Whispering of Inscriptions: South Indian Epigraphy and Art History

Murugaiyan, Appasamy & Parlier-Renault, Édith (forthcoming) (Eds) Whispering of Inscriptions: South Indian Epigraphy and Art History: Papers from an International Symposium in memory of Professor Noboru Karashima (Paris, 12–13 October 2017). Oxford: Indica et Buddhica. (2 vols)

This publication results from a two-day international symposium « Epigraphie et histoire de l’art de l’Inde méridionale: Colloque international en mémoire du professeur Noboru Karashima » held on 12–13 October 2017 at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris. This symposium was organised jointly by the École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE)UMR 7528 Mondes iranien et indien and the Centre de Recherches sur l’Extrême Orient de Paris–Sorbonne (CREOPS).


In October 2017, an international symposium was held in Paris as a tribute to Noboru Karashima who gave a new impetus to the study of South Indian and Tamil epigraphy.1 The contributions to this volume illustrate the wide range of related topics in the fields of archæology, epigraphy and history of art that were presented at the symposium. These domains, an integral part of classical studies, have generally been considered as distinct areas of research, however nobody can deny their mutual interdependence. The title of this volume ‘Whispering of Inscriptions’ is borrowed from one of Karashima’s publications.2 Karashima, who himself was convinced of ‘the importance of epigraphy in the task of historical reconstruction,’ had ‘noticed a defect in past studies in the field of socio-economic history, due to the arbitrary use of epigraphic evidence.’3 Karashima was of the view that historians should avoid arbitrary judgements and concluded his essay by saying: ‘In sum, scholars of ancient and medieval South Indian history should be acquainted with inscriptions and listen honestly to their whisperings.’4

To some extent, the whole question of methodology rests on the way the researchers tend to interpret and theorize the textual content.5 We are aware that while handling historical source materials, whether literary or epigraphic or iconographic, researchers face two challenges: on the one hand, understanding the meanings of the sources and motivations of the authors as in the past, and on the other, interpreting them successfully without imposing models and categories of the present experience. Scholars like Karashima address these issues and have come up with basic methodologies for studying the historical sources. In the Indian context, reconstructing the meaning of these sources requires the practice of contextualization and this is most closely associated with the interpretation of the texts. In sum, honouring Karashima comes to refining the research methodology and to ‘consider the cultural context (“whispering”) of the inscriptions in [their] time and place [...]’6

This volume witnesses this very challenge of contextualization of epigraphic and iconographic data. It contains a variety of contributions demonstrating the richness and diversity of contemporary research on South Indian temple inscriptions and copper plate charts as well as on art and archæology. During the last decade, the field of South Indian epigraphy and archæology has come up with important findings which has brought in unprecedented data shedding new light in the area of historical studies, particularly of South India. These essays attempt to highlight some of these discoveries and to update the epigraphical and archæological resource materials. They are intended to stimulate discussion and analysis in a multidisciplinary perspective, through new and divergent theoretical and methodological conceptions, and to broaden our perception of the early and mediæval South Indian societies. Each one is original in its approach to the South Indian inscriptions, monuments and images and relates to a particular domain of South Indian history.

The first articles focus on social and political history. As a starting point, Subbarayalu, Y. presents a comprehensive account of Professor Karashima’s contributions to the study of South Indian history and his innovative research methodology in the analysis and interpretation of South Indian inscriptions. In the next paper, through a detailed survey of all the occurrences of the title araiyaṉ and its variants in epigraphy, Subbarayalu, Y. outlines its historical evolution and varying significance, and demonstrates how the study of a title or a component of a proper name helps us to understand the social and political development of mediæval South India.

Emphasising the fact that the Pāṇḍya queens seemed until now almost absent from epigraphy and that they are very seldom referred to as donors, Valérie Gillet describes her recent discovery of three inscriptions and explores their role in the first Pāṇḍya Empire. She discusses their identity, analyses the patterns of endowments made by them and places their donations in the general context of the period. Vijayavenugopal, G. offers a reading of a rare and unique hagiographic inscription and stresses the role of ascetics as royal gurus, based on the supernatural powers that they were supposed to possess and parallel to the development of different Śaiva traditions in Tamil Nadu. Emmanuel Francis gives an overview of the copper plates of the Cōḻa period (10th–13th centuries CE) issued in Tamil Nadu by different agencies, the Cōḻa chancellery, temple authorities or ‘magnates.’ He takes into consideration their material aspect, their origin and content, as well as their language: Sanskrit or Tamil, sometimes used simultaneously, in the bilingual charts. He also tackles rarely mentioned issues, such as the falsification of charts, a practice not often discussed in academic papers, or the epigraphical references to plates.

The next two articles deal with economic and technical issues. After having scrutinised the inscriptions containing data on the irrigation systems in the Papanasam region of the Kaveri delta, Athiyaman, N. shows that they provide a clear description of the typical irrigation pattern in the Brahmadēya and reflect their spatial organisation. Relying on the inscriptions of the Cōḻa period in Tamil Nadu, Selvakumar, V. attempts an extensive analysis of the measurement systems they describe, which were essential for taxation and economic transactions and formed an important component of mediæval administration in South India. He presents a detailed account of the methods applied to use the different types of weight and volume measures and explains how they were preserved in the written texts of mediæval Tamil Nadu.

The linguistic and palæographic aspects of epigraphy are taken into account in two papers. Rajavelu, S. discusses the later developments of Vaṭṭeḻuttu. In the light of several recently discovered inscriptions, belonging to the 6th–8th centuries CE, he tries to fill up some of the gaps in the palæographical charts of both the Vaṭṭeḻuttu and Tamil scripts and to trace with more clarity their origin and development. Appasamy Murugaiyan presents data from the Tamil epigraphic texts in support of two important features of Tamil and Dravidian historical linguistics: the typological shift from isolated type to agglutinative and the presence of some archaic linguistic features attested in mediæval Tamil. The linguistic study of the inscriptional Tamil sheds more light on the diachronic development from classical Tamil to mediæval and finally contemporary Tamil.

