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Ancient Indian Writing System4 Indus Inscriptions



Indus inscriptions were usually short and numbering about 4000, are found on a variety of objects: (1) steatite seals, (2) sealings on clay, miniature stone, terracotta or faience tablets, (3) copper tablets, (4) bronze implements, (5) bone and ivory rods, (6) pottery graffiti, and (7) miscellaneous objects. Some of these miscellaneous objects included the unique inscription found at Dholavira lying face down on the floor in front of a crumbled gate. This inscription was made up of a white, crystalline material.

There is however no evidence of the writing material used by the Indus people in their mundane affairs or for composing their 'books'. Before the discovery of the Indus Valley civilization in 1921-22, many scholars believed that the Vedic Indians did not have a writing system. Hence, they transferred their scriptures from generation to generation by the process of learning by heart.

Cloth: Cotton cloth (called karpasika-pata or simply pata in Sanskrit) was also used as writing material in ancient India. Nearchos (c. 326 BC), an admiral of Alexander's fleet, even mentioned that the Indians wrote letters on well-beaten cotton cloth.

Cloth was prepared for writing. This was done by putting on it a thin layer of wheat or rice pulp.Once the same was dried, it was polished with a conch-shell or a smooth stone. Writing on the pata was done with black ink. In Rajastan, almanacs and horoscopes were prepared on scrolls of cloth. Chalk or steatite pencils were used for writing on this black cloth. At times silk cloth was also used for writing.

Metals : Only a few inscriptions on iron have been discovered. The most famous among them being on the iron pillar at Mehrauli, near Delhi. This Sanskrit inscription in Gupta Brahmi letters of the 5th century AD consists of six lines and mentions a king whose name is 'Chandra'.

In the courtyard of the Gopeswar temple of Garhwal there is the five-metre high iron Trishula. This Trishula has a 7th century Sanskrit inscription incised on it. Of all the varieties of metals, copper was the most commonly used material to write on in ancient and medieval India.

The copper-plates were known as tamrapata, tamrapatra or tamrashasana. Fahian (c. 400 AD) records the existence of copper-plates in the Buddhist monasteries dating back to Buddha's time. Another Chinese pilgrim, Yuan Chwang (629-45 AD), asserts that King Kanishka got the sacred books of the Buddhist faith engraved on copper-plates.

One of the earliest copper-plates, the Sahgaura plate, dates back to the Mauryan period. Two methods were followed in preparing copper-plates: (1) by hammering, and then engraving; (2) by casting in a mould of sand. Most of the copper-plates have been fashioned with the hammer into the required shape and size. The contents were then written with ink and then the coppersmith or goldsmith engraved the letters or incised them with a chisel.

Sometimes the letters were inscribed with a punch in the form of dotted lines. The other method of preparing a copper-plate was to cast it in a mould of sand. In this mould, the letters and the emblems had been previously scratched with a stilus or a pointed piece of wood. These, therefore, appear on the plate in relievo. The Sahgaura plate, the oldest tamrapatra known, has been cast in a mould of sand.

When the document was lengthy, more than one plate was used and held together with copper rings. For protecting the writing, the rims of the plates were usually thickened and slightly raised. The first side of the first plate and the last of the last plate were left blank. Usually the number of plates in a decree or grant varies from two to nine.


Palm-leaf: Till paper was introduced in India sometime in the eleventh century, palm-leaf was one of the most important materials used for writing purposes. The palm tree, which gives palm-leaves for manuscripts, is of two types -- Shritala or talipot palm (Corypha umbraculifera) and
Kharatala or tad or palmyra palm (Borassus Flabelliformis).

The former gives leaves that are long, smooth and supple. This species of palm grows abundantly on the Malabar Coast, in Bengal, Myanmar and Ceylon. The Kharatala or tad leaves, on the other hand, are thick and they have a tendency to break very easily.

The fibres of the Shritala leaves are more resistant to decay than the Karatala leaves. It is because of these reasons that Shritala leaves have been preferred to Kharatal leaves for writing manuscripts. To prepare palm-leaves for writing they were first dried, boiled in water and then dried again. Then they were smoothened and polished with a stone or conch-shell.

The leaves were then cut to size. The size varied from 15 cms to 1 metre in length and 2 to 10 cms in breadth. In South India a pointed stilus was used to incise letters on the palm-leaf. Then lamp-black or some colour pigment was rubbed into the incised letters. The other method, followed mostly in North India, was to use pen and ink.

Palm-leaves could not be bound. One or two holes were bored in the leaves and then cords were passed through them. The manuscripts were generally placed between two wooden boards and the cord passing through the holes were wrapped round the boards. In a hot and humid climate the palm-leaves can not be preserved for a very long time.

Birch-bark: A very popular material for writing purposes in ancient India was birch-bark, called Bhurja-patra in Sanskrit. The birch is moderate-sized tree growing in the Himalayas at a height of nearly 14,000 feet. The inner bark of this tree was used for writing. The Greek writer of Alexander's time Q. Curtius mentions the tender inner bark of trees as serving the purpose of writing material. Kalidas in his Kumarasambhava mentions bhurja-tvak, birch-bark. Alberuni states that people in India use for writing the bark of Bhurja, a kind of tuz tree.

Agaru-bark: The bark of Agaru tree has been extensively used in north-east India for writing and painting. Preparing the Agaru-bark for writing is a laborious process. Even then a large number of sanchapati MSS have been found, some of them also in foreign collections.


This site covers all areas for Ancient Indian History for kids. There are several essays to refer to for your school history study. We start off with ancient India timeline, various ancinet empires like the Mauryan empire and the Gupta empire. You will find information about ancient Indian society and culture, rulers, wars, costumes and several such facinating subjects. History of ancient India for kids is quite fascinating and long.