Do Pay a Visit to The Oldest Zero at the Chaturbhuj Temple in MP

We all know that it was the Indians who invented the numeral “zero”. Or rather it was the Indians who gave a symbol to the concept of zero, a concept that was already in use perhaps. Many scholars theorize that it was the philosophical concept of nothingness or “Shunyata” that made ancient Indians wonder about the mathematical use of the concept.

Others suggest that as in earlier times, counting was done with stones on the ground and the void that a stone would leave on the sand would eventually come to denote zero. The discovery of the mathematical concept of zero was truly transformative and greatly influenced mathematicians in the old world. The discovery made possible the decimal numbering system based on position.

To explain its significance, let’s look at the Roman numeral system. Using letters to represent numbers, the largest was M which denoted 1,000. So if one wants to write 10,000, one would have to write MMMMMMMMMM. Imagine how impractical it would be to write a million in such a system! Using the Indian numeral system, where the place of a numeral determines its value, one could make complex calculations much more efficiently. Taking the number 111 as an example and reading from right to left, there’s a 1 in the unit position, a 1 in the 10s position, and a 1 in the 100s position. 1 + 10 + 100 = 111.

The concept was picked up by the Arab scholar Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi in the 7th century and it was through him that the western world was introduced to the concept. This led to the common assumption that it was the Arabs who invented it.

The radiating zero. Photo: Manas Avijit

In the city of Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, one can find the earliest evidence of modern zero, engraved in a small temple known as the Chaturbhuj Temple. The ancient city is known for its glorious fort, the intricately structured temples of Sas Bau and Teli ka Mandir and the fabulous Jain sculptures carved out of stone, the small unassuming temple on the eastern approach usually misses the gaze of the tourists. The temple was literally carved out of sheer rock face in 876 AD, commissioned by Alla, the grandson of Nagarabhatta of the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty. There are two examples of the use of zero in Chaturbhuj Temple, and one of them is radiating, perhaps to denote its importance! Used in an inscription describing the donation to the temple and a land grant, the temple is the oldest example of the usage of zero.

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