Epigraphic Bearings on Defiance to and Deviance from Norms

in Article
Published on: 20 February 2020

Sabarni Pramanik Nayak

Sabarni Pramanik Nayak is an Assistant Professor and Head, Department of History, Maharaja Nandakumar Mahavidyalaya, West Bengal and a guest lecturer in West Bengal State University. Her specialisation is Epigraphy and Numismatics. Her other areas of interest include Society and Economy of peninsular India in early medieval period; Trade and commerce of the Eastern Coast; relationship of eastern coast with Southeast Asia; village settlement; and gender studies.

Indian epigraphy is a very specialised area of study in itself and also a principal medium for understanding India’s past. Once written on rock, metal, earthen materials, wood and more uncommonly on crystal, glass, carnelian, ivory, bone, shell and cloth, epigraphs stay unchanged for ever. On the other hand, epigraphic evidence is also used to study the evolution of different scripts and languages and to trace gradual changes in culture. There are several typological varieties of epigraphic specimens: royal donative and panegyric inscriptions, land grant charters, private donative records, memorial inscriptions, label inscriptions, records of pilgrims and travellers, cultic inscriptions, literary inscriptions, seal inscriptions and miscellaneous inscriptions. This paper aims at discussing several different forms of epigraphs with unique content, epigraphs which are notable for the remarks they have made.

This paper deals with epigraphs found in peninsular India, that is Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The inscriptions have been arranged thematically to draw the attention of the reader to the development of certain themes with regard to particular incidents, remarks and views pertaining to particular subjects. This has been done because an undue focus on chronology can cause us to miss the socio-economic and political significance of certain inscriptions that deal with particular subject matters. That is not to say that the consciousness of time periods is totally absent from the paper but only that I have primarily focused on the thematic development of certain kinds of discourse.

We will start our journey from Karnataka. The eight century Galaganatha temple inscription of Aihole in the Karnataka region states that Kadapuda, the boy of Bādāmī, keeps his words.[1] The same sentence is engraved on the eighth century Papanatha temple inscription in Pattadakal where it is written that Kadapuda, the boy of Bādavi, keeps his words.[2] Both inscriptions probably referred to the same person. Probably he was a truthful person moving in that same region and was proud of his truthfulness.

Another person contemporary to this boy is known by an altogether different attribute. The eight century Aihole Durga temple inscription records the name of one Mudyasili who is described as a cupid to wives.[3] Firstly, it is startling that his sexual appeal has been regarded as a quality and, especially, the sole talent which the writer thought fit to include. Furthermore, it also informs us about the presence of polygamy. There is no clue, however, to the identity of the writer apart from the fact that he was a craftsman.

A seventh–eighth century Aihole Jain cave inscription refers to a stone quarry of a craftsman named Narasobba—Śrī-Narasobbanākai.[4] His prashasti (eulogy) was also discovered near the cave:“Śrī-Biñjai-[vida]rddharachaṭṭanvimāna-rañjitanśāstra-mahēśvarangua-Ravi-rūpa-saghātanpramāa-bharan Narasobban.” He is described as “the disciple of craftsman Biñjai, sporting in creating temples, adept in [śilpa] texts, a Sun in character, creator of forms (sculptures) and expert in maintaining proportions in his creations.”[5] The last skill was crucial in making good sculptures. Although panegyric was always meant for the kings, high officials and generals in early India, Karnataka is unique in engraving the eulogy of craftsmen.

However, the craftsman’s panegyric is very short. We find Narasobba to be a cautious craftsman. He marked his own quarry (khani) for either he was choosy in selecting stones or he had suspicions about other craftsmen who might have quarried from his chosen place. The eight century Pattadakal Virupaksha temple inscription identifies Baladēva, Duggi-Āchari’s son, as the creator of an image of a dwarapala (guardian of the entrance gate). It also includes an eulogy of Baladēva which describes him as a vidyadhara (holder of knowledge).[6] Probably Baladēva was not as apprehensive as Narasobba for we did not find anything to suggest that the former marked his own quarry.

