Girnar Rock-Book Inscriptions

Junagadh city is the headquarter of Junagadh district in Gujarat. It is three hundred and twenty seven km from Ahmedabad and is about fifty-eight Km from Sasan Gir. It is situated at the base of mount Girnar – a gigantic five-peaked mountain of volcanic origin that rises steeply to a height of 1117 m. The name Girnar is an aberration of Giri-Nagar – meaning a town on the hill. Girnar has been considered sacred and was on pilgrimage route of both the Jains and the Hindus, since before third century BC. There is also a mosque dedicated to Jaismal Shah Peer that attracts Muslim pilgrims. This small city of Junagadh is so rich in myths-legends and has such an eventful past that it almost breathes history.

Mount Girnar as seen from Uparkot Fort, Junagarh

Mount Girnar as seen from Uparkot Fort, Junagarh

It is believed that climbing Girnar barefoot earns one a place in heaven. We stayed at Leo Resort that is near Girnar gate on the way to the Girnar Hills. Still we chose not to attempt climbing Girnar, even after wearing comfortable sport shoes, leave alone walking barefoot. A poet once commented

कँही इंसान से भगवान ना बन जाओं मैं, यही सोच कुछ पाप कर लेता हूँ मैं|
In my case, I too love Earth more than the Heaven 🙂

On a serious note, the limitation of not climbing up the Girnar Hills was dictated by my younger kid – Tanmay. There are around ten-thousand stone steps to reach the summit and we felt that with a young kid it would be saner and sensible to skip the climb. Though, I must admit that it was difficult not to get lured by the promise of scenic and breath-taking views on the way, combined with a visit to the old Jain temples of 11th and 12th century.

Jain Temple on the Girnar Hill (Photo courtesy Poonam Ranka)

The temple topped hills of Girnar has special meaning and significance for the Jains. Twenty second Teerthankar Bhagvan Neminath spent his life on and around Girnar. Lord Neminath, who is also known as Arishtnemi, was cousin of Lord Krishna. He was on the way for his marriage, with Rajul kumari – daughter of the king of Dwarka, when he heard the piteous moans of helpless animals that were to be slaughtered for the food to be served during the marriage ceremonies. The frightful shrieks of wretched-innocent animals had a touching impact on the mind of young Neminath. He decided not to marry, renounced all worldly pleasures, became a Jain monk and came to Girnar to attain salvation. After years of meditation and leading an ascetic life he attained highest state of enlightenment – Keval Gyan and the Moksha in the end. Rajul Kumari, his fiancée, also followed his path and became a sadhvi and founded the ‘Sadhvi Sangh‘, the organization of women ascetics. There is a 12th century old temple dedicated to Bhagwan Neminath on the hill.

Pilgrims walking on the Girnar Hill (photo courtesy Poonam Ranka)

On top of the peak is the temple of Amba Mata where newlyweds arrive to take blessings of the Goddess to ensure a happy married life.

Dattatreya caves from the Jain temple (Girnar Hills) (Photo courtesy: Poonam Ranka)

Junagadh derives its name from the fort of Uperkot, an ancient fort that stands on the eastern side of the city (literal meaning of Juna in Gujarati is old). Legend dates the origin of Uperkot fort to the times of Lord Krishna when Yadavas fled Mathura to settle in Dwarka, but historians believe that it was built by Chandragupta Maurya. Junagadh was an important city during the rule of luminous monarchs of Mauryean dynasty starting from Chandragupta Maurya in 319 BC till the death of its most famous monarch Ashoka in 232 B.C

On the way to Girnar Hill Temple, there is a huge uneven rock with a circumference of 7 meters and a height of 10 m on which Ashoka inscribed 14 edicts. This black and time stained rock provided a crucial link to the scholars of British Raj in decoding ancient Indian history.

