In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Historic Inscriptions

  • Introduction
  • Introducing Early Indian Epigraphy
  • The Erection of Yūpas
  • Aśvamedha
  • Memorials and Mortuary Practices
  • Naming and Religious Identity
  • Symbols with Auspicious and Religious Value

Hinduism Early Historic Inscriptions
Meera Visvanathan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0031


The early history of Hinduism has often been understood through the prism of textual sources, beginning with the Vedas. In contrast, this entry focuses on epigraphic and archaeological materials from the early historic period (c. 300 BCE–300 CE), showing how they can shed light on the incipient stage of Hinduism in different ways. While most accounts of Indian epigraphy begin with the edicts of Emperor Aśoka, it is in the period following Mauryan rule that a profusion of inscriptional material occurs, with votive inscriptions recording charitable endowments or gifts by individuals, families, and groups to religious establishments. Since a number of these inscriptions record donations to the heterodox sects, historians have tended to focus on Buddhism and Jainism in this period. So far, there exists no single work examining early Hindu cults and sects through inscriptional materials. But this does not mean that the rituals and deities of early Hinduism were absent from the record. Perhaps they did not receive a comparable degree of patronage, but they still possessed support of different kinds.

Introducing Early Indian Epigraphy

Early inscriptions in the Indian subcontinent (excluding those of the Indus civilization, which remain undeciphered) occur mainly in three languages (Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Tamil) and two scripts (Brāhmī and Kharoṣṭhī). Problems involved in introducing Indian epigraphy relate to the diversity of materials, the use of different scripts and languages, as well as the vast geographical and chronological extents that have to be crossed. Both Sircar 1965 and Salomon 1998 should be read together as constituting the best introductions to Indian epigraphy, providing surveys of material together with discussion on the value of inscriptions as sources for writing history. Sircar 1966 is a useful reference tool, marked by the author’s vast knowledge of the body of inscriptional material. Asher and Gai 1985 attempts to cut across disciplinary boundaries, showing the value of reading epigraphic, numismatic, and art-historic materials together for understanding early Indian history. Dani 1963, now the standard introduction to palaeography, is important also for its conviction that palaeography must be seen as an art arising from a particular culture. The charts showing the evolution of different scripts in Ojha 1959 are extremely useful for a beginning student of the subject.

  • Asher, Frederick M., and Govind Swamirao Gai. Indian Epigraphy: Its Bearing on the History of Art. Papers presented at a symposium held in December 1979 at the American Institute of Indian Studies, Center for Art and Archeology, Varanasi. New Delhi: Oxford and IBH, 1985.

    This useful collection of essays, with good-quality photographs, shows how inscriptions can help understand the dating of works of art, the nature of patronage, and the identity of the artisans who produced them. The first section concerns early historic materials, with articles focusing on the site of Kanheri in Maharashtra and early Buddhist sites in the Andhra region.

  • Dani, Ahmad Hasan. Indian Palaeography. Oxford: Clarendon, 1963.

    Dani’s masterly survey of the evolution of Indic scripts extending to the 8th century CE incorporates both Brāhmī and Kharoṣṭhī materials and also examines the influence of Indic script forms on Central and Southeast Asia. Each chapter provides bibliographic references to inscriptions where particular script forms occur, allowing a student to take forward the exercise.

  • Ojha, Gaurishankar Hirachand. Bhāratīya Prācīn Lipimālā. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1959.

    Originally published in 1894, this book remains an invaluable introduction to palaeography. The lipipatras (script-sheets) at the end provide characters of different alphabets and sample texts from inscriptions of each category. The key to the samples occurs in the respective overview chapters that transcribe the text into devanagari and summarize the content of the inscription.

  • Salomon, Richard. Indian Epigraphy: A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Other Indo-Aryan Languages. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Salomon’s introduction has established itself as a necessary textbook for students of Indian epigraphy. Focusing on inscriptions in the Indo-Aryan languages, this work is up-to-date and lucidly written. Provides an excellent survey and discussion on the uses of inscriptional materials as sources for writing history.

  • Sircar, D. C. Indian Epigraphy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1965.

    Long considered the best general introduction to Indian epigraphy. Separate sections detail the development of different languages, writing materials, the influence of Indian inscriptions on Southeast Asian records, dating and eras, as well as Indo-Muslim records. Sircar places particular emphasis on the technical expressions used in inscriptions and other nuances of inscriptional terminology.

  • Sircar, D. C. Indian Epigraphical Glossary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1966.

    Although not intended to be exhaustive, this glossary of important inscriptional terms is an indispensable resource for any student of Indian epigraphy. The focus remains on Sanskritic materials, with Prakrit words being converted into Sanskrit forms. Each entry is accompanied by its different meanings, with a few references to different contexts of usage.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.