‘Epigraphy staring at an uncertain future'

Etched in stone:Inscriptions such as the rock edicts of Mauryan emperor Ashoka are a rich source of information to know about the ancient history of India.— PHOTO: R. KRISHNA KUMAR

Etched in stone:Inscriptions such as the rock edicts of Mauryan emperor Ashoka are a rich source of information to know about the ancient history of India.— PHOTO: R. KRISHNA KUMAR  

Reckoned to be the bedrock of ancient Indian historical studies, epigraphy is at the crossroads and stares into an uncertain future given societal preference for remunerative career choices rather than academic and scholarly pursuits.

Even as the Directorate of Epigraphy — which is headquartered in Mysore and is a branch of the Archaeological Survey of India — will launch the 150th anniversary celebrations on Monday, there are fears that a vast chunk of epigraphic material may be vandalised and lost if they are not protected by the Government.

Speaking to The Hindu , Director (Epigraphy) T.S. Ravishankar said it was time to review the present scenario related to epigraphic studies and called for intensive and extensive surveys to record, document and copy the epigraphic material like inscriptions before they were defaced or destroyed.

“Monuments were being lost and inscriptions were vanishing or being defaced due to the sinking of land or human intrusion by way of quarrying. Copper plates with valuable inscription material were being smelted for the value of the metals as people were ignorant of their antique value. With the loss of each inscription, the country was losing a page of its history,” Dr. Ravishankar lamented.

He called for a multipronged approach to reverse the tide and underlined the importance of creating public interest and enthusiasm on issues related to history and heritage as the first step. Dr. Ravishankar said people should be sensitised about the imperative of conserving historical heritage inherited by the country, and epigraphy as a subject should be introduced in a much broader way in schools and colleges.

Dr. Ravishankar pointed out that the popularity of Information Technology and allied courses, which were perceived to be more remunerative, has been a setback for the study of humanities, as a result of which there were few takers for courses such as epigraphy.

“It is important to nurture young scholars and talent for the critical study of epigraphic material. More than 50 per cent of the inscriptions and other epigraphic materials collected and published by the organisation need critical study for a complete understanding of the country's history and culture,” he added.

The celebrated Ashokan inscriptions are the best-known examples of epigraphy, which throws light on the Mauryan emperor, his religious and social beliefs, the political situation of the age and finally his transformation to a man of peace eschewing violence after the Kalinga war.

‘Many more'

Not withstanding the colossal collection of inscriptions and other epigraphic material by the Directorate of Epigraphy, Dr. Ravishankar believes there are many more inscriptions that are yet to be unearthed where field surveys have not been conducted in the past. “A sensational discovery was made two years ago when we discovered Mauryan emperor Ashoka's Minor Rock Edict in Kaimur district of Bihar while 86 sheets of copper plate inscriptions were discovered in Tamil Nadu. These provide a wealth of information on the social, cultural, religious, economic situation, and helps throw light even on political history of the period,” said Dr. Ravishankar.

The epigraphy branch was established in 1886. Since its inception, it has copied and published 73,000 inscriptions, which helps in the reconstruction of Indian history.

The epigraphy branch of the ASI was initially established in Bangalore and was later shifted to Ooty in Tamil Nadu in 1903, and finally in 1966 the headquarters moved to Mysore.

While the Mysore office is responsible for copying the Sanskrit and Dravidian inscriptions, the Nagpur office is responsible for Arabic and Persian inscriptions.

150th anniversary celebrations of the ASI

to be launched today

‘Extensive surveys needed to record, document and copy epigraphic material'

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