Legally binding: the textual layout of a copper-plate grant from South Asia

Francesco Bianchini
University of Cambridge,
Published under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license.
Abstract: Copper-plate grants were issued in large numbers by pre-modern South Asian royal courts as legally binding documents recording ownership over land revenue. The textual layout of an inscription, and the positioning and size of certain elements, was linked to ritual dimensions inherent in the transaction and to ancient techniques of legal validation. Using the grant now known as IO-19 as an example, the author shows how textual layout can also reveal the complex and multi-stage processes involved in the production of such grants.

Keywords: copper-plates, Sanskrit, South Asia, kingship, legal document, land ownership.

The object of this analysis (Fig. 1) is a land-grant inscription on two copper plates, now kept at the British Library and designated IO-19,I was able to inspect it at the British Library with the aim of producing a digital edition of the text and of improving the edition by Georg Bühler (1878). This was made possible in the framework of the ERC-Synergy project Asia beyond boundaries, which is based at the British Museum. My gratitude goes to curator Pasquale Manzo for his help with all aspects of this process. I would like to thank Dr. Annette Schmiedchen for looking at the draft of this article and offering valuable suggestions. All mistakes are mine alone. which dates to around AD 650 and was produced in western India (Gujarat) under the Maitraka dynasty.For monographs on the Maitraka dynasty see Njammasch (2001) and Śāstrī (2000). Over one hundred complete grants from this dynasty have survived. Copper-plate land-grants became very common in South Asia from about the third century AD, and were typically issued by royal courts to private individuals and temples as deeds testifying to ownership over land and village revenues. It is difficult to overstate the value of these documents for the field of historical studies. This one, Charter IO-19, consists of two plates, measuring approximately 37×28cm each, with slightly elevated edges.Measurements of the plates are provided in Bühler (1878: 73). Two ring holes are present on each plate along one margin of the longer side, and while the rings and royal seal which would have connected the two plates have been lost, the overall state of preservation is remarkably good (see Fig. 2 for a plate with extant rings.) The plates were at some point treated by the British Library’s conservation team, and as a consequence the inscription can be easily read. Both plates are inscribed on one side (with 27 and 26 lines of text respectively), the other side being blank. Each line consists of approximately 40 syllables. The size of the letters is not perfectly regular, nor does letter positioning follow perfect lines.

Figure 2: Plates with extant rings. Source: London, Private Collection. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
Figure 3: Set of plates with rings. Source: Barcelona, Cosmo Caixa / Fundació “la Caixa” (no. MCAE 5835); digital edition at the Siddham database.
Figure 4: Copper-plate grant in portrait format (north-eastern India, ca. tenth century). Source: State Archaeological Museum, Kolkata. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The inscription is to be read left to right, and from top to bottom. The script is a variety of Brahmi typical of western Indian epigraphs of this period, a semi-syllabary in which a consonantal sign would also include a short ‘a’ vowel. Other vowels are marked by diacritic signs above or below the consonant. Consonants can be found in clusters, and when they are placed one underneath the other this can affect the textual layout of the following line, as illustrated below.

The language of the grant is classical Sanskrit, with occasional phonological/morphological idiosyncrasies possibly related to the underlying local language. Most of the inscription is in prose, but three short poetic stanzas are also present, starting on line 23 of the second plate. The inscription itself records the donation of a village to an individual called Nārāyaṇamitra, who belonged to the Brahmin class.

Text disposition and plate format

The text engraved on IO-19 covers the entire surface of the two plates, though there is some free marginal space before the raised edges of each plate. Epigraphists have recently started to pay systematic attention to the relationship between the inscribed field and the whole surface of a plate, as part of the metadata collected in digital epigraphical databases.See Early Inscriptions of Āndhradeśa (accessed January 2018). The tendency to cover the entire surface of copper plates can be seen in similar artefacts, and it appears that the margins became gradually smaller over time, possibly to accommodate increasingly long dynastic eulogies. There are two areas in which the surface of the plates was not fully inscribed: the region around the ring holes; and the bottom part of the second plate, which was left blank because there was not enough text in the inscription to completely fill the plate.