Another interesting epigraph is regarding a person named Gandhamāda. His saying was engraved on the Papanatha temple inscription at Pattadakal, dated 8th century. He addressed the ‘tigers of men’ (purua-śārdūlas) and lamented why he had the face of a hog now even though he had one of gold in the Gandhamādana mountain. He explains that because he, in spite of having given numerous varieties of gifts, at the end did not give the gift named aduranta, the gift which is free of misery, he now has the face of hog.[7] This epigraph is interesting because here the reaction of a person with unfulfilled wishes is recorded while most epigraphs are about the fulfilment of wishes. This epigraph shows us how someone repents on not completing his religious duties. It shows his originality, his firm belief in the merits and demerits associated with various practices and also the effects of the concept of janmāntara and karmaphla on common people.

From this regretting person, we will now go to a group of confident merchants. A seventh-eight century Bādāmi Jambulinga Temple Inscription mentions that one who opposes Pandemiriyan of the paradas (merchants) in the battlefield will lose his head and have the funeral pyre made ready.[8] The power of merchants was high at that time. They carried arms. Probably, Pandemiriyan was threatening the enemies on behalf of a group of merchants. Either he was himself a merchant, or was appointed by a team of merchants to protect the latter. Another eight century CE inscription from Bādāmi eulogises a person named Kappe-arabhaṭṭa. It has been stated that the wrong doers to this exceptional person of the Kali age, would undoubtedly suffer and die.[9] Whether their sufferings would be ensured by human interference or it was left to the Almighty God is not known.

Now we will discuss an epigraph of sixth or seventh century Bādāmi which can be considered remarkable for its content. We find it on the Jambulinga temple. It makes an odd reference to an individual named Vakkasidēva who is attracted to his mother-in-law rather than her daughter.[10] This is a startling statement regarding a married man. The śāstric preference of a child-bride could have resulted in the lustful yearning of this married man for his mother-in-law to whom he felt attracted. At the same time, we wonder who the writer of this epigraph was. It is not Vakkasidēva at least. Whoever the writer was, he engraved it on the pillar of the temple so that the visitors could see it.

Let us speak about an epigraph which describes the construction of a pleasure-house. There is a place named Silāharā in central India. Here there are four artificial caves of which the three named Sītāmāi, Durvāsā and Chērī-Gōdadi are well-preserved. There are altogether seven inscriptions in these three caves. The object of the epigraphs is to record the excavation of the caves by amātya Mandgaliputra Mūladeva of Vatsa gotra  while Svāmidatta was the ruler of the kingdom. Sītāmāi and Chērī-Gōdadi inscriptions (no. 4 and no. 2 respectively) mention the caves as silāgahā, but the Durvāsā cave inscription describes this as ārāmapavate (pleasure-house on the hill, according to Bhandarkar). There might be some place of pleasure or pleasure garden on the hill. These epigraphs were engraved in the first century CE. The second century inscription (no.6) in the Sītāmāi cave mentions the place as yuvati-māle (hill-place for meeting young women).[11] The epigraphs show that the Buddhist and Jain monks were not the only individuals who enjoyed the lonely retreat. Thanks are due to amātya Mandgaliputra who realised the necessity of young persons. If there was not the prevalence of the custom of constructing caves for specific purposes, (for meditation, love-making or sleeping, whatever it is), we would not have got the small inscription mentioning Devadina and Śutanukā. This inscription is estimated on paleographical grounds to belong to about the third century BC, though more cautious scholars assign it to a later period.[12] Devadina was a lupadakhe (rūpadaka or painter, sculptor, or architect) of Vārāasī who gave a rock-cut cave (Jogimara in Ramgarh hills in Ramgarh in Chhattisgarh) to the devadasi or temple girl Śutanukā for her sleeping or lying.[13] What was Devadina’s feeling for Śutanukā and for what purpose it was donated to her (i.e., the implication of the purpose) can be a matter of debate. It is believed that Devadina loved her. There was an alternative reading of the inscription according to which Devadinna, the excellent among young men and skilled in sculpture, loved Śutanukā who was a devadāsī.[14] What its consequences were we do not know. But, our intuition suggests that their love probably did not result in marriage.

