Early Indian epigraphy

1st century BCE. Tamil-Brahmi inscription found in Jambai village, Tamil Nadu
An example of the Vatteluttu alphabet from an inscription by Raja Raja Chola I at the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur.
Badami Chalukya pillar inscription in Old Kannada, Virupaksha Temple, 745 CE, Pattadakal

The earliest traces of epigraphy in the Indian Subcontinent are found in the undeciphered inscriptions of the Indus Valley Civilization (Indus script), which date back to the early 3rd millennium BC. Two other important archeological classes of symbols are found from the 1st millennium BCE, Megalithic Graffiti Symbols and symbols on punch-marked coins, though most scholars do not consider these to constitute fully linguistic scripts, and their semiotic functions are not well understood. The earliest deciphered epigraphic inscriptions of significant length are the Edicts of Ashoka of the 3rd century BCE, written in forms of Prakrit in the Brahmi script. Jain inscriptions in South India written in Tamil-Brahmi, Bhattiprolu alphabet and the Kadamba alphabet are also of relatively early date. Short Brahmi inscriptions on potsherds from the 4th century BCE have been reported from the ruins of Anuradhapura and are the only pre-Ashokan examples of Brahmi that have received any scholarly acceptance, though reports have appeared in the Indian press claiming potsherd inscriptions from an even earlier period (6th to 4th century BCE).

Writing in Sanskrit (Epigraphical Hybrid Sanskrit, EHS) appears only later, in the first to fourth centuries CE.[1]

Indian epigraphy becomes more widespread over the 1st millennium, engraved on the faces of cliffs, on pillars, on tablets of stone, drawn in caves and on rocks, some gouged into the bedrock. Later they were also inscribed on palm leaves, coins, Indian copper plate inscriptions, and on temple walls.

Many of the inscriptions are couched in extravagant language, but when the information gained from inscriptions can be corroborated with information from other sources such as still existing monuments or ruins, inscriptions provide insight into India's dynastic history that otherwise lacks contemporary historical records.[2]

Of the 1,00,000 (100,000) odd inscriptions found by the Archaeological Survey of India, about 60,000 were in Tamil Nadu;[3] of these 60,000 inscriptions, only about 5 per cent were in other languages such as Telugu, Kannada, Sanskrit and Marathi; the rest were in Tamil. Though 25,000 Kannada inscriptions were unearthed in Karnataka, no in depth study was conducted on many of these inscriptions, says Hampi Kannada University Sociology department Head and Researcher Dr Devara Kondareddy.[4]

First appearance of writing in the Indian Subcontinent

Further information: Brahmi script and Tamil-Brahmi

The first introduction of writing to the Indian Subcontinent apart from the Bronze Age Indus script, which is undeciphered and may not be an actual script, is mostly identified as the Edicts of Ashoka from c. 250 BCE.[5]

Until the 1990s, it was generally accepted that the Brahmi script used by Ashoka spread to South India during the second half of the 3rd century BCE, assuming a local form now known as Tamil-Brahmi. Beginning in the late 1990s, archaeological excavations have produced a small number of candidates for Brahmi epigraphy predating Ashoka. Preliminary press reports of such pre-Ashokan inscriptions have appeared over the years, such as one in Palani dated to c. 450 BCE,[6] but so far only the claimed pre-Ashokan inscriptions at Anuradhapura have been published academically.[7]

History and research

Since 1886 there have been systematic attempts to collect and catalogue these inscriptions, along with the translation and publication of documents.[8] Inscriptions may be in the Brahmi or Tamil-Brahmi script. Royal inscriptions were also engraved on copper-plates as were the Indian copper plate inscriptions. The Edicts of Ashoka contain Brahmi script and its regional variant, Tamil-Brahmi, was an early script used in the inscriptions in cave walls of Tamil Nadu and later evolved into the Tamil Vatteluttu alphabet.[9] The Bhattiprolu alphabet, as well as a variant of Brahmi, the Kadamba alphabet, of the early centuries BCE gave rise to the Telugu-Kannada alphabet, which developed into the Kannada and Telugu scripts.

Notable inscriptions

Old Kannada inscription, Badami cave temple (578 AD).

Important inscriptions include the 33 inscriptions of emperor Ashoka on the Pillars of Ashoka (272 to 231 BCE), the Sohgaura copper plate inscription (earliest known example of the copper plate type and generally assigned to the Mauryan period, though the exact date is uncertain),[10] the Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavela (2nd century BCE), the Besnagar pillar inscription of Heliodorus, the Junagadh rock inscription of Rudradaman I (150 CE), the Nasik cave inscriptions, the Rabatak inscription, the Allahabad Pillar inscription of Samudragupta, the Aihole inscription of Pulakesi II (634 CE), the Kannada Halmidi inscription, and the Tamil copper-plate inscriptions. The oldest known inscription in the Kannada language, referred to as the Halmidi inscription for the tiny village of Halmidi near where it was found, consists of sixteen lines carved on a sandstone pillar and dates to 450 CE.[11] Reports indicate that the Nishadi Inscription.[12] of Chandragiri which is in Old-Kannada is older than Halmidi by about 50 to 100 years and may belong to c. 350 CE or c. 400 CE.