Both plates are in landscape format, with the text running along the longer side of the rectangular surface, though not all copper-plates are in this format. For example, charters issued under the Pāla dynasty of north-eastern India (eighth to twelfth centuries AD) are in portrait format (Fig. 4). Pāla charters also lack ring holes and the royal seal is welded onto the upper part of the plate: there were many variations in the layouts of copper-plate grants from the subcontinent.On this question, see Francis (2018: 398–404). IO-19 represents the mature period of Maitraka grants, which could be tentatively said to start from the seventh century. Plates from this period were almost square, and while no statistical data on the dimensions of plates in different regions and time periods is available, those in landscape format are typically more elongated, with the shorter side being only about one-third of the longer one. A single ring hole is usually found in the left margin of the shorter side (Fig. 3), showing a clear resemblance between these copper-plates and surviving South Asian manuscripts on palm leaves,This topic was taken up at a 2013 conference by the CSMC (Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures) held in Hamburg. See in particular Emmanuel Francis’ presentation ‘Indian Manuscript and Epigraphs: Commonalities and Specificities’. and a certain similarity with paper Khotanese manuscripts. The close relationship between manuscripts and copper-plate grants is further suggested by available information on creation processes of the latter. It is likely that, during the preparation of a copper plate, the text was first written on perishable material,Some evidence for this is offered in Francis (2018: 404–8), though it comes from South India and there appears to be a lack of positive evidence for the transfer from perishable support to copper plates in other regions in the seventh to twelfth centuries AD. and that some elements of the textual division and layout on copper-plates simply reflect common scribal practice. Not all layout features mirror those of perishable manuscripts, however, and some are related to the unique characteristics and purposes of grants.

Ring holes and royal seals

Ring holes were used to bind the copper plates together with metal rings. Most copper-plates were engraved on one side only, so that the two plates could be closed to leave an unworked exterior. In some cases, including IO-19, the edges were slightly raised, which would help to protect the text. This was not standard practice, as a large number of copper-plates present only one ring hole (in the margin of the shorter side) and the number of plates often exceeded two. It is also not uncommon for plates to bear writing on both sides, much like manuscript folios.

Such ring holes thus largely correspond with those of string holes in palm-leaf and paper manuscripts, but there are also types of ring hole that would have been difficult to replicate in soft materials: some charters present a slip of welded metal attached to the upper longer side, providing an external hole through which a ring could be attached.Some such items, kept at the Bhopal State Museum (Madhya Pradesh), belong to the Kalacuri dynasty (thirteenth century).

Figure 5: Royal seal with bull. Source: British Museum Collection Online, asset number 239475001. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Ring holes in copper-plate grants often had a royal seal attached to them, so the Maitraka royal seal, with a depiction of a recumbent bull, would have been attached to one of the rings of IO-19 (Fig. 5). The royal seal is a key feature of these documents, as the entire process of land conferral was underpinned by royal authority.

(Possible) images and decorations

Some of the best-known South Asian manuscripts, such as the approximately eleventh-century Prajñāpāramitā palm-leaf documents from Bengal, abound in exquisite illuminations and a particularly refined style of writing, the result being a product of high aesthetic and artistic quality, and indeed monetary value.For a recent study of these remarkable documents, see Kim (2013). One gets the impression that artistic accomplishment was never the goal of the production team responsible for IO-19. The script size is slightly irregular and hardly follows a straight line, and there appear to be no decorative elements. It was rudimentary, perhaps because it was produced economically or because it was not meant to be displayed publicly.

Yet images and elements that can appear decorative are not entirely absent from copper-plate grants, and may have served as legal validation. For example, more-or-less elaborate images are found on the royal seals attached to metal rings, and in some cases what seems to be a decorative script was adopted for the royal signatory statement, such as in the seventh-century Harṣavardhana plates (Fig. 6). Moreover, grants of the Paramāra dynasty (ca. twelfth century) present an engraved image of a bird-like deity, Viṣṇu’s mount Gāruḍa (Fig. 7).

Figure 6: Copper-plate of Harṣavardhana. Source: Epigraphia Indica 4: 280. Public domain. Highlighting by the author.
Figure 7: Copper-plate of the Paramāras, twelfth century. Source: British Museum Collection Online, asset number 23725001. Highlighting by the author. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Thus, while copper-plate grants might not be as decorative as some manuscripts, or indeed as some publicly displayed stone inscriptions, there are many examples of decorative elements, albeit that some of their functions are yet to be fully explained.

Contents and layout of the inscription

The text of the inscription consists of a set of well-defined sections that address various topics in an established sequence, though the absence of paragraph divisions makes it difficult to identify such sections. A number of features, including punctuation and the use of blank spaces, are present to signal these divisions, although they are most prominent in the opening and closing sections. The basic units of the inscription are common to most Maitraka grants and largely overlap with the grants of other contemporary dynasties,These units have been described in previous publications, notably in Chhabra (1951) and Sircar (1965) (Chapter V, Section II). The key visual and layout features of copper plate grants were also discussed in the latter publication. suggesting that issuing such grants had become a formal and conventional matter for many pre-modern Indian polities.

The auspicious opening

The grant starts with a helical or spiral symbol followed by the Sanskrit word svasti, which belongs to a specific group of auspicious words (such as ‘successful’, ‘perfected’, ‘accomplished’, ‘health’, ‘abundance’). Such words, often combined with non-linguistic symbols, are typically found at the beginning of inscriptions such as land-grants and religious donations. One possible function of such an opening was to circumvent obstacles that might impede the success of the transaction, and so the opening of a grant would often be highlighted through the visual appearance of symbols, or the position of auspicious words.

