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Civilizational and Cultural Impact of Arabic Epigraph: A Case Study of the Arabic Inscriptions in North India during the period of (1206 to 1857 A.D.)

Dr. Ataullahk Khan*

Ataullahkhan.jnu@gmail.com

          The ancient inscriptions and archaeological writings appeared in all their forms during the eras of the Muslim sultans and rulers because of their full attention and focus on them. These inscriptions are very important as they represented various aspects of our socio-cultural legacy and shed light on the history of this country and record its tournaments, epics, and arts through the ages.

The Arabic Epigraphs in India, are one of the most important archaeological sources that preserve the impact of Arabic culture and civilization on Indians. In other words, it could be regarded as a container for this culture, because the Arabic Epigraphs are derived from the spirit of Islamic philosophy, which is the philosophy of monotheism. On the one hand, it provides accurate data about the then socio-cultural and political scenario and on the other hand, it has the advantage that its dates are correct, and it is difficult to challenge its value or question its authenticity.

The roots of Indo-Arabic Epigraphs go back to the last decade of the twelfth century AD i.e. 1192 AD, (578 AH) when Muhammad Ghori invaded Delhi. Arabic and Persian inscriptions are usually found on religious buildings such as mosques and tombs, or secular monuments such as forts, palaces, gates, tanks, wells, bridges, and the like.

The Indo-Arabic Epigraphs are found everywhere in India, especially in the northern part of the country. For example, the state of Uttar Pradesh alone has the greatest luck (ie, 2175 epigraphs), and it may account for 21.4% of the total number of inscriptions, followed by the other states.

Historical Background of Indian Epigraphs:

Introduction to Epigraph:

An “epigraph” denotes a line of writing, short phrase, etc. on a building or statue, or as an introduction to a part of a book.”[1] The epigraph was first used in the late 16th century, denoting the heading of a document or letter, it was driven from the Greek word ‘epigraphe’ which was taken from ‘epigraphein’ meaning ‘write on’.[2]

Keeping in view, the materials used in inscription e.g., stone, marble, metal, clay, terra-cotta, pottery, wood, wax tablets, papyrus, parchment, and the technique of recording such as cutting, carving, engraving, casting, embossing, scratching, painting, drawing, etc. the epigraphs may be divided into three varieties; Monumental epigraphs, Archival epigraphs and Incidental epigraphs.

Historical Development of Epigraphs in India:

No one is confident to say exactly how and when the ancient inscriptions or writings appeared. It is impossible for a person – no matter how well his sciences and knowledge have expanded – to be able to know comprehensively about the emergence of the first ancient epigraphical writings. Despite this, archaeologists and linguists have gone to other doctrines in determining the stages of the development and emergence of writing. The late “Hafni Nasif Bey” said in his book “History of Arabic Script and its Literature” that “the research reveals that the script is the invention of humans, and it did not reach what it is now until after it completed four phases”[3] such as the Pictographic Stage, Ideographic Stage, Phonetic Stage, and Alphabet Stage.

In India, finding out the facts begins by reading the Brahman epigraphs that were carved on the pillars of “Ashoka”. One of its early attempts is what the Brahmins made in the era of “Sultan Firuz Tughluq”.

Development of Arabic Epigraphs in early Sultanate and Mughal Periods:

As for the Arabic Epigraphs are concerned, they have attracted the attention of scholars and researchers since the late eighteenth century when British scholars began studying Andalusia (the study of Indian civilization) and its ramifications. And the outcomes of their research started coming to the limelight at a rapid pace.

The Arabic script was almost universally adopted for other languages of the Muslim world; this remained the case until earlier this century, constituting a further bond between Muslims.  It is written from right to left in a cursive style and includes 29 letters. Most letters have contextual letterforms.

The art of Arabic calligraphy was highly valued, and the Arabic script, often in highly ornate and fantastic forms, became one of the principal features of all the decorative arts. Poetry abounds in metaphors and similes taken from the shapes of the letters. That is why Arabic script remained dominant in other languages also, and it has been used frequently in both calligraphy and epigraphy.

The early date of Arabic scripts go back to the early ages of sultanate periods, most ironically since the Mamluk regime in northern India, while they witnessed widespread during the Mughal dynasties, whereas it spread rapidly in the form of calligraphy and inscriptions.

Arabic and Persian epigraphs are found executed in different popular scripts or styles Perso-Arabic scripts, such as Kufi, Naskh, Thuluth, Riqia, and Nasta’liq. India added a new style to the Perso-Arabic scripts during the sultanate and Mughal periods especially. Some popular scripts are known as Bihar or Bahar style, the Toghra of Bengal, and Indian Thuluth styles, as well as they, are many of the ancient scripts that were changed after coming to India in shapes and styles. These scripts are scattered in different parts of India that bear the Perso-Arabic inscriptions, epigraphs, calligraphy, and manuscripts as well.

