History & Culture

Nagaswamy and his passion for the past

Dr. R. Nagaswamy explaining a long inscription carved on the base wall of one of the entrances, Rajarajan Thiruvasal, at the Brihadiswara temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu.

Dr. R. Nagaswamy explaining a long inscription carved on the base wall of one of the entrances, Rajarajan Thiruvasal, at the Brihadiswara temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu.

It was twilight of an evening 18 years ago. We were at the Kailasanatha temple in Kanchipuram, built by the Pallava king Rajasimha (regnal years 690 – 728 CE). Dr. R. Nagaswamy, dressed in white dhoti and shirt, pointed to an inscription on the temple’s front mantapa and broke into a story. “This is an inscription in Kannada issued by the Badami Chalukya king, Vikramaditya II,” he began. The Pallavas and the Chalukyas were at each other’s throats. To avenge the defeats of the Chalukyas at the hands of the Pallavas, Vikramaditya II invaded Pallava territory, defeated Mahendra III alias Paramesvara, and captured Kanchipuram. When the Chalukya army reached the doorstep of the Kailasanatha temple, Vikramaditya II stood stunned by its beautiful architecture.

“The conqueror was conquered,” Dr. Nagaswamy exclaimed, adding “The Kannada inscription talks about Vikramaditya’s gifts, including gold, to the temple. He instructed his army not to take anything away from the temple as war trophies to Badami. However, he took back the team of architects to Pattadakkal. To fulfil his queen Lokamadevi’s wish, Vikramaditya II built the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakkal, for which the Kailasanatha temple was the inspiration.”

Dr. Nagaswamy, 91, who passed away in Chennai on January 23, was a born raconteur.

In September 2011, a Nataraja idol, stolen from a temple in Sripuranthan village in Ariyalur district of Tamil Nadu, had been brought back to Chennai from Australia. Dr. Nagaswamy went into raptures on seeing the Chola bronze.

“The magnificence of the bronze and its artistic subtleties” made him think it was a royal dedication by Kulotunga Chola I (regnal years 1070 – 1125 CE) to the Sripuranthan temple. The bronze, with Shiva performing the Ananda Thandava at the centre of the aureole that represents the cosmos, had 28 flames emanating from the aureole. They stood for the 28 nakshatras, he said. The village name ‘Sripuranthan’ originated from ‘Sri Paranthakan’ because the village was called Parantaka Chaturvedi Mangalam, named after Parantaka Sundara Chola, father of Raja Raja Chola, he explained.

Specialist in Chola bronzes

Dr. Nagaswamy was a multi-sided genius. Archaeology, art, and architecture fascinated him. He loved a good fight on academic matters. The sweep and amplitude of his scholarship was astounding. He was an epigraphist, an archaeologist, an iconographer, a scholar in Sanskrit and Tamil studies, a specialist in the Chola bronzes, and a numismatist. He could read copper-plate charters and palm-leaf manuscripts, in both Tamil and Sanskrit, with ease.

He pioneered the reading of the Tamil-Brahmi, Vattezhuttu, Grantha and Nagari scripts. Intrigued by the Harappan script, he participated in the excavation of the Harappan site at Kalibangan, Rajasthan, in 1963 and 1964 under the leadership of B.K. Thapar and B.B. Lal of the Archaeological Survey of India.

An accomplished photographer, Dr. Nagaswamy loved taking pictures for the books, monographs, booklets and brochures he wrote. They includedVishnu Temples of Kancipuram,Tarangampadi,Uttaramerur, and his outstanding work in Tamil titled, Oviappavai, which dealt with the history of Tamil Nadu’s sculptures, murals, bronzes and other crafts. As an aircraft engineer in the Indian Air Force, he specialised in Tiger Moth engine maintenance. Photographs show him in the IAF uniform, with a Tiger Moth and another aircraft. He was also a yoga practitioner and harmonium player. He choreographed and staged dance-dramas, becoming the architect of the Natyanjali festival at Chidambaram.

Multi-pronged initiatives

Importantly, he shared with child-like enthusiasm his vast knowledge with both college students and post-doctoral researchers. Trained first as a curator of art and archaeology in the Government Museum at Egmore, Chennai, he later succeeded T.N. Ramachandran as Director of Archaeology in the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology (TNSDA).

As Dr. Y. Subbarayalu, former head of the Department of Epigraphy and Archaeology, Tamil University, Thanjavur, says, “Dr. Nagaswamy built up the Department of Archaeology almost from scratch and laid the foundation for it as an energetic academic institution. He initiated its multi-pronged activities in archaeological excavations, epigraphical surveys and publications, study and conservation of temple arts, and collection of palm-leaf manuscripts.”

Dr. K. Rajan, former professor, Department of History, Central University, Pondicherry, calls Dr. Nagaswamy “a one-man army”. “He was not a table academic but a foot soldier who travelled to every nook and corner of Tamil Nadu.”

All these scholars agree that it was Dr. Nagaswamy who “trained and groomed the first generation of a devoted band of epigraphists,” who would later become the pillars of the department. All of that generation have retired from service now, leaving a great void. It was Dr. Nagaswamy who founded the Institute of Epigraphy, under the aegis of the TNSDA, to organise a one-year post-graduate diploma course in epigraphy for students of Archaeology, History and Tamil Literature. After they finished their course, they were employed in the department. He organised summer courses in epigraphy for school teachers, who later fanned out across Tamil Nadu to discover hundreds of inscriptions.

Some of Dr. Nagaswamy’s outstanding achievements during his directorship, according to Dr. Subbarayalu, were the survey and publication of hero-stone inscriptions from the Chengam area in Tiruvannamalai district. This initiated the publication of a series of district-wise volumes of inscriptions, and later, the discoveries of the Tamil-Brahmi inscription at Jambai, and the Poolangurichi Vattezhuttu inscription.

He encouraged the late and renowned epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan, and collaborated with him in the study of Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions. Mention should be made of his collaboration with Professor Francois Gros of the French Institute of Pondicherry in making a fresh survey of Uttiramerur and publishing a monograph in French of the place.

Dr. Nagaswamy was a street fighter, who revelled in academic controversies. He insisted that a “study of the Pallava inscriptions has established that all the monuments of Mamallapuram were Rajasimha’s creations.” Other researchers argued that they were built by Narasimhavarman I, Parameswaravarman I, and Rajasimhan. Many of the books he wrote had controversial findings.

Yet, as Dr. Rajan noted, “We have lost one of the illustrious sons of Indian archaeology.”

The Chennai-based writer is an independent journalist.

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