Life CellOfBrahmi Numerals

AJITHA.R , M.Sc., M.Ed.,, 25 April 2019 கட்டுரை Read Full PDF

AJITHA.R , M.Sc., M.Ed.,


Dr. N. RAJAN BABU, (Maths)




Every numeral system impacts to each phases of the development of mathematics in every civilizations. Brahmi numerals appear on inscriptions dating back to 3rd century B.C.E The Brahmi numeral inscription are found in many parts of the world. The oldest rock inscription with Brahmi-Numeral is in Villupuram, Tamilnadu.


Keywords: Tally, records, Brahmi numerals, symbol.



Early civilization have understood the importance of numbers and the ways to handle them and every society had their own representation of numbers in their age and every civilization had different glyphs to represent numbers.

The first method of counting has been argued to be counting on fingers. This evolved into sign language for the hand-to-eye-to-elbow- communication of numbers , which while not writing, gave way to written numbers.

Tallies made carving notches in wood, bone & stone were used for at least 40,000 years. These tally marks may have used for counting elapsed time such as number of days, lunar cycles or keeping records of quantities such as animals. Many cultures recorded their collections by strokes independently.

The story of our numerals began in India around 250 B.C with the invention of numbers called the Brahmi (Brah-mee) numerals. These Brahmi Numerals were the earliest form of numerals we use today, but they do not look much like our numerals.

Brahmi Numerals changed over time. By around 650 A.D the numbers had taken new forms & known as Nagari , which is popularly known as Devanagari. The name ' Devanagari' literally means " Writing of the Gods" & it was considered the most beautiful of all the forms of writing which evolved. Nagari numerals include zero which Brahmi Numerals did not have.




Evolution of Brahmi Numerals:


Evolution of Brahmi Numerals were from the times of Ashoka

Brahmi Numerals came in the middle of the 3 Rd century B.C. These Brahmi Numerals were not just symbols for the numbers between 1 and 9. These were the symbols of many more numbers. The numerals were called as 'Anka' and had different shapes in various parts of India. There were no special symbols for 2 and 3 , they were being constructed from the symbol for 1.




There were separate symbols for 4,5,6,7,8,9 but there were also symbols for 10, 100, 1000..... as well as 20, 30, 40....,90 and 200,300,400....900.




Brahmi( Brah-mee) is an ancient system for writing numerals which was developed thousands of years ago in India. It is one of the most influential writing systems. All modern Indian scripts & several hundred scripts found in South Asia are derived from Brahmi.

In South India particularly in Tamilnadu, Brahmi inscription represents Tamil, a language belonging to the Dravidian language family with no linguistic affiliation to the Indo-Aryan languages such as Sanskrit or Prakrit.



The Brahmi Numerals have been found in caves and on coins in South India, from South India to North eastern India. At that time Gupta Dynasty ruled in the 4 th century A.D to the late 6 th century A.D.

The Gupta Numerals developed from the Brahmi Numerals and were spread over large areas by the Gupta empire as they conquered territory.




The Indian numerals were spread around the world between 7th& 16th century.



The oldest stone inscription featuring a numeral is the Tamil- Brahmi cave inscription from Tondur. Literary sources in Tamil mention numbers only in words. However we do have ancient literary references specifically mentioning En ( numerals ) as distinguished from ezhuttu ( letter of the alphabets). But as palm leaf manuscripts decay with time and hardly last for more than 200 years, we have to turn to durable stone or pottery inscriptions to know what the ancient Tamil Numerals look like.


fig 7: Ancient Numerals in the land of Ramanujan, Rameshwaram


The numeral 3 engraved at the end of a short two-line inscription in the cave is represented by three horizontal parallel lines. The inscription records that the village of Agalur, near Tondur gifted three stone beds in the cave chiseled by Mosi.


