names, but only properties have names, and all objects are referred to using their properties. So in Sanskrit we can always create names for any new object that is invented or any new knowledge that is discovered.

In Sanskrit Lesson 2 we learnt that the root of Sanskrit Grammar are 2012 words called Dhatu (Verb Roots), and not the Parts of Speech. All these Dhatus have different meanings assigned to them, and all words in Sanskrit are derived using these root words or Dhatus. We also saw in Lesson 2, how Sanskrit can be used in computer programming and how it is already being used. In future lessons we will see more on this subject.

In this third lesson we will learn about the science behind the alphabet structure of the Sanskrit language. But before that please be aware that throughout this series we will be comparing the features of Sanskrit language with that of English, as we have done in the first two lessons. The reason being, it will be more easy to explain as well as comprehend facts if they are compared to something which is already known. And since this Sanskrit learning series is written in English, we are comparing English with Sanskrit as and when required while explaining features. This is because we can safely assume that readers reading this series also know English.

Also, though we are introducing a Sanskrit script in this lesson, I will also try to make sure that you continue to learn Sanskrit even if you are unable to learn the script immediately. I will do this by continuing to present the language in English as well.

My suggestion to those (especially Indians) who think they are already familiar with the Sanskrit alphabet system (because of their existing knowledge of some other Indian language like Hindi, Bengali or Kannada) is that, I strongly recommend that you still go through this lesson. That is because in the middle of this lesson and at the end, we are presenting some very interesting facts about the alphabet system which is generally not taught in the regular schooling system.

Also, while this lesson might sound technical with many new words creeping in, make sure that you read and understand only that portion that is explained in simple English. There is no need to remember or memorize any new word, features, names that are mentioned in this lesson. This lesson is being provided with the sole intention of serving as a reference point to look back as we proceed further with other Sanskrit lessons in the future. So just read and understand whatever you can, ignore whatever you cannot. Of course, you can ask any specific questions in the comments section.

There is a video with audio at the end of the lesson where you can practically listen to each of the vowel, consonant etc in the Sanskrit alphabet system and learn how to pronounce them.

Sanskrit Lesson 3

A brief History of Sanskrit Writing System and Scripts

We know that English does not have a script of its own and instead we use the Latin script to write English.  The English alphabet has its roots in Latin script and has 26 letters from A to Z of which A,E,I,O,U are vowels and remaining consonants.

Sanskrit does not have a script of its own either. In the ancient times, all the Sanskrit texts were passed down orally through human memory from generations to generations. To make memorizing the texts easy, entire texts used to be composed in poetic form. Which is why you find most ancient Sanskrit texts written in the form of poetry. The reason for passing down the texts orally without writing them down was to make sure that the texts are preserved at any cost, and also to ensure that the Sanskrit pronunciations are not forgotten or mispronounced over time. Books written down get lost, human memory does not, especially when it is passed down through generations of thousands of students learning these texts.

This is the very reason why while most of the books written just a few centuries back have been lost, the Sanskrit texts like vedas and upanishads have been preserved in their exact original format even after so many thousand years!

Devanagari Script and its features

Writing down of Sanskrit started somewhere around the time of the Mauryan Empire where the Brahmi script was used to write down Sanskrit text for administrative purposes and for new literature created in Sanskrit. Even today Sanskrit is written down using a variety of regional scripts like Devanagari, Kannada, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Thai, Gurmukhi, Telugu, Tibetan and so on. However, Devanagari script has been accepted as the standard script in writing down Sanskrit texts, even though Sanskrit texts also continue to be written in various other regional scripts listed above.

So for the sake of convenience, we will restrict ourselves to using the Devanagari script in this series of Sanskrit lessons. Devanagari is a combination of the words Deva meaning divine and Naagari meaning urban or sophisticated. So Devanagari means a divine sophisticated script.

Some of the notable features of the Devanagari script are:

Absence of case

There are no distinct uppercase or lower case letters in Devanagari. In fact, none of the Indian languages have distinct upper case or lower case letters. Letters are caseless.

Presence of horizontal top line

A distinct feature of the Devanagari script is the horizontal top line that runs on letters of the same word. Here is an example of writing the very word Devanagari in this script. See the horizontal line running on its top.

देवनागरी

Absence of Spelling

There is no concept of spelling in Devanagari, nor in any Indian languages. You write what you speak. There is a separate letter for each syllable. So when you say Devanagari you write देवनागरी where

  • दे is a letter which sounds De
  •  sounds va
  • ना sounds naa
  • ग sounds ga and
  • री sounds rii.

