Finding Zero: Indian or Old Khmer

I have just finished a book ‘Finding Zero’ by Amir D. Aczel. It has been a real interesting reading about the re-discovery of the earliest zero of our system we have ever found.

A French scholar named George Coedès discovered a rock piece with inscription in the nineteenth century at Trapang Prei, site of Sambor On Mekong in Cambodia. It was from the seventh century, pre-Angkor period. Coedès first translated the inscription from Old Khmer into French and published in 1931. He assigned an identifying label K-127 to the rock carrying inscription. The inscription clearly bore the date 605 in an ancient calendar that began in the year A.D. 78. Its date was thus A.D. 683. This inscription bears the earliest zero numeral ever discovered.

Interestingly another zero that is one year younger than one on K-127, thus dating from AD 684, was found near Palenbang, Indonesia. This zero was two centuries older than the Gwalior Zero.

Gwalior Zero is a circle inscribed at Chatur-bhuja (Vishnu) temple in Gwalior, India, dating to the ninth century, had been widely considered the oldest version of zero in our system, the Hindu-Arabic. There is an inscription in the temple in Sanskrit on the wall of the temple that records that it was built in the year 933 of a calendar whose starting point was 57BCE. So the year the temple was built was 876CE. The numerals 933 used here are surprisingly similar to our modern numbers. The inscription also records that the land grant for the temple had a length of 270 ‘hastas’. The 0 in 270 is the oldest zero that can be seen in India today. So by 876 CE, the Indians had the crucially important use of a place-holding zero at their disposal I a number system that from our modern vantage point was perfect. Their system would have enabled them to compute in a powerful,efficient, and unambiguous way.

But K-127 disappeared during the Khmer Rouge’s rule of terror, when more than 10,000 artifacts were deliberately destroyed. The book is the story how Amir rediscovered K-127 in Cambodia. And finally got it placed in its national museum. Amir also explains how ancient Indian philosophy of ‘sunyata’ and ‘anant’ would have influenced the origin of zero.

After closely examining the two inscriptions, one can observe that while Gwalior Zero is similar to the zero we write today, Khmer zero is only a dot that is more similar to the present day decimal point.

One can easily understand that the zero in both cases must have been invented and used years or century before those numbers were inscribed on the stone slabs both in India as well as Cambodia. With almost all the knowledge of the ancient mathematics and philosophy moving from India to all the southeastern Asian countries, it will be injustice to deny giving the credit for the invention and use of zero to ancient India’s mathematicians.

While reading the book, I always pondered if the government and the intellectuals of India could have done hundred times more to restore the strong link that Indians had over the region expanding from Bali to Korea in North. I also wonder if some researcher or the members of Indian Historical Research. one day would find some earlier zero in undivided Indian mainland.

India must also try to get the dates of the Bakhsahali manuscript agreed to find the ownership of the first available zero India was the first to discover zero. The Bakhshali Manuscript is an Ancient Indian mathematical manuscript written on “birch bark” which was found near the village of Bakhshali in 1881 in what was then the North-West Frontier Province of British India (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, in Pakistan).The Bakhshali manuscript, which is currently too fragile to be examined by scholars, is currently housed in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford and is too fragile to be examined by scholars.

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