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Inscriptions in the spotlight

A view of the inscription at Sri Nageswaraswami Temple, the oldest shrine in Kumbakonam,

A view of the inscription at Sri Nageswaraswami Temple, the oldest shrine in Kumbakonam,   | Photo Credit: K_N_CHARI

Kalakshetra became the apt forum to showcase Epigraphy as a tool with which authentic facts can be established

It was concern for a vital link in the dissemination of knowledge, true and unimpeachable, which had brought personalities from three spheres together on the same dais — Rukmini Arangam of Kalakshetra. The head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Pitam, Sri Sankara Vijayendra Saraswati, Dr. Sachidananda Joshi, Member-Secretary, IGNCA (Indira Gandhi Centre for the Arts), New Delhi) and Dr. R. Nagaswamy, legend in the field of history and archaeology, shared space to stress the importance of inscriptions. Linking them all was the Kalakshetra Foundation, another bastion of Indian heritage.

“The intention is to present history unvarnished. We have a wealth of inscriptions and it is imperative to know how to decipher them,” Dr. Joshi, stressed at the function on Sunday last. The IGNCA has taken up several projects to preserve the heritage of this land and a series of workshops on epigraphy is one of the initiatives. Music, dance and theatre are among the many subjects chosen for in-depth study.

“This is an attempt to present the country’s history true and centre. Neither left nor right,” said Dr. Nagaswamy at the inauguration of the workshop, which he was conducting under the auspices of IGNCA and the Kalakshetra Foundation. “No country has this kind of treasure. There are thousands of them waiting to be tapped. And the number of people who can decipher inscriptions is dwindling,” he added.

At 90, Dr. Nagaswamy retains the same vigour and passion that he exhibited in his salad days. “The takeover of the country by the East India Company heralded a dark phase for our inscriptions,” informs Dr. Nagaswamy in an aside. “From administration to education and judiciary, everything in this land is documented. A gap of 100 years — 1750-1850 — was created during the transition of rule from Indian to British. It was declared that there was no documentation of any kind regarding administration or any other subject. But that is not true. It therefore becomes imperative to preserve inscriptions — stone, metal or palm leaf — which mirror the rich heritage of this vast land,” There are about 60,000 in Tamil Nadu, the maximum in the country,” he explains. Samples from the ASI collection were exhibited at the venue. “The law, as defined by Manu is still followed,” he points out.

Nagaswamy’s words echo those of Dr. Sachidananda Joshi, who said that it was vital to know the importance of inscriptions, more so to read them. “Otherwise we will continue to hear about our own history, often fabricated, from Western scholars. Sadly, experts in Indology hail from Europe and the West and wax eloquent on our culture,” he observed. It is precisely with this in mind that IGNCA started the initiative to teach the learned in this country the art of deciphering epigraphy. Who better than Dr. Nagaswamy for the role of mentor? Author of several books and well-versed in Sanskrit, Nagaswamy unearthed hundreds of significant inscriptions during his time as the Director of the Archaeological Survey of India. He is continuing his mission of propagating knowledge on ancient history through lectures, books and workshops.

That evening, Nagaswamy concluded his speech with a nugget of information. “Not far away from here, in Mahabalipuram, there is an inscription, 700 years old — belonging to the period of Rajasimha Pallava — which mentions Bharata as the author of Natya Sastra.” His message was clear: “Do not underestimate this part of the country in the area of epigraphy. It is history beckoning you.” The audience responded with a round of applause.

In order to provide an opportunity for the teaching faculty to get acquainted with the niche field of epigraphy, IGNCA organised in November 2017, a workshop in New Delhi. The week-long programme, helmed by Dr. Nagaswamy, was attended by senior lecturers, who learnt to read the ancient scripts and their regional ramifications. There was a request to organise more such educative sessions and the Chennai workshop was the second. The goal, according to Dr. Joshi, is to produce 101 epigraphists.

The Chennai edition, which ended yesterday (June 6), was attended by 40 scholars, chosen by IGNCA from hundreds of applications and focused on Sanskrit inscriptions. The 15-day workshop held in Bengaluru recently was on Brahmi script. A month-long workshop on manuscriptology just concluded in Varanasi. “The Varanasi training session was attended by scholars from different countries and they came from different fields — nanotechnology, cancer research and so on,” informed Dr. Joshi.

Series of workshops

The book released by the Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit, published by the Uttankita Vidya Aranya Trust under Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Visva Mahavidyalaya, Kanchipuram — which Dr. Nagaswamy served as Vice-Chancellor — was about Sanskrit inscriptions. Eleventh in a series, the book has English translation and throws light on the ancient history of this country, beginning with epigraphs belonging to the period of Asoka, third century BCE.

“The Trust was started in 1985 by the 68th pontiff of the Kanchi Kamakoti Pitam specifically to document evidence sculpted and etched in Sanskrit,” informed Sri Sankara Vijayendra Saraswati. “The word ‘Uttankita’ indicates sculpting — could be stone or copper — and the Trust is another proof of the long vision Mahaperiyava had. He had realised the importance of sculpted texts and therefore started the process of preserving the treasure. Hundreds of scholars are working relentlessly to print them so that the information will be preserved and knowledge will reach the public. It was Mahaperiyava’s wish to get the volumes translated to regional languages,” observed the Sankaracharya.

The latest volume covers inscriptions from 1000-1100 CE, which are in Prakrit or Sanskrit. They are summarised in English. For copies of the book, contact Uppili 09283186778.

At the Chennai workshop

The five-day workshop at Kalakshetra dealt with Sanskrit inscriptions found in different regions — Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and so on. Expert epigraphists from Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune, Mysuru, Bengaluru and Chennai imparted training to the students.

Dr. Ambarish Khare took his class through Gujarat and Haryana. Beginning with seals found in Harappan sites, he explained how the civilisation and lifestyle of a region and its people could be traced through inscriptions, which in this case was in the languages of Prakrit and Sanskrit, the scripts used being Brahmi, Kharoshthi and Devanagari.

It was interesting to learn about the extensive arrangements made in those days for everything under the sun. Take donations, for instance. Pointing out to a text on copper plate, Dr. Khare said that it set out in detail the process of donation. If a ruler gave away a piece of land, it stayed for ever. Until the Sun, Moon and the Ocean exists, went the verse, the form in which the edict was written. What if the dynasty changed? Quoting sastra, the inscription says that one who gives such a donation will live in paradise for 60,000 years and one who snatches it will roast for as long in hell. Allowing a donation to continue is better than offering a new one, it advises a ruler, who succeeds.

A huge stone in Girnar is a protected monument because it contains 14 edicts of three rulers — Asoka, Rudradamana and Skandagupta.

Another important and interesting show-piece was a Sunga period sculpture of a child learning the Brahmi alphabet. On the pedestal are etched auspicious symbols such as a Srivatsa and floral patterns.

Dr. Khare showed evidence of a dam connecting two rivers — Suvarnasekara and Pilasini. Destroyed by a storm, the dam was rebuilt on public demand and survived for 1,000 years. One of the rivers goes by the name Sonerekha whereas the other has disappeared, he informed.

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 8:20:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/inscriptions-in-the-spotlight/article27552037.ece

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