In 1784 when Sir William Jones of the British East India Company (of the Raj) founded the Asiatic Society of Kolkata, little did the erstwhile British Raj know that they were inadvertently helping the cause of uncovering India’s history that has long been forgotten. It was through the society’s efforts, through its countless scholars that the dark curtains on Indian history were lifted and we could for once peer into our own annals of history with a clarity that we wouldn’t have otherwise had.
James Prinsep was one such unassuming but brilliant character from the Asiatic Society, who arrived in India from England in 1819 at age twenty, to work at the Calcutta mint. Fortunately for us, Prinsep did not find his calling in the mundane world of minting. He was fascinated with Indian History and started increasingly devoting his spare time and energy to the activities of the Asiatic Society. Among his several important breakthroughs one achievement stands out: his decipherment of inscriptions known then as “Delhi no. 1” - that put an end to a 2000 year old mystery that refused to be deciphered until he took it head on.
|Young Prinsep drawn by his sister Emily|
Qutb-ud-din Aybak who had overseen his slave Muhammad Bakhtiyar ravage Bihar and Bengal (read the plunder and burn of the Nalanda university in 1193 AD) wanted to celebrate his victory and built a mosque and named it Quwwatul Islam Masjid (Might of Islam). Slave artisans constructed this mosque from the stones of twenty-seven Hindu and Jain temples. He also added a victory tower “Qutb-al–Minar” and intended it to be highest tower in the Islamic world. Fast forward two centuries and we have Firoz Shah Tughluk on the throne of Delhi and in his reign in the year of 1326 AD a lightning strike brought the two upper storey’s of the victory tower down.
Firoz Shah took it upon himself to restore the great tower but also wanted something of his own indelible mark that rivaled the tower – a more modest version of his victories. He had always had a fascination for “infidel towers” and he had seen these pillars littered across everywhere – in the temples, in the forts and to his surprise in fairly remote and random places too. On a hunting trip to Topra in the upper region of Doab (between the Jamuna and the Ganges rivers) the sultan came upon a magnificent standing stone pillar.
This pillar was cut from a single block of stone and was forty two feet in length and weighing more than twenty-five tons. What fascinated the sultan was that this “stone” pillar had a lustrous and a glazed red surface that caused it to shine like gold. Firoz shah had it transported to Delhi and re erected it in his fort- “a golden pillar to rival Aybak’s victory tower”. The thought of building his own minaret must have come to him but the sandstone pillar that he saw must have erased that thought from his mind. The pillar must have stood in its place from time immemorial until the sultan saw it. Firoz Shah had unwittingly opened a new chapter in the discovery of India’s long lost emperor who was deliberately relegated to obscurity by the forces prevailing at his time and later. According to a biographical source the golden pillar that was erected in the fort was given a new religious overhaul and says “After it had remained an object of worship of the polytheists and infidels for so many thousands of years, through the efforts of Sultan Firoz Shah and by the grace of god, it became a place of worship for the faithful”. On account of its wonderful sheen Firoz Shah lovingly named it the “ Minara-i-Zarin” or “column of gold". Firoz Shah himself was besotted by the pillar and its undecipherable inscriptions. He recruited the efforts of the Brahman pundits of his times to decipher the inscriptions but to no avail. Some said it was Greek, some Aramaic and Sir William Jones himself famously concluded that it was some form of Ethiopian language. The Brahmins called it “brahmi lipi” the writing of the god Brahma. But none had any clue to what it was !
Towards the end of the 14th century the Turco-mongols led by Amir Timur ransacked Punjab and destroyed Delhi. Fortunately Timur was in awe of the golden column that stood in its splendor in Firoz Shah's fort and said he had never seen any monument comparable to the golden column. Two and half centuries later English traders visited Jehangir’s court and inspected the column of gold and concluded that the unintelligible letters on the column resemble Greek letters and further surmised that it could be the victory pillar of Alexander the Great.
