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Epigraphic Remains of Indian Traders in Egypt Author(s): Richard Salomon Source: Journal of the American

Epigraphic Remains of Indian Traders in Egypt Author(s): Richard Salomon

Source: Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 111, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1991), pp. 731-


Published by: American Oriental Society

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A handful of little known fragments of inscriptions in Indian languages and scripts found in Egypt provide epigraphical corroboration for the copious testimony of classical sources about the flourishing trade between India and the Roman Empire. These include three records from the Red Sea port of Quseir, one in Prakrit and two in Old Tamil, whose linguistic and paleographic features point toward South India as the place of origin of the Indian merchants in Egypt. This accords with the evidence from a fragmentary Greek farce from Oxyrhyncus containing garbled imitations of an Indian language which, according to some scholars, may be an archaic form of Kannada or some other Dravidian language. Also, a Greek inscription from RedEs-yeinvoking the blessings of Pan apparently bears the name of a Hellenized Indian 16(pov, perhaps = Subhanu. Thus the epi- graphic material attests to the presence of both temporary sojourners and long-term assimilated residents among Indians in Egypt during the early centuries of the Christian era.


goods between India and Europe in the days of the Roman empire is amply documented in classical writ- ings such as Ptolemy's Geography and the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, as well as in modern scholarly works, for example in such classics as E. H. Warming- ton's The Commerce Between the Roman Empire and India.2 The Roman presence in India, especially in the south, has also been extensively studied from an ar- chaeological perspective;for an authoritativesummary, see R. E. M. Wheeler's "Roman Contact with India, Pakistan and Afghanistan."3 There is, however, a source of supplementary information on this subject which has gone virtually unnoticed to date; I refer to the fragmentary epigraphic remains of Indian traders

' I wish to acknowledge here the assistance of several of my colleagues at the University of Washington, including Emily Teeter, Jere Bacharach, and Merle Langdon, who assisted in various ways in the preparation of this paper. Conversations and correspondence with other scholars, especially Murray B. Emeneau, of the University of California at Berkeley, Bruce

Perry, of St. John's College, Santa Fe, and Michael Jones, of the American Research Center in Egypt, Cairo, were also of great value. Finally, I am much indebted to V. Narayana Rao, University of Wisconsin, for assisting me in procuring photo- graphs of the Quseir ostrakon inscription.

Cambridge: Cambridge Univ.

Press, 1928.

In Aspects of Archaeology in Britain and Beyond: Essays Presented to 0. G. S. Crawford, ed. W. F. Grimes (London:

H. W. Edwards, 1951), 345-8 1.


in the west, specifically in Egypt, which was the main transfer point for goods between India and Rome. More specifically,the Red Sea port of Quseir al-Qadim, the ancient Leucos Limen or Albus Portus, is the source of a few brief but interesting inscriptions in Indian languages. This is not surprising, since Quseir was a major terminus for the sea routes from India; from it, goods would be carried westward across the desert via the WAdi Hammamit road to Quft (Coptos) on the Nile, and thence shipped up the river to Alexandria and across the Mediterranean Sea to Rome.

1. Ostrakon Inscription in Prakritfrom Quseir(Fig. 1)

The largest Indian recordfrom Quseir4is an ostrakon (approximately 5 inches high by 3Y2 inches wide at its longest edges) bearing a Prakrit inscription in black ink, now on exhibit (without any label) in the Cairo Museum (gallery 29, cabinet 39). The inscription has been previously identified in a few publications as an Indian record, but its real contents and significance have apparently not been correctly discerned. It was discussed briefly by Suniti Kumar Chatterji,5who re- ferred to a publication concerning this inscription by

V. S. Wakankar entitled "Brahmi Inscriptions outside

4 I have not been able to obtain any detailed information about the provenance or circumstances of discovery of the ostrakon in question.

5 India and Ethiopia from the Seventh Century B.C. (Cal-

cutta: Asiatic Society, 1968), 53-54.

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Journal of the American Oriental Society 111.4 (1991)

of the American Oriental Society 111.4 ( 1 9 9 1 ) Fig. 1. Prakrit inscription

Fig. 1. Prakrit inscription on an ostracon from Quseir.

