HOW MUCH INDIAN history owes to the inscriptions in the Ashokan pillars is not really appreciated. Much of the focus on it is taken up by the edict of his transformation into non-violence after the war against Kalinga and its destruction. And, yet, far more important than the meaning of what is written is the fact that it was written at all. Because before them, there is really no history of writing in India. It is a mystery that this should be so and the explanations—like the material on which writing happened, could never last long in Indian climatic conditions—is not very convincing. Why, for example, did no one before Ashoka etch something on a rock? Would it need a great empire builder to do something as simple as that? Shouldn’t any tribal chieftain be able to do it? The answer might eventually come but until then, we have to be grateful for these inscriptions, or epigraphy, as they are known. If Indian history is a book, then these are what make for its first pages, the primary source of its recorded beginning, the leap from oral tradition to writing, and the permanency of memories. Documentation of epigraphy is a necessary condition for any country that values its past and, so, even if only a line in Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget speech—‘‘Bharat Shared Repository of Inscriptions will be set up in a digital epigraphy museum, with digitisation [sic] of one lakh ancient inscriptions in the first stage.”—it was welcome news. The Press Information Bureau, in a release later, also told us that the museum will be housed in Hyderabad by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Indian epigraphy goes back even before Ashokan pillars, in fact, thousands of years before. The Indus Valley Civilisation has etchings on seals and other artefacts, which is probably the script of a language; just that we don’t know what it means. But we get a lot of information despite that. For example, Iravatham Mahadevan, an expert in Indian epigraphy, thought that the Indus Valley language could be an early form of Dravidian because of the similarities in pattern; other scholars have leaned towards Brahmi. And then the script, too, disappeared along with the civilisation, and it would take one-and-a-half millennium for the Ashokan pillars to once again resuscitate the presence of writing. That so many of these pillars spread across the vastness of the Indian subcontinent suddenly spring up is a treasure trove for historians. When the Sarnath pillar has these words that come from Ashoka’s mouth: “All men are my children. As on behalf of [my own] children, I desire that they may be provided with complete welfare and happiness in this world and in the other world, the same I desire also on behalf of [all] men…,” it tells us about what monarchy meant in those times and how kings related to their subject. Even if in practice it might have been different, it still informs us what was considered ideal at that point in time. Epigraphy is an insight into the period when the inscription was made. There is an edict of Ashoka in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and it is written in Greek, telling us about the continuing imprint of Alexander’s invasion and also that Ashoka himself was probably in control of that region, the reason why he left an edict there.
Ashoka’s transformation is said to have been the result of the war against Kalinga but Kalinga, too, has its epigraphy. In Odisha, there is a cave by the name of Hathigumpha near its capital Bhubaneswar, and it has the following inscription by the king Kharavela, who is about a century or two after Ashoka: “…As soon as he is anointed, in the first [regnal] year [he] causes repairs of the gates, the walls and the buildings [of the city], [which had been] damaged by storm; in the city of Kalinga [he] causes the erection of the embankments of the lake [called after] Khibira Rishi, [and] of [other] tanks and cisterns, [also] the restoration of all the gardens [he] causes to be done at [the cost of] thirty-five-hundred-thousands, and [he] gratifies the people. And in the second year, [he], disregarding Satakamni, despatches to the western regions an army strong in cavalry, elephants, infantry [nara] and chariots [ratha] and by that army having reached the Kanha-bemna, he throws the city of the Musikas into consternation. Again, in the third year…” We get to know from it that Kalinga had returned as a power despite what Ashoka had wrought on it.
After the Mauryas, the Gupta empire was the next glorious epoch of Indian history and by then, written literature was widely present. Yet, epigraphy continued and also informs of some of that grandeur as well as the fact they didn’t hold back when it came to self-promotion. Samudragupta, one of the great kings of that time, had this written about him in an inscription on a pillar in Allahabad: “…[he is] equal to [the gods] Kubera, Varuna, Indra, and Yama; [his] officers [ayukta] are always engaged upon restoring wealth [titles, territories, etc.] to the many kings conquered by the might of his arms. [He] has put to shame Brhaspati by [his] sharp and polished intellect, as also Tumburu, Narada, and others by the graces of his musical performances; [his] title of ‘King of Poets’ has been established through [his] many compositions in poetry which were a means of subsistence to the learned people; [his] many wonderful and noble deeds are fit to be praised for a very long time; [he is] a human being, only as far as he performs the rites and conventions of the world, [otherwise, he is] God, whose residence is [this] world.”
We have to be grateful for these inscriptions, or epigraphy, as they are known. If Indian history is a book, then these are what make for its first pages, the primary source of its recorded beginning, The leap from oral tradition to writing, and the permanency of memories. Documentation of epigraphy is a necessary condition for any country that values its past
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AS HISTORY MARCHED ON, EPIGRAPHS REMAINED A constant window to it. Tamil copper plate inscriptions give a picture of medieval south India. In a monograph titled Introduction to Indian Epigraphy, GS Gai, former chief epigraphist for the Archaeological Survey of India, wrote: “If the copper-plate grants are title-deeds of land-grants made to individuals, the stone inscriptions, majority of which are also donative in nature, may be considered as public documents. They record the donation made in favour of the temple, its construction, maintenance, and repairs, various services in the temple, etc. Some of the inscriptions in the temple are valuable in as much as they supply information about the builder of the temple, the date on which it was built, and other details. The pattern of these donative stone records is more or less the same as that of the copper-plate inscriptions described above. There are several inscriptions of secular nature also which record the construction of tanks, wells, canals, water-sheds, etc., for the benefit of the public.”
The Delhi Sultanate and Mughals had their epigraphy, and some of the famous monuments like Qutab Minar and Taj Mahal had their inscriptions. When the Vijayanagar empire rose, it, too, came with its inscriptions. In the ruins of Hampi, which was their capital, there are lines about its founding. The Marathas and the British had their own set and even now, anytime a plaque with a homily is laid by the government, somewhere it adds to the corpus of Indian epigraphy. An epigraph informs us about culture and art because it is one of its primary drivers. In the Ajanta caves, inscriptions often go along with the artworks telling us about the faith of those who were involved in their making. For example, one of them goes thus: “This is the religious donation of the viharasvamin, Mathura, son of Abhayanandin and Skandhavasu, [a member of the] Karvateya gotra. Let the merit therein be for the attaining of supreme knowledge by [his] mother, father, and paternal grandmother—to whom belongs the principle share—as well as by all living beings.”
The digital epigraphy museum’s one lakh inscriptions will be the first drop in an ocean. After the Budget, the Times of India came out with a story on the enthusiasm among historians for this announcement because while epigraphy is published, it is not very accessible digitally. It gave the example of ASI’s epigraphy division headquarters in Mysuru, where inscriptions stamped into paper are preserved as a corpus, but from there making it possible for everyone to see is a long haul. Such papers are called estampages and there are a large number of them in units in different parts of the country. All of it will eventually find its way to one place online. The past comes back to life in the technological present.
About The Author
Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai
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