A new set of OpenType shaping rules for Malayalam script

TLDR; research and development of a completely new OpenType layout rules for Malayalam traditional orthography.

Writing OpenType shaping rules is hard. Writing OpenType shaping rules for advanced (complex) scripts is harder. Writing OpenType shaping rules without causing any undesired ligature formations is even harder.


The shaping rules for SMC fonts abiding v2 of Malayalam OpenType specification (mlm2 script tag) were written and polished in large part by me over many years, fixing shaping errors and undesired ligature formations. It still left some hard to fix bugs. Driven by the desire to fix such difficult bugs in RIT fonts and the copyright fiasco, I have set out to write a simplified OpenType shaping rules for Malayalam from scratch. Two major references helped in that quest: (1) a radically different approach I have tried few years ago but failed with mlym script tag (aka Windows XP era shaping); (2) a manuscript by R. Chithrajakumar of Rachana Aksharavedi who culled and compiled the ‘definitive character set’ for Malayalam script. The idea of ‘definitive character set’ is that it contains all the valid characters in a script and it doesn’t contain any (invalid) characters not in the script. By the definition; I wanted to create the new shaping rules in such a way that it does not generate any invalid characters (for e.g. with a detached u-kar). In short: it shouldn’t be possible to accidentally generate broken reformed orthography forms.

Fig. 1. Samples of Malayalam definitive character set listing by R. Chithrajakumar, circa 1999. Source: K.H. Hussain.

“Simplify, simplify, simplify!”

Henry David Thoreau

It is my opinion that a lot of complexity in the Malayalam shaping largely comes from Indic OpenType shaping specification largely follows Devanagari, which in turn was adapted from ISCII, which has (in my limited understanding) its root in component-wise metal type design of ligature glyphs. Many half, postbase and other shaping rules have their lineage there. I have also heard similar concerns about complexity expressed by others, including Behdad Esfahbod, FreeFont maintainer et al.


As K.H. Hussain once rightly noted, the shaping rules were creating many undesired/unnecessary ligature glyphs by default, and additional shaping rules (complex contextual lookups) are written to avoid/undo those. A better, alternate approach would be: simply don’t generate undesired ligatures in the first place.

“Invert, always invert.”

Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi

Around December 2019, I set out to write a definitive set of OpenType shaping rules for traditional script set of Malayalam. Instead of relying on many different lookup types such as pref, pstf, blwf, pres, psts and myriad of complex contextual substitutions, the only type of lookup required was akhn — because the definitive character set contains all ligatures of Malayalm and those glyphs are designed in the font as a single glyph — no component based design.

The draft rules were written in tandem with RIT-Rachana redesign effort and tested against different shaping engines such as HarfBuzz, Allsorts, XeTeX, LuaHBTeX and DirectWrite/Uniscribe for Windows. Windows, being Windows (also being maintainers of OpenType specification), indeed did not work as expected adhering to the specification. Windows implementation clearly special cased the pstf forms of യ (Ya, 0D2F) and വ (Va, 0D35). To make single set of shaping rules work with all these shaping engines, the draft rules were slightly amended, et voila — it worked in all applications and OSen that use any of these shaping engines. It was decided to drop support for mlym script which was deprecated many years ago and support only mlm2 specification which fixed many irreparable shortcomings of mlym. One notable shaping engine which doesn’t work with these rules is Adobe text engine (Lipika?), but they have recently switched to HarfBuzz. That covers all major typesetting applications.

Testing fonts developed using this new set of shaping rules for Malayalam indeed showed that they do not generate any undesired ligatures in the first place. In addition, compared to the previous shaping rules, it gets rid of 70+ lines of complex contextual substitutions and other rules, while remaining easy to read and maintain.

Old vs new shaping rules in Rachana
Fig. 3. Old vs new shaping rules in RIT Rachana.

Application support

This new set of OpenType layout rules for Malayalam is tested to work 100% with following shaping engines:

  1. HarfBuzz
  2. Allsorts
  3. DirectWrite/Uniscribe (Windows shaping engine)

And GUI toolkits/applications:

  1. Qt (KDE applications)
  2. Pango/GTK (GNOME applications)
  3. LibreOffice
  4. Microsoft Office
  5. XeTeX
  6. LuaHBTeX
  7. Emacs
  8. Adobe InDesign (with HarfBuzz shaping engine)
  9. Adobe Photoshop
  10. Firefox, Chrome/Chromium, Edge browsers


In addition, the advantages of the new shaping rules are:

  1. Adheres to the concept of ‘definitive character set’ of the language/script completely. Generate all valid conjunct characters and do not generate any invalid conjunct character.
  2. Same set of rules work fine without adjustments/reprogramming for ‘limited character set’ fonts. The ‘limited character set’ may not contain conjunct characters as extensive in the ‘definitive character set’; yet it would always have characters with reph and u/uu-kars formed correctly.
  3. Reduced complexity and maintenance (no complex contextual lookups, reverse chaining etc.). Write once, use in any fonts.
  4. Open source, libre software.

This new OpenType shaping rules program was released to public along with RIT Rachana few months ago, and also used in all other fonts developed by RIT. It is licensed under Open Font License for anyone to use and integrate into their fonts, please ensure the copyright statements are preserved. The shaping rules are maintained at RIT GitLab repository. Please create an issue in the tracker if you find any bugs; or send a merge request if any improvement is made.

4 responses to “A new set of OpenType shaping rules for Malayalam script”

  1. Thanks for the very interesting article. Your approach reminds me of what has mainly been done with Tibetan shaping (similar to Devanagari, but much simpler). I only see the future-proof problem, what if someone specifically wants to typeset a none-standard ligature? This is quite common in Tibetan, where standard ligatures are what Tibetan is using, but when transcribing Sanskrit texts, often very special combinations appear, too, and those are not covered by the pre-composed glyphs in most fonts. I don’t know how much this applies to Malayalam, but thought I mention it.

    There was also an interesting article in the TUGboat, but I guess you are the author – not so easy to guess 😉

    Thanks for your work, very much appreciated!

  2. Hi Norbert 👋

    The research done at lexicon department around 1999 about finding the “definitive character set” of Malayalam script considered many manuscripts and printed text, including plenty of Sanskrit texts (and also, printed copies of the Bible); which helped to arrive at this list of 900+ glyphs/characters (the complete list is available at http://rachana.org.in/docs/Rachana-conjuncts.pdf). It also involved linguistic studies and validations based on the grammatical rules of the language. The Bible (litho/metal press) had many non-standard ligatures, which were deemed to be skipped. And the consensus was that if ever such texts need to be reproduced as-is, those ligatures/glyphs should be added to the font. There is another article in preparation which explains the background; hopefully it can be published soon.

    At the same time, I understand it may not be the preferred approach for all.

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