Visarga and Anusvara For Sanskrit Pronunciation

Visarga is a release of air, often resembling an echo of the preceding vowel. Anusvara adds a nasal quality to the sound, making it distinct. Visarga and Anusvara are not vowels; rather, they are special phonetic features in Sanskrit known as nasal sounds. They are called ardha-matra sounds.

In Sanskrit mantra chanting, the proper pronunciation of Visarga and Anusvara is very important. Earlier, we discussed the pronunciation of the three sibilants in Sanskrit: śa, ṣa, and sa. Here, we discussed the Visarga and Anusvara.

Both Visarga and Anusvara play unique roles in aiding the pronunciation of vowels and consonants in the language. The visarga (:) in Sanskrit serves to represent an unvoiced exhalation following a vowel or consonant. The letter (:) is commonly transcribed as “h” and is employed in diverse grammatical contexts, such as denoting the conclusion of a sentence or as a component of sandhi rules.

Anusvara is a voiced sound with only one place of articulation: the nāsikā, or nasal cavity. This differentiates it from the other anunAsikas such as न, न्, ण् , म and म्, which are sounds with specific oral articulations that are tinged with passage of air through the nasal cavity.

Visarga (ः):

  • Visarga is represented by the symbol “ः” and is a soft, echoing sound that occurs primarily at the end of words. It is not a vowel but is often associated with aiding vowel sounds due to its occurrence after them.
  • As mentioned, Visarga is a release of air, often resembling an echo of the preceding vowel. It contributes to the rhythmic and melodic quality of speech, particularly in the context of mantra chanting and Vedic recitations.
  • While Visarga itself doesn’t have a duration (matra), it affects the duration of the preceding vowel. If the vowel is short, the Visarga introduces a short echo, and if the vowel is long, the echo remains short as well.
  • Visarga(:) is different from ह (ha), or  ह् (h). Visarga(:) is just release of air, or an echo of the preceding vowel.
  • In the original Sanskrit, visarga was used simply to breathe out from your mouth in a relaxed manner without making any explicit sounds from throat. Hence, the sound of visarga is to be the pure breath coming from the mouth. 
  • However, after Panni, the Sanskrit rules are changed and as the rules are heavey the Sanskrit Language loses its vitality.
  • If the visarga is at the end of a sentence, it is common to add a voiced echo of the vowel after the breath. 
  • Here are some examples of Visarga pronunciations at the ends of a sentence —just a short echo of the preceding vowel.
Examples of Sanskrit Visarga

Examples of Sanskrit Visarga—just a short echo of the preceding vowel.

Anusvara (ं):

  • Anusvara is represented by the symbol “ं” and is a nasal sound. It is not a vowel but rather a nasal resonance that occurs after a vowel or a consonant.
  • Similar to Visarga, Anusvara aids in the pronunciation of vowels, particularly when they are followed by nasal consonants like “m” or “n.” Anusvara adds a nasal quality to the sound, making it distinct.
  • Anusvara also doesn’t have a duration (matra) on its own. Its primary role is to nasalize the preceding sound and contribute to the overall pronunciation.
  • The symbol for the anusvāra is “ṃ”. Examples: कं (kaṃ), खं (khaṃ), गं (gaṃ), घं (ghaṃ).
  • Pronunciation of an Anusvāra can be influenced by the specific consonant or vowel that follows it. For example: रामं (Rāmaṃ) – resulting in a nasal ‘am’ sound. चंद्र (Candra) – producing a nasal ‘an’ sound.

Rules for Pronouncing Anuswar in Sanskrit

Pronouncing Anuswar in Sanskrit involves rules that govern whether it sounds like “m” or “na.” These rules are influenced by the placement of Anuswar within a word and its interaction with surrounding letters. Let’s explore these rules in depth:

1. In the Middle of a Word:

  • When Anuswar is situated in the middle of a word, its pronunciation is influenced by the letter that follows it. If the succeeding letter is a nasal consonant, Anuswar tends to take on the nasal quality of that consonant.
  • Example 1: अंग्रजि (Angreji) – Here, Anuswar (अं) is followed by ग (ga), a nasal consonant. The pronunciation of Anuswar assimilates the nasal quality, resulting in the sound “nga.”
  • Example 2: संस्कृति (Sanskriti) – Anuswar (अं) is followed by कृ (kri), and its pronunciation adopts the nasal quality of कृ, leading to the sound “n.”

2. At the End of a Word:

  • When Anuswar appears at the end of a word, it often sounds like the nasal consonant “m.” This is a common occurrence in Sanskrit and contributes to the distinctive ending sound of many words.
  • Example 1: धूपं (Dhoopam) – Here, Anuswar (अं) is the final element in the word, and its pronunciation resembles the sound “m.”
  • Example 2: वन्यं (Vanyam) – In this case, Anuswar (अं) is at the end of the word, and it is pronounced as “m.”

3. Before Certain Consonants:

  • Anuswar may also exhibit the “m” sound when it precedes certain consonants, particularly stops and nasals.
  • Example: गंगा (Ganga) – Anuswar (अं) precedes the nasal consonant ग (ga), and it takes on the nasal quality, resulting in the sound “nga.”

4. Regional and Contextual Variations:

  • Pronunciation of Anuswar can exhibit variations based on regional accents and specific linguistic contexts. Different dialects may interpret and articulate Anuswar in unique ways, contributing to subtle differences in pronunciation.

In summary, the pronunciation of Anuswar as “m” or “na” depends on its position within a word and its interaction with adjacent letters. Understanding these rules enhances one’s ability to articulate Sanskrit words accurately and appreciate the intricate phonetic nuances of the language.

Anusvara and Visarga Matras

Regarding the mention of “1/2 matra,” “1 matra,” and “2 matras” in the context of vowels:

  • Short Vowels (1 Matra): Vowels like अ (a), इ (i), उ (u), ए (e), and ओ (o) are considered short vowels, and they typically have a duration of 1 matra.
  • Long Vowels (2 Matras): Vowels like आ (ā), ई (ī), ऊ (ū), ए (ai), and ओ (au) are considered long vowels, and they generally have a duration of 2 matras.
  • Anusvara and Visarga (1/2 Matra): Anusvara and Visarga do not have a specific matra duration on their own. However, as mentioned, they influence the duration of the preceding vowel. When a short vowel precedes Anusvara or Visarga, the resulting nasalized or echoed sound contributes to a total duration of approximately 1/2 matra.

Understanding the roles of Visarga and Anusvara, along with the durations of vowels, is fundamental to accurate Sanskrit pronunciation and the recitation of sacred texts and mantras.