Socotra is an island which lies to the east of the Horn of Africa and it was an important stop on the maritime trading route from India to the Middle East. A few years back Belgian speleologists found inscriptions, drawings and archaeological objects inside a huge cave and they were left by sailors who visited the island between 1st century BCE and 6th century CE.
The 1st century author of Periplus of the Erythraean Sea mentions Socotra few times. From that book we know that India exported rice to Socotra. There is also a mention of a handful of staples being imported into Socrata and they were bought by traders from the southern region of Yemen. There is also a mention of the island being leased out to Arab shippers and that Indians lived there since the 1st century CE. Now, thanks to the Belgian Socotra Karst Project, we know what those Indians wrote in both Brahmi and Kharosthi script.
Most of them wrote down their names and sometimes even their original home towns while taking their way through the almost three kilometres long cave. Sometimes we find a name written several times marking thus the whole procession from the entrance of the back part to the deepest point of the cave accessible only through a narrow passage not more than 60 cm wide.
Altogether the estimated number of Indian inscriptions amounts to more than 100 epigraphs written by charcoal, chalk or mud or scratched with a sharp instrument on the surfaces of rocks, stalactites or stalagmites. Most of them are written in a variety of early Indian scripts known as Brahmi. The Brahmi type used in Hoq cave can be compared to that attested in India herself during the 2nd to 4th centuries AD in West India. These data can now be confirmed by some newly discovered inscriptions which mention the city of Bharukaccha, one of the most important West Indian harbour towns of that period. It is also mentioned by the Periplus under the name Barygaza.
But there were also traders from other parts of India. Thus we found in January 2006 an inscription in Kharosthi, another Indian script which was used only in the North-West of ancient India, i.e. the modern Pakistan, and in Central Asia. The whole corpus of Indian inscriptions found in Hoq cave is not only an impressive witness of Socotra´s cultural past. It is as well the most western evidence of Indian writing yet known. From the texts written in several handwritings we get a unique picture of the art of writing as practiced not by specialists like in the case of many Indian religious inscriptions but by ordinary people.[OLD INDIANS ON SOCOTRA]
- Casson, Lionel. The Periplus Maris Erythraei: Text with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Princeton University Press, 2012.