Introduction to Gurmukhi Script and the Punjabi Alphabet

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Gurmukhi is the Sikh language of prayer in which the Guru Granth Sahib is written. The word "gurmukhi" means "of the guru's mouth." The second Sikh guru, Angad Dev, emphasized reading scripture daily. He developed a phonetic script, derived from a 16th century script, which could be easily learned by the common person. Guru Angad transcribed the compositions of his predecessor, Guru Nanak, into Gurmukhi.

The words of the ancient Gurmukhi language are similar to those of modern Punjabi, but differs grammatically in that it is a poetic rather spoken language. The Punjabi alphabet also has additional modern day characters which are not included in Gurmukhi script and which do not appear in the scriptural verses of the Guru Granth Sahib.

Gurmukhi Consonants

Gurmukhi Alphabet Consonants
Photo © [S Khalsa]

Characters of Gurmukhi script alphabet, or 35 akhar, are grouped to form a grid. The top row has three vowel holders followed by two consonants. The remaining 32 consonants are arranged so that the second through sixth rows have both horizontal and vertical significance to their pronunciation. For example, the last vertical row of letters all have a nasal inflection. The fourth horizontal row is all palatal and each is pronounced with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth just behind the ridge in back of the teeth, while the fourth vertical row is aspirated and pronounced with a puff of air, and so on.

Gurmukhi Consonants With Subscript Dot

Gurmukhi Subscript Dot Consonants
Photo © [S Khalsa]

Gurmukhi consonants with a subscript dot are called "pair bindi"  meaning a dot at the foot. These do not appear in the sacred scripture of Guru Granth Sahib, but may occur in other written compositions, or dissertations, revered by Sikhs. These are very similar to the parent consonant with slightly aspirated difference in pronunciation, or other subtle inflection of the tongue or throat. Their main importance is that they give different meaning to words which are homonyms, or similar in spelling and sound.

Gurmukhi Vowels

Gurmukhi Vowels Illustrated
Photo © [S Khalsa]

Gurmukhi has ten vowels, or "laga matra" one of which is understood rather than written, and has no symbol. It is known as "mukta," and means "liberation." A mukta is pronounced between each and every consonant wherever no other vowel is present unless otherwise indicated. A vowel holder is used where there is no consonant between vowel sounds. The vowel symbols are noted above, below, or to either side of consonants, or their respective vowel holders. 

Superscript vowel nasalization:

  • Bindi - a dot.
  • Tipi - an inverted u shape mark ^.

Gurmukhi Auxiliary Symbols

Gurmukhi Alphabet Auxiliary Symbols
Photo © [S Khalsa]

Auxiliary Gurmukhi symbols indicate double consonants, or the absence of a vowel, or conjunct adjacent consonants.

  • Superscript: Double consonants - Adhak. A crescent u shape mark preceding above the consonant duplicates its sound much the way we would write a double letter in the English language. Adhak does not appear in scripture of Guru Granth Sahib.
  • Subscript: Conjunct subjoined consonants - Paireen. Where a second adjacent consonant follows the first, with no mukta or other vowel between the two, a miniature subscript symbol indicated at the base of the first represents the second consonant.

Gurmukhi Numerals

Gurmukhi Numerals
Photo © [S Khalsa]

Gurmukhi numerals are used to reference verses and page numbers in Gurbani, the hymns of the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhism's holy scripture, Nitnem, the required daily prayers, Amrit Kirtan, the Sikh hymnal, and other Sikh prayerbooks. Many references of spiritual significance are made to numbers in Sikh scripture and texts.

Miniature Gurmukhi numbers appear as notations at the foot of certain texts in Guru Granth Sahib, and are indicative of subtleties regarding the raga measure in which they appear.

Gurmukhi Punctuation

Gurmukhi Punctuation Symbols
Photo © [S Khalsa]

Punctuation symbols indicate the separation of heading and text or line break:

  • Visarg - two circles, one above the other, similar to a colon, indicates the separation of heading from the body of the text or abbreviation of a word in the heading.
  • Dandi - a single vertical line indicates sentence stop.
  • Dodandi - a double vertical line indicates acts as a period to indicate a line break in the text.

Gurmukhi Word Picture Poster

Gurmukhi Words from Guru Granth Sahib Free Picture Poster
Photo © [Courtesy Davendra Singh of Singapore] Free for Personal Use

This picture poster contains illustrated words from Guru Granth Sahib painted by sangat of Singapore and is free for personal use and non-profit distribution to sangat courtesy Davendra Singh of Singapore.

Gurmukhi Glossary

Gurmukhi Spelling of Waheguru With Phonetic English Equivalent
Photo © [S Khalsa]

Sikh scripture is composed entirely of words written in Gurmukhi script. It is essential to learn Gurmukhi words, recognize their phonetic English equivalent and understand their deeper meanings in order to understand how they relate to Sikhism.

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Your Citation
Khalsa, Sukhmandir. "Introduction to Gurmukhi Script and the Punjabi Alphabet." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, Khalsa, Sukhmandir. (2020, August 27). Introduction to Gurmukhi Script and the Punjabi Alphabet. Retrieved from Khalsa, Sukhmandir. "Introduction to Gurmukhi Script and the Punjabi Alphabet." Learn Religions. (accessed March 20, 2023).