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Sanskrit is the oldest language in India as furnished by the Vedic literature,
the language of the earliest written records, viz., the Asokan edicts is Prakrit.
As seen before, since the Indus or the Harappan script has not yet been successfully
deciphered, we are not in a position to decide about the language of this script
in spite of various views put forward by different scholars. Besides Prakrit,
Asokan edicts are written in Greek and Aramaic languages also. One edict written
entirely in Greek script and language and another edict written in Greek and Aramaic
script and languages are found in Skandar in Afghanistan while a record in Aramaic
script and language found in Taxila (now in Pakistan) is attributed to Asoka.
All the edicts of Asoka in the Kharo#sht?hi# and Bra#hmi# scripts are written
in the Prakrit language. Thus originally the epigraphical language of India can
be said to be Prakrit and Sanskrit was used in the inscriptions only at a later
period. Edicts found at Dhauli, Jaugad?a (both in Bihar) and Er-r-agud?i (in Andhra
Pradesh) are written in what is called the Magadha dialect some of the characteristics
of which are l representing Sanskrit r, s representing all the three slants s,
sh and s, and the double consonants changing to single ones. And the retention
of r and the occasional change of l to r met with in e western and north-western
edicts found at Girnar, Sopara and Shahbaz-garhi and Mansehra (now in Pakistan)1.
In the edict2 found at Delhi, r is changed to l but an interesting feature is
the change of s into ch in the word chake (Sanskrit sakyah?). This feature is-
noticed in the Gujarra (Madhya Pradesh) edict3 where r is retained except in the
word Chilathitike. In the Sopara fragment edict4, it is found that besides the
retention of r, the change of l to r occurs in the words Mangaram and phare for
Sanskrit Mangalam and phale which may also be due to the mistake of the scribe.
In the Minor Rock edicts and Rock edicts found at one and the same place, viz.,
Er-r-agud?i5 , a remarkable difference is noticed in the linguistic features between
the two sets of edicts. The language of the minor edicts resembles the Magadhan
dialect in that n? is changed to n and s and sh to s. But r is retained without
being changed to l in words like sa#tireke, a#ra#dhetava, etc. The language of
the rock-edicts resembles that of the Dhauli, Jaugad?a and Kalsi edicts but also
shows some of the features found in the Girnar, Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra edicts.
Here the consonant n? is used for Sanskrit n? and n. It has been suggested that
the differences between the minor rock-edicts and rock-edicts at Er-r-agud?i were
due to the fact that they were received separately on different dates and occasions6.
A study of the linguistic features of these edicts does not support the view propounded
by Dr. M.A. Mehandale that "though the edicts which were to be inscribed
at various places in Asoka's empire were the same when they were issued from Magadha,
they were altered actually at the time of inscribing them at various places so
as to suit the requirements of the local dialects"7. The edicts at Er-r-agud?i
as well as the Minor rock-edicts found in Karnataka exhibit Magadhan as well as
other linguistic features. Just as there were no regional varieties in the Asokan
Bra#hmi# script as pointed out above, we feel that there were no regional or local
varieties in the language of the Asokan edicts found in various parts of the country.
the period of Asoka, the use of the Prakrit language continued in the inscriptions
for a few more centuries. In North India Prakrit was replaced by Sanskrit about
the end of the 3rd century A.D. while it happened about a century later in South
India. But even before this period some of the inscriptions, though written in
Prakrit language were influenced by Sanskrit while some records were entirely
couched in Sanskrit. The epigraph of the Kusha#n?a kings are found in a mixture
of Prakrit and Sanskrit while the Mathura inscriptions of the time of saka so#d?a#sa
belonging to the first quarter of the 1st century A.D. contain verses in classical
Sanskrit like sa#rdu#lavikri#d?ita8. Even earlier than this, the Besnagar (Madhya
Pradesh) pillar inscription of Heliodoras who was an ambassador from the Indo-Greek
king Antialkidas at the court of king Bha#gabhadra of Vidisa#, belonging to the
end of the 2nd century B.C., though written in Prakrit language exhibits some
influence of Sanskrit9. And the Gho#sun?d?i# stone inscription from Rajasthan
belonging to the latter half of the 1st century B.C. and of the time of king Sarvata#ta
is couched in Sanskrit language10. The Junagadh (Gujarat) inscription of the saka
king Rudrada#man and dated in 150 A.D. is one of the earliest prose epigraphs
which is written in beautiful Sanskrit prose in the classical ka#vya style11.