The literary and ideological dimension of epigraphy, particularly through the Sanskrit eulogies, is dealt with in four contributions. Sylvain Brocquet gives a new translation as well as an in-depth analysis of the famous inscription of the Pallava king Mahendravarman, written in a highly poetical (kāvya) style and set in the Tiruccirāppaḷḷi ‘Rock-Fort’ cave. He provides evidence on its nature and function, showing that the interpretation of the whole epigraphic poem, aimed at the legitimisation of the king like other dedicatory epigraphs, involves an approach of the political and ritual conceptions of the period. Perrine Estienne reviews the main features of the rhetoric of the Eastern Cālukya inscriptions: the use of royal epithets (birudas) and of various topoi which place the king between men and gods. She gives an analysis of Ravikīrti’s eulogy engraved on the Aihole Meguti temple and of the intertextuality that appears to be its main key. She shows that like most of the epigraphic eulogies of the Eastern Cālukya dynasty, it is fashioned like a mahākāvya, containing numerous references to their topoi as well as to their epical background and abounding in various figures of speech (alaṃkāra). Vasu Renganathan examines the links between mediæval Tamil inscriptions, devotional literature (bhakti) and iconography. He focuses on the opposition between Sanskrit āgamic tradition and Tamil modes of worship, and highlights different aspects of their contest over hegemony during the colonial and post-colonial period.

Stressing the enigmatic nature of the royal foundation of Gangaikondacholapuram of Rajendra I, particularly its location and the absence of any epigraphic eulogy (meykkīrtti), Charlotte Schmid proposes to solve the riddle by putting back the temple and its epigraphy into a wider perspective: she suggests that while the Tamil panegyrics engraved in the Tanjore temple of Bṛhadīśvara rooted the king’s rule in his territory, Sanskrit panegyrics were meant to spread a message beyond the frontiers of a Tamil kingdom. Both temples thus form together a bilingual structure that can be also traced in their iconography.

The last half of the second volume focuses more specifically on archæology and art history. Rajan, K. argues that the emergence of the Early Historic period in South India needs to be reassessed in the light of the new archæological findings. He shows, through an analysis of primary archæological sources and of the radiometric dates calculated for various recently excavated sites, that the Early Historic period can be pushed back a few centuries earlier than commonly admitted. Anne Davrinche reassesses the value of epigraphical data for the dating of monuments through the case study of the Nāyaka Veṅkaṭaramaṇa temple in the Senji fortress. Though one of the inscriptions of this building is dated from 1391, and would imply that the core of the temple might have been built at that period, a close stylistic analysis of the architectural style points actually to a deliberate archaism, aimed at legitimizing the authority of the new dynasty on the country: in this view the epigraph could have been used as a way of consecrating the antiquity of the site.

Marion Le Sauce-Carnis presents a few Vaiṣṇava themes illustrated on the pillars of the Vijayanagara temples located in the southwest of present day Andhra Pradesh, the region traditionally known as Rāyālasīma, analysing and comparing the specific representational modes used for the Rāmāyaṇa and the Kṛṣṇa reliefs, as well as for other avatāras. Virginie Olivier examines the various and complex aspects of the relationship between Brahmā and Śiva which can be traced in the Pallava and Cōḻa iconography, where the first one is included and sometimes symmetrically opposed to the second one in the iconographic programme of Śaiva temples. The two gods may embody the Brahmin purohita (Brahmā) and the king (Śiva), but also the confrontation between orthodox Brahmanism and a new form of knowledge centred on the worship of Śiva. The alliance of both is also illustrated in a unique series of Śaiva representations obviously inspired by the iconography of Brahmā. Karine Ladrech studies divine images of shifting identity: Hindu deities may be inserted into the Jain pantheon, such as Bhairava-Kṣetrapāla, the Hindu traditional temple guardian directly assimilated by Jainism, and Brahmadeva, who has affinities with the Tamil god Aiyaṉār. She also describes some cases of conversion of Jain images and shrines which became Hindu.

Édith Parlier-Renault draws a parallel between visual arts and epigraphical poetry based on an interpretation of the Mahendravarman inscription in Tiruccirāppaḷḷi. She analyses the interplay between the Gaṅgādhara sculpture housed in the cave and the poem that accompanies it. She highlights the importance of epigraphy for understanding the metaphorical aspect and the implicit meanings of the images, as well as their specific features. She further focuses on the analogous process of alternate borrowings and innovations that runs through inscriptions and visual representations.

É. P.-R. & A. M.


1 See Subbarayalu, Y. in this volume, pp. xxiiiff.

2 (Karashima, 2001).

3 ibid., p. 55.

4 ibid., p. 58.

5 (Spencer, 2001).

6 (Hall, 2001), p. 7.


Hall, Kenneth R. (2001) Structural Change and Social Integration in Early South India: An Introductory Essay. In Kenneth R. Hall (Ed. ) Structure and Society in Early South India: Essays in Honour of Noboru Karashima. (pp. 1—27) . New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Karashima, N. (2001) Whispering of Inscriptions. In Kenneth R. Hall (Ed.) Structure and Society in Early South India: Essays in Honour of Noboru Karashima. (pp. 44—58) . New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Spencer, George W. (2001) In Search of Change: Reflections on the Scholarship of Noboru Karashima. In Kenneth R. Hall (Ed.) Structure and Society in Early South India: Essays in Honour of Noboru Karashima. (pp. 28—43) . New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

See also