There were a few ladies whose lot was better than Śutanukā. Several epigraphs of the Andhra  region  have  depicted  temple-girls as well as the daughters of temple-women as married. Our first reference of marriage of a girl belonging to the family of temple-women is found from  Srikakulam in Andhra. This land grant charter was issued by the Gaga king Vajrahasta in the later part of the tenth century CE.[15] Apparently, it was not very different from usual copper plate charters. It records the  donation of a village in Kaliga-maṇḍala by the king. But, the specialty lies in the names of  the donees here. The grant was made in favour of the family of Nannināyaka and his wife Devanava. The identity of Devanava is  astonishing. It is mentioned that she comes from the gaikā-vaśa  belonging to the temple of the god, Alateśvara-bhaṭṭāraka (Śiva), described as Trimūrti-Tryambaka-Parameśvara. The donee and his family resided in Alatavāṭṭaka, which was probably the house of Alateśvara. Now, the point of significance here is that  the gaikā-vaśa (the family of the gaikās) was associated with the Saivite temple which undoubtedly proves that they were actually the devagaikās  (gaīkās attached with the deity) or temple-women. Secondly, the generation procreated by them was  recognised as a vaśa, which indicates that it was  quite natural for temple-women to have progeny whose fathers were not given a very significant position. Thirdly, it was also not a rule that they could not  marry. It is unclear whether Devanava actually dissociated herself from the temple after her marriage. As she resided with her husband after her marriage  in the same place where the very Saivite  temple was located, it seems that she probably did not. And lastly, their marriage did not face any opposition  from the society and might even have been supported by the king as Nannināyaka was praised in high esteem in the charter and he was given land too.

In Andhra, the temple-maids were known as sāni or gui-sāni. One evidence from Mukhalingam temple situated in Srikakulam mentions the marital status  of a sāni. It is dated AD 1127 and refers to gui-sāni Nagamā of the Madhukeśvara temple who was the daughter of Vennama peggada and his wife Erakammā and the wife of pasāita Kommi Nāyaka.[16] The lady concerned was the daughter of a general or pergada and the wife of a pasāita or an  official.

Even more amazing was the seventh century inscription of Vāsamā. It record the gift of Madu-gui-sāni (temple woman of Madhukeśvara of Srikakulam) by Vāsamā, who was a concubine (lan͂) of the brāhmaa named Daddapa Nāyaka and the daughter of Sibbaparaṭṭai (a person from the reḍḍi community).[17] Daddapa Nāyaka was the brāhmaa minister of Anantavarman Choagagadeva.[18] Vāsamā gifted a lamp for the maintenance of which provision  was made for the continuous supply of oil, by making it free from tax. It was probably her association with the influential brāhmaa minister which helped  in making the donation tax-free. Vāsamā did not hide the name of her father. However, it is not so uncommon in early medieval Andhra. But, Vāsamā was of an extra-ordinary personality. Even being a temple woman, she declared that she was a concubine. And, being a concubine, she did not hesitate to disclose the name of the person with which she had the liaison. That some of the temple women had relationship with influential persons is shown here clearly.

From the world of temple-women we shall now proceed to court activities within the temple courtyard. In 1304 CE, samastapekkaṇḍru of 18 samayas (a trading group) and Nandyālasthaamu (another trading group) assembled in the mukhamaṇḍapa of the temple of Gavarēśvaradēva. They granted certain privileges to Puliyama-seṭṭi for having killed Kārapākala Kāināyaka, who had become a traitor to all the samayas. The seṭṭi was given exemption from paying duty while buying or selling with them.[19] This desperate statement of the trading organisation of Rayalseema of Andhra region attracts our attention. The question that naturally comes to our mind is - why didn’t the state prevent this heinous act of the merchants? And how did they sanction the murder of a person in lieu of certain amount of remuneration? The answer lies in the second inscription which is even more shocking. 