From the eastern part comes the Ayodhya inscription12 of Dhanade#va (latter half
of 1st century B.C.) which is written in Sanskrit slightly influenced by Prakrit.
Inscriptions of slightly later period (1st century to 3rd century A.D.) like the
Kailvan (Bihar State) inscription13, the inscriptions of Kausa#mbi and the Bandorgarh
records are written in Sanskrit slightly influenced by Prakrit, though the later
inscriptions of Bandorgarh are entirely in Sanskrit. From the fourth century onwards,
the Guptas came to power at Pataliputra and they were great patrons of Sanskrit
language and literature and hence Sanskrit became the language of the inscriptions.
It was during this period only that great poets like Bha#sa and Ka#lida#sa flourished.
South India, Prakrit was used in the inscriptions till the century A.D., though
in a few records of the Ikshava#kus of Na#ga#rjunakon?d?a Sanskrit is employed.
The inscription14 of Yajna-sa#takarn?i (2nd century A.D.) from Amaravati is considered
to be the earliest Sanskrit inscription from Andhra Pradesh discovered so far.
The earlier inscriptions (4th century A.D.) of the sa#lanka#yanas of the Telugu
region are in Prakrit while their later records (belonging to the 5th century
A.D.) are written in Sanskrit. In the Kannad?a -speaking area, the Chandraval?l?i
inscription of Mayu#rasarman, regarded as the founder of the Kadamba dynasty of
Karnataka, is written in Prakrit language and is assigned to the 4th century A.D.
But all the later inscriptions of this dynasty are in Sanskrit language only.
early copper-plate inscriptions of the Pallavas of Ka#nchi# belonging to the 4th
century A.D. are written in Prakrit language and hence they are known as the Pallavas
of the Prakrit charters as against the Pallavas of the Sanskrit charters of a
later period (5th and 6th century A.D.). This Prakrit is of a literary style.
While the entire texts in the Mayidavolu and Hirehad?agali plates are couched
in Prakrit, their seals, however are in Sanskrit. A mangala passage in the Hirehad?agali
plates is also in Sanskrit. Thus both in the records of the Kannad?a -Telugu areas
and in the Pallava charters of the early period Prakrit prevailed upto the 4th
century A.D. or so when it was replaced by Sanskrit.
In the cave inscriptions
of Tamilnadu, the language of the southern Bra#hmi# inscriptions varying in dates
from about the 2nd century B.C. to about the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. is said to
be early Tamil. But there is no unanimity in this regard. In fact, the language
of these records has exercised the minds of several scholars for the last sixty
years or so and, though more cave-inscriptions have been discovered during this
period, they have not been successfully deciphered and interpreted so far. H.
Krishna Sastri and K.V. Subramanya Ayyar of the Government Epigraphist's Office
were the pioneers in the study of these southern cave inscriptions. They thought
that the script employed here followed that of the Bhat?t?iprolu casket inscriptions
and it was K.V. Subramanya Ayyar who first suggested that the language of these
records was Tamil in a paper presented by him at the Third All India Oriental
Conference held at Madras in 1924. But his views as well as the interpretation
of several letters were not acceptable to other scholars. In 1946, the official
view of the Archaeological Survey of India was given as follows: "The exact
nature of the language of these inscriptions is still open to question but they
appear to be in early Tamil (as distinguished from the Tamil found in early Tamil
literature, as well as modern Tamil) with a sprinkling of Prakrit15.
Iravathan Mahadevan and T.N. Subrahmanyam have studied these Tamil?-Bra#hmi# cave
inscriptions in detail and have also come to the conclusion that the language
of these records is Tamil, though they differ in their readings and interpretation.