Rock edict written in Pali (Ashokan Brahmi), Junagarh

Rock edict written in Pali (Ashokan Brahmi), Junagarh

Today it is hard to appreciate that as late as the end of 18th century nothing much was known of Indian history prior to the Mohammedan invasions. I realized the painstaking research done by the British scholars when I read the book – “India Discovered, the recovery of lost civilization” by John Keay. This book is dedicated to the British academicians’ and is a tribute to their conscientious effort to re-establish the glory of ancient India as the land of fantastic and exotic east. Those men came to India as amateurs; by profession they were soldiers and administrators, but they returned home as giants of scholarship. I would like to quote Mr. A.J Arberry, a British Orientalist, “someday the whole story of British Indology will be told and that will assuredly make a glorious, fascinating and inspiring narrative.”

The very first book of John Keay that I read was ‘Into India”. I was skeptical at that time, “Do I need to read a book by a foreign author to know more about my own country”? But this book written in a free-flowing and a lucid style won my heart. I realized that my knowledge about India is quite incomplete. The complexity and the amount of research John has done increased substantially in his subsequent books – “India – a history” and “India discovered”. Both these books left me spellbound and brought forth wonderful facts/history of India.

Girnar inscriptions bring with it the story of James Princep – India’s most successful British scholar. Twenty years old James Princep arrived in India in 1819 as an Assay-Master of a mint. He was well educated in Chemistry, Mechanics and useful sciences. His outstanding traits were his habit of exactness and minute attention to details.

Inscriptions on the Orissan rock edict

Inscriptions on the Orissan rock edict

Two important clues of ancient India were discovered at that time – the inscriptions on the pillars and the rock edicts of Orissa. They were written in Ashokan Brahmi and the scholars were clueless about the script and the kings to whom those inscriptions belong. Princep worked painstakingly to understand them. The rock edict discovered in Orissa was worn out and it was very tedious to make any sense out of it. And then came the news of Colonel James Todd (another notable historian) stumbling across Girnar inscriptions in 1822 and this is how he described his discovery.

…The memorial in question, evidently of some great conqueror, is a huge hemispherical mass of dark granite, which like a wart upon the body has protruded through the crust of mother earth, without fissure or inequality, and which by the aid of ‘iron pen’, has been converted into a book. The measurement of the arc is nearly ninety feet; its surface is divided into compartments or parallelograms, within which are inscriptions in the usual character. …

This discovery helped Princep to decode the script. He was then able to illustrate nine stages of development of each letter of the modern Devanagari. Nowadays it is recognized that the Devanagari script has passed through three distinct stages; first the Ashoka Brahmi; second a more ornate, chunky script (Gupta Brahmi); and third, a more curved and rounded script (Kutila) from which springs the script of Devanagari.

The Girnar Rock-Book, Junagarh

The Girnar Rock-Book, Junagarh

In the process of decoding the script, James Princep was able to establish that the Girnar inscription and the Orissa inscription were identical, written almost in the same era and to his own surprise and delight he was also able to establish Ashoka as a genuine historical figure – an Emperor – apparently one of the most influential and powerful – whose every word expressing the rationale of his rule had been miraculously preserved in his rock edicts.

Contributions of James Princep and Colonel Todd mentioned, Junagarh

Contributions of James Princep and Colonel Todd mentioned, Junagarh

Ashoka ruled from 269 to 232 BC. His empire stretched from Orissa to Afghanistan and from Himalayas to at least as far south as Madras, only Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas remained independent in the southernmost tip. His fourteen edicts in which he laid down his principles were engraved in Brahmi script on eighteen great rocks and thirty polished sandstone pillars throughout the empire.

In the first eight years of his reign Ashoka ruthlessly consolidated his power. At a point of time, he went into war with the tribal kingdom of Kalinga (Orissa and northern coastal strip of Andhra formed the kingdom of Kalinga). Ashoka won the war but the bloodshed and the horrors of that campaign; burnt houses and scattered corpses made him pensive and repentant about the futility of wars and needless loss of human life. That war triggered his thought process and he abandoned terrestrial aggression to Dharma and got inclined towards Buddhism. As Saint Paul made Christianity a world religion, similarly it was Ashoka who sent mission to spread Buddhism to far-foreign land.

It reminds me of one of the powerful episodes of “भारत एक खोज” – A tele-serial directed by Shyam Benegal based on the book “Discovery of India” by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru that left a lasting impression on me. That episode was centered on Ashoka’s younger brother’s life. He was a carefree youth. He used to make fun of the Buddhist monks, their grim faces and their concept that the world is full of sorrows. He was always in conflict with Ashoka about his kindness and charity towards the monks. One day he grossly misbehaved with a monk and Ashoka felt that the time has come to make him realize his mistakes. He devised a plan with his prime minister.

