Early Indian epigraphy
The earliest traces of epigraphy in South Asia are found in the undeciphered inscriptions of the Indus Valley Civilization (Indus script), which date back to the early 3rd millennium BC. According to some scholars, the earliest deciphered epigraphic inscriptions are the Ashoka inscriptions of the 3rd century BCE, written in a form of Prakrit and Tamil Jain inscriptions in Sri Lanka and South India (Tamil Brahmi, Bhattiprolu script, Kadamba script). Other scholars have identified Tamil Brahmi inscriptions from an even earlier period (6th to 4th century BCE) in small written fragments on South Indian potsherds.
Indian epigraphy becomes more widespread over the 1st millennium, engraved on the faces of cliffs, on pillars, on tablets of stone, drawn in caves and on rocks, some gouged into the bedrock. Later they were also inscribed on palm leaves, coins, copper plates, and on temple walls.
Many of the inscriptions are couched in extravagant language, but when the information gained from inscriptions can be corroborated with information from other sources such as still existing monuments or ruins, inscriptions provide insight into India's dynastic history that otherwise lacks contemporary historical records.
Of the 1,00,000 odd inscriptions found by the Archaeological Survey of India, about 60,000 were in Tamil Nadu; of these 60,000 inscriptions, only about 5 per cent were in other languages such as Telugu, Kannada, Sanskrit and Marathi; the rest were in Tamil. Also according to the Sahitya Akademi, around 30,000 inscriptions in the Kannada language and script have been recovered so far.
First appearance of writing in South Asia
Until the 1990s, it was generally accepted that the Brahmi script used by Ashoka spread to Southern India during the second half of the 3rd century BCE, assuming a local form now known as Tamil-Brahmi. Beginning in the late 1990s, archaeological excavations have produced a small number of candidates for Brahmi epigraphy predating Ashoka. Preliminary press reports of such pre-Ashokan inscriptions have appeared over the years, such as one in the Palani municipality (dated to c. 450 BCE), but so far only the claimed pre-Ashokan inscriptions at Anuradhapura have been published academically.
History and research
Since 1886 there have been systematic attempts to collect and catalogue these inscriptions, along with the translation and publication of documents. Inscriptions may be in Brāhmī script or Tamil-Brahmi script developed by Sramanic system or Kannada script or even the still undeciphered Indus script. Royal inscriptions were also engraved on copper-plates as were the Copper-plate grant. Ashokan edicts contain Brahmi script and its regional variant Tamil-Brahmi was an early script used in the inscriptions in cave walls of Tamil Nadu and later evolved into the Tamil Vatteluttu script. The Bhattiprolu script (also a variant of Brahmi, Kadamba script) of the early centuries BCE gave rise to Old-Kannada script also called Kannada-Telugu script and later developed into Kannada and Telugu scripts.
Important inscriptions include the 33 inscriptions of emperor Ashoka on the Pillars of Ashoka (272 to 231 BCE), the Sohgaura copper plate inscription, the Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavela (2nd century BCE), the Besnagar pillar inscription of Heliodorus, the Junagadh rock inscription of Rudradaman I (150 CE), the Nasik cave inscriptions, the Rabatak inscription, the Allahabad Pillar inscription of Samudragupta, the Aihole inscription of Pulakesi II (634 CE), the Kannada Halmidi inscription, and the Tamil copper-plate inscriptions. The oldest known inscription in the Kannada language, referred to as the Halmidi inscription for the tiny village of Halmidi near where it was found, consists of sixteen lines carved on a sandstone pillar and dates to 450 CE. Reports indicate that the Nishadi Inscription. of Chandragiri which is in Old-Kannada is older than Halmidi by about 50 to 100 years and may belong to c. 350 CE or c. 400 CE.
The Hathigumpha inscription ("Elephant Cave" inscription) from Udayagiri near Bhubaneshwar in Orissa was written by Kharavela, the king of Kalinga in India during the 2nd century BCE. The Hathigumpha inscription consists of seventeen lines incised in deep cut Brahmi letters on the overhanging brow of a natural cavern called Hathigumpha on the southern side of the Udayagiri hill near Bhubaneswar in Orissa. It faces straight toward the rock Edicts of Asoka at Dhauli located about six miles away.
The Rabatak inscription is written on a rock in the Bactrian language and Greek script and found in 1993 at the site of Rabatak, near Surkh Kotal in Afghanistan. The inscription relates to the rule of the Kushan emperor Kanishka and gives remarkable clues to the genealogy of the Kushan dynasty.
The Halmidi inscription is the oldest known inscription in the Kannada language. The inscription is carved on a pillar, that was discovered in the village of Halmidi, a few miles from the famous temple town of Belur in the Hassan district of Karnataka, and is dated 450 CE. The original inscription has now been deposited in an archaeological museum in Bangalore while a fibreglass replica has been installed at Halmidi.
Tamil copper-plate inscriptions
Tamil copper-plate inscriptions are mostly records of grants of villages or plots of cultivable lands to private individuals or public institutions by the members of the various South Indian royal dynasties. The grants range in date from the 10th century CE to the mid-19th century CE. A large number of them belong to the Chalukyas, the Cholas and the Vijayanagar kings. These plates are valuable epigraphically as they give us an insight into the social conditions of medieval South India and help fill chronological gaps to connect the history of the ruling dynasties.
