Introduction to Prakrit



salc 380 m 15:00–16:50 cobb 219

andrew ollett foster 410

जो सक्कयं न याणइ सुविसुद्धं पाइयं पि वोत्तुं जे ।
मोणं तु तस्स सरणं णीसरणं अहव परिसाए ॥

Course Overview

Note: for the readings pages, you will often have to clear the cache (because I have updated the XML files over the course of the semester). To do so, you will have to open ‘developer tools’ in your browser: follow these instructions for Chrome/Chromium and these for Firefox/Mozilla.

This course is an introduction to Prakrit, the literary language that was cultivated from the beginning of the first millennium ce, and continued to occupy an important place in the imagination of language, and the practice of literature, in South Asia for many centuries afterwards. During this time, Prakrit was Sanskrit’s other, and the two languages were constantly used in opposition and complementarity to each othe. This course will begin with a brief overview of the Prakrit literary tradition, and then of Prakrit grammar and metrics. We will then commence reading a selection of texts representing three main genres: lyric poetry, courtly epic, and the story.

Requirements. No knowledge of Prakrit is presupposed. Given, however, that we will spend most of our time reading Prakrit texts, you will have to choose at what level you are willing and able to engage with these texts. For almost all of the readings, I provide both the original text and a translation; for some, I also provide a glossary. Chances are you will find yourself between one of the following three categories:

  1. Some experience with Prakrit. Keeping up with the readings in the original should not be a problem.
  2. No experience with Prakrit, but experience with Sanskrit or Pali. After the introduction to Prakrit grammar in week two, it should be possible to make sense of most of the readings, although it will probably not be possible to prepare all of the readings thoroughly; hence the translations may prove useful. The glossaries are intended for those with a background in Sanskrit.
  3. No experience with Prakrit, Sanskrit, or Pali. It will still be possible to keep up with the readings in translation, but it will often take feats of intense imagination to find the literary value that is present in the original.

Prior experience with Sanskrit or Pali, accordingly, is highly recommended but not absolutely required. Some of the assignments will depend on a reading of the original texts that is possible for those with a background in Sanskrit or Pali and less possible for those without; if you fall into the latter category, please let me know.

This is a seminar, not a language class. I anticipate, however, that many of you will not have had extensive prior experience reading Prakrit, and that the one week we will spend on Prakrit grammar may not provide enough time for the language to reveal all of its secrets to you. With this in mind, we will schedule one additional session per week to discuss portions of the readings in greater grammatical depth. Everyone is welcome to attend these sessions. We will select a time in the first week.

Assignments. Besides doing the readings and participating in in-class discussion (40%), there will be two major assignments for this course:

  1. a presentation in class on a Prakrit verse or passage of your choosing (30%); these will typically be 20 minutes long, during which you may choose to speak, or lead the class in a discussion, or both; the presentation must be accompanied by a handout (which you are encouraged to either send to the entire class beforehand);
  2. a paper of 10–12 pages that addresses the Prakrit language or Prakrit literature in some way (30%); please speak to me before week six (April 30) about your topic.

What you will present in these presentations is almost entirely up to you, although we will discuss possibilities in class, and for each text, I will make available a number of editions and commentaries on Canvas. Please also feel free to discuss either the presentation or the paper with me beforehand.

Policies. Please do use computers in the class. Please also adhere to the University’s guidelines on academic honesty. If you have to miss class for any reason, please let me know beforehand.

What this class is not. As we will discuss in class, “Prakrit” is not the same a “Middle Indic.” We will not be reading any inscriptions in Middle Indic. Nor will we be reading any Pali, Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, or Gandhari texts. Given, however, that Prakrit is a Middle Indic language, learning to read Prakrit will probably help with learning to read those languages. Similarly, we will not read any stage-plays, nor will we discuss the language economy of the classical stage-play in any great detail; we will not focus on the minute differences between the so-called “dramatic Prakrits.” Nor, finally, will we deal in any depth with the religious literature of the Jains, including that portion of it that is written in Prakrit. These exclusions are partly motivated by concerns of time, partly by my desire to avoid the dry and pointless exercise of categorization that the study of Prakrit is so persistently afflicted with, and partly by my ceterum censeo that Prakrit was the deliberately-adopted language of a coherent literary tradition which deserves to be experienced and studied as such.

Licenses and disclaimers. The material on this website, where not specifically attributed to someone else, was assembled by me, Andrew Ollett, and is made available under a Creative Commons 4.0 BY-SA license, which means that it should always remain free and open with attribution to the original creator of the content. The same applies to the software on this site, except of course for third-party libraries. Since much of the site is based on a custom TEI-to-HTML pipeline, there may be some glitches and bugs. Let me know if that is the case.