There is no business of remembering spellings in Indian languages, no unnecessary complications. Also, all Indian scripts including Devanagari are written from left to right.

Science behind the Sanskrit Alphabet

The arrangement of letters in Sanskrit alphabet is called Varnamaala written as वर्णमाला which means Garland of Letters.

The pronunciation of the the Sanskrit alphabet is explained in a youtube video at the end of this lesson.

In English alphabet there is no logical reasoning in the arrangement of the letters. There is no reason why  D comes after C or why the vowels lie scattered around in the alphabet. In Sanskrit on the other hand, the vowels and consonants are categorized separately and again these categories are arranged in a specific order. This is also true for all Indian languages.

First come the vowels in the Sanskrit alphabet.

Sanskrit Vowels - Swara

अ आ इ ई उ ऊ ऋ ॠ ऌ ए ऐ ओ औ are the Sanskrit vowels. In Sanskrit, Swara is the popular term used for vowels.

The grouping logic of the Sanskrit alphabet is based on where and how the sound is produced inside the mouth. Of these अ इ उ ऋ ऌ  are short vowels, while the others are long vowels which take twice the time of short vowels to pronounce them.

Kantya (Guttural)

Guttural Sounds

The sound of the vowels and   are produced at the throat, or near the back of the oral cavity. Hence they are called Kantya (कंट्य) vowels meaning, from the throat (Guttural).

Taalavya (Palatal)

The sound of the vowels and   are produced by the tongue touching the roof of the mouth (Palate). Hence they are called Taalavya (तालव्य) vowels meaning, from the palate (Palatal).

Oshtya (Labial)

labials

The sound of the vowels and   are produced using the lips. Hence they are called Oshtya (ओष्ठ्य) vowels meaning, from the lips (Labial).

Murdhanya (Retroflex or Cerebral)

The sound of the vowels  and   is produced by the tip of the tongue curling back against the roof of the mouth. Hence it is called Murdhanya (मूर्धन्य) vowel meaning, from the roof of the palate (Retroflex).

Dantya (Dental)

The sound of the vowel are produced by the tongue touching the upper teeth. Hence they are called Dantya (दंत्य) vowels meaning, from the teeth (Dental).

Kantataalavya (Palato – Guttural)

The sound of the vowels and   are produced near the throat by the tongue touching the roof of the mouth. Hence they are called KantaTaalavya (कंटतालव्य) vowels.

Kantoshtya (Labio-Guttural)

The sound of the vowels and   are produced near the throat by the rounding of the lips. Hence they are called Kantoshtya (कंटोष्ठ्य) vowels.

Ornaments to the Vowels – Anuswara and Visarga

Apart from the vowels listed above there are two other letters अं and अः that are used to decorate the vowels.

अं is called Anusvara and अः is called the Visarga. These are neither consonants nor vowels, and are listed at the end of the vowels, usually as a part of the vowel group itself, but at the end.

The Anusvara is a nasal whose pronunciation depends on the preceding consonant which we will be discussing in detail in the future lessons. The name Anuswaara means after vowels and it appears in front of vowels.

The Visarga which means sending forth adds a softening short burst effect at the end.

Sanskrit Consonants

Next come the Sanskrit consonants. The first five rows of five each letters are very important in their arrangement and are also used in many formulations of interesting Sanskrit sentences that we will be discussing in our future lessons.

क ख ग घ ङ
च छ ज झ ञ
ट ठ ड ढ ण
त थ द ध न
प फ ब भ म

Here again

  1. The first row क ख ग घ ङ  are guttural consonants
  2. The second row च छ ज झ ञ are palatal consonants
  3. The third row ट ठ ड ढ ण are retroflex consonants
  4. The fourth row त थ द ध न  are dental consonants and
  5. The fifth row प फ ब भ म are labial consonants

In each row, the second and fourth consonants are called mahaprana consonants meaning they are aspirated consonants where in a strong burst of air accompanies their pronunciation. Without this strong burst of air, they become the same as the first and third consonants respectively in these rows. The first and third consonants are called alpaprana consonants.

Similarly in each row the third and fourth consonants are similar to the first and second consonants respectively except that in the former the sound comes more deeper from the throat with the resonance of the vocal chords.

