Central to South Asian donative epigraphy is the concept of dana (‘gift’ or ‘giving’) to individuals and religious groups, possibly in a symbiotic exchange for ritual or poetic services, or simply just for religious/spiritual merit. Dana as a socio-religious concept likely belongs to the earliest—or one of the earliest—stratums of South Asian religious history, having antecedents in the Vedas and then in later post-Vedic literatures. The concept of dana is not monolithic and, throughout its lengthy history, different groups and thinkers have contemplated its meaning and place in society, a tradition of thought perhaps culminating with the dananibandhas (a class of texts dealing with the concept of dana) like the Danakhanda (Book on Gifting) which start to appear in the twelfth century CE.
The shramanic traditions, particularly Buddhism and Jainism, made substantial additions to the concept and regularly recorded these additions in written form directly upon material and cultural artefacts, such as pottery, reliquaries, plaques, caves and architectural fragments. When inscribed, depending on the context, the word dana, or one of its variants such as deyadharma (religious offering) may connote the conclusion of a transaction previously performed or an ongoing type of endowment for the upkeep of a religious space, like a monastery or temple. Therefore, a donative inscription—whether Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain—may function simultaneously as a written administrative record, panegyric record and/or as a special type of magical device which perpetually earns merit for the named donor.
Particularly important are the plethora of early period (300 BCE–300 CE) Buddhist donative inscriptions which seem to represent the popularity and common practice of dana in exchange for religious merit (puṇya). In these Buddhist contexts, textual evidence supports the notion that dana is a virtue to be cultivated since selfless renunciation of material wealth acts as a spiritual enhancer for the donor and as a material enhancement for the donee, who, in the case of the Buddhist sangha, would be monks and nuns who have given up most material possessions and rely heavily upon the generosity of the laity. Not only was dana seen as a widespread socioreligious virtue to be routinely practiced, it was also, at least for the last few centuries BCE, something that could be done by people from all walks of life, whether one was a wealthy and powerful king, a travelling merchant or a peasant.
Terminologies and Forms
As with all epigraphy from Mauryan and post-Mauryan South Asia, the language of the inscriptions is usually a regional Prakrit variation written in either a derivative of Mauryan Brahmi or Kharosthi script. The epigraphic Prakritic phonetics are quite variable but sometimes predictable according to region, as famously exemplified by Ashoka’s inscriptions which themselves appear throughout ancient South Asia and contain interesting linguistic similarities and differences when put under philological scrutiny.
Donative epigraphs may take on a number of different written forms containing several different types of terminologies. Typically, donative epigraphy records private dedications made by a member of the royal class, the wealthy upper class or, in some cases, nearly any member of society. As private records, the earliest inscriptions were likely not specifically crafted to communicate any information other than simple demographic information—name, occupation, family or residence– alongside the obvious word dana. Many later inscriptions—which gradually increased in length, scope and detail—replaced the word dana as a marker of donation with the word deyadharma. It should be noted that the noun deyadharma may have different implications within religious literature than it does in the epigraphic corpus. For instance, the context within Buddhist literature extends the definition to ‘that which should be given’.
A second type of donative epigraphy developed alongside the short dana inscriptions. This category of donative epigraphs are longer and communicate much more detailed information. Many if not most of these longer-form inscriptions utilised one of two words to mark the donation: pratisthapita and karita. The word pratisthapita connotes the meaning of ‘established’ while karita generally means ‘constructed’. Both forms are attested to in literature but their exact relationship to literary forms is unclear. Additionally, given their similar implications and contexts, their exact relationship to each other and to the objects/sites to which they are attached has not been historically established as of yet, but there may be a correlation between the donative vocabulary, the types of gifted objects, the chronology and the region.
Chronology and Major Finds
Third Century BCE
Both the Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts likely reached a developmental culmination during the Mauryan period in the third century BCE when they were used by Emperor Ashoka to propagate his edicts on pillars and rocks spanning most of South Asia. Although each script was probably not the pure invention of Ashoka, there are no identifiable inscriptions dating to before Ashoka, with the possible exception of some Brahmi potsherds found in Sri Lanka.
