The Materialisation of Power and Fame in Imperial Inscriptions from Ancient South Asia and China


Chinese sources: Joern Grundmann, PHD Student, the University of Edinburgh

Indian sources: Ken Ishikawa, DPhil Student, Wolfson College

Date: Thursday, Week 10 (2 July), 17:00Venue: Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College, OX2 6UDNo registration required.

This joint presentation explores the interplay between inscriptions and their carriers in the context of Indic kingship in ancient South Asia on the one hand and in the context of early ancestral rituals in ancient China on the other. We aim at comparing literary forms used in inscriptions from both cultures in relation to their respective carriers. Although writing is often considered as a form of materialisation in its own right, the actual materiality of texts has not been sufficiently seen as an integral part of the materialisation process. Therefore, we instead argue a dialectical model of interaction between textuality and materiality by looking at the cases of complex ritual systems in ancient South Asia and China as conceived in both textual contents and archaeological contexts of our selected inscriptions. In the first part, we will introduce so-called praśasti materials inscribed on various monuments in Early Historic South Asia (ca. mid first millennium BC–mid first millennium AD) and beyond. The praśasti is a type of a formal public eulogy on the occasion of donation of a religious establishment, a ceremonial pillar, a dam or even a fortification, on which it was usually engraved. In particular, the notion of fame (yaśas or kīrti) of a king was the key concept in the development of praśasti materials, and the fame was conceived in traditional India as having some kind of materiality. Therefore, we will investigate the process of the materialisation of fame by looking at the relationship between inscriptions and their physical media in both epigraphical and archaeological records. In doing this, we will examine the formation of praśasti by chronologically analysing crucial inscriptions during the Early Historic period with respect to the notion of Indic kingship of cakravartins (often seen as universal sovereigns). Our case studies of the Western Kṣatrapas (ca. mid-first century AD–415 AD) and the Solankis (ca. mid tenth–mid thirteenth century AD) will further shed light on the question of how abstract ideas such as Dharma or fame attained personhood in sacred/profane worlds of traditional India.

In the second part of our presentation we will analyse the inscription from one of the Guoji bells excavated from a late Western Zhou (950–771 BC) aristocratic tomb. Here we endeavour to show how the literary form of the text attempts to conjoin the bell’s physical features with its cultural function. Eventually we hope to elucidate how in both cases the inscriptions reinforce their carriers’ status as tokens of politico-religious fame or power.

By establishing an intertexual relationship between our two case studies from ancient South Asia and China, our ultimate goal is to outline an interpretive framework of inscriptions in strong associations with their materialities in ritual contexts. In particular, we wish to contribute to analytical methodology to better understand the ideological source of power in ancient states, in which texts and material culture played significant roles.