Visitors to the world heritage Buddhist site in Sanchi, about 45 km from Bhopal, are often overwhelmed by the splendor of the centerpiece Stupa but fail to notice the interesting historically crucial detailing upon and round it.
Few know that on the row of pillars and gateways of the great Stupa also known as Stupa number 1 and on the structures surrounding it are several roughly hewn inscriptions that served as key to deciphering the ancient Brahmi script by British antiquary and philologist James Prinsep.
Brahmi, the main script used in ancient India mainly from 3rd century BC to 6th century AD, is considered as the core script for genesis of other modern Indian scripts according to experts.
The script was deciphered by Prinsep, the founding editor of Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, in 1837.
References to his notes suggest that reproduction of inscriptions from Sanchi played a key role in the deciphering process, archaeologist Narayan Vyas told Hindustan Times.
Vyas, who compiled volumes on Sanchi site during his tenure with the Archaeological Survey of India pointed out the inscriptions to HT during a visit to the world heritage site.
More than 600 inscriptions were found on different remains at the Sanchi site, several among them on the Stupa number 1 and structures surrounding it.
Vyas said it was the word ‘danam’ (gift/donation) found repeatedly in the inscriptions from Shunga period (2nd century BC) on the row of pillars of the
Stupa 1 that gave Prinsep the code that was used to break the mystery of the ancient script (see photo).
The archaeologist explained that while the brick core of Stupa 1 was constructed by emperor Ashoka in 3rd century BC, the outer stone edifice and the colonnade was constructed during the Shunga period.
In the Satvahana period or 1st century BC, the intricately carved gateways were added to the structure.
The inscriptions on the colonnade make it clear that Buddhist monks and rich local people had made donations for the constructions and these references are posted on the stone tablets and pillars in the colonnade.
The inscriptions on and around Stupa 1 are distinctly from four periods and show the fast evolution of the Brahmi script, Vyas said.
Apart from Shunga period inscriptions on the colonnade, a huge inscription from 3rd century BC could be seen on a half broken massive Ashokan Pillar just outside the southern gateway of the Stupa - the earliest to be found.
This inscription warns the monks of wavering from their path.
On the southern gateway is Satvahana period inscription naming its chief architect and the ivory carvers from Vidisha who worked on the gateways.
Further, on a railing near the eastern gateway is an inscription from Gupta period (4th/5th century AD) referring to donation of five villages to
Buddhist monks by a prominent citizen (Amrakardabh) during reign of Chandragupta Vikramaditya II.