Unlike the neighbouring states where early inscriptions were written in Sanskrit and Prakrit, the early inscriptions in Tamil Nadu used Tamil  along with some Prakrit. Tamil has the extant literature amongst the Dravidian languages, but dating the language and the literature precisely is difficult. Literary works in India were preserved either in palm leaf manuscripts (implying repeated copying and recopying) or through oral transmission, making direct dating impossible. External chronological records and internal linguistic evidence, however, indicate that extant works were probably compiled sometime between the 4th century BCE and the 3th[clarification needed] century CE. Epigraphic attestation of Tamil begins with rock inscriptions from the 3rd century BCE, written in Tamil-Brahmi, an adapted form of the Brahmi script. The earliest extant literary text is the Tolkāppiyam, a work on poetics and grammar which describes the language of the classical period, dated variously between the 5th century BCE and the 2nd century CE.
Shankarpur copper-plate of Budhagupta
The plate is a record documenting a donation in the reign of king Budhagupta (circa CE 477–88) in year 168 of the Gupta era. The date is equivalent to CE 487-88. The plate was found in Shankarpur, Sidhi District, Madhya Pradesh, India. The plate is currently stored in the Rani Durgawati Museum, Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. The copper plate is 24 cm x 11 cm. The inscription on the plate records that in the reign of Budhagupta, a ruler named mahārāja Gītavarman, grandson of mahārāja Vijayavarman and mahārāja Harivarman son of Rānī Svaminī and mahārāja Harivarman, donated a village named Citrapalli to a Gosvāmi brāhmaṇa. The text was written by Dūtaka Rūparāja(?), son of Nāgaśarma.
The inscription is of considerable importance for the history of the Gupta Empire, because it is the last known record of the later Gupta king Budhagupta. Moreover, it provides a secure date for Harivarman, the first recorded king of the Maukhari dynasty according to the Asīrgarh seal.
siddham [||] samvatsara-ṣa(śa)te=ṣṭsa=ṣaṣṭyuta (yutta)re mahāmāgha-samvatsara(re) Śrāvaṇa ...
myāṃ paramadeva-Budhagupte rājani asyāṃ divasa-pūrvāyāṃ śrī-mahārāja-Sāṭana Sāla (or rya) na kul-odbhūtena śrī-mahārāja [Gī]tavarman-pautreṇa śrīmahārāja-Vijayavarmma-sute[na] mahādevyā[ṃ] Śarv asvāminyām utpanneana śri mahārāja Harivarmmaṇā asya brāhmaṇa-Kautsa- sagotra-gosvāmina [e]tac=Citrapalya tāmu(mra)paṭṭen=āgrahāro-tisṛṣṭaḥ akaraḥ acaṭa-bhaṭṭa-pra- veśyaḥ [|*] candra-tār-ārkka-samakālīyaḥ uktañca bhagavatā vyāsena [|*] svadattām= paradattāṃ=vā yo hareta vasundharā(rāṃ) [|*] s(ś)va vis(ṣ)ṭhāyā(yāṃ) kṛmir=bhūtvā pitṛbhis=saha majyate [||*] bahubhirv=vasudhā bhuktā rājabhiḥ=sagar-ādibhi (bhiḥ) [|*] yasya yasya yadā bhūmis=tasya tasya tadā phalaṃ [||*] kumārāmatya-bhagavad-rudrachadi-bhogika-mahāpratīhāra-lavaṇaḥ bapidra-bhogika (ke) [na]dūtaka(ke)na likhitaṃ Śrī Yaṣṭarājena Nāga(sa)śarma-su[tena] [||*]
- Salomon (1998), p. 37.
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In southern states, every inscription of an early date and majority even of modern day inscriptions were written in Sanskrit...In the Tamil country, on the contrary, all the inscriptions belonging to an early period are written in Tamil with some Prakrit
- Dating of Indian literature is largely based on relative dating relying on internal evidences with a few anchors. I. Mahadevan’s dating of Pukalur inscription proves some of the Sangam verses. See George L. Hart, "Poems of Ancient Tamil, University of Berkeley Press, 1975, p.7-8
- George Hart, "Some Related Literary Conventions in Tamil and Indo-Aryan and Their Significance" Journal of the American Oriental Society, 94:2 (Apr - Jun 1974), pp. 157-167.
- Kamil Veith Zvelebil, Companion Studies to the History of Tamil Literature, pp12
- Nilakanta Sastri, K.A. (1955). A History of South India, OUP, New Delhi (Reprinted 2002)
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- B. C. Jain, Journal of the Epigraphic Society of India 4 (1977): pp. 62-66 and plate facing p. 64.
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- Michael D. Willis, "Later Gupta History: Inscriptions, Coins and Historical Ideology," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland 15.2 (2005), p. 142. Available online: http://www.academia.edu/2057745/Later_Gupta_History_Inscriptions_Coins_and_Historical_Ideology.
- Michael D. Willis, "Later Gupta History: Inscriptions, Coins and Historical Ideology," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland 15.2 (2005), p. 148. Available online: http://www.academia.edu/2057745/Later_Gupta_History_Inscriptions_Coins_and_Historical_Ideology.
- Shankarpur copper-plate of the time of Buddhagupta GE 168
- Salomon, Richard (1998), Indian Epigraphy: A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the Other Indo-Aryan Languages, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-509984-3.
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