Announcing Open Sanskrit

Here’s my first ever attempt at working with a font. I’ve called it Open Sanskrit and you can get it here.

Download Open Sanskrit

It’s a version of the free Open Sans font, expanded for use with Pali and Sanskrit. I’ve added a number of glyphs, namely ṛḷṭḍḥṣṇṅṁ (and their uppercase variants). The common Pali/Sanskrit glyphs āīūñś are already in Open Sans.

Why have I ventured into modifying fonts? Simply because I couldn’t find any good sans serif font to use in publications that would serve as a partner for my preferred text font, Gentium.

There are only a few free sans fonts that support the diacriticals necessary for Pali and Sanskrit. Most of these I ruled out for aesthetic reasons—they don’t play well with Gentium, and/or they are knock-offs of over-used designs. I wanted a workhorse companion sans that can be used for ‘everything else’, from bits of information to graphic design.

Open Sans is designed by Steve Matteson, type director of Ascender Corp, and so is fully professional in its features. It’s a humanist font, meaning that it uses a less geometric, subtly ‘hand-drawn’ feel, but is still very clean and neutral. It shares a similar design ethos to Gentium, being warm and readable, respectful of traditional design canons but not a copy of anything else.

It’s been released under an Apache 2.0 licence, which means that modifications may be freely made, as long as it is not marketed under the same name. This is why, even though I’ve only cut and pasted a few dots, I had to give the font a new name. And, you know, ‘Open Sanskrit’—cute, no?

Open Sans has almost unrivalled versatility for a free font. It includes 897 glyphs, and comes in 5 weights, each with its own italic, as well as three condensed forms—that’s thirteen variants. I have added the new glyphs to all of these.

I have omitted the ‘m underdot’ ṃ, known colloquially as ‘the Mark of the Beast’. As is well know, this glyph is an abomination, used only by those who are plotting to destroy Buddhism and delete all cute kitten videos from YouTube.

Why? Well, if you look at the glyphs used for Pali/Sanskrit, several of them have a dot underneath, and that dot always means the same thing—retroflex. That means they are pronounced with the tip of the tongue curled so that the back touches the roof of the mouth. Try it (and post the results on YouTube, please. We all need some light relief now that the kitten videos are under attack.) There is also the ‘n overdot’ ṅ, which means ‘nasal’. So when it comes to the other nasal, which sounds identical to ṅ and only formally differs, you’d think it would be logical to preserve the pattern by using ‘m overdot’ ṁ, right? Unfortunately, many Pali/Sanskrit sites and publications don’t think so. They use ṃ, the only justification for which is that they want to create confusion and darkness in the heart. The Mark of the Beast will not disappear until it has accomplished its dark task and the True Dhamma (and kitten videos) are no more.

I have also omitted the rare Sanskrit glyphs ṝ and ḹ, as my Sanskrit needs are limited and I have never used them. It would be good to add these, and possibly other glyphs used in less common Indic dialects. I might get around to this someday, but meanwhile if anyone wants to do it, please feel free. I’ve released the font under the same Apache 2.0 licence as the original, so anyone can make changes. If you just want to make a new variant, that’s fine, but if you’d like to just add some glyphs and keep it as Open Sanskrit, let me know and I’ll consider whether to update Open Sanskrit.

I made the changes using the excellent open source Font Forge. This was my first venture into font making, so I may well have messed something up. No guarantees! Nevertheless, I have been using Open Sanskrit as system font, default web font, and for most applications for several weeks and have had no problems.

There is one minor issue that I haven’t got to the bottom of. Look closely at certain combinations, such as ṇḍ, and in small sizes the underdots look like they’re at different heights. That’s not the case—increase the size or print it out and you’ll see they’re even. Perhaps this is an issue with the hinting.

Anyway, please download and enjoy!

23 thoughts on “Announcing Open Sanskrit

  1. I usually use Microsoft sans serif which has lots and lots of diacritical markings for use with Pāli: like this – Pāḷi diacriticals: ā ḍ ḥ ī ḷ ṁ ṃ ṅ ṇ ñ ŋ ś ṣ ṭ ū

  2. Open Sanskrit has a soothing and spacious, although I have no problem with any font that conveys the message. The Dharma is beautiful in whatever font. What is surprising is your remark about the “mark of the beast.” I have preferred m with superior dot for the simple reason that it syncs with the other nasal, n with superior dot. Furthermore, I think making fonts is more peaceable than making social comments, esp audacious which I am so used to. Unfortunately, I do not know how to make fonts. Here’s to a full life of beauty and tru
    th in the Dharma.

  3. I have actually tried out Open Sans with one of my longer files, “The notion of di.t.thi” (SD 40a.1). Here is some feedback:
    (1) The diacritics are fine.
    (2) My sutta files and essays use 11 pt for main text & 10 pt for footnotes TNR (Times New Roman) because of my lack of imagination and low IT IQ. Open Sans seems to be slightly bigger, so I may to scale down to Open Sans 10 pts and 9 points I think.
    (3) I have to re-do all my CTRL-keys short-cuts, which are for TNR at the moment.
    (4) I suppose the PDFs of the sutta files should not have any problem even for people who do not have Open Sans.

    • Hi Piya,

      Glad you liked it.

      (1) Good to hear.

