CHATLINE Some people make history. Some people are made for history — C. Santhalingam is one of them. S.S. Kavitha meets him
Retired archaeological officer C. Santhalingam is a mobile storehouse of historical dates, kings and kingdoms — he is sought after by students and scholars alike for information. I am no exception either, seeking his help in identifying heritage sites in and around Madurai for the column ‘Namma Madurai'.
His eyes gleam with passion while talking about heritage structures, murals and frescos. The observant scholar sniffs out hidden history even from the remotest of villages. With a bright smile, he ascertains the age and its importance at a glance. He marvels at the antiquity and uniqueness of ancient structures. Even with slender evidence available, he is able to provide the whole picture.
“There is a pattern in everything. We substitute the missing pieces and give a shape to it,” says C. Santhalingam.
As Secretary of ‘Pandyanaadu - Centre for Historical Research', he is busy helping scholars pursuing doctorates. From discovering roman coins at Maangudi near Rajapalayam and Alagankulam near Ramanathapuram, publishing half-a-dozen books including the history of Dharmapuri district, Santhalingam has come a long way.
Born in Neeravi near Kamudhi, son of a handloom weaver and farmer, this zoology graduate switched to Tamil literature for his post graduation. While preparing for competitive examinations in Chennai little did he know that someday he would clean mud-clad inscriptions and decipher them.
During his stint in Chennai, professor N. Vanamamalai advised him to join a Diploma course in Epigraphy and Archaeology conducted by Department of Archaeology, Government of Tamil Nadu. “I obliged him and later found this was my cup of tea,” he recalls.
His inspiration was Dr. Nagaswami, popularly known as ‘people's archaeologist'. Santhalingam closely followed his footsteps and that helped him to develop interest in learning about the past. “Apart from subject knowledge, I learnt punctuality from Dr. Nagaswami,” he says.
His association with Iravatham Mahadevan, eminent scholar epigraphist who worked on Indus script, widened his horizon.
His interest in the subject grew by leaps and bounds and drove him to write his debut book on ‘Kudumiyan Malai' in Pudukottai district. The book fetched him the first rank during his course besides winning him the T.N. Ramachandran award in 1977. Whenever an archeologist thinks of Kudumiyan Malai, the musical inscription surfaces in mind. This unique inscription, written in Grantha script and Sanskrit , deals with ancient music tradition consisting of seven swaras and 3000-odd ragas.
In his book, Mr. Santhalingam has culled out details about 120 inscriptions found at Kuduminathar, Moolathanathar Peruman adigal, Thirunalakundramudaiya, Akilandeswari, Soundara Nayaki and Murugan temples. He also discovered one Tamil Brahmi inscription on the Jain bed in the same area.
Santhalingam developed his knowledge on research methodology with the aid of Dr.Y.Subbarayalu, who is now the director, French Institute of Indology, Puducherry.
Later, he completed his M.Phil., on ‘Rituals and Beliefs as gleaned from inscriptions' and Ph.D., on ‘Historical Geography of Thondaimandalam.'
With his first appointment in Dharmapuri district, Santhalingam began his explorations and excavations. “Walk and search is the mantra of every archaeologist,” he says and adds that he and his ilk would not mind spending days at the excavation sites even without proper shelter. “In remote places we also have to encounter difficult terrains and wild animals,” he says.
During his tenure in Dharmapuri, his work titled ‘Varalatril Thagadoor' won him the State Government's award in 1990 for the best history book of theyear. Besides, he was part of 12 excavations at Panaikulam and Polumanpatti, among other places. Similarly, he also identified coins belonging to Augustus and Caesar periods around villages like Cumbum valley, Nathampatti and Singanthiradu. He also has the credit of identifying three brahmi inscriptions at Kudimiyan Malai, Thirumalai and Arittapatti. There are 94 brahmi inscriptions in Tamil Nadu of which 60 are found around Madurai, he notes, adding it gives him a sense of pride to understand the cultural and traditional practices of ancestors. Like any archaeologist, Santhalingam likes going back to his roots. In Neeravi he identified Raja Raja Cholan gold coin of 11th century, a 10th century hero stone, Vayttezhuthu Pillar inscription belonging to Cholan Thalaikonda Veerapandya (946 to 966 AD) and inscribed Nandhi sculpture. He also published his findings in various journals.
“Though we have a long legacy,” Mr. Santhalingam says, “we have lost innumerable properties owing to mindless vandalism and neglect. Perhaps we ignore them because we are blessed with a rich heritage and too many structures and have not imparted the importance of protecting our past among our youths. “We should not blame the young. As elders we have failed to instil how important it is to protect our ancient monuments that unravel how antique our culture is,” he says.
Thinking on these lines, retired archaeologists and interested persons joined him in establishing ‘Pandyanaadu' to develop a systematic approach to historical facts. Pandyanaadu, the land of the oldest surviving civilization, has much to offer to history buffs.
Mr.Santhalingam, says this city-based forum will reach out to interested persons in 10 districts – Madurai, Virudhunagar, Dindigul, Theni, Ramanthapuram, Pudukottai, Sivaganga, Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin – which constituted the then Pandya country. The forum will also guide research scholars, conduct training courses in inscription reading, seminars and workshops besides establishing a full-fledged reference library. Besides, he also gives lectures to participants of Green Walk, a visit to historical places in and around Madurai.