In the Introduction to his manual Indian Palaeography (1963, 1986), the archaeologist A.H. Dani distinguished three stages in the history of study of Indian palaeography. The first stage, from the late eighteenth century till the 1870s, “was the period of the discovery of the inscriptions and the decipherment of the scripts used in them.” In the first decades of this period, there was success only in reading medium old inscriptions such as those of the Guptas.
In 1858, James Prinsep discovered not only that the underlying principles of the later and the earlier scripts are closely similar, but also that the later scripts derive, in an evolutionary fashion, from a single older script, Brāhmī, attested from the 3rd cent. BCE. and the only ancient writing system in use on the Indian subcontinent next to Kharoṣṭhi in the north-west. Prinsep placed what he called the “primeval alphabet of the Indian languages” in a table together with other scripts and found that this “furnishes a curious species of palaeographic chronometer” through which a date can be attributed to undated inscriptions.
With James Prinsep, the first stage is over and we see the beginning of the second stage, when “Indian palaeography became a recognized study.” Copies of numerous inscriptions accompanied by extensive studies are now published in specialized journals. The oldest overviews and manuals appear in this period, such as those by A.C. Burnell (1874: Elements of South Indian palaeography...) and the Dutch scholar K.F. Holle (1877: Tabel van Oud- en Nieuw-Indische Alphabetten) who takes both South and South-east Asian alphabets into account.
In Georg Bühler’s Indische Palaeographie (1896) the “evolutionary character of Indian scripts” is accepted but there is a further analysis of their “regional and chronological variations.” Moreover, he realized “the influence of the pen and the stylus” and “the way in which this technical difference resulted in the creation of new forms.” With Bühler, the third stage starts. In the approach preferred by Dani, writing is seen as “part of culture” and the palaeographer seeks to trace “the traditions and the techniques that can better explain the development of the characters.”
Papers in this panel contribute new insights to hitherto insufficiently studied inscriptions in South and Southeast Asia. While some papers pay special attention to the scripts and physical features of epigraphs, others focus on the historical and cultural context of the inscribed texts.