The following is a provisional schedule for the course. Readings refers to the primary texts that you should have read by that session (unless noted otherwise); we will talk about those readings in class. Assignments refers to secondary scholarship that you are also expected to have read by that session (unless noted otherwise). In a few cases the readings will be materials on this site. The readings listed as supplementary are optional but will help to better understand the issues we will be discussion in class.

Session/Date Topic
1 / 3-26

Beginnings / आरंभो

आरंभंतस्स धुअं लच्छी मरणं व होइ पुरिसस्स ।
तं मरणं अणारंभे वि होइ लच्छी उण ण होइ ॥

Since this is the first class, you will not be expected to have read the assignments. Instead, we will go over most of the primary texts together, and we will reserve some time next week to discuss the secondary readings.

We will also discuss a date for the additional section on Prakrit grammar every week, as well as finding a date to make up the sixth session.

In this first session, we will ask: what is Prakrit? A set of primary texts and a set of secondary readings will help us in thinking through an even more basic question: how do we think about the identity of a language?

Reading: Talking about Prakrit


  • Language of the Snakes, chapter 1 and chapter 5
  • Hermann Jacobi’s ‘Exkurs über die jüngeren literarischen Prākritsprachen’ from his introduction to his edition of Bhavisattakaha (Munich 1918) [Available on Canvas].

Supplementary Reading:

2 / 4-2

Grammar / सद्दसत्थं

भणिअं च पिअअमाए पियअम किं तेण सद्दसत्थेण ।
जेण सुहासिअमग्गो भग्गो अम्हारिसजणस्स ॥

This week will consist of a short introduction to Prakrit grammar: we will focus on the general principles that allow one to recognize (what we assume for the purposes of this class to be) more familiar Sanskrit forms in less familiar Prakrit forms, and therefore to start reading texts as quickly as possible.


  • Read the phonology and morphology pages of this site. For more detail, consult van den Bossche’s manual (below), which has references to Pischel’s Grammar.
  • Complete this exercise (solutions), which consists of fifteen Prakrit verses for which you should provide a Sanskrit rendering (chāyā). Feel free to do this assignment in groups.

Supplementary Readings:

3 / 4-9

The Single-Verse Lyric / गाहा

Part 1 / पढमो थवओ

परियरबंधेण भडं जाणेज्जा महिलियं निवसणेणं ।
सित्थेण दोणपागं कविं च एगाइ गाहाए ॥

This session begins a three-week engagement with the literary genre with which the Prakrit language is most closely associated: the single-verse lyric, or the gāthā, as it is usually called. We will begin, in this session, by thinking about how to read the gāthā. To this end we will look at a number of premodern commentaries and analyses of individual Prakrit verses.

Reading: Reading the Gāthā


Supplementary Readings:

  • Paul Dundas, The Sattasaī and Its Commentators [Available on Canvas.].
  • Khoroche and Tieken’s introduction to their translation of the Sattasaī (2009) [Available on Canvas].
  • Boccali’s introduction to the translation of the Sattasaī by him, Sagramoso, and Pieruccini (1990) [Available on Canvas].
4 / 4-16

The Single-Verse Lyric / गाहा

Part 2 / बिईओ थवओ

सत्त सआइं कइवच्छलेण कोडीए मज्झआरम्मि ।
हालेण विरइआइं सालंकाराण गाहाणं ॥

In the second and third sessions on the gāthā, we will delve into the undisputed classic of the genre, Hāla’s Seven Centuries. We will all read the entirety of the third century.

In addition, we will select a few verses to talk about in detail in class. Some of those discussions will be led by participants in the seminar (this week begins the student presentations, which will count for 30% of the grade).

Reading: Hāla’s Sattasaī


Supplementary Readings:

  • Herman Tieken, ‘A Formal Type of Arrangement in the Vulgata of the Gāthāsaptaśatī of Hāla,’ Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik 4 (1978): 111–129. [Available on Canvas.]
5 / 4-23

The Single-Verse Lyric / गाहा

Part 3 / तईओ थवओ

इअ सिरिहालविरइए पाउअकव्वम्मि सत्तसए ।
सत्तमसअं समत्तं गाहाण सहावरमणिज्जं ॥

We will continue our reading of Hāla’s Seven Centuries.

Reading: Hāla’s Sattasaī

6 / 4-30

The Courtly Epic / खंदअबंधो

Part 1 / पढमो थवओ

अहिणवराआरद्धा चुक्कक्खलिएसु विहडिअपरिट्ठविआ ।
मेत्ति व्व पमुहरसिआ णिव्वोढुं होइ दुक्करं कव्वकहा ॥

I will contact everyone in Week 1 about rescheduling this class.

From single-verse lyric poetry we move to longer-form compositions, namely, a class of courtly epics very similar to the Sanskrit mahākāvyam. The only such epic to survive is Pravarasēna’s Slaying of Rāvaṇa, from the early fifth century ce, and we will spend two weeks reading selections from this poem. We will focus on its striking divergences from Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇam.

