A Portrait of an Epigraphist as a Cultural Role Model

An unforgettable experience of my stay in Delhi occurred on 6 December 1992. The Babri Masjid structure in Ayodhya was brought down by the crowd of people assembled there…The next night at around 8 when I was still in office, the world-renowned expert archeologist S P Gupta from Delhi visited my room. He had brought copies and photographs of an inscription that had been recovered when the structure had fallen. He insisted that I read the inscription right then. It was dark but it was possible to read some alphabets with the help of the electric light.

It was a 12th Century Sanskrit inscription engraved in the Nāgarī script. After dogged attempts that lasted a few hours, I was able to read a sloka that appeared in the middle of the text.

टन्कोत्ख़ातविशालशैल शिखरश्रेणीशिलासंहतिव्यूहैर्विश्णुहरेर्हिरण्यकलशश्श्रीसुंदरंमन्दिरं
पूर्वेप्यकृतंकृतंनृपतिभिर्येनेदमित्यद्भुतम् ||

As a result, what came to light was this: a Vishnu Hari Temple was already standing on the site of the Babri Masjid from ancient times, and that it was renovated in the 12th Century.

Thus records the late Koluvail Vyasaraya Ramesh in an interview he gave to a Kannada periodical in 2006.

This discovery in many ways was a watershed event in the Ayodhya years of the tumultuous 1990s. It only bolstered what we always knew: that a Hindu temple was destroyed by the Jihad-crazed armies of Babur and the mosque, erected in its place using the debris of this destroyed temple. A measure of the momentousness of the discovery of this inscription can be gauged by the shrill clamour that almost immediately rent the air: the usual gang of our Eminent Distorians went on an overdrive of misinterpretation and wild conjectures led by Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma, K.M. Shrimali and others. In any case, the interested reader is referred to Smt Meenakshi Jain’s definitive volumes, Rama and Ayodhya and The Battle for Rama: Case of the Temple at Ayodhya that perhaps gives the most complete account of the Ayodhya episode.

K V Ramesh records what happened next.

The Ayodhya episode didn’t end at that. When I served as the Chief Epigraphist and Joint Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Delhi, I received an order from the Ministry of Culture directing me to make copies of this newly-discovered inscription. To this end, I called my friend, the Chief of the Epigraphy Department at Mysore, Sri Madhava Katti to Delhi. He was accompanied by two of his personnel who were experts at making copies of inscriptions.

Even as we prepared to travel to Ayodhya early the next morning, I received an order from the Ministry of Human Resources Development asking us to drop the Ayodhya journey.

The HRD Minister back then: the late Arjun Singh of the Union Carbide and Bhopal Gas Tragedy notoriety. The behind-the-scenes story is well-known to all now. The Indian brand of Secularism represented by an alien invader’s mosque built by demolishing an existing temple after shedding rivers of blood had to be preserved intact at any cost.

In any case, following the Supreme Court’s diktat, a team headed by the same Madhava Katti submitted copies of the aforementioned inscriptions to the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court. And while the secularists were busy defending the worst elements of Islamism in India, K.V. Ramesh, Madhava Katti, and his team comprising scholars, epigraphists and archeologists worked assiduously in the Indian Archeological Society at Delhi to give a coherent structure and shape to the inscriptions. A glimpse into the sort of rigour that this team possessed can be had from the following: after the work at Delhi, each team member went home and conducted an independent study and interpretation of the inscriptions. When the same team met after a few weeks in Delhi, and notes were exchanged, it was decided by consensus that the reading of K.V. Ramesh was the most accurate one.

And then the selfsame Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court summoned K.V. Ramesh to furnish evidence in the Babri Masjid case. Let’s hear it in his own words.

For five long days, I answered the hailstorm of questions hurled at me by the pro-Babri Masjid lawyers backing my replies up with inscriptional evidence…then I returned to Lucknow again and for two and half days, answered a fresh set of questions. But the sad fact is that despite all this hard work, I am unaware of the status of my evidence and am unable to understand why the court’s judgement has still not come out.

As we now know, the said judgement of the Allahabad High Court was delivered in September 2012. By all accounts, this 8000-page judgement is truly a judicial feat of Himalayan proportions. To confess, I’ve only read parts of it but I’ve read enough to draw an honest, reasonable conclusion that it is in many ways an encyclopaedia of Indian history culture and civilisation drawing from such diverse sources as geography, archeology, epigraphy, linguistics, our epics and Puranas as well as copious accounts from foreign travellers written in different languages.

