Writing systems and literature
We have considerable information about the literature and writing systems Of the period. Hsüan-tsang reports of the writing system of Tokharistan:
In the composition of its language [Tokharistan] differs somewhat from the remaining realms. The number of letters in its script is 25, they combine to form various combinations and with their help all may be reproduced. The script is read horizontally, from left to right. Literary works are composed in great quantity and exceed the Sogdian in volume.13
This refers to the Late Bactrian writing system (for its development and writing, see Chapter 6), which persisted in some parts of Tokharistan as late as the twelfth century. With time, changes obviously occurred in the Bactrian language and its various written records may reflect different dialects.14 The script became increasingly cursive, some characters were identical in shape and some had several meanings (this is particularly true of the ligatures), making the script difficult to decipher.
Among the more famous written records of Late Bactrian (sometimes called Hephthalite) writing, mention should be made of two cursive inscriptions carved on rocks in Uruzgan (north-west of Kandahar in Afghanistan). According to Bivar, who published them, one speaks of a king of Zabul called Mihira(kula) and dates from around 500,15 although other scholars (Henning and Livshits) suggest a far later date in the eighth or ninth century. The Bactrian inscriptions in the Tochi valley of north-western Pakistan are very badly preserved. The Tochi valley also has Arabic and Sanskrit inscriptions from the first half of the ninth century. The text of the Bactrian inscription, which is very cursive, cannot be read with confidence: Humbach's proposed reading is completely rejected by other scholars.16
Inscriptions have also been found on sherds and walls in Middle Asia (at Afrasiab, Zang-tepe and Kafyr-kala among others). Hsüan-tsang's account suggests that many more manuscripts existed than have yet been discovered. Nevertheless some have been preserved in East Turkestan, in the Turfan oasis.
Brahmi manuscripts are known from Sir Aurel Stein's discovery of the Gilgit birch-bark manuscripts, which were immured in a stupa some time between the fifth and the seventh century. They include a Pratimoksa-sutra, a Prajñaparamita and others. A mathematical manuscript found near Peshawar, the Bakhshali manuscript (see below), may date from the end of this period.17 Other birch-bark manuscripts have been found in Zang-tepe, 30 km north of Termez, where fragments of at least 12 manuscripts have been found. One of them bears a Buddhist text from the Vinaya-vibhanga. A fragment of birch-bark manuscript bearing a text of apparently Buddhist content has been found at Kafyr-kala in the Vakhsh valley. Mention should also be made of the Buddhist birch-bark manuscripts found at Merv and nearby at Bairam-Ali. The latter find consists of 150 sheets, both sides of which bear a synopsis of various Buddhist works, written in Indian ink. It was compiled for his own use by a priest of the Sarvastivada school.18 Sanskrit manuscripts of varied content, including medical materials, and dating from different periods have been found in the Bamiyan valley (see also Chapter 18).19
It was during the late eighth and early ninth centuries that the Sarada script was developed on the basis of Brahmi. In Afghanistan, two marble sculptures have been found with inscriptions which ‘represent transition scripts from Brahmi to Sarada’20 and which date from the eighth century. The origin and chronology of the 'proto-Sarada script [are] far from being certain and [are] still open to speculation'.21 In this regard, some materials from Bamiyan are of interest.
The Bakhshali manuscript is written in Sarada script and was copied by five scribes, the chief of whom was Ganakaraja. It appears to have been a commentary on an earlier mathematical work and contains rules and techniques for solving problems, chiefly in arithmetic but also in geometry and algebra. The standard of knowledge in this field is indicated by the fact that the work treats square roots, geometric and arithmetic progressions and so on. Grammars are also known. 'The oldest work of this school of grammar known to us is by Durga Simha who flourished in about 800 A.D. and has written a commentary entitled Durgavritti and a Tika of it.22
13. Pelliot, 1934, p. 50,
14. Gershevitch, 1985, p. 113.
15. Bivar, 1954.
16. Humbach, 1966, pp. 110–17; see Gershevitch, 1985, p. 93; Harmatta, 1969, p. 345.
17. Kaye, 1927; Gilgit Buddhist Manuscripts, 1959–60, Parts 1-2; and others.
18. Vorobyova-Desyatovskaya, 1983, pp. 63–8.
19. Levi, 1932; Pauly, 1967.
20. The Archaeology of Afghanistan, 1978, p. 244.
21. Sander, 1989, pp. 108–12.
22. Pandey, 1973, p. 240.