India."6 This publication is not available to me, but a photograph with transcription and translation of the

and I

believe that these were based on Wakankar'sreadings. According to this interpretation, the potsherd is sup- posed to record an "epitaph of Vishnujit Na(y)ak (a merchant)."The translation is given as:

inscription was published by Bapurao S. Naik

Om of the men of Vishnujet of Naak who this world


of family in sweet garden Merchant (Bania).


6 "In the BhdratTKald-Bhawan Patriki, no. 7, BharatiKala- Bhavan, Madhav-nagar, Ujjain."

7 Typography of Devanagari (Bombay: Directory of Lan-

guages, 1971), vol. I, pl. 19.

This interpretation is obviously not satisfactory. I pro- pose the following reading and translation:

1. halakasa8vinhudatasa nakada

2. jandna 3

3. telasa 10092(?) X X X nd(?) 100

4. mamsasa 100

5. madhusa yd(?) X X X mO(?)ld(?)

6. 100202

1. Of Halaka, of Vinhudata, of Nakada

2. of [these] 3 people; of Halaka, ???


of oil,

102 (?)


4. of meat, 100

5. roots(?)

6. 122.

of wine

The inscription involves several problems of inter- pretation due its poor condition. The potsherd appears to be broken off at the upper right edge, and the entire right side is badly worn, so that only the first half or less of most of the lines can be read with any certainty. Furthermore, a section of the surface, including the second half of line 4 and the middle of line 5, is peeled off. Some traces remain of the ends of lines 2, 3, and 5, but they are virtually illegible. 1

8 Sic. We have here fairly clearly sa for the genitive ending rather than sa as elsewhere in the inscription; but a confusion between s and s is by no means uncommon in Prakrit (and also in Sanskrit) inscriptions, as, for example, in the Kalsi versions of AMoka'srock edicts X-XIII. 9 For the form of the character read here as 100, compare the corresponding form in some inscriptions of the Gupta period; for example, the Mathura image inscription of the Gupta year 135 (1. 1) and the Eran pillar inscription of the year 191 (1. 2) (John Faithfull Fleet, Inscriptions of the Early Gupta Kings and Their Successors, Corpus Inscriptionum IndicarumIII [Calcutta:Superintendentof GovernmentPrint- ing, 1888], pl. xii-B, 1. 2 and xxxix-A, 1. 1). The correspon-

dence is not perfect, but in view of the notorious variability of the numerical signs in Brahmigenerally, this is hardlysurpris- ing. (Although the character in question also resembles the

usual form for 90,

its occurrence in the last line of the inscrip-

tion with the sign for 20 rules this reading out, and confirms the reading 100.) 10 My examination of the original object in the Cairo Mu- seum showed that some of what may appear in the photo- graphs to be letters or parts of letters on the right side are actually merely incidental marks or scratches on the potsherd.

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SALOMON: Epigraphic Remains of Indian Traders in Egypt


Despite these problems, the general sense of the inscription seems to me to be reasonably clear. It is evidently a list of goods or stores belonging to three individuals named Halaka, Vinhudata [= Visnudatta],

and Nakada



It is, in other words,

an ostrakon inscription of the type which is so common in ancient Europe and the Near East, but which is unknown in India." The present document thus repre- sents an interesting case of a non-Indian type of record written in an Indian language and script, evidently the work of Indians travelling or residing in Egypt. These Indians were no doubt merchants engaged in the flour- ishing trade between India and Rome referredto above, though the document in question does not seem to refer to the luxury goods normally associated with that trade; perhaps it rather represents a record of their personal provisions. The script resembles in a general way the south Indian variety of BrahmTfound in the inscriptions at such sites as Nagarjunakonda and Amaravati from about the second and third centuries A.D.12 It is of the non-calligraphic variety of the script, lacking the elabo- rate flourishes attached to the vertical elements of some letters which characterizemany of the inscriptions from these sites, especially Nagarjunakonda. But it is not only the paleography of this inscription that points toward an association with the upper regions of south India. I would refer in this connection also to the personal names Halaka and Nakada[*ta?], both of which are suggestive of Deccan provenance. The former name is reminiscent of that of Hala, the Satavahana

