A forest of 
engraved knowledge

Great inscriptions were made of complex and exciting literary stuff, writes B. N. Goswamy

A scribe at work
A scribe at work. Detail from a painted wooden bookcover of probably a 14th century manuscript. Oriental Research Institute, Mysore

Epigraphy (from Greek, meaning "written upon"): the study of inscriptions engraved into stone or other permanent materials, or cast in metal; the science of classifying them as to cultural context and date, elucidating them and assessing what conclusions can be deduced from them.

WHEN I read the title Uttankita Sanskrit Vidya Aranya Epigraphs for the first time, I felt, I must admit, a bit daunted even though I could, with my limited knowledge of Sanskrit and English, make out what it meant. But I felt curious, and decided to pursue the matter, till two volumes of the series landed on my desk: courtesy, the Chairman of the Vidya Aranya Trust in Mysore. The books dealt with epigraphs, as the title promised, and I became completely engrossed in them: the texts of selected epigraphs, the translations and the elaborate scholarly notes.

At the same time, names of distinguished epigraphers of the past came quickly to mind: James Prinsep, A. Cunningham, Burgess, Fleet, Hultzsch; equally, Bhandarkar, D.C. Sircar, Ziyauddin Desai, Ramesh, among others. Also flashed upon my mind a wonderful image of scribes engraving texts that I found some time back on the inside of a pair of wooden book covers of a manuscript from Karnataka, possibly of the 14th century.

Here was a different world: a world of search and scholarship, concerned exclusively, and passionately one might add, with the effort to locate, decipher, reconstruct, translate, and interpret texts: texts that emerge from the haze of the past and speak to us across time in tongues of their own. Few people might be aware of them, and yet everyone should. For where would one be, in respect of understanding the past, without their aid? What would one have known of Ashoka without a reading of the texts the great emperor ordered engraved on pillars and rocks throughout our land? Or, again, what would one have made of the great Minar that is at the Qutub without understanding what is engraved on its elegant surfaces? And so on.

Thousands upon thousands of engraved inscriptions have survived from the past: some in good shape, others abraded or mutilated; some on rocks and pillars; some on temple walls; some in copper plates that record gifts; some at the base of sculptures in stone or bronze; a great many on coins; and so on. For years, epigraphers have worked upon them, and one knows of massive undertakings: like the Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, the first volume of which came out in 1877, or the journal Epigraphia Indica which started being published soon after. Quite obviously, no one work can encompass all that has survived, and exists. The Uttankita volumes contain, therefore, in the nature of things, selections, all in Sanskrit. But whatever is in them is full of fascination, for not only are the texts and the translations clear, but the notes that follow each entry place things in a lucid context, discussing disagreements among scholars, raising questions about identities or dates, engaging in speculations.

Going through the volumes I was drawn, incidentally, to the origin of the Uttankita series, and the choice of its title. The inspiration for this massive work came, one learns, from none else than the Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram, Chandrashekhara Saraswati, one of whose many concerns was to try and preserve for the coming generations records of the past: both as knowledge and inspiration. Towards this end, he founded a Trust, with the name Uttankita Vidya Aranya that contains a highly intelligent pun. For it recalls to the mind, on the one hand, one of the great savants of India, the sage-like Vidyaranya, spiritual preceptor of the two founders of the great Vijayanagar empire, who flourished in the 14th century; on the other hand, the planned publication on epigraphs, bearing the title Uttankita Vidya Aranya, could be taken to signify ‘A Forest of Engraved Knowledge’. Of complex but exciting literary stuff like this, one knows, were many great inscriptions of the past made.

Quite naturally, the range, content, purport and literary merit of the inscriptions vary greatly. A mighty emperor like Ashoka might speak in a long text of his own spiritual journey and the moral precepts he would like his people to adhere to; at the same time a one-line inscription on an image of Buddha, installed by the wife of a simple garment maker, might record that she got the image made, ‘seeking alleviation of the distress of all beings’.

One ruler might direct his subordinates to take upon the pain of death, good care of a water channel lately constructed for the benefit of subjects; and another, in a record engraved upon a copper plate, might, while endowing land upon a priest for ‘acquiring merit for my parents and myself’, direct his successors to honour this gift in perpetuity, adding that: "if any one with his mind, blurred by the darkness of ignorance, snatches this land away, he will incur all five great sins upon himself". There are, then, the great prashastis, of course — eulogies pure and simple in other words — which extol the virtues and the exploits of princes. But it is not uncommon to find even religious grants prefaced by extravagant praise of the grantor. Thus, a donor might be thus introduced: "In that family of Sendrakas, which is firmly established and has risen to lofty heights like the Meru mountain and whose fame has blossomed and spread, there was Sri Bhanusakti, the lord of men, who had achieved victory in the battles where numerous four-tusked elephants had clashed, who had vanquished all his enemies without exception, who had conquered the whole circle of the earth through his prowess and strength of his arms, whose lotus-like feet were being rubbed by the crowns of numerous feudatories."

One has to take all this with a pinch of salt, as they say, but before one tires of this kind of hyperbole, one might do well to remember that practices were no different in other cultures. To wit, the opening words of the inscription in that most famous of texts, the Rosetta Stone, decipherment of which unlocked the key to Egyptian hieroglyphs. This, roughly, is how that text begins: "In the reign of the new king who was Lord of the diadems, great in glory, the stabiliser of Egypt, and also pious in matters relating to the gods, superior to his adversaries, rectifier of the life of men, Lord of the thirty-year periods like Hephaestus the Great, King like the Sun, the Great King of the Upper and Lower Lands, offspring of the parent-loving gods, whom Hephaestus has approved, to whom the Sun has given victory, living image of Zeus, Son of the Sun, Ptolemy the ever-living, beloved by Ptah ...."