A Philippine Leaf
Sulat sa Tansô

Kavi, a borrowed Philippine script

by Hector Santos
© 1995-96 by Hector Santos
All rights reserved.


The script used in the LCI was Kavi, an extinct Javanese script universally used in Southeast Asia during 600-1500 A.D. Kavi is considered to be the progenitor of most Southeast Asian scripts including Lampong, Rejang, and Batak of Sumatra as well as Buginese and Macassarese of Sulawesi, one of which was probably the source of other ancient Philippine scripts.

All Southeast Asian scripts, including Kavi, are syllabaries which means that each symbol represents one complete syllable. They can ultimately be traced back to Brahmi from India's Ashokan era (200-300 B.C.). Brahmi spawned Grantha ("palm leaf writing") of the Pallava era, the old script of South India used in writing Vedic Sanskrit.

Kavi descended with very little change from Grantha, a "perfect" syllabary in the sense that it had symbols for all the sounds of the language it represented. Grantha had at least 48 basic symbols including a full set of vowels and diphthongs. The system allowed for a very accurate rendering of the spoken language it represented, much better than what our own Latin alphabet does for English.

The script spread from South India and was adopted by many groups in Southeast Asia. Sometimes, it was modified to accommodate the group's language. More often than not, the script was simplified not for linguistic reasons but because of the adopting group's lesser level of cultural achievement. By the time the script reached Sumatra, there were only 19-21 basic symbols left. When it reached the Philippines, only 17 were left.

One of the mysteries posed by the LCI is how a very sophisticated script like Kavi which took root early in the Philippines could be replaced later by a primitive one like the ancient Tagalog script.

Writing Materials

From South India to Sulawesi and the Philippines, the most common writing material in the old days were palm leaves, tree bark, and bamboo. The letters were usually inscribed with a knife or a sharp, pointed stylus. The combination of a sharp cutting instrument and the long fibers of the writing material influenced Southeast Asian lettershapes to a great extent. They tended to have short rounded strokes.

With the Philippines possibly as the only exception, writing in Southeast Asia was in the hands of the elite such as the ruling class, priests, and official scribes. Most ordinary writing was done on perishable materials like the ones mentioned above. Since many areas were ruled by emperors, kings, or princes there was a need for documents and edicts to be written on material that would last for a long time. For these purposes, the written text was turned over to a skilled artisan who then transferred it to a more permanent material like stone or metal. These texts on permanent material are mainly the artifacts of writing that have come down to us today.

Contrary to popular belief, no mass manuscript burnings occurred anywhere in Southeast Asia like what happened in Easter Island and the Americas. The manuscripts written on perishable materials simply deteriorated due to the high heat and humidity. It was only in the 19th Century that researchers started collecting and preserving such materials.

The Tagalog script was long dead by then and we have no artifacts of ancient Philippine scripts except for the three mentioned in the main article and those that were written under Spanish supervision.

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To cite:
Santos, Hector. "Kavi, a borrowed Philippine script" in A Philippine Leaf at http://www.bibingka.com/dahon/lci/kavi.htm. US, October 26, 1996.
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Please send me your comments. I would love to hear from you.
Hector Santos <hectorsan@bibingka.com> Los Angeles
Last modified: Wednesday, July 28, 1999