T.V. Mahalingam has made a detailed study of this problem and has come to the
conclusion that his analysis would show that the language of these records have
only the first letter (varga-prathama), viz., k., c, t?, t and p of the Sanskrit
yarn?ama#la# while the other letters as well as s, sh and h are absent16. In addition,
some new symbols are also found in these records which are not noticed in the
records employing Asokan Bra#hmi# script. Some of these symbols represent long
i#, n, l, l?, r-, nn which are peculiar to the genius of the Tamil language. Thus,
the cave inscriptions of the South following the Asokan script in general, have
introduced a few characteristics and deviations to suit the genius of the local
language, viz., Tamil. This view of T.V. Mahalingam is shared by the other scholars
mentioned above, though they differ in their reading and interpretation of the
As stated above, Prakrit was the language of the earliest inscriptions,
i.e., those of Asoka, throughout the country and also for some time after the
period of Asoka and Sanskrit replaced Prakrit in the inscriptions by about the
end of the 3rd century A.D. in North India and by about the end of the 4th century
in South India17. During this intervening period, we get some records written
in Prakrit influenced by Sanskrit in the earlier period and in Sanskrit influenced
by Prakrit in the later period. And, in exceptional cases, some later inscriptions
like the Ghat?iya#la inscription18 of Pratihara Kakkuka dated 862 A.D. is written
in Prakrit language. The Dhar (Madhya Pradesh) inscription of the time of Bho#ja
(c. 1000-55 A.D.) contain the text of the Prakrit poem Ku#rmasataka ascribed to
Some of the early inscriptions which are couched in Sanskrit (though
sometimes with slight influence of Prakrit) are the Mathura inscription 19 of
saka king so#d?a#sa from the north, the Gho#sun?d?i record20 of Ga#ja#yana Sarvata#ta
from western India, the Ayodhyaya epigraph21 of Dhanade#va from eastern India
and the Na#ga#rjunakon?d?a inscriptions22 of the Ikshava#ku ruler Ehuvala sa#nta#mu#la.
These records range in date from the 2nd half of the 1st century B.C. to the end
of the 3rd century A.D. But, as already pointed out, the Junagadh inscription
of Rudrada#man dated 150 A.D. is couched in beautiful Sanskrit prose of Ka#vya
From the 4th century onwards, with the rise of the Guptas, Sanskrit
became the predominant language of Indian epigraphs. It was adopted as the court
language by the rulers of this dynasty and some of them like Samudragupta have
been stated to be proficient in that language. Some of the celebrated poets like
Bha#sa and Ka#lida#sa flourished during the Gupta period and the great epics Ra#ma#yan?a
and Maha#bha#rata as well as of the Pura#n?as are stated to have assumed their
final form during this period. The contemporary rulers of the Guptas in Central
India and parts of the Deccan like the Va#ka#t?akas, the Kadambas and Gangas of
Karna#t?aka and the Pallavas in South India also employed Sanskrit as the court
language as found in their inscriptions. As regards the sa#lanka#yanas in the
Andhra region, while their earlier records (4th century A.D.) are written in Prakrit
language, the later ones (5th century A.D.) are couched in Sanskrit language.
Thus Sanskrit became the epigraphic language of the country from the 4th century
onwards, replacing Prakrit. The Ta#l?agunda pillar inscription 23 of the time
of the Kadamba king sa#ntivarman (5th century A.D.) composed by poet Kubja and
the Aihole inscription24 of the Ba#da#mi Cha#lukya king Pulike#sin II (634 A.D.)
composed by the poet Raviki#rti are fine specimens of classical Sanskrit found
in early inscriptions of Karnataka.
Sanskrit continued to be the language of inscriptions of all parts
of India till late medieval period. In the meanwhile the regional languages also
began to be used in the inscriptions. We have already noticed that the language
of the cave inscriptions found in Tamil Nadu is considered to be an early form
of Tamil language and as such is the earliest Dravidian language to be used in
inscriptions. At a later period the copper-plate charters of the Pallavas, the
Cho#l?as and the Pa#n?d?yas are written in both Sanskrit and Tamil languages,
though some of the Pallava grants like Vunnaguruvayapalem plates25 of Pararnesvaravarman
I (7th century A.D.) and Reyjru plates26 of Narasimhavarman II (8th century A.D.)
