The Characters that shaped the Silk Road

A Database and Digital Paleography of Tarim Brahmi

From the 2nd century CE on, Buddhist communities and monasteries developed along the trade routes of the ancient Silk Road in and around the Tarim Basin in today’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China. These were centers of writing, copying, translating, and transmitting texts similar to the monasteries in medieval Europe.

The old Indo-European languages Sanskrit, Tocharian, and Saka were the major languages of the monasteries in the Tarim Basin. The most important writing system these languages were written in a special Central Asian variety of the Indian Brahmi script. The earliest material written in this Tarim Brahmi is among the oldest attested Buddhist texts.

Most of the material written in Tarim Brahmi is scattered over different editions and not digitally searchable. It is the goal of this FWF START project to encode all texts written in Tarim Brahmi available following the Guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative, to link the text witnesses to their digital facsimiles on the character level and to publish this material together with a TEI-encoded dictionary in an online database. For the first time, this will allow the comprehensive paleographic investigation of this writing system. For this, all quantifiable features of all characters, ligatures, and words will be extracted and compared using software tools. This will, for the first time, make it possible to identify scribes, scribal schools, as well as regional and diachronic variants of Tarim Brahmi. In the XML database this linguistic, philological, and paleographic data will be combined and published through a web application.

The cooperation project with the university of Vienna is carried out by linguist and Central Asian scholar Hannes A. Fellner; the ACDH is responsible for data modelling, development of the database and the text technological stack for enriching and analysing the encoded material.