In Conversation with Professor B.D. Chattopadhyaya: The Different Aspects of Indian Epigraphy

In Conversation with Professor B.D. Chattopadhyaya with the participation of Professor Suchandra Ghosh: The Different Aspects of Indian Epigraphy

in Interview
Published on: 20 February 2020

Dev Kumar Jhanjh

Dev Kumar Jhanjh is a Doctoral Candidate at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His area of specialisation is Epigraphy and Numismatics. He is presently looking at the Political Processes in the Central Himalayan Region (From pre-State to State) (c. first century BCE-twelfth century CE).

Following is an edited interview transcript of Professor B.D. Chattopadhyaya with Dev Kumar Jhanjh on the different aspects of Indian Epigraphy. Professor Suchandra Ghosh also participates in the conversation.

Dev Kumar Jhanjh (DKJ): Orientalists argue that there was an absence of a sense of history in early India. But don’t you think that the presence of a voluminous number of inscriptions, more than one lakh, negates this Orientalist view? Doesn’t their existence testify to the presence of literacy in early India? What do you think?

B.D. Chattopadhayaya (BDC): I won’t answer this question either in the affirmative or in the negative. I think this is not the correct perspective from which one must look at the inscriptions. The western notion of Indian historical consciousness or consciousness about the past emerged in a particular context. Looking back, there have been many attempts to show that Indians did have historical consciousness in the past which they articulated in the form of text. But inscriptions do not represent that category or that statement of historical consciousness. That historical consciousness, I think, would be more effectively represented by Itihasa Purana, Vamsanuvali and texts of other genres, not inscriptions. I don’t say that inscriptions do not incorporate materials of historical consciousness. There are exceptional inscriptions, for example the Allahabad prasasti of Samudragupta. It is an ahistorical statement and corresponds to the historical narrative of a ruler. But inscriptions by themselves do not represent attempts of the ancient Indians to articulate the past in the same way as the Itihasa Purana or Vamsanuvali do throughout the early period of Indian history. In fact, the past was very much a part of life and the narration of the past was necessary for its perpetuation. That’s why we find texts like the Mahabharata, which are continuous narrations of stories about the past, and that is the historical tradition in ancient India, something the inscriptions do not carry out. Inscriptions had a different kind of role in society and that was to communicate, to record. This was the major objective of getting inscriptions written.

DKJ: The script of the Indus Valley civilisation has still not been satisfactorily deciphered. The Vedic and post-Vedic society is known for its sustained orality. We know that the earliest readable written materials surface from third century BCE, which is during the time of the Mauryas. Why and how did the practice of issuing inscriptions start? How will you look into this transition from an oral tradition to the introduction of writing/literacy? Was there any particular socio-political background leading to the coming of written documents carrying royal orders?

BDC: My answer to this would be . . . first, one shouldn’t really think in terms of total transition from orality to writing. Orality was a continuous process in society whereas writing performed only a part of the total transactions in social affairs. Orality was necessary in certain contexts. It continued as a tradition in a very important way. Even so, one has to explain the emergence of writing and written records, for example the Ashokan records, which are testimonials. There have been attempts to trace the earliest inscriptions to the earliest specimens of writings from the Indus Valley scripts. But no serious scholar would consider this a possibility because there is too much of a missing link between the two. There have also been attempts to date the origin of scripts in the Indian Subcontinent or rather in South Asia back to an earlier period. For example, there was an attempt by a scholar excavating in Sri Lanka who claimed that written material, dating back to much earlier than third century BCE, has been found. But that again is an exceptional claim which has not been accepted universally.

At the moment, I think it’s necessary to carry on with the idea that writing originated in the third century BCE in the Maurya Period. There are two major reasons for the emergence of writing in this period. One reason is the nature of the vast changes that were taking place in the Ganges valley and beyond. Before the middle of the first millennium BCE there was the formation of a new kind of complex society with institutions. By the middle of the first millennium BCE, these societies had matured, and went on to form the Magadhan empire from the fourth century BCE onwards. These complex societies necessitated transactions between different communities, different social groups which had been more or less homogeneous up till that point. Thus social differentiation leads to the division of society into various segments, each with their own social roots. This process necessitated a tool for communication, particularly with the emergence of the state in the Ganges valley. The state needed a tool to write down, to record, to pass on messages and so on.

