Pandoc with Github Syntax Highlighting

June 9, 2016

Pandoc - the swiss army knife of document conversion - supports syntax highlighting out of the box. But I prefer Github’s way of syntax highlighting, and even that can be included in Pandoc.

We use a filter to replace code blocks by corresponding html code with highlighting. Github offers an API to render markdown as html - including syntax highlighting - and we’ll use it to get the html from raw code.

You can write Pandoc filters in many different languages, but I prefer Groovy. It’s my favorite programming language and I’m the developer of the Grovvy-Pandoc wrapper. But the following example will work in any language. At the end of the day, it’s only JSON. Now enough blah blah, here’s the filter.

#!/usr/bin/env groovy



import static com.github.dfrommi.pandoc.Pandoc.*
import com.github.dfrommi.pandoc.types.*

toJSONFilter(CodeBlock) { 

def highlight(CodeBlock cb) {
  def githubToken = System.getenv("GITHUB_API_TOKEN")

  def client = new RESTClient("")
  client.contentType = ContentType.TEXT
  client.headers = [Accept : 'text/html', 'User-Agent': "pandoc/"]
  if(githubToken) {
    client.headers << [Authorization: "token ${githubToken}"]

  String language = cb.attr.classes ? cb.attr.classes.first() : ''
  String content = "```${language}\n${cb.code}\n```"
  def resp = "/markdown", requestContentType: ContentType.JSON, body: [text: content])
  return new RawBlock(format: "html", content:

Biggest part is calling the API. Turned out to be a little bit tricky, because the RESTClient tries to be smart and parses the response by default, html in this case. By setting several header properties, it goes back to dumb mode.

Github’s API has some rate limits and they are quite restrictive if the call is made unauthorized. That’s why you can also provide an API token via environment variable GITHUB_API_TOKEN. Rate limits are then less restrictive, which is important if you try to convert many documents or have many distinct code blocks.

The generated code only contains html with classes assigned to elements. To make it colorful, a css stylesheet is required. The highlight.css file contains Github’s syntax highlighting definition at the time of writing.

And finally, to create the html file from markdown, use this command

pandoc -s --no-highlight --css highlight.css  --filter ./GithubHighlight.groovy -o README.html

The filter shown in this article should give you a good idea on how to use an API for syntax highlighting. If you know similar services that are worth taking a look at, please let me know in the comments.


Want to leave a comment? Visit this post's issue page on Github.