Mathematicians and historians alike, believe that the inscription in the Gwalior temple is one of the oldest surviving symbols of zero in the world
You wouldn't look twice at this temple on the path to the much more popular Hathi Pol or Elephant Gate of the Gwalior Fort. But when you go there next, do take a closer look. On a wall of the Chaturbhuj temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, is a plaque, which dates back to around 875 CE and has a circle, considered one of the earliest representations of the number zero in the world!
The plaque on the temple wall mentions a land grant of 270 hastas ( a unit of measure used for land ) for a flower garden as well as a daily grant of 50 flower garlands. The circular symbol that we know of as zero appears in ‘270’ as well as ’50’. This is the oldest known inscription of zero in India and perhaps the second oldest in the world. While few local tourists walk into this temple, math enthusiasts from across the globe have been flocking to this temple for years.
There was an understanding of ‘nothingness’ in the ancient Babylonian and Chinese world
While there was an understanding of 'nothingness' in the ancient Babylonians and Chinese world, it was in India that mathematicians put a symbol - the circle for it. The Babylonians used a marker to represent it while the Chinese used space to represent 'nothing'. The Indian shunya or zero transformed mathematics and made calculations easier and clearer.
Till 1931, it was believed that the Gwalior Zero was the oldest known inscription of Zero in the world. However, a discovery in Cambodia changed that. In the same year, 1931, French archaeologist Georges Cœdès deciphered a plaque found in the ruins of a 7th century CE temple in a place called Sambor. The plaque was from the year 683 CE and predated the Gwalior zero by almost 192 years. It was then kept in the Cambodian National Museum, from where it ‘disappeared’ during the Khmer Rouge years. Following this, the Gwalior Zero regained it’s title of the world’s oldest zero.
That is until last year. Like twists and turns in any good story, there was a twist in this one too. In January 2017, the Cambodian National Museum found their zero and announced that they were going to put the zero plaque on public display. The Gwalior Zero was again relegated to second place.
Whether the oldest in the world or not , the Gwalior Zero deserves respect as an important part of India’s history. While the Cambodian Zero gets it’s share of fame and publicity in the press, the Gwalior Zero is crumbling in the temple.
Though thousands of people visit the Gwalior Fort every year, they are oblivious to this significant piece of history tucked away, near the parking lot here!
Edit Oct 2017: Both the Gwalior and Cambodian inscriptions have now lost the title to the Bakhshali manuscript. Find its story here
LHI TRAVEL GUIDE
Gwalior is well connected by air and rail to Delhi and Mumbai. If you choose to fly into Gwalior, the airport is located 13 Kms away from the Fort, which is very easily accessible from the city. Gwalior railway station is located within the city and the Fort is a mere 3 Km away from the station.
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