Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Rediscovery of Brahmi, Asoka, and Indian History

The Road Roller of Bihar
While building a road in Bihar, in the early nineteenth century, the supervisor of the construction project noticed that the road-roller seemed to be narrower at one end and broader at the other. On closer inspection, he found some inscriptions on its side, which that Brahmin pandit of the nearby village was unable to read. He could not even identify the script (which he called the pin-men script) or the language of the inscription. It seemed to be a pillar from some monument. The road workers told the supervisor that the pillar had a lion capital, which they cut off, so the pillar could be more useful as a road-roller. Such was the fate Samrat Asoka’s pillar!

The road supervisor was James Prinsep, who discovered that the language was Pali, the script Brahmi,the capital destined to become India’s national emblem, the the king and his dynasty forgotten, by a country with teeming not just with history, but with people who cared not a whit about it. Ironically, most of us schooled in independent India are now familiar with Asoka and his pillar and utterly ignorant of Prinsep.

When Prinsep stumbled upon the pillar, he was a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which had been founded in 1784 by Sir William “Oriental” Jones, a polymath of tremendous accomplishment, to whose contribution to India was immense, and who is almost as spectacularly forgotten as Prinsep.

Sir William "Oriental" Jones

Jones & the Asiatic Society of Bengal

The East India company and later, the British government, were the funnels through which India was enriched by Western science and industrialization. The Asiatic Society was the funnel through which new fields in the humanities, like Geology, Numismatics, Archaeology, Anthropology, Economics, Art History, all recently evolving in Europe, enriched India. Jones, a child prodigy, master of 28 languages, and scholar of law, was appointed as a Puisne Judge of the Calcutta Supreme Court in 1783. He formulated an agenda to study the law, sciences, mathematics, history, geography, medicine, trade, manufacture, agriculture and religions of not just India, but all of Asia. He surmounted obstacles to quickly learn Sanskrit, and found such a similarity between it, Persian, Latin and Greek, that he proposed that they all had a common ancestry.

His oft quoted passage from his third lecture is : “The Sanskrit language, whatever its antiquity is of a perfect structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious than Latin, more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both a stronger affinity, in roots of verbs and forms of grammar, than can have possibly been produced by accident. So strong that they…must have some common source…reason to believe Celtic, Gothic, old Persian also had the same origin as Sanskrit.” This heralds the beginning of Modern Linguistics and the discovery of the Indo-European Language Family.

Jones went on to translate the Manu Smriti to English to better administer justice. He also translated Kalidasa’s plays like Abinjana Shakuntalam, which took Europe by storm. He discovered that Chess and Algebra had Indian origins, wrote a treatise on Music, and studying Greek and Indian history, proposed that Sandrocottus mentioned by Megasthenes was Chandragupta. On further study, he also established the river Erranaboas was the Sone (originally called Hiranyabahu) and that Chandragupta last capital Palibothra must have been Pataliputra, now Patna, in Bihar (overturning Prayag, Kannauj, Varanasi etc as candidates). Jones also told a thrilled Europe that India had an ancient God called Buddha, perhaps of African origin, who founded a religion called Buddhism in India,now forgotten. Europe soon discovered that Buddhism was alive and well in the rest of Asia, but Jones’ discoveries launched an earnest inquiry into India and Asia’s history, that primarily relied on literature for the next three decades.

James Prinsep

And then James Prinsep arrived in Calcutta in 1819. A prodigy very different from Jones, with far humbler origins and far less accomplished youth, Prinsep nevertheless made dramatic impacts on the Asiatic Society and scholarship. After working in mints and civil administration, he turned to history in 1832. He transformed the field from ‘scholastic archaeologists’ to ‘field archaeologists’ or ‘travelling antiquarians.’ His intellectual successor Alexander Cunningham said of Prinsep, that between 1833 and 1838, “more of India’s history was reconstructed than before or since.”
The Society faced bankruptcy and a shutdown by Macaulay and Mill, who called Oriental studies “waste paper and accumulation of timber.” But Governor General Auckland restored its funding.

James Prinsep

Coins and PinMen

An army of Orientalist coin collectors, including Horace Wilson, Col James Tod, Charles Masson, General Ventura, helped unravel several aspects of history. Masson collected thirty thousand coins, which brought to light a number of Indo-Greek kings from Theodotus (225 BC), Apollodorus, Menander, Eucradites, Antialkides, Agathocles and Kanerkos (who was later identified as Kanishka by Prinsep). Some of these like the coins of Agathocles had legends in both Greek and Sanskrit (Rajane Agathakulasya). The Sanskrit script was the same as the pin-men script, in Prinsep’s road roller.

