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Kharoshti Script
A brief essay


















The Kharoshti language was introduced into Gandhara - Afghanistan and the North-west frontiers of India during the early part of the 5th century BCE as a result of Achaemenian conquests eastwards4. The language and script, it seems, became refined with time but it was ultimately overtaken by the much older language of the region, Brahmi and it became extinct by about the middle (c. 300-350 CE) of the Sassanian Dynasty (which lasted c.224 to 641 CE). It certainly differed from all other Indic scripts in that it retained the Semitic characteristic of being written from right to left.  After all it was derived from its north Semitic parent, Aramaic, like Pahlavi was.  Yet it retained the distinct Indian ways - in the use of the consonants, double consonants and the vowels.

Kuninda coin composite

Obverse: Brahmi script

Reverse: Kharoshti script

Sanskrit in Brahmi script slowly gave place to Prakrit in Devnagari script. As Brahmi progressed into the Devnagari group of Indic languages the Kharoshti script gradually died out about c. 305-325 CE.  There was some overlap of the scripts on coins as Satraps vied with the suzerain Kings and usurped their Satrapy as an autonomous kingdom.  

The coins showing the Greek divinities5 - Zeus (holding a thunderbolt and/or a sceptre), Hercules (usually holding a club and/or lion skin), Nike (usually winged, City divinity holding cornucopia), Artemis drawing arrow from bow, Helios (Sun), Selene (Moon) and the Indo-Iranian divinities: Mozao Oaho or Mazdaonho (Ahura Mazda), Athasho (Fire), Bago (Bhaga), Miiro/ Mioro (Sun/Mithra), Ardoksho (Earth), Orlango (Verethaghna), Saorhora (Sherewar, Mao (Moon), Apto/Appo (Waters), Vado (Wind), Pharro (Aura /Khwarena), Manaobago (Vohu Manah), Boddo (Buddha), sometimes a humped Indian bull or an elephant or the two-humped Bactrian camel on the reverse......etc were slowly replaced by the standing Shiva (holding a trident or a club) in front of a bull, Parvati (consort of Shiva) seated on a lion, Lakshmi (representing wealth) seated or standing on a lotus, Peacock motif…..etc.  The coins were minted mainly in Balkh, Merv, Herat, Pushkalavati (near modern Kabul), Takhshashilla (modern Taxila), Baamiyan, Jammu….etc.

Kharoshti script and changes of regimes in Gandhara and and surrounding regions

Kharosti Alphabet

Graeco-Bactrian Period: (c. 250-174 BCE)3
The history begins circa 250 BCE when the Indo-Greeks in Bactria revolted against their Seleucid masters and formed an autonomous empire free from the suzerainty of an overlord.  It was led by Diodotus I (c. 250-230 BCE) with his son, Diodotus II (c. 250-230 BCE)  usurped the Eastern Satraps, Sughda and Margiana from the Suzerain King Seleucus I Nikator (ruled c.313-281 BCE), who was himself assassinated. The Graeco-Bactrians had only the Greek legend on both sides of their coins. The Kharoshti script on coins was not in use during this period, which ended in 174 BCE.   

Indo-Greek (Yonas, word for Ionians) Period: (c.174 BCE-10 CE) 3
Commencing with Apollodotus I (c.174-165 BCE) and ending with Strato II (ruled with Strato III c. 25 BCE -10 CE in North Afghanistan) coins were minted with the Greek legend on the obverse and the Kharoshti script on the reverse.

Demetrius (at first associated with his father c.205-190 BCE and then by himself c.190-166 BCE) ruling further east and in Arachosia (South Afghanistan) also minted bilingual coins, with Kharoshti on the Reverse (MAHARAJaSa APaRaJITaSa DEMETRIYaSa) and Greek on the Obverse (Invincible King Demetrius).  This could have occurred only if Kharoshti was then a common spoken language among a large population in these regions. The script on the coins was Kharoshti throughout the Indo-Greek period. 

Indo-Scythian Period: (c.10 CE-130 CE) 3
The Indo-Scythians were a branch of the Sakas from central Asia.  Overlapping the Indo-Greeks they had initially settled in the west Afghan plateau of Drangiana, calling it ‘Sakastan’.  About 10 CE the Indo-Scythian King Rajuvula, a minor Satrap in Mathura defeated and dethroned Strato III.  Around 80 CE they moved eastwards to overtake South Afghanistan. In previous times the Indo-Scythian king Maues had already occupied Gandhara and Taxila (improperly dated around 80 BCE), but his kingdom disintegrated upon his death and the Indo-Greeks had prospered again for a while, as suggested by the coinage of kings Apollodotus II (c.110-80 BCE) and Hippostratos (c.90-60 BCE), until the Saka King Azes I permanently established Indo-Scythian rule in the northwest in 60 BCE.  They too minted coins with the Greek legend on the obverse and the Kharoshti script on the reverse of their coins.

