The Hathigumpha Inscription is a seventeen line inscription in Prakrit language incised in Brahmi script in a cavern called Hathigumpha in Udayagiri hills, near Bhubaneswar in Odisha, India. Dated between 2nd-century BCE and 1st-century CE, it was inscribed by the Jain emperor Kharavela of Kalinga kingdom.[note 1]
The Hathigumpha Inscription, among other things, presents a biographical sketch of a king in the eastern region of ancient India (now part of and near Odisha). It also includes the religious values, public infrastructure projects, military expeditions and its purpose, and socio-cultural information. Paleographically, the inscription dates from mid-1st century BCE to early 1st century CE.
The Hathigumpha inscription (transl. "Elephant Cave" inscription) of Kharavela is found at Udayagiri, about 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) west of Bhubaneswar international airport. The Udayagiri hills host many ancient rock-cut caves such as the Rani Gumpha. Among these, to the west of Rani Gumpha, is a cavern called Hathigumpha on the southern face of Udayagiri hills.[note 2] The inscription is named after this cavern. It is found partly in front and partly the ceiling of the cave. Though dated to between 2nd-century BCE and 1st-century CE, the inscription was unknown to the scholars till they were rediscovered by A. Sterling and published in Asiatic Researches XV in 1825. An eye-copy prepared by Kittoe was published by James Prinsep in 1837, followed by a trace by Alexander Cunningham in 1877. R.L. Mitra published a modified version in his Antiquities of Orissa in 1880.
The first cast of this important inscription was published by Bhagwan Lal Indraji in 1884, followed by publication of an ink impression in 1906 by Bloch. Indraji was the first scholar to declare that the king eulogised in the Hathigumpha inscription was named Kharavela, but the cast impression, his translation and interpretation had many errors.
The translations, disputes, problems with Hathigumpha inscription and various corrections have attracted the attention of scholars such as Kielhorn, Fleet, Luders, Banerji, Jayaswal, Konow, Thomas, Majumdar, Barua, Pandey, Sircar and many others. According to Walter Spink, a historian known for his studies on Ajanta and other cave monuments of India, early misreadings and misinterpretations of the Hathigumpha inscription have led to errors and incorrect theories being widely held about the history of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Deccan region and early India.
This inscription, consisting of seventeen lines has been incised in Prakrit language and Brahmi script. The inscription starts on the overhanging brow of Hathigumpha cavern and the first eight lines are visible at the front. The remaining nine lines continue on the same rock, but given the sloping shape of the cavern, it appears on the cavern's roof. The seventeen lines cover about 15 feet by 5.5 feet of the stone's surface. Below this inscribed rock, the cavern's walls are rock-cut and some sections polished. These too have inscriptions, but these were added between the 10th and 11th-century, and are called minor Hathigumpha inscriptions. Closer to the floor, there are small rock cut partitions which do not form a wall between the cells.
Composed as it is in a very obscure Prakrit,
and its characters badly weathered
by centuries of exposure to the elements
and in places quite illegible,
the Hathigumpha inscription has long
been the subject of a great controversy
among historians and paleographers.
A hand writing analysis suggests that three different ancient scribes likely worked together to produce this inscription. The scribes likely chiseled the irregular overhanging rock and then deep incised the Brahmi text. Lines 1–6 of the main Hathigumpha inscription are well preserved, while last four Lines 16–17 show losses in the left part and the rest of these lines partially preserved. The other seven lines – Lines 7 through 15 – in the middle are problematic and can be read in many different ways. According to Jayaswal, a scholar whose ink impressions and readings are among the most cited in the studies related to Hathigumpha inscription:
These middle lines have been eroded and corrupted by natural processes over 2,000 some years. Processes such as rains, dripping water, dust, hornets and such causes have leveled or corrupted some Brahmi characters. In some cases so much that it is difficult to distinguish whether a cut is a chisel mark or a part of an aksara (letter). In other cases, the natural processes have added an angular-stroke or mark that can be included or rejected as an intended modification. The different hand writing styles found in the inscription further complicate what and how to read the letters. Thus, variant casts and ink impressions of the Hathigumpha inscriptions have been published, in part fueling the disagreements, interpretations and different scholarly translations.
The mid and late-19th century scholarship suggested that this inscription may be from the 3rd or 2nd-century BCE. According to Buhler, the palaeographical analysis suggests this inscription cannot be earlier than the 2nd-century BCE, or later than 1st-century BCE. In 1920, Jayaswal and Banerji stated that this inscription cannot be placed before the 2nd-century, and may be a bit later. On palaeographic grounds and considering it with information in other ancient Indian inscriptions, Sircar places this in the second half of the 1st-century BCE, or possibly in the first decades of the 1st-century CE.
The seventeen lines of the inscription has been variously translated by many. The translation published by Jayaswal and Banerji in Epigraphia Indica Volume 20 (public domain), with alternate readings by other scholars, is as follows:
The Hathigumpha Inscription is the main source of information about the Jain Kalinga ruler Kharavela. His year-by-year achievements in this inscription, states Richard Salomon, "approximates the character of a pure panegyric". This is an early prototype of prashasti style of inscriptions.
The disagreements between scholars is in reading with interpolations, interpreting, dating and then linking the names of places and people mentioned with other records and general chronology of ancient events assuming a particular reading is correct. Notable mentions in the Hathigumpha Inscription include:
According to Salomon, the "readings, translations, and historical interpretations" of the Hathigumpha inscription "varies widely by different scholars", and it is not possible to establish its single standard version. These interpretations have created significantly different histories of ancient India, some with phantom eras, states Salomon. Newly discovered inscriptions at Guntupalli in Andhra Pradesh have shed further light on this inscription.