North Indian Scripts & South Indian Kings

In his recently published கவின்மிகு சோழர் கலைகள் = Masterpieces of Chola Art (Chennai: Tamil Arts Academy, 2011), R. Nagaswamy provides illustrations of Cōḻa coins dated to the 10th and 11th c. They bear Sanskrit legends, some in Grantha script (fig. 200a, 200c), others in Nāgarī script (see fig. 199a, 199b, 199c, 200b). Among the latter, we find “Uttamacolaḥ” for Uttamacōḻa (r. 969-985), “Śrī-Rājarājaḥ” for  Rājarāja I (r. 985-1014) and “Śrī-Rājendraḥ” for Rājendra I (r. 1012-1044).1

Another type, not illustrated by R. Nagaswamy, was issued by Rājendra I and shows, on the obverse and the reverse, the emblems of the three major Tamil dynasties (the bow of the Cēra, the tiger of the Cōḻa, and the pair of fishes of the Pāṇṭiya) along with the legend “Gaṃgaikoṇḍacoḷaḥ” in Nāgarī script, i.e. his Tamil title Kaṅkaikoṇṭacōḻaṉ, “The Cōḻa who took the Gaṅgā.”2 This title refers to Rājendra’s claim of having conquered the Ganges river and brought waters from it into his kingdom.3

The use of Sanskrit — or sanskritized Tamil in the case of the legend “Gaṃgaikoṇḍacoḷaḥ” — does not come as a surprise, since this language was, along with Tamil, the idiom of political and public discourse in ancient South India. What is more striking is that a northern script was used to write this language, whereas a specific script — Grantha — had been designed in South India in order to write Sanskrit and was indeed used, as seen above, on other coins.

There are earlier instances of the use of North Indian scripts in South Indian inscriptions, but of a different nature. In Cāḷuvaṉ Kuppam, a few miles north of Mahābalipuram, on the side-rock outside the Atiraṇacaṇḍeśvara cave, the observer has on his left a Sanskrit inscription in Grantha and on his right the same text, but in a different script, of northern style, sometimes described as Nāgarī.4 The text records the foundation of the Atiraṇacaṇḍeśvara cave for the god Śambhu (i.e. Śiva) by king Atiraṇacaṇḍa. This Pallava instance is dated to ca 650-725 depending on the identification of that king, who bears other birudas (glorifying soubriquets) in the inscription, such as Śrībhara or Atyantakāma.

Atiraṇacaṇḍeśvara cave at Cāḷuvaṉ Kuppam, rock on the left and right of the entrance, ca 650-725 CE. © Emmanuel Francis 2007

A similar example, dated to ca 754, is found in Karnataka, at Paṭṭadakal, in the Cāḷukya realm. An octagonal pillar, set up near the Virūpākṣa temple, is engraved with the same Sanskrit inscriptions twice, but in two different scripts: one version is in Telugu-Kannada script, the other in a northern-style script, also sometimes described as Nāgarī.5 The text begins with a royal eulogy, commemorates the erection of the pillar (said to be marked by the seal of the trident, line 18) and concludes by recording grants.

Pillar near Virūpākṣa temple, Paṭṭadakal, 754 CE. © Dominic Goodall 2006

Whatever the correct name of the two similar northern-style scripts used at Cāḷuvaṉ Kuppam and Paṭṭadakal,6 we see it being used in inscriptions of two dynasties — the Pallavas and the Cāḷukyas — that were competing at that time for the universal sovereignty over India.

One can conclude that the display of these biscript inscriptions was a claim by rival dynasties to overlordship over the whole of India, by showing their command of two distinctive scripts — one of southern type, the other of northern type — for the same language. 7 A similar claim was made on Cōḻa coins with legends in Nāgarī script, the more so in the case of the coin of Rājendra I Cōḻa with the title extolling him as the conqueror of the river Gaṅgā.

Select bibliography on Cōḻa coins.

Chattopadhyaya, Brajadulal (1977). Coins and Currency Systems in South India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal. See pp. 51-62, 240-263, pl. IV-VI.

Desikachari, T. (1933). South Indian Coins. Trichinopoly: St Joseph’s Industrial School Press. Reprint, New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1984, 1991. See pp. 61-74, 180-185, pl. V-VI.

Nagaswamy, R. (1981). Tamil Coins: A Study. Madras: Institute of Epigraphy, Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology (T.N.D.A. Pub.; 89). See pp. 29-73, fig. 31-48 and following unnumbered figures.

  1. On all these coins the presence of the final is not clear. For other types of Cōḻa coins with legend, see the select bibliography on Cōḻa coins below. []
  2. The coin is illustrated in R. Kannan, Manual on the Numismatic Gallery in the Government Museum, Chennai, Chennai: The commissioner of Museums, Government Museum, 2003, No. 25, p. 33. []
  3. See Daud Ali, “Royal Eulogy as World History: Rethinking Copper-plate Inscriptions in Cōḻa India,” pp. 207-210, in Ronald Inden, Jonathan Walters & Daud Ali, Querying the Medieval: Texts and the History of Practice in South India, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. []
  4. The inscription on the left has two more lines by another hand. See the editions by E. Hultzsch, Epigraphia Indica, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 12-14. []
  5. See the edition by J.F. Fleet, Epigraphia Indica, Vol. III, No. 1, pp. 1-7. []
  6. It might be preferable to label this script as Siddhamātṛkā, since Nāgarī is believed to be attested for the first time in the second half of the 9th c. See Richard Salomon, Indian Epigraphy, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 39-41. []
  7. In respect of rivalry between dynasties, one further notes that, in the eulogy that opens the Cāḷukya inscription, the destruction of Kāñcīpuram, the capital of the Pallavas, is mentioned as a feat of Vikramāditya II. See line 9. []

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