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But the judgement is hugely significant for another reason. As the good Professor R Vaidyanathan astutely observes, the judgement exposes the dubious credentials of

our “eminent historians” who were shown to be not so eminent, and their attitudes fairly unacademic…they found themselves withering under judicial scrutiny in spite of writing signed articles and issuing pamphlets and long public letters…It shows the levels to which our academics have fallen and become hand maidens of the political machinery.

The Professor’s article makes for delicious and at many levels, stunning and tragic reading. In summary, these Eminent Distorians stood completely naked in their ignominy in open court: they admitted that they:

  • Had not even visited Ayodhya
  • Were not subject matter experts in archeology or epigraphy or medieval Indian history
  • Had given “expert” written testimonies to the court based on newspaper cuttings and opeds written by their ideological compatriots
  • Had followed Romila Thapar’s books/articles

And this clincher by Prof Dhaneshwar Mandal:

The Communist Party issues a red card, and I am its holder. It is true that I have no faith in religion.

Let that sink in. He says this in open court.

Yet, what was their position, their constant hollering, their “truth” about the Babri Masjid and the Ram Mandir from the late 1980s almost up to the judgement? Recall to what dangerous extent they had poisoned the national and cultural atmosphere. Indeed, the lexicon doesn’t have enough words to condemn their antics, especially when they ran a smear campaign against such honest scholars as B B Lal, and S P Gupta who they branded as “communal” academics and “sold out” to the RSS and other “saffron forces.” Their only crime: literally unearthing and reporting the truth in the post-demolition excavations.

Which is why it is important to examine the contributions of truly eminent scholars and real subject matter experts like K. V. Ramesh. Such people are our real cultural heroes, models worthy of emulation but for who the aforementioned ideological pond-scum would’ve gotten away with cultural and civilisational murder. To a great extent, they have indeed gotten away with it in many spheres: read the “history” and “culture” essays in lie-manufacturing factories like Scroll, Wire, etc.

And here’s K.V. Ramesh in his own words (Italicised)

On Archeology and Epigraphy

  • The Archeological Survey of India is the largest such body in the world. The number of people working in this department and the number of monuments and archeological sites under its care is unparalleled anywhere in the world.
  • The Epigraphia Indica is one of the world’s most renowned periodical running into thousands of pages, containing thousands of inscriptions collected from all corners of India.
  • The Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum is a mammoth work of eight volumes comprising Prakrit and Sanskrit inscriptions found in North and Middle India. This accomplishment has no equal anywhere in the world.
  • The twenty-six volumes of South Indian Inscriptions is a compendium of thousands of inscriptions in all the four South Indian languages and Sanskrit. This compendium eventually became inevitable for reconstructing the history of South India.

The Training and Importance of an Epigraphist

  • After I joined office as an Epigraphical Assistant in Udhagamandalam (Ooty), I went mute in silent admiration at the pile of all those valuable inscriptions that were collected and compiled year after year.
  • The Samrat of Epigraphy, Sri Dinesh Chandra Sircar would constantly remind us that “this is not merely an office. It is the Mandir of Saraswati.” After my colleagues like Ritti and Gopal departed from this office and joined universities, I began to experience severe loneliness. But Sri Sircar’s words resonated within me. I took that inspiration and with singleminded concentration, I spent the next several years training myself and eventually acquired expertise in reading inscriptions. I learnt to read and decipher scripts of all South Indian languages (from various periods) and soon, those of North India. Gradually, scholars of epigraphy developed respect for me as an expert epigraphist of a national stature.
  • Even if an inscription has been published, it needs to be revisited and reexamined periodically. One consequence of such a study, in my own experience, relates to Karnataka. This resulted in my English work, The Chalukyas of Vatapi, a work of history based on epigraphical evidence.
  • The role of the researcher in the field of Epigraphy is highly significant. A historian must not embark on the adventure of writing a work of history based only on the published reading of an inscription. Instead, the historian must develop the habit of reexamining the original text of the inscription independently.
  • Over the years, scholars and researchers seem to have developed an unseemly haste to publish their findings and proclaim as if they are some kind of final judgements or conclusions. Nor do they seem to want to submit their findings to further scrutiny and revision.
  • It is mandatory to equip oneself with a working knowledge of Sanskrit if we wish to successfully study and accurately interpret the inscriptions written in any language, belonging to any region and period of India. The same applies if we wish to use these inscriptions in any research.
  • When the epigraphist does field work, he must consider it his duty to educate the village folk or townspeople about the significance of preserving an inscription for the future generations and the ways of preventing its destruction. As is, it’s tragic that countless valuable inscriptions are being lost or destroyed on a daily basis. Given this, preserving these inscriptions is indeed a mandatory service that we must render to the glorious historical tradition of India.

