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We have seen above how the inscriptions are important for studying the development of Indian scripts and languages. Such studies can be undertaken on more detailed basis for different regions and various languages. And, particularly since early inscriptions for Dravidian languages like Tamil, Telugu and Kannad?a are available, the history of these languages could be traced for centuries and a systematic account given. And actually some work has been done in this direction by producing historical grammars of these languages based on a study of inscriptions.
India is singularly rich in epigraphical wealth. It is estimated that so far more than 1,00,000 inscriptions have been discovered from all parts of the country and yet only about a little more than one-third of the country has been systematically surveyed for finding out inscriptions. For understanding the history and culture of the Indian people from the time of the Mauryan emperor Asoka (3rd century B.C.) to the late medieval period, we are almost entirely dependent upon the study of these inscriptions in view of the dearth of contemporary historical works except a few literary works like Ba#n?a's Harshacharita, Kalhan?a's Raja#taran#gin?i and Bilhan?a's Vikrama#n#kade#vacharita which are not very reliable from the historian's point of view and which require corroboration. It is only from a patient and painstaking study of a large number of connected inscriptions that a reconstruction of not only the political and dynastic history but also of the social, religious, administrative, economic, educational and geographical conditions of a particular period or reign or region could be undertaken. And, thanks to the tireless efforts of a large number of foreign and Indian scholars during the last one hundred years or so, foundations of political and dynastic history both for North India as well as South India have been laid, though there are many gaps yet to be filled therein by future discoveries. These scholars have also briefly touched on other topics mentioned above, though the abundance of epigraphical materials now available require detailed study of these topics for different periods and regions.
In the study of the -inscriptions, the edicts of the Mauryan emperor Asoka (3rd century B.C.) naturally draw our attention first, since they are the earliest epigraphs deciphered so far. And from the point of contents and their value, the edicts of Asoka constitute a unique class by themselves as distinguished from the later type of inscriptions. The inscriptions of Asoka have been found in the present-day States of Maha#ra#sht?ra, Gujara#t, Ra#jastha#n, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and outside India in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These records would give us an idea of the extent of the vast empire of Asoka who had Pa#t?aliputra, i.e., modern Patna as his capital.
The central theme of Asoka's edicts is what he calls dharma which refers to a code of morals which he believed to be the teachings of Buddha, His records do not refer to the Buddhist doctrines found in Buddhist religious literature, like the philosophical teachings, nirva#n?a, Arya-san#gha, etc., i.e., the canonical form of Buddhist dharma. Asoka's teachings relate to practical code of morals and not to metaphysical or theological in nature. In his edicts, he states that a number of virtues in human beings constituted his conception of dharma. And these virtues are greatest amount of good and least amount of sin done to others, compassion, liberality, truthfulness, purity, gentleness, goodness, good conduct, self-control, purity of thought, gratitude, moderation regarding accumulation and expenditure of wealth, absence of vanity, violence, cruelty and anger, abstention from slaughter or injury to the animals, obedience to the parents, elders, high personages and the aged and liberality to friends, relatives and acquaintances. Though Asoka was a Buddhist, he says in his edicts that other faiths should never be disparaged. He was impartial in his consideration of all religious faiths. He was against praising one's own religion and decrying other's faiths and recommended great restraint in this regard. He says that other's faiths should be honoured with respect, thereby one would glorify his own sect. He did many benevolent activities for the benefit of the people. He practiced what he preached and so he claims that his propagation of dharma led to the increase of virtuous qualities among the people. Thus Asoka was one of the most remarkable personalities in the history of the world, as revealed by the inscriptions left by him. He was a great conqueror and builder of empire, statesman and administrator, religious and social reformer and above all, a philosopher and saint, striving for peace and happiness of his own subjects as well as of his neighbours. Thus the edicts of Asoka give us a detailed idea about the personality of this great emperor and also about Mauryan administration and other activities of that period.
The inscriptions of later period belong to a different category than those of the edicts of Asoka mentioned above. The majority of them are donative in character while some are secular in nature recording the construction of a well, canal, etc. These inscriptions are broadly divided into two categories, viz., stone inscriptions and copper-plate grants. While stone records are found literally in thousands in different parts, the copper-plates are naturally limited in number, though quite a large number of them have been discovered in later periods. The copper-plate inscriptions purport to register the gift of land or other privileges mostly to individuals and in a few cases to temples or institutions. A majority of them are thus title-deeds of land-grants made to Bra#hman?as, individually or collectively. These charters are drawn up according to certain prescribed rules or procedures which are found in the works of smr?itika#ras like Ya#jñavalkya, Br?ihaspati, Vya#sa and Ka#tya#yana. According to them, a copper-plate should be drawn up by the royal official Sa#ndhivigrahin, i.e., minister for peace and war, by the king's order. It should first record the place of issue of the charter, then describe the genealogy of the donor, who is generally the ruling king, for three generations (sometimes from the founder of the dynasty). The royal charter should be addressed to the concerned officials and different communities. Then the pedigree of the donee should be given including their special attainments and the charter should record the name and boundaries of the gift-land or village and the name of the division or sub-division in which it is located. The details of the date of the grant should be given and the privileges attached to the gift must be specified. The names of the writer as well as the engraver should be mentioned and the royal seal should be affixed to the grant. These copper-plate grants are called ta#mra-sa#sana, sa#sana, Jayapatraka, pascha#ta#ra, etc. This is the general pattern of the copper-plate grants found throughout the country, though some of them vary in some respects occasionally. The copper-plate grants- of the Cho#l?as and Pa#n?d?yas in the south follow a slightly different pattern. In the portion dealing with the historical genealogy of the ruling king, the important events and achievements in his career as well as some or all of his predecessors are described. It is this portion of the charter which is of great value in reconstructing the history of the concerned dynasty and in supplying fixed points in establishing contacts with some other dynasties.
If the copper-plate grants are title-deeds of land-grants made to individuals, the stone inscriptions, majority of which are also donative in nature, may be considered as public documents. They record the donation made in favour of the temple, its construction, maintenance and repairs, for various services in the temple, etc. Some of the inscriptions in the temple are valuable in as much as they supply the information about the builder of the temple, the date on which it was built and other details. The pattern of these donative stone records is more or less the same as that of the copper-plate inscriptions described above. There are several inscriptions of secular nature also which record the construction of tanks, wells, canals, water-sheds, etc., for the benefit of the public.
Mention may be made of another class of records known as hero-stones and maha#sati# or sati# stones. These are memorials found in large numbers in Karna#t?aka and to some extent in Andhra Pradesh, Maha#ra#sht?ra and Gujara#t. The hero-stones consist of 3 or 4 sculptured panels depicting the fighting scene of the hero who died in defending the village or in some battle against the enemy, another scene in which the hero is being carried by the celestial nymphs to the heavenly world and a third scene in which the hero is depicted as enjoying the presence of the god. These hero-stones often contain inscriptions which give the information about the hero, the cause of his fight, the name of the ruling king on whose behalf the hero fought, the date of the event, the name of the person who set up the hero-stone in honour of the dead and also the nature of the reward made by the ruler on that occasion. The existence of these hero-stones testifies to the practice of honouring the dead in ancient times. The sati#-stones depict the figure of a woman or only a symbol showing her right hand raised upwards in memory of the woman dying on the funeral pyre of her dead husband, a custom which was in vogue in several parts of the country till recent times.
From the above discussion, it would be clear how the inscriptions provide the basic source-materials for the study of Indian history and culture from the time of Asoka onwards.