The fifth consonant in each line is a nasal. Which means to pronounce this consonant you just need to follow the same position of that row (like guttural or palatal) and make a nasal sound.

Semi Vowels

Semi Vowels are those alphabets which are the resultant of a transition from one short vowel  to the vowel .

य र ल व are the semi vowels in Sanskrit alphabet system. Let us look at the origins of these semi vowels.

  • is the transition from   to  and is a palatal semi vowel.
  • is the transition from   to  and is a refroflex semi vowel.
  • is the transition from   to  and is a dental semi vowel.
  • is the transition from   to  and is a labial semi vowel

Hissing Sounds

There are three hissing sounds in Sanskrit alphabet. They are श ष स

  • is a palatal hissing sound.
  • is a retroflex  hissing sound.
  • is a dental hissing sound.

Aspirate

is an aspirant that is pronounced  by expelling air from the throat (like a guttural) along with the vowel.

Pronunciation of Sanskrit Alphabet – Swara (Vowels) and Vyanjana (Consonants)

The complete set of Sanskrit Vowels, Consonants, Semi Vowels, Hissing Sounds and Aspirate is as follows.

अ आ इ ई उ ऊ ऋ ॠ ऌ ए ऐ ओ औ
अं अः

क ख ग घ ङ
च छ ज झ ञ
ट ठ ड ढ ण
त थ द ध न
प फ ब भ म
य र ल व
श ष स

In this below video you can learn about the pronunciation of the various Sanskrit letters. From the next lesson onward we will start talking in Sanskrit, beginning by learning very simple Sanskrit lessons.

Summary of Lesson 3

In this lesson we learnt that

  • Sanskrit has no script of its own and is written today in many Indian scripts like Devanagari, Kannada, Telugu, etc.
  • Devanagari is the most widely used script to write Sanskrit.
  • Indian language alphabets have no case.
  • Unlike English, there is no concept of spelling in Indian languages.
  • Sanskrit alphabet is arranged first into vowels, and then into Consonants.
  • Anuswara and Visarga come at the end of the vowels.
  • The arrangement of vowels and consonants is classified based on how and where the letters are pronounced in the mouth.
  • All Indian languages inherit these major features of Sanskrit alphabet system of classification of vowels and consonants.
  • From the next lesson, we will start leaning simple Sanskrit sentences and start conversing in Sanskrit.
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  • gauri

    pratiksha for 4th lesson prasadam, Guruji.

  • Pavan

    This is outstanding.

  • gaurang

    dhanyavad guruji, eagerly waiting for 4th lesson…hope the journey of sanskrit knowledge will be continue in future

  • Shankar

    Dear Gurudevji, Excellent work. Thank you. When can we expect Lesson 4? Regards Shankar

    • itzguru

      4th lesson will take some more time, probably another month or two as I am slightly busy now. Thank you for being a reader :)

  • alok mehrotra

    it has been a very interesting way to learn the fundamental building blocks of Sanskrit. Eagerly waiting for 4th chapter

  • वीकास माईति

    Thank U for the lessons Gurudev.. Ur courses helped me a lot as it made me understand wat Sanskrit is and U started the course from the root- bottom to top.. I have tried few other online self study course, however, it seemed more like a way one learns English… Hence the way u are putting it is working best for me.. Egarly waiting for the 4th lesson.. Also, cld u post the 2012 Dhatu and its English meaning tht will help me a lot..

  • jit

    An excellent lessons… Eagerly waiting for lesson 4 n rest

  • Deepak

    Hi itzguru,

    The lessons were very good, the best I have ever read. So please post the other lessons and let not your work get in the way :-)

  • Abhishek

    Hari Om. Namaste! I am very much benefited by these Sanskrit Lessons which are precise, to the point and very nicely arranged. Could you please tell me when will 4th Lesson be posted in the blog. Very Eager to study Sanskrit! Hari Om, Do Reply.

  • Vineet

    When will you publish lesson 4? I am eagerly waiting.. This is a great series in learning Sanskrit.. keep up the good work .. I wish I could write this comment in Sanskrit..
    Vineet (NY, USA)

    • itzguru

      was busy with some work in between. will post it sometime next week, thank you for your interest and appreciation :)

  • Ashok

    by when can we expect 4th Lesson?

    • itzguru

      by sometime next week, thanks.

