Most of our knowledge on ancient India comes from beautifully engraved ancient stone inscriptions. These are written in the ancient languages, no longer spoken and known only to a dwindling number of experts.
The Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu
The dramatic fall in the number of these experts, known in academic circles as epigraphists, poses a threat to India's cultural heritage, for without them India stands to lose a unique insight into its past.
Around 60 per cent of ancient inscriptions found in India are in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Last year alone more than 200 new inscriptions were discovered. Of the approximately 60,000 inscriptions in the state, a very large number has not even been published so far.
The study of inscriptions on pillars, rocks, copper plates, temple walls and other material from ancient times in the country has begun to suffer considerably because of the shortage of epigraphists.
Indifference poses a problem
Many historians claim the government has been indifferent to the problem. Epigraphy is, from their perspective, a highly specialised discipline that needs a lot of devotion. It can be revived but only if the government supports this primary tool of archaeology dealing with literate cultures.
Ancient Indian history suffers due to lack of experts
Kum Kum Roy, who teaches ancient history in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, says vast tracts of India’s history will be lost if these inscriptions are not transcribed. "I think more than scriptures what is interesting is that the inscriptions tell us a lot about society, economy, polity as well, so they do have a religious dimension to them. But very often you have inscriptions about land grants, you have inscriptions about what men and women were doing in their ordinary lives and taxes they were paying. So I think it is really important that we recover these inscriptions, that these inscriptions get transcribed, get translated and preserved. Because without that we will be losing out on vast areas out history."
The government has now stepped in and directed both the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Archaeological Survey of India or ASI to pull out all the stops to revive the discipline of epigraphy. Gautam Sengupta, the director general of the Archaeological Survey of India says the problem is due to the decline in the study of ancient languages: "The situation came to such a pass that it attracted the attention of well meaning people all over the country. The problem of dearth of epigraphists, whether it is Sanskritic inscription, Dravidian or Arabic Persian inscription, is ultimately linked to the problem of a general decline in the interest of classical languages."
South India fares better
While academic institutes in the south have fared better, largely because of the bulk of inscriptions being found in the region, in the north, the study of epigraphy has seen a heavy decline. Many of the inscriptions are couched in extravagant language. Some of these inscriptions provide insights into India's dynastic history that otherwise lacks contemporary historical records.
Roy says if interest can be generated among students it will be possible to save this important skill. "It is still not too late as there are still lots of students who are enthusiastic about epigraphy. Several of the students have decided to devise their own courses and they have been running this on an informal basis to get at least the basic rudiments of epigraphy in place. So there is a lot of enthusiasm among young students and if that can be tapped, it is not too late."
Alarmed by the falling numbers of epigraphists, both the government and the ASI has decided on an action plan. Sengupta says: "At a meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office, government in its wisdom has taken up a number of important measures to boost the study, research and promoting a generation of epigraphists in India. This includes in the first phase five national professorships in epigraphy."
The government has also promised to create more research posts in various universities across the country to revive the tradition. Its ultimate objective is to ensure that the country’s cultural heritage is preserved at all costs.
Author: Murali Krishnan, New Delhi
Editor: Grahame Lucas