are written entirely in Sanskrit. The Kuram plates27 of Pallava Parame#svaravarman,
and the Bahur plates28 of Nripatun#gavarman (9th century A.D.) are written in
Sanskrit and Tamil languages. The larger Leiden plates29 of the Cho#l?a king Ra#jara#ja
I (l0th-11th century A.D.) are written partly in Sanskrit and partly in Tamil
while the smaller Leiden plates30 of Kulottun#ga I (11th-12th century A.D.) are
written entirely in Tamil. While early Pa#n?d?ya inscriptions are couched partly
in Sanskrit and partly in Tamil languages31, the later records, of the dynasty
are written only in Tamil language32.
Next to Tamil, Kannad?a is found used
in the inscriptions dating from about the 6th century A.D. onwards. The Halmid?i
(Belur Taluk, Shimoga District) inscriptions33 and the Vaishnava cave inscription34
at Ba#da#mi (Bijapur District) in Karnataka State are considered to be the earliest
epigraphs written in Kannad?a language. While all the copperplate grants of the
early Cha#lukyas of Ba#da#mi are written in Sanskrit language, most of their stone
inscriptions consisting of private records are in Kannad?a language. Similar is
the case with the records of the other imperial dynasties of Karna#t?aka like
the Ra#sht?raku#t?as, the later Cha#lukyas, the Kal?achuris, the Ya#davas, Hoysal?as,
etc., with a few exceptions. Thus the British Museum plates35 of the Ra#sht?raku#t?a
king Govinda III dated saka 726 or 804 A.D. is written in Kannad?a language. For
a long time this inscription was considered as the earliest copperplate grant36
in Kannad?a language. But recently another copper-plate grant, belonging to the
Al?upa ruler Al?uvarasa II, has been discovered at Bel?man?n?u in South Kanara
District of Karnataka State. Though it is not dated, it is assigned, on palaeographical
grounds, to the 8th century A.D. and thus it becomes the earliest copper-plate
inscription in Kannad?a language discovered so far. There are many inscriptions
which are written partly in Sanskrit and partly in Kannad?a and even in the records
which are composed in Kannad?a language only, the invocatory or the benedictory
verses at the beginning and the imprecatory verses at the end are in Sanskrit
language. It is also interesting to note that the inscription37 of Jinavallabha,
brother of the famous Kannad?a poet Pampa, discovered a few years ago, is written
in three languages, viz., Sanskrit, Kannad?a and Telugu.
Telugu language is
used in inscriptions belonging to the 6th or 7th century A.D. while some Telugu
place-names are mentioned in earlier records. The kalamalla inscription38 of Erikal-Muthura#ju
Dhanañjaya assigned to the last quarter of the 6th century A.D. is considered
to be the earliest record completely written in Telugu. This and other records39
of the Re#na#n?d?u Cho#l?a rulers from the Anantapur and Cuddapah districts of
Andhra Pradesh furnish the earlier stone inscriptions written in Telugu language,
the Madras Museum plates40 of Ballayacho#d?a of the Telugu Cho#d?a family belonging
to the middle of the 9th century A.D. furnishes the earliest copper-plate inscription
written in Telugu language.
It is only from 15th century A.D. onwards that
Malaya#l?am language appears in the inscriptions, although in an earlier Tamil
inscription41 of the 13th century A.D., Malaya#l?am influence is noticed. Thus
the Attingal inscription42 of 1452 A.D. and the Tonnal inscription43 of 1474 A.D.
are written in Malaya#l?am language.
Amongst the new Indo-Aryan languages used
in inscriptions, Mara#t?hi is found used in early records of the 11th century
A.D. and the earliest epigraph in which this language is used is the Dive Agar
copper-plate inscription44 dated saka 982 or 1060 A.D. 45 Mara#t?hi language became
popular in the inscriptions of the sila#ha#ras and the Ya#davas of Devagiri in
the Marat?hi-speaking area.
