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The world’s oldest carved zero

Tracking down a world-changing symbol inscribed on the walls of a nondescript shrine in Gwalior

The walls of Chaturbhuj temple are carved with two early instances of the ‘zero’. Photo: Zac O’Yeah
The walls of Chaturbhuj temple are carved with two early instances of the ‘zero’. Photo: Zac O’Yeah

Most visitors to Gwalior don’t miss the majestic cliff-top Man Mandir palace with its fabulous archaeological sculpture museums. On the way up the winding western approach road, they invariably admire the series of enormous rock-cut monoliths of Jain prophets, resembling the lost Buddhas of Bamiyan. With so much to see, it is understandable that they might forget about the eastern approach, which is a tough climb on a cobbled pathway on which no cars are allowed. But it has its rewards. Great views, for one, and a unique historical sight: perhaps the world’s oldest known zero carved into stone.

It isn’t easy to find, but thanks to signposts put up here and there, I spot a small shrine complex nestled on the side of the steep road. The Chaturbhuj temple is, in fact, carved out of the sheer rock face. Its construction has been dated to 876 AD and luckily there’s a custodian at hand who understands what I might be searching for. He unlocks the gate and leads me to the sanctum, which has an idol of Lord Vishnu and an ancient inscription. On it are two instances of zeroes, easy to miss if the custodian doesn’t point them out—but once he does, they are unmistakable. One of the zeroes radiates! The other is part of the number “270", which apparently refers to the size of a land grant, notified in the decree inscribed here.

When I first heard about these zeroes, I did a bit of fact-checking, as is my wont before making a trip. While historians debate whether the ancient Egyptians or Chinese already had a concept of zero, the actual invention and design of the digit as we know it is credited to an unknown Indian mathematician who probably drew the first empty circle to symbolize nothingness hundreds of years before 825 AD, when the idea came into wider international use through the writings of the leading Arab mathematician Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi. It was through their trade with India that Arabs picked up the zero, which reached Europe far later, leading to the common European misconception that Arabs invented it.

One of the zeroes looks like a radiant sun. Photo: Zac O’Yeah

In India that concept of emptiness or void, shunya, had long been established in philosophy and discussed extensively in treatises written as early as the fifth century, so it is perhaps not unexpected that the idea was translated into a symbol somewhere not too far away from Gwalior, within the Gupta empire, which was known for its appreciation of knowledge and learning. The digit went on to become useful in mathematical calculations when added to the series of nine existing numerals, 1-9, thereby completing the series of 10 that we use today.

So here it is, embedded into the rock that Gwalior fort stands upon, the oldest image of a modern zero that a tourist can gawk at in India. As I take one last look at the path-breaking number, I realize that without it the binary system couldn’t have been invented and, therefore, no computer code…so it is perhaps at this temple that we should give thanks to the ancients for the fact that we have laptops, smartphones and digital TV today!

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