Girnar Rock Inscriptions and The Stories They Tell

Girnar Rock Inscriptions and The Stories They Tell

The Girnar Parvat or Mount Girnar is the tallest peak in Gujarat. A sacred site for Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, it is visited by pilgrims who converge here for the numerous temples that dot its slopes and peaks. But ignored by most is a series of inscriptions on a large rock at the foot of the hill, dating to various dynasties. Called the Girnar Rock Inscriptions or the Junagadh Rock Inscriptions (after the town of Junagadh nearby), it is one of the most important sources of ancient Indian history. 

Carved on a granite boulder around 10 feet high, these inscriptions are records of three mighty kings of ancient India – the proclamations and sermons of the great Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (r. 269 – 232 BCE), the restoration of a water reservoir by the (Shaka) Western Kshatrapa ruler Rudradaman I (r. circa 130 CE), and the earliest elaborate Sanskrit inscription in the Brahmi script of Gupta Emperor Skandagupta (r. 455 – 467 CE) – all this on a single rock!

Jain Temples at Girnar | Wikimedia Commons

The Girnar Hills have been a sacred site since ancient times. The five-peak range has a cluster of both Jain and Hindu temples as well as a series of Buddhist caves. It is believed to be the nirvana-bhoomi of the 22nd Jain Tirthankara, Neminatha. An 11th century CE temple dedicated to Neminatha is one of the major attractions of this hill. Some of the other important temples here are the temple of the 19th Tirthankara Mallinath, the Amba Mata temple and the Gorakhnath temple. 

Uparkot Fort, Junagadh

At the foothills of the Girnar range is the city of Junagadh, with a history of 2,300 years. It was a provincial seat of the Maurya dynasty (321-185 BCE), one of the most powerful dynasties in India. About 2 km from the Girnar inscriptions is the 2,300-year-old Uparkot Fort built during the reign of Ashoka’s grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya (321-297 BCE), founder of the Mauryan dynasty. 

In later periods, the region came under the reign of the Western Kshatrapas (35 CE – 405 CE) and Guptas, (3rd to 6th CE) which is evident from the Girnar inscriptions. Between 475 CE and 767 CE, the region was ruled by the Maitraka dynasty, followed by the Chudasama dynasty, which ruled from the 9th to the 15th centuries CE, and then the Mughal Empire in the 16th century CE. 

Ashoka’s Edicts

The earliest of these inscriptions are the Girnar Rock Edicts of Ashoka, the third and most powerful king of the Mauryan dynasty. A turning point in Ashoka’s life was the gruesome Kalinga war that he fought.

A relief depicting Ashoka

Filled with deep remorse at the bloodshed and destruction wrought by the war, Ashoka converted to Buddhism. Based on his understanding of the Dhamma (Dharma), he commissioned inscriptions across his kingdom, which encompassed the entire Indian subcontinent, except the southernmost regions of present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Ashoka’s inscriptions, known as ‘edicts’, are the chief and most authentic source of information we have on the Mauryan Emperor. 

These edicts were erected in public places, on trade routes, and places of religious importance, to maximise the number of people who read them. They are the earliest tangible source available on the spread of Buddhism under Ashoka’s patronage.

Based on the content and the surface on which they are engraved, Ashokan edicts are classified as minor rock edicts, a total of 14 major rock edicts and 7 major pillar edicts, minor pillar edicts and cave inscriptions. The minor rock edicts and minor pillar edicts focus more on religious aspects, while the major rock edicts and major pillar edicts are political and moral in nature. The 14 major rock edicts are largely sermons and proclamations primarily meant for Ashoka’s successors and officials, providing instructions on how to run the kingdom. These were issued in 257-256 BCE.

Ashoka's Rock Edicts 1 and 2 | Wikipedia

At Girnar, these 14 major rock edicts  occupy the north-east part of the rock, in two columns, separated by straight lines. They tell us a great deal about Ashoka and his rule. Ashoka condemned and prohibited  animal sacrifice. Edict II highlights a unique feature of Ashoka’s reign. Ashoka made  provisions for shelter, water and medical treatment for both people and animals. He also ensured that medicinal herbs and fruits, required by both people and animals were planted in areas which lacked these essentials. He did this not only in his kingdom but also for his neighbouring kingdoms like  Cholas, Pandyas and the Greek king Antiochus. Interestingly, this edict is also the earliest reference to the Chola dynasty.

Ashoka appointed  Dhamma-Mahamatras, (officials of morality) for the establishment and promotion of Dhamma (Dharma) and also started Dhamma tours and emphasised religious tolerance. 

Edict XIII mentions the Kalinga war and Ashoka’s transformation. Ashoka conquered Kalinga, eight years after his coronation. Around one hundred thousand men and animals were killed and a hundred and fifty thousand were held captives. The utter destruction completely filled Ashoka with remorse, transformed him and steered him towards the path of Dhamma.