The subject matter of the second inscription is as follows: In 1322 AD, Kākatīya Pratāparudra was ruling in Andhra. During his rule, the suka-karaams (officials of the tax-collecting department?) of Cheunūu in Peakarṅṭi-deśamu, turned traitors to 18 samayas. So, the samasta Pekkaṁḍru or Chālumūla-padunenimidi-samayālu of Nandyāla-sthaamu (the same guild mentioned in the previous epigraph) assembled in the mukhamaṇḍapa of temple of Chennakēśavaperumādlu,summoned to their presence the officials named Anamarāju and Sigarāju. Then, the pekkaṁḍru gave siguru (weapon) and sabaamu (remuneration) to Attena, son of Lōki-Seṭṭi, in order that he may carry out the death sentence pronounced by the guild against the traitors. He duly executed their orders and in appreciation of his service, the pekkadru granted privileges to him like exempting him from paying duty for trading in certain articles both while buying and selling.[20] This vivid description offers us the picture of a court held by a guild in a temple of the Kurnool region in fourteenth century. It (and also the epigraph of 1304 CE) shows the extent of judicial rights of an extremely powerful trading organisation (nānādeśī or Aihole 500) of early medieval India.

It is surprising that an epigraph presents us with the actual description of an execution. It also reveals the social tension. The executed persons were rājus, much higher in status than a seṭṭi or trader. We do not know whether they were allowed to defend themselves in the least. And, does it show the hatred of the trading class to the nobility? Why did this execution take place? The rājus were the clerks or officials of the tax department (suka-karaam) and probably they developed an enmity with this trading organisation on monetary matters. The executor was awarded commercial privileges for this work which shows how much their death was wanted. There are so many wonders in this epigraph that we may not be able to forget it easily. Did the king shed his judicial rights? Or, does it show the age-old custom of the guild rules being recognised by the king? In that case, how did the guild become powerful enough to execute someone? These are multiple questions which can open new avenues to study.

A person or group of persons, if very powerful, could undertake extreme measures to hold on to their power. An inscription from Chengama records talk about a feud located between a local chief and three sons of his brother. It states that the three brothers were traitors to the ruler (rājā) and locality (u), and that people who helped them would be killed and thrown away, being treated as lower than a pig or a dog, and the nose and breasts of their wives would be cut off.[21]

In the thirteenth century Valikandapuram inscription too, the inscription is as follows- “The wife of the person who does harm to this charity will be given to a pulaiyar who cuts grass for my horse.” Noboru Karashima has mentioned that the pulaiyar were one of the outcastes in Tamil Nadu during the British period.[22] As it was an imprecation, it was not necessarily carried out. But, it undoubtedly points to a cultural contradiction. Was the mentality of torturing the women, or more accurately, the wives of the accused, natural to a society which upheld the notions of inseparable ties of marriage and purity of marital relationship? The illusive notion of family honour and prestige added with the taboo on the marriage of higher-caste male with lower-caste female made the situation more complex. Here the writer probably presumed that ‘harm to the charity’ could only come from any person of higher vara. We wonder what he would have written if any pulaiyar did that damage. This inscription also shows that women were made to take the burden of preserving family honour and jāti purity. The logic behind the comment was that: if women could be dishonoured and humiliated, it would bring dishonour to their family too. Thus, women were the living apparatus of maintaining and breaking the established social order.

The inequality of treatment in between a man and a woman for the same offence attracted the attention of a ruler. In Kalakada Vayalpal taluk of Chittoor district of Andhra, Vaidumba Bhuvanatrinetra’s inscription has been discovered. This king donated a sthiti (land) to the farmers or kāmpus of Vēnāu. One of the instructions mentioned was thus: ‘‘Caught adultery red-handed, if a man kills the woman and man (involved), no punishment is to be imposed (on him); but if, without killing (both the persons), he punishes (only) the woman by cutting her nose or by merely distressing her, they (i.e., the kapus of Vēnāu ) should levy a fine of 64 gadyas (from the culprit).”[23] Adultery was an unpardonable offence and that too caught red-handed! It surely led to severe punishment. Still the first part of the instruction seems to go beyond the limit. As if murder of two persons were more supported than the mutilation of one. If adultery was not involved, we probably would not see this odd instruction. However, the epigraph offers an impression of varieties of laws prevalent in India. It is strange to think that when a married woman was given to some other person without considering the irrevocability of marital union as a punishment to her husband, she probably had to accept that and when, by her own wish, she loved a person other than her husband, it was regarded as adultery.

We know that the brāhmaas enjoyed certain privileges and were lightly punished for their offences. Rather, the law books composed by them subjected the lowest vara to severest punishment. But, an epigraph gives us an altogether different impression. A Ratnagiri inscription recording an agreement made between the u (local assembly), girāmam (village assembly), and nagaram (town assembly), says that if the person who violates this agreement is a brāhmaa, “his eyes will be taken out and his nose will be cut… he will be regarded as a pig… he will be killed by soldiers…if the persons who violate the agreement die, their bodies will be treated as those of pigs and dogs.”[24] What was the point of mentioning the word ‘brāhmaa’ specially? Karashima has noted that the full meaning of the epigraph cannot be determined for it is badly damaged. But, the urge of revenge is well demonstrated even from these broken lines. There is one factor to be noted. As we have already mentioned, in early India, brāhmaas were most lightly punished for an offence; the harshest punishment always being preserved for the śūdras. But here, the composer does not seem to be very merciful towards the brāhmaas. The boundary line between punishment and revenge is blurred and Karashima has suggested that some of these statements were brought into effects.[25] In another place, Karashima has commented as the cause of this hatred towards the brāhmaas-“This change shown in the imprecations should be understood in the context of the acquisition of power by people of the lower strata of society such as hill-tribes, artisans, and merchants in the thirteen century.”[26] Also, he has pointed out that the rough and vulgar expressions show the power of some caste-like groups who formed supra-local organisations in and after the twelfth century.[27]

Not every person or organisation was powerful enough to execute or torture others. Those who were not, vented their anger in other ways; i.e., by cursing. A Tiruvannamalai inscription, recording a village grant by a chief, warns the person who harms this charity by stating that his beard and breasts will grow, he will not be born as a legitimate issue, he will eat beef and incur the sin of killing a tawny cow on the bank of the Ganges and on the shore of Kanyākumarī.[28] Karashima has noted the statement and has elaborated it by saying that this implies that the person concerned will become a hermaphrodite. So, the attitude of the society towards hermaphrodites (or effeminate persons?) can be easily guessed. We wonder whether the factor of legitimate birth could protect a hermaphrodite from social ridicule if not persecution. And, we cannot grasp the implication of the use of the term “tawny”. Was the sin of killing a cow other than brownish yellow colour lesser then?

There is also some evidence of verdicts being delivered which weren’t necessarily this violent and were even sympathetic towards the transgressors. In the eleventh century Tamaraippakkam epigraph, Rājendra-chittiramēi-perukkāar listened to a complaint of a Vellala about the murder of his elder son by his younger son. Since on enquiry it was found that the Vellala had no other son and no property, the assembly decreed sympathetically that the younger son need not die for his supposed crime, but rather should look after his aged father and mother after providing for a lamp service in the local temple.[29] Chittiramēi was a cultivators’ organisation and it is interesting to note their simple and practical verdict which was oriented towards solving problems rather than creating more trouble.

In the epigraphs discussed above, human beings are present with their love, passion, hatred, violence, urge for revenge, perversion, sympathy and violation of social norms. Their instincts and emotions are displayed in different contexts, regions and periods. As epigraphs only can offer us a glimpse into the ever-floating lives and activities of the past and even then offer a very partial picture of what was actually going on at that time. Still, going through them is like peeping into people’s minds.

Shrinivas V. Padigar (ed) ‘Aihoe Galaganātha Temple Inscription’, no.155, Inscriptions of the Calukyas of Bādāmī (c 543-757 A.D.), Indian Council of Historical Research, South Regional Centre, Bangalore, 2010, pp. 253-4.

[2] Padigar (ed.) ‘Paṭṭadakal Pāpanātha Temple Inscription’, no.207, Ibid., p. 280.

[3] Padigar (ed) ‘AihoeDurgā Temple Inscription’, no.165, Ibid., p. 259.

[4] Padigar (ed) ‘AihoeInscription Near Jaina Cave’, no.179, Ibid., p. 265.

[5] Padigar (ed) ‘AihoeInscription Near Jaina Cave’, no. 180, Ibid., p. 265-66.

[6] Padigar (ed) ‘Paṭṭadakal  Virūpāka Temple Inscription’, no.191, Ibid., p. 272.

[7] Padigar (ed) ‘Paṭṭadakal Pāpanātha Temple Inscription’ no.207, Ibid., p. 280-81.

[8] Padigar (ed) ‘Bādāmī Jambuliga Temple Inscription’, no.398, Ibid., p. 313.

[9] Padigar (ed) ‘Bādāmī Kappearabhaṭṭa’s Inscription, no.405, Ibid., p. 316-17.

[10] Padigar (ed) ‘Bādāmī Jambuliga Temple Inscription’ no. 399, Ibid., p. 313.

[11] Prof. D.R.Bhandarkar,ed. ‘Silahara Cave Inscriptions’, no.8, EI , XXII, 1933, p. 31.

[12] Richard Saloman, Indian Epigraphy, Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1998, p. 141.

[13] Susmita Basu Majumdar, Shivakant Bajpai, Select Early Historic Inscription: Epigraphic Perspectives on the Ancient Past of Chhattisgarh, Shatakshi Prakashan, Raipur, 2015, p. 26.

[14] Dilip K.Chakrabarti, The Archaeology of the Deccan Routes The ancient routes from the Ganga plain to the Deccan, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2005, p. 46.

[15] Snigdha  Tripathy, ‘Ramapuram Copper Plate Charter of Vajrahasta Year 495’,Descriptive Topographical Catalogue of Orissan Inscriptions, Manohar,New  Delhi, 2010, p. 643-644.

[16] Tripathy, ‘Mukhaligam Inscription of the Time of Coagaga, Śaka Year 1049’, Ibid., p. 712-713.

[17] Tripathy, ‘Mukhaligam Inscription of the Time of Coagagadeva, Śaka Year 1030’, Ibid., p. 693-694.

[18] Tripathy, ‘Mukhaligam Inscription, Śaka Year 1015’, Ibid., p. 689.

[19] S.S. Ramachandramurthy and S. Nagarjuna, ‘Two Copper-Plate Charters From Nellore District’, A. Copper-plate charter dated Saka 1225, EI, XLII, p. 162.

[20] S.S. Ramachandramurthy and S.Nagarjuna, ‘Two Copper-Plate Charters From Nellore District’ B.Copper –plate charter of the time of Kākatīya Pratāparudradeva, Śaka 1244, EI,  XLII, p. 167.

[21] Noboru Karashima, Ancient to Medieval South Indian Society in Transition, Oxford, 2009, p.105.

[22] Ibid., p. 20.

[23] H.K. Narasimhaswami, ‘Three Vaidumba Inscriptions from Kalakada’, B., EI, XXX, No. 46,1953, p. 284.

[24] Karashima, op.cit., p. 106.

[26] Ibid., p. 20.

[27] Ibid., p. 108.

[28] Ibid., p. 105.

[29] Ibid., p. 20.