Kharosti Script

The Yueh-chi / Yuehzhi (Kushans from western China) Period: (c.135-350 BCE) 3
The Yueh-chi were a nomadic confederation of five tribes that originally lived near the border of China. They came from the Tarim Basin region, which is a part of what is now Gansu and Xinjiang provinces. They encountered severe problems with the Hsiung-nu (White Huns; later called Hephthalites) in the years 176-160 B.C. After suffering two major defeats by the Huns, the Yueh-chi decided to move west and then south. Their decision to migrate affected the course of history. When they moved south, some Turkic tribes went with them. The Turkic people had also encountered problems with the Huns. They moved into an area north of the Oxus in what is now Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and displaced a branch of the Scythians called the Sakas.  By about 135 B.C., the Yue-chi and their Turkic allies had reached Bactria, a region that included parts of North West Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Greek dynasties of the Seleucids and Greco-Bactrians had ruled it for a long time. The Yueh-chi were able to eventually gain control of Bactria. They had driven out the last nomadic Indo-Greek king, Heliocles I (c. 135-110 BCE).

The later Kushans called themselves the Kushano-Sassanians 230-271 CE and Kushanshahs 271-350 CE.  Depending on the affiliation to the Sassanians or Kushans their coins had only the Pahlavi or Greek script. They thrived roughly up to the middle of the Sassanian rule (about 350 CE). The Nahapana Satraps of the Sassanian era, who ruled in India as far south as Kutch, Gujarat and Saurashtra, however, had coins minted with trilingual scripts - Greek, Brahmi and Kharoshti.

There was also a short rule of the Indo-Parthians in a limited region (c. 78-124 CE).  Both groups minted coins with the Greek legend on the obverse and the Kharoshti script on the reverse of their coins. This second wave of ‘Indo-Parthians’ moved eastwards into the Kabul Valley and present Pakistan c. 20 CE led by ‘Gondophores’ taking over from the Kushan King, Kujula KadophisesGondophores has been mentioned in the manuscripts “Actae Thomae” as the ‘King, Guduphara’ who had met Saint Thomas, the Apostle on his journey to South India. Christianity had been established in India 500 years before the early Christian Portuguese missionaries c.1522 came with their dreams of the colonializing of India. The missionaries were surprised at seeing huts and buildings with a cross atop in the Malabar coastal region of the present State of Kerala.  The region was recaptured from the Indo-Parthians by the Kushans, possibly by Soter Megas c.45-90 CE. The Kharoshti script was no longer seen on any of the coins.  It was replaced by the Brahmi script, which was now written and read from left to right (although, it seems from an isolated document that the earliest Brahmi script 3rd Century BCE was written from right to left).  He was succeeded by Kadophises II 120 CE.

By the time of Kanishka I, the greatest of the Kushan kings (the exact dates of his 23-27 years of rule are under dispute) his kingdom included Kashmir, Khotan and Kashgar and Yarkand  The last three were Chinese dependencies in the Tarim Basin, modern XinjiangHis vast kingdom extended from Bukhara in the west to Sarnath in India, with Peshawar as the Capital) the coins in the Brahmi script showed the images and/or inscriptions of Boddo (Buddha), (Oisho) Shiva holding a trident near a bull (Nandi), Mihira/Miira (Mithra), Athro (Atar), Varahran (Verethragna), Mao (Moon), Appo (Water), Aodo (Vata).  The appearance of the Avestan divinities was attributed to the fact that the Sassanian King, Hormazd II (303-309 CE) had earlier married the daughter of a Kushan king in Gandhara.

Thereafter, Ardochso (Lakshmi), the consort of Vishnu remained a standard diety and was absorbed into the first Gupta Empire of Chandra Gupta (305-325 CE). His grandfather, Shrigupta (c 270-290 CE) ruling as ‘Maharaja’ of a small principality was the real founder of the Gupta Dynasty.  Then, all traces of the Iranian influence have been found absent from the coins.