Important Epigraphs Discovered During the period of Study (1206 – 1857):

During the Mamluks regime, the most popular epigraph dates back to 1257 A.D. and belongs to Nisiruddin Muhammad Shah -I AD (1246-65). It was copied from Tonk in Rajasthan[4]. It is an important inscription, assigning the construction of a mosque to Aibak-II during the governorship of Amir Isfah Shah.

Figure. 1st – This is the Sultan Iltutmish inscription, although it’s in the Persian language, the script is in Arabic.[5] (Aligarh U.P.)

The Qutub Minar campus preserves several epigraphs in Arabic, which emerged in both the Mamluk and Khilji regime. It bears some historical information and certain Qura’nic verses, which beatifies these artistic architectural models in the forms of minarets, gates, and graveyards as well.

Figure. 2 – This is a sample of Arabic Epigraphs on the wall of Alai Darwaza in Delhi

 During the Lodi and Tughlaq dynasties, some other inscriptions were discovered during the 20th century, most importantly they were inscribed on the mosques. Some of them are given below:

Figure. 3 – This inscription goes to Nusrat Shah from Tughlaq dynasty and contains Bismillah and holy verses from Qur’an and some information about the mosque and the ruler. (Gujrat)

An inscription related to the Lodi dynasty was also discovered from Rajashtan than includes Arabic and Persian text combined, as given in the following figure:

Figure. 4 – The first three lines are in Arabic and the rest are in Persian.

Suris dynasty is also regarded as one of the earliest regimes where some Arabic epigraph has been traced, for example, the researcher finds a three-line epigraph executed on an already existing epigraph of the early period.

Figure . 5 – It is a historically important epigraph of Sher Shah Suri, from Jana, Bihar

The first line is in Arabic both the language and script. It is historically regarded as one of the most important inscriptions; because it is the only historical evidence that proves Sher Shah Sur as ‘King’.[6]

During his short tenure, Shershah Suri did some marvelous architectural works, one of them being the Qila-e-Kuhna mosque in Delhi. The monument has fine examples of Quranic inscriptions and white marble inlay work. Surah Al-Fath (Surah-48) is engraved at the jamb of the central arch, as it is reflected in the figure given below:

Figure – 6. It has two parts of Arabic inscription; one is in Thuluth script written on white marble, and it contains Surah Al Fatiha. while the other figure bears 20 holy verses of Surah Mulk inscribed on a red stone.

In the Mughal period, the Arabic script appeared more vibrant. Emperor Akbar is regarded as one of the most powerful kings of the Mughal dynasty, in the 16th century, after conquering Gujrat he built a victory gate at the south entrance of Grand Masque of Fatehpur, Sikri, which is known as “Buland Darwaza”. The gate has a beautiful inscription in carved relief work on sandstone, as given below:

Figure 7. The calligraphy is in Thuluth script and the calligrapher mentioned his name on the right jamb of the gate as ‘Husain bin Ahmad al Chishti’. (Source: http://picssr.com)

Another epigraph of the Mughal period is inscribed on the tomb of Akbar, which is regarded as a masterpiece of Arabic calligraphy as well.

Figure 8. The inscription contains verses from a few suras e.g. Surah Mulk, Surah Ahzab, and Sura Saffat, the script used in this inscription is known as Thuluth.

The tomb of Itemadud Daula (Father of Nur Jahan, who was the wife of Jahangir/ Salim) also has some masterpieces of Arabic epigraphs, as given below:

Figure 9. The main part of this epigraph bears a few verses from various Suras i.e. Sura Fath, Surah Muzzammil, and Sura Mulk as well, while it also indicates the signature of the artist calligrapher Abdul Nabi, and the inscription was done in Thuluth script.

In the period of Shah Jahan, a number of historical monuments were built, and each of them has such inscriptions because it has become an architectural art, a part of the culture, it is merely found in any building with such art. Jama Masjid and Taj Mahal; are the two examples that will be enough for it.

Figure 10. It is a sample of epigraphs found on the Taj Mahal, the first (from the left) is the signature of the calligrapher while the second one bears some holy verses of the Holy Qur’an.

Figure 211. It bears some holy verses of the Holy Qur’an along with Bismillah inscribed on the inner and outer part of Jama Masjid, Delhi.

Comparison between the Epigraphs of Sultanate Period and Mughal Dynasty:

It is observed that the epigraphs mentioned here are not only sources that provide information on the existence of new regional sultanates and their rulers, but they also show the epigraphical culture of the people who lived at that time, it is also observed that the epigraphy was a means of arts and culture.  The other discoveries listed here provide rare pieces of information on the tolerance between religious communities and also on the works of social welfare done by Muslim rulers, during this period.

While the Mughal period is distinguished by more advancement in the art of epigraphy, calligraphy, and other arts. Thus a number of Epigraphs are found in this period, which is much more than the Sultanate period, but most of them were inscribed in Persian and Urdu language, yes, the holy verses remained in their top position in this period too, and they were utilized frequently in Mughal epigraphy too, which show the number of Arabic scripts used in such epigraphs.

