Impact of Vedic Culture on Society

by Kaushik Acharya | 2020 | 120,081 words

This page relates ‘Copper-plate Charters’ of the study on the Impact of Vedic Culture on Society as Reflected in Select Sanskrit Inscriptions found in Northern India (4th Century CE to 12th Century CE). These pages discuss the ancient Indian tradition of Dana (making gifts, donation). They further study the migration, rituals and religious activities of Brahmanas and reveal how kings of northern India granted lands for the purpose of austerities and Vedic education.

Copper-plate Charters

There is no doubt that most of the inscriptions in the early and early medieval ages were copperplates. When it comes to donations one should specifically mention the copperplates that were used during this period for giving gifts. Although stone was used as a common material in Maurya, western Kṣatrapa, and early Gupta inscriptions, it is interesting to know why others preferred copper when there were plenty of stones and other materials were available to engrave. Such a transformation occurred due to changes in social and religious conditions during the early medieval period. Inscriptions were often engraved to the glory of the kings, religious propaganda, donations, and other purposes and thus, it was needed to maintain them. As the grants were made to be enjoyed hereditarily, it was quite impossible to move a huge stone charter from the place to the recipient's custody. In contrast, copperplate grants were issued wherein the donor after specifying the details of the land or object granted and the full description of the donee, may be gave it to the donee, who kept it in his safe custody to be used by him and his successors. Therefore, if there were any obstacles or land issues in the near future, the copperplates would have been safer than stone inscriptions.

The problem regarding land down the ages may be understood by reading various ancient texts where descriptions throughout many chapters on this particular topic are easily accessible. Another reason may be it is small size and the portability form a special advantage of attaching plates to existing copper plates if needed. It was way too impossible for stone inscriptions.

Among the many metals available at that time, copper was perhaps the most easily available metal used for inscriptional purposes. Nevertheless, copper is soft yet rigid, and takes less time and labour to get engraved. As per the Eastern Astrology, copper is the metal for the Mars. The deity of the Mars is considered to be Bhūmi (Earth goddess). It is believed that the Mars, when acts in a favourable way, helps one acquire land property and good health. It was perhaps to satisfy the planetary influences, copper was used in those days, especially when it came to donating a land.

The fact that copper was chosen among all the metals probably because of its durability. It was also recommended by the Dharmaśāstras[1] Skanda-purāṇa, [2] and others. Ancient scholars like Yājñavalkya,[3] Bṛhaspati[4] have given full details of these type of gifts. Even the commentators on Yājñavalkyasaṃhitā, like Aprarka[5] and Vijñaneśvara[6] have added details.

The copper plates record the grants of land, by the kings or sometimes powerful individuals, to brāhmaṇas, temples and other religious institutions, or sometimes political subordinates. They not only record royal land grants for brāhmaṇas and temple establishments but also embody broad processes of political legitimacy, religious conversion, and socio-economic change. From the 4th century, every medieval dynasty in northern India issued copper-plate charters that were the traditional Indian mediums for recording royal donations for religious purposes. It is observed that the land grant charters regularly comprise three parts, the dynastic genealogy, the description of the land grant, and finally, some stanzas for protecting the donation from future rulers and other royal officials. All the political, religious, and above all, family information of different kings are found in the inscriptions. The kings not only registered their land grant charters for government functions but also disclosed their religious affiliations through those charters. The benedictory stanzas contain plenty of information about the spiritual ideas fostered by the rulers and royal dynasties. In the genealogical passages, the religious patronage and the charity activities of the rulers are also often referred to in a general manner where the donor kings and their ancestors and queens are compared with different gods and goddesses, and rarely with epic characters. There is no escaping the fact that the copperplates (and all other contemporary inscriptions) are the products of an elite sector of society (the ruling powers who issued them) that were made for other elite groups (the recipients of land grants). Those allow us to reconstruct a richer and more detailed account of the societal and cultural framework within which they existed and enable such a framework to be constructed from the evidence most directly associated with the charters rather than that derived from other settings and environments. But one should not limit these discussions to copperplate boundaries. It is equally important to investigate the archaeological and geographical settings of other epigraphic material—something that in many instances would be even less problematic given the easily identifiable provenience of inscriptions carved on extant architectural remains

Although the exact and precise wordings of these charters vary regionally and individually from one inscription to another, the details of the grants are usually very brief. They mentioned the name of the donor, his genealogy, glory, and the place where the grant was issued from before mentioning the donee's religious affiliation, the nature of the grant and other details related to the grant.

These are usually plots of land existing within a village, or else land of an entire village, and a land from where the revenue generated regularly. However, the lands from which taxes were usually levied, that is, the productive lands, may not have been donated at that time as grants are recorded as being tax-free most of the cases. Whether the kings donated by accepting their financial loss is a matter of debate. So, kings donated lands that did not produce any crops, not cultivated, newly occupied lands, frontier lands, or barren lands. Apart from these mentioned types of lands, the king also levied at least a small tax on even the vedic brāhmaṇas.

This grant was created to enhance the religious merit of the donor. However, it is observed political reasons were also involved. The features of each grant are always invariably characterized by lengthy respectful poetic Sanskrit verses or vedic mantras. These reveal details of the donor kings and other issuing authorities, their family relations and political alliances, administrative and territorial divisions of the states, and other details of the Brahmanical community or other grantees.

Prospects of Future Research on Copper-plates, Artifacts and Antiquities:

Most archeological investigations in India have been aimed at ancient urban centers situated in large modern cities, but, the most common settlements of ancient India, such as small towns and countless ancient villages, have rarely been investigated or in most cases, absolutely no investigation occurred.

As such, the evidence that we currently have is not only a small sample of the total settlement archaeology of the subcontinent but also it is one that does not demonstrate the full spectrum of rural settlement mobility and integrated agricultural and economic dynamics beyond the urban area. As a result it is seen many of the villages and small towns remain unidentified till today. And we struggle sometimes to find out the dates of some copperplates. In addition, historians and archaeologists differ greatly in the period of many ancient temples, statues, etc. As a result, no accurate conclusions can be drawn. But we must mention some remarkable nineteenth-century scholars like D.C. Sircar, R.C. Majumder, P.N. Bhattacharya, V.V. Mirashi, P.Niyogi, K.K. Virji, H.D. Sankalia, B.N. Sharma, R.S. Sharma, S. Tripathi, A.M. Shastri, B.N. Datta, U.N. Ghosal, B.P. Majumdar, B.C. Mazumdar, G.S. Ghurye, K.G. Krishnan, V.D. Mahajan, D.R Bhandarkar, M. Bloch, J. Brough, R.N. Dandekar, A.L. Basham, and others who worked tirelessly to find as many as they could depending mainly on paleography and the architecture of the artifacts or the types of idols etc.

Footnotes and references:


P.V. Kane, History of Dharmaśāstra, vol. I and II, part II, p. 860.


Ibid., pp. 34, 67.


Yājñavalkyasmṛti, chap. I, vs. 319-320, p. 401.


P.V. Kane, op. cit., pp. 1271, 1277.


H.N. Apte (ed.), Mitākṣarā on Yājñavalkyasmṛti, chap. I, pp. 402-404.


Ibid., pp. 401-402.

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