Preserving inscriptions digitally

Print edition : November 18, 2005

THE Epigraphia Carnatica is a rich repository of source material on the history of the Old Mysore region. Compiled and edited in 12 volumes between 1894 and 1905 by Benjamin Lewis Rice, Director of the Mysore Archaeological Department and an orientalist of untiring zeal and scholarly commitment, the Epigraphia represents a massive enterprise of documentation undertaken during the colonial regime. It contains the textual content of nearly 9,000 inscriptions from both lithic surfaces and copper plates, with a Roman transliteration and an English translation for each inscription. The Epigraphia volumes have been out of print for over half a century and few original volumes exist today.

The Southern Regional Centre of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) recently made this important corpus of inscriptional data - which accounts for 90 per cent of all inscriptions found in this region - available to scholars and researchers on CD-ROM. This includes not only the 12 volumes of the Epigraphia, but also several supplementary volumes published in the 1940s and 1950s by R. Narasimhachar, M.H. Krishna and Nilakanta Sastri, successors to Lewis Rice.

The project to digitise the Epigraphia and supplementary volumes was one of the first to be taken up when the Southern Regional Centre of the ICHR was set up in Bangalore in 1998. The project was the brainchild of Professor S. Settar, then Chairman of the ICHR. "The Epigraphia is an extraordinary feat of scholarship. Nowhere in the country had the epigraphical wealth of a State been collected and presented so systematically. The entire history of the Old Mysore region till modern times can be written from it," Settar told Frontline. Indeed, Lewis Rice himself, after his return to England in 1907, used the material to write a monograph entitled "The History of Mysore and Coorg from Inscriptions". The inscriptions date from circa 3rd to 4th centuries A.D. to the 19th century. They belong to several dynasties that ruled the region - the Sungas of Talakkad, the Kadambas, the Chalukyas of Kalyani, the Hoysalas, the Vijayanagara rulers, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, and the Wodeyars of Mysore. Although the majority of the inscriptions are in Kannada, a large number of them are available in Tamil, Sanskrit and Telugu and a few in Urdu and Persian.

The publication history of the Epigraphia is an interesting one. After Lewis retired from service, the work of documenting inscriptions was continued by his successors, although the pace of compilation and the standard of editing declined. Several supplementary volumes to the Epigraphia were published though not all districts were covered. Later, the Annual Reports of the Department of Archaeology only summarised inscriptions and notices and rarely published the full texts. By the 1950's most volumes of the Epigraphia were out of print. In 1972, the Department of Kannada of Mysore University undertook to edit and reprint the Epigraphia and its Supplementary Reports. While Rice took only 10 years to complete the massive task of collecting, deciphering and editing the inscriptions, Mysore University published merely six volumes in 33 years. The methodology employed has been criticised as the inscriptions were re-numbered by the editors of the Mysore University volumes, making it difficult for readers to locate the inscription. Settar himself edited and published three volumes of the Epigraphia in the mid-1960s.

With the original out of print, a true reproduction of the Epigraphia and its Supplementary Reports became a pressing research requirement. Settar made available his personal set of the Epigraphia volumes for this purpose. "We had to open the binding of 100-year-old volumes. We xeroxed a set for the ICHR library and had the rest scanned for the purpose of putting them on CD-ROM," he said. Another project initiated by him on Kannada classical literature as a source for history, Settar contends, was shelved after his term as Chairman ended in September 1999. "When the committee headed by D. Bandyopadhyay to look into the affairs of the ICHR was set up, I wrote to him asking about the fate of these projects. I am glad to see that the ICHR has finally seen the project through," Settar said.

According to S.K. Aruni, Assistant Director at the Regional Centre, the delay in releasing the CD-ROM is also at least partly attributable to the huge amount of work involved in the compilation of a new index to the volumes. "We had to go through over 27,000 pages of inscriptional text and manually catalogue the key words on each page, as the software was unable to provide a search engine for original texts. This was a very laborious and time-consuming job," said Aruni. The user can search the inscriptional data in the CD-ROM by place of origin, date, dynasty/ruler, century, and inscription number. It was originally compiled for personal computers using Windows 95 and 98. Minor technical difficulties remain in using it with Windows XP, which Aruni assures will be sorted out shortly. At Rs.500, the CD-ROM is an invaluable resource for researchers of South Indian history.

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