The Kharosthi script, also spelled Kharoshthi or Kharoṣṭhī, was an ancient Indian script used in Gandhara (now Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan) to write Gandhari Prakrit and Sanskrit. It was popular in Central Asia as well. An abugida, it was introduced at least by the middle of the 3rd century BCE, possibly during the 4th century BCE, and remained in use until it died out in its homeland around the 3rd century CE.
Kharosthi is encoded in the Unicode range U+10A00–U+10A5F, from version 4.1.
Kharosthi is mostly written right to left (type A), but some inscriptions (type B) already show the left to right direction that was to become universal for the later South Asian scripts.
Each syllable includes the short /a/ sound by default, with other vowels being indicated by diacritic marks. Recent epigraphic evidence has shown that the order of letters in the Kharosthi script follows what has become known as the Arapacana alphabet. As preserved in Sanskrit documents, the alphabet runs:a ra pa ca na la da ba ḍa ṣa va ta ya ṣṭa ka sa ma ga stha ja śva dha śa kha kṣa sta jñā rtha (
Some variations in both the number and order of syllables occur in extant texts.
Kharosthi includes only one standalone vowel which is used for initial vowels in words. Other initial vowels use the a character modified by diacritics. Using epigraphic evidence, Salomon has established that the vowel order is /a e i o u/, rather than the usual vowel order for Indic scripts /a i u e o/. That[which?] is the same as the Semitic vowel order. Also, there is no differentiation between long and short vowels in Kharosthi. Both are marked using the same vowel markers.
The alphabet was used in Gandharan Buddhism as a mnemonic for remembering a series of verses on the nature of phenomena. In Tantric Buddhism, the list was incorporated into ritual practices and later became enshrined in mantras.
Kharosthi included a set of numerals that are reminiscent of Roman numerals. The system is based on an additive and a multiplicative principle, but does not have the subtractive feature used in the Roman number system.
The numerals, like the letters, are written from right to left. There is no zero and no separate signs for the digits 5–9. Numbers in Kharosthi use an additive system. For example, the number 1996 would be written as 1000 4 4 1 100 20 20 20 20 10 4 2 (image: , text: 𐩇𐩃𐩃𐩀𐩆𐩅𐩅𐩅𐩅𐩄𐩃𐩁).
The Kharosthi script was deciphered by James Prinsep (1799–1840) using the bilingual coins of the Indo-Greek Kingdom (obverse in Greek, reverse in Pali, using the Kharosthi script). This in turn led to the reading of the Edicts of Ashoka, some of which, from the northwest of South Asia, were written in the Kharosthi script (the Major Rock Edicts at Mansehra and Shahbazgarhi).
Scholars are not in agreement as to whether the Kharosthi script evolved gradually, or was the deliberate work of a single inventor. An analysis of the script forms shows a clear dependency on the Aramaic alphabet but with extensive modifications to support the sounds found in Indic languages. One model is that the Aramaic script arrived with the Achaemenid Empire's conquest of the Indus River (modern Pakistan) in 500 BCE and evolved over the next 200+ years, reaching its final form by the 3rd century BCE where it appears in some of the Edicts of Ashoka found in northwestern part of South Asia. However, no intermediate forms have yet been found to confirm this evolutionary model, and rock and coin inscriptions from the 3rd century BCE onward show a unified and standard form. An inscription in Aramaic dating back to the 4th century BCE was found in Sirkap, testifying to the presence of the Aramaic script in northwestern India at that period. According to Sir John Marshall, this seems to confirm that Kharoshthi was later developed from Aramaic.
The study of the Kharosthi script was recently invigorated by the discovery of the Gandhāran Buddhist texts, a set of birch bark manuscripts written in Kharosthi, discovered near the Afghan city of Hadda just west of the Khyber Pass in Pakistan. The manuscripts were donated to the British Library in 1994. The entire set of manuscripts are dated to the 1st century CE, making them the oldest Buddhist manuscripts yet discovered.
Kharosthi was added to the Unicode Standard in March, 2005 with the release of version 4.1.