The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), in a communication dated January 6, 2022, directed the Director (Epigraphy), ASI, in Mysuru, to transfer the estampages and other connected Tamil documents and inscriptions to the Office of the Deputy Superintending Epigraphist, South Zone, ASI, in Chennai. Welcoming this development, historians and archaeologists in Tamil Nadu are ecstatic, since the hitherto unpublished estampages will help unearth more information about Tamil Nadu’s history and culture.
Estampages are exact replicas of inscriptions copied from stone or copper plates on to paper using specialised ink. These are made by pressing wet paper on to the rock or metal face, and wiping a specialised ink on it.
The ASI move follows an order of the Madras High Court order dated August 19, 2021. While hearing a bunch of petitions related to transferring estampages of Tamil inscriptions from Mysuru to Tamil Nadu, the bench, headed by Justice N. Kirubakaran (now retired) and Justice M. Duraiswamy observed that “the epigraphy and other materials connected to Tamil language may not be safe at the Mysuru office of the epigraphy branch.”
“The inscriptions are the primary sources for reconstructing the history of the people, society, economic conditions, religion, water system and irrigation management, etc. They shed more light on the history of Tamils. Hence, the availability of the estampages in Chennai would be greatly utilised by the scholars to write the authentic history of our ancestors,” the order said. The court also ordered that the transfer be carried out within six months.
Storage of estampages — a short history
The ASI was established in 1861 by a Britisher named Alexander Cunningham. In 1886, the epigraphy branch was established in Bengaluru. The very next year, it was shifted to Chennai. Since the estampages should be maintained in a cooler climate, the office was shifted to the Nilgiris in 1903. In 1966, the office was permanently moved to Mysuru. Meanwhile, in 1961, the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology was established.
The ASI’s epigraphy wing has two branches — one each in Nagpur and Mysuru. While the Nagpur branch focuses on Arabic and Persian languages, the Mysuru branch concentrates on Sanskrit and Dravidian languages including Tamil. Currently known as the Office of the Director (Epigraphy), the Mysuru branch is further divided into two zones, one each located in Lucknow and Chennai. The estampages of the inscriptions related to Sanskrit and the Dravidian languages anywhere in the country would be taken to the Mysuru office and preserved there.
Historians in Tamil Nadu have said that from 1887 till date, about one lakh inscriptions have been found, of which nearly 60,000 are in Tamil. These inscriptions are said to have been found from Tamil Nadu and other States. They allege that the estampages and other materials are not well preserved.
“The Tamil estampages are not properly maintained or they have been damaged, destroyed and found to be missing,” said one of the petitions filed in the Madras High Court.
Advocate J. Gowthama Sanna, who appeared for one of the petitioners, said there is no consensus even among the officials within ASI on the data on how many Tamil inscriptions are preserved in the Mysuru office.
“The total number of inscriptions (of all the languages) stands at 73,872. In an RTI (Right to Information Act) reply on February 21, 2018, the Mysuru office said there are 11,000 Sanskrit inscriptions and 38,000 Tamil inscriptions,” said Sanna. “Then, on December 21, 2020, the same office filed a list at the court saying there are 17,001 Sanskrit inscriptions and 28,276 Tamil inscriptions. Finally, on July 14, 2021, a communication from the office said it has 25,756 Sanskrit inscriptions and 28,860 Tamil inscriptions.”
The court observed that these contradictory details indicate that there is an attempt to make it appear that the Sanskrit inscriptions are more in numbers. There is also an attempt either to destroy the number of inscriptions/estampages or damage them to show that Tamil is not the only language which has got a large number of inscriptions, the court further said.
Historian and epigraphist S Rajavelu, former professor, Department of Maritime History and Marine Archaeology, Tamil University, Thanjavur, said the University, in 2010, made an effort to preserve, decipher and publish the estampages.
“The university entered into a one-year memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Mysuru epigraphy branch to digitise the estampages. Accordingly, the State government allocated ₹25 lakh for the digitisation project to the university. But, due to red tape and other procedural delays, the digitisation works were not carried out effectively and the ASI did not extend the MoU,” he said.
The court underlined that a similar kind of reluctance, and the lack of support by the Union government as well as by the ASI, delayed the publication of the Adichanallur excavation carried out by T. Sathyamurthy, the then Director of ASI, Chennai.
Dearth of epigraphists to decipher estampages
The court in its order also ordered that the ASI Chennai zonal office be renamed ‘Epigraphy Branch (Tamil)’. Accordingly, a recent communication of the ASI announced the renaming of the zonal office. The renaming and the shifting of estampages made historians, archeologists and epigraphists in the State happy, but many doubts still prevail.
S. Chandnibi, professor with the Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University, likened the recent development to shifting one’s home from one street to the next.
“Transferring the estampages from Mysuru to Chennai means that the inscriptions are still under the ASI’s control. The State Archaeology Department has no hold on them. Further, it is doubtful how much will be allocated by the Union government to the Chennai office to set up the required infrastructure to preserve them. Also, just by shifting them to Chennai, one cannot assume that all the estampages will be deciphered and published. That’s because the ASI has a rule saying that unless and until the ASI publishes the estampages, others cannot publish them on their own,” she said.
She added that the only thing the State government can do is — like it was done in 2010 — appoint some epigraphists and entrust them with the duty of just digitising and deciphering the estampages, while the original copies remain with the ASI.
Tamil University’s Rajavelu pointed to another issue. There are only 31 epigraphist posts for the entire country, of which 10 are stated to be vacant, and only five epigraphic assistants are there for field survey and deciphering inscriptions, he said.
“Though the ASI has created 758 new posts by abolishing 304 existing posts as part of a cadre restructuring exercise, not a single post is said to have been created for the epigraphy branch. A lack of epigraphists means deciphering a large number of estampages will be delayed further,” he said.
Transfer process initiated
Talking to The Federal, one of the senior officials from the Mysuru epigraphy branch said the process of transferring the estampages has been initiated but it is uncertain when it will be completed.
“We have 135 years of estampages. We have to separate them year-wise, language-wise and State-wise. We received the order to transfer only a couple of days ago and we have already sorted out about 25 years of estampages,” said the official.
It is to be noted that after K. Munirathnam took charge as the Director of the Mysuru branch, it has brought out 34 publications on inscriptions, of which 10 are Tamil, in the past five years.
“Though we are opposing the transfer of estampages, it is true that because of the delay in deciphering and publishing the inscriptions, people have approached the court,” the official said.