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Explained: How a Gupta era temple in Etah has put focus back on shankhalipi script

Archeologists have found 'shankhalipi' inscriptions on the stairs on an ancient temple dating back to the Gupta period in Uttar Pradesh's Etah district. Why is this significant?

Written by Divya A , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
September 16, 2021 12:07:12 pm
The stairs of the temple had 'shankhalipi' inscriptions. (Courtesy: ASI)

Last week, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) discovered remains of an ancient temple dating back to the Gupta period (5th century) in a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Etah district. The stairs of the temple had ‘shankhalipi’ inscriptions, which were deciphered by the archaeologists as saying, ‘Sri Mahendraditya’, the title of Kumaragupta I of the Gupta dynasty.

The Indian Express explains the significance of the findings, and Shankhalipi, or the shell script.

The archaeological findings

The Bilsarh site was declared ‘protected’ in 1928. Every year, the ASI undertakes scrubbing work at the protected sites. This year, the team discovered “two decorative pillars close to one another, with human figurines,” says Vasant Swarnkar, superintending archaeologist of ASI’s Agra circle, adding, “To understand their significance, we conducted further excavation and found the stairs.”

He says the inscription on the stairs possibly reads ‘Sri Mahendraditya’, which was the title of Kumaragupta I.

As per the ASI, the stairs led to a structural temple built during the Gupta period. The discovery becomes significant since only two other structural temples from the Gupta age have been found so far — Dashavatara Temple (Deogarh) and Bhitargaon Temple (Kanpur Dehat).

In the 5th century, Kumaragupta I ruled for 40 years over north-central India. The Guptas were the first to build structural temples, distinctly different from the ancient rock-cut temples.

The inscription possibly reads ‘Sri Mahendraditya’, which was the title of Kumaragupta I. (Courtesy: ASI)

What is the Shankhalipi script?

Shankhalipi or “shell-script” is a term used by scholars to describe ornate spiral characters assumed to be Brahmi derivatives that look like conch shells or shankhas. They are found in inscriptions across north-central India and date to between the 4th and 8th centuries. A similar inscription was found on the back of a stone horse sculpture from that period that is at present in the State Museum at Lucknow.

Both Shankhalipi and Brahmi are stylised scripts used primarily for names and signatures. The inscriptions consist of a small number of characters, suggesting that the shell inscriptions are names or auspicious symbols or a combination of the two.

Chronology and meaning

The script was discovered in 1836 on a brass trident in Uttarakhand’s Barahat by English scholar James Prinsep, who was the founding editor of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. A year later, he came across two more similar scripts at Nagarjuna group of caves in the Barabar Hills near Gaya. Prominent sites with shell inscriptions include the Mundeshwari Temple in Bihar, the Udayagiri Caves in Madhya Pradesh, Mansar in Maharashtra and some of the cave sites of Gujarat and Maharashtra. In fact, shell inscriptions are also reported in Indonesia’s Java and Borneo.

Scholars have tried to decipher shell script but have not been successful. The first detailed study of shell inscriptions was undertaken by Professor Richard Salomon of the University of Washington. He said there are a sufficient number of shell characters to represent the syllables of the Sanskrit language, and tentatively assigned sounds to some of the characters. In recent years, historian B N Mukherjee proposed a system of decipherment based on a few key inscriptions, but his suggestions do not bear scrutiny.

Shankhalipi is found to be engraved on temple pillars, columns and rock surfaces. No such inscriptions with dates or numbers have been reported so far even as their chronology can be determined by the objects on which they are written.

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