The Siloṭi Nagri script

Sylheti has its own unique script or writing system called ‘Siloṭi Nagri’ [sometimes spelt Syloti Nagri, or Sylheti Nagari]. Siloṭi Nagri matches the phonology (sound system) of spoken Sylheti perfectly and is consequently much easier to learn than the Bengali script, having only 33 characters (5 vowels and 28 consonants) to Bengali’s 51, and uses very few conjunct characters.

Siloṭi Nagri is not related to Bengali or to the form of Devanagari used for writing Hindi, even though some Bengali writers have erroneously called the script ‘Devanagri’ or ‘Hindi’, quoting from a book by a British author 100 years ago who had not himself seen any examples. In fact, the Siloṭi Nagri alphabet seems to be closely related to, and may have been derived from, the Kaithi script of Bihar, though with a number of differences.

Nobody knows when the Siloṭi Nagri script first arrived in Sylhet. Some say it came with the companions of Shah Jalal who invaded Sylhet in 1303 AD, others believe it came a couple of centuries later. The oldest Siloṭi Nagri manuscript known today is ‘Talib Huson’ in which the author Gulam Huson says he is writing his puthi ‘in the year 1181’; this translates to the year 1774 AD or 1559 AD depending on which calendar is being used. In fact, the form of language is similar to Bengali of the 1500’s, so a very early date is indeed possible.

History of Siloṭi Nagri Printing

As far as we know, Sylheti is unique among Indian languages in having its first printing font designed, and its subsequent printing and publishing industry developed, by nationals and not by foreigners. This is in marked contrast to Bengali and Assamese, whose printing and publishing were, at least initially, developed by Europeans.

By the mid 19th century, Sylhet already had a remarkable level of rural literacy, with manuscript books in wide circulation being copied by hand. (You can view examples of two such books, 'Shahadote Buzurgan' and 'Gafil Nosihot', on the puthi examples page.) Then in the 1860's Moulvi Abdul Karim left Sylhet and stayed several years in Europe where he learned the printing trade. On his return, Karim designed a woodblock type for the Siloṭi Nagri alphabet and founded the Islamia Press in Sylhet Town in about 1870. Metal type soon followed, and other Siloṭi Nagri presses were established in Sunamgonj and Shillong. Even Calcutta, though over 350 miles from Sylhet, at one time had at least three presses, and at least one newspaper was published there. This is because Sylheti young men in their thousands used to go to Calcutta seeking work on ships, often waiting months for an opening and having little to do except read.

Printing in Siloṭi Nagri seems to have suffered a decline after Partition in 1947, with the last presses closing down by the early 1970's. We understand that the Islamia Press in Sylhet Town was destroyed by fire during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.

In 1997 STAR developed a basic computer font generated from scanned samples of the wood block type and intended for use by linguists and academics studying Sylheti literature. However, so much interest was shown by the Bengali media at the demonstration of the font in Sylhet, December 1997, that STAR was commissioned by the Sylot Academy to develop a Siloṭi Nagri computer font for general use. 

The resulting "New Surma" font was designed for clarity and ease of reading, and to reflect the character of both the Sylheti manuscripts and the earlier printing fonts. This is the font used in the Siloṭi Nagri transcriptions of the sample puthi pages which are available to view here (click on the puthi image and navigate to the transcriptions).

STAR has also made two font types available for public use. For more information and instructions on how to download and install these fonts, click here.