In a number of Maitraka inscriptions, the spiral is surrounded by empty space, separating it from the rest of the line and the one beneath (see Fig. 8) and visually emphasizing the opening of the inscription. Some examples of grants of other dynasties contain alternatives for how the opening might be highlighted, for instance a South Indian grant has the auspicious word svasti (also found, not highlighted, in IO-19) engraved in the left margin but clearly separated from the rest of the text, which runs regularly along an indented line (Fig. 9).

Figure 8: Auspicious symbol. Source: Epigraphia Indica 8: 192. Highlighting by the author.
Figure 9: Śrīvaramaṅkalam grant (plate 1b). Auspicious word in the margin. Source: Valérie Gillet. Highlighting by the author.

Some grants are incomplete, and the space normally occupied by auspicious words at the beginning is left blank,I would like to thank Dr. Daniel Balogh for pointing this out to me. The grants of the Vākāṭaka dynasty are particularly interesting in this regard. In one case, there is a blank space equal to three characters preceding the first inscribed words, which indicate the place from where the grant was issued (see Mirashi 1963: 81, plate). Another example from the same dynasty was left unfinished, as indicated by a sudden interruption of the inscription in the last line (see Mirashi 1963: 79). In this case, the empty space where one would expect an auspicious word roughly corresponds to the size of two characters, which would still be sufficient to record such words as siddham or dṛṣṭam, which are known to occur in these charters. possibly so that an auspicious word could later be engraved, perhaps during a ritually significant event or the ceremony marking the conferral of the grant.There are also instances in the manuscript tradition of sections temporarily left blank. In some Buddhist manuscripts from Gilgit, space was reserved for the donor’s name, which would be added at a later time (see Hinüber 2014: 80 note 14, 81 note 15).

The auspicious opening is typically followed by a very brief statement indicating the place where the grant was issued. Such statements could mention the capital, a city, or a temporary military encampment, as is the case in IO-19: ‘from the military encampment of Bharakaccha’ (vijayaskandhāvārād bharakacchavāsakāt). This information is useful to historians, as it is unwitting evidence about ongoing military campaigns and the territorial boundaries of a given kingdom when the inscription was made.

The main body of the inscription

A long section devoted to the eulogy of the royal dynasty starts in the middle of the first line, covers the rest of the first plate, and ends on the fourteenth line of the second plate. This means the eulogy covers most of the inscription, and its remarkable length is explained by the fact that the inscription was composed relatively late in Maitraka history: eulogies tended to increase in length as a dynasty’s family line progressed.

The rulers are named and briefly described in chronological order. For example, the section corresponding to the first ruler commemorated in IO-19, Śrī Bhaṭārka, reads as follows:

‘[In the line] of the Maitrakas, who made their enemies bow by force, [there was] Śrī Bhaṭārka, utterly devoted to [the god] Śiva. He had obtained glory in hundreds of battles fought in the circuit of territories held by (his?) matchless armies; he had earned the affection of those prostrated by his glory, through his rectitude [in bestowing] gifts and honours; he had acquired the lustre of royalty through the affection of his army consisting of [enlisted men like] maulas, bhṛtas and śreṇīs ...’

prasabhapraṇatāmitrāṇāṃ maitrakāṇām atulabalasaṃpannamaṇḍalābhogasaṃsaktaprahāraśatalabdhapratāpāt pratāpopanatadānamānārjjavopārjjitānurāgād anuraktamaulabhṛtaśreṇībalāvāptarājyaśriyaḥ paramamāheśvaraśrībhaṭārkkād ...

The contents of these sections are particularly useful for the reconstructions of dynastic genealogies. Modifications to the dynastic sequence, such as the inclusion or removal of rulers in different grant inscriptions, can be evidence of family feuds and other politically relevant developments. Later Maitraka grants, for example, omit some of the early rulers and the sons of the dynasty’s founder, a general named Bhaṭārka. This rather complex issue has recently been addressed by Annette Schmiedchen (2018), a specialist on Maitraka epigraphy. Generally speaking, Maitraka eulogies do not refer explicitly to historical events, but focus instead on conveying a stereotypical image of the king’s character in poetic language: strength, devotion, care for one’s subjects, wisdom, and dispassion. They do however offer a little specific information, such as the ruler’s devotion towards a certain deity (e.g., Śiva or Viṣṇu), and occasionally mention battles, alliances, and other events of political significance.

This section in IO-19 is in prose, written in a form of scriptio continua—continuous writing without spaces and divisions into words—that was common for these documents (and most other documents in Indic script). Sections that record royal eulogies lack other text-structuring techniques, apart from the occasional use of punctuation.