      • Ashok

        will be eagerly awaiting for your post. thanks

  • Bharath

    Hii Guru,

    I am grateful to you for providing such valuable information, and i even understand how much hard work and research you must have done to write down and teach us such amazing facts. i really appreciate your work.

    As of now, i am clear with the lesson 1 and lesson 2. but in the lesson 3, you have mentioned that, the texts scriptures etc, were transferred orally. I agree with this, but how was the situation before that ? I mean, how could people write the ancient letters, accounts works etc. ? How about the unknown Indus script ? And in one of the Lord Vishnu’s avatar, Matsya avatar, he protects the sacred vedas and returns them to Lord brahma, which means they are written scriptures ? so in what language were they written? is that the Brahma script (an unknown unreadable script) ? I am a bit unclear about this concept.

    Another doubt is that, in the pronunciation of i and ī , the tongue doesnot touch the palate, but it touches the Incisors of the lower jaw.

    Please do clarify them. Thankyou.. :)

  • Aprameya

    Hi Guru,

    Very well explained. Had a doubt regarding the visarga. Many shlokas, mantras…most of the time we see it ends with visarga (end of each sentence for e.g). Any reason for using this. Any significance behind that.

  • vidya ved

    Waiting for the next post

  • Sandeep Jaiswal

    I was thinking about learning Sanskrit and it couldn’t be simpler than this to start with. Thanks buddy. Bring in the next piece soon.

  • kumar

    if sanskrit does not have a script on it’s own then in which script vedas and other ancient texts written and is this classical sanskrit or vedic sanskrit?

    • itzguru

      Ancient (Vedic) Sanskrit was never written down, the texts were orally passed down via tradition.

      • Rohan

        But according the story, Ved Vyasa asked Shri Ganesh to write down Mahabharath. He tells him to write down only those slokha which he understood. So this “writing down” part needs script right?

        Please clear my doubt. I am having this doubt from a long time. What exactly they have mentioned in real story?

        • zed

          Vedas pre-date Veda Vyasa. It is entirely possible writing was available in his time.

  • MNp.Namboodiri

    (कंट्य) is spelled wrongly.(कंठय) is correct.

  • Srikanth Rangdal

    Hi Gurudev,

    I always wondered & still do about ऋ being included in vowel list. Isn’t the rule for identifying vowels that the sound must come out unobstructed while ऋ has to go through some vibrations from tongue.

    You haven’t included some special semi vowels like for shree, Ksha, thra, gnya which we were taught back in our primary schooling. Is there any specific reason for the exclusion?

    ऌ is something we never came across in the varnamala.

    Your articles have always been an eye opener with truthful portray of knowledge in all due respect. I have been able to improve my teaching, thanks to the simplistic yet wholesome way of explanation that your articles portray. Thanks again for all the articles.

  • Pavan Kris

    Very Nice, didnt know the science behind alphabets at all.
    Why was sanskrit written in telugu,kannada etc. any reason why there was not a single script ?

    • itzguru

      Sanskrit is sensitive to pronunciations. The same words/sentences when pronounced differently will mean different when pronounced differently. Also the different meters in which the ancient texts were composed had to be pronounced exactly as is. Now it would be easy to orally pass down this knowledge to preserve them rather than documenting down them in written form which still would be difficult to recreate exactly. So they opted for oral pass down of knowledge instead of in written form. But this is also the reason why all those ancient texts are preserved even today along with the knowledge of how to recite their meters.

  • Vinayak Pai

    Please check these lines. I am slightly confused here

    Without this strong burst of air, they become the same as the first and second consonants respectively in these lines which are called alpaprana consonants.

    Similarly in each row the third and fourth consonants are similar to the first and second consonants respectively except that in the former the sound comes more deeper from the throat with the resonance of the vocal chords.

    • itzguru

      Thanks for that, have corrected it. It should be

      ” Without this strong burst of air, they become the same as the first and third consonants respectively in these rows. The first and third consonants are called alpaprana consonants.”

      Rest is fine…

      • Ashwini

        One more : Of these आ ई ऊ ॠ ऌ are short vowels, while the others are long vowels which take double the time required of short vowels to pronounce them.

        Arent these long vowels you have listed. Shouldnt short vowels be अ इ उ ऋ? Iam not sure of ऌ. Seeing it first time.

        • itzguru

          Thanks so much, yes those five are short vowels. fixed it.

      • Vinayak Pai

        Thanks

  • Vinayak Pai

    Thanks for sharing