The second and more contingent reason is the opening up of northern India to the regions to its west. India came into contact with the Achaemenid empire by the sixth century BCE and then with the entire Hellinsitic world—a direct result of the conquests of Alexander, leading to very profound changes in West Asia, North Africa and even in the North-Western parts of the subcontinent. Contact with these literate cultures—the Greeks and the Achaemenids—contributed to the emergence of writing. If you look at the two earliest scripts used in the writing of Ashokan edicts in India—Kharoshti and Brahmi—they were both influenced by the concurrent North Semitic script and Achaemenid script. The Kharoshti and Brahmi used in the edicts of Ashoka were then adapted into Indian languages adapted to the use of Achaemenid and non-Semitic script.

DKJ: So, are you arguing that the writing practices of the Achaemenid inscriptions might have worked as a prototype or had some kind of influence on the Ashokan inscriptions?

BDC: It definitely had an influence. One scholar has argued that Indian Brahmi or Kharoshti were inventions of the Indian pandits. However one finds that the grammar followed in Indian languages (Sanskrit or Prakrit) are adaptations from the script which was current in the Achaemenid empire, West Asia in the former North-West.

DKJ: What were the materials used for the Indian epigraphic records? How many types of inscriptions have been found? And what are the scripts and languages used in them?

BDC: That is a great variety of themes to address—scripts, languages, the materials which were used for the purpose of writing of the inscriptions. To make them durable, a majority of the inscriptions were written on two types of materials—stone and metal, particularly copper plates. Copper plates became a fascination. An Early Sohgaura copper plate has been dated to the Mauryan period. Most of the metal plates, particularly copper plates, date from the Gupta period onwards. Inscriptions were written on other type of materials too but I wonder if one should call them inscriptions. The term ‘inscription’ implies that the letter has to be inscribed on a surface, not painted, not written with a pen like we write on a piece of paper, but these also have been included in the category of inscriptions. So, you have inscriptions on pieces of leather, on Bhurjapatra or barks and other kinds of materials. In fact, I would wonder why the term lipi is used with reference to scripts. Though lipi is the term used for script, lipi doesn’t mean ‘to engrave’. You will find that in the inscriptions, particularly in inscriptions which were engraved on stone or copper plates, a term utkirna (inscribed) has been used. Why then the word lipi? My guess is that originally what was to be engraved was written on a piece of wood, a slab, a cloth or palm leaf. That was then transferred to some other surface like stones. There are some good examples of this that one can find out. For example, in the Nasik caves you have inscriptions of the early Satavahanas and the Kshatrapas and it’s quite easy to make out that these inscriptions were put on the cave walls only after they had been drafted and written in the city nearby. That’s why there is great variety in sizes of the letters which were engraved on the cave walls.

DKJ: And about the language?

BDC: Initially you have Prakrit as a language but gradually the use of Prakrit, particularly after the Kushana period, declines. Sanskrit more than any other language becomes the vehicle for whatever is to be communicated through the inscriptions. Before the use of Sanskrit on a significant scale, there are varieties within Brahmi but that pertains to the domain of language variations. There are different kinds of Prakrit; and regional variations of Prakrit were used in the writing of the inscriptions too. Apart from Sanskrit, which became more and more ornate and complex and which took the inscriptions really away from the public and made it an exclusive kind of document, the purpose of inscriptions was to communicate to the people. If you go to the inscriptions of Ashoka, you will see that Ashoka was trying to communicate his personal opinion, his voice to his subjects directly. So inscriptions were tools of direct communication from the ruler to the ruled, his subjects. But this changed; instead of direct communication, the communication started becoming indirect and later on Sanskrit became the dominant language. When there was need for communicating details to the local people, then Sanskrit was combined with the local language. Then from the ninth and tenth century onwards, there is a further development. It’s not that Sanskrit does not continue as the major language of the inscriptions but then you have the gradual emergence of proto-regional languages and regional languages. For example, by the thirteenth century, you have a completely local language like Oriya being used in the writing of the inscriptions. This is a development which takes place in the context of regional languages themselves. This revolution is not brought in by inscriptions but by the emergence of regional languages as the vehicles of communication in written text; and reflections of this can be found in the inscriptions that are written in regional languages.

DKJ: What about the scripts?