After the final eulogy, which is dedicated to the current ruler, Śrī Dharasena, is a short formula that marks the transition to the part of the inscription that relates to the donation itself. Here the inscription speaks with the voice of the current ruler, and the use of the first person emphasizes his authority as the donor of land. In translation, this section reads: ‘The Supreme Lord, Overlord of Great Kings, Supreme Sovereign and Emperor Śrī Dharasena, being in good health, instructs all and everyone [in this way]: “Be it known to you that I [grant these properties] so that my parents may attain religious merit ...”’ (paramabhaṭṭārakamahārājādhirājaparameśvaracakravarttiśrīdharasenaḥ kuśalī sarvvān eva samājñāpayaty astu vas saṃviditaṃ yathā mayā mātāpitroḥ puṇyāpyāpanāya ...). This is a standardized statement couched in religious terms (the acquisition of religious merit, or puṇya). Most grant recipients were members or institutions representing religious communities, though occasionally grants add “and for the benefit of myself [the king]”.

Finally, the inscription provides the actual details of the transaction. In this case, it records the name of the recipient, the Brahmin Nārāyaṇamitra, along with information about his place of birth and the occupation of his father. This information is followed by the name of the village being donated, and the district within which it was situated.On occasion, the names of the beneficiaries were highlighted by the insertion of blank spaces or punctuation marks. For an example that also includes punctuation, see Epigraphia Indica 11: 178 (second plate rubbing, line 24).

Such sections can be quite long, for the beneficiaries can be many (one Maitraka case involves more than forty individual recipients). Usually it was not deemed sufficient to name the location of the lands or villages whose revenue was donated, so specific information about the boundaries of each property was typically mentioned as well. Some historians see this section as the ‘heart’ of copper-plate grant inscriptions, and indeed perusal of such documents for a given area can throw light on the expansion of agrarian communities, and the development of land ownership, irrigation systems, and urbanization processes.Njammasch (2001) attempts to look at such aspects in detail. Reliable historiographical sources from this period are rare,There are, of course, remarkable historiographies written in Sanskrit, such as the twelfth-century Kashmirian chronicle Rājataraṅginī. so the information gathered from these sections constitutes a foundational resource for the study of South Asian history.

The final section of the main body, on legal requirements, spells out some of the administrative technicalities pertaining to the donation. Many technical terms that appear here, including specific officers and state departments, remain obscure,A useful tool in this regard is the Indian epigraphical glossary (Sircar 1966). but in general this section indicates that the donation should be considered permanent, granting the recipient leave to enjoy his land without excessive interference from the state. The performance of certain religious sacrifices is mentioned as a requirement of the grant.

The closing section

In terms of textual layout, closing sections are by far the most interesting in copper-plate grants. The version on IO-19 starts with a series of well-known imprecations taken from Sanskrit epics or other literary sources,See the comprehensive list in Sircar (1965: 170–201). which emphasize the ritual significance of the donation, including curses for those who will not uphold the terms of the grant. One of the verses of IO-19 reads: ‘He who donates the earth shall live in heaven for 60,000 years, yet he who takes it away or approves of such an act shall reside in Hell for the same amount of time’ (ṣaṣṭivarṣasahasrāṇī | svargge tiṣṭhati bhūmidaḥ || ācchettā cānumantā ca | tāny eva narake vaset ||). Ensuring the legal value of the donation over generations was a clear concern.

The stanzas in this section are separated by punctuation in the form of two short vertical strokes. The presence of vertical strokes (daṇḍa)—single or double—is a feature typically employed to indicate metrical units, and reflects scribal practices not limited to epigraphy.There is also an example of a single elongated horizontal stroke to mark the end of a stanza. See Epigraphia Indica 31: 300–1 (plate 2, end of line 22).

On one occasion the division between two metrical units involves the absence of sandhi, a Sanskrit term denoting a phonological change in the way certain words are pronounced (or written) when they occupy neighbouring positions. Sandhi combinations are highly formalized and tend to be quite systematically reflected in writing, so the breaking of sandhi between two words can be used as a form of punctuation mark, separating two sentences or even highlighting individual words. However, Sanskrit grammar allows for some degree of flexibility, and variations in scribal practice can further complicate the issue, making it difficult to identify ‘expected’ sandhi combinations. In IO-19 the text reads bhūmida ācchettā, whereas a full sandhi form would drop the sign (standing for a glottal fricative): bhūmida ācchettā.Here, a full sandhi would not be expected due to the half-verse junction. There are, however, instances where full sandhi was applied to this type of verse, such as the IN00129 Faridpur Undated Charter of Dharmaditya and the Arang Grant of Sudevarāja, Year 7 (accessed December 2020). Beyond the absence of sandhi, the boundary between two metrical units in IO-19 may have been further emphasized by a blank space, although it is difficult to say with certainty whether this was intentional. In a full sandhi combination, what looks like an elongated colon in the highlighted image would be absent. To further illustrate the interplay between metre and text layout, one might observe that some Sanskrit stone inscriptions are visually arranged according to the prosodic structure of the text. Blank spaces would then be used to separate the metrical units, and this in turn could affect how sandhi combinations were dealt with.See, for example, the Mỹ Sơn stela from Vietnam (written in Sanskrit), published online as part of the Corpus of Inscriptions of Campā (accessed November 2019).