The golden stone column with its inscriptions had piqued the interest of every scholar from its “discovery” in the thirteenth century and quite possibly a millennium before it too. Or maybe these columns and inscriptions were intentionally forgotten for we find no mention of anyone trying to unravel these strange inscriptions nor do we find any mention of the king who erected them. Such magnificent pillars are found across all of India and strangely there is no mention anywhere either in the historical texts or writings about this great king. It was as though this ancient king had done something terribly wrong and seemed to have transgressed from the traditional path and drew the ire of some powerful people. No wonder these inscriptions lay undeciphered for over two millennia.
During the first part of the 19th century a number of these pillars were discovered scattered across the length and breadth of India with the inscriptions in the “brahmi lipi”. The Allahabad pillar and the Lauriya Nandagarh pillar were other such pillars that contained similar looking inscriptions. Locals called these pillars as the maces of the legendary Bhima from Mahabharata. For Prinsep this mystery was god sent. It was as though the young genius was sent to India to decipher these “primitive” scripts that no one could. Prinsep plunged headlong into this abyss of mystery. It was an arduous task as the letters were worn away and earlier inscriptions were either obliterated or overlaid with other recent inscriptions. It was as though every king wanted a piece of the eternal glory with their names and inscriptions stamped on this golden pillar.
In 1834 Prinsep had his first breakthrough. He says , “…upon carefully comparing the Delhi, Allahabad and Lauriya Nandangarh inscriptions with a view to finding any other words that might be common to them … I was led to a most important discovery; namely that all three inscriptions were identically the same … except for a few lines at the bottom which appear to bear a local import”. Prinsep then called out for help to his colleague Captain Edward Smith and to others in the field to provide him with a copy of the inscriptions that had the same No. 1 script. His call was heard loud and clear. He was sent inscriptions from all corners of India and he now had with him many more inscriptions that he could use to find patterns and clues to unravel the dreaded No.1 Script.
Of these numerous inscriptions he was particularly intrigued by the Sanchi stupa inscription that Captain Edward Smith had sent him. It had two parts to it. The first two inscriptions had recorded grants of land from the the 4th century AD by the Guptas. The remaining 23 inscriptions were of the No.1 type and were much shorter. He was struck by the fact that virtually every inscription ended in the same two letters: a snake like squiggle followed by an inverted capital T with a dot. He concluded that these could be either obituary notices or offerings because of their extreme brevity.
Timing was everything. Prinsep was working on coins that he gathered from Saurashtra just a few days before and in his words it couldn’t have happened at a more opportune time. He had deciphered one character to mean “Ssa” in Pali or “sya” in Sanskrit. He says “if that character represented the genitive ‘of” (just as the apostrophe‘s’ in English represents ‘of’) it was logical to suppose that the rest of each short phrase concerned a donation and the name of the donor : “Of- so-and-so the gift” must then be the form of the sentence. Both in Pali and Sanskrit the verb to give was “dana” and this led Prinsep to quickly break the two letters – the snake like squiggle letter represented the sound “da’ and the inverted T represented the sound “na” and the single dot meant “m” (which was typical of any Sanskrit writing). Together the characters formed the word “danam”.
With these two letters and the earlier discoveries he had made everything suddenly fell into place – it were these “apparently trivial fragments of rude writing that have led to even more important results than the other inscriptions.” What followed was described by Prinsep in June 1837. “While arranging and lithographing the numerous scraps of facsimiles [from the Sanchi stone railings], I was struck by all words ending in the same two letters. Coupling their circumstance with their extreme brevity, which proved that they could not be fragments of a continuous text, it immediately occurred that they must record either obituary notices, or more probably the offerings and presents of votaries, as is known to be the present custom … ‘Of so and so the gift’ must then be the form of each brief sentence; … [this] led to the speedy recognition of the word danam (gift), teaching me the very two letters d and n, most different from known forms. … My acquaintance with ancient alphabets had become so familiar that most of the remaining letters in the present examples could be named at once on re-inspection. In the course of a few minutes I became possessed of the whole alphabet, which I tested by applying it to the inscription on the Delhi column.”
This was the biggest eureka moment for all of Indian History!! The hieroglyphics suddenly were no mystery. Prinsep deciphered the most intriguing script that befuddled every scholar from the middle age to the modern age. No. 1 was deciphered!!!!!
