Seven Thousand Wonders Of India Part II: Inferring Inscriptions

R Gopu

Aug 01, 2020, 12:58 PM | Updated 07:34 PM IST

Inferring Inscriptions
Inferring Inscriptions
  • Inscriptions tell us a number of historical, social and political facts that literature doesn’t. They also preserve forms of scripts and styles of writing that palm leaves and paper cannot preserve.
  • When I visited Mahabalipuram in 2001, I noticed something was written above a few sculptures. Some letters seemed like Tamil, some like Hindi, and one or two like Telugu or Malayalam.

    Eight years later, I found out that inscriptions were in Sanskrit, but not in Devanagari lipi (script) in which Hindi Sanskrit and Marathi are written today. It was a long lost script called Pallava Grantham. Why did we never learn this in school? Or in any book, movie, lecture, news article I encountered?

    Malai Inscription
    Malai Inscription

    Inscriptions, coins and even books all over South India were written in Grantham for 1,500 years. I didn’t know what shocked me more — that the Pallavas wrote in Sanskrit or that South Indians used a different script for Sanskrit.

    There are Sanskrit inscription in Burma, Thailand, Java, Sumatra, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka — all in Grantha lipi. And the scripts of the languages are derivatives of Grantham.

    When William Chambers visited Mahabalipuram in 1784, he thought the Tamil country had once been ruled by kings from Siam (Thailand) because the script looked Siamese.

    Inscriptions tell us a number of historical, social and political facts that literature doesn’t. They also preserve forms of scripts and styles of writing that palm leaves and paper cannot preserve.

    European orientalists, of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and its branches, systematically collected, collated, deciphered, transliterated and translated inscriptions across India, and south east Asia, around the late eighteenth century. This was the era of great discoveries in archaeology across the world. Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian Cuneiform were deciphered. Histories of long dead and forgotten people and civilisations were discovered.

    One great irony was that the king most ardent about inscriptions, Rajaraja Chola, was himself forgotten, until a German epigraphist, Ernst Hultzsch, discovered his name on the walls of the Thanjavur temple in 1890.

    Until then, people attributed the temple itself to Rajaraja’s distant ancestor Karikala Chola. About one lakh inscriptions have been recorded and published. Of these, Tamil inscriptions are nearly half the number followed by Kannada, Sanskrit, Telugu and Marathi.

    One reason is that temples of Tamil Nadu suffered the least amount of destruction and vandalism over centuries. A vast number of temples and entire cities all over the Gangetic plain were completely obliterated by iconoclastic Islamic invaders over centuries — what to say of inscriptions.

    Secondly, the Cholas began an era of extraordinarily long inscriptions in temples they built across South India, that is not paralleled. Their successor Vijayanagar, Nayak and Maratha kings continued this practice. Even intact temples in Orissa, Karnataka, Maharashtra et cetera have inscriptions much shorter than those in the Tamil country.

    Inscription graph
    Inscription graph

    The most ancient rock inscriptions in India are the edicts of Asoka, in Prakrit language, in Brahmi script. A century later, we find Mahameghavahana and Satavahana inscriptions.

    Sanskrit inscriptions of several dynasties follow, up to the third century AD. Some inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi script are found scattered in natural cave beds across the Tamil country in this period, the Sangam era.

    The main difference is that the Tamil language doesn’t have varga consonant sounds of Sanskrit and so Tamil Brahmi doesn’t use those letters; but it has four extra consonants and two vowels, for sounds not found in Indo-Aryan languages.

    Scripts India
    Scripts India

    Around the fourth century, the northern Brahmi script morphed into the Nagari script, while Tamil Brahmi morphed into vattezhuttu.

    Around the fifth century, Grantham and archaic Telugu-Kannada scripts are found in the south. Nagari continued in the north, with a Sharada and Siddha Matrika variations in some regions.

    A Pallava Tamil script evolved in the south. The Cholas and later everyone adopted this, replacing vattezhutu. After the ninth and tenth centuries, languages other than Sanskrit, Prakrit and Tamil developed literature and scripts, which can also be found in inscriptions also.

    Calligraphic scripts, as seen in Kanchipuram, and a yet undeciphered shankha-lipi are the other curiosities of the medieval age.

    Timeline of Sripts
    Timeline of Sripts

    Layout and Content

    Most inscriptions have this format:

    1. Salutation – The phrase “svasti shree” or “shubham astu

    2. Name and ruling year of the king

    3. King’s accomplishments

    4. Substance of the inscription — donation, judgment, tax policy et cetera

    5. Warning — duration of grant (usually eternal — as long as Sun and Moon exist); penalty for transgression

    Not all inscriptions are by kings, queens or princes. Several are by ministers, generals, and officials. Some are by village or town committees, heads of monasteries, merchant or trade guilds, or other individual or group donors.

    But especially in temples, royal inscriptions are most common.

    The content and purpose also cover a wide range of fields, including:

    1. Donations — land grants, donation of idols, jewellery, money for lamps, repairs, festivals et cetera

    2. Details of wars, victories, inheritance, political lineage of dynasties

    3. Taxes, tax reduction or waiver, fines

    4. Disputes, resolutions, judgments, civil and criminal cases and trials

    5. Formation of and rules of administrative committees, people, their rights and duties

    6. Trade guilds, their rules, powers, duties, actions

    7. Establishment of schools for teaching various subjects, their funding, rules et cetera

    8. Information on repair, renovation, rebuilding

    A lake across eight centuries

    One of the most fascinating inscriptions is on a large rock in Girnar in Junagadh, Gujarat.

