Brahmi: Reading Inscriptions

Difficulties of Reading

The following two examples show the problems that can occur when a reading is disputed, even a very small part of a reading. They demonstrate that a difference of reading or interpretation between two epigraphers does not have to be large (it can revolve around a single character, or the case-ending of a single word) to have profound implications for how historians interpret the period. In these cases slight variations in reading have been used to support political alliances or to overturn the perception of the way ancient India thought about women.

The Castana Inscription (Insc. 95)

At the site of Mat near Mathura a large number of royal portrait statues were found. All are believed to come from a temple that was constructed at the site and there is an inscription (Insc. 235) linking construction work to the time of Huvishka. There are several statues, one of which is of Kanishka, one of Wima Taktu. There is also an unidentified statue with a very short inscription (insc. 95) and a detached head with another inscription (insc. 96).

Inscription 95 is an excellent example of the difficulties that reading can pose. The second two characters read 'stana' but the first character is blundered. The first person to suggest an interpretation was B Bhattacharyya in 1920 who felt the first letter should be read 'ṣa' and that this was an alternative spelling for the Western Ksatrap Castana. His interpretation has been disputed by Luders (1961:146), and supported by Joe Cribb.

The table below shows the original and the alternative readings. If the reading Castana is accepted then it means the image of a Western Ksatrap king dating roughly to c.130 AD was established in a major site of the Kushans. This has been taken by many to indicate a political alliance between the Kushans and the Western Ksatraps. However, Rosenfield (1967: 145-6) has some doubts:

"Castana was at the height of his power when the shrine was functioning. For these reasons, I have provisionally retained the label the 'statue of Castan', but admit that it is tenuous, unsupported by other positive evidence of Saka-Kushan relations, and should be used with restraint."

The problem is a complex one. However, the identification with Castana is doubtful not just because of the argument between Luders and Cribb/Bhattacharyya, but because even if the the character were ' ṣ a' it is still incorrect. Not only should the first character be 'ca' anyway, the second character is wrong, the 's' and 't' are the wrong 's' and 't'. To illustrate, and allow readers to come to their own conclusions, the table below presents the original rubbing, three alternative readings of the first character (I prefer 'pra' as a more plausible reading than anything previously suggested), and Castana's name as it should have appeared, based on the spelling in contemporary inscriptions.

The Original, as taken from the statue (note the fourth character is unidentified, but the writing undoubtedly continued to the right). ṣa (Bhattacharyya & Cribb)  ma (Luders) pra, this aksara is much closer to what actually appears on the inscription than previous suggestions. caṣṭana (as usually found on inscriptions)

Female Professionals

In 'The Problem of Identity' Kirit K Shah (2001: 161) has proposed a radical reinterpretation of a small number of inscriptions. In particular inscription 223. Which has previously been read and translated:

siddha sava 20 2 gri 1 di sya pūrvvāyam va-chakasya aryya *mātridinasya ṇI sarttavāhiniye *Dharmmasomāye dānaṁ Namo arahaṁtānaṁ
Success! The year 22, grishma or summer month 1, day on the [date specified as] above at the request of the preacher Aryya Matridina the gift of Dharmasoma, the wife of a caravan leader. Adoration to the arhatas.

The keyword is highlighted in bold. It refers to Dharmasoma, the donater of the gift, and has previously been interpreted as meaning the wife of a Caravan leader. However, Shah raises some doubt about this and suggests that in fact it should be read as 'a female caravan leader'. The problem revolves around a simple question, should a profession presented with a feminine ending be seen as a female holder of that status, or as the wife of a male holder of that status. 

Certainly no-one would read bhikuni to mean 'wife of a monk'. That, and the absence of any mention of the husband seem to lend weight to Shah's suggestion. On the other hand we have an example from insc. 574 which says '*Utara stetegabharya', Uttara is known from another inscription and she is wife of a military commander, not a female military commander. So failure to mention a husband does not preclude that a woman is still constructing her identity in terms of being a wife.

Sircar (1967: 302) is uncertain on the issue and translates the term as 'wife of a merchant, or a female merchant'. However, there can be little doubt that it is an important question. If even a minority of women in Ancient India were able to construct their identities in terms of professional standing, independent of husbands or fathers, it would substantially affect our understanding of the status and position of women in the period.

Contents Page Introduction



Inscription List


Brahmi Alphabet




Robert Bracey.