The Consonant


The fundamental principle of the Devanagari script is that each character represents one single sound, unmodified with any other sound. From this, we build words by forming clusters or by making them carry a vowel sound. To explain the above more clearly, let’s take the English alphabet ‘b’. 

When you say ‘b’, you probably say it as ‘bee’ (/bi/). Notice how you don’t say /b/ but instead add a vowel after it. Trying to sound /b/ will only result in a pop-kind-of sound. This is called a consonant and it represents one single sound that is not attached to any vowel. This is what is behind the script; each syllable you see or hear is actually a consonant (or a group) attached with a vowel sound. Each consonant has a certain visual form assigned to it, and if it carries a vowel sound, the consonant is slightly modified to reflect this.

Vowels do also have their own form but we will cover this in Diacritics. Diacritics modify the consonant to give them a different sound.


In summary, each consonant has a unique form which is modified by adding a vowel sound. However, how does the consonant look like? The consonants you learnt in the lesson The Devanagari Script all have the ‘a’ sound attached to it (this is also called a schwa, which is interesting by itself). In this lesson, we explore the consonant itself. Don’t worry, though. The logic is very simple and straightforward.

You see, when you add a special kind of diacritic called हलन्त (halanta) to the characters you learnt previously, you cancel their respective vowel sound. The हलन्त (halanta) looks like this and goes under the base of the character: ्. Now, all you have left is the consonant without any vowel attached to it. This is called the primary form of the consonant. The primary form of the consonant appears either as a stand-alone or in the end of the word but never in-between. This is very important to understand.

The secondary form of the consonant is when you remove a part of their look, which can either their tail or the long vertical dash. This form appears in the beginning or the middle of the word, but never as a stand-alone or in the end. Note that not all consonants have a secondary form, so the primary form is used throughout when necessary. 

I will be fair and honest here; I do not know why were two forms necessary. However, the secondary form is exclusively used to form what are known as conjuncts, clusters and ligatures. I suppose this arose due to the huge range of clusters that can arise using this script. 

Without further ado, let’s explore the two forms.




Now that we have seen both forms of the consonants, let’s learn how they are useful. We shall not explore how they will take up vowels but rather how they can take themselves to form a more complex sound. 

Take the word ‘ask’. Notice how the sound ‘sk’ is a combination of two consonants, ‘s’ and ‘k’. The combination of two or consonants together is known as a consonant cluster, since there is a ‘cluster’ of two or more consonants without any vowel in between. In Devanagari, such a sound is represented by concatenating two consonants to form what is known as a ligature or conjunct. In short, a ligature is a single unit that represents two or more sounds together. An example of this is the letter ‘æ’ or the German ‘ß’.

Now that we have sorted the two terms, let’s explore how to represent consonant clusters with ligatures in the Devanagari script. Here is the recap for the two forms and their use:

  • Use the primary form for a stand-alone consonant or when it appears in the end
  • use the secondary form if it appears in the beginning or in the middle, but never where the primary form is prefered

With the above two rules, we can finally form our ligatures. Take the cluster ‘sk’ as before. Since ‘s’ precedes ‘k’, we apply the secondary form to ‘s’. Since ‘k’ succeeds ‘s’, the primary form is used. This results in the ligature स्क्.

We can represent even more complex consonants this way by simply applying the two rules. Take the consonant cluster ‘nkys’. What matters here is that except ‘s’, all of the other consonants appear before it. This means, ‘n’, ‘k’ and ‘y’ all take the secondary form while ‘s’ takes the primary form. This results in the ligature न्क्य्स्.

For a stand-alone consonant like ‘p’, we simply use the primary form. This results in the ligature प् (strictly speaking, this isn’t a ligature but rather the consonant itself). 


Some ligatures appear with such frequency that they are given a single, different letter. Examples include the ligature tt and kt. We shall explore this later on. However, they can also be expressed without using special characters, just like how ‘æ’ can be represented by ‘ae’ instead. Some devices display this ligature while others do not. For example, my PC does not display the kt ligature but my mobile phone does.

One important thing to note is that, when the consonant ‘r’ is used to form ligatures, it takes a very special (secondary) form. This form has a name called ‘reph’ and ‘rakār’ in Nepali (for some reason, this script loves two of everything, so bear with me). Reph looks like a right-facing sickle and appears above the letter, while rakār looks like a left-facing diagonal dash (sometimes duplicated in some cases). They are highlighted in red below:

How do you know whether to use reph or rakār? The answer is very simple: if the cluster contains ‘r’ in the beginning, then it will take up a reph. If the cluster contains ‘r’ in the end, then it will take a rakār. Note that reph will go above the letter while rakār will go beneath.

Take the cluster ‘rj’. Since ‘r’ precedes ‘j’, the resulting ligature will be र्ज्.

Take the cluster ‘jr’. Since ‘r’ succeeds ‘j’, the resulting ligature will be ज्र्.

When the rakār is used for the retroflex consonants (excluding the nasal retroflex ण), instead of one dash, two dashes are used. For example, take the cluster ‘ṭhr’. This will result in ठ्र्.



1. pch
2. kst
3. rml
4. śs
5. ṭphr


1. ख्ग्
2. र्ङ्ल्द् 
3. च्फ्
4. झ्य्ल् 
5. ञ्र् 


A. 1. प्छ्
A. 2. क्स्त्
A. 3. र्म्ल्
A. 4. श्स् 
A. 5. ट्फ्र्

B. 1. khg
B. 2. rṅld
B. 3. cph
B. 4. jhyl
B. 5. ñr

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s