Hathigumpha inscription

Hathigumpha inscription

The Hathigumpha inscription ("Elephant Cave" inscription) from Udayagiri near Bhubaneshwar in Orissa was written by Kharavela, the king of Kalinga in India during the 2nd century BCE. The Hathigumpha inscription consists of seventeen lines incised in deep cut Brahmi letters on the overhanging brow of a natural cavern called Hathigumpha on the southern side of the Udayagiri hill near Bhubaneswar in Orissa. It faces straight toward the rock Edicts of Asoka at Dhauli located about six miles away.

Rabatak inscription

Main article: Rabatak inscription

The Rabatak inscription is written on a rock in the Bactrian language and Greek script and found in 1993 at the site of Rabatak, near Surkh Kotal in Afghanistan. The inscription relates to the rule of the Kushan emperor Kanishka and gives remarkable clues to the genealogy of the Kushan dynasty.

Halmidi inscription

Main article: Halmidi inscription
Halmidi Inscription in old Kannada (450 C.E.). A replica at Halmidi village. The original is at the Bangalore museum

The Halmidi inscription is the oldest known inscription in the Kannada language. The inscription is carved on a pillar, that was discovered in the village of Halmidi, a few miles from the famous temple town of Belur in the Hassan district of Karnataka, and is dated 450 CE. The original inscription has now been deposited in an archaeological museum in Bangalore while a fibreglass replica has been installed at Halmidi.

Tamil copper-plate inscriptions

Tamil copper-plate inscriptions are mostly records of grants of villages or plots of cultivable lands to private individuals or public institutions by the members of the various South Indian royal dynasties. The grants range in date from the 10th century CE to the mid-19th century CE. A large number of them belong to the Chalukyas, the Cholas and the Vijayanagar kings. These plates are valuable epigraphically as they give us an insight into the social conditions of medieval South India and help fill chronological gaps to connect the history of the ruling dynasties.

  1. ^ Rice, Benjamin Lewis (1894). Epigraphia Carnatica: Volume IX: Inscriptions in the Bangalore District. Mysore State, British India: Mysore Department of Archaeology. Retrieved 5 August 2015. 

Unlike the neighbouring states where early inscriptions were written in Sanskrit and Prakrit, the early inscriptions in Tamil Nadu used Tamil [13] along with some Prakrit. Tamil has the extant literature amongst the Dravidian languages, but dating the language and the literature precisely is difficult. Literary works in India were preserved either in palm leaf manuscripts (implying repeated copying and recopying) or through oral transmission, making direct dating impossible.[14] External chronological records and internal linguistic evidence, however, indicate that extant works were probably compiled sometime between the 4th century BCE and the 3rd century CE.[15][16][17] Epigraphic attestation of Tamil begins with rock inscriptions from the 3rd century BCE, written in Tamil-Brahmi, an adapted form of the Brahmi script.[18][19] The earliest extant literary text is the Tolkāppiyam, a work on poetics and grammar which describes the language of the classical period, dated variously between the 5th century BCE and the 2nd century CE.

Shankarpur copper-plate of Budhagupta

Copper-plate charter of Budhagupta, dated Gupta year 168

The plate is a record documenting a donation in the reign of king Budhagupta (circa CE 477–88) in year 168 of the Gupta era. The date is equivalent to CE 487-88. The plate was found in Shankarpur, Sidhi District, Madhya Pradesh, India. The plate is currently stored in the Rani Durgawati Museum, Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. The copper plate is 24 cm x 11 cm. The inscription on the plate records that in the reign of Budhagupta, a ruler named mahārāja Gītavarman, grandson of mahārāja Vijayavarman and mahārāja Harivarman son of Rānī Svaminī and mahārāja Harivarman, donated a village named Citrapalli to a Gosvāmi brāhmaṇa. The text was written by Dūtaka Rūparāja(?), son of Nāgaśarma.

The inscription was published by B. C. Jain in 1977.[20] It was subsequently listed by Madan Mohan Upadhyaya in his book Inscriptions of Mahakoshal.[21]

The inscription is of considerable importance for the history of the Gupta Empire, because it is the last known record of the later Gupta king Budhagupta.[22] Moreover, it provides a secure date for Harivarman, the first recorded king of the Maukhari dynasty according to the Asīrgarh seal.[23]

siddham [||] samvatsara-ṣa(śa)te=ṣṭsa=ṣaṣṭyuta (yutta)re mahāmāgha-samvatsara(re) Śrāvaṇa ...

