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Ashoka and the Mauryan Empire: Investigation 1Bookmark

Learning area: History
Year level: Year 7
Country: India
General capability: Intercultural understanding

Mysterious messages from the past

In this teaching and learning sequence, students will investigate the 'discovery' of ancient rock inscriptions by British people associated with the Asiatic Society of Bengal in the 1800s. They will begin to prepare timelines and consider some of  the difficulties faced both in collection of accurate copies of the inscriptions and in trying to decipher their meaning.

Brahmi script engraved into a rock faceThe Ashoka rock inscription at Junagadh

Introduction Investigation 1 Investigation 2 Investigation 3 Investigation 4


Image: The Asoka rock inscription [Junagadh] by Solankee Studio (The British Library Board) 1900

Activity 1: Mysterious messages from the past

The bullet points below provide some of the main issues at each stage. You can use them for discussion, comprehension, group work or to derive other activities such as debates, presentations and timelines. It is not intended that they all be presented to students as lists of 'questions to be answered'.

Vocabulary that may be unfamiliar to some students includes: inscription, empire, colony, pillar, column, Sanskrit, Royal Mint, Asiatic Society, Calcutta (now Kolkata).

You might want to use a map to draw students' attention to the comparative positions of India and Australia.

Discussion and explanation points in relation to the slideshow:

  • What is meant by saying Britain was 'the most powerful country'?
  • Do we know of other examples of mysterious writing being found?
  • We don't hear much about Indians in the slideshow. Why might that be?
  • In what way can we say these inscriptions were 'found'?

Students could be asked to make a summary of what they learn from the slideshow. Some of the main points include:

  • When did the British start to 'find' these inscriptions?
  • Where did they find them?
  • Why were the British in India?
  • What surfaces were the inscriptions on?
  • What did local people think about the inscriptions?
  • When did James Prinsep go to India? How old was he?
  • What was the Asiatic Society?

Activity 2: Timeline

The inscriptions were very old, but most of the activity detailed in the slideshow took place in the early 19th century. This might be a chance to establish with students what is meant by '19th century'.

On the other hand, some of the photos are somewhat later.


Ashoka rock inscription


Building at Girnar housing the Ashoka rock

A possible 'timeline' activity is:

  • Organise the slides in chronological order and add any other dates we know from the slideshow. Students will need to refer to each of the screens in the Slideshow to do this. The old photos are labelled with a date, but the 'date' of some of the other slides require interpretation.
  • This could be a suitable group activity, and could lead to preparation of pictorial displays.


Images: The Asoka rock inscription [Junagadh] by Solankee Studio (The British Library Board) 1900; Building at Girnar housing the Ashoka rock inscription (G Ainsworth)

Activity 3: How long ago?

The slideshow tells us that the British began taking notice of these inscriptions in the early 1800s. Of course, some British people had seen them earlier, but it is still true to say that work to decipher them really began at this time.

It is useful for students to develop some idea of how long ago these events took place, in other than abstract terms. They can fairly readily work out that it was about two hundred years, but how does a Year 7 student understand '200 years'?

To help them develop notions of scale, they might consider 200 years in terms of, for example:

  • A multiple of their own age; and/or
  • A multiple of their parents age; and/or
  • A multiple of the time since the foundation of their school; and/or
  • A multiple of the time since the federation of Australia.

You will be able to think of other 'multiples' relevant to your students.

Having considered these questions, students could be asked to research what was happening in a similar period in Australia, say between 1800 and 1825. This should not be a long exercise but, again, will assist students to 'place' the events described in the slideshow in time.

The actual age of the inscriptions has not been mentioned yet, but later in their study students will need to relate to the idea that they were written thousands of years ago!


Image: JamesPrinsep.jpg by Shyamal (Public domain)

Activity 4: Examining the inscriptions

This activity involves students looking closely at some of the inscriptions, and trying, as far as possible, to put themselves in the position of someone trying to decipher them. Its purpose is more to raise some of the issues involved than to lead to definite conclusions, and as such it would make a good small group activity.

Ask students to look at Slide 1.1 Ashokan edict at Girnar (the small part of the inscription at Girnar that is seen at the beginning of the slideshow) and Source A1 which is a copy of more of the same inscription. It was published in 1877, well after Prinsep had managed to translate the inscriptions.

They will notice quite quickly that the former is just the first part of the latter. In fact it is (according to Source A1) 'Edict I'. At this stage, students have not been introduced to the word 'edict' in this context, and the activities suggested here do not really require its use. They will find out about it in the next Investigation.

It is possible to make out, in Slides 1.4 and 1.5, the straight lines that are clear in Source A1. They are also included in Sources A2 – A8.