In the photograph published by Naik, for example, what appear to be the fifth through seventh aksaras of line 5 are only incidental lines on the surface of the potsherd, which has peeled away at this point. 11 Indeed, ephemeral documents of the "laundry-list"class in general, on whatever materials, are very rare among the huge mass of Indic epigraphic documents, the only major exception being the KharosthTdocuments from Central Asia discovered at Niya and other sites by Aurel Stein and others. (Cf. my comments in Bulletin d'?tudes Indiennes 4 [1986]:


king known from the Puranic royal lists and tradi- tionally identified as the composer of the Prakritpoetic anthology GAhdsattasai:As to the latter name, Nd- kada[*ta], if we are correct in connecting it with a Sanskrit Nagadatta, this would agree with a well- attestedtendency in the aforementioned Prakritinscrip- tions of upper south India in the period concerned to graphic "devoicing" of intervocalic consonants, espe- cially g; compare, for example, nakaya, presumedto be the equivalent of Sanskrit ndgdydh (as a feminine proper name) in an AmaravatTinscription of the same general period.' These paleographic and linguistic indications of an upper south Indian connection for our merchants in Egypt call to mind an old controversy about the identity of some garbled passages of what is evidently intended to be an Indian language recorded in the fragments of a Greek farce preserved among the papyri from Oxy- rhynchus (Egypt).'4 E. Hultzsch'5 argued that the lan- guage concerned was an early form of Kannada, identifying, for example, the word kott5s, translated into Greek as ituiv 68g, with Kannada kudisu 'give to drink'. But Hultzsch's arguments were disputed by L. D. Barnett on several grounds, first of all that no specimen of Kannada anywhere near as old as the text concerned (second century A.D.) iSotherwise known, so that we must hesitate to interpret it in light of the much later forms of the language known to us; and further, on the grounds that many of Hultzsch's proposed inter- pretations are forced at best. It must be conceded that there is much to Barnett's criticisms, and they appear to have had their effect, as Hultzsch's theory as to the identity of the "Indian"language is not widely accepted nowadays. Nonetheless, it must also be pointed out that Barnetthad no bettersolution to offer, concluding, "What then is the language of these Indians?I confess I do not know. It may be mere gibberish"(p. 15). In view of this confession, I think that Hultzsch's theory, flawed as it may be, should not be dismissed entirely; after all,

13 Ramaprasdd Chanda, Epigraphia Indica 15 (1919-20):

260 and 275 (no. 58).

14 Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, The Oxyrhyn-


D. C. Sircar, as cited by Chatterji (op. cit., 54), attributed the script to the third or fourth century A.D.; but "he did not venture to read and transcribe it, as the eye-copy was very imperfect. But he thought with a good photograph, or a correct transcription, something could be made of it." To my knowledge, Sircar did not discuss this inscription in any of his

chus Papyri, part III (London:

1903), no. 413, 41-57. "Zum Papyros 413 aus Oxyrhynchos," Hermes 39 (1904):

Egypt Exploration Fund,


307-11; "Remarks on a Papyrus from Oxyrhynchus,"Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1904: 399-405.


own publications.

"The Alleged Kanarese Speeches in P. Oxy. 413," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 12 (1926): 13-15.

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Journal of the American Oriental Society 111.4 (1991)



Fig. 2. Old Tamil inscription from Quseir al-Qadim:


we are dealing with a rough and probably corrupt transliteration into Greek characters of an exotic lan- guage, and thus should hardly be surprised if an at- tempt to reconstruct the original language is far from perfect.' I would therefore hold that it is still possible, if far from certain, that the Indian language heard by the Greek-speaking residents of Egypt in this period might have been some early ancestor of Kannada or a related Dravidian language of the Deccan; and the evidence of the new inscription discussed above seems to support this identification. For although the inscription itself is in Prakrit-which, as the epigraphical evidence from India proper shows, was the written language of upper south India at the time in question-its onomastic and paleographic features indicate that its writers might well have had a Dravidian language as their non-written mother tongue. In light of this new evidence, it might be worthwhile for Dravidian specialists to undertake a reconsideration of Hultzsch's identification of the mys- terious Indian language of the Oxyrhynchus papyrus.


Old Tamil Inscriptions on Pottery from Quseir al-

Qadim (Figs. 2-3)

Recent excavations at Quseir al-Qadim, eight kilo- metersnorth of the modern port of Quseir, have yielded two brief graffiti inscriptions on pottery recording names in the Tamil language and the Tamil-Brahmi

17 Professor M. B. Emeneau has recently mentioned to me in conversation that he has also heard of attempts to identify the language in question as Tulu; but there do not seem to be any publications available on this point.

