Punctuation poetry in MS Sanscrit 616

In India, the 19th century was a period in which manuscripts, lithographs, and printed books were all being produced at the same time. We often imagine a linear sequence in which manuscripts are copied as lithographs, which are then replaced by books, but reality is usually not so straightforward. In fact, manuscripts were sometimes produced by copying lithographs and printed books by hand, for a variety of reasons — for example, see Francis 2017, “The Other Way Round: From Print to Manuscript”.


Sanscrit 616. All manuscript images are courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 616. All manuscript images are courtesy of the BnF.


Sanscrit 616 is a particularly interesting example of this phenomenon. It is a palm-leaf manuscript of the Amarakośaviveka, copied from a lithograph made in 1850 in Pune. Although the lithograph was printed in Devanāgarī script, this copy has been written in Nandināgarī.

One innovative aspect of the lithograph is that it employs English-style quotation marks, which were not commonly used in Sanskrit texts at the time. This is perhaps due to the influence of Major Thomas Candy, who supervised the publication of the text — he is called क्याप्तन् क्यांडी “Captain Candy” in the text (evidently, he was promoted). Thomas Candy was famous for introducing Western punctuation to Marāṭhī texts, and his pamphlet, Marathi Punctuation विरामचिन्हांची परिभाषा, was also published in 1850, and widely disseminated.

The editor of the lithograph, Rāghunātha Talekar, has written an introduction in verse form, and there is one line in which he explains how he uses quotation marks:

ग्रंथांतरज्ञापनाय =“-” चेत्थं संज्ञा प्रकल्पिता ॥

graṃthāṃtarajñāpanāya =“-” cetthaṃ saṃjñā prakalpitā ||

In order to cite other texts, this sign, in the form of =, “, and ”, has been employed.1

This is a beautiful and rare instance in which punctuation has been used in Sanskrit verse. The quotation marks are not meant to be pronounced; this is evident because, otherwise, it would break the śloka metre of the verse. In fact, Talekar has cleverly composed this line so that the quotation marks fall exactly in the caesura of the metre, so that, when read out loud, there is a natural, short pause just before the ca, “and”. So, while the silent punctuation doesn’t break the flow of the verse, on the other hand, the verse doesn’t make sense if read aloud. This poetic tension between orality and writing perfectly captures the complexities of this time period, in which ancient texts like the Amarakośa, written in verse to facilitate memorization and recitation, were being reproduced using new technologies.

To further complicate the matter, the scribe of Sanscrit 616, in copying this line, also has to contend with writing it in Nandināgarī script:


detail from Sanscrit 616, folio 1v.

detail from Sanscrit 616, folio 1v.


As you can see, in the top line, the scribe does not seem to recognize the Western-style punctuation being used here. The opening quotes are transformed into //, two forward slashes, and the closing quotes become the number 11.2 Rather than trying to draw the quotation marks as they are in the lithograph, the scribe has attempted to interpret and translate them.

This brings to mind similar transformations that take place when translators work with the poetry of writers such as e. e. cummings. For example, see this Chinese translation of “l(a” from Wikipedia:












or, perhaps further afield, this ASL rendering of “[in Just-]”.


  1. The equal sign “=” is also used to mark words in the Amarakośa text that are commented upon in the Viveka. 
  2. This scribe alternates between Devanāgarī- and Nandināgarī- style numerals.

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