Ashoka seems to have codified the scripts and set them as the cultural standard of the Mauryan empire, just as he did with roads, coinage and his use of the word dharma. Two of Ashoka’s pillar edicts, from Nigali Sagar and Lumbini, record dedications to the Buddhist holy sites. Rock-cut caves in modern-day Bihar (ancient Magadha) on the Barabar and Nagarjuni hills contain some dedicatory inscriptions of a Mauryan Brahmi script. Some of these are attributed to Ashoka himself while others are associated with Ashoka’s grandson. According to the inscriptions, the caves were meant to be used by samaṇas (ascetics), namely the Ajivikas. We may tentatively give the Mauryas credit for establishing the practice of using epigraphy for dedications, whether they were ritualistic by nature or simply administrative. These early inscriptions were in epigraphical Middle Indo-Aryan language. It would not be until well into the second century CE that any donative inscriptions would come to have any Hybrid Sanskrit features. By the fifth century CE, Sanskrit was the lingua franca even for Buddhist inscriptions.
Second and First Centuries BCE
After the Mauryas, and during the presumed reign of the historically fickle Sungas, many Buddhist stupa sites began to display donative inscriptions by the dozens and, in some places, by the hundreds. The practice of inscribing a dedication or permanent endowment points to the more egalitarian and perhaps corporate nature of not only the Buddhists but all the shramanic religions. The fact that, during this period, inscriptions began to reveal donors from nearly all walks of life is a testament to the power, breadth and scope of the shramanic religious message. A large open-air stupa site called Deor Kothar in central India was excavated in the 1980s and 90s, revealing some dedicatory inscriptions bearing the names of monastic donors, likely from the second century BCE. The most interesting and unique feature of these inscriptions is that they attempt to trace the monastic lineages of the donors back to the Buddha himself. Such inscriptions have become increasingly important for the study of the history of Buddhism and the development of the various monastic orders and their monastic literatures.
Nearby Deor Kothar is the well-known site of Bharhut, which was first excavated by Alexander Cunningham in 1874. The ruined stupa is still in Bharhut while the gateways and railings were dismantled and reconstructed at the Indian Museum, Kolkata. Dating to around the late second century BCE and the early first century BCE, the large vedika and torana gateways from Bharhut bear more than 200 inscriptions, many of which are dedicatory. Some of the donors belong to the monastic community while others identify as lay donors or parts of the mercantile community. For the study of Buddhist history, the Bharhut vedika and torana gateways are incredibly important not only for the many donative inscriptions but also for containing inscriptions which serve as labels for panels depicting the Jatakas or other stories such as the gift of Jetavana to the sangha.
Also from central India are the famous Sanchi stupas, located on the hilltops just outside Vidisha. Sanchi’s main terrace contains a fragmented Ashokan pillar outside the southern torana’s entrance, thus indicating that the core of the site was likely established by Ashoka himself. Like at Bharhut, the large open-air stupas contain massive vedikas made of stone, on which hundreds of donative inscriptions tell the story of the site’s patronage. As at Bharhut, Sanchi’s hundreds of donative epigraphs show that many donors came from all corners of the local and non-local communities. Monastic donors feature prominently in these records as well, demonstrating that monks and nuns also somehow maintained private wealth or private resources despite taking vows of renunciation to enter the Buddhist sangha.
While Bharhut and Sanchi are the premier examples of and most visible locations of donative epigraphy in South Asia, short donative inscriptions, which reveal little more than some donor’s name, natal village, lineage and/or their profession, may be found at many smaller sites across South Asia. Amaravati, Pauni, Karle, Bedsa, Pitalkhora, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Sannati, etc., all exhibit the same dedicatory formula that was formalised during the second century BCE at Bharhut and Sanchi. Nevertheless, as time went on, the formula began to change and grow longer to describe larger and larger gifts to the Buddhist sangha. Eventually, the written dedicatory formula becomes similar in nature to land grants written on metals. Indeed, the direct relationship, historically and contextually, between these types of documents has not yet been fully examined and fleshed out amongst scholars.
