Initial thoughts on the origin of the Brahmi alphabet date back to the 6th century BC. The Kshemendras, who lived in the first half of the eleventh century, shed some light of the origin of the Brahmi script in Avadakalpalatha. According to them, Prince Siddhartha used a script called Brahmi to show his literacy and writing skills when performing in front of his relatives. It is further stated that these letters are a type of script that has been extinct for a long time and is called Brahmi as it was introduced by Brahma in ancient times.
The area now known as Piprava in India was in the past associated with the Saakya colony near the central Kapilavastu city of Dambadiva. The coffin found in an ancient dagoba in the city of Piprava is the first Brahmin inscription found in India.
“Ayan salila nidhane budasa bhavatho sakiyanan bhukithi natthan sahagini kanan sadaka dalanan”
This passage refers, “This is the treasure trove of physical relics of the Blessed Buddha of the Sakya dynasty, of the Sukirti sisters and brothers, and of their children and wives.”
This coffin was compiled around the time of the Parinirvana of the Supreme Buddha, and it is clear from the script that it was written before the Asoka script. But the characters used belong to the Brahmi type. This box letter can be cited as one of the testimonies of the fact mentioned by Kshemendra.
Commenting on the origin of the Brahmi script, scholars such as Krishna, Hunter Mahadeva, and Rao assert that the script originated in Tamil. The motive for this controversy is the discovery of about 60 Brahmi inscriptions from the districts of Thirunelli, Madras Ramanaspuram, and Thiru Echcharappally in South India. Krishna Shastri points out that this represents the earliest period of orthography in the South Indian region.
Another theory that has been put forward about the origin of the Brahmi script is that of the script that developed on the influence of the Indus Valley. Archaeological excavations at Arikamedu in Southern India have unearthed a number of pottery vessels with symbols similar to those found in the Indus Valley. Accordingly, it is believed that the Brahmi script was inspired by the Indus Valley and R. Nagaswamy is of the opinion that these scripts are Tamil Brahmi.
The first mention of the word ‘Brahmi’ in Indian literature can be attributed to a work called ‘Lalitha Vistaraya’ of the First Century AD. The book also involves knowledge of Brahmi script among the writing systems used in India.
The most common of these theories is that the Brahmi script originated from the Asoka script. According to Prof. Basham, two letters of the alphabet can be identified in the letters founded by Emperor Ashoka. Namely as Asoka script and Kharoshti script. He further stated that the most important of these are the Brahmi script. Examining this, it can be seen that the Asoka script had a significant influence on the development of the Brahmi script. According to the Indian Archaeologist DC Sirkar, the Indian Asoka script changed more rapidly than the Brahmi script in South India and Sri Lanka.
Considering the development and evolution of the Brahmi script in Sri Lanka, it is widely believed that the Sri Lankan script tradition began with the arrival of Arahat Mahinda. However, archaeological excavations have revealed that the Sri Lankan people were aware of the Brahmi script even before that:
- Discovery of a piece of pottery known as ‘Biya Anurada’ during excavations at Salgahawatta in Anuradhapura and Kandy dating back to 500-600 BC.
- Prof. Sudarshan Seneviratne has stated that Brahmi letters were inscribed on several terracotta seals detected from the Weragoda temple in Matale.
- Brahmi characters have been found on clay pots excavated from a site excavated during a KAVA project with German archaeologists at Akurugoda near Tissamaharama
- In 1970, a team led by Dr. Vimala Begley, and Dr. Bennett Branson of the University of Pennsylvania Museum discovered a piece of pottery in Brahmi script during excavations at the Kandurugoda Temple in Jaffna. The text referred to here as “dhataha patha” means “bowl of datta”.
- Ibbankatuwa, dating to 720 BC, has been identified with several Brahmi inscriptions inscribed on tombstones in the prehistoric burial grounds.
It has also been identified that the letters that can be identified on the pottery pieces are older than the Brahmi letters inscribed on the caves in Anuradhapura. The letter ‘Cha’ on these clay pots is made up of a line ending in a triangle. The lower end of the letter Cha, which can be seen between the letters Asoka, is semi-circular. Similar changes can be seen in ‘tha’ letter.
However, the longest known inscriptions in the country can be clearly identified only after the third century BC. But it is clear that the people of this country were aware of the alphabet throughout. There are many differences in the treatment of the Asoka script in the Brahmi script of this country. This is confirmed by the fact that the letter ‘e’ and the consonantal syllables, which are not recognizable in the letters of King Asoka or in the letters of his successors, appear among the letters of King Utthiya. Also, the word ‘ja’ is often used for the word kingin Indian texts on many occasions, but the most commonly used letter in Sri Lanka is mahāprāṇa ‘ja’.
The ancient Brahmi alphabet of Sri Lanka evolved on various socio-cultural issues that arose in the country. The compilation of the Tripitaka during the reign of Valagamba and the arrival of Mahayana Buddhism during the reign of Voharikatissa led to some changes in the script of the country. The characters thus evolved are so-called authentic Sinhala letters.
The Anuradhapura period was the earliest period of literature in the country and due to its gradual development, by the end of the Polonnaruwa period, with the exception of a few letters such as ‘ඩ’, ‘ර’ and ‘ණ’, all the other letters were very similar to the present letters. By the Polonnaruwa period, the letters එ, ක,ග,ජ,ඩ,ම and ර were not much different from their original form, but the letters ඉ,ණ,ම and ර have changed greatly.
King Vijayabahu I’s Panakaduwa copper plate has a punctuation mark with a short horizontal line that can be connected by a short vertical line above a letter.
The post-Polonnaruwa period was a period in which no such significant change in spelling could be identified. The various invasions of Sri Lanka during different periods of rule also led to variations in the art of writing. Indian influence in particular can be drawn back to the Sri Lankan alphabet. The influence of the Pallava and Okkaka dynasties is noteworthy. The inscription on the stone plateau on the way from the temple to the Vatadage in Tiriyaya in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka was written using the Pallava script, which is a good instance of the Pallava influence on the evolution of the Brahmi script by the seventh century.
In this way, it can be identified that the Brahmi alphabet has evolved up to the modern Sinhala alphabet by undergoing many changes.