Prinsep concluded that the language used was a prakrit variation – a vernacular of the Sanskrit language. The word laja initially threw Prinsep off but he quickly realized that it was ‘the license of loose vernacular orthography’ and that the intended actual word was ‘Raja’. That gave him the opening phrase: ‘Beloved–of- the- gods-beloved king’. The last two words evam aha – translate as “spake thus”.
‘Thus spake King Piyadasi, Beloved of the Gods”
He then proceeds to unravel the entire inscription
“ In the twenty-seventh year of my anointment I have caused this religious edict to be published in writing, I acknowledge and confess the faults that have been cherished in my heart … Let stone pillars be prepared and let this edict of religion be engraven thereon, that it may endure into the remotest ages”.
All good. However, the question lingered as to who this Devanampiya Piyadasi was? Who was this king who was erecting pillars and Stupas across the length and breadth of India? There was no mention of a king named Piyadasi in the annals of Indian history. How could the brahmanical texts miss such a great emperor like Piyadasi who supposedly ruled the entire sub-continent and more? Was it a deliberate mistake? Prinsep initially thought that it could be the Buddha himself based on the thought that no single Indian monarch had ruled over such a vast territory as was covered by the pillars and rock inscriptions. But it was quickly dismissed as the inscriptions refer to ‘such and such year of my reign’, which clearly suggested that this inscription had nothing to do with the sakyamuni Buddha. Prinsep writes “in all the Hindu genealogical tables with which I am acquainted, no prince can be discovered possessing this very remarkable name”.
Fortuitously, at the same time, his colleague Turnour based in Ceylon (Srilanka) had in his book “The epitome of Ceylonese history” mentioned the name of one king –Devanampiatissa which was the closest to what Prinsep had discovered. Prinsep concludes that (t)his king that he unraveled was none other than the Srilankan king . He ponders “ Was it possible, then, that this Lankan king was the author of the rock edicts?” that “Devanampiyyatissa the royal convert, caused, in his zeal, the dogmas of his newly adopted faith to be promulgated far and wide? “.
Prinsep went ahead and published his findings in the July 1837 issue of JASB that the Piyadasi-Beloved-of-the-gods, was none other than King Devanampiyatissa of Lanka. Then came the earth shattering response from Turnour from Sri Lanka. This was what the world was waiting for.
Turnour says “I have made a most important discovery. While casually turning the leaves of the manuscript brought from Siam by a Buddhist priest I hit upon an entirely new passage relating to the identity of Piyadasi”. In translation it read “Two hundred and eighteen years after the beatitude of Buddha was the inauguration of Piyadasi, who the grandson of Chandragupta, and own son of Bindusara, was at that time viceroy of Ujjain”
Turnour’s revelation literally tore open the mystic secret hieroglyphics on the golden column and threw open to the world the secret of Piyadasi - That the king Devanapiya Piyadasi of the inscription was not King Devanampiyyatissa of Lanka as Prinsep had assumed. Chandragupta’s grandson and Bindusara’s son were one and the same. He was none other than “Ashoka the Great”. The identity of Ashoka as the author of the rock and pillar edicts was established beyond a reasonable doubt – a milestone on the road to recovery of India’s long lost history- the missing piece of jigsaw. It took Ashoka 2000 years to reveal himself to the world and emphatically say that he was the visionary behind the rock edicts. All thanks to this young genius James Prinsep! It was as though the gods wanted Prinsep to reveal to the world “the beloved of the gods” – Ashoka the Great!!! And Prinsep did deliver on the challenge – spectacularly.
To understand the greatness of Ashoka here’s what H.G. Wells says in his book “The Outline of History”: "Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star”.
Prinsep continued his studies but in September 1838 barely a year after the discovery he was struck down by paralyzing headaches brought on by inflammation of the brain. He passed away seven months later in London at the age of forty-one. It is as though the gods sent him to accomplish something and now that he had delivered it successfully they want him back. Even the gods wanted the world to know about their beloved son Devanampiya. What a pity that this genius died so young. What Prinsep uncovered was so monumental not just for the history of India but to the world and could very well rival the Rosetta stone deciphering. Long live Ashoka the great!!!
Thus spake devanampiya piyadasi ….and the world listened.. …..and how!