They are from Cunningham's 1887 Inscriptions of Ashoka. You might want to divide these between particular groups of students, or you might feel that you only need to introduce a subset of them. In any case, they provide plenty of examples of inscriptions in a fairly clear form.

Source A3 (from Khalsi) also includes a depiction of an elephant, which will raise some questions in its own right. Khalsi can be located on Slide 1.12.

Here are some questions for students to think about, discuss, work on or write about:

  • If you had to solve a mystery like this, what would you do first? Then what would you do? Then what?
  • How many different symbols can you identify? Make a list.
  • Can you find parts of the inscriptions that are the same in the various sources? Can you guess at what sorts of meanings they might have?
  • Do you think the writing goes from left to right (like English) or from right to left (like Arabic)? Why?
  • Would you have any idea how old the depiction of the elphant and the inscription is? How?
  • What would stop you being able to work out what it means? Think of at least three or four things. Then put them in order of 'biggest problem' to 'smallest problem'.
  • Think of as many reasons as you can why local people couldn't read the inscriptions.
  • What problems do you have that Prinsep didn't have?
  • What problems did Prinsep have that you don't have?

Activity 5: Collecting the inscriptions in Prinsep's time

The previous activity raised some issues about the difficulties faced in Prinsep's time. This one provides more detailed information about how the inscriptions were actually located and copied. It will provide students with an opportunity to realise how social and physical conditions were rather different from those of today. It will also open up some questions about relationships between the British and the Indian population.

Both the new sources introduced here include heavily abridged extracts from the writings of people actually doing the work. Even though the abridgement is intended to reduce the difficulties posed by somewhat archaic language, you may need to read through each source with some students, to ensure that meanings are clear.

Both also include old photos and sketches. Students can add the dates mentioned to the timelines they made previously.

Understanding Source A9: Copying the Girnar inscriptions

Source A9 provides information about Lieutenant and Mrs Postans' observations on copying the inscriptions.Their observations were supported by His Highness the Nawab of Junagarh, who was a local Prince, nominally independent but in practice under the influence of the British.

  • Mrs Postans did have a given name, but was published as 'Mrs Postans'. Why might that have been? Students could try to find out her first name through Internet research.
  • What seems to be the general mood of Mrs Postans' writing?
  • Does Mrs Postans' description of Mount Girnar fit with Slide 1.2?
  • Like all British writers in her time, she uses Imperial measurement (miles, feet, inches etc). Why would it be called 'Imperial'? Using the metric system, how big does she say the rock is? How high is it?
  • Where is the rock in relation to the hill?
  • Can you tell from the sketches which bit of the rock has been blasted off?
  • Ensure that students understand the mechanics of copying the inscription. Why would it have taken ten days?
  • Lieutenant Postans doesn't tell us precisely who did the copying. Who might it have been?
  • Why did Lieutenant Postans even think about digging up the causeway? What does that tell us about his attitude to the inscriptions?
  • Why might 'an awning' have been used?
  • What did local people believe about the rock?

Source A9: Copying the Girnar inscriptions

In 1836, Prinsep asked Lieutenant Postans to copy the inscription at Girnar.

Postans had his wife with him at the time. She wrote about it afterwards:

The Mount of Girnar is of granite … about two thousand five hundred feet above the level of the sea.

From either side … spurs strike out into a lower range of hills … their sides clothed with various jungle-plants from which .. huge blocks of granite jut out, in the most rugged and fantastic forms… near the summit are the walls of a fort.

At the bottom of the Girnar hill she saw the inscriptions:

…a granite rock … about twenty feet in height, and seventy in circumference … with numerous deep but small characters … the celebrated rock of the ancient inscriptions…

… it was with no common feeling of satisfied curiosity, that we saw them before us, chiselled in the living rock…

Sketch of rocks engraved with Ashokan edictsSketch from Mrs Postans' book

Lieutenant Postans himself reported on copying the inscriptions:

… the letters were carefully filled up with a red pigment, (vermilion and oil) every attention being paid … a thin and perfectly transparent cloth was then tightly glued over … and the letters as seen plainly through the cloth, traced upon it in black…

… the cloth being removed, the copy was carefully revised letter by letter with the original…

… it is tedious, and occupied … 10 days of incessant labour.

He also looked for the pieces that had been blasted away:

… our inquiries tended to the conclusion that the rock had been blasted… for the neighbouring causeway …

to remove … part of the pavement for this would have … an expense which I did not myself feel authorised in incurring without authority …

… but the whole of the soil at the base of the rock … was turned up to a considerable distance, and as deep as could be gone ... numerous fragments of the original rock were found…

And he had help: much I owe to … His Highness the Nawab of Junagarh, whose hospitality and kindness … were unbounded …

… by his directions an awning was spread over the stone and an Arab guard was furnished … assistance was afforded without which it is doubtful if I could have proceeded…

…we are indebted to His Highness the Nawab of Junagarh for the preservation of the inscriptions from total destruction … he interfered to prevent the mutilation of the stone…

…popular belief … is that the unknown characters refer to immense treasures, buried in the neighbourhood of, or under the rock.