IO-19 appears to contain two blank spaces between the end of the final stanza and the beginning of the following section. It is particularly challenging to identify blank spaces with certainty, in this document and others, due to the overall irregularity of the writing. They are likely to occur between the letters immediately preceding and following a ‘suspected’ space, especially at the points of transition between semantically independent sections, as the insertion of a blank space was a common way of dividing text-units in inscriptions and manuscripts.See Salomon (1998: 67). The convention appears to be ancient, as spaces appear in inscriptions of Emperor Aśoka (third century BC), such as the Delhi-Toprā pillar (estampage). They might also be attested in some Buddhist donative stone inscriptions from Pauni (near Nagpur, Mahārāṣṭra), which are chronologically not too distant from the beginning of the Common Era. For example, Pauni inscription no. 7 reads ‘[This is the] meritorious gift of monk Utaraguta’, with an apparent space between the words ‘monk’ and the personal name,See Deo and Joshi (1972: 39 and plate XXXV). though it is difficult to judge this on the basis of rubbings, and access to the original stone object would be necessary for a definitive assessment. Sometimes words are engraved on different sides of a pillar (Fig. 10). However, a rubbing or an estampage may fail to display the corners of a pillar, thus suggesting a space where it was not really present.

One pertinent example from a copper-plate grant dating to the third century AD is the Patagandigudem grant from Andhra Pradesh.See the digital edition by Arlo Griffiths et al., building on earlier editorial work by Harry Falk (accessed November 2019). Here, spaces seem to have been adopted as word-separators. Curiously, the units separated by such spaces often encompass multiple words, which at least on some occasions appear to be semantically bound, suggesting that a blank space may have been used in a way akin to the modern comma. While a historical investigation of spaces in Indian epigraphy is beyond the scope of this study, the practice appears to have been well attested by the time IO-19 was produced.

Figure 10: Words engraved on different sides of railing pillar, Buddhist stupas at Pauni (Maharashtra). Photo by Francesco Bianchini.

At the very end of the inscription is the colophon, which contains key information about its production. First, it records the names of the officer tasked with executing the grant and of the poet who composed it. In this case, the officer appears to have been a woman: ‘the officer [in charge] here is the king’s daughter Bhūpā’ (dūtako ’tra rājaduhitṛbhūpā), which seems to be a rare instance in the history of Maitraka administration. Different from most other dynasties, Maitraka grants consistently record the names of poets, providing precise information about which poet was active at a given time. In IO-19, the section reads: ‘this was written by the head-scribe Śrī Skandabhaṭa, who holds the title of Sandhivigraha, [and is] the son of the head-scribe Candrabhaṭṭi’ (likhitam idaṃ sandhivigrahādhikṛtadivirapaticandrabhaṭṭiputradivirapatiśrīskandabhaṭeneti). Such information allows scholars to reconstruct the lineages of poets who served at the Maitraka court. Few other dynasties have been so consistent in naming their poets.

The date when IO-19 was composed then follows: ‘The year 300 [and] 30, [the month of] Mārgaśīrṣa, the bright [fortnight], the third [lunar day]’. One challenge in epigraphical studies is identifying the dynastic era to which a date refers, for this is seldom made explicit and multiple dating systems could be in use at the same time. There is a consensus that the Maitrakas used a slightly modified version of the Gupta Era, which means that one can arrive at a modern Western dating by adding 318 or 319 years to the date provided, here indicating 330 + 318/319 = AD 648/49.On dating, see Schmiedchen and Virkus (2002). The colophon also contains a double vertical stroke of the sort used in the imprecatory verse above to mark the boundaries between stanzas, which is employed to separate the name of the officer from that of the composer. A single short vertical stroke then separates the name of the composer from the date. The end of the date is separated from what follows by a blank space, and thus each unit in the colophon is separated by means of punctuation.

The grant closes with a royal signatory statement which reads svahasto mama “this is my hand”. Statements of this nature are sometimes followed by the name of the ruling king, though this particular grant ends with a closing symbol made of two horizontal strokes and three vertical strokes. There are two possibilities for how to read this. First, this combination of strokes—not found anywhere else in the grant—could be used to specifically mark the royal signatory statement. Since such a statement is directly related to the legal validity of the grant, the symbol might further highlight its value. Alternatively, the symbol might indicate the end of the inscription.