A socio-Cultural impact of Arabic Epigraphs:

The archaeological inscriptions are a powerful way to express the feelings that stir in the depths of people and to show the innermost emotions of the soul. Since ancient times, human has resorted to writing, calligraphy, drawing, and engraving on panels, buildings, walls, metals, wood, rocks, stones, leather, bones, and others. Thus epigraphs and inscriptions are important aspects of our socio-cultural life. Archaeological inscriptions are considered one of the most important sources of history in general and ancient Arab history in particular because the greatest fortunes of Islamic civilizations, historical facts, and the history of nations and peoples have reached us through such sources, written texts, and ancient epigraphs.

India is an ancient country in history and its civilization is one of the most wonderful ancient civilizations. Therefore students from socio-cultural streams must get acquainted with the stone inscriptions. Even these are so inevitable sources for any historian that he cannot ignore them while studying the past and the adopted culture at that time. It is not limited only to learning about history and culture but plays an important role in building language and literature as well.

The inscriptions have provided unforgettable and indispensable help in order to explore ancient civilizations and cultures. These are the inscriptions that made it easy for us to identify many personalities of history and historical facts, as there were no other sources to view them, and the inscriptions may bear constant civilizational importance despite being basic political documents and perhaps containing all aspects of life in their folds.

During the study period the princes, rulers, and sultans excelled in the antics of architectural expertise with attractive creativity and they came with an incredible quality that was unprecedented at that time, and they reached the utmost perfection and proficiency in artistic industries such as landmarks, amenities, palaces, shops, ponds, and lakes, all of which appeared in Arabic and Islamic inscriptions. Most of these rulers were interested in the Arabic inscriptions on these monuments and buildings in various forms, such as King Shahjan, Akbar, Qutubuddin Aybak, and other sultans and princes from the Mughal empires in particular.

In a nutshell, we could say that India is a large, independent, sprawling, and far-flung country. It is unique in terms of diversity and the plurality of its religions and sects, civilizations, cultures, nations, and peoples from various races, cast, and creeds as well. Also, architecture appeared during the periods of Muslim rulers, filling the Indian subcontinent with archaeological monuments and architectural structures. All of these monuments are decorated with well-engraved Arabic inscriptions, which have the effects of Islamic culture and the influence of civilizations and cultures that flourished during the Muslim rule over the world. We see traces of Indo-Arab inscriptions on all buildings, tombs, shrines, mosques, temples, memorials, architecture, historical installations, and artistic productions done by these rulers.

Conclusion:

The study of Epigraph is a necessary part to learn about the history, culture, and politics of India, and it constitutes the main source that provides us with most of the historical events that occurred in India before the advent of Islam around, and thus it tells us about the lifestyles of our ancestors who lived before us and reveals the various aspects of their social, economic, and cultural life. If these epigraphs were not available to us, we would not be able to know anything about the Indian socio-cultural conditions before 1000 AD.

During the Mughal regime, the inscription reached its zenith. While studying these epigraphs executed in the Mughal periods it is Kufi, Naskh, and Muhaqqa prevailed till the early ages of the Mughal dynasty, but due to the long stay of Humayun in Iran as a refugee, he came with Persian artists; thus few other scripts emerged such as Thuluth, Riqa, along with other scripts which emerged from the mixtures of these scripts and a result of the Indian artists under the local influences.

Arabic Epigraphs are associated with Arabic calligraphy, the beauties of this calligraphy make the Arabic inscription at its peak, even after the dominance of Persian after the Mughals, Arabic scripts remained utilized in the inscription that’s why mostly only one script known as “Nastalique” was used for the Persian language, while a number of scripts associated with Arabic have been used for writing Arabic and Persian as well, which show the beauties of Arabic scripts and the amounts of their uses. This art witnessed an immense development during the periods when Muslims ruled over the country, the reseason behind it is the prohibition of figurative representation in Islam, as the philosophy of monotheism that rejected idolization and discouraged adoration of imagery led to non-figurative ornamentation in Islamic art, which turned the creative power of Muslim artists toward the art of calligraphy and inscription, that is why it became a part of their enthusiasm and the outstanding creations made the people fascinated and fond of this art; thus it became of a part of people’s culture.

* . The author is the postdoctoral fellow of ICSSR (Indian Council for Social Science Research), New Delhi, and Chief Editor of Al-Jannah (Bilingual) Monthly, (Maharaj Ganj-U.P.) and an author of dozens books, in Arabic, Hindi, Urdu and English.

[1] . Refere to Oxford Learner Dictionary, (Online Version). Visit the link: (https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/epigraph), date: 08/12/ 2022.

[2] . Ibid.

[3] . Hafni Nasif Bey, “History of Arabic Script and its Literature”, 1st edition, Modern Trade Press, Sakakini, P. 19-20.

[4]. Although the inscription was originally from Nagaur.

[5] . This inscription was found in the premises of Maulana Azad Library, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh.

[6] . Siddiqui, (1967) 29. PI/ VI (a), while S.R. Sharma has declared earlier that Sher Shah was not a king. (Sharma- 1934: 134)

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