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Unsung Heroes: An accidental historian in Bengaluru strives to acquaint locals with their rich heritage

A 14-century inscription stone that bore the name of his village Kethamaranahalli led P L Udaya Kumar on a journey in which he began to trace and digitally document several inscriptions in Bengaluru that date back a thousand years.

P L Udaya Kumar

Sitting amid scholars and piles of books at Mythic Society, 54-year-old P L Udaya Kumar is often busy working to decipher inscriptions and overseeing the Inscriptions 3D Digital Conservation Project.

Five years ago, a sense of inquisitiveness compelled him to quit his corporate job and embark on an ambitious journey of locating stone inscriptions in and around Bengaluru Urban, Bengaluru Rural and Ramanagara districts – most of which are a treasure trove of thousands of years of history – and to digitally conserve them so that future generations would take pride in their roots.

Over 70-80% of the 1,500 inscriptions in the three districts were first documented in Volume 9 of the book Epigraphia Carnatica by Benjamin Lewis Rice, director of the archaeological department of the princely state of Mysore, in 1905. This book became a reference point for Udaya Kumar. Till date, he has visited 500 of the 1,500 inscriptions and digitally scanned 250.

Recalling his foray in 2017, Udaya Kumar says he heard that there was a 14th-century inscription stone at Kethamaranahalli (present Rajajinagar-I block). Having grown up in Rajajinagar all his life, his interest was piqued and he sought to know more about the inscription stone that bore the name of his village.

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Recalling his foray in 2017, Udaya Kumar says he heard that there was a 14th-century inscription stone at Kethamaranahalli (present Rajajinagar-I block).

“Today it is Rajajinagar first block, but when I was growing up it was a village called Kethamaranahalli and I heard that a 14th-century inscription stone had my village’s name. As I was growing up, the village was in the outskirts of Bengaluru and not a place that many people would think of as having any history. I was very curious to find out about the inscription stone. I found out from the book that my place had 700 years of history. Later, I also discovered that the stone had been destroyed. It’s not traceable but I found out what was written in the stone, it’s all documented in the book,” he says.

During this process, Udaya Kumar realised that there were several inscriptions in other parts of Bengaluru which date back to a thousand years. “Nobody thinks of Bengaluru as a place having history. I discovered that the city has a lot of history. When I was working with a private company, I used to find the inscriptions which were documented in the book and found that a lot of these inscriptions were destroyed. Several stones were used as construction materials, which was terrible to know,” he adds.

Udaya Kumar apprised people about the destruction of treasure troves of history. With like-minded friends, he used to search for the inscription stones and if found in a dilapidated condition, it would be restored with the help of local people.

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While the state archaeology department should have restored the inscription stones which were either destroyed or left in dilapidated condition, paucity of funds make it impossible for the department to maintain all palaces, forts and inscription stones. However, Udaya Kumar says that the department extended administrative support to him in this endeavour.

“Many of these inscriptions are in temples so the state archaeology department used to help us in getting permissions or in convincing the priests,” he points out.

Udaya Kumar also believes that the local history, which many local citizens could have been associated with, has long been ignored. He opines that assimilation of local history in textbooks is very important.

Initially, the digital restoration of the inscriptions was done by Udaya Kumar with the help of a private company that made the scanners used in the restoration. “The company which sells the digital scanners was run by heritage enthusiasts, so they scanned 20 inscriptions for free but later realised that it was not a sustainable way. At that time, I also tried to see if I could raise funds through corporate bodies to procure a scanner because they are very costly. It was then that the Mythic Society (an institution that works in the area of Indic studies) stepped in. So if you are working in the area of history, folklore, probably one of the most well-stocked libraries in the country will be the one at Mythic Society. I was invited for a talk here after which they showed interest in running this as a project. I gave them an estimate and they agreed to fund the restoration project and asked me to run it. I gave my consent right away and quit my job in 2020. Mythic Society’s funds are used for buying scanners and computers. Every day we work in the fields. So the travel expenditure is all borne by the society,” he says.

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Udaya Kumar also believes that the local history, which many local citizens could have been associated with, has long been ignored. He opines that assimilation of local history in textbooks is very important.

“A common man’s view of the education in history up to a postgraduate level is of a very high level. A 5,000-year history is compressed in 1,200 pages till Class 12. So while doing so India is reduced to a country of ten dynasties in which the most prominent ones are listed and irrespective of geographical locations, the entire nation studies the same thing. So my village Kethamaranahalli will never feature in any history book because it seems too insignificant for others, but for the people of the village. So history, in that sense, has never been considered to be local. Very rarely is local history featured in any textbook. But for any person, local history is the most important thing and all that we gather from the inscriptions is hundred percent local. So, yes, what we do in that sense, is going to be extremely important in the narration of history in a local sense. Should this be worked into textbooks? Absolutely! If I don’t know the story of my place it is a tragedy, because you will end up believing you live in a place which is not important.”

Elaborating further, he says most of the lakes and temples in Bengaluru date back to a thousand years. “If children are told about the history of the lake and temples it will stay in their mind forever and they will know their importance. Tavarekere lake in BTM is 800 years old.

The inscriptions also reveal that Bengaluru has historically been a multilinguistic city, he says, pointing out that Kannada, Tamil and Telugu have been predominantly used in the inscriptions. Udaya Kumar says the multi-linguism also makes the place more tolerant. “Bengaluru has been welcoming to people who come here from different parts of the country. This has its roots in history,” he says.

Udaya Kumar adds that reading inscriptions is not difficult. “The difficult thing is to identify some of the words which are no longer in use. There is no space between the characters so for example in ABCD so AB can be a word or ABC can be another. Here, scholarship comes in,” he says.

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The Mythic Society’s ‘Inscriptions 3D Digital Conservation Project’ team uses cutting-edge technology like 3D digital scanning and studies the 3D digital model to decipher the text of the inscriptions.

Recently, a book published by the society on Singapura in Bengaluru revealed that the place is at least 500 years old. The inscriptions also revealed that the Singapura lake is of similar age. “November 25, 1526 CE is from when we have the first historical reference to Singapura,” the book says.

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First published on: 02-07-2022 at 01:38:48 pm
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