First Century CE and onwards
During the height of the Satavahana and Andhra Iksvaku dynasties, donative inscriptions became a major vehicle of transferring large amounts of money to religious communities in exchange for merit for the wealthy and powerful donors. The numerous inscriptions, which were now longer than ever, many being hundreds of words in length, spanned the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, appearing in the Krishna River valley and neighbouring regions, the Deccan Plateau, the Western Ghats, in Gandhara, and in central India at places like Mathura. Patronage during these times became a much more royal endeavour than it was previously as the Satavahana and Iksvaku kings were undoubtedly concerned with the continued rise of shramanic religions like Buddhism. Rather than small architectural features being the objects of dedication at stupa sites, entire caves, large images, monasteries or even whole stupas themselves were the object of the donative inscriptions, thus linking the grandeur of royalty and power with the size of the charitable contributions.
One major exception to the royal rule during this era comes from Gandhara where various kinds of graffiti appeared on the sides of rocks, in caves and on potsherds. This graffiti often reflected the private dedications of Buddhist travellers along the Silk Route, connecting South Asia with Central Asia and China. Frequently appearing alongside the graffiti were many different types of devotional images bearing resemblances to stupas, the Buddha or dharmachakra wheels. Whether the authors of the graffiti had specific places or concepts in mind, such as Bodh Gaya as represented by a tree or the death of the Buddha as represented by a stupa, is not always entirely clear since the writing and images themselves were crude and not always etched by learned craftsman. It is clear that graffiti found on trade routes like these were undoubtedly stylistically similar to the early donative inscriptions as found at places like Bharhut and Sanchi whereas the later, longer donative epigraphs frequently found in significantly smaller numbers were of a completely different style and intention. It is only during the Gupta and later periods when we begin to find a plethora of Brahmanical and Jain donative epigraphy, some of which gives detailed dynastic genealogies.
The most common material used for donative epigraphy was stone, whether it was sandstone, basalt, slate, trap and/or steatite. Softer stones were usually preferable for the obvious reason in that it is easier to precisely carve on them. Unlike many early non-dedicatory inscriptions which were inscribed rather simply and crudely onto simple rocks or stone slabs, most donative inscriptions from ancient India can be found on specific objects, whether they were architectural fragments like vedika pieces or upon religious images. Free-standing pillars and steles were also used for dedications, usually because free-standing pillars and steles were symbolic of royalty or power more generally.
Earlier donative inscriptions may have appeared nearly anywhere on an object or a stone slab but as time went on and the inscriptions became longer and more detailed, specific locations upon objects started to be preferred since longer inscriptions could easily break into the artistic scene thus altering the creation of the artist. In some cases, such as at Bharhut and Sanchi, donative inscriptions were deliberately carved into the artistic scene, thus adding to rather than retracting from the artistic programme. Although later forms of Brahmi letters were highly ornamental and possess a distinct type of aesthetic beauty themselves, crude early forms of letters may not have been viewed as pieces of art themselves despite their placement within relief scenes. Regardless, it is difficult to distinguish between the agendas of the sculptors or inscribers and questions like whether or not the inscriptional location was pre-planned or freestyle may never be known definitively. It is possible if not altogether likely that donors sometimes requested their names be placed into a pre-existing relief scene at a religious holy site to proudly accumulate social and religious merit.
Throughout the Common Era, Jain and Brahmanical temples and monastic areas came to bear lengthy donative inscriptions along their walls, a feature seldom present at earlier Buddhist sites with some exceptions. Early Indian Buddhists appear to have been satisfied with the placement of votive inscriptions in nooks and crannies whereas later Hindu temples, especially in the South, utilised the long-form donative epigraphic formula to create records for posterity.
Materials other than stone were also occasionally used for dedicatory inscriptions. Earthen terracotta plaques were sometimes used for donative records but more often than not small seals and sealings—which were not votive—contained other kinds of inscriptions, such as the famous Buddhist creed beginning with ‘ye dharmā hetu prabhavā . . .’. Throughout South Asia, a number of bricks have been found with what appear to be donative inscriptions. However, these short records usually contain little more than a name. At some later sites, bricks contained not dedicatory formulas but historical formulas, often describing the completion of Vedic sacrifices or, in the Buddhist context, the creed mentioned previously. Potsherds ranging from all periods in South Asian history do occasionally contain names in the genitive case, just like the bricks, so while these inscriptions are likely donative in nature as well, they could just as likely be describing ownership, which the inscribed bricks likely do not indicate.