    It carries three inscriptions —

    1. Edicts of Asoka Maurya in Prakrit, in Brahmi script (third century BC)

    2. Edicts of Kshatrapa king Rudradaman in Sanskrit, in Brahmi script (first century AD)

    3. Edicts of Skandagupta in Sanskrit, Nagari script (fourth century AD)

    Rudradaman’s inscription says that a lake called Sudarshanam in Girnar flooded and the king ordered it repaired using his own funds, not just that of the treasury. Fascinatingly, it adds a historical note that the same lake similarly breached its banks in the reign of Chandragupta Maurya, Asoka’s grandfather, who also repaired it.

    Skandagupta’s inscription, eight centuries after Chandragupta Maurya’s, also describes repair of this Sudarshanam lake in his time. How remarkable that the same lake, name unchanged, was repaired across such a vast era.

    This belies a common academic assertion that Indians have a poor sense of history.

    A Greek Vaishnava’s Garuda Sthambha

    Near Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh is a pillar, dated to 1st century BC — a flagstaff for Vishnu (Devadevasa Vaasudevasa Garudadhvaja) whose inscription says, it was erected by the Vaishnava Heliodorus (Heliodorena bhaagavatena), son of Dion (Diyasa putrena), a Greek ambassador from Takshashila (Takhasilakena Yonadatena) of king Amtialkidas (maharajasa Amtalikitasa) to king (tratarasa) Kasiputra Bhagabhadra.

    This inscription is evidence of Greeks adopting various Indian religions like Vaishnavism and Buddhism, as can also be seen from coins of that era dedicated to Balarama, Siva et cetera. A Shunga-era Vishnu temple was discovered nearby.

    Heliodorous Pillar
    Heliodorous Pillar

    Udayagiri Gupta and Gwalior Zero inscriptions

    An inscription in the Varaha cave temple in Udayagiri, MP, mentions that Chandragupta II and his minister, Virasena, visited it in the year 82 of the Gupta era (401 AD).

    Not only is it a rare Gupta inscription, it is also a treasure for mathematicians, as it displays decimal numerals in Nagari script.

    An eighth century AD inscription in Gwalior is the oldest known record of zero as a number in India; the oldest such inscription in Sanskrit is of the sixth century AD in Cambodia, in the national museum.

    Udayagiri number
    Udayagiri number

    Ravikeerti’s Aihole inscription

    The Aihole inscription of Ravikeerti, a minister of Chalukya king Sadyaashraya Pulikeshi II, in a Jain temple on a hill, runs to eighteen beautiful stanzas in Sanskrit.

    It details the history of Chalukyas, including Pulikeshi’s capture of his kingdom from his usurper uncle Mangalesha, his victory over Harsha Vardhana at the Narmada river, and the establishment of his brother Vishnuvardhana as a king in Vengi.

    He also gives the date in two calendars, year 3735 after the end of the Mahabharata, and Saka year 556 (634 AD) — a rarity.

    This is historically very significant as it helps us understand and date several dynasties, like the Pallavas, Nalas, Kadambas and incidents in history et cetera, always a challenge for historians of India. Finally, he rhymes his name with Kalidasa-Bhaaravi-keerti (the fame of two Sanskrit mahakavis).

    This gives historians an upper limit for the era of those poets.

    Meguti inscription
    Meguti inscription

    Anaimalai inscription

    The Narasimha temple in Anamalai hill, Madurai, has inscriptions in two languages — Sanskrit and Tamil.

    They both say that the shailagrham (mountain temple) was completed by Maaran Eyinan, after the death of Madhurakavi, the minister of Pandya Maranjadayan Parantaka, who started construction, in Kali year 3871 (770 AD).

    This is crucial in determining the chronology of the Pandyas, who left far fewer inscriptions than their contemporaries, the Pallavas. It also tells us that an official’s post was given to his brother upon his death.


    Uthiramerur inscription

    Very famous for the wealth of information it gives on administrative measures of the Cholas, is the Uthiramerur inscription of Parantaka I.

    Five committees (vaariyam) for town administration, were formed. Members were chosen from names of qualified persons written on palm-leaves, thrown into a pot.

    Uthiramerur inscription
    Uthiramerur inscription

    Only house owners who paid taxes, and were well versed in dharma-shaastras were qualified. An official served for three years. Not only him, all his relatives were barred from even contesting for the same office for a set number of years.

    If he or his family was found guilty of any law-breaking or corruption, they were permanently disbarred from ever holding office. Chola inscriptions, especially by their length and scope, give us great information about administration, taxes, exemptions, rights, duties et cetera.

    They were the basis of arguments by British Collector of Madras (Chennai) FW Ellis, that Hindu India had very different legal and property rights than those established by Islamic rulers, and should not be blanketed under colonial notions of Oriental despotism. Ellis himself composed a marvelous inscription, in Tamil poetry, to adorn a well he commissioned to relieve a drought in 1818.

    He quoted the ancient poet Tiruvalluvar, on the value of water; composed a prashasti to King George III similar to the prashasti of a Tamil king; compared Chennai to a gem churned in the ocean (aazihiyil izhaittha azhuguru maamani); and Tamilised his own name to Chennai pattanattu Ellisan (Ellisan of Chennai city).

    Joy of Inscriptions
    Joy of Inscriptions

    The joy of discovering inscriptions, reading them and understanding history, is not just for academics and archaeologists. Several thousand wonders await eager eyes.

    (This is part of a series of articles titles the 'Seven Thousand Wonders'. Other parts of the series can be found here).

    R Gopu delivers lectures on astronomy, history, sculpture, Sanskrit, and Tamil, and is part of the Tamil Heritage Trust. He blogs here.

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