In our epics we have read of celestial beings that can assume any form according to their whim — now a hideous monstor, now a bewitching damsel and now a piece of rock. The anuswAra has turned into such a creature. Sometimes it seems like Ga (gaMgA), sometimes Ja (paMcAyat). Elsewhere it sounds like Na (pAMDava), or na (zAMti) or ma (paraMparA).
The anuswAra has now ended up as a wildcard placeholder for any nasal consonant. Correctly, in all the examples above, the respective nasal consonant should have been used. (gaGgA, paJcAyat, pANDava, zAnti, paramparA). In fact, in Tamil, where the concept of anuswAra is absent, this is how these words are written*.
So then, what exactly is an anuswAra and where should it be used? Being neither a vowel nor a consonant, the anuswAra does not have an independent existence. It is a product of sandhi. (This implies that it cannot be used at the end of a sentence or a stand-alone word.) Let's explore this with some more examples.
sam +That is, when m is followed by any consonant from the first four rows of the varNamAlA, it (the trailing m) is converted into a nasal of the same type as that consonant.
gIta = saGgIta
cAra = saJcAra
darbha = sandarbha
pradAya = sampradAya
It is only when combining with the remaining consonants (semi-vowels, sibilants, etc.) that the trailing m becomes an anuswAra.
sam +How does the anuswAra sound like? In other words, is it Simha, Sinha or Singha? None of the above. The pronunciation is as follows:
yOga = saMyOga
rakSaNa = saMrakSaNa
vatsara = saMvatsara
sAra = saMsAra
zaya = saMzaya
hAra = saMhAra
The anuswAra is an after-sound, a nasal sound following a vowel. It is sounded through the nose only and should be independent of mouth position. [Wikner (PDF)]The anuswAra is one of the simplest symbols that can be written (or read) — it is represented in most Indian scripts as either a dot or a circle. Since it is also a nasal sound, it has become a comfortable substitute for all the nasal consonants: It is easier on the hand (and the eye) and one doesn't have to remember which of the four (Ga, Ja, na, Na) to use in a particular context.
Usability wins everytime.
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* Therefore, this post may not make sense when viewed with Tamil transliteration.
PS: I owed Manjunath a post on anuswAra for a long time. (See the discussions at these posts: One, Two, Three.) Finally, here it is.