           " The oldest stone inscription featuring a numeral is the Tamil Brahmi cave

           inscription from Tondur, in Villupuram district assigned to about 3 Rd century”. - THE HINDU


  • CHENNAI- DEC-29, 2011, 1:28 ISC
  • UPDATED- DEC-29, 2011, 1:28 ISC


The source of the first three numerals seems clear: they are the collection of 1, 2, 3 strokes in Ashoka's era I, II, III like Roman numerals but soon becoming horizontal like the modern Chinese numeral. In the oldest inscription 4 is a +, reminiscent of the X of the neighboring kharosthi and perhaps the representation of 4 lines or 4 directions. However, the other unit Numerals appear to be arbitrary symbols in even the oldest inscriptions. It is sometimes supposed that they may also have come from collection of strokes, run together in cursive writing in a way similar to that attested in the development of Egyptian hieratic and demotic numerals, but this is not supported by any direct evidence. Likewise , they units for the tens are not related to each other or to the units, although they might be based on a circle.




Pottery Inscription:

A well preserved pottery inscription from ‘Alagankulam’ near Rameswaram has only the numeral incised in fairly large size. The inscription is dated to the 1st or 2nd century. The number is read 408 from right to left. the first digit at right looking like a cross is the symbol for 4.


Well Inscription:

A well preserved and well known inscription from ‘Thiruvellaarai’, which is 25 km away from Tiruchi has a ‘swastik’ shaped well. The walls of the well have the inscription of the numbers used by the people in the 8 th century. The well is popularly known as ‘ "மாமியாமருமககேணி" ( mamiya marumage keni ). These numbers were taken from here to Europe via Arabia and later introduced the same to us with some changes. The images below show the inscription on the walls of the well Swastik;



Primary hypothesis for the origin of Brahmi Numerals:

With the similar writing instrument, the cursive forms of such groups of strokes could easily be broadly similar as well and this is one of the primary hypothesis for the origin of Brahmi Numerals.

However there are problems in timings and lack of records for the Acrophonic Numerals like Attic Numerals as they were lost.

The full set of numerals is not attested until 1 St - 2 nd century C.E, 400 years after Asoka. Assertions that either Numerals derive from the tallies.

Even as late as the 3 Rd century B.C in India the Asoka edicts the record numbers upto 5 as vertical tally mark

The numeral one , is always a single tally mark, straight or curved, horizontal, vertical or at an angle. Two was evidently two tally marks and cursively became the modern 2 or the reversed or the inverted form. Three in all its form is evidently derived from three parallels.

The idea that our common numerals are Arabic in origin is not an old one. The mediaeval and Renaissance writers generally recognized them as Indian and many of them expressly stated that they were of Hindu origin.

Of course the Arab themselves never laid claim to the invention always recognizing their indebtedness to the Hindus both for the numeral form and for the distinguishing feature of the place value.

The man Mohammed, the son of Moses, from khowarezm or more after the manner of Arab, Mohammed Ibn Musa al- khowa razmi , a man of great learning and one to whom the world is much indebted for its present knowledge of Algebra and Arithmetic stated distinctly that numerals were due to the Hindus.


Development of moden numerals from Tamil-Brahmi:

Around 500-700 A.D , the Hindu Arabic system was developed with 10 symbols including a zero then Brahmi numeral system was replaced, even though it is the ancestor of most of all the numerals in the world.




Illustration of some Brahmi Numerals in Tamilnadu:




Development of Numerals:



Development of Numerals from 3rd century to 16th century:





The Brahmi Numerals were the earliest form of numerals we use today. They are the direct graphic ancestors of the modern Indian and Hindu-Arabic numerals. However they were conceptually different from the later systems, as they were not a positional system with zero. There are many controversies to the origin of Brahmi Numerals. Due to lack of records and natural calamities there are no right proof for its origin. The figures 3,4 and 10 shows the evolution of modern numerals. " The oldest stone inscription featuring a numeral is the Tamil Brahmi cave inscription from Tondur, in Villupuram district assigned to about 3 Rd century”.- THE HINDU- IRAVATHAM MAHADEVAN, M.V. BHASKAR, CHENNAI- DEC-29, 2011, 1:28 ISC, UPDATED- DEC-29, 2011, 1:28 ISC Hence I conclude that modern numerals may have emerged from Tamil-Brahmi script.



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