One day when Ashoka was not in his court the prime minister prompted his younger brother to sit on Ashoka’s throne to get a feel of it. But as soon as he sat there, Ashoka entered, blamed him for a hidden desire to occupy his throne, got him arrested and ordered his execution. Then looking at his sobbing brother he mellowed down and added that the execution will take place only after one month and in that period, his brother is entitled for his every wish to be granted and fulfilled. It did not please his brother; he remained grim and sad for the whole month, with no desire and no interest in worldly pleasures.

Next month Ashoka told him the truth that it was all a drama to make him respect the grim-faced monks who have no interest in worldly pleasures as they are always aware of the ultimate end. This event dramatically changed the course of his fun-filled brother’s life. He accepted Buddhism and became a monk. Life brings forth situations that completely change a man’s destiny.

The Ashokan edicts on Girnar rock impart moral instructions on dharma, equality, harmony, tolerance, peace and repent the evil of war.

The hump-backed rock also has two later records in Sanskrit added by Rudradaman in AD 150 and by Skandgupta in AD 450.

ASI board describing the rock inscriptions, Junagarh

ASI board describing the rock inscriptions, Junagarh

Rudradaman’s Junagadh inscriptions are the earliest known classical Sanskrit inscriptions of any extent. It is mentioned in these inscriptions that Rudradaman had repaired the irrigation system that had since suffered severe storm damage. It throws light on an ancient lake – Lake Sudarshan and a dam constructed over it by none else than Chandragupta Maurya – Grandfather of Ashoka. Rudradaman also staunchly upheld Dharma just like Ashoka with whose edicts he was so happy to share rock space. Rudradaman I belonged to Saka dynasty, a nomadik power from central Asia. The Saka dynasty regained control over this region under his leadership.

Skandagupta’s Sanskrit edict also talks about the repair of the same dam. Skandagupta was last of the five great Gupta Emperors (Chandragupta-I, Samudragupta, Chandragupta-II, Kumargupta and Skandagupta). Gupta empire was set by Chandragupta-I (don’t get confuse him with Chandragupta Maurya) in AD 320. It is also known as the golden age of Indian classical culture. To this period belong many frescos of Ajanta, the finest of Sarnath and Mathura sculptors, and the plays and poems of Kalidas. Skandagupta was the last powerful Gupta emperor to defeat and repel “White Hun” raids. After Skandagupta’s death Gupta regime declined.

Here is the list of the monarchs of Mauryean and Gupta empire and their ruling periods.

Mauryean Dynasty
Founded by Chandragupta Maurya (he ruled from 321 to 297 BC)
Bindusar (ruled from 297 BC to 272 BC)
Ashoka (ruled from 273 BC to 232 BC)

Gupta Dynasty
Founded by Chandragupta – I (305 -325 AD)
Samudragupta (335-380 AD)
Vikramaditya ( 380-413 AD)
Kumargupta (415-455 AD)
Skandagupta (455-467 AD)

After few centuries Junagadh area and its fort were abandoned, possibly due to another disastrous flood in Sudarshan Lake.

Today Girnar boulder is housed in a small roadside building, though it protects the ancient monument but its effect is marred. I feel the need of a short film on this hump-backed rock that projects the majesty of Junagadh’s distinguished benefactors, or a sound and light show that could educate tourists about how this rock helped in providing vital links to understand the history of ancient India; a show that could help the tourists to know more about Ashoka – the great warrior, gory battle of Kalinga, Ashoka’s change of heart, acceptance of Buddhism and how the treasured discovery of this rock-book gave insight into the golden past of our country and the philanthropic Indian tradition.

Series Navigation<< Learnings of life at Gir Jungle ResortJunagadh – A walk through history and folklores at Uparkot Fort >>


    1. Its a pleasure Dr N. Muthu that these inscriptions were useful in your research. May I request you to kindly write a brief write-up about your area of research and what you learnt more from the inscriptions (if possible), or may be to give link if you have them online.

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