FOR 54-year-old P.L. Udaya Kumar, fieldwork means locating ancient stone inscriptions and scanning and deciphering them. This is what Udaya Kumar, who heads the Bengaluru-based Inscriptions 3D Digital Conservation Project, set out to do on a Saturday morning in early February. Udaya Kumar was informed by a contact residing in Chikkabanavara on the northern outskirts of Bengaluru that he had discovered two stone inscriptions in a eucalyptus grove. Udaya Kumar reached the spot along with two young researchers, R. Yuvaraju and M.N. Madhusudhan, who are part of the inscriptions project.
They excavated the two stone slabs that were lying half buried. The slabs, both one foot wide and one of them 5 ft long and the other 8 ft long, were taken to a vacant land lying between a warehouse for tiles and a solar heater manufacturing unit. Frontline found Udaya Kumar at that spot holding a purple bed sheet over a granite stone. It was mid-morning. Making use of the impromptu shade, Yuvaraju began scanning the stone inscription with a device that looked like a laundry iron. He slowly moved the three-dimensional scanner equipped with five cameras over the entire surface of the stone.
Before scanning the inscriptions, Udaya Kumar and his team pressed maida (all-purpose flour) on the stones. This revealed the script, making it possible to do a primary epigraphical analysis of the contents and the period on the basis of the evolutionary style of the script. This was corroborated when a rudimentary 3D image emerged, layer by layer, on a laptop computer. The inscriptions, which appeared enigmatic moments before, were now as clear as printed text. The script could be easily deciphered. Anyone with knowledge of old Kannada and Tamil scripts would be able to read the inscriptions with ease. By deciphering the inscriptions, Udaya Kumar and his team have added another layer of history in the local palimpsest of Chikkabanavara.
Udaya Kumar explained: “Looking at the inscriptions, I think the smaller stone dates back to the 10th century and is in Halegannada [old Kannada] while the longer one, which has Tamil characters inscribed on it, dates back to the 14th century.”
To the gaze of an inexperienced person, the granite stones looked inscrutable and did not reveal their significance in any way, but to the experienced scrutiny of Udaya Kumar, the stones gave away their secrets willingly.
The genesis of the 3D inscriptions project can be traced to 2017 when Udaya Kumar began his quest to rediscover stone inscriptions that lay scattered across Bengaluru. His foray into the field can be deemed to be a continuation of the work begun at the end of the 19th century by Benjamin Lewis Rice, the Englishman who as Director of the Archaeological Department of the Mysore princely state brought out 12 pioneering volumes on the epigraphical resources of the Mysore region titled Epigraphic Carnatica . Rice’s ninth volume was published in 1905 and contained inscriptions found in Bangalore.
Stumbling upon locational clue
In 2017, while riffling through the pages of this volume, Udaya Kumar stumbled upon the mention of a 14th century inscription in Ketamaranahalli village. “I am a hardcore Bengalurean, and having grown up in Rajajinagar, I knew that this locality was originally known as Ketamaranahalli. I was blown away when I found out that the place that I had grown up in had a 700-year-old history,” he said, explaining his journey towards becoming the ‘Inscriptions Man’ of Bengaluru. Implicit in Udaya Kumar’s reaction was the astonishment that the history of Bengaluru was much older than the 16th century that it was conventionally thought to have begun in.
Udaya Kumar searched hard for the crucial stone whose locational clue was that it was near a lake at Ketamaranahalli. The urban expansion of Bengaluru had at some point in the past 112 years encroached upon the lake, and the inscription stones were lost in the process. However, Udaya Kumar got lucky in August 2017 when he found two inscription stones at Dasarahalli, another village-turned-urban sprawl, which found mention in Rice’s volume. In the photographs taken at the time, the two broad and squat stones, which Rice’s volume had dated to the 11th and 13th centuries (these are inscription nos. 38 and 39 in the ninth volume), lie between two houses amid garbage and debris. The stones are veeragallus, or hero stones, erected to mark the martyrdom of local heroes. In one of the stones, the etchings show a valorous man, the hero presumably, standing with his sword held high even as several arrows have pierced his body and two angels hover at his flanks.
Udaya Kumar’s excitement at finding those stones is palpable. “Imagine touching this stone and tracing its etchings in chalk that were written by a person 1,300 years ago. This holy stone was lying in a garbage dump!” After this “rediscovery”, Udaya Kumar started hunting for stone inscriptions within the urban limits of Bengaluru. Counting the inscriptions documented by Rice and later scholars, Udaya Kumar said there were 175 stone inscriptions, of which he managed to trace 110. Some of these inscriptions record the culture, religion and language of the people who lived in the environs of Bengaluru between the 8th and 17th centuries. Udaya Kumar says that around half of these stones record donations made to local temples, while the rest are veeragallus or chronicles of lakes, villages and buildings. Most of the inscriptions are in Halegannada and some of them are in Telugu and Tamil.
During his search for the elusive inscriptions, Udaya Kumar, to his dismay, found one inscribed stone belonging to the 8th century in a gutter with fresh paan stains on it and a pushcart vendor upending dirty water on it. A 14th century stone lay near a tree and was being used like a countertop to keep clumps of plantain leaves.
“There are scores of examples of this [of shocking neglect],” said Udaya Kumar showing photographs of various sites. Of the 110 inscriptions located in Bengaluru, Udaya Kumar says, 30 were found in dumps. Twenty-eight stones have been relocated to relatively safer spaces in the same vicinity.