No donative inscriptions found on wooden materials have survived. Rarer prestige goods such as crystals, shells, ivory, etc., sometimes contain inscriptions but very few if any contain inscriptions we can easily identify as votive. In sum, a vast majority of ancient Indian donative inscriptions are found on soft stone materials, mostly due to the malleability of the stone but also due to the religious contexts the stone is placed within.
(All translations by author. All editions from Tsukamoto 1996).
(Late 2nd c. BCE / early 1st c. BCE)
(#198 in Tsukamoto 1996)
1 Vijitakasasucidānaṁ [/]
“A donation of a cross-bar by Vijitaka.”
(mid/late 1st c. BCE)
(#29 in Tsukamoto 1996)
2 no dānaṁ [/]
“A donation of the banker from Kaṁdaḍigāmā.”
From Bedsa 1
(Late 1st BCE or early 1st CE?)
(#1 in Tsukamoto 1996)
1 . . . ya-gobhūtinaṁaraṇakānapeḍapātikānaṁmārakuḍavāsināthupo
2 . . . [aṁte]vāsinābhat’āsāḷamitena+ kārita [//]
“A stupa caused to be made by the forest-renunciant Gobhūti and his student the venerable Asāḷamita, residents [from] Mārakuḍa.”
(1st c. CE?)
(#51 in Tsukamoto 1996)
3 sauvavarakosaupā[sayo] [//]
“A religious gift of the merchant Ghanāmadaḍa of a shrine with cells and a resting spot.”
(3rd/4th c. CE)
(#909 in Tsukamoto 1996)
1 (bodhi)satvasya M[ai]treyasyapratimāpratiṣṭ[ā](pitā)
2 . . . syakuṭubiniye V[i]ṣakulasyadhituVaṣi=
3 . . . (sa)tāna+ hi[ta]sukha’rtha[ṁ] bhavatu [/]
“For the welfare and happiness of all beings, [this is] an installation of an image of the Bodhisattva Maitreya by Vasi . . . the wife of a householder . . . and daughter of Visakula.”
Aside from several anthologies which are deliberately incomplete, such as D.C. Sircar’s Select Inscriptions Bearing on Indian History and Civilization (1986), the donative epigraphic corpus is not catalogued. Instead, a large percentage of the donative inscriptions that are known may be found in various publications throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many new finds were published, along with editions, corrections, some translations and some analyses, in periodicals, of which the Epigraphia Indica, Journal of the Epigraphic Society of India and Indian Antiquary are representative examples. Other publications were collections such as the Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum or, for Buddhist epigraphs, the two massive and useful Japanese collections Indo BukkyōHimeiMokuroku (Catalogue of Indian Buddhist Inscriptions, 1979) and Indo-BukkyōHimei no Kenkyū (A Comprehensive Study of Indian Buddhist Inscriptions, Tsukamoto 1996–2003). Both are in Japanese language but contain important updated editions in Prakrit and Sanskrit (according to the time of publication) and some scholarly analysis as well as interpretation.
Many site- or region-specific publications, archaeological or epigraphical, are often the most useful archives for scholars since, although donative epigraphy has long been part of the historical South Asian knowledge base, monograph-length studies have been few and far between. Instead, most scholars throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries wrote articles—some longer than others—analysing a select few newly discovered inscriptions or re-reading old ones to improve on the editions or translations. Scholars interested in donative epigraphy were typically interested in one feature or another of the inscriptional corpus and therefore limited their investigations to either strictly philological, sociological or historical scopes. The most useful publications on donative epigraphy emerging from the twentieth century were those that were detailed accounts of the artistic, architectural and/or archaeological information combined with listings and analyses of the epigraphs themselves. Some of the major listings for inscriptions include: Lüders’ List of Brahmi Inscriptions from the Earliest Times to about A.D. 400 with the Exception of Those of Asoka (1912), Lüders’ Bharhut Inscriptions (Lüders et. al. 1963), Lüders’ Mathura Inscriptions (1961), Konow’s Kharoshṭhī Inscriptions with the Exception of those of Aśoka (1991) and, recently, Nakanishi and von Hinüber’s Kanaganahalli Inscriptions (2014). It should be noted that this list is by no means exhaustive.