Several other pillars including the famous Feroz Lat in Delhi, Lauriya Nandangarh in Bihar and in Allahabad had been discovered, with the same pin-men script. The Allahabad pillar, for example, also had two other inscriptions, one of Samudragupta in Sanskrit in Nagari script and Jehangir in Persian. Comparing transcripts Prinsep realized that all three pillars had the same text, not just the same script! The script had also been found at slabs in Bodh Gaya; a stupa at Sanchi; and at Dhauli and at Udayagiri-Khondagiri, both near Bhubaneshvar. The Samudragupta, son of Chandragupta of the Allahabad pillar was of the Solar race, whereas William Jones’ Sandrocottus was of the Lunar race. 

Asoka's Pillar and Buddhist stupa in Vaishali, Bihar

Rock with Asoka's Pali edict in Brahmi script
at Dhauli, Orissa

Brahmi inscription at Karla caves, Maharashtra
Lower line reads "daanam" ( दानं )
Studying the Sanchi inscriptions, Prinsep observed that several of them ended in the same set of three characters. He brilliantly guessed that they were records of donations, based on similar later inscriptions at other stupas in Buddhist nations. Perhaps they were the phrase “-ssa daanam.” (-’s donation). Now he was confident that the language was Pali, not Sanskrit. With intelligent guessing, and dedicated effort, he decoded the script in six weeks! The Brahmi script was now readable, nearly 1500 years after it had been replaced by its daughter script Nagari.

Sanchi stupa Brahmi inscriptions
ending with daanam

Most of the pin-men (Brahmi) inscriptions began with the phrase “Devaanaampiya PiyaDassi laaja hevam aaha” (“Thus spake King Beloved-of-the-Gods PiyaDassi”), but, who was this king? That continued to be a puzzle. There seemed to be no PiyaDassi in Indian literature. 

Concurrently, Turnour, an Orientalist in Kandy was given a copy of the Mahavamsa, the History of Sri Lanka, by the Thero of the Saffragam monastery. He came across this passage : “King Devenampiya Tissa, induced Dammasoka, Ruler of several kingdoms of Dambadiva (Jambudvipa) to depute his son Mahindu and daughter Sangamitta to Auradhapura to introduce religion of Buddha.”

The Thero also gave Turnour the Dipavamso, which threw a flood of light : “218 years after MahaParinnirvana of Buddha, Piyadassi, son of Bindusara and grandson of Chandragupta, Viceroy of Ujjaiyini was inaugurated king.”

Thus, Devanampiya Piyadassi was revealed to be Dammasoka or Dharma Asoka, grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. The wide spread of his pillars and edicts, from Afghanistan to Andhra Pradesh, showed how vast an empire he ruled; it gave details of the Kalinga war, and of Asoka’s change of heart; and of his sending emissaries to spread Buddhism across the world.


Inscriptions of the period 300 BC to 300 AD turned out to be in the Brahmi script, in Prakrit or Sanskrit, and so, suddenly, six hundred years of history stood revealed, including the dynasties of the Kshatrapas, the Kushanas, the Shungas, the Satavahanas. The Hathigumpha inscriptions were of king Kharavela of the Mahameghavahana dynasty.

In the twentieth century, Tamil inscriptions in the Tamil Brahmi script were also discovered. The field of palaeography was enriched when it was realized that the Brahmi script is the parent script of both Nagari and Grantham scripts, the latter of which was the parent of scripts of the South East Asian languages like Thai, Burmese, Sumatran, Cambodian etc.

1. Buddha and the Sahibs by Charles Allen
2. The Asiatic Society of Bengal by O.P. Kejriwal
3. The Powerpoint presentations of S Swaminathan
4. Essays by James Prinsep, Journal of the Asiatic Society

Video of INTACT lecture Rediscovery of Asoka - lecture in 2013
Audio of 2016 DUJ Lecture on Rediscovery of Brahmi and Asoka - Part 1
Audio of 2016 DUJ Lecture on Rediscovery of Brahmi and Asoka - Part 2

My blogs on Western Orientalists
1. Ellenborough - Abolition of slavery in India
2. Robert Caldwell - discoverer of Munda language family
3. Francis Whyte Ellis - discoverer of Dravidian language family
4. An Englishman's Tamil inscription
5. A mathematician's Poem about Madras
6. Did Macaulay undermine Indian education?
7. Madras and its American connections

My History blogs
Three Perspectives on History - Caldwell, Mark Twain, PT Srinivasa Iyengar
Novel on Samrat Asoka - some speeches
Timelines of Gujarat and Tamilnadu
Timelines of Karnataka and Tamilnadu

Origins of Chemistry
Beginning of Electronics

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