Deep in the enormous regional centre of the Archaeological Survey of India in Mysuru, P.T. Nagarajan and P. Balamurugan, savants of ancient Tamil language and assistant epigraphists at the ASI, reverentially unrolled a long parchment. It was an estampage (the impression of an inscription made on inked paper) dating back to 1902 and more than 10 feet long. Balamurugan patiently read out the entire estampage, which looked like a series of squiggles to the untrained eye and was seven rows deep. “This inscription was made in the 10th regnal year of Jatavarman Sundara Pandya [a Pandya ruler] and confirms gifts of land to a temple in the 13th century,” said Balamurugan. The original paper, more than a century old and fraying at the edges, had been mounted on thick white paper, on the back of which, in one corner, was a minuscule barcode.
The room was full of cardboard boxes, each filled with estampages. And there were more rooms in the building that contained estampages in a multitude of Indian languages and scripts, altogether nearly a lakh estampages, a veritable inscriptional record spanning the ancient and medieval periods of India’s history. The oldest inscriptions for which estampages are available go back to the 3rd century BCE and record the edicts of the Mauryan Emperor, Asoka.
The recording of estampages has been a core responsibility of the ASI since it began its epigraphy division in 1887. It sent epigraphists out to make estampages of any inscription—a key raw material to ascertain historical facts—that was discovered. Thus began the ASI’s accumulation of estampages of inscriptions found on historical monuments, both religious and secular; stand-alone stone pillars; and at locations such as lake beds.
Linguistic scholars then took a close look at the inscriptions on the estampages and recorded the gist in the Annual Report of Indian Epigraphy (ARIE). Subsequently, they made a modern transcript of the entire inscription in serialised volumes such as South Indian Inscriptions and Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum. This work continued in post-independent India as well and is being done to this day, 135 years after the first estampage of an inscription was created in colonial India.
Over the past 10 months, around 60 epigraphists have been poring over the estampages at the headquarters of the ASI’s epigraphy division in Mysuru, in order to classify them. While the Dravidian language (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam) estampages are housed in Mysuru, those in Devanagari script (primarily in Sanskrit) and in Arabic and Persian have been brought to Mysuru from their respective ASI regional offices in Lucknow and Nagpur for this purpose.
ALSO READ: Ruins of splendour
The impetus to take up this task stems from the ASI’s intention to digitise estampages to make them available to scholars all over the world. “While writing history, historians rely on primary sources and the scans of these estampages serve as primary sources,” said Nagarajan.
S. Nagarajappa, Assistant Superintending Epigraphist at the ASI in Mysuru, who is an expert in old Kannada, said: “Due to urbanisation, many sites, along with their inscriptions, have been destroyed. As a result, the estampages that we have preserved become useful. For instance, a historically relevant inscription near Anaji village in Davanagere district of Karnataka which referred to a battle between the Kadambas and the Pallavas has been lost. Luckily, we have an estampage of the inscription in our collection.”
Nagarajappa also explained the traditional process of making an estampage. While the method is straightforward, where an inked paper is affixed to an inscription and then gently pulled away so that it retains the exact image, it requires specialist tools such as maplitho paper, bent beating brush, coir brush, a special ink (prepared in-house by the ASI), and a dabber. The idea to digitise these estampages originated in the judgment of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, said G. Maheshwari, Regional Director (South) of the ASI and the person in charge of epigraphy. She was brought in specifically to lead the estampages digitisation project in March 2022. “The Madurai Bench had ruled [on August 19, 2021] that Tamil estampages should be shifted to the ASI office in Chennai, and they gave us six months to comply with the judgment,” Maheshwari told Frontline.
With more than 26,000 estampages in Tamil, ASI officials were keen to digitise them before shifting them to Chennai. Then it was decided to digitise the entire collection. “Our Director General, V. Vidyavathi, suggested that rather than digitising only Tamil estampages, all the estamapages in the collection of the ASI could be digitised because this was a very important resource. Epigraphy had to be revamped,” said Maheshwari. Once these estampages are available in the public domain, they can also be cross-checked with the transcripts to ascertain the veracity of the inscriptions.
After Maheshwari took charge, the ASI identified a “Norwegian collaborative company” with the necessary technical expertise to scan the brittle estampages. What clinched the multi-crore deal for the company was that its technology could scan the estampages without touching them. Once the estampages, some of them spanning several feet, were mounted on a wall, the technical experts of the company would scan them as per the instructions of the ASI epigraphists.
The digitisation work began in July last year, but the process, which was inititated on the basis of a court order, is stalled because of an order of the High Court of Telangana. One of the bidders filed a plea disagreeing with the process of allotment of the tender. Maheshwari said she was confident that the verdict would be in the ASI’s favour because the procedure of allotment conformed to the rules. The remainder of the estampages, some 70 per cent, would then be digitised immediately, she added. There are plans to also digitise the volumes of the ARIE so that the entire information is available to researchers.
ASI officials concede that many estampages, some of them because of their century-old provenance, have themselves become historical documents and have been lost over the years because of poor preservation and loss during transfers (the epigraphy department was housed in Chennai, Udhagamandalam, and Bengaluru before it was moved to Mysuru). For example, while there should be more than 26,000 Tamil estampages as per the records of the ARIE, the recent process of classification found only around 24,000 full estampages in Tamil. Of these, almost 13,000 had already been digitised and moved to Chennai.
ALSO READ: Rerecording history
There are also critics of the estampages project such as P.L. Udaya Kumar, the honorary project director of the cutting-edge Inscriptions 3D Digital Conservation Project which is supported by the Mythic Society in Bengaluru. Kumar has been involved in three-dimensional scanning of inscriptions in Bengaluru and surrounding districts and making them available in the public domain. He said: “The ASI should first ensure the physical safety of inscriptions in the field as, according to my surveys, 40 per cent of the inscriptions first recorded in the early 20th century are now untraceable. They should also update their copying methods and use modern technological solutions as they are relying on copying methods that are more than a century old.”
The ASI, which for a long time ignored the significance of these estampages, has ambitious plans that go beyond mere digitisation. Maheshwari said: “We want to house all the estampages in a museum of inscriptions located in south India and propose to call it the National Museum of Epigraphy. We have plans to display this in an interactive manner.”
- The recording of estampages has been a core responsibility of the ASI since it began its epigraphy division in 1887.
- It sent epigraphists out to make estampages of any inscription—a key raw material to ascertain historical facts—that was discovered.
- Thus began the ASI’s accumulation of estampages of inscriptions found on historical monuments, both religious and secular; stand-alone stone pillars; and at locations such as lake beds.
- Linguistic scholars then took a close look at the inscriptions on the estampages and recorded the gist in the Annual Report of Indian Epigraphy.
- Over the past 10 months, around 60 epigraphists have been poring over the estampages at the headquarters of the ASI’s epigraphy division in Mysuru, in order to classify them.
- With more than 26,000 estampages in Tamil, ASI officials were keen to digitise them before shifting them to Chennai.