All aforementioned publications, which focus on shramanic donative epigraphy, although undeniably useful if not indispensable, become outdated as new finds, analyses and translations become available. In the future, digital databases with a Wiki-based approach would be the most efficient means of cataloguing, studying and sharing South Asian epigraphy. Two examples have broken new ground with their digital presentations and upkeep: 1.) Gandhari.org catalogues Gandharan epigraphy along with manuscripts and other things like coins and dictionaries; and 2.) the University of Oslo’s Bibliotheca Polyglotta (https://www2.hf.uio.no/polyglotta) which unfortunately only currently houses Hultzsch’s Inscriptions of Aśoka (1925), albeit in an excellent continuous view form. For a comprehensive bibliography and a standard introduction to South Asian epigraphy, including finds, trends in study and major issues, one should consult Salomon’s Indian Epigraphy (1998).
Major Recent Scholarly Works
Towards the end of the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first century a number of very important monograph-length studies centring on donative epigraphy emerged from a variety of scholars utilising the vast corpus. Although it is not within the scope of this short entry to present and review them all in great detail, several are worthy of mention due to their approach. These important scholarly works tend to synthesise vast amounts of data and read it alongside other historical processes, such as economics, politics and/or religious developments.
Cynthia Talbot’s Precolonial India in Practice (2001) utilises an expansive corpus of about 1,500 inscriptions to investigate the Kakatiya dynasty of Andhra Pradesh from the twelfth century CE until the fourteenth century. Talbot’s book presented a new vision of Indian history through an epigraphic lens which had been investigated rarely. Along the same lines is Leslie Orr’s book Donors, Devotees, and Daughters of God (2000), which was published a year earlier. In that book, Leslie Orr used Chola period inscriptions from the tenth century CE until the thirteenth century CE to recontextualise temple women, also known as devadasis.
Another crucial book that utilises donative inscriptions in a similar fashion is James Heitzman’s Gifts of Power (1997). The exploration of the deeply fascinating Chola era in Heitzman’s book is one of the most exemplary monograph-length studies to analyse economic networks. His statistical approach in systematically presenting the epigraphic data and distribution patterns allowed him to make convincing arguments pertaining to the phenomenon of land ownership, urban development, authority and religious gifting processes.
There are also several book-length investigations of donative epigraphy concerning Buddhism. Gregory Schopen’s volume called Bones, Stones and Buddhist Monks (1997), a collection of previously published articles, remains one of the most influential academic histories of Buddhism written in the modern era. He frequently reads donative epigraphy alongside deep philological readings of manuscripts, such as the vinayas of the Mulasarvativadin (Sanskrit and Tibetan) and Theravadins (in Pali), to make strong arguments about the nature of Buddhist monasticism in ancient India. A second edited volume by Schopen called Buddhist Monks and Business Matters (2004) takes up a similar cause although the articles in this volume are not quite as reliant upon donative epigraphy.
Himanshu Prabha Ray’s Monastery and Guild (1986) was an early example of how to read inscriptions alongside other historical processes to reimagine dynastic history. In this excellent book, she examines the economic connections between Buddhist monasteries and the Satavahanas ranging from modern-day Andhra to the Deccan and the south. Ray successfully integrates archaeological data into her discussions, a task many non-archaeologists tend to find overwhelming or difficult. Her synthesis was exemplary and has undoubtedly inspired many modern historians to take into consideration such interdisciplinary approaches.
