Saraju Rath's picture
Research fellow
Saraju Rath


Inscriptional, literary and mercantile scripts of ancient and medieval India
Thanks to the work of specialists of Indian palaeography such as G.H. Ojha (1894, 1918), G. Bühler (1895, 1904), and R. Salomon (1998), the large outlines of the development of numerous Indian scripts in both their inscriptional and their literary form is quite well known. However, relatively little attention has been paid to various ancient forms of mercantile writing. Some developments in inscriptional and literary writing, however, can perhaps only be understood with reference to these highly cursive forms of writing of the class of merchants. Inscriptional writing is evidently adapted both to its material basis, mostly stone, coins and copper plates, and to its monumental purpose. For instance, the chronology of inscriptional Śāradā, an early or proto form of which is attested since the 7th century, is quite well established. J. Ph. Vogel was of the opinion that “a close examination of the characters will ... enable us to fix the approximate date of any undated Śāradā record” in pre-Islamic north-west India and established a number of objective criteria to determine the chronology of Śāradā in epigraphic records. The chronology of the development of literary Śāradā, that is, Śāradā used for religious, philosophical, literary and scientific texts in manuscripts, can be expected to be largely parallel with inscriptional Śāradā. An innovation in the script may, however, start in the literary form of the script and predate a similar characteristic in the inscriptional form where it is subsequently adopted, and vice versa. The writing employed in manuscripts will also be more open to the influence of the cursive style of scripts used for mercantile purposes. It is therefore necessary to take into account the large number of mercantile scripts which can be assumed to have been in use since the time there was script and since there were merchants in India, which means, in practice since the earliest traces of Kharoṣṭhi and Brāhmī. The research at IIAS concerns accordingly the link between the relatively well-known inscriptional varieties of scripts such as early Nāgarī and Śāradā, and their relationship with literary and mercantile scripts.

Previous IIAS affiliation and projects (2004 - 2016)

Palaeographical Analysis of Gupta Inscriptions
The Gupta period in Indian history (320 – 550 CE) is well known for extensive artistic and scholarly production in various domains: architecture, sculpture, literature, astronomy. This “Golden Age” was also characterized by a remarkable productivity in inscriptions on rock, stone, copper plates and coins. Because of their historical importance these inscriptions have received much scholarly attention as is clear from a monumental work such as J.F. Fleet’s volume on Gupta inscriptions (CII vol. 3) which appeared in 1888 in Calcutta and presupposes several decades of preceding research. Although “Gupta” has also become a label for the script of this period, the palaeography of inscriptions of the Gupta era has been very little studied. Gupta script is considered to be “late Brahmi” but neither of these two names can do justice to the creativity and calligraphic diversification of this period, which marked the transition to the separately evolving regional scripts. A systematic study of inscriptions of this period from a palaeographical perspective is therefore important and it forms the main focus of my current research.

Indian and South Asian manuscripts
Indian and South Asian manuscripts, giving access to knowledge systems that developed over several millennia, are rich reservoirs of idea-o-diversity. In times of intense cultural, social and scientific transformation such reservoirs are as important as reservoirs of bio-diversity are in times of ecological transformation. On account of the relationship which the Netherlands and Dutch individuals have maintained with the Indian world (to which we now refer as South Asia), especially since the seventeenth century, a number of these manuscripts found their way to library and museum collections in the Netherlands, where they have never received the attention they deserve both from the point of view of the study of the relationship Netherlands – India (and South Asia) and from the point of view of the scientific and cultural value of these manuscripts.

Because their valuation, appreciation and use depend on rare expertise and because they are relatively small in number and dispersed over several institutions, my present study is focused on their history, their original use, and their way to the Netherlands.

Publications at IIAS

Brill's Indological Library


  • Sanskrit Indology Manuscriptology

Country of origin


Period of stay at IIAS

01/01/2018 to 31/12/2018

Research topic

Inscriptional, literary and mercantile scripts of ancient and medieval India

IIAS · Rapenburg 59 · 2311 GJ Leiden · the Netherlands · T +31-71-5272227 · F +31-71-5274162 · E © 2018 IIAS