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Proto-Sarada Writings: Traces of Daily Life in Ancient India


A new Indology project is focussing on a hitherto little-researched period of ancient Indian history: the time of the transition from Buddhism to Hinduism in the northwest of the country.

This is what the ancient Indian Proto-Sarada script looks like, here on a 14-centimetre-wide piece of birch bark. The terms "market" and "merchant" appear in the text, which indicates an economic context. (Image: Ingo Strauch / Universität Lausanne)

From the sixth to the tenth century AD, an important historical transition phase took place in the northwest of India, in what is now Pakistan: a predominantly Buddhist society became a Hindu society; this was immediately followed by the Muslim invasions. Little is known about the social, economic, and cultural history of this period of change.

Kathrin Holz, Junior Professor of Indology at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany, and her colleague Professor Ingo Strauch from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland want to change that. They are using inscriptions and manuscripts written in the Proto-Sarada script – a script that was in use throughout north-west India at the time – as the key to this period of upheaval.

For the first time, the researchers will systematically collect, document and scientifically analyse historical evidence written in Proto-Sarada. They want to reconstruct the development and use of the ancient script and analyse the written objects with a regard to their material and historical context. The German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) are funding the project.

Clay Seals and Manuscripts on Birch Bark

An important core of the project is a private collection of historical administrative documents and letters that have not yet been scientifically analysed in any way. The collection consists of 35 folders, 43 large and 205 small birch bark scrolls and 203 clay seals.

The collection is a real treasure, as there is not much evidence of the Proto-Sarada script. "This is because the birch bark, on which most of the writing was done, is not particularly durable in the tropical climate," says Kathrin Holz.

The project aims to include all other known Proto-Sarada scriptures worldwide. The research team is planning an initial study trip to Pakistan in autumn 2024 to visit important museums and the local research partner, the Department of Archaeology at the University of Lahore.

Ultimately, the envisaged revision of the entire inscriptional corpus will result in a comprehensive edition of Proto-Sarada inscriptions.

Funding and Duration

The project "The Proto-Sarada Project: Towards the edition of a new collection of administrative letters and documents from pre-modern South Asia" will start on 1 August 2024 and run for three years. The German Research Foundation (DFG) is funding the project with around 368,000 euros and the Swiss National Science Foundation with 526,000 Swiss francs.


Prof Dr Kathrin Holz, Chair of Indology, University of Würzburg, T +49 931 31-86491,

Prof. Dr. Ingo Strauch, Section de langues et civilisations slaves et de l'Asie du Sud, University of Lausanne,

Additional images

By Robert Emmerich