Some other recent books or dissertations have heavily relied upon Buddhist donative epigraphy even without studying it outright. Jason Neelis’ Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks (2010) dissects the linkages between Buddhist donative epigraphy/graffiti and pan-Asian trade networks; Robert DeCaroli’s Haunting the Buddha (2004) is aware of the importance of donative epigraphy although the scope of his project was not centred on them precisely; in the same style, Akira Shimada’s book on Amaravati called Early Buddhist Architecture in Context (2012) contains a very useful synthesis of the site’s inscriptions and how they fit into the historical narrative at Amaravati and more broadly into the development of early Indian Buddhism. The largest Buddhist site with donative epigraphy, Sanchi, has been very recently re-examined by several scholars, including P.K. Basant whose book titled The City and Country in Early India (2012) contains many arguments derived from a strictly sociological approach to the Sanchi donative epigraphy, mostly commenting on demographics. Finally, Matthew D. Milligan’s recent dissertation titled Of Rags and Riches (2016) zeroes in on the intimate connection between Buddhist attitudes toward wealth and economics and the development of the Buddhist sangha at Sanchi. Contained therein are many examples as to how to read donative epigraphy alongside text, image and architecture. Put simply, investigations of donative epigraphy in South Asia allows scholars—who are not just epigraphers themselves but epigraphically aware art historians, religious studies scholars or philologists—to excavate the many economic, religious, sociological and political layers of history.
 Findly, Dāna.
 Salomon, Indian Epigraphy.
 Milligan, ‘Of Rags and Riches’.
 Findly, Dāna.
 Schopen, Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks; Milligan, Pacific World; Milligan, ‘Of Rags and Riches’.
 Basant The City and the Country in Early India.
 Salomon, Indian Epigraphy.
 Damsteegt, Epigraphical Hybrid Sanskrit.
 Neelis, Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks.
 Salomon, Indian Epigraphy.
 Milligan, Pacific World; Milligan, ‘Of Rags and Riches’.
 Allchin and Norman, ‘Guide to the Asokan Inscriptions’.
 Falk, Aśokan Sites and Artefact.
 Damsteegt, Epigraphical Hybrid Sanskrit.
 Salomon and Marino 2014)
 Lüders et. al., Bharhut Inscriptions.
 Milligan, ‘Of Rags and Riches’.
 Milligan, ‘Of Rags and Riches’.
 Neelis, Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks.
 Salomon, Indian Epigraphy.
 This is the famous Buddhist creed written in Prakrit. The standard translation of the whole sloka is: ‘Of those things that arise from a cause/The Tathagata has told the cause/And also what their cessation is: This is the doctrine of the great Recluse.’
 Salomon, Indian Epigraphy.
 See Salomon, Indian Epigraphy.
Allchin, F. Raymond, and K. R. Norman. ‘Guide to the Asokan Inscriptions.’ South Asian Studies 1.1, (1985): 43–50.
Basant, P. K. The City and the Country in Early India: A Study of Malwa. New Delhi: Primus Books, 2012.
Damsteegt, Theo. Epigraphical Hybrid Sanskrit. Vol. 23. Leiden: Brill Archive, 1978.
Falk, Harry. Aśokan Sites and Artefacts: A Source-Book with Bibliography. Mainz amRhein: Philipp von Zabern, 2006.
Findly, Ellison Banks. Dāna: Giving and Getting in Pali Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2003.
Lüders, Heinrich, and K. L. Janert. Mathura Inscriptions. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1961.
Lüders, Heinrich, Ernst Waldschmidt, and Madhukar Anant Mehendale. Bharhut Inscriptions. Ootacamund: Government Epigraphist for India, 1963.
Lüders, Heinrich. ‘A List of Brāhmī Inscriptions,’ Epigraphia Indica 10 (1912): 1–226.
Milligan, Matthew D. ‘Of Rags and Riches: Indian Buddhist Patronage Networks in the Early Historic Period.’ Dissertation, The University of Texas, 2016.
Milligan, Matthew D. ‘The Development and Representation of Ritual in Early Indian Buddhist Donative Epigraphy.’ Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies 15, 171–86.
Neelis, Jason. Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010.
Salomon, Richard. Indian Epigraphy: A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the Other Indo-Aryan Languages. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Schopen, Gregory. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997.
Tsukamoto, Keishō. Indo Bukkyō Himei No Kenkyū (A Comprehensive Study of Indian Buddhist Inscriptions). Vols. 1–3. Kyoto: Heirakuji Shoten, 1996.