While senior officials at the State Archaeological Department were sympathetic to Udaya Kumar’s efforts, they could not offer any financial assistance. But this did not deter Udaya Kumar as he went ahead with his mission, gathering help and support from friends and well-wishers. Udaya Kumar and his friend Vinay Kumar (who was a crucial part of the early phase of the project) started a Facebook public group called “Inscription Stones of Bengaluru”, which has more than 20,000 members now. An informative session was organised at the Government Museum in Bengaluru towards the end of 2017 while the General Post Office in the city issued a Special Cover on the Inscription Stones of Bengaluru. As part of Udaya Kumar’s efforts to preserve local heritage, funds to the tune of Rs.25 lakh were crowdsourced. A mantapa, designed by the architect Yashaswini Sharma, was built in Hebbal in January 2020 and a veeragallu from circa 750 was re-erected there.
Apart from preserving these inscriptions, Udaya Kumar and Vinay Kumar began looking at technological solutions and came up with the method of digitally scanning the stone inscriptions three dimensionally so that they would be preserved for posterity even if they happened to be destroyed or damaged. “The inscriptions will not last forever. They could be destroyed by accidents and over time there will be natural erosion due to heat, rain and atmospheric air,” Udaya Kumar said, explaining the rationale behind finding a permanent solution.
Udaya Kumar is an engineer who graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and has vast experience in the corporate sector. He calls himself a “citizen historian”. Safeguarding these slices of history is important to him.
“Heritage and history are the stepping stones for future successes and if we waste away our heritage, we can never become a developed nation,” he said.
By 2020, Udaya Kumar’s work began to be noticed widely and commended in Bengaluru. He was often invited to address public forums in the city to share his experience of preserving inscription stones. By then, Udaya Kumar and his friends had discovered several stones and honed their scanning technique, but the high cost of digitally scanning the inscriptions slowed their progress. In January 2021, Mythic Society, a public institution dedicated to Indic studies founded in 1909, stepped in to support Udaya Kumar by sanctioning a grant of around Rs.2 crore for a three-year project.
Udaya Kumar immediately recruited four young researchers to assist him, all except one doctorates in local history with the ability to read Halegannada, and the team moved into the premises of Mythic Society. Udaya Kumar himself, while steering the project, has refused to take a salary and works in an honorary capacity because he says this is his way of “giving back to the city that has given me life”. The support of Mythic Society has also meant that Udaya Kumar, who had hitherto focussed on stones within Bengaluru, has expanded his area of work to incorporate 1,500 inscriptions found in Bengaluru Urban, Bengaluru Rural and Ramanagara districts.
While fieldwork is one part of the project, image processing is the second and more arduous component. This was visible when Frontline visited the team’s office located in an annexe of the Mythic Society building in central Bengaluru. The four researchers, Yuvaraju, Madhusudhan, M.G. Byrappa and K.C. Shashikumar Naik, were seated in front of tall computers on which they were studying scanned images. As Shashikumar Naik twisted and rotated the 3D scanned image of a 11th century inscription stone on a computer’s screen, not only did the script become recognisable but fine details of the stone also emerged. The scanned images are shared with epigraphists who vet the inscriptions, transliterations and translations.
The computers, with advanced processing capacities, have been named creatively. They bear the names of local heroes mentioned in some of the inscription stones. They are Kittayya (the name mentioned in an 8th century veeragallu found in Hebbal), Mareya (referred to in another 8th century inscription stone found in Whitefield), Sambayya (after the hero named in a 10th century stone found in Krishnarajapuram) and Savinirmadi (a woman named in a 10th century inscription stone now safeguarded at the Government Museum).
A prominent note was placed in the computer room. Titled “Philosophy of Our Articles”, it listed “Writing Style Guidelines”. This note served as a handy reference for the third component of the project, which is the production of a high-quality bilingual publication in English and Kannada on the history of neighbourhoods. The first issue, on Singapura, was published in November 2021, while Jakkur was profiled in December. The English version of the Singapura issue consists of 80 pages and is a valuable compendium of the inscriptions of the area. (This issue, which is licensed under Creative Commons, can be downloaded at https://bit.ly/Bengaluru_Itihaasa_Vaibhava_Singapura_English). Along with this, the inscriptions are analysed and interpreted whereby a history of the neighbourhood is constructed from scratch.
S.K. Aruni, the Bengaluru-based Deputy Director of the Indian Council of Historical Research, who is a strong votary of the inscriptions project, told Frontline , “This is a highly innovative idea and should be emulated in other expanding cities all over India so that inscription stones are not lost to rapid urban development. This 3D scanning is different from regular scanning because even if the original stone is lost, future generations can perceive and feel the original and even print a model. This project is also important because errors made in past readings of these inscriptions can be corrected allowing us to reinterpret our history.” Indeed, details revealed in the 3D scans showed that some inscriptions were incompletely or wrongfully recorded in Rice’s volume. Apart from reverifying the inscriptions, Udaya Kumar and his team have discovered around 30 inscriptions that have not been documented by any scholar in the past. They are certain that this number will increase as the project work intensifies.
Udaya Kumar has noticed a major attitudinal shift among historians and epigraphists who were sceptical of his work earlier. People from other cities in India have approached Udaya Kumar with a request to scan inscription stones in their areas, but he feels the work must be undertaken by local history enthusiasts. “I say to these people: You buy the machine, find a guy to do it and we’ll train him. The scanning cost of each stone works out to Rs.3,000. The money is immaterial when the idea is to preserve a 1,000-year-old heritage,” he says.
Udaya Kumar’s original concept of preserving local history that is threatened by untrammelled development needs to be emulated.