Fig. 3. Old Tamil inscription from Quseir al Qadim:


script. The first"8reads kanan. The second" is probably c(?)dtan; the first character is incomplete and could also be hd or id, but cd is more likely. According to I. Mahadevan,20"The inscription can be dated on palaeo- graphical grounds to about the second century of the modern era." As demonstrated by him, the Tamil char- acter of the inscriptions is clear from both the script, especially the characteristically Tamil alveolar n, and from the names, which are also typically Tamil. The name cdtan (or cdttan) is well attested in the Tamil- BrahmTcave inscriptions from India2' and in the San- gam literature. (The Tamil inscriptions on the pots no doubt were of the same character as those in Greek found at the same site, namely "names or monograms indicating the owner of the vessel. ,22) The orthographic system of the Quseir inscriptions is that which Mahadevan23calls the "later system," in which diacriticallyunmarkedconsonants may represent

18 Published in Donald S. Whitcomb and Janet H. Johnson, Quseir al- Qadim 1978: Preliminary Report (Cairo: American Research Center in Egypt, 1979), pl. 27:j. 19 Donald S. Whitcomb and Janet H. Johnson, Quseir al- Qadim 1980: Preliminary Report (Malibu: Undena Publica- tions, 1982), 263-64 and pl. 61:o.

20 Quoted in Whitcomb and Johnson, op. cit. (1982), 264.

21 Iravatham Mahadevan, "Corpus of the Tamil-Brahmi In- scriptions," in Seminar on Inscriptions 1966: Speeches and Papers, ed. R. Nagaswamy (Madras: Books [India] Private Ltd., 1968), 57-73; nos. 17, 51 (netucdtan), 53, 69.

22 Whitcomb and Johnson, op. cit. (1982), 263.

23 "Tamil-Brahmi Inscriptions of the Sangam Age," in Pro- ceedings of the Second International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies, ed. R. E. Asher (Madras: International Associ- ation of Tamil Research, 1971), 1:73-106 (esp. p. 82).

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SALOMON: Epigraphic Remains of Indian Traders in Egypt


either the vowelless consonant or the consonant plus a (i.e., the standard Indic "inherentvowel"), as opposed to the earlier system in which an unmarked vowel necessarily denoted only the vowelless consonant. In this feature they agree with the Arikamedu pottery graffiti24in old Tamil, and it is interesting that the name cdt(t)an also occurs, in addition to the places mentioned above, among the Arikamedu inscriptions, i.e., in no. 9 (Wheeler et al., 113 and fig. 46: cdttan) and probably also in the fragmentary no. 10 (ibid.):

ttan. The Arikamedu inscriptions are datable on ar- chaeological grounds to approximately the first cen- tury A.D.; Mahadevan is inclined to date the Quseir inscription a little later than they, i.e., to the second century, on the grounds that the form of ca therein with the open loop is somewhat later than the closed ca seen at Arikamedu. While it is impossible to claim any degree of chrono- logical certainty or accuracy when dealing with docu- ments datable solely on paleographic grounds, it is nonetheless clear that the Quseir Tamil inscriptions date from essentially the same period as the Prakrit inscription from the same site discussed above. From this we get the impression that the Indian traders in Egypt in the days of the Roman Empire were predomi- nantly south Indians, including both persons from the upper south who used Prakrit as their written language but who may have spoken a Dravidian language as their mother-tongue, and others from the far south who both spoke and wrote in old Tamil. This conclu- sion is not at all surprising, since it has long been known (and was confirmed by Wheeler's Arikamedu excavations) that the Roman imperial sea trade with India was centered in south India-as is also witnessed by the fact that the vast majority of Roman coins found in India are from the south.25Nonetheless, it is interesting to find further corroboration of this pattern among the epigraphic remains of the south Indians who travelled to Egypt.

3. A Greek Inscription of an Indian (?) Resident of Egypt

Another record which is often cited26in connection with the presence of Indian traders in Egypt is an

24 See R. E. M. Wheeler, "Arikamedu: An Indo-Roman Trading-Station on the East Coast of India," Ancient India 2 (1946): 17-124 (esp. pp. 109-14).

