How one man's search for ancient Indian artefacts became a full-time job

What began as a hobby tracking down Bengaluru's historic inscribed stones has grown into a significant project

A team member 3D-scans a 10th-century inscription on the wall of a temple at Kudlur Channapatna. Photo: PL Udaya Kumar
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In 2017, PL Udaya Kumar, a mechanical engineer living in Rajaji Nagar, in Bengaluru, India, learnt of the existence of a 13th-century inscription stone in his area that referred to a local lake.

Although he was keen to track it down, the area, historically known as Kethmaranahalli, was built up and nobody remembered the stone's existence, let alone where it was.

“There are as many as 1,500 inscription stones in and around Bengaluru, and about 40 per cent have been destroyed in urban areas and 30 per cent are not traceable in rural areas,” says Kumar.

“The stones that we have located have inscriptions that point to the antiquity of the city we live in. In one of the city’s oldest temples, Madiwala’s Sri Someshwara Temple, there is an inscription stone from 1247 AD, the Chola period, with Tamil inscriptions referring to the Tamil name for Bengaluru,” says Kumar.

Kumar was surprised to find out his modern neighbourhood actually dated back 700 years and that many localities in his city were built around ancient villages.

This was the genesis of his journey of looking for various ancient inscription stones scattered across the city — artefacts that could help people understand the geopolitical history of the city, which had been documented in various books, such as Benjamin Lewis Rice’s Epigraphia Carnatica from 1894.

Many of the inscription stones date as far back as the fifth century, but had been forgotten amid the rapid urbanisation that has transformed the ancient city into the IT capital of India.

Most of the inscriptions are on local stones such as granite, some rectangular, some as big as boulders, some like temple walls. They are in old Kannada, Tamil and Telugu, and contain troves of information about the dynasties that ruled the area, including the Chola, Vijayanagar and Hoysala empires.

The subject matter of the stones varies from records of battles and the building of lakes, villages and temples, to solar eclipses, trade records, grants and tax waivers.

Also included are hero stones, called Veera-gallu locally, which commemorate the deaths of people who made significant contributions to society, or died as martyrs defending their villages. An interesting aspect of the stones is that they not only record the stories, but also the evolution of the written scripts, over time.

Along with his friend Vinay Kumar, Kumar searched for the inscription stones in different neighbourhoods using old records. However, the challenges were many. Names of places had changed and landmarks such as trees or temples had disappeared. He found many of the stones were simply untraceable, probably destroyed in the process of urbanisation with some of the artefacts broken and used to build houses.

He found some in undignified places, from rubbish dumps to debris, in gutters or deteriorating along footpaths; others were being casually used as countertops on street food stalls, or smeared with turmeric and worshipped by locals, or eroded by wind and rain. Keen to build up support for the project, he and a band of like-minded heritage enthusiasts started documenting their finds on a Facebook page called Inscription Stones of Bengaluru.

While local officials supported his efforts, they could not afford to give him financial assistance. It remained a hobby until 2019, when Kumar was invited to speak about his project at the Mythic Society, an NGO that was formed in 1909 and associated with history, archaeology, linguistics, epigraphy and heritage.

The Society was impressed by his work and offered to fund the project to document the inscription stones. Kumar subsequently quit his job to work on the project full-time in 2021. He now has a team of qualified epigraphy and history professionals, who also have tech backgrounds.

Kumar says: “Physical documentation is not enough, so we use technology to scan the stones using a digital scanner that looks like a clothes iron and has six cameras.

“This is connected to a computer to produce a three-dimensional image, which is processed and stitched together by our team and enhanced by some digital magic, so that the inscriptions become sharper and easier to read. We publish these inscriptions with their translations in articles and books, thus creating micro histories of localities.”

Kumar and his team have moved many stones to safer locations with local participation and help. The oldest stone they found is from 750AD, and refers to a citizen called Kittaya who died in a war in today’s Hebbal neighbourhood. Among the inscription stones is another from 1431, which documents how the king granted a village to a 700-year-old temple — a practice carried out by monarchs during a solar eclipse to guarantee good health.

The team has also built a Google system that maps the inscription stones and their locations — allowing users to read them by simply clicking on icons.

Before Indian states were formed along linguistic lines, language was not used to clearly delineate kingdoms, which is why the inscriptions are composed in various southern languages. Some inscriptions have even altered our understanding of history. Although Bengaluru was thought to be founded by Kempegowda in 1537, and even its airport is named after him, inscription stones from the ninth century were found mentioning the city by name.

Meera Iyer, convener at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage Bangalore, says: “Imagine having primary sources of our history — things written by people hundreds of years ago — lying forgotten in our very midst, in our fields, along roadsides, in our temples.

“Inscriptions are invaluable sources of information about our political history, but also about religion, trade, migration, language, irrigation practices and so on. We can look at a corpus of inscriptions and ask why the same incident is referred to differently in different places? What does that tell us about society at the time, or power relations at that time, And of course, like other tangible remnants from our past, they are also great opportunities to get people interested in history.

“Kumar’s pursuit of these inscriptions is giving residents new insights into the history of the city, one stone at a time. He is also engaged in awareness-building activities, which encourage villagers, school students and government officials to recognise the value of these stones and take care to protect them.”

As a result of Kumar's project, some have subsequently moved stones to more suitable locations, and even built structures to protect them. Many locals have taken a proactive role in locating and preserving these ancient markers.

“What is special about this project is that the history of the land where you actually live always has a personal connection,” says Kumar.

Updated: April 26, 2023, 5:04 AM