The Oriya language begins to appear in inscriptions
from 13th century A.D. onwards, though the influence of this language in records
written in Sanskrit language appears as early as 10th century A.D. 46 Some copper-plate
grants are partly in Sanskrit and partly in Oriya languages while the Veligalani
grant47 of the Gajapati king Kapile#svara (15th century A.D.) is written in Oriya,
Sanskrit and Telugu.
The use of Hindi language is traced to 11th century A.D.
on the basis of a Jaina image inscription48 found at Shyopur in Madhya Pradesh.
But most of the other Hindi records, which also come from Madhya Pradesh region,
belong to the medieval period of 15th or 16th century A.D. only.
is used in the records of the 15th century A.D. hailing from Kathiawar region
while a few inscriptions of earlier date from the same area are written in Sanskrit
In the Bengali-speaking region, the epigraphic records written
in. Sanskrit and seldom in Bengali language. During the late medieval period,
the copper-plates50 of Tripura king Govindama#n?ikya (15th century A.D.) are mainly
written in Bengali language.
D.C. Sircar, Indian Epigraphy, p.40.
2. Ep. Ind., Vol.XXXVIII, pp.1 ff.
Ibid., Vol.XXXVI, pp.205 ff.
4. Ibid., pp.211 ff.
5. Ibid., Vol.XXXII, pp.1
6. Ibid., Vol.XXXII, p.4.
7. Cf. G.S. Gai, Proceedings of the Seminar
on Prakrit Studies (Poona), 1970, pp.121-23.
8. Ep. Ind., Vol.II, p.200.
ASI, A.R., 1908-09, p.126.
10. Ep. Ind., Vol.XVI, p.27.
11. Ibid., Vol.VIII.
Journ. Anc. Ind. Hist., Vol.IV, pp.7 ff.
13. Ep. Ind., Vol.XVI.
Anc. Ind. History, Vol.IV (1971), pp.7-8.
15. Ancient India, No.2, p.109.
Early South Indian Palaeography, pp.134-38.
17. D.C. Sircar, Indian Epigraphy,
18. Bhandarkar's List, No.31.
19. Ep. Ind.. Vol.IX, p.247.
Ibid., Vol.XVI, p.27.
21. Ibjd., Vol.XX, p.57.
22. Ibid., Vol.XXI, p.62.
Ep. ind., Vol.VIII, pp.81 ff.
24. Ibid., Vol.VI, pp.1 ff.
25. Ep. Inci.,
Vol.XXXII, pp.91 ff.
26. Ibid., Vol.XXIX, pp.89 ff.
27. SIL, Vol.I, pp.144
28. Ep. Ind., Vol.XVIII, pp.5 ff.
29. Ibid., Vol.XXII, pp.213 ff.
Ep. Ind., Vol.XXII, pp.267 ff.
31. Cf. SIL, Vol.III, pp.441 ff.
Rep. Ind. Ep., 1946-7, No.A.30.
33. Mys. Arch. Rep., 1936, pp.72-81.
Ind. Ant., Vol.X, p.59.
35. Ep. Ind., Vol.XXXIII, pp.327 ff.
Ep. Soc. Ind., Vol.4, pp.91 ff.
37. Prabuddha Karna#t?aka (Kannad?a), Vol.53
(No.4), pp.73 ff.
38. Ep. ind., Vol.XXVIl, pp.221 ff.
39. Ep. Ind., Vol.XXVII,
40. Journ. Ind. Hist., Vol.XV, p.254.
41. A.R. Ep., 1958-59,
42. Trav. Arch. Ser., Vol.VI, p.80, No.64.
43. Ibid., pp.34-35,
44. Ep. Ind., Vol.XXVIII, pp.121 ff.
45. It is observed that the
Marmuri grant of Cha#lukya family (Journ. Bomb. Hist. Soc., Vol.II, p.214), dated
974 A.D. contain specimens of Mara#t?hi language but this record considered spurious.
D.C. Sircar, Ind. Ep. (1965), p.58.
47. Ep. Ind., Vol-XXXIII, pp.275 ff.
An. Rep., Arch. Dept., Gwalior State, V.S.1992, No.39
49. D.C. Sircar, Ind.
Ep. (1965), p.56.
50. A.R. Ep., 1951-52, Nos.A 13 ff.