Such closing symbols are not common in Maitraka grants, although they do occur on occasion. In one example, a double stroke accompanies a highlighted signatory statement of the type shown in (Fig. 11),A later Maitraka grant ends with a triple, undulating vertical stroke of equivalent size (Epigraphia Indica 8: 193 (plate)), but a triple stroke is otherwise unique to IO-19. It is therefore likely that the closing symbol was used to mark the end of the signatory statement, and by extension it marks the completeness of the grant itself. svahasto mama (‘this is my hand’), which is positioned in a separate ‘block’ and clearly set aside from the rest of the text. The statement is marked by the double vertical stroke and, significantly, it is written in larger script than any other section.

Figure 11: Separated and highlighted royal signature. Source: Epigraphia Indica 9: 179. Public domain. Highlighting by the author.

There are a few remarkable examples outside the Maitraka corpus in which the signatory statement is not only in larger script, but the script is different from that used for the rest of the inscription. Key examples are the plates of Harṣavardhana (seventh century AD) and the Paramāra plates (twelfth century; see Figs. 6, 7, above). One curiosity relating to a royal signature occurs in some plates of the Valkhās (fourth or fifth century), where the signature is found on the left margin and rotated 90° anticlockwise.See Museums of India: copper plate of Maharaja Sawai Dass (accessed March 2020). These variations in layout were most probably due to the importance of the signature as an assurance of legal validation, since the authority to transfer land ownership rested with the king.

Figure 12: Separate colophon units. Source: Epigraphia Indica 3: 320. Public domain. Highlighting by the author.

Each of the units in the closing section of IO-19 was separated or highlighted in some way, even though the text proceeds regularly along lines that are never clearly interrupted. Other inscriptions from the Maitraka dynasty show more pronounced divisions. In a key example (Fig. 12), the date is split over two lines, but when reaching the end of the line the engraver did not begin a new line on the left, but instead wrote the remainder of the date-unit immediately below, on the right. The names of the officer responsible and the engraver were then written in two freestanding blocks in the remaining space.For other examples, see The Indian Antiquary 1876: 204 and Epigraphia Indica 8: 192. Variations in the layouts of colophon units suggest that they might have been added at a later time.Dr. Emmanuel Francis of CNRS (Paris) confirmed that he has come across examples in which the space for the date had been left blank (personal communication, April 2019). Visual distinctiveness may also have made it easier to verify the authenticity of a grant against other official records.

Final considerations

I would like to offer two general considerations. First, while IO-19 seemed to offer very few features relating to textual layout at first sight, a closer look reveals greater sophistication, and seemingly insignificant details can throw light on complex textual practices. Some of these features can only be revealed through juxtaposition with other grants, where they are more accentuated visually.

Second, the study of text layouts on copper-plate grants seems to have received much less attention than it deserves. Most scholarly efforts are aimed at deciphering and translating inscriptional texts, but some issues can only be properly addressed if texts are studied as complete, complex objects,including features of layout. In particular, a study of the text division and layout of copper-plate grants seems to offer insights into two main aspects: production processes and function.

A study of layout features supports the idea that these grants were produced as part of a complex, multi-stage process. Some examples have blank spaces left for auspicious symbols and colophons, which suggests that the conferral of grants may have involved ritual procedures that had to be conducted on specific dates. For example, the opening may have been left blank in order to be inscribed on an auspicious occasion, such as a full moon, or during an ad hoc ceremony.

Multi-stage production also implies that grants were written on a soft material, such as birch bark or cloth in a preliminary stage, before being sent to an engraver (Francis 2018: 405). This stage could account for some of the observed similarities in scribal practice seen in manuscripts and inscriptions, albeit that the particular nature of copper-plate grants as legal attestations of ownership led to the development of unique features.

Functionality is indicated by the emphasis placed on the royal signature, which could be linked to the legal validity of the grant. Highlighted colophon units could be related to a need to check the details of a grant against records kept at the court, in order to verify its legitimacy. Forgeries are known,On this topic, see Salomon (2009) and Njammasch (1997). so validation processes may have been particularly important. This observation resonates with the fact that grant inscriptions commonly included imprecatory verses, reminding future rulers that grants were made in perpetuity (‘as long as the sun and moon endure’) and that seals bearing royal emblems were usually attached to the plates.

Appendix: The digitization of copper-plate grants

Maitraka copper-plate grants display variations and inconsistencies in the ways that they were laid out, but they systematically record the names of their composers. This means that it is possible to show links between individual composers and particular features of layout. The digital encoding of these inscriptions and their relevant metadata could prove decisive in a study of prospective links.

