Indian inscriptions engraved into stone or other durable materials, or etched into metal, are an important historical source beginning from the third century B.C.E.. The vast majority are found in South India, written on plates of copper, the stone walls of temples, or stone monuments. An estimated 100,000 inscriptions have now been found, and many of these have been cataloged and translated. These inscriptions corroborate information from other sources, give the dates and locations of significant events, trace detailed royal genealogies, and provide an insight into early Indian political structure, legal codes, and religious practices. They also document the development and use of written languages in India.
The Edicts of Ashoka, a collection of 33 inscriptions on the Pillars of Ashoka, as well as boulders and cave walls, are the earliest written materials on the Indian subcontinent and represent the first tangible evidence of Buddhism. The edicts describe in detail the first wide expansion of Buddhism through the sponsorship of Ashoka, one of the most powerful kings of Indian history. Ashoka claims to have won several Greek kings of the third century B.C.E. over to his Buddhist doctrine of “dhamma.” Other significant stone inscriptions include the Hathigumpha inscription ("Elephant Cave" inscription) written by Kharavela, the king of Kalinga in Brahmi letters during the second century B.C.E.; the Rabatak inscription, written on a rock in Afghanistan and relating to the rule of the Kushan emperor Kanishka; the Halmidi inscription, the oldest known inscription in the Kannada script. Tamil copper-plate inscriptions are copper-plate records grants of land or other privileges to private individuals or public institutions by the members of the various South Indian royal dynasties.
The ancient practice of inscribing cave walls or stone monuments to commemorate conquests, religious ceremonies and other important events existed in many parts of Asia. These inscriptions are valuable historical evidence of the existence and the activities of early kings and empires, showing by their locations the extent of their domains, and giving dates for certain events. Inscriptions also provide detailed genealogies and document religious practices, political organization, and legal codes. Later copper plate inscriptions were used as records of land ownership to support a sophisticated system of taxation that is evidence of a well-structured bureaucracy.
Inscriptions represent the earliest written forms of Indian languages and are evidence that these written forms were already well-developed by the time the inscriptions were made. By studying the vocabulary, syntax, and forms of the inscriptions linguists have been able to advance their understanding of how languages developed and where they were used. More than 55% of the epigraphical inscriptions found by the Archaeological Survey of India in India are in Tamil language.
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 oral histories and existing monuments or ruins, inscriptions provide insight into India's dynastic history that otherwise lacks contemporary historical records. They also provide a fascinating glimpse into the personal lives of the people they commemorate.
The earliest traces of epigraphy in South Asia are etched in Tamil Brahmi, an early variant of the Brahmi script used to write Tamil characters, onto stones and potsherds found in Sri Lanka, dating to c. the sixth century B.C.E. (possibly the seventh century B.C.E.). Inscriptions in the Brahmi script appeared on the Indian subcontinent proper, from about the third century B.C.E. (Ashoka inscriptions). Indian epigraphy became more widespread over the first millennium C.E., engraved on the faces of cliffs, on pillars, on tablets of stone, drawn in caves and on rocks, some gouged into the bedrock. Later inscriptions were also made on palm leaves, coins, copper plates, and on temple walls.
Important inscriptions include the 33 inscriptions of emperor Ashoka on the Pillars of Ashoka (272 to 231 B.C.E.), the Hathigumpha inscription, the Rabatak inscription, 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 C.E.
The earliest written materials on the Indian subcontinent are the Edicts of Ashoka, a collection of 33 inscriptions on the Pillars of Ashoka, as well as boulders and cave walls, made by the Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan dynasty during his reign from 272 to 231 B.C.E.. These inscriptions have been found in over 35 locations throughout the areas of modern-day Pakistan and northern India, near towns, trade routes and religious centers. They were deciphered in 1837, by the Orientalist James Princep. In these inscriptions, Ashoka refers to himself as "Beloved of the Gods" and "King Priya-darshi." The identification of King Priya-darshi with Ashoka was confirmed by an inscription discovered in 1915 which referred to the author as “Devānampiya Asoka.” The inscriptions confirmed the legends about King Ashoka which had largely disappeared in India but were preserved in other Buddhist traditions.
The inscriptions found in the eastern part of India were written in the Magadhi language, using the Brahmi script. In the western part of India, the language used is closer to Sanskrit, using the Kharoshthi script, one extract of Edict 13 in the Greek language, and one bilingual edict written in Greek and Aramaic.