BDC: Scripts undergo changes. Apart from Brahmi and Kharoshti, Ashoka used Greek and Aramaic in the inscriptions for areas in which his subjects were using Aramaic or Greek.

DKJ: I guess in North-Western part of the Indian subcontinent . . .

BDC: North-West and in Afghanistan. But for the subcontinent in general, Kharoshti for North-Western India and Brahmi and its variation for other parts of the subcontinent were in use. Brahmi, among these, started changing with the passage of time. If you compare Ashokan Brahmi with Kushana Brahmi, for example, you can trace the evolution. If you compare Ashokan Brahmi with the script in which a Bengali record would be written in the Pala period or in the Sena period, it’s impossible to see that they have the same script. One has to see and trace the evolution of the same script across the centuries to be able to see that the Bengali script ultimately evolved out of the changing form of Brahmi through centuries. And this is what happened in other parts of India despite the claim that some South Indian forms of Brahmi was a separate kind of script. The adaptation of Ashokan Brahmi for the use of local languages is how you have Tamil Brahmi and through the Pallava period, post-Pallava period, Chola period you can see the slow emergence of mature Tamil scripts. You have intermediary stages, where the Grantha script, the Vatteluttu scripts are the scripts in which inscriptions in Tamil were being written. But ultimately all regional scrips emerged from Brahmi.. So you have the Devanagari, from proto-Bengali to Bengali, Gujarati,…whatever the regional script is, the ultimate source would be Brahmi.

DKJ: Brahmi is the mother script of all these regional scripts.

Suchandra Ghosh (SG): I was just wondering, Sir, about how you would explain the importance of epigraphy in understanding our past in a general way?

BDC: Well, epigraphy has been the backbone of historical construction—particularly historical construction of early periods. If one looks at epigraphic studies in the early phase—pages after pages were written on dating the inscriptions, dating the ruler on the basis of the inscriptions, constructions of genealogies, political history, histories of dynasties. In fact, the entire structure of our knowledge from the time that inscriptions became available was based on the study of the inscriptions, partly supplemented by the use of other sources like coins and so on. So, the importance of inscriptions in writing about ancient India is supreme because it has been the major source which allowed for the reconstruction of the past. I don’t think the importance of inscriptions reduced with the emergence of new kinds of historical writings. But inscriptions were used from a particular point of view at one point of time. Now, we have to find out other ways of using inscriptions.

SG: Other ways of understanding or looking at inscriptions have changed with the passage of time.

BDC: Yes, it has to change because our questions about the past are also changing. So, we must shift around. It’s not that we give up inscriptions. Inscriptions will remain the most important source for the study of the past.

DKJ: In comparison to other sources like literary sources?

BDC: Yes.

DKJ: You have emphasised and offered a new dimension to understand the political processes and formations in the early medieval period, in particular, and in early India, in general. What significant role do inscriptions play for understanding the complex processes beyond dynastic shifts and stories of individual ruler’s achievements which have often been highlighted and discussed in great detail?

BDC: I don’t think I understand this question properly.

SG: I think what he is saying that you have talked about political processes and formations at a time when there was more thrust was on economic history. You actually brought political history back into the scenario. We want to know more about this.

DKJ: Earlier the dynastic history was the main subject of discussion . . .

BDC: Political history is important and economic history is not separated from political history really.

DKJ: But you brought in cases of political formations, processes . . .

BDC: I am more interested in histories. If you look at the vast space of the Indian subcontinent, the historiographical understanding generally has been that there was this great empire, the Mauryan empire which covered almost the whole of India and that is the norm. And whenever the great empire falls, there is a period of decline. If you look at it from the geographical point of view or rather from the point of view of political geography, how correct would that view be? Because if you look at the various regions of India like Bengal, Rajasthan or the Himalayan states, Gujarat and so on, the individual political histories of these regions, for example, when did Rajasthan emerge in history really? Was it as a part of the Mauryan empire or with the rise of the Rajputs? When did Bengal emerge in history? Was it with being a part of the Mauryan empire or the  Gupta empire or with the Sakas and then the Palas and then the formation of the greater entity of Bengal? Now, if you look from the political geographical point of view, then one has to look at the formation of states locally, which would indicate changes from below, not changes from above, not in the form of decline of an empire but in the formation of new states, new regions. There one has to look at inscriptions very meticulously at a local level and when you have a term like Atavikarajya—what does it mean? Obviously, it would refer to a region which was a forest area and then developed at a particular point of time as a result of interaction with developed areas (if one can use the term develop). The forested regions too were undergoing changes—local rulers were coming up claiming the same kind of status.

