by Naveen Kanalu Ramamurthy

EPIGRAPHIA INDICA. A Collection of Inscriptions. Supplement to The Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum of the Archaeological Survey. Volumes I-LXIII. Translated by several oriental scholars. Edited by James Burgess, L.L.D., C.I.E et al. Calcutta: The Superintendent of Government Printing, 1892–1977. Reprinted by the Archaeological Survey of India, Government of India, Delhi, 1979–1992.

The Epigraphia Indica is a forty-three volume series containing a corpus of inscriptional material from precolonial South Asia in facsimile format, Roman transliteration, and English translation, edited by several scholars and published under the auspices of the Archaeological Survey of British India from 1892 and subsequently by its successor institution, the Archaeological Survey of India. Initially, the Epigraphia Indica was published as a supplement to the journal of the Archaeological Survey, The Indian Antiquary, which was founded by the first chief editor, James Burgess (1832–1916). Ten chief editors were involved in the production of the volumes over eight decades. The first four were European orientalists while the later six, Indian. Eugen Hultzsch (1857–1927), a German orientalist succeeded Burgess as the second editor. The third editor, Sten Konow (1867–1948) was Norwegian; the fourth editor, Frederick William Thomas (1867–1956) was English.

Although a wide range of precolonial manuscripts had been edited in abridged or full-length versions by the second half of the nineteenth century, epigraphic records were sporadically made available in a few journals in the Bengal and the Bombay presidencies, in The Indian Antiquary, and through the private initiative of British officials. Epigraphia Indica was therefore intended to collect, document, and present the inscriptional material in the “classical languages” of premodern India such as Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit. In Burgess’s words, the underlying reason for such a collection was: “Indian inscriptions – more so even than those of any other country – are the real archives of the annals of its ancient history…” Due to the paucity of historical chronicles among the “Hindus” (unlike the “Mohammedans”), stone edicts and copper plate inscriptions were valued for revealing the “authentic” information of their “ancient” past. Hence, the early volumes of the Epigraphia Indica are dominated by the “great” dynasties of “ancient” India. They include Ashokan inscriptions in the Brahmi script, the imperial edicts of the Guptas, rock inscriptions of the Calukyas and the Rashtrakutas, etc. Most volumes are not chronologically organized; they collect each inscription as an independent unit of knowledge. In the pages of The Indian Antiquary, the publication of these inscriptions fuelled heated scholarly debates and speculations on the authenticity of textual readings, the dating of inscriptions, the translation and the meaning of terms, their variants and corruptions as well as the errors in transcription.

The Epigraphia Indica was only one in a series of ambitious epigraphical initiatives during British imperial rule in India. Its omission of regional language inscriptions is striking as many empires issued imperial edicts and land grants in regional languages such as Kannada, Tamil, or Telugu. However, the Archaeological Survey had started an alternative series on inscriptions in the Dravidian languages under the editorship of Hultzsch called, South Indian Inscriptions from 1890. It comprises of 27 volumes to date. From 1907 onwards, the Archaeological Survey published a supplementary series to the Epigraphia Indica itself called, “Indo-Moslemica” (changed to “Arabic and Persian Supplement” in the post-independent period volumes) to include inscriptions from the “Mohammedan” period. In the erstwhile Princely State of Mysore, the part-time Director of the Department of Archaeology, B. L. Rice, compiled 8869 inscriptions (mostly in the Kannada language) from 1884 to 1906 in the series, Epigraphia Carnatica. He published eight volumes, which were expanded by an editorial committee of Kannada epigraphists to include seventeen volumes in the 1970s.

The epistemological alignment of the Epigraphia Indica as a systematic compilation of historical sources originates in the European discourses on “antiquity”, the reproduction of their epigraphical records, and the value accorded to them as historical documents. The nature of epigraphical analysis and the collection of inscriptional records formed the pivot of the mid-nineteenth century projects, which moved beyond comparative philology inaugurated by Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, Franz Bopp, Friedrich Schlegel, etc. Indeed, there was a renewed fascination with edicts, which had once been popular among Renaissance Italian scholars. Also instances such as the decipherment of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs by Jean-François Champollion added to the “re-constructive” potential of epigraphy. Noteworthy projects in the European context were the German Latinist Theodor Mommsen’s comprehensive survey of Latin inscriptions, the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum and its predecessor, the Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum (now known as Inscriptiones Graecae) containing Ancient Greek inscriptions. Both were funded by the Königlich-Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften in Berlin. The French scholar of Semitic languages, Ernest Renan published several volumes of Semitic inscriptions called the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum from the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. The Epigraphia Indica finds its roots and continuities in such thinking centred on the accumulation and the exhaustive collection of epigraphical records.

If philological analysis in the nineteenth century was geared towards the task of the production of the ur-text —the original and uncorrupted form in which the text was supposed to have been, and the historical analysis to the task of establishing the factual as it actually happened in the past, epigraphical analysis combined some tendencies of each of them as a scientific discipline. Since inscriptions were alleged to present the originary texts in their original and uncorrupted form due to their materiality (unlike a text, whose composition most often predates the manuscript form in which it is found), they were deemed legible as documents whose production was coeval with the historical time of their “coming into effect”. Inscriptions, due to their material-scriptural unity (given the rock, stone, or metal surfaces and their longitude), could be construed as highly reliable “sources” of knowledge. Equally, they were supposed to deal with secular rather than imaginary themes. Being finite in number, their collection was exhaustible. Further, the decipherment of “dead” scripts through the reading of inscriptions constituted positivist knowledge in itself. The epistemological framework for the Epigraphia Indica partakes in parallel intra-European efforts at consolidating the “scientific” and “exhaustive” study of epigraphic sources as an access to antiquity in the nineteenth century on an international level, be it in the Roman cosmopolis, the Hieroglyphic world of the Ancient Egyptians, the Hindu dynasties or the Semitic stelae scattered across the desert.