With regular revolts against the suzerain King there was some overlap of dynasties as kingdoms were lost and regained for short periods.  Some tribal States - the Audumbara and the Kuninda (c. 150-100 BCE), used Kharoshti on one side of their coins and Brahmi on the other side.  Indeed, the Audumbara tribal kings Dharagosa and Rudravarma were credited as being the first to introduce the Brahmi script on one side with the Kharoshti script on the other side of their coins. The neighbouring States soon followed.  Most Kuninda coins have been found in hoards north of a line between Ambala and Saharanpur.  There were also some even with trilingual inscriptions - Greek, Brahmi and Kharoshti. The Kuninda Kings followed the practice.

The land of Kuninda (also called Kulinda) stretched along the foothills of the Himalayas eastwards from the borders of Audumbara (c. 150-100 BCE) temporarily independent of the Punjab area in the Pathankot region of the Beas river valley to the borders of Nepal.  See the photos of 1) a magnificent specimen of a ‘Kuninda coin’ minted by Raja Amoghabhuti (late 2nd century BCE) of the small tribal State of Kuninda and of the two pages showing 2) the Kharoshti and 3) Brahmi scripts to better understand the coin.  Obverse:3 Deer facing female divinity, holding flowers.  There are 2 snake-like symbols above the deer.  The Brahmi legend reads from left to right: Rajna Kunindasa Amoghabhutisa Maharajasa’.  Reverse:3 Shows a Buddhist Stupa in the centre flanked by a tree on the right and ancillary symbols - tamga and swastika on the left.  The Kharoshti script reads from right to left: ‘Rana Kunidasa Amoghabhutisa Maharajasa’.

Apart from archaeological clay tablets and articles found in the diggings and (more than 1000 known) inscriptions, numismatists have also contributed significantly to a better understanding of ancient genealogy, to the correction of improper dating attributed to events gone past and to calculating the era.  Birch-bark (called bhoja-patra) was a primary writing material along with palm-leaf in India. Its use diminished in the Moghal period when paper replaced it as a writing material, but it still has a sacred status in India today.  Birch bark was mentioned as a writing material by the Greek historian, Q. Curtius (c. 115 BCE), noting its wide use by the Hindus during Alexander’s invasion. Early extant manuscripts date back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries, written in the Kharoshti script.  Fragments survive from a range of time periods, and the material is described throughout Indian literature.

Recently, an ancient Buddhist settlement, belonging to second and third century CE, has been discovered in Badgam district of Central Kashmir2. The tiles unearthed from the site area are in various shapes. They bear swastika motifs and the Kharoshti script, which was popular in Kashmir in the early centuries of the Common Era and ceased its popularity in circa fourth century. The presence of the Kharoshti numerals and swastika motif revealed the date of the site to be between second and third century CE.  Measuring 36 cm x 40 cm, the Kharoshti numerical on the tiles were clearly stamped to maintain the order of tiles in the layout.

Palm leaf manuscripts1 were probably in use as early as the 2nd century, but no extant leaves survive earlier than the 10th century. Because palm-leaf is still used today in India for certain religious writings, much is known about the manufacture and treatment of the material.  In 1998 an early manuscript of about the 5th century written in the Kharoshti script was found in the Bhaamiyan cave region near the Afghanistan city of Hadda.  Microscopic examination revealed the pages were, in fact, laminated layers of very thin Birch-bark.

Birch-bark (bhoja-patra)1 manuscripts were literally the ancient database of Buddhism in India.  In the 1930’s, the Musee Guimet in Paris had acquired bundles of birch-bark found at Baamiyan in Afghanistan. The inner bark of the birch tree was used for writing. After being peeled off the tree, the bark was dried. Oil was then applied over it and it was polished. Layers were joined together by a natural gum. Finally, it was cut to a suitable size and kept in between wooden covers. The ink used for writing on birch bark was ‘Indian black’, a carbon ink. It was prepared by burning almond shells to charcoal, which was then boiled with cow’s urine. This ink had a special brilliance and was indelible.


1. ExpressIndia -Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd., 1999

2. Mitchiner, Michael, The ancient and Classical World (600 BC-AD 650), Oriental Coins and their values, Hawkins Publications, London, 1978.

3. Plant, Richard J., Greek, Semitic, Asiatic coins and how to read them, Scorpion Publishers, Amherst, New York, 1979.

4. Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum, Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek Coins, The collection of the American Numismatic Society, New York 1998.