      (2) Open Sans(krit) is indeed a little more spacious than Times, which was designed for cramped body text in newspapers and shouldn’t be used on screens. Gentium has a similar size to Times; the scale problem is fixed easily in LaTeX by putting [Scale = MatchLowercase, Scale = MatchUppercase] in the font declaration.

      (3) Times New Roman is the Mission Brown of fonts. The Toyota Corona of fonts. The John Howard of fonts. A thing that makes it go away is a good thing.

      (4) That’s right, as long as the font is embedded when you create the pdf file. If you’re not sure whether the fonts are embedded, open the pdf, and look under file>properties>fonts. If the fonts are not embedded, you need to adjust the settings in whatever you use to create the pdf. Open Sans looks great on the screen, so it would serve well as a web font, too. Actually, we’ve used it on the site for some time now. Perhaps one day I’ll get around to uploading open Sanskrit to a web font service so it can be used in websites.

    • Bhante, There is issue even Open Sans has not solved. When I tried to convert normal-font words into Small Caps, some of the letters remain unchanged (as in TNR). Wonder if you are aware of this?

    • Hi Piya,

      This is because these fonts do not have true small caps variants. It’s not clear to me if your problem is with these fonts specifically on whatever software you’re using; but it doesn’t really matter. Word processors and web browsers will usually try to invent faux small caps on the fly, but these should never be used for serious typography. Here’s why. Lack of small caps is one of the few typographic limitations of Open Sans(krit). However, it’s made up for by the range of weights; and small caps usually work much better in serif fonts, anyway. Sans small caps just don’t have the same graphic seriousness, although they do have their practical uses.

  4. This is a great offering. Thanks! Name very clever, too!

    Peter Skilling contacted me a while ago looking for just such a font for his publications. After some searching, I landed on the Alber New font (Chris Dickinson, 2010), which contains most of the necessary glyphs (not the ṝ and ḹ unfortunately), and we went in on a copy together (comes with five licenses). It is the font used on signs for the London Underground, and it comes in four weights.

    That font has the considerable downside of not being free–though it is not as expensive as a lot of fonts. It also does not have your helpful condensed version.

    I appreciate hearing your comments on the overdot versus the underdot, too! I had thought the case was pretty closed on the adoption of this convention, despite the arguments against.

    • If there’s a demand for the ṝ and ḹ (and the underdot m) it would be good to do these. Actually, it’s only a couple of hours work to add these glyphs.

    • Yes, I noticed that a lot of webfonts do not carry as rich a character set as their desktop equivalents (e.g., Gentium). And clearly, we will want an option with hinting. Am going to pass on your comments to the techies overseeing the website development. Our timeline is short, however, and so we may need to go with another option if a solution does not present itself shortly. I appreciate very much your efforts and will be curious to know what you discover.

    • I have some suggestions for solving this, and I will have the chance to test them out tomorrow, so I’ll get back to you then.

    • Dear Ven. Sujato. Wisdom would like to use Open Sanskrit on our new website. Any chance we could get a version enabled with the mark of the beast? :-)

    • Hi David,

      Great to hear from you.

      Well, I can put a Mark of the Beast in, no problems. Except, that sentence could really be quoted out of context, couldn’t it?

      But there are other issues with the font that would require some attention. I am in the middle of sorting out custom webfonts for SuttaCentral, and it is a tricky business. Our main font will be a commercial custom font, Skolar, and the complementary sans is Source Sans Pro, in this case also modified to add the Mark of the Beast (sob!).

      First is the matter of subsetting: Open Sanskrit has far too many glyphs to deliver comfortably over the web, so unnecessary glyphs have to be cut out.

      Fine, but this raises another problem that I have not yet sorted out. I modified these fonts using FontForge, which in many respects is an excellent tool. But it seems that it strips the hinting from the fonts when they are generated. This is a huge problem: the hinting determines the final appearance of the font (especially on Windows) as much as the font design itself. Using unhinted webfonts is out of the question.

      So, we need to find a way of modifying and generating fonts in FontForge (or something else) that will not strip the hints. I am looking for a solution for this problem for the SuttaCentral fonts, and I’ll let you know if I come up with a solution.

  5. Lots of fully-compliant Unicode Sansckrit & Pali fonts may be found here:

    The Buddhist Publication Society web site uses URW Palladio ITU for the downloadable offerings in it’s on-line library: (Clicking LIST brings up a list of all avaiable publications.) All Wheels and Bodhi Leaves have been set on-line in URW Palladio ITU; with and without Pāḷi diacriticals.

    • I don’t get what you’re talking about.

      > No more important today?
      Many, if not most, Unicode fonts are missing the glyphs between code points 0x1e00 and 0x1e98, where the diacriticals for Sanskrit/Pali reside.

      > *klick* *klick* *klick* like the villagers in the forest.

    • If one would be used to receive, just take what is given, one would be able to get (even what might be told). But as such is not common, how could one get it?

      Sorry I missed that you call your self Ven. for the case I had mistake the whats going on, apologies my mistakes.

      I am sure “Sanskritweb is maintained by Ulrich Stiehl” they also have a heart for hungry ghosts and Dhamma Vampires. Its very important, even to give them a share before dedicate ones offering to the Venerable ones.

      *click* *click* *click* still taking what is not given, one will stay sick or get worse and more worse.


  6. First of all – Thank you, Bhante, for making this available!!
    Now, I have the font installed but can’t figue out how to type the special letters, apart from å. I’m obviously missing something pretty basic. Can someone point me in the right direction?

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