Scholarly interest in South Asian inscriptions in general, and copper-plate grants in particular, has risen considerably in recent years. This is due to a number of factors. Eminent philologists specializing in religious literature have, for example, started paying more attention to inscriptional sources as a way of tracking the historical developments of religious traditions,See, for example, Sanderson (2013). and there has been a renewal of interest in material culture led by specialists on Sanskrit manuscripts who have collaborated with major digitization initiatives (such as the contributions by Camillo Formigatti and others who worked on the Sanskrit manuscript collection at the Cambridge University Library; accessed November 2019). Recently, the European Research Council (ERC) synergy project Asia beyond boundaries: religion, region, language and the state (accessed November 2019) has paid significant attention to epigraphic evidence as a source of historical data that can be used in conjunction with the study of archaeological sites and art-historical documents.

This has reinvigorated an interest in the large-scale digitization of epigraphic sources. A number of projects have adopted Epidoc guidelines (accessed November 2019) to produce Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) XML marked-up digital editions of epigraphic texts. For example, Dr. Dániel Balogh initiated the creation of a database of inscriptions related to the Gupta empire for Asia beyond boundaries. The database was designed to include Epidoc editions as well as metadata on the relevant objects, and the current version of the website can be consulted online (accessed November 2019). Dr. Balogh is now working with colleagues on the creation of a second Epidoc epigraphic database, this time for the ERC synergy project Dharma: the domestication of ‘Hindu’ asceticism and the religious making of South and South-East Asia, while Dr. Arlo Griffiths, a scholar based at the EFEO in Paris and one of the principal investigators of the new ERC project DHARMA, has been at the centre of two digital corpora employing Epidoc encoding, Early inscriptions of Āndhradeśa (South India) and the Corpus of inscriptions of Campā (Vietnam; accessed January 2018). The latter was the first epigraphical corpus of Indic inscriptions to be encoded in Epidoc.

Several features of Epidoc that make it relevant to the topic of copper-plate grants. First, most Epidoc guidelines can be applied for the encoding of texts across disciplinary boundaries. For example, lines and paragraphs can be marked in largely the same way regardless of whether the text is in Sanskrit, ancient Greek or another ancient or modern language. This makes Epidoc particularly relevant in interdisciplinary contexts, though it is often necessary for teams working on specific languages or corpora to come up with sets of ad hoc mark-up solutions.Balogh and Griffiths have recently published a dauntingly elaborate (150 pages) Epidoc encoding guide for Indian epigraphy (accessed January 2021).

The second key characteristic of Epidoc is that it requires one to pay attention to the way the text is structured. This makes it possible to present two different digital editions: a ‘physical’ one that reproduces the text as it appears on the surface of an object, and a ‘logical’ one that accentuates semantic units, resolves abbreviations, and offers a critically edited text.

Some aspects are easy to mark up, such as line-breaks or page numbers. For IO-19, for instance, one would specify on which plate the text is situated, indicating each line with line numbers, and whether a line-break occurs mid-word. But one might also specify the position of a certain text unit. For example, if a maṅgala-symbol does not occur on the first line, it is possible to indicate its position using the ‘margin’ mark-up and use a special tag to indicate that it is a symbol. Scholars of South Asian languages might be encouraged to develop a standardized inventory of symbols relevant to their sources, which would make it possible to use the general symbol tag, while adding the specific term to the type or subtype attributes. The same applies to punctuation, as a punctuation tag can be used to indicate a range of features, the details of which can be specified within the tag.

As noted, blank spaces can be meaningful in Sanskrit epigraphy, and there is a feature in Epidoc that allows one to mark empty space. A good example is an early South Indian inscription (accessed November 2019) in which white space is used systematically. The editors of the digital version have marked all the occurrences using the space tag and set the rules for the visualization of this tag in such a way that an appropriate symbol appears on the web edition (accessed January 2018). The reader is thus instantly aware of the peculiar way in which an empty space is used. This is one practical application of mark-up that can render a text more accessible to readers with differing levels of specialized training. There are also provisions for marking other visual features, such as larger script or unusual positioning. Ultimately, Epidoc makes all of the information contained within a text easily retrievable.

Further reading

Francis (2018) discusses the function of copper-plate charters and the position they occupy between an archival document and a public inscription. The study includes a number of illustrations, mostly of South Indian materials. The bibliography includes a selection of key literature on the topic.

Willis (2009) covers the archaeology, ritual, and culture of the Gupta period. One of its chapters focuses on copper-plate grants and their functions.

Salomon (1998) is a general and systematic introduction to Indian epigraphy.

The recent monograph by Bhattarai (2020) took up the study of conventions of visual organization in texts from South Asian Sanskrit manuscripts, which is significant for the study of copper-plate inscriptions.

