Importance of Epigraphy
The importance of the inscriptions lies in the fact that they generally offer information about personages and events of Indian history, about which nothing is known from any other source. Apart from being vital political documents, inscriptions are endowed with great cultural significance. Perhaps there is no aspect of life which is not touched upon in inscriptions. But for the Allahabad prasasti of Samudragupta, we would not have known the political conditions prevalent at that time.
This inscription gives an exhaustive account of political career of Samudragupta and the kingdoms conquered by him. Inscriptions also give glimpses regarding the
social conditions of the ages to which they belong. In a Vijayanagara inscription we are told that the emperor settled the disputes between a Vaishnava Jeer and a Jaina teacher by making them agree to be friends and raise no points of dispute. In another Vijayanagara inscription there is a graphical account of how the learned scholars in all branches of sacred studies assembled and signed a document which forbade Kanyasukla and Varadakshina in any marriage arrangement and threatened punishment by the king and social exclusion from the community for parties receiving either. Special privileges like the bride and bridegroom riding a horse in procession being allowed by royal command is also gathered from inscriptions. Inscriptions also throw light on other social customs. For instance, the Brahmadesam inscription refers to the sati committed by a queen of Rajendra Chola I.
Inscriptions are also useful in understanding the economic life of the past. Agriculture was the primary occupation as revealed by many records. Our forefathers bestowed great care and attention to the system of irrigation. The Junagadh inscription of Rudradaman states that the lake Sudarsana was constructed during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya and its conduits were set up during the time of Asoka. Later on it was repaired, first during the reign of Rudradaman (2nd century A.D.) and subsequently in the Gupta period, during the reign of Chandragupta II (4th century A.D.) as known from their inscriptions.
Inscriptions of post-Mauryan period contain terms like sreshthi, sarthavaha and vanija, all denoting
traders. In the south Aiyyavole-ainurvar and Disai-ayirattu ainnurruvar were the famous mercantile guilds which carried on trade with other countries, as gleaned from inscriptions. Inscriptions also throw light on the
weights and measures used in the ancient and medieval periods. Different stones such as videlvidugu, pandarakkal etc., were in use. Chola inscriptions refer to several
taxes such as irai, kadamai, echchoru, vetti, etc., collected from the cultivators.
There are many inscriptions which have stood as a test only for the religious conditions prevailed through the ages. For instance, the Besnagar Garuda pillar inscription of Heliodora (113 B.C.) attests to the strong Vaishnavite movement i.e., Bhagavata cult in north India and its adoption by a foreigner. The Indor copper-plate inscription of Skandagupta, dated in 464-465 A.D is an inscription referring to Sun worship. It adores Sun God under the name Bhaskara, who is described as being worshipped ritualistically by the enlightened Brahmanas, and as the protector of mankind from mental and physical ailments. The Mandasor inscription records the repairs carried out in the year 473-74 A.D. by the guild of silk-weavers to the temple of the Sun God (Dipta-rasmi).
Another very important aspect met with in inscriptions is administration. A unique inscription of Parantaka I from Uttiramerur dated in his 12th regnal year (919 A.D.) contains a detailed account of the rules and regulations for the election to the village assemblies at Uttarameru-chaturvedimangalam. Two very early records, one from Mahasthan, Bogra district, Bangladesh and the other from Sohagaura, Gorakhpur district, Uttar Pradesh, both assigned to 3rd century B.C. speak of the measures taken to deal with occasions of distress among the people. The Mahasthan inscription refers to situations such as the outbreak of floods, fire and drought and states that on such occasions, cash as well as surplus grains stored in the granary were distributed to the people.
Inscriptions are replete with references to education and learning. For instance, Tirumukkudal inscription of Virarajendra refers to a Vedic college, the subjects studied therein, teachers and their remuneration. So also, Ennayiram inscription of Rajendra I give a detailed list of the subjects taught, teachers' qualifications and allowances received by them.
There are some inscriptions which inform about the prevalence of the tradition of dance and
music. Perhaps the earliest reference to a dancer is found from an inscription from Jogimara cave (3rd century B.C.). It mentions one Sutunuka, the temple-dancer
(devadasi) and her lover Devadatta, a sculptor from Varanasi. Kudimiyanmalai inscription in Tamil Nadu is one of the earliest inscriptions on music. The inscription is in characters of about the 7th century A.D. i.e., about six centuries before Sarangadeva, the author of the Samgitaratnakara. It records the musical notes as understood and practised during the time of the Pallavas. The high state of development which the art of music had reached in 11th century A.D. can be gathered from an inscription of Chalukya king Vikramaditya from Galaganath, Haveri Taluk and District, Karnataka, which mentions a certain Mokhari Barmmayya, a musician of high order, entitled
Battisaraga-bahu-kala-Brahma (skilled in thirty-two ragas).
Inscriptions are also endowed with high literary value. As early as the 1st century A.D. elements of Sanskrit poetry start appearing in the north Indian inscriptions. Thus we come across some ornate metres in the Mora well-inscription of the time of Mahakshatrapa Rajuvula's son Sodasa. In the Junagadh inscription of Rudradaman, dated 150 A.D., we have a clear evidence of the development of the ornate style of Sanskrit prose. The Allahabad prasasti clearly proves that the Sanskrit
kavya style was fully developed by the middle of the 4th century A.D. Talagunda inscription of Kadamba Santivarman is another inscription endowed with poetic merit.
Inscriptions are far-flung in time and space. It is noteworthy that some inscriptions reflect the
ethos and mores of the period under which they were written. An inscription from Heragu in Hassan district, Karnataka, belonging to the Hoysala dynasty (1217 A.D.) gives the names of some members of a Kashmiri family which had migrated to that village in Karnataka from Bhadrahu in Gula-vishaya, a sub-division of Krama-rajya in Kasmira-rashtra. It is interesting to note that this migrant Kashmiri family contracted marriage alliances with the local families.
Ancient India also had cultural and trade contacts with southeast Asian countries like Java, Sumatra, Borneo, etc. A large number of inscriptions found in southeast Asian countries, which are very much akin to Indian epigraphs in respect of their language and script. One of the yupa inscriptions of Mulavarman from Kutei, Borneo refers to the setting up of a yupa at Vaprakesvara by the Brahmanas and also refers to gifts made by the king. This inscription amply proves that the Indian traditions and customs were prevalent in far flung areas.