Safeguarding our Epigraphical Heritage

  • The story of how our Communists took total control of West Bengal is quite well-known. The prestigious Royal Asiatic Society of Calcutta contains an invaluable treasure-trove of paintings, marble sculptures, palm-leaf and paper manuscripts, library, and various items of antique furniture. All of these are truly priceless. It is our collective responsibility to see that these national treasures are not despoiled or stolen.
  • The outstanding Bharatiya Purabhilekha Parishad formed in 1974 under the suggestion of the Varanasi-based scholar of history, Sri A.K. Narayana blazed a glorious trail under the leadership of Sri A.V. Narasimha Murthy, head of the department of History at Mysore University. However, in the last two years, things have declined. The number of expert epigraphists at the all-India level has dwindled to alarming levels. Equally, young epigraphists are showing no real enthusiasm for the discipline.
  • In the realm of reconstructing India’s history, the responsibility on the shoulders of young epigraphists, archeologists and historians is pretty onerous. Because, so far, more than a hundred thousand inscriptions have seen light of the day. And an equal if not greater number of inscriptions are still waiting to be discovered. And these scholars have no shortcuts except to equip themselves with the requisite vigour and knowledge and continual updates if they are serious about providing a fuller picture of the glorious history of India.
  • In my visit to Bulgaria in 1981, I observed that compared to its size and the number and antiquity of inscriptions available, they had fourteen expert epigraphists. To our misfortune, and given the massive size of our country, the number of epigraphists we employed in the entire country was less than that. If we don’t preserve and safeguard our country’s invaluable inscriptions on an urgent footing, we are guaranteed to lose hundreds of pages of our country’s history.

Ideological Mercenaries and National Heroes

I haven’t done full justice to the vast sweep of K.V. Ramesh’s erudition and multidisciplinary prowess that shines forth in his rather extensive interview. The numerous insights that he — seemingly — casually delivers are the jewels mined from of a lifetime of dedication to a single pursuit. He joined the Department of Epigraphy on 26 September 1956 as an assistant and attained excellence in the only profession he ever held till his retirement in 1993 as the Chief Epigraphist and Joint Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Questions remain.

On the one hand, we have true eminences and honest scholars like K V Ramesh who despite his expertise, scholarship, and experience, cautions against hasty pronouncements and sweeping conclusions, and advocates continuous study and reexamination.

On the other, we have the selfsame coterie of ideological pen-pushers strutting about as scholars and eminent historians. Sure, the kind of vise-like grip that folks like Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma, D.N. Jha, et al had over the history establishment is long gone. But the foundations they’ve laid have sickeningly endured. In fact, over the course of about twenty years, I have searched and struggled in vain to find just one positive contribution they have rendered to the academia and intellectual and public discourse. On the contrary, they have spectacularly succeeded in creating generational armies of readymade coolies who are in constant supply to meet the perverse demands of every third-rate Far Left portal and publication.

There’s also another side to this. Why aren’t subjects like Epigraphy and Archeology given the place of eminence that they really deserve? And why aren’t they even considered as career choices? These disciplines actually provide the foundation and supply the raw material that help explain and transmit a country’s culture through the world.

K.V. Ramesh’s warning bell of dwindling numbers of talented people coming to the field also has an echo in Michel Danino’s similar, later-day warning: that in a generation from now, India will not have any homegrown talent that would be able to decipher inscriptions and allied material in the languages of her own land. Guess who will then swoop in from outside and do that work for us? Actually, this is already evident in a different, but everyday way: the shoddy and badly-maintained offices of the ASI even in busy UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And the guides in say Khajuraho and Konark who promise to show you “Hindu” sculptures “which show exquisite, vigorous and creative fucking.”

In any other country that cares for its heritage — especially one as timeless and expansive and rich and widespread and diverse as India — luminaries like K.V Ramesh, B.B. Lal, S.P. Gupta, Sircar, G.S. Gai et al would be decorated as national heroes.

Closing Notes

It’s a truism that a country and its culture are known by the kind of people and institutions it holds up as role models and heroes.

In the case of contemporary India — i.e. for at least the last two decades — the sprawling global drug and prostitution ring called Bollywood reigns supreme as India’s “cultural soft power.”

Even that word itself is not Indian.

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Sandeep Balakrishna
Writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. Author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." He has translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.
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