It was the birth anniversary of B L Rice yesterday — the man who pioneered epigraphic studies in the state of Mysuru.
Rice was the first director of the Archaeology Department in Karnataka. But were he to be born again in this era, he would have been taken aback by the state of neglect the discipline of epigraphy suffers from.
For, outside the very department he headed, more than a century and a half ago in Mysuru, stood a bunch of officials from the epigraphy section protesting against the 'step-motherly' treatment meted out to them.
Epigraphy is the sole tool to decipher that which has been relegated to the pages of history and buried in the womb of existence for centuries together, and yet, the attention epigraphy gets in India is dismal.
And as if reiterating this disregard for the field, the recently concluded restructuring exercise of the Archaeological Survey of India ended up not allotting a single post for the department that in reality holds the key to all documentation of the past.
Speaking to Swarajya on the condition of anonymity, an official of the department lamented the state of affairs of the department which will soon meet the fate that inscriptions have in this country — buried beneath the debris of ignorance.
“We didn’t want to disrupt work, hence we protested during our lunch timings for an hour on Thursday; but we wonder if it made any difference to the authorities concerned”, said the official.
“It is a field that requires great skill and takes years of devoted pursuit to be able to even have a basic mastery of the scripts or languages one is familiar with. Already there are very few people who take up epigraphy given the lack of incentives and career opportunities. To top that, a lot of posts are getting abolished owing to non-appointment".
“In 2015, for instance, there was a revival of two epigraphy posts concerning Sanskrit. But both these posts were left unfilled and that led to them being permanently abolished. It is almost like the section itself is wound up”.
To cover the entire North Indian region, the branch has hardly a handful, around six to seven epigraphists, says the official, asking how would they suffice for the entire region.
“Where there should have been six to seven epigraphists for every state, given the inscription of wealth we have and keep discovering in this country, how can we work. We have numerous pending tasks but no people.”
But why are there no appointments taking place? What impedes the hiring of people to this department, which should ideally be handsomely staffed? “Who will make people answerable? Our authorities have been trying so hard to get this to the attention of those concerned, but in vain. If they had made those appointments in 2016, would they have been lost?” he asks.
When there was a revival of posts in 2016, all posts except those concerning epigraphy were filled, he informs. Recently in March too, seven posts pertaining to epigraphy (across languages) have seen a revival, yet no steps have been taken so far for appointments, he adds.
These need to be filled up within a year, failing which they too shall meet the same fate and be permanently abolished.
Files remain stuck, approvals remain pending, and history repeats as no appointments get made. “There is no archaeology without epigraphy, yet we get the least attention,” the official laments.
And as one can tell from a visit to any of the sites maintained by the ASI in the country, importance has been given to hiring horticulturists and gardeners, but not specialists who can decode the inscriptions that history excavations and chance discoveries keep throwing up.
Even in the recent 758 appointments to the ASI across the country, the horticulture section has seen the highest appointments and so has conservation, while epigraphy stays seeking.
As per reports, 70 posts have been created to recruit horticulturists including 55 horticultural assistants.
The entire history of ancient and medieval India is based on epigraphy. Any excavation, any discovery requires the intervention of an epigraphist. Yet, why this step-motherly treatment, ask the officials.
Dejected after having made countless requests, they took to protesting to draw attention to this issue.
It is appalling to know that the entire department across various languages has a total of 31 sanctioned posts — of which 10 posts are vacant.
As much pride as they take in working at this department which, they say is a “saraswati bhandara”, a treasure trove of wisdom, they are dejected that ‘this house of Saraswati doesn’t get the attention that it deserves.
“Because this is solely a house of Saraswati and not of Lakshmi, it is met with this level of disregard. Those departments where ‘Lakshmi’ is generated are well taken care of — from appointment to support to grants. But unfortunately we aren’t one such,” he quips, apologetically.
And it is not that the nation lacks talent to train experts in this realm.
“This is a field where we can get aspirants, train them for a minimum of 3-4 years before they go out to the field and only then join seniors where they train under the Guru Shiksha parampara — this is how the branch has taken shape over decades now. But with no ‘seniors’ appointed, this tradition is being broken," he adds.
Each state should have an office manned by 3-4 epigraphists from those respective states, he opines.
“We get numerous inscriptions in various North Indian languages like Gujarati, Kashmiri, Assamese, in Kharoshti script — but we have no people to read them. The situation of North eastern states is even worse — as there are no readers. Even if we get the impressions of those inscriptions, how do we decipher them? We have no people to read them,” he elaborates.
“Without ancient scripts, there is no archaeology at all. Without decoding imprints of the past, there is no way to know history. This is a department started by the British. After they started the department of Archaeology and a magazine called Indian Antiquary which covered all aspects it had a great number of works focused on epigraphy. Which is when they thought of starting a separate journal exclusively for epigraphy, given its importance in the scheme of things,” he reminisces, wishing the current system gave it the importance that our colonial rulers once did.
Recollecting his initial days in the department, he reminisces being moist-eyed hearing the words of a retired epigraphist Swaminathan.
“Everyone reprimanded me when I joined this department. But I am proud and grateful for what this has given me. I have been able to tour the entire state of Tamil Nadu, go on surveys and study the cultural heritage of my state only due to my training here. If there is another birth, I would seek to be born again as an epigraphist and pursue Tamil epigraphy and discover the wealth of our past in this department itself,” he mused as he left.
Such is the power of this branch and its significance in the realm of cultural heritage of our country. Yet, it is having to ‘protest’ for attention.
Harsha is an Associate Editor at Swarajya. She tweets @bhatinmaai.
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