The sources can be broadly classified as follows: (a) epigraphical evidence; (b) literary sources including accounts of foreigners; (c) numismatic evidence; and (d) material remains.

Epigraphical Evidences are among the foremost sources available for studying the Mauryan past and is the most authentic as well. Most of the inscriptions are those of Asoka or pertain to the Asokan period.

The Asokan edicts are the oldest and among the well-dated inscriptions of ancient India. The name of James Prinsep is associated with the deciphering of these edicts (1837).

The edicts do not mention any specific king but refer to the title ‘Piyadassi’ (except the Maski edict discovered only in 1915).


Prinsep at first identified the title with a Ceylonese king due to the references to Buddhism. Later, in the same year (1837), after going through two early Ceylonese chronicles, Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa, he concluded that Piyadassi was indeed Asoka.

The Asokan inscriptions can be divided into a smaller group, comprising the king’s declarations as a lay follower of Buddhism in the Buddhist Sangha, and a larger group containing the king’s proclama­tions to the public.

The former group describes the king’s acceptance of Buddhism and his relationship with the Buddhist church. Some of his directions refer to the scriptures a good Buddhist should know along with the order that the dissident nuns and monks be expelled from the Sangha.

The latter group of the major rock edicts (14 in number) and several minor rock edicts along with the pillar edicts (seven in numbers) refer to his Dhamma policy, that is, a life of morality, piety and righteousness or virtue.


The true achievement of Asoka is his policy of Dhamma which stressed on social responsibility, good behaviour and consideration for others.

It was propagated by Asoka as a solution to the problems of the time, as “a binding factor” to keep the empire intact and “allow movement of goods and services to continue” (Romila Thapar).

The inscriptions were put up in prominent places like the major travel routes or near towns and religious sites to catch the attention of a large number of people. The inscriptions on rocks cover a large area.

The pillars perhaps commemorating significant events have been removed from their original sites. The Topra and Meerut pillars were apparently brought to Delhi by Firuz Shah Tughlaq.


The pillar at Allahabad was in Kausambi earlier and the Bairat pillar was removed to Calcutta by Cunningham. Other pillars referred to by foreign travellers have not been found as yet-Hsuan Tsang (ad seventh century) refers to such pillars at Sravasti,

Rajagriha and other places. Fa-hsien (fourth century ad) mentions an inscribed pillar near about Pataliputra and a pillar with a lion capital at Sankisa.

Noticing the advisory purpose of these inscriptions, scholars have opined that these were inscribed on other materials like wood as well and were sent around the empire to convey the edicts.

Coming to the language and script of the Asokan inscriptions, the language is Asokan Prakrit (identified as the language commonly spoken, San­skrit being the language of literature, excepting the inscription at Kandahar).


The language shows re­gional variations pertaining mostly to eastern and western Prakrit. The script is mostly Brahmi “the earliest Indian script so far known to have been used for the writing of Sanskrit and Prakrit” (Romila Thapar).

Inscriptions in the Kharosthi script-derived from the Persian Aramaic-have were found on major rock edicts at Mansehra and Shahbazgarhi. The Kandahar inscription is bilingual, that is, in Greek and Aramaic.

There are some inscriptions, not necessarily Asokan, relating to the Mauryan period. One such found in a post-Mauryan archaeological level is ‘Priyadarshi’, the word Asoka used. It was found on the wall of a house and was the title awarded to an official, Romedote, whom the viceroy helped.

The second, a fragmentary one is in Aramaic at Lampaka (Lamghan, on the north bank of River Kabul near Jalalabad), the three surviving phrases suggesting that it could well be Asokan.


The third, Sohgaura copper plate inscription in Gorakhpur district and Mahasthan inscription of Bogra district (third century bc) in Asokan Prakrit and Brahmi relate to the relief measures taken during a famine in Chandragupta Maurya’s time, an event mentioned in Jaina sources. The symbols on this copper plate are the same as those on punch-marked coins identified with the Mauryan period.

The fourth, the inscriptions of the Nagaijuni Hill Cave of Asoka’s grandson, Dasaratha, and the fifth, Rudradaman’s Junagadh rock inscription (150 ad) also refer to the Mauryas.