Griffiths and Lammerts (2015) offers an overview of epigraphical sources relevant to the history of Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

Two recent monographs that explore South Asian history and make use of epigraphic sources are Balogh (2019) and Furui (2019).


Balogh, D. 2019: Inscriptions of the Aulikaras and their associates. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Bhattarai, B. 2020: Dividing texts: conventions of visual text-organisation in Nepalese and North Indian manuscripts. Studies in manuscript cultures 10. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Bühler, G. 1878: ‘Additional Valabhi grants: no. XII – a grant of Dharasena IV’. The Indian Antiquary 7: 73–75.
Chhabra, B.C. 1951: ‘Diplomatic of Sanskrit copper-plate grants’. The Indian Archives 5, no. 1: 1–20.
Deo, S.B. and Joshi, J.P. 1972: Pauni Excavation, 1969–70. Nagpur: Nagpur University.
Francis, E. 2018: ‘Indian copper-plate grants: inscriptions or documents?’ In A. Bausi et al. (eds), Manuscripts and archives: comparative views on record-keeping. Studies in manuscript cultures 11. Berlin: De Gruyter, 387–417.
Furui, R. 2019: Land and society in early South Asia: Eastern India 400–1250 AD. New Delhi: Routledge.
Griffiths, A. and Lammerts, D. C. 2015: ‘Epigraphy: Southeast Asia’. In J. Silk (ed.), Brill’s encyclopaedia of Buddhism. Leiden: Brill, 988–1009.
Hinüber, O. von 2014: ‘The Gilgit manuscripts: an ancient Buddhist library in modern research’. In P. Harrison and J.-U. Hartmann (eds), From birch bark to digital data: recent advances in Buddhist manuscript research. Papers presented at the conference ‘Indic Buddhist manuscripts: the state of the field’. Stanford, June 15–19, 2009. Beiträge zur Kultur und Geistesgeschichte Asiens 80. Wien: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 79–136.
Kim, J. 2013: Receptacle of the sacred: Illustrated manuscripts and the Buddhist book cult in South Asia. South Asia across the Disciplines. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mirashi, V.V. 1963: Inscriptions of the Vākāṭakas. Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum 5. Ootacamund: Government Epigraphist for India.
Njammasch, M. 1997: ‘Eine Fälscherwerkstatt im frühmittelalterlichen Gujarat’. Beiträge des Südasien-Instituts 9: 1–20.
Njammasch, M. 2001: Bauern, Buddhisten und Brahmanen: das Frühe Mittelalter in Gujarat. Asien- und Afrika-Studien der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin 2. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.
Salomon, R. 1998: Indian epigraphy: a guide to the study of inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan languages. South Asia Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Salomon, R. 2009: ‘The fine art of forgery in India’. In G. Colas and G. Gerscheimer (eds), Écrire et transmettre en Inde Classique. Études thématiques 23. Paris: École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 107–34.
Sanderson, A. 2013: ‘The impact of inscriptions on the interpretation of early Śaiva literature’. Indo-Iranian Journal 56: 211–44.
Śāstrī, H.G. 2000: Gujarat under the Maitrakas of Valabhī: history and culture of Gujarat during the Maitraka period, circa 470–788 AD. Gaekwad’s Oriental Series. Vadodara: Oriental Institute.
Schmiedchen, A. 2018: ‘Kings, authors and messengers: the composition of the Maitraka copper-plate charters’. In B. Shelat and T. Parmar (eds), New horizons in Indology: Prof. Dr. H.G. Shastri commemoration volume. Ahmedabad: Shri Nandan H. Shastri, 35–41.
Schmiedchen, A. and Virkus, F. 2002: ‘Die Ären der Guptas und ihrer Nachfolger: politische Kultur, Regionalgeschichte und Zeitrechnung im alten und frühmittelalterlichen Indien’. In H. Falk (ed.), Vom Herrscher zur Dynastie: zum Wesen kontinuierlicher Zeitrechnung in Antike und Gegenwart. Vergleichende Studien zu Antike und Orient. Bremen: Hempen Verlag, 106–37.
Sircar, D.C. 1965: Indian epigraphy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Sircar, D.C. 1966: Indian epigraphical glossary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Willis, M. 2009: The archaeology of Hindu ritual: temples and the establishment of the gods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Figure 1. Indian Office Library charter no. 19. Published with the permission of the British Library.
1. Auspicious symbol
2. Svasti
3. Place of issue
4. Royal eulogy
5. Royal voice
6. Transaction details
7. Administrative details
8. Imprecatory verses
9. Officer's name and rank
10. Poet's name and rank
11. Date
12. Royal signature
13. Closing symbol
14. Double vertical strokes
15. Absence of sandhi and a blank space
16. Blank spaces
17. Single stroke