How to read Sanskrit

A simple introduction to romanized Sanskrit

In modern times, Sanskrit is usually written in the Devanagari script (देवनागरी). But historically, Sanskrit has usually been written in whatever script its users knew best. There is no "correct" script to use for Sanskrit, and you should use whatever you prefer.

We recommend that beginners who don't know any Indian scripts use romanized Sanskrit, because it is simple and easy to learn. We'll teach you how to read it here, and it will take only five minutes.

We want you to start reading as soon as possible, so we will describe these sounds quite loosely. If you want to hear recordings of these sounds, you can do so here. And when you know more Sanskrit, you can read our śikṣā series, which teaches Sanskrit phonetics in detail.

Let's begin. These sounds are called vowels:

a"u" in "but"
ā"a" in "father"
i"ee" in "teeth" (short)
ī"ee" in "teeth" (long)
u"oo" in "mood" (short)
ū"oo" in "mood" (long)
"r" in "red" (short)
"r" in "red" (long)
"l" in "long"
e"a" in "mate"
ai"ai" in "aisle"
o"o" in "mode"
au"ow" in "cow"

a, i, u, ṛ, and are short vowels. All other vowels are long and pronounced for twice as much time as the short vowels. , , and don't have a standard pronunciation and vary by region.

Other sounds are usually called consonants. Consonants with an "h" in them are aspirated, which means that they are pronounced with an extra puff of air. Native English speakers can hear this distinction by comparing the "p" sounds in the words "span" (unaspirated p) and "pan" (aspirated p).

ka"k" in "keep"
khaaspirated ka
ga"g" in "goat"
ghaaspirated ga
ṅa"n" in "lung"
ca"ch" in "choice"
chaaspirated ca
ja"j" in "join"
jhaaspirated ja
ña"n" in "enjoy"
ṭa(see below)
ṭhaaspirated ṭa
ḍa(see below)
ḍhaaspirated ḍa
ṇa(see below)
ta"th" in "thin"
thaaspirated ta
da"th in "this"
dhaaspirated da
na"n" in "nose"
pa"p" in "span"
phaaspirated pa
ba"b" in "boat"
bhaaspirated ba
ma"m" in "mean"
ya"y" in "yes"
raSpanish r, as in "rojo"
la"l" in "love"
va"v" in "vase"
śa"sh" in shine
ṣa(see below)
sa"s" in "sneeze"
ha"h" in "house"

Consonants with a dot underneath them (ṭa, ṭha, ḍa, ḍha, ṇa, ṣa) are retroflexed. When you pronounce a retroflexed sound, your tongue should curl back and touch the top of the roof of your mouth. We don't have retroflexed sounds in English.

Sanskrit also has two other sounds that are pronounced differently in different contexts:

(see below)
(see below)

is a nasal sound (like na or ṅa) that is pronounced to match the sound that follows it. So, saṃjaya is pronounced like sañjaya, saṃdhi is pronounced like sandhi, and so on. is not retroflexed, even though it has a dot underneath it.

is usually pronounced as an echo of the vowel that it follows. So, aḥ often sounds like aha, and likewise iḥ as ihi, aiḥ as aihi, and so on. is not retroflexed, even though it has a dot underneath it.

There is also one combination that is worth learning: jña is often pronounced like "gnya" or "gyaa," depending on where the speaker is from.

Finally, here is a common punctuation mark:

'(see below)

This mark is not pronounced. It just shows that a letter was removed due to some sound rule.

These are all of the sounds and characters that you'll see in ordinary Sanskrit. Now that you know how to read, it's time to choose a book and get started on your Sanskrit journey.