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Ashoka and the Mauryan Empire: Investigation 2Bookmark

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

Solving the Puzzle

In this teaching and learning sequence, students will follow in the footsteps of British antiquary James Prinsep as he finally learns how to read the ancient inscriptions. They will add to their timelines, learn about the difference between a script and a language and apply the Brahmi script to some simple names and sentences.

Sketched Portrait of James Prinsep 1838A sketch of British antiquary James Prinsep

Introduction Investigation 1 Investigation 2 Investigation 3 Investigation 4


Image: JamesPrinsep by Shyamal (Public domain)

Activity 1: Solving the puzzle

The various 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 (debates, presentations, timelines and so on). 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: Stupa, pandit, edict, Sanskrit, Pali, Buddhism.

At this stage, it is enough for students to know that a stupa is a Buddhist monument, that Sanskrit and Pali are old languages and that a pandit is a highly educated Indian. If students are not Buddhists themselves, they will probably have heard of Buddhism, but this investigation does not require a detailed understanding.

Discussion and explanation points in relation to the slideshow

  • Why hadn't Prinsep or others noticed earlier that there was essentially a common set of edicts? (The basis for understanding this has been laid in Investigation 1.)
  • The slideshow says that there weren't any Buddhists in Sanchi in 1836. Why might that have been?
  • Why might the stupa at Sanchi have been in a semi-ruined state at that time?
  • Why might the British have wanted to repair it 50 years later?
  • Do students know about other stupas? Some, for instance, may have visited or heard about Borobudur in Indonesia, for example, but there are also many others in India and elsewhere.
  • Notice again that it was a military officer, Captain Smith, who copied the inscriptions at Sanchi.
  • The slideshow makes a point of mentioning 'the Asiatic Society's pandit', Rama Govinda. Why wasn't he mentioned more prominently in Prinsep's writing?
  • The word we are told means 'gift' or 'given' is 'danam'. Does this sound like any English words that students know? Since the languages of northern India are of the Indo-European family, it is likely that it is related to words like 'donation' in modern English. (One context probably familiar to students would be 'blood donor'.)
  • What might the donors at Sanchi actually have been giving?

If students are to make a summary of the slideshow, they could focus on:

  • Why did it take so long to work out the edicts?
  • What clues helped in the end?
  • Who was speaking through the edicts?
  • What sorts of things was he saying?
  • Do we have any idea when he lived?

Students can add dates to timelines, including the various dates of the old photos seen in the slideshow.

Activity 2: Languages and scripts

Students may not have realised the difference between a language and the script in which that language is written. In fact, the script in which the inscriptions are written is Prakrit but the language itself is Brahmi (or Asoka Brahmi).

The slideshow tells us (indirectly) that the biggest problem in deciphering the inscriptions was the script: once Prinsep had some clues about the sounds of the letters he knew enough about old languages to begin to understand meanings.

Whether or not, however, you want to introduce students to the terms Prakrit and Brahmi, it is desirable that they gain some understanding about these matters.

If you have students in your class who can write their names in a script other than Roman, you have an ideal starting point, because everyone will see straight away that the sound of a written word can be similar, even though it is represented by different scripts.

Another example is on Slide 1.17 from the Mysterious messages from the past slideshow. It shows the original building of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and the sign that can be indistinctly seen on the top of the building says 'Asiatic Society of Bengal' in Bengali script, then Hindi script and then Roman script. Be clear that the sound in all scripts is 'Asiatic Society of Bengal'.

Activity 3: Using the Brahmi script

Many students will struggle to use the Brahmi script, for the following reasons:

  • Some of the sounds can only approximately be represented by English sounds.
  • The way consonants are considered to have an inherent 'a ' sound attached will be unfamiliar. (If, however, you or students in your class can write a northern Indian language such as Hindi, this will be a familiar notion.)
  • Attaching other vowels to a consonant requires modification to the way the consonant is drawn.

Source B1, however, provides a somewhat simplified version of Ashokan Brahmi, and an explanation. It is derived from the work of Lawrence Lo at Ancient Scripts: Brahmi. You will need to have a good understanding of the material on that web page so that you can assist students in this section.

Students can use Source B1 in a number of ways.

  • They could try to apply it to some of the inscriptions they have already seen. This is plausible, and will assist them to see how difficult it must have been for Prinsep and others, but the result will not, of course, be very meaningful to them, since it will be in Prakrit language.
  • They could use it to write their own names, their school name or simple sentences in English. This is a simpler activity with a number of benefits.


Images: Brahmi scripts by Lawrence K Lo (Ancient Scripts – Terms of use)

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