myāṃ paramadeva-Budhagupte rājani asyāṃ divasa-pūrvāyāṃ śrī-mahārāja-Sāṭana Sāla (or rya) na kul-odbhūtena śrī-mahārāja [Gī]tavarman-pautreṇa śrīmahārāja-Vijayavarmma-sute[na] mahādevyā[ṃ] Śarv asvāminyām utpanneana śri mahārāja Harivarmmaṇā asya brāhmaṇa-Kautsa- sagotra-gosvāmina [e]tac=Citrapalya tāmu(mra)paṭṭen=āgrahāro-tisṛṣṭaḥ akaraḥ acaṭa-bhaṭṭa-pra- veśyaḥ [|*] candra-tār-ārkka-samakālīyaḥ uktañca bhagavatā vyāsena [|*] svadattām= paradattāṃ=vā yo hareta vasundharā(rāṃ) [|*] s(ś)va vis(ṣ)ṭhāyā(yāṃ) kṛmir=bhūtvā pitṛbhis=saha majyate [||*] bahubhirv=vasudhā bhuktā rājabhiḥ=sagar-ādibhi (bhiḥ) [|*] yasya yasya yadā bhūmis=tasya tasya tadā phalaṃ [||*] kumārāmatya-bhagavad-rudrachadi-bhogika-mahāpratīhāra-lavaṇaḥ bapidra-bhogika (ke) [na]

dūtaka(ke)na likhitaṃ Śrī Yaṣṭarājena Nāga(sa)śarma-su[tena] [||*][24]

See also

Hindu scripture manuscript on palm-leaf, in an early Sanskrit script, 11th century.


  1. Salomon (1998), p. 81.
  2. Keay, John (2000). India: A History. New York: Grove Press. pp. xx – xxi. ISBN 0-8021-3797-0.
  3. Staff Reporter (November 22, 2005). "Students get glimpse of heritage". Chennai, India: The Hindu. Retrieved 2007-04-26.
  4. http://www.deccanherald.com/content/174214/take-up-study-unearthed-inscriptions.html
  5. Colin P. Masica, The Indo-Aryan Languages (Cambridge Language Surveys), Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  6. Kishore, Kavitha (15 October 2011). "Porunthal excavations prove existence of Indian scripts in 5th century BC: expert". The Hindu. The Hindu Group. Retrieved 17 October 2011.
  7. Coningham, R.A.E.; Allchin, F.R.; Batt, C.M.; Lucy, D. (1996), "Passage to India? Anuradhapura and the Early Use of the Brahmi Script", Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 6 (1): 73–97, doi:10.1017/S0959774300001608
  8. "Indian inscriptions". Retrieved 2007-03-10.
  9. "Orality to literacy: Transition in Early Tamil Society". Frontline. Retrieved 2007-03-10.
  10. Allchin, F.R. (1995). The Archaeology Of Early Historic South Asia: The Emergence Of Cities And States, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-37695-5, p.212
  11. "Halmidi village finally on the road to recognition". Chennai, India: The Hindu. 2003-11-03. Retrieved 2007-03-10.
  12. "Mysore scholar deciphers Chandragiri inscription". Chennai, India: The Hindu. 2008-09-20. Retrieved 2008-09-20.
  13. Caldwell, Robert (1875). A comparative grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian family of languages. Trübner & co. p. 88. In southern states, every inscription of an early date and majority even of modern day inscriptions were written in Sanskrit...In the Tamil country, on the contrary, all the inscriptions belonging to an early period are written in Tamil with some Prakrit
  14. Dating of Indian literature is largely based on relative dating relying on internal evidences with a few anchors. I. Mahadevan’s dating of Pukalur inscription proves some of the Sangam verses. See George L. Hart, "Poems of Ancient Tamil, University of Berkeley Press, 1975, p.7-8
  15. George Hart, "Some Related Literary Conventions in Tamil and Indo-Aryan and Their Significance" Journal of the American Oriental Society, 94:2 (Apr - Jun 1974), pp. 157-167.
  16. Kamil Veith Zvelebil, Companion Studies to the History of Tamil Literature, pp12
  17. Nilakanta Sastri, K.A. (1955). A History of South India, OUP, New Delhi (Reprinted 2002)
  18. "Tamil". The Language Materials Project. UCLA International Institute, UCLA. Retrieved 2007-03-25.
  19. Iravatham Mahadevan (2003). Early Tamil Epigraphy from the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
  20. B. C. Jain, Journal of the Epigraphic Society of India 4 (1977): pp. 62-66 and plate facing p. 64.
  21. Madan Mohan Upadhyay, Inscriptions of Mahakoshal : Resource for the History of Central India (Delhi, 2005). ISBN 81-7646496-1. Online table of contents: http://indologica.blogg.de/2005/05/14/upadhyay-inscriptions-of-mahakoshal/
  22. Michael D. Willis, "Later Gupta History: Inscriptions, Coins and Historical Ideology," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland 15.2 (2005), p. 142. Available online: http://www.academia.edu/2057745/Later_Gupta_History_Inscriptions_Coins_and_Historical_Ideology.
  23. Michael D. Willis, "Later Gupta History: Inscriptions, Coins and Historical Ideology," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland 15.2 (2005), p. 148. Available online: http://www.academia.edu/2057745/Later_Gupta_History_Inscriptions_Coins_and_Historical_Ideology.
  24. Shankarpur copper-plate of the time of Buddhagupta GE 168


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