Uncovering A Lost Golden Age
How James Prinsep deciphered the Brāhmi Script and helped in discovering an empire
In the year 1794, British scholar William Jones came across some pillars with strange inscriptions. For 50 years since the encounter, historians were puzzled by the presence of these pillars with similar inscriptions scattered across the Indian Subcontinent. The Brāhmi script in which the inscriptions were written remained undeciphered for a long time. This script was also called the pin man script because its letters resembled stick figures. The ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, Firoz Shah Tughlaq and later the Mughal emperor Akbar had both tried to decipher the script, but they were unsuccessful. The script and its history were forgotten in India, until the advent of the British.
Prinsep Comes Into The Picture
The year was 1837. James Prinsep, a chemist from the Calcutta Mint had taken up the challenge of deciphering the script. Despite being a scientist in profession, he became interested in numismatics (study of coins) and epigraphy (study of edicts and inscriptions). He used newly excavated coins issued by Indo-Greek rulers in the Northwest of the Indian Subcontinent to decipher the script. These rulers used coins with the obverse text written in the Greek script and the same text translated onto the reverse side in the Brāhmi script. However, these coins mostly contained only the names of the rulers who issued them and their monetary denominations. Prinsep was still looking for more clues.
After close examination of his notes, some scholars believe that the repetitive word ‘danam’ (charity or donation) on the Sanchi Stupa (a dome-like structure built to venerate Gautama Buddha’s relics near Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh) was the missing clue that helped Prinsep crack the code. The word was common on the Stupa because Buddhist monks relied on alms to meet their daily needs. Combining the coins, edicts and other inscriptions finally deciphered the code.
The history of India before the Mughals slowly started unfolding. After months of meticulous translation, Prinsep finally found a name — King Devanamapiya Piyadasi (Beloved of the Gods). He finally found a connection. George Turnour, another historian, had informed him of a Pali text in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) that mentions of a king named Ashoka also called Devanamapiya Piyadasi, who was a good friend of the king of Sri Lanka. All the sketchy bits and pieces of information about a vague Buddhist king by foreign travellers like Megasthenes and Fa-Hien now made sense.
Scholars now pieced together the Mauryan dynasty of which Ashoka was the third ruler. The pillars depicted the extent of the Mauryan empire during Ashoka’s time — from east Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east and from the Kashmir Valley in the north to the Krishna river in the south.
Rock Edict XIII mentions the incident after which Ashoka converted into Buddhism. He had just conquered Kalinga, a kingdom in the eastern coast of India. One day, he saw the bloodshed of the war and became full of sorrow. He had caused the death of 100,000 soldiers and had captured 150,000 soldiers. He repented this incident and there was a dramatic shift in his policies. He no longer conquered regions by might, but by spreading his perspective of dhamma (loosely translated to duty or righteousness). These pillars and edicts were a medium through which Ashoka expressed his apologies for his past actions and to propagate dhamma. He even created a new category of officials called dhamma mahamatras who explained dhamma to those who were illiterate and made sure the principles of dhamma were being adhered to. Much later, these pillars were also found written in the Kharosthi and Aramaic scripts, which were built for the benefit for the northwestern part of the Empire. All this would have been undiscovered, if not for the efforts of Prinsep.
Unfortunately, Prinsep became sick due to overwork and exhaustion and died three years after deciphering the script. The Mauryan empire and Ashoka have become cultural icons in India. The lion capital on top of the Ashokan pillar at Sarnath is the Indian emblem and Ashoka’s dhamma chakra is in the Indian flag. Prinsep’s work transformed Indian history forever and to pay tribute to him, the people of Calcutta erected a memorial beside the Hooghly River named Prinsep Ghat in his honour.
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