25 See Wheeler 1951(see n. 3): 360-67.

26 Hultzsch, op. cit. (n. 15,

"):402; Warming-

ton, op. cit. (n. 2), 77; A. L. Basham, The Wonder That Was

India (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 228; and many others.

inscription in Greek found at the temple of Seti I at Kanayis or Wadi MiAh (formerly referred to, incor- rectly, as Redeslya27),located along one of the caravan routes through Egypt's western desert between the Red Sea port of Berenike and Apollinopolis Magna (mod- ern Edffi) on the Nile. The inscription was read by U. Wilcken,28and following him, Hultzsch (ibid.), as





iuavi Ei60w

Kai 'EinpKoW

6Unip auTOO

To Pan, who gives easy passage and listens to prayer; Sophon the Indian, on his own behalf.29

Here the reading Xo~pwv'Iv6o6 is Wilcken's suggestion

for Dittenberger's o(pwvtva6q,30 and appears, to judge

from the copy

Hultzsch (ibid.) comments, "2o6(pxvdoes occur else- where as a Greek name. In the present case, where it is borne by a Hindu, it may be a Hellenized form of the Sanskrit Subhdnu." Despite reservations expressed by Tarn,32this interpretation is generally accepted, and the record is usually taken to be that of a "much Hellenized" Indian, in whose mind "Pan was no doubt

with Krsna, who was also a god of flocks


and herds, and played a rustic flute" (Basham, ibid.). In any case, if such an Indian Sophon/ Subhanu really existed, he must have belonged to a differentclass than that of our Halaka, Vinhudata, Catan, et al., who, to judge from their records left in their own languages,


by Lepsius,3' to

be correct.

2 See Bertha Porter and Rosalind L. B. Moss, Topographi- cal Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs, and Paintings (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951),


28 Archiv fur Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete 3 (1906): 320.

29 The wording of the invocation is stereotypical, and identi-

cal or similar formulae

are found in several other inscriptions

from the same temple; see C. R. Lepsius, Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien (reprint ed.; Geneve: Editions de Belles-Lettres, 1973), part 6 (vols. XI-XII), pl. 81, nos. 137,

164, 167, etc.; and comments in Wilhelmus Dittenberger, Ori- entis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae. Supplementum Sylloges Inscriptionum Graecarum(Lipsiae: S. Hirzel, 1903), 1:124-25

and M. Letronne, Receuil des inscriptions grecques et latines

de l'Egypte

(Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1848), 11:245.

30 Op. cit. (n. 29), 124, no. 72.

31 Op. cit. (n. 29), pl. 81, no. 166.

32 W. W. Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria & India (Cambridge:

Cambridge University, 1951), 370, n. 2. See also n. 33 below.

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Journal of the American Oriental Society 111.4 (1991)

would seem to have been transitory travellers in the west. Sophon, on the other hand, would evidently have been a long-term resident of Egypt who had become assimilated to life there and who had taken to the Greek language and cultic practices.33

33 Another related item is a Ptolemaic gravestone from Den- dereh, bearing symbols which W. M. Flinders Petrie, in Dendereh 1898(London: The Egypt Exploration Fund [Seven- teenth Memoir of the Egypt Exploration Fund], 1900), 54, took to resemble "the Buddhist symbols of the wheel of life and the trisul," and hence thought to reflect the influence in Egypt of Buddhist missionaries (cf. William Simpson, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1898:875). The interpretation is obviously far-fetched, and would hardly even be worth men- tioning were it not for the fact that Tarn (op. cit. [n. 32],

In conclusion, we find in Egypt a handful of epi- graphic remains of Indian merchants, which, though fragmentary, are sufficient to corroborate the flourish- ing trade between the Roman empire and southern India in or around the second century A.D. It is not at all unlikely that further investigations from an Indo- logical perspective in Egypt might yield more records of this type which have hitherto gone unnoticed by archaeologists not familiar with Indic materials.

370)-surprisingly-accepted it as a record of an Indian who "appeared in Egypt in the Ptolemaic period," even as he expressed doubts about the (considerably more likely) identifi- cation of the Sophon of the Kanayis Greek inscription as an Indian.

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