Evaluate the inscription as a source of ancient Indian history. [UPPSC-2018]

Q. Evaluate the inscription as a source of ancient Indian history. [UPPSC-2018]


An ancient text does not necessarily offer a simple or direct reflection of the society of its time. Information has to be teased out with care along with other archaeological evidences especially inscriptions to make historical inferences. ©

Inscriptions as a source of history

  • Compared with manuscript of texts, inscriptions have the advantage of durability.
  • They are usually contemporaneous to the events they speak of and their information can be connected to a time and place.
  • Changes and additions made to them can usually be detected without great difficulty.
  • Compared to literary sources, which tend to give a theoretical perspective, inscriptions often reflect what people were actually doing.
  • Inscription are a valuable source of information on political history. The geographical spread of a king’s inscriptions is often taken as indicating the area under his political control. But discovery of inscriptions depends on chance and not all the inscriptions inscribed during a king’s reign need necessarily be found. Furthermore, movable inscriptions are not always found in situ, i.e., in their original place.
  • The earliest royal inscriptions do not contain much geographical material, but later ones generally do. Their prashastis give details about the history of dynasties and the reigns of kings. Of course, there are problems:
      • Royal inscriptions naturally tend to exaggerate the achievements of the ruling king. Sometimes, confusion is created when a genealogy mentions kings with the same name, or when different inscriptions contradict each other on particular details.
      • Sometimes genealogies skip names, for instance, in the case of Skandagupta and Ramagupta, who are ignored in Gupta genealogies because they did not come within the direct line of succession of the later ruler.
      • There are cases where inscriptions of different dynasties make conflicting claims. For instance, a Gurjara-Pratihara inscription states that king Vatsaraja conquered all of Karnataka. However, the contemporary Rastrakuta king claims in his inscriptions to have defeated Vatsaraja and to have ruled over the Karnataka area. Wherever possible, details of political events given in inscriptions have to be cross-checked.
  • Inscriptions have also been used as a major source of information on political structures and administrative and revenue systems. Inscriptions shed light on the history of settlement patterns, agrarian relations and class and caste structures.
  • Inscriptions provide dateable information on the history of religious sects, institutions, and practices. Donative records help identify the sources of patronage enjoyed by ancient religious establishments. They also give glimpses into sects and cults that were once important but did not leave any literature of their own e.g., the Ajivika sect and the yaksha and naga cults.
  • Inscriptions can help identify and date sculptures and structures, and thus throw light on the history of iconography, art, and architecture. They are also a rich source of information on historical geography. In fact, the location of several ancient Buddhist monastic sites such as Kapilvastu has been fixed on the basis of inscribed monastic seals.
  • Inscriptions reflect the history of languages and literature and a few refer to the performing arts. For example, the 7th century Kudumiyamalai inscription gives the musical notes used in seven classical ragas. Inscriptions from Tamil Nadu refer to the performing of various kinds of dances. The pillars of the eastern and western gateways of the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram have label inscriptions describing the dance poses of 108 sculpted figures carved on them, quoting verses from the Natyashastra of Bharata.

Inscriptions has to be read and analysed carefully and its content can then be compared with those of other inscriptions and with information from other kind of sources.©

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