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Buddhist Asia had a globalised script 1,000 yrs before the West. It spread from north India

Siddham is, in some ways, the McAloo Tikki of the medieval world.

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Today, we have the ability to travel to many parts of the world and read, at least roughly, most of what we see around us. For example, a red circle with a cross through it means “stop”. Like much of the world, we are also used to seeing signs written in the Latin script. Given the spread of the Latin script and a unified global language of design, generally driven by Western colonialism or economic activity, this is hardly surprising.

What might be rather more surprising, though, is that much of South and East Asia had their own globalised script nearly 1,000 years ago. A monk who travelled thousands of kilometres from north India to China and Japan, trekking through unimaginably different cultural and intellectual worlds, could have read scriptures from each place along his journey with little difficulty. All he would need was a basic understanding of Indic scripts, fused with the logic of East Asian writing systems.

This is the story of Siddham: the Indian script that for hundreds of years was the premier globalised script of the Buddhist world.

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Pan–Asian agency in Indian Buddhism

While we in India often like to boast of our ancestors’ “influence” over the rest of Asia, the history of the Siddham script shows that other major cultural regions adopted Indian elements as parts of a globalised culture, usually driven by political, economic or religious circumstance.

In particular, Chinese interest in Siddham was driven by the need to study accurate translations and transcriptions of Buddhist sutras. Classical Chinese scripts were logographic, using complex symbols to express sounds and concepts simultaneously. Logograms varied by region, and were written and pronounced in a dizzying array of ways. This proved a major challenge to early Chinese Buddhists, from roughly the 1st century CE onwards. The concepts and the marvellous sounds of the Sanskrit scriptures, like kra or jva, could not be translated accurately to Chinese. If there was no uniformity in the sounds and concepts that Chinese letters were expressing, there was no guarantee that Chinese Buddhists were even reading and understanding the same ideas as their Indian peers.

The situation began to change in the 5th century CE, with the arrival of the Siddham script. Siddham was the first comprehensive lettering system to emerge in northern India, evolving from the script of the Gupta Empire, which was declining at the time. Siddham, unlike Chinese letters, was phonetic. Each letter, like those of modern Indian scripts, expressed a sound, either a vowel or a consonant. Vowel signs were also provided. So the word siddham, “auspicious”, was written similarly to modern Devanagari सिध्धम् as .

While we take this for granted in writing today, it is difficult to understate how revolutionary this was in the world of medieval Asian writing systems. Siddham letters, unlike those of many contemporaries, could be strung into extremely complex and phonetically consistent words. A Siddham word written by someone in northern India could be read by someone in southern China and pronounced exactly the same way, because the vowel and consonant sounds that it represented never changed. And since the phonetic meaning of a letter never changed, it would be read the same way 1,000 years later as well, unlike ever-shifting Chinese logograms, which have continued to evolve and shift since their inception over 3,000 years ago.

In Siddham in China and Japan, scholar Saroj Kumar Chaudhuri shows that Chinese scholars took to Siddham with great excitement. Within the space of a few centuries, dozens of monks and even the occasional emperor (such as Liang Wudi, r. 464–549 CE) used the Siddham script in their innovative translations and commentaries of Buddhist sutras. Chinese monks wrote grammatical treatises on Sanskrit and Siddham, often using linguistic tools developed in India. With the arrival of tantric Buddhism and Indian teachers like Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra, Siddham letters further exploded in popularity. Scholars from Japan, such as the 9th-century monk Kukai, studied under Indian masters such as the Kashmiri Prajna of Chang’an, and took the letters to the furthest reaches of Asia.

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The globalisation of Siddham Script

China became a major Buddhist centre in its own right by the 10th century, with the emergence of new schools such as Chan Buddhism, and uniquely Chinese cults such as those at Mount Tiantiai and Mount Wutai. Religious interest in India and Indian letters then faded (though commercial ties grew ever-stronger, as historian Tansen Sen shows in Buddhism, Diplomacy and Trade). In India around the same time, Siddham gradually evolved into Nagari and then into modern Devanagari. And so it was in Japan that Siddham would survive the longest.

Deeply influenced by Indian esoteric Buddhism as well as the logic of Chinese writing systems, Japanese Buddhists further developed a system called the bijakshara, or seed syllable. While Indian words are written left to right with continuous strokes optimised for carving, and Chinese letters are written top to bottom with strokes optimised for brushes and ink, bijaksharas combine the features of both. Letters are written top to bottom, but using long, flowing brush-strokes that move right to left. Each bijakshara, beautifully calligraphed by Japanese monks in ways that were never done in India, is linked with a particular Buddhist deity, and chanting it is believed to bring spiritual benefits. (One example of a familiar bijakshara is hum, a seed syllable present in the famous Om Mani Padme Hum mantra seen in motorcycle flags and car decor). Japanese Bijakshara calligraphy is a profound localisation of a foreign cultural element in response to local tastes and beliefs, oddly reminiscent of modern globalisation. Siddham is, in some ways, the McAloo Tikki of the medieval world.

Credit: Niteesh Mannava

The use of Siddham in Japan was almost stamped out by the Meiji Restoration, a period of nationalism and modernisation in the 19th century. But it still continues to be used today by Japanese Buddhist monks, and was transmitted to Japanese Buddhist schools in the US by the 20th century. And so, in parts of California today, under neon lights with European Latin letters, it is possible that Indians who can read and write in Devanagari live near Japanese reverends who can read and write Siddham, separated in time and space by a thousand years and thousands of kilometres, and yet brought together by the ever-enduring forces of globalisation.

The author would like to acknowledge the inputs of Nitheesh Mannava, an Amaravati-based linguistics researcher and designer.

Anirudh Kanisetti is a writer and digital public humanities scholar. He is author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. Views are personal.

This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval‘ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history. 

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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