Syllables are groups of sounds that we pronounce as one unit. For example, a word like “beginners” has three syllables (“be-gin-ners”). Now that we know about the basic Sanskrit sounds, let's learn more about syllables.
Why learn about syllables? First, knowing about syllables helps us have good pronunciation. Second, some of Sanskrit's rules are easier to understand if we know how syllables work.
How to split a phrase into syllables
In Sanskrit, each syllable has exactly one vowel:
योग → यो ग
yoga → yo ga
व्याकरण → व्या क र ण
vyākaraṇa → vyā ka ra ṇa
Traditionally, each syllable should end in a vowel:
धर्म → ध र्म
dharma → dha rma
क्षेत्र → क्षे त्र
kṣetra → kṣe tra
And the anusvāra and visarga are in the same syllable as the vowel they follow:
संस्कृत → सं स्कृ त
saṃskṛta → saṃ skṛ ta
दुःख → दुः ख
duḥkha → duḥ kha
If there are any other sounds at the end of our phrase, we include them in the last syllable:
सुखम् → सु खम्
sukham → su kham
वृक्षः → वृ क्षः
vṛkṣaḥ → vṛ kṣaḥ
To better understand these rules, let's read the first verse of the Bhagavad Gita, which you can listen to here. Here is the first half of the verse:
धर्मक्षेत्रे कुरुक्षेत्रे समवेता युयुत्सवः ।
dharmakṣetre kurukṣetre samavetā yuyutsavaḥ ।
We split this into syllables like so:
धर्मक्षेत्रे कुरुक्षेत्रे → ध र्म क्षे त्रे कु रु क्षे त्रे
dharmakṣetre kurukṣetre → dha rma kṣe tre ku ru kṣe tre
समवेता युयुत्सवः → स म वे ता यु यु त्स वः
samavetā yuyutsavaḥ → sa ma ve tā yu yu tsa vaḥ
Light and heavy syllables
There are two kinds of syllables: light and heavy. We usually pronounce heavy syllables for twice as much time as light syllables.
Which syllables are light, and which are heavy? Generally, these syllables are heavy:
Syllables with long vowels.
Syllables that are followed by multiple consonants.
Syllables that are followed by the anusvāra or visarga.
And all other syllables are light.
In the example below, the red syllables are heavy and the black ones are light. As you read through this example, try to explain why each syllable is light or heavy:
ध र्म क्षे त्रे कु रु क्षे त्रे
dha rma kṣe tre ku ru kṣe tre
स म वे ता यु यु त्स वः
sa ma ve tā yu yu tsa vaḥ
If you pronounce light and heavy syllables correctly, your Sanskrit pronunciation will be sharp and clear.
If you would like to practice identifying syllables, you can try dividing the lines below. The first line is from the Puruṣasūktam, which you can listen to here:
सहस्रशीर्षा पुरुषः सहस्राक्षः सहस्रपात्
sahasraśīrṣā puruṣaḥ sahasrākṣaḥ sahasrapāt
The next line is from the Veṅkaṭasuprabhātam, which you can listen to here:
मातः समस्तजगतां मधुकैटभारेः
mātaḥ samastajagatāṃ madhukaiṭabhāreḥ
And the last line is from the Mahiṣāsuramardinistotram, which you can listen to here:
अयि गिरिनन्दिनि नन्दितमेदिनि विश्वविनोदिनि नन्दिनुते
ayi girinandini nanditamedini viśvavinodini nandinute