Sketch of rock inscriptions used in an Asiatic society journal article in 1832 Sketch from Lieutenant Postans' article

Understanding Source A10: Copying the Dhauli inscriptions

Kittoe was primarily engaged in looking for places where coal could be mined, but like others, was a member of the Asiatic Society.

  • Ensure that students have an understanding of what a 'palkee' was. Source A10 includes a photo, but students should understand that this is not the actual palkee used by Postans.
  • Locate Dhauli on Slide 1.12.
  • How far is Dhauli from Calcutta? How far from Girnar?
  • What does it mean that bears 'disputed the ground'?
  • In general, how does Kittoe's trip differ from Postans'?
  • What seems to be Kittoe's general attitude to his task?
  • How does he seem to have been making his copy of the inscriptions? How different is it from what was going on at Girnar?
  • The old photos are not particularly clear, but there is a carved elephant emerging from the rock. Ask students what they notice.

Source A10: Copying the Dhauli inscriptions

Across the other side of India, Prinsep asked Major Kittoe to make a copy of the inscriptions on a rock at Dhauli. He had already been there once, a year earlier. It sounds as though it was rather more difficult to get to than the rock at Girnar.

This is what he wrote:

I left (Bhubaneswar] at four pm for Cuttack where I arrived at ten am the following morning, after passing a very stormy and wet night and being thrown down in my palkee frequently … on my arrival I received a letter from my friend [Prinsep] …

Image of a palanquin with four bearers This is a palkee (or palki). Perhaps Kittoe travelled in one like this.

I … left at six pm for Dhauli which … I reached before daybreak and had to wait until it was light … the two bear cubs which escaped me there last year, when I killed the old bear, were now fully grown and disputed the ground …

… at day break I climbed to the [rock] … and cutting two large forked boughs of a tree near the spot, placed them against the rock … on these I stood …

…I had taken the precaution to make a bearer hold the wood steady, but being intent on my interesting task I forgot my ticklish footing … the bearer had also fallen asleep and let go his hold, so that … the wood slipped and I was pitched head foremost down the rock, but fortunately fell on my hands and received no injury beyond a few bruises and a severe shock …

…I took a little rest and completed the work… [of copying the inscription].

Image of rock inscription at Dhauli

A photograph taken in 1895 of the elephant scultpure and rock inscription at Dhauli Two photos of the rock at Dhauli, taken in 1895. A lot of jungle had been cleared away by this time.


Images: © Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1838; © The British Library Board; Sculptured elephant on top of rock with Asoka inscriptions, Dhauli, Puri District by Alexander E. Caddy, 1895. Text: Source A9 excerpts digitized by Google: Google Books

Activity 6: Optional activities

The following points could be the subject of discussion, but also provide possible writing tasks.

  1. Both Postans and Kittoe were army officers. What does that suggest about the British in India at the time?
  2. If Postans (or Mrs Postans) met some local people, how would they explain what they were doing? What might the local people say in reply? This could develop into a written dialogue or role play.
  3. The sources include several illustrations of the role played by Indians in these enterprises. Students could identify each of these and make some tentative hypotheses about relationships between (particular) Indians and the British.
  4. What do the sources tell us about transport and communication at the time?
  5. It is possible to ask students to imagine what the life of a palkee-bearer might be like, but most are likely to do so at first very much from the perspective of a student in 21st century Australia. Having done that, they could also be able to be encouraged to imagine whether palkee-bearers in 1836 would have had different views and, if so, how they might have differed.
  6. What were possible difficulties about making accurate copies of the inscriptions in each place? How important was it that they were accurate? Could students devise better ways of making copies?
  7. Use the symbols identified earlier to make a simple code. Students will most likely assign each symbol to a (Roman) letter in English, and you could raise the question of whether the symbols might be interpreted in other ways. Students will already have noticed that some of the symbols are slightly modified versions of more 'basic' ones. If it has not already been discussed, students could take those 'modifiers' into account in their own codes.
  8. If suitable craft materials were available, students could make small copies of the first lines of the inscription in Source A1 using plaster. Later they may be able to add an English translation to it and display their work somewhere in the school.
  9. Students may have noticed that the earliest pictures they have seen are sketches, while later in the century there were photos. They could try to find out when photography was 'invented' and when it became commonly used.
  10. The Prinsep family had other connections with India, and with Australia (particularly Western Australia) as well. Students could research this history.


Images: Ashoka Edict Girnaar1.png by Mhss (Public domain)

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