The Ashoka inscriptions represent the first tangible evidence of Buddhism. The edicts describe in detail the first wide expansion of Buddhism through the sponsorship of one of the most powerful kings of Indian history. According to the edicts, the extent of Buddhist proselytism during this period reached as far as the Mediterranean, and many Buddhist monuments were created.
The inscriptions proclaim Asoka's beliefs in the Buddhist concept of dhamma and his efforts to develop “dhamma” throughout his kingdom. Although Buddhism and the Buddha are mentioned, the edicts of Asoka tend to focus on social and moral precepts rather than religious practices or the philosophical dimension of Buddhism.
The inscriptions revolve around a few repetitive themes: Ashoka's conversion to Buddhism, the description of his efforts to spread Buddhism, his moral and religious precepts, and his social and animal welfare program.
Ashoka explains that he converted to Buddhism out of remorse for his conquest of the Kalingas around 264 B.C.E. in eastern India (near the present-day state of Orissa):
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas (Rock Edict Nb13, S. Dhammika).
Following his conversion, Ashoka traveled throughout India and visited sacred Buddhist locations, where he would typically erect a pillar bearing his inscriptions:
Twenty years after his coronation, Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, visited this place and worshipped because here the Buddha, the sage of the Sakyans, was born. He had a stone figure and a pillar set up and because the Lord was born here, the village of Lumbini was exempted from tax and required to pay only one eighth of the produce (Minor Pillar Edict Nb1, S. Dhammika).
Ashoka’s concept of “Dhamma” seems to be synonymous with righteousness. In order to propagate the Buddhist faith, Ashoka explains he sent emissaries to the Hellenistic kings as far as the Mediterranean, and to the peoples throughout India, claiming they were all converted to the Dharma as a result. He names the Greek rulers of the time, inheritors of the conquest of Alexander the Great, from Bactria to as far as Greece and North Africa, displaying an amazingly clear grasp of the political situation at the time.
Now it is conquest by Dhamma that Beloved-of-the-Gods considers to be the best conquest. And it (conquest by Dhamma) has been won here, on the borders, even six hundred yojanas away, where the Greek king Antiochos rules, beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander rule, likewise in the south among the Cholas, the Pandyas, and as far as Tamraparni (Rock Edict Nb13, S. Dhammika).
The distance of 600 yojanas (a yojanas being about 7 miles), corresponds to the distance between the center of India and Greece (roughly 4,000 miles).
In the Gandhari original Antiochos is referred as "Amtiyoko nama Yona-raja" (lit. "The Greek king by the name of Antiokos"), beyond whom live the four other kings: "Param ca tena Atiyokena cature 4 rajani Turamaye nama Amtikini nama Maka nama Alikasudaro nama" (lit. "And beyond Antiochus, four kings by the name of Ptolemy, the name of Antigonos, the name of Magas, the name Alexander."
It is not clear in Hellenic records whether these Buddhist emissaries were actually received, or had any influence on the Hellenic world. Some scholars however point to the presence of Buddhist communities in the Hellenistic world from that time, in particular in Alexandria (mentioned by Clement of Alexandria). The pre-Christian monastic order of the Therapeutae may have drawn inspiration for its ascetic lifestyle from contact with Buddhist monasticism. Buddhist gravestones from the Ptolemaic period have also been found in Alexandria, decorated with depictions of the Wheel of the Law (Tarn, "The Greeks in Bactria and India"). Commenting on the presence of Buddhists in Alexandria, some scholars have even pointed out that "It was later in this very place that some of the most active centers of Christianity were established."
Ashoka’s proselytism also expanded to the south of the Indian subcontinent:
Inside India proper, in the realm of Ashoka, many different populations were the object of the King’s proselytism: "Here in the king's domain among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Nabhakas, the Nabhapamkits, the Bhojas, the Pitinikas, the Andhras and the Palidas, everywhere people are following Beloved-of-the-Gods' instructions in Dhamma" (Rock Edict Nb13 S. Dhammika).
Greek communities lived in the northwest of the Mauryan empire, in the region of Gandhara, and in southern Afghanistan in the region of Gedrosia, following the conquest and the colonization efforts of Alexander the Great around 323 B.C.E. These communities therefore seem to have been still significant during the reign of Ashoka. A notable mention in one inscription references aspects of Greek society.
"There is no country, except among the Greeks, where these two groups, Brahmans and ascetics, are not found, and there is no country where people are not devoted to one or another religion" (Rock Edict Nb13 S. Dhammika).
Two edicts in Afghanistan have been found with Greek inscriptions, one of these being a bilingual edict in Greek language and Aramaic. This edict, found in Kandahar, advocates the adoption of "Piety" (using the Greek term Eusebeia for Dharma) to the Greek community:
"Ten years (of reign) having been completed, King Piodasses (one of the titles of Ashoka: Piyadassi or Priyadarsi, "He who is the beloved of the Gods and who regards everyone amiably") made known (the doctrine of) Piety (Greek:εὐσέβεια, Eusebeia) to men; and from this moment he has made men more pious, and everything thrives throughout the whole world. And the king abstains from (killing) living beings, and other men and those who (are) huntsmen and fishermen of the king have desisted from hunting. And if some (were) intemperate, they have ceased from their intemperance as was in their power; and obedient to their father and mother and to the elders, in opposition to the past also in the future, by so acting on every occasion, they will live better and more happily" (Trans. by G.P. Carratelli)
The “Dhamma” preached by Ashoka is explained mainly in terms of moral precepts, based on the doing of good deeds, respect for others, generosity and purity. "Dhamma is good, but what constitutes Dhamma? (It includes) little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity" (Pilar Edict Nb2, S. Dharmika).
"And noble deeds of Dhamma and the practice of Dhamma consist of having kindness, generosity, truthfulness, purity, gentleness and goodness increase among the people" (Rock Pilar Nb7, S. Dharmika).
Ashoka showed great concern for fairness in the exercise of Justice, caution and tolerance in the application of sentences, and regularly pardoned prisoners.
It is my desire that there should be uniformity in law and uniformity in sentencing. I even go this far, to grant a three-day stay for those in prison who have been tried and sentenced to death. During this time their relatives can make appeals to have the prisoners' lives spared. If there is none to appeal on their behalf, the prisoners can give gifts in order to make merit for the next world, or observe fasts (Pilar Edict Nb4, S. Dhammika).
"In the twenty-six years since my coronation prisoners have been given amnesty on twenty-five occasions" (Pilar Edict Nb5 S. Dhammika).
When Ashoka embraced Buddhism in the latter part of his reign, he brought about significant changes in his style of governance, which included providing protection to fauna, and even relinquished the royal hunt. He did not completely prohibit the killing of animals; he prohibited gratuitous killings (such as for sacrifices), advocated restraint in the number killed for consumption, protected some animals, and in general condemned violent acts against animals, such as castration. He may have been the first ruler in history to advocate conservation measures for wildlife. Reference to these can be seen inscribed on the stone edicts.
Twenty-six years after my coronation various animals were declared to be protected—parrots, mainas, //aruna//, ruddy geese, wild ducks, //nandimukhas, gelatas//, bats, queen ants, terrapins, boneless fish, //vedareyaka//, //gangapuputaka//, //sankiya// fish, tortoises, porcupines, squirrels, deer, bulls, //okapinda//, wild asses, wild pigeons, domestic pigeons and all four-footed creatures that are neither useful nor edible. Those nanny goats, ewes and sows which are with young or giving milk to their young are protected, and so are young ones less than six months old. Cocks are not to be caponized, husks hiding living beings are not to be burnt and forests are not to be burnt either without reason or to kill creatures. One animal is not to be fed to another (Edict on Fifth Pillar).
The Major Rock Edict at Girnar, Ashoka's first rock edict, reads as follows:
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has caused this Dhamma edict to be written. Here (in my domain) no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice. Nor should festivals be held, for Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, sees much to object to in such festivals, although there are some festivals that Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does approve of.
Formerly, in the kitchen of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry. But now with the writing of this Dhamma edict only three creatures, two peacocks and a deer are killed, and the deer not always. And in time, not even these three creatures will be killed.
The edicts also proclaim that many followed the king's example in giving up the slaughter of animals; one of them proudly states: "Our king killed very few animals."
These legal restrictions conflicted with the practices then freely exercised by the common people in hunting, felling, fishing, and setting fires in forests. One inscription mentions a 100 "panas" (coins) fine for poaching deer in royal hunting preserves.
Ashoka insisted that the word of the Buddha be read and followed, in particular in monastic circles (the Sanghas):
Piyadasi, King of Magadha, saluting the Sangha and wishing them good health and happiness, speaks thus: You know, reverend sirs, how great my faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma and Sangha is. Whatever, reverend sirs, has been spoken by Lord Buddha, all that is well-spoken (Minor Rock Edict Nb3, S. Dhammika).
These Dhamma texts—Extracts from the Discipline, the Noble Way of Life, the Fears to Come, the Poem on the Silent Sage, the Discourse on the Pure Life, Upatisa's Questions, and the Advice to Rahula which was spoken by the Buddha concerning false speech—these Dhamma texts, reverend sirs, I desire that all the monks and nuns may constantly listen to and remember. Likewise the laymen and laywomen (Minor Rock Edict Nb3, S. Dhammika).
"One benefits in this world and gains great merit in the next by giving the gift of the Dhamma" (Rock Edict Nb11, S. Dhammika).
"Happiness in this world and the next is difficult to obtain without much love for the Dhamma, much self-examination, much respect, much fear (of evil), and much enthusiasm" (Pilar Edict Nb1, S. Dhammika).
Ashoka, based on a belief that all religions shared a common, positive essence, encouraged tolerance and understanding of other religions.
"All religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart" (Rock Edict Nb7, S. Dhammika). "Here (in my domain) no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice" (Rock Edict Nb1, S. Dhammika).
"Contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions" (Rock Edict Nb12, S. Dhammika).
According to the edicts, Ashoka was concerned for the welfare of his subjects (human and animal), and those beyond his borders, spreading the use of medicinal treatments, improving roadside facilities for more comfortable travel, and establishing "officers of the faith" throughout his territories to survey the welfare of the population and the propagation of the “Dhamma.”
Everywhere within Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi’s domain, and among the people beyond the borders, the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Satiyaputras, the Keralaputras, as far as Tamraparni and where the Greek king Antiochos rules, and among the kings who are neighbors of Antiochos, everywhere has Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, made provision for two types of medical treatment: Medical treatment for humans and medical treatment for animals. Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals are not available, I have had them imported and grown. Wherever medical roots or fruits are not available I have had them imported and grown. Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of humans and animals (Rock Edict Nb2, S. Dhammika).
Along roads I have had banyan trees planted so that they can give shade to animals and men, and I have had mango groves planted. At intervals of eight //krosas//, I have had wells dug, rest-houses built, and in various places, I have had watering-places made for the use of animals and men. But these are but minor achievements. Such things to make the people happy have been done by former kings. I have done these things for this purpose, that the people might practice the Dhamma (Pilar Edict Nb7, S. Dhammika).
In past there were no Dhamma Mahamatras but such officers were appointed by me thirteen years after my coronation. Now they work among all religions for the establishment of Dhamma, for the promotion of Dhamma, and for the welfare and happiness of all who are devoted to Dhamma. They work among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Gandharas, the Rastrikas, the Pitinikas and other peoples on the western borders. They work among soldiers, chiefs, Brahmans, householders, the poor, the aged and those devoted to Dhamma—for their welfare and happiness—so that they may be free from harassment (Rock Edict Nb5, S. Dhammika).
The Hathigumpha inscription ("Elephant Cave" inscription) from Udayagiri near Bhubaneshwar in Orissa was written by Kharavela, the king of Kalinga in India during the second century B.C.E. 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.
The inscription mainly records the various conquests of this king, starting with his fight against the Satavahana king Satakarni; the improvements he made to aqueducts that flowed into [Kalinga] Nagri; and the birth of his son in the 7th year of his reign.
The Rabatak inscription, written on a rock in the Bactrian language and Greek script, was 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.
The first lines of the inscription describe Kanishka as: "The great salvation, the righteous, just autocrat, worthy of divine worship, who has obtained the kingship from Nana and from all the gods, who has inaugurated the year one as the gods pleased" (Trans. Professor Sims-Williams).
Kanishka announces that he is discontinuing the use of Greek and replacing it with the self-described "Aryan language." Kanishka also announces the beginning of a new era starting with the year 1 of his reign, abandoning the therefore "Great Arya Era" which had been in use, possibly meaning the Azes era of 58 B.C.E. The Rabatak inscription is significant in suggesting that the actual extent of Kushan rule under Kanishka went significantly beyond traditionally held boundaries: Finally, Kanishka lists the kings who ruled up to his time: Kujula Kadphises as his great-grandfather, Vima Taktu as his grandfather, Vima Kadphises as his father, and himself Kanishka:
"For King Kujula Kadphises (his) great grandfather, and for King Vima Taktu (his) grandfather, and for King Vima Kadphises (his) father, and also for himself, King Kanishka" (Cribb and Sims-Williams 1995/6: 80).
The Halmidi inscription is the oldest known inscription in the Kannada script. 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 C.E. The original inscription has now been deposited in an archaeological museum in Bangalore. The inscription is in verse form, indicating that the authors of the inscription had a good sense of the language structure. The inscription is written in pre-old Kannada (Puruvada-hala Kannada), which later evolved into old Kannada, middle Kannada and eventually modern Kannada. The Halmidi inscription is the earliest evidence of usage of Kannada as an administrative language.
Tamil copper-plate inscriptions are copper-plate records of grants of villages, plots of cultivable lands or other privileges to private individuals or public institutions by the members of the various South Indian royal dynasties. The study of these inscriptions, has been especially important in reconstructing the history of Tamil Nadu. These records were an essential component of a highly-structured system of taxation that kept the royal treasuries full by ensuring that all tax obligations were met. The grants range in date from the tenth century C.E. to the mid nineteenth century C.E. A large number of them pertain to the Chalukyas, the Cholas and the Vijayanagar kings. These plates are valuable epigraphically because they provides an insight into the social conditions of medieval South India; they also help fill chronological gaps in the connected history of the ruling dynasties.
Unlike in neighboring Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh where early inscriptions were written in Sanskrit, the early inscriptions in Tamil Nadu used Tamil exclusively. Tamil has the oldest 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. External chronological records and internal linguistic evidence, however, indicate that the oldest extant works were probably compiled sometime between the second century B.C.E. and the tenth century C.E.
Epigraphic attestation of Tamil begins with rock inscriptions from the second century B.C.E., written in Tamil-Brahmi, an adapted form of the Brahmi script. Beginning in the sixth century both stone and copper-plate inscriptions were also written in Sanskrit, and some were bilingual. Indian archaeologists have discovered hundreds of inscriptions during the last 120 years. Professor E. Hultzsch began collecting South Indian inscriptions systematically from the latter part of 1886, when he was appointed Epigraphist to the Government of Madras.
The earliest of the extant copperplate inscriptions date from the tenth century C.E. Of these, the Leyden plates, the Tiruvalangadu grant of Rajendra Chola I, the Anbil plates of Sundara Chola and the Kanyakumari inscription of Virarajendra Chola are the only epigraphical records discovered and published so far, that give genealogical lists of Chola kings.
The Thiruvalangadu copperplates discovered in 1905 C.E. is one of the largest so far recovered and contains 31 copper sheets. They contain both Sanskrit and Tamil texts, which seems to have been written at least a decade apart. These plates record a grant made to the shrine of the goddess at Tiruvalangadu by Rajendra Chola I. The list of the legendary Chola kings forms the preamble to the Sanskrit portion of these plates.
A typical Chola copperplate inscription currently displayed at the Government Museum, Chennai, India, is dated c. tenth century C.E. Five copper plates are strung in a copper ring, the ends of which are secured with a Chola seal bearing, in relief, a seated tiger facing the right, with two fish to its right. These three figures have a bow below them, a parasol and two fly-whisks (Chamaras) above them, and a lamp on each side. Around the margin is engraved in Grantha characters, "This is the matchless edict of King Parakesarivarman, who teaches justice to the kings of his realm…."
A portion of this inscription is in Sanskrit and the rest is in Tamil.
The plates contain an edict issued at Kachhippedu (Kanchipuram) by the Chola king Ko-Para-Kesarivarman (Uththama Chola, an uncle and predecessor of Rajaraja Chola I), at the request of his minister, to confirm the contents of a number of stone inscriptions, which referred to certain dues to be paid to the temple of Vishnu at Kachhippedu. Arrangements made for several services in the temple are also described. Uththama Chola was an uncle and predecessor of Rajaraja Chola I.
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