SG: The case of the Uchhakalpas . . .

BDC: So you have a new kind of formation not as a result of decline of one major power but as a result of interaction or as a result of a new kind of political process. This is important because it is relevant economically as well. But once this kind of transformation takes place within the forest area, you have other kinds of transformations. You don’t have the tribals bound by their kinship ties; you have emergence of the caste system within that area; you have greater emphasis on cultivation, on contribution made to the local ruler, that leads to a separation within the communities. So, these political processes are not really separate from economy or religion or other aspects of society. That’s why it is important. And this can be worked out only on the basis of inscriptions because inscriptions, as documents, have two major values. One, they can be dated. In many cases not absolutely dated but roughly dated which is not the case with the other documents of ancient India. And they can be located. You can locate inscriptions in a particular geographical context. And it’s because of this that you can use inscriptions for working out these processes in a particular historical context.

SG: On a separate note, moving away from the political process scenario, we can also talk about the studies on everyday life which was originally started by French historiography. Do you think these inscriptions can help us understand everyday lives of people of those times? For example, how much information can we gather if we want to study the everyday life of a particular region or locality?

DKJ: Including the matha life, the monastery life?

BDC: I won’t be very hopeful there because the purpose of getting an inscription issued was not to record life. Inscriptions are mute documents and historians have to keep on trying to make them speak. In that process, if a method can be discovered to make them speak about daily life, I will be very happy. But for the moment, I think inscriptions are issued for particular purposes and these purposes may not direct us to the life of individuals in society or any communities in society. But there could be cases when inscriptions are studied as groups and bring out certain important details about how the individuals in a community would participate on occasions. For example, in Bengal, the Gupta period inscriptions refer to individuals—Kutumbins, Mahattaras, Mahamahattaras and so on in the context of transactions regarding land. And that’s the maximum that we get—we know there is a differentiation within the society in the form of Kutumbins, Mahattaras and so on. And so we also know, there is a particular occasion, a rural occasion which brings them together to perform an economic, administrative function in association with the state power. There are inscriptions relating to the functioning of temples. So we have details of various service groups associated with temples—the dancers, the singers and the others, all in a group assembled in the performance of the temple ritual. And you also have the people at the margins of society providing milk or ghee to the temple. In this fashion, occasionally we get a glimpse of the kind of social life not of individuals but of groups who have been brought together around a temple. There are occasions when different groups provide services to the temple on the occasion of the yatras (procession), the annual procession of the deity of the temple. They make contributions and take part in the festival of the deity. These are the kinds of occasions when some idea of the daily life of people could be derived from inscriptions. But these insights have to be worked out; they are not readily available in inscriptions.

SG: At times inscriptions mention of some festivals too.

DKJ: So, you are saying that it may not refer directly to the social life . . .

BDC: No because that’s not the purpose of the inscriptions. But as a historian if you can make a mute inscription speak to serve your purpose, it depends on your imagination, what you are capable of.

DKJ: You have used a large amount of inscriptions, particularly copper plate charters. Have you ever felt frustrated while working with the inscriptions?  What are the limitations of epigraphy as a source?

BDC: I don’t know why I should feel frustrated because whenever I used inscriptions, I have used it to look at something beyond the political history, the history of the ruler or the history of the dynasty. And it is the kind of question that I have in mind that has led me to find answers in the inscriptions. Sometimes one finds (to one’s delight) that the answer is dead. The answer is not there, because the question has not been asked. So, I don’t think there is any point in being frustrated and in any case the inscriptions were not written to satisfy and to fulfill you with the kind of information that you always think you need. You have to look for the kind of details that you want in your inspection. And you may find it, or you may not find it, but that would be true with all kinds of historical documents.

DKJ: Regarding the limitation of epigraphic evidences?

BDC: Well, obviously epigraphic sources will have limitations. And again all kinds of sources have their limitations. The sources do not answer all that you ask but if some questions are answered then you will be satisfied.

The video interview can be found here: