Realm of the Written Words: The Indian Epigraphic Records (c. third century BCE–thirteenth century CE)

in Overview
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).

Any kind of historical study is based on some source, grounding on which historians attempt to understand the past which impacts the present. As a historian does not belong to the time and space of the events of the past, they have to rely on some kind of evidence, which works as an explanatory tool to analyse and interpret the past. The sources for the study of early India can broadly be divided into two categories—literary and archaeological, both of which can further be subdivided into other groups as well. Among the written archaeological sources, epigraphic documents have generally been considered the most reliable as they are often contemporary to the period they talk about and, unlike textual sources, they have not been subjected to revisions and interpolations. Moreover, epigraphs are firmly datable documents, which is not the case with other kinds of sources. Not only do epigraphs often carry information on eras and regnal years but even undated epigraphs can palaeographically be assigned to a period. Also, their provenances (most of the time) help us to demarcate the area under control of their issuing authority. This is an added advantage of using it as a tool for understanding early India’s past.

The word epigraphy, for the study of inscriptions, is derived from two Greek words viz., epi meaning ‘on or upon’ and graphie meaning ‘to write’. Though inscriptions were typically engraved or inscribed on some hard surface like stones or metal plates, writings in ink and paint may also be considered under this category. Inscriptions are of different types, such as royal proclamations, donative records, land grants, prasastis (eulogistic inscriptions commissioned by rulers and written by court poets), pilgrim’s records and so on, and are found in various languages and scripts. They could be written on stone, copper plate, coins made of different metals, etc. It should be mentioned here that more than one lakh inscriptions have been recovered throughout the subcontinent.[1] It should also be noted that among this, according to Noboru Karashima’s estimate, more than 59,000 inscriptions belong to South India alone.[2]

The entry point into the written world or the beginning of the use of writing in the Indian subcontinent may be traced back to the time of the Harappans, in the first half of the third millennium BCE, in the form of pictographs. Despite the numerous attempts of Gregory Possehl[3], Asko Parpola[4], Iravatham Mahadevan[5] and others, the decipherment of Harappan scripts (pictograph) has not been done satisfactorily. Since the script of the Indus valley civilisation has not been decoded satisfactorily, they have not been considered in this discussion for the time being. In that case, the earliest readable written materials in India date from the third century BCE, during the time of the Mauryas. Since then, throughout centuries and across regions, different types of scripts emerged and evolved, and the practice of issuing inscriptions continued till the eighteenth century.[6]

However, the importance of epigraphs appears to have gone down slightly with the emergence of a different type of court chronicling and a different genre of political and biographical literature post 1300 CE, even though epigraphic practices were quite widespread in South India during this period.[7] After 1500 CE, inscriptions often recorded the patronage to shrines and religious establishments and tombs. By considering the various kinds of epigraphic documents and their relative importance for understanding the polity, society, religion and economy of early India, this module presents a picture of Indian epigraphy for the time bracket starting c. third century BCE to the thirteenth century CE.

In Oriental and Utilitarian historiography, early India was seen through the lens of normative and philosophical treatises. This much-paid attention on the sastric norms firmly grounded early India as a land of philosophers, only excelling in spiritual and mystic thoughts, lacking in political or material speculation. However, with the discovery of old inscriptions and other archaeological artefacts from several sites, the scenario started changing rapidly from the nineteenth century onwards. The lithic documents, visual representations of architectural-sculptural remains and numismatic specimens gradually attracted the attention of historians. Scholars found interest in deciphering unknown scripts after the foundation of the Asiatic Society in Kolkata in 1784.


The first decipherment of an old script was made by Charles Wilkins in 1785.[8] He read the Badal pillar inscription of the Pala king, Narayaṇapala. In the following years some more inscriptions were recovered and interpreted. But we had to wait a few decades until the spectacular decipherment of Brahmi and Kharoṣṭi[9] scripts (Asokan records) in 1837 by the genius James Prinsep based on bilingual coins. He also prepared a chart of the Brahmi alphabet entitled ‘Modifications of the Sanskrit Alphabet from 543 B.C. to A.D. 1200’.[10] While Brahmi is written from left to right, Kharosti  goes from right to left. The Lalitavistara, the earliest biography of the Buddha belonging to first century CE, places Brahmi and Kharosti at the top among the 64 scripts prevalent by that time.[11] The word ‘Brahmi’ comes from Brahma, the creator, and is not only the mother script of the most of the indigenous scripts but also responsible for the birth and evolution of the most of the scripts of South and Southeast Asia. It has been found across the subcontinent with regional variations. Kharosti was mainly used in the north-western part of the subcontinent (parts of present Pakistan and Afghanistan) and central Asia, later also found from eastern India.

The establishment of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861 added further momentum to the study of epigraphy because of its inclusion within the domain of archaeology. The Archaeological Survey of India started publishing a series Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum from 1877 with a particular focus on providing the original texts of the inscriptions along with translations and editorial comments, followed by the photographs of the record focusing on a particular dynasty. Thus came out the corpus of inscriptions of Asoka, Guptas, Vakaṭakas, Silaharas, Kalachuris, Chedis and other minor dynasties in each separate volume. B. Lewis Rice’s Gazetter of Mysore and Coorg (1879) and Epigraphia Carnatica (as editor for the first twelve volumes, started in 1886) are important works on the epigraphic practices of Karnataka. South Indian Inscriptions (started in 1890) is also regarded as a major study on South Indian epigraphs. However, a major boom in this field came with the publication of the Epigraphia Indica series from 1892 onwards. This journal carries detailed discussion on inscriptions with an introductory note mentioning their provenance, story of their recovery, dates, script and language along with their texts, translation, historical importance and illustrations.

Besides these journals, several monographs on the subject were also published. A.C. Burnell’s Elements of South Indian Palaeography, G.H. Ojha’s Prachina Lipimala (in Hindi), Bühler’s Indian Palaeography may be cited in this context. Gradually the subject as well as the term ‘Indian Epigraphy’ became so popular that three books under the same title, Indian Epigraphy, were published—by D.C. Sircar (1965), K.V. Ramesh (1984), Richard Salomon (1998).

A significant development in epigraphic studies was the creation of a separate epigraphist’s post by the Government of Madras Presidency in 1886, with E. Hültzsch as its first appointee. The Office of Epigraphist to Government of Madras published annual reports on the epigraphical survey with the summary, comments and historical significance of the inscriptions. The annual report was called Madras Epigraphical Report and was published from 1887 to 1921. After that it came to be known as Annual Report on South Indian Epigraphy and finally as Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy from 1945 onwards.

There is often a tendency of placing colonial British scholarship over German scholarship. It should be mentioned in this context that the British historians (mostly) often viewed the Indian state society from the point of view of ruling elites, that of a social superior to the uncivilised colonies. But the Germans did not harbour such kind of preconceived notion of presenting early India’s past in a specific way to show it as less qualified from the Westerners. It is for this reason that their perception of Indic documents and pasts is more reliable and reflects a rational analysis of the sources. The importance of German scholarship in studying the literary texts, particularly the editing and translating of the Vedic texts by Max Müller, is well known to everyone. But the enormous importance of German scholars, such as Bühler, Kielhorn, Fleet, Burgess, Lüders and others, who produced voluminous works in the field of Indian epigraphy often do not receive that much attention as the literary genre did. In this context Ranabir Chakravarti rightly points out that ‘their (Germans) stellar role in epigraphic studies is a major facet of early Indian historiography that needs deeper probing’.[12] Here one should also remember the painstaking efforts of twentieth-centuryIndian epigraphists. Most notable among these researchers are G.H. Ojha, H. Krishna Sastri, R.D. Banerji, D.R. Bhandarkar, N.P. Chakravarti, B.Ch. Chhabra, V.V. Mirashi and the doyen of Indian epigraphy—D.C. Sircar.[13]


Let us briefly discuss the Indian scripts and their evolution. After the first experience of urbanisation by the Harappans (who used pictographs found on the seals and other relics) of the Indian subcontinent, we come across the rural Vedic (c. 1500–1000 BCE) and later Vedic times (c. 1000–600 BCE). A study of the Vedic corpus with its emphasis on sruti (something heard) speaks of a scriptless society. And it was only by the third century BCE[14], during the time of the Mauryas, that the subcontinent for the first time entered into the written world with the use of the Brahmi and Kharosti scripts. Thus it may be said that the use of script for recording important events arose with the rise of urban centres, state and burgeoning trade. However, considering the pictographs of the Harappans as the first form of script, we virtually do not have any clue as to what happened in history[15] during this long gap of two thousand years between the time of the Harappans and the Mauryas (c. 2350–300 BCE).

It has already been mentioned that Brahmi was the parent script of almost all the indigenous scripts. The Brahmi script was first used by the Mauryas (in Asokan records) belonging to third century BCE.[16] Now, the appearance of Brahmi in third century BCE is a matter of controversy. Several theories exist regarding its origin. Some trace its origin to the Harappan scripts while others connect it with the scripts which prevailed in the Achaemenid empire in the north-western part of the subcontinent. Another theory credits Asoka (c. 267–232 BCE), the great Maurya monarch, as its inventor.[17] Keeping aside these debates let us focus on its evolution.

Except Brahmi and Kharoṣṭī, the other 62 scripts enlisted in Lalitavistara, mainly represent geographical terms which can presumably be connected with the appropriate local derivatives of Brahmi. We also come across scripts names based on calligraphic styles or the particular groups they belong to, such as Puṣpalipi (the flower script), Devalipi (script of the gods), Nagalipi (script of the Nagas) and so on.

D.C. Sircar broadly categorises the development of Brahmi into three corresponding stages—‘Early’ (c. third–first centuries BCE), ‘Middle’ (c. first century BCE–third century CE) and ‘Late’ (c. fourth–sixth centuries CE) in the context of North India. B.C. Chhabra and G.S. Gai prefer to call the last phase as ‘Gupta Alphabet’[18], while A.H. Dani terms it as ‘Proto-Regional Scripts’.[19] Dani also challenges the dynastic labels such as Mauryan (Asokan), Kusana, Gupta Brahmi to define the writing system of that corresponding time and offers regional and geographical categories.[20]

c. Third–First  Centuries BCE
Barring a couple of stray inscriptions found from Mahasthan, Sougara and the donative inscription of Dasaratha from Nagarjuni hill cave (c. 220 BCE), all the Mauryan inscriptions belong to the period of Aaoka (c. 273–32 BCE), where we first encounter the Brahmi script, which was already a mature and uniform script by then. The AAokan inscriptions written in Prakrit had alphabets consisting of six vowel signs (a, ā, i, u, e, o), 32 consonants, 8 medial vowel (ā, i, ī, u, ū, e, o, ai), and anusvara. The letters were simple angular. However, the orthography did not fully develop during Mauryan times.[21]

By c. second–first centuries BCE, during the time of the Sungas, Brahmi gradually underwent changes. The script of this phase shows the growth of rudimentary head-marks. In the succeeding centuries, these head-marks developed into different shapes in accordance with their regional variations. During the same time we also come across the Brahmi script found at Bhattiprolu in Andhra Pradesh and another script used in the Tamil region. These marked a clear departure from the Brahmi script used in the Asokan times. The Bhattiprolu and Tamil inscriptions belonging to c. second–first centuries BCE present vowel-less pure consonants. This was done possibly to write local Dravidian and particularly Tamil languages as there is a large use of vowel-less consonants. The script found in South India, thus, is known as Tamil Brahmi.

c. First–Third Centuries CE
The post-Mauryan times witnessed the emergence of several new states such as the Sungas in Ganga valley, Kusanas in the north-west, Saka-Kṣatrapas in western India, Satavahanas in Deccan and others. With the rise of these new powers in different geographical locations, the scripts also started presenting distinct regional variations. Here one should remember the contribution of A.H. Dani who preferred geographical labels over the dynastic ones to trace the evolution of the scripts, as the name of dynasty merely limits the spread of its (scripts) regional expansion and does not help us recognise its regional varieties. Overall this phase saw further development in head-marks and the emergence of the style of writing in separate strokes. In the North Indian context, characters took a more square and angular shape, while in South India they became rounded. Furthermore, calligraphic elaboration became another feature. Most notably, Sanskrit began to appear slowly as an important language from this time, though Prakrit simultaneously continued as the dominant language, at least till the fourth century CE.

c. Fourth–Sixth Centuries CE
During this phase the prominent powers were the Guptas who controlled considerable parts of North India and the Vakatakas in Deccan. Regional variations of the scripts became more elaborate. Head-marks became more elaborate and the right arm of the letter went downwards. From central India, in the inscriptions of the Vakatakas, we witness a new form of script known as the ‘box-headed’ variety because of the presence of square structure head-marks. In South India, by this time, we see the marked rounded forms of letters (in the records of Pallavas and early Calukyas) because of the use of stylus instead of pen and ink, which was used earlier. In the Tamil region, the Vatteluttu and Pallava Grantha scripts emerge between the fifth–sixth centuries CE. With regards to language, Sanskrit became the court language bypassing Prakrit. Along with this, Telugu and Kannada emerged around the sixthcentury CE in South India.

c. Seventh–Tenth Centuries CE
The most important script of this phase is Siddhamatrika, also known as Kutila, Vikata. Here the alphabets were characterised by acute-angular features at the lower right corner. By the same time in the north-west and Himalayan belt we find Proto-Sarada script. While in the upper part of South India the evolution of the Telugu-Kannada script continued, the far south saw the emergence of Tamil (for writing in Tamil language) and Grantha (for Sanskrit) scripts from pre-existing Pallava Grantha. Vatteluttu also developed with fully rounded features.

c. Eleventh Century Onwards
The following centuries witnessed further evolution of the preceding scripts with more regional variations. In North India, Siddhamatrika developed into Nagari or Devanagari and Proto-Bengali(Gauḍī) which further gave birth to Bengali, Assamese, Oriya and Maithili in eastern India by c. fifteenth century CE.  Proto-Sarada turned into Sarada (later developed into Gurumukhi) in north-west, Kashmir and adjoining Himalayan belts. While in the upper part of South India, Telugu–Kannada became more prominent, in the far south Tamil and Grantha (prototype of Malayalam) continued its development till c. fourteenth/fifteenth centuries CE. After this quick survey of emergence and evolution of scripts in India covering a time span of more than 1,500 years (c. third century BCE–fourteenth/fifteenth century CE), we will now delve deep into the variations and historical significance of the epigraphic records.


The decipherment of the inscriptions is an extremely important aspect in the uncovering of historical data. The study of epigraphy is not merely limited to the reading of the inscriptions, but has a wider application which involves the exploration and understanding of the history of a particular period. Given that dates and names of rulers feature prominently in epigraphic findings, in the study of history through the lens of epigraphy, political and dynastic history was the main focus of the historians. Since 1960, however, the focus shifted to the socio-economic conditions over the dynastic history. It was D.C. Sircar who systematically generated epigraphic data on socio-economic and cultural history. So, socio-economic and cultural practices vis-à-vis the prescribed norms, can be fruitfully studied in the light of inscriptions. Recent historiography offers extremely important clues to understand the political processes and formations through epigraphy, which is a complex process in itself. It has provided the empirical backbone to the study of the early medieval (c. 600–1300 centuries CE) state system. Let us discuss what kind of data this body of texts generate, how their nature changes in accordance with time and also how they help us to draw a meaningful image of the past.

c. Third Century BCE
We have already mentioned that the Mauryas were the earliest Indian power to inscribe their political and administrative policies on hard surface.[22] Almost all the Mauryan inscriptions are codified political messages commissioned by the Emperor Aśoka with the exception of stray inscriptions found from Mahasthan[23] and Sohgaura[24], which mainly talk about the management of stored surplus grain during times of emergency, and the donative records of Dasaratha[25] to the Ajivika monks from Nagarjuni cave consisting of instructions on surviving the rainy season.

Written in first person, Ashokan edicts are a class by themselves in that through them the ruler directly communicates with his subjects. He even addresses his subjects as his children (Separate Rock Edict I). In most cases, Ashokan inscriptions open with the phrase devanam piya piyadasina, meaning King Priyadasi, the beloved of the gods. The identity of Priyadasi, was for long a subject of extensive debate. But after the discovery of the Maski edicts in 1915 (later in Gurjjara also) bearing clearly the name Asoka, it became clear that these records belonged to Asoka. The Ashokan records were written in Brahmi, Kharosti, Greek and Aramaic script and in Prakrit (mostly), Greek and Aramaic language.[26]The major epigraphic findings of the Ashokan era can be classified into two main groups—rock edicts (major including the separate rock edicts, minor and cave inscriptions) and pillar edicts (major and minor). It may be mentioned here that Asoka used regnal years in his edict, that is, he recorded everything by referring to his era of reign. His major rock edicts comprise a set of fourteen proclamations on various issues, such as the protection of animal life, the need for medical clinics and planting of trees, promotion of public morality, respect for rivalries and so on. It may also be mentioned here that Major Rock Edict XIII where Asoka expresses his remorse after the bloody battle of Kalinga has perhaps been deliberately omitted from this set of fourteen found in ancient Kalinga. It further records the name of five contemporary Greek kings with whom Asoka maintained friendly relations.

The association of Asoka with Buddhism is well known. His edicts not only reveal his relations with the Buddhist samgha but also instructs on the specific teachings of Buddha that the monks should be familiar with. It is in this context one should remember that the Third Buddhist Council was held during the time of Asoka, though, strikingly enough, this is not mentioned in the edicts we have discussed so far. Further, the discussion on Asoka’s belief would be incomplete without the mention of his dhamma[27] which has often been wrongly considered as equivalent to Buddhism. While Asoka’s understanding of dhamma is explained in the fourteen major rock edicts and the seven pillar edicts, it was B.N. Mukherjee who, for the first time, clearly defined the meanings of dhamma with the study of the Asoka’s Aramaic edicts where (and also in Greek) we find its equivalent in Eu’sebia which talks about piety, law and truth.[28] Again, for example, the Greek edict of Asoka found from Kandahar further states that ‘to mind or have in mind the king’s interests or profits’[29]; Mukherjee interprets this as firm devotion to the ruler himself and considers it as an integral component of Asoka’s principle of dhamma. Thus dhamma has nothing to do with Buddhism; it was a political tool to weld a sub-continental society[30], and acted as a unifier.[31]

The vastness of Asoka’s territory can easily be determined by the distribution pattern of his edicts—from Afghanistan in the north to Karnataka in the south, and from Kathiawar in the west to Kalinga in the east. On the basis of the phrase raja magadhe, Romila Thapar suggests Magadha as the metropolitan state of the Maurya empire.[32] Furthermore, his core territory was based around the Ganga valley, which was the main concentration area of his pillar edicts, while the north-western borderland and peninsular areas formed the peripheral zones of his empire.

c. Second Century BCE–Third Century CE
Following the decline of the Mauryas a vacuum was created. It was during this period that the Indo-Greeks, Sakas and the Kuṣanas, entered India through the north-western borderlands. Such an in-flow offered regular linkages with the north-western borderlands and led to the proliferation of Kharosti and Bactrian inscriptions in those areas. Among the Kharosti records, mention may be made of the Mathura Lion Capital inscriptions from the time of Ranjuvala (c. 1–15 CE) and Soḍasa (c. 10–25 CE),which record various donations by the family of the Mahaksatrapa Rajula to the Sarvastivadin monks.[33] The Takht-i-Bahi stone inscription of the time of Gondophernes helps us ascertain the chronology of the Sakas.[34] The Rabatak inscription written in Greek script and Bactrian language offers the genealogy and the details of the rise and expansion of the Kuṣaṇas.[35] Kanishka, the greatest Kusana ruler, is often credited for beginning the Saka Era which starts in 78 CE.[36] The epigraphs also mention the Vikrama Era (57/58 BCE), Kalachuri Era (248/250 CE), Gupta Era (319/320 CE), etc.[37] For example, if any inscription is recorded in 80 Gupta Era, that actually belongs to 400 CE (320+80). The change of era definitely marks the departure of existing power or alteration of powers. The discontinuity of the Gupta Era in inscriptions in western India after 467 CE, for example, is a commentary on the Guptas’ loss of this area after the death of Skandagupta.[38]

We also have large number of donative inscriptions, completely different in nature from the erstwhile records of the Mauryas, belonging to this period, from Bharhut and Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh; Nagarjunakonda, Amaravati and Jaggayyapeta in Andhra Pradesh; Pauni in Maharashtra and the cave temples of Maharashtra, particularly at Karle, Junnar, Nasik, Nanaghat (wherefrom the inscriptions of the Satavahnas and western Kṣatrapas have been recovered), Bhaja, Bedesa, and Kanheri; Kathiawar and Kutch in Gujarat; and some other areas. These dedicatory inscriptions run to two or three lines, are written in Brahmi and are mostly Buddhist in nature.. If we carefully look into the distribution pattern of these donative records, we find them from almost all areas ranging from north to south, west and central India excluding, quite surprisingly, only the eastern part. From eastern India, during this time, we find Kharavela’s (King of Kaliṅga) Hatigumpha inscription[39] (c. first century BCE), which is a prasasti and presents  year to year account of Kharavela’s achievements. The Junagadh rock inscription of Rudradaman I (c. 150 CE)[40] belonging to the Kārdamaka house of the Sakas is another example of prasasti which bears the earliest testimony of classic Sanskrit. The issuance of prasasti continued in the succeeding periods too.

c. Fourth–Sixth Centuries CE
In North India, it was during the time of the Guptas that the seeds of Indian feudalism, according to R.S. Sharma, began to develop because of the frequent award of tax-free land grants.[41] Romila Thapar calls this phase ‘Threshold Times’ as it carries some elements from earlier times, but introduces some other elements which continue in more concrete forms in later times.[42] This is also the time when many new areas where pre-state polities existed were gradually turning towards the state system by absorbing complex elements of state society.

Regarding the language of the inscription, Prakrit was virtually replaced by Sanskrit which became the court language. The Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudragupta (c. 330–376 CE)[43] continued the tradition of prasasti; it records his conquests over a vast territory of the subcontinent, stretching from north to south and west to considerable parts of eastern India. Another example of the prasasti of the Gupta times is the Junagadh rock inscription of Skandagupta (c. 455 CE, 456 CE, 45–58 CE)[44] engraved on the same stone where Asoka’s Gimar rock edicts and the Junagadh prasasti of Rudradaman is incised. It offers a vital reference of the irrigation project which highlights the construction, maintenance and repairs of the Sudarsana Lake by Rudradaman and Skandagupta. An interesting inscription (c. 436 and 473 CE)issued during the time of Gupta king Kumaragupta I (c. 414–455 CE) refers to Bandhuvarman as the governor of Daaapura under the overlordship of the former.[45] It also records that a community of silk weavers migrated from Laṭa Visaya to Dasapura and built a temple dedicated to the Sun God there. That merchants often figure as the donors is also attested by an inscription dated 466 CE which records the payment of cash to a sun temple at Indrapura by two brothers, Achalavarman and Bhṛkuṭivarman, who identified themselves as kshatriya vaṇika, meaning merchants of kṣatriya origin.[46]

The epigraphic records found from Bengal dated to the Gupta Era are quite unique in character as well. They throw considerable light on the regional/local-level administrative tiers (bhukti, visaya, etc.) and officers of the state. These charters record revenue-free grants (known as agrahara) of land instead of religious donations, but the majority of the land grant records from Bengal during the 400­­–600 CE period are actually sale deeds or sale-cum-gift deeds, the likes of which are not encountered anywhere in the subcontinent.[47] That land was a saleable commodity is evident in these records from Bengal. These inscriptions thus throw invaluable light on the types of land, price of land and land measurement systems.[48]

Contemporary to the Guptas were the Vakatakas of Deccan and the Parivrajakas and Uccakalpas of Bundelkhand who primarily issued copper plate charters recording the donation of lands mainly to the brahmanas for their religious superiority. Mention may also be made of the early Maukharis, Yasodharman of Mandasor, and the Huṇa kings Toramana and Mihirakula, who issued inscriptions after the downfall of the Guptas around the mid-sixth century CE. The South Indian scenario of this phase can be understood in the light of the inscriptions credited to the Pallavas (c. 4th century CE), Calukyas, Nalas, Traikutakas, Eastern Gangas, Visnukundins, Sarabhapuriyas and others.[49]

c. Seventh–Thirteenth Centuries CE
This period of seven hundred years under discussion is generally known as the Early Medieval Period in Indian history, a period which experienced the emergence of several regional and local-level powers due to the absence of any paramount authority anywhere in India. Prominent among them were the Palas in Bengal, Pratiharas of Ujjain and the Raṣṭrakuṭas of Deccan, who were constantly engaged in struggle for political supremacy in Kanauj.[50] Others who deserve mention are the Maitrakas of Valabhi; Calukyas of Gujarat; Sailodbhavas, Bhanjas, Gangas of Orissa; Calukyas of Badami; Cholas, Cheras, Pandyas along with the pre-existing Pallavas and western Gangas.

The same phase also saw the proliferation of issuing tax-free land grants (known as agrahara, brahmadeya, devadana) mainly to the brahmanas and, later, to the officials. The multiplicity of powers and the donation of massive amount of land, according to R.S. Sharma, gave birth to a fragmented polity, leading to decentralised authority in contrast to the centralized state.[51] Burton Stein called this kind of an arrangement of political powers a ‘segmentary state’.[52] Opposed to both fragmentation and segmentation was the processural and integrative model proposed by B.D. Chattopadhyaya[53] and Herman Kulke.[54] It is to be noted here that epigraphic documents work as the backbone of all these models and the debates they generate.

Why did the king issue such land grants? The king used this tool to acquire legitimisation that was offered by the ritual specialist brahmanas. The process got further momentum by incorporating the local cults into the main pantheon of brahmanical religion. This merger of local cults into the main shrines also brought the local chiefs into the core area from the periphery, and created a new political set up in the final stage of state formation. The long inscriptions often found from South India provide valuable material to understand the administrative tiers formed by different communities. The profusion of epigraphs in South India has paved the way for Karashima’s statistical analysis which generated quantifiable data to capture the changing socio-political and cultural scenario.[55] The temple inscriptions also corroborate this and further enlighten us to understand the interplay between the state and religion.[56]

The land grants also present boundary markers of the donated tract. B.D. Chattopadhyaya’s masterly study on the boundary markers of a donated land established the linkages among the villages in contrast to the erstwhile theory of isolation of villages.[57] He also showed the presence and continuation of many new urban centres without an epicentre, which were altogether of a different form from the urban centres of the past, a fact which led him to call this phase the period of ‘third urbanisation’.

After surveying the land, we shall now divert our attention to the study of maritime activities of the subcontinent through the lens of the epigraphs. Epigraphs of post 1000 CE refer to nauvittaka (meaning a rich merchant of the ship; corresponds to the Arabic/Persian nakhuda, meaning lord of the ship) and navikakarmakara (sailors and the crew). Their presence certainly indicates the presence of ship-owing merchants.[58] A bilingual inscription written in Sanskrit and Arabic dated 1264 informs about the journey of nakhuda Nuruddin Firuz from Hormuz to Somnath. It further corroborates his role in constructing a mijigiti (mosque) there, where Islamic festivals were performed. Two points need elaboration here. The presence of Sanskrit and Arabic in one record is indicative of religious tolerance. Furthermore, the town of Somnath which is famous for Saiva establishment also witnessed the setting up of a mosque with the approval of Saiva ascetics and the Baghela ruler Arjunadeva. Moreover, it was described as a sacred shrine. Interestingly, the Sanskrit verse opens with the phrase Om Namastute Allah, who has been endowed with four epithets—Visvarupa (image of the universe), Visvanatha (lord of the universe), Sunyarupa (formless)and Lakṣyalakṣya (visible and invisible), all associated with Siva.

That the Tamil merchants also played an active role in the Indian Ocean trade network is attested by the rich corpus of epigraphic records studied by Karashima, Subbarayalu and their colleagues. These records clearly stand against the sastric injunction against seafaring where the sea voyage has been described as a polluting act.[59] It should be mentioned here that inscriptions written in Sanskrit have also been found from many countries of Southeast Asia, such as Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and some other countries, which shed light on the connection of India with those distant lands. For example, the rich epigraphic materials from cave Hoq of Socotra Island in the western Indian Ocean, mostly written in Brahmi script and Sanskrit language, have been discovered to be visitors’ records thanks to the fascinating study of Ingo Strauch and his teammates, who edited these inscriptions (Indic, South Arabian, Aksumite, Palmyran and Greek) ranging mostly between the first and the sixth centuries CE.[60] That Socotra clearly played the role of a convergent point for almost five centuries is evident in these records.[61]

The foregoing description elucidates how the data generated by inscriptions aids in understanding several aspects of Indian history. The typological divisions of the epigraphs, certainly issued in different contexts, represent various images of the society. Furthermore, juxtaposing other sources with inscriptions certainly provide more accurate information. In cases where no other information is available other than inscriptions, the study of the same offers invaluable insight into the history of early India. However, it is indeed essential to read between the lines in the study of epigraphy, what Noboru Karashima calls ‘whispering of inscriptions’.[62]

D.C. Sircar long back estimated the number as 90,000. See Sircar, Early Indian Numismatic and Epigraphical Studies.

[2] Karashima, ed., Medieval Religious Movements and Social Changes.

[3] Possehl, Indus Age.

[4] Parpola, Deciphering the Indus Script.

[5] Mahadevan, The Indus Script: Texts.

[6] Sircar, ed., Select Inscriptions bearing on Indian History and Civilization.

[7] See Karashima, ed., Medieval Religious Movements and Social Changes.

[8] Cited in Dani, Indian Palaeography, 1.

[9] Instead of conventional ‘Kharohhī’, the term ‘Kharohī’ will be used as the later spelling is available in various Buddhist and Jaina texts such as in Lalitavistara, Mahāvastu and so on. For details see Mukherjee, ‘A Note on the Name Kharoshthī,’ 13–15.

[10] Thomas, ed., Essays on Indian Antiquities, 39.

[11] For the history of decipherment and origin of Brāhmī and Kharohī, see Mukherjee, Origin of Brāhmī and Kharoshī scripts; Sircar, Indian Epigraphy and Salomon, Indian Epigraphy.

[12] Chakravarti, ‘Reading Early India Through Epigraphic Lens’.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Recently few potsherds bearing short inscriptions were found in the course of excavations at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka in strata which are said to be securely assigned by radiocarbon dating to the pre-Mauryan period, which supports the theory that Brāhmī pre-dates the Mauryan times. For details, see Deraniyagala, The Prehistory of Sri Lanka; Allchin, The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia; Coningham, Allchin, Batt, and Lucy, ‘Passage to India? Anuradhapura and the Early Use of the Brahmi Script,’ and further references provided in these sources. But we need more evidence to establish this so called proto form of Mauryan writings on a firm ground.

[15] The term was coined by V. Gordon Childe and also used as the title of his book (revised edition 1954) where he attempted to sketch the man’s progress in the long ages before the advent of writing.

[16] For the study of Aśokan inscriptions see Hültzsch, Inscriptions of Asoka, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum; Barua, Inscriptions of Aśoka and Aśoka and his Inscriptions; R.G. Basak, ed., Aśokan Inscriptions; Sircar, Inscriptions of Aśoka and Aśokan Studies. Also see Mukherjee, Studies in the Aramaic Inscriptions of Aśoka for the study of Aramaic edicts of Aśoka; Falk, Aśokan Sites and Artefacts.

[17] For the debates on the origin of Brāhmī see the section The origin of Brāhmī in Salomon, Indian Epigraphy, 19–30.

[18] Chhabra and Gai, eds, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, 205.

[19] Dani, Indian Palaeography, 108–214.

[20] Ibid.

[21] From the origin till the evolution of the scripts, I have largely depended on Dani’s Indian Palaeography, Salomon’s Indian Epigraphy and Y. Subbarayalu’s ‘Introduction to Indian Epigraphy and Paleography’ which was given to me during a workshop on Indian epigraphy organised by ICHR in 2016.

[22] For understanding the history of the Mauryas in general and Aśoka, till the downfall of the Maurya empire, see Thapar, Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas,.

[23] Sircar, ed., Select Inscriptions Bearing on Indian History and Civilization, 82–83.

[24] Ibid., 85–86,

[25] Ibid., 79–80.

[26] Thapar, Reading History from Inscriptions.

[27] For the discussion on dhamma, see B.N. Mukherjee’s commentary to H.C. Raychaudhuri’s Political History of Ancient India. Also see Thapar, Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas.

[28] Mukherjee, Studies in the Aramaic Inscriptions of Aśoka.

[29] Schlumberger, ‘The Kandahar Greek Edict of Aśoka.’

[30] Thapar, Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, 190–93.

[31] Chattopadhyaya, ‘Autonomous Spaces’ and the Authority of the State.’

[32] Thapar, ‘Towards the Definition of an Empire.’ Also see, Fussman, ‘Central and Provincial Administration in Ancient India.’

[33] Sircar, ed., Select Inscriptions Bearing on Indian History and Civilization, 121–22.

[34] Sircar, ed., Select Inscriptions Bearing on Indian History and Civilization , 121–22.

[35] Sims-Williams and Cribb, ‘A New Bactrian Inscription of Kanishka the Great.’ Also see, Mukherjee’s reading and discussion in ‘The Great Kushana Testament.’

[36] Harry Falk recently suggests, on the basis of the Yavana-Jātaka that Kaika’s reign began in 127 CE.

[37] For the discussion on early Indian eras used in inscriptions see section on the ‘Dating and the Eras’ in Sircar, Indian Epigraphy, 219–80.

[38] Chakravarti, ‘Reading Early India Through Epigraphic Lens.’

[39] Sircar, ed., Select Inscriptions Bearing on Indian History and Civilization, 206–13.

[40] Ibid, 169–74.

[41] Sharma, Indian Feudalism, c. 300-1200.

[42] Thapar, ‘Threshold Times.’

[43] Sircar, ed., Select Inscriptions Bearing on Indian History and Civilization, 254–60; also see, Chhabra and Gai, eds, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum: Inscriptions of the Early Gupta Kings , 203–20.

[44] Sircar, ed., Select Inscriptions Bearing on Indian History and Civilization, 299–308; also see, Chhabra and Gai, eds, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum: Inscriptions of the Early Gupta Kings, 296–305.

[45] Sircar, ed., Select Inscriptions Bearing on Indian History and Civilization, 288–97.

[46] Ibid, 316–19.

[47] Ray, Bangalir Itihas, AdiParva (in Bengali), 220-24; Maity, Economic Life in North India in the Gupta Period, second ed.

[48] Chakravarti, ‘Economic Life in Early Bengal (up to c. 1300 CE): An Overview’ (forthcoming).

[49] For the general discussion on south Indian powers see K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India.

[50] Majumdar, ed., The Age of Imperial Kanauj, 19–55. D.C. Sircar’s new assessment provides a fresh understanding of this struggle. See Sircar, The Kānyakubja Gaua Struggle From the 6th to the 12th century A.D.

[51] Sharma, Early Medieval Indian Society: A Study in Feudalisation.

[52] Stein, ‘The Segmentary State in South Indian History’ and ‘The Segmentary State: Interim Reflections.’

[53] Chattopadhyaya, ‘Political Process and the Structure of Polity in Early Medieval India.’

[54] Kulke, ‘The Early and the Imperial Kingdom.’

[55] For south Indian epigraphic scenario, see Karashima, South Indian History and Society.

[56] Karashima, ed., A Concise History of South India: Issues and Interpretations; Subbarayalu, ed., South Indian Inscriptions. For the discussion on the relation between the state and religion see the interview of R. Mahalakshmi in this module.

[57] Chattopadhyaya, Aspects of Rural Settlements and Rural Society in Early Medieval India. On the same line in recent time Suchandra Ghosh has attempted to understand the rural landscape of Early Kāmarūpa. See Ghosh, Understanding Boundary Representations in the Copper-plate Charters of Early Kāmarūpa.’

[58] Chakravarti, ‘Nakhudas and Nauvittakas: Ship-owing Merchants in the West Coast of India 1000-1500’, and ‘India and the Indian Ocean: Issues in Trade and Politics (up to c. 1500 CE).’

[59] Cited in Chakravarti, ‘Reading Early India Through Epigraphic Lens,’ 33.

[60] Strauch, Foreign Sailors on Socotra.

[61] See Appendix II (Visitors from India to the Island of Socotra: Epigraphic Evidence) in Chakravarti, Exploring Early India up to C. AD, 454–60.

[62] Karashima, ‘Whispering of Inscriptions.’

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