He realised that the best kind of conquests were the conquests through Dhamma, which he achieved over kingdoms including  the Cholas, Pandyas, Bhojas and Kambojas. He also sent envoys to the Greek king Antiochus, the Egyptian king Ptolemy II Philadelphus, king Magas of Cyrene in North Africa, Antigonus Gonatas of Macedonia and Alexander of Corinth.

Rudradaman I’s Inscription

After the decline of the Mauryan dynasty in the 2nd BCE, this region came under the rule of the Western Kshatrapas, who were originally Shakas from Central Asia. Rudradaman I was a ruler of the Kardamaka branch of the Western Kshatrapas, who successfully defeated the Satavahanas.

Rudraman's Coin | Wikipedia

He took the title of ‘Maha-Kshatrapa’. The Girnar inscription of Rudradaman I (reign circa 130 CE) is the first elaborate inscription in the Sanskrit language, in the Brahmi script. 

The Girnar inscription of Rudradaman I is an interesting one as it gives us a glimpse into water management in ancient India. In ancient times, one of the important functions of the government was construction and maintenance of canals, reservoirs and tanks.

Although the three rulers whose inscriptions we find at Girnar were completely unrelated to each other and belonged to different eras, they had one thing in common – each of them carried out works for maintenance of the Sudarshana Lake. 

Rudraman's Inscription | Wikipedia

In ancient times, lakes were one of the main sources of irrigation, and Sudarshana Lake was an important water body in the Saurashtra region in Gujarat. The Girnar inscription of Rudradaman I records the repairs of this reservoir Gujarat. 

Sudarshana Lake was originally built during the rule of Chandragupta Maurya (r. 321-297), under his provincial Governor Vaishya Pushyagupta. During the reign of his grandson, Ashoka, the works of the reservoir were perfected by the Yavana Tushaspha, his governor of the region. However, during the reign of Rudradaman I, a terrible storm damaged trees, hilltops, gates and homes. The reservoir too was destroyed. 

The people were distraught and the dam and its reservoir was so badly damaged that Rudradaman’s ministers thought it was beyond repair. Still, Rudradaman ordered that it be rebuilt. Amazingly, he got the reservoir reconstructed very quickly and without burdening the people with taxes and forced labour. He also strengthened the reservoir considerably. This remarkable feat was carried out under the supervision of Suvishakha, the provincial Governor of the Saurashtra region.

Apart from details relating to the repairs of the dam, the Girnar inscription also contains the eulogy or prashasti of Rudradaman I.

The inscription mentions the extent of Rudradaman’s territory, which included Malwa, Gujarat, parts of Sindh and Western Maharashtra. It describes the personality of Rudradaman I at length. He is described as a benevolent king whose subjects were attached to him. He is said to have been a learned man who composed kavyas (poetry ). He did not believe in killing people other than on the battlefield. He also generously bestowed people with gifts.

Another noteworthy mention in the inscription are the ancient names of Junagadh and Girnar. According to the inscription, Junagad town was known as ‘Girinagara’ and Mount Girnar was called ‘Urjayat’. The Girnar inscription of Rudradaman I is also evidence of a record-keeping tradition prevalent in ancient India, as Rudradaman mentions the works carried out on the lake before his time.

Stamp of the Guptas

Skandagupta's Coin | Wikipedia

After the fall of the Western Kshatrapas, the region came under Gupta rule. The third inscription on the Girnar rock belongs to Gupta king Skandagupta (455 – 467 CE), son of Kumaragupta I. The inscription, written in Sanskrit, is divided into two parts – the first half deals with the repairs to Sudarshana Lake and the second mentions the construction of two temples.

Skandagupta is said to have restored the Gupta Empire. The beginning of the inscription mentions how Skandagupta defeated his enemies, believed to be none other than the Hunas.

Both these works were carried out during the reign of Skandagupta under Chakrapalita, son of Parnadatta, who was the Governor of Saurashtra. Around 455-456 CE, due to terrible rains, the banks of Sudarshana lake burst again. The banks were renovated within two months by Chakrapalita in 456-457 CE. 

Skandagupta's Inscription | Wikipedia

At a later date, also during Skandagupta’s reign, Chakrapalita constructed a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu on Urjayat (Girnar) Hill. It is called Chakrabhrit, meaning ‘bearer of the chakra’. He also built another temple overlooking the town. Skandagupta was the last successful Gupta king, after whom the dynasty started to decline.

The Girnar inscriptions were first discovered by British military officer and scholar James Todd in 1822 and were translated by scholar and Orientalist James Princep in 1837. Several scholars like archaeologists Dr James Burgess and Bhagvanlal Indraji, French Indologist Émile Senart and German Indologist Lorenz Franz Kielhorn worked on the Girnar inscriptions. This helped in the understanding of ancient Indian dynasties, which had been largely forgotten by then.

Cover Image: Gujarat Tourism

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