Reading: Sētubandha 11


  • Handique’s introduction (pp. 1–147; feel free to skip after p. 49) to his translation of the Sētubandha.
  • Watch the video lesson on the skandhaka meter.

Supplementary Readings:

  • V. M. Kulkarni, Bhoja and the Harivijaya of Sarvasena. Ahmedabad: Saraswati Pustak Bhandar, 1991. [Available on Canvas.]
7 / 5-7

The Courtly Epic / खंदअबंधो

Part 2 / बिईओ थवओ

अहिणवराआरद्धा चुक्कक्खलिएसु विहडिअपरिट्ठविआ ।
मेत्ति व्व पमुहरसिआ णिव्वोढुं होइ दुक्करं कव्वकहा ॥

We will continue our reading and discussion of Pravarasēna’s poem.

Reading: Sētubandha 11

8 / 5-14

The Story / कहा

Part 1 / पढमो थवओ

जं च मए अणुभूअं जं च सुयं जं च संभरे घरिणि ।
थोवुच्चएण एयं सुण वण्णेहं समासेण ॥

The third and final genre we will explore in this class is the story (kahā), which is composed in both prose and verse. Our selections will come from Līlāvatī, a story (or “romance”) in Prakrit verse composed by Kōūhala around the eighth century.

Reading: Kōūhala’s Līlāvatī

Supplementary Readings:

  • Christine Chojnacki, ‘Charming bouquet or wedding garland? The structures of the Jain heroine ‘novel’ in Prakrit from Kuvalayamālā (779) to Maṇoramā (1082).’ ASIA 70(2) [2016]: 365–398. [Available on Canvas.]
9 / 5-21

The Twilight of Prakrit / संझासलिलंजली

पाइयकव्वं पढिउं गुंफेउं तह य कुज्जयपसूणं ।
कुवियं च पसाहेउं अज्ज वि बहवे न याणंति ॥

Note: we will not meet next week, because of Memorial Day, and so we will cover both the final segment of Līlāvatī with the final discussion.

What ever happened to the Prakrit literary tradition? This week we will look at a few selections from the tail end of this tradition—long after the composition of the texts that would become its classics—and think about two questions. What was the place of Prakrit in the multilingual and vernacularized world of the second millennium? And what was its position to begin with?

Reading: Kōūhala’s Līlāvatī



Each of the readings referred to above comes with a brief bibliography. In addition, the following general bibliography may be useful. (For premodern grammars and lexicons, please see this page.)


  • Ollett, Andrew. Language of the Snakes: Prakrit, Sanskrit, and the Language Order of Premodern India. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017. ISBN: 9780520296220. [Available as a physical book or for free download from University of California Press]
  • Nitti-Dolci, Luigia. The Prākrita Grammarians. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1972. [Translated by Prabhākara Jha; the book was originally published in 1938.]
  • Dundas, Paul. The Sattasaī and its Commentators. Turin: Pubblicazioni di «Indologica Taurinensia», 1985. [Available on Canvas.].
  • Selby, Martha Ann. Grow Long, Blessed Night: Love Poems from Classical India. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Grammars and Handbooks

  • Pischel, Richard. A Grammar of the Prākrit Languages. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981. [Available from Internet Archive; I have also put a copy up on Canvas, as well as the comprehensive index.] [Translated by Subhadra Jha from Grammatik der Prakrit-Sprachen, published by Trübner in 1900, and also available from Internet Archive.]
  • van den Bossche, Frank. A Reference Manual of Middle Prākrit Grammar: The Prākrits of the Dramas and the Jain Texts. Gent: Vakgroep Talen en Culturen van Zuid- en Oost-Azië, 1999. [Available on Canvas.]
  • von Hinüber, Oskar. Das ältere Mittelindisch im Überblick. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2001. Second revised edition. [Available on Canvas.]
  • Sircar, D. C. Grammar of the Prakrit Language, based Mainly on Vararuchi, Hemachandra and Purushottama. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1970 [second revised edition; first edition 1943]. [Available on Internet Archive.]

Modern Lexicons

  • Sheth, Hargovind Das T. Pāia-sadda-mahaṇṇavō (Prākr̥ta-śabda-mahārṇavaḥ). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1986. [A reprint of the second edition, published by the Prakrit Text Society in 1963. Available at Internet Archive and Jain e-Library; I have put up one version on Canvas. This is the only Prakrit lexicon to speak of; the definitions are in Hindi.]



  • Kulkarni, V. M. Prakrit Verses Cited in Sanskrit Works of Poetics. 2 vols. Delhi: Bhogilal Leherchand Institute of Indology, 1988. [A truly important, but nevertheless difficult-to-use, resource, which lists all of the Prakrit verses cited in Sanskrit texts of poetics and identifies their source to the extent possible. Available at Jain e-Library.]