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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XX No. 6, july 1-15, 2010
Recording the wall writings
(By Pradeep Chakravarthy)

Most of those who visit temples hardly take a second glance at those spots which have lines and lines of script on their walls. Sadly, even if they do, most visitors dismiss the script with a general statement that they are about “gifts given to the temple by ancient kings”, and content themselves with retelling mythological episodes concocted mostly in the 16-17th Centuries.

A stone inscription found in Mahabalipuram.

This is indeed a pity, since at least 60 per cent (or more?) of the inscriptions in Tamil Nadu temples have very little, if anything, to do with the temple. They refer to landmark civil or criminal judgements, information on irrigation rights, taxation rules and other information considered essential to the efficient administration of the village. In an age when documents were written on perishable palm leaves, temples being the only edifices made of stone were ideal repositories for information considered as significant precedent.

The other set of inscriptions found in a temple were those recording gifts to it. Here too there is no reference to religion; the actual gift and its administration procedure take up all the space. If gifts were given by a monarch, then the introduction with the chief events of his reign help historians date the kings.

Thus, the study of inscriptions is essential for anyone who is curious about daily life in Tamizhagam in the 6-17th Centuries. Tamil Nadu is the State with the largest number of temples with inscriptions.

The inscriptions in its temples were recorded from as early as 1887 in the Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy (ARE), published by the Archaeological Survey of India. The volumes till the 1960s are thick, as they have most of the significant inscriptions found in copper plates and stone. Later volumes are less heavy. The credit for many volumes goes to Dr. E. Hultzsch, epigraphist, and his team. They worked in a century when entry into temples was difficult, transport and accommodation primitive and not very comfortable, and there was no access to technology to ease their work. Their covering letters that accompany the reports give us fascinating glimpses into the trouble Hultzsch and his team underwent to tell us many facts about our history today. Fortunately, all the ARE reports have their letters as well as the inscriptions they recorded and translated.

What little we know of Dr. Eugen Hultzsch is from an obituary written by Sten Konow published in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland in July 1927. Eugen Julius Theodor Hultzsch was born in Dresden on March 29, 1857. He was educated at the Dresden College of the Sacred Cross, joined the University of Lipsia in 1874 and studied Classics and Oriental Languages, chiefly in Lipsia, but one year in Bonn. He then moved to Vienna where his lifelong passion for Sanskrit began. He made a few trips to India, but came to stay for nearly 20 years when on November 21, 1886 he was appointed Epigraphist to the Government of Madras, a position which he held till he became Pischei’s successor as Professor of Sanskrit in Halle in 1903. He was active till 1920 and then, after a very long illness, passed away on January 16, 1927 at his home in Halle.

Immediately after joining service, he set to work on a Buddhist inscription in the Madras Museum. This, he records in his letter, was unique, for it had to be read right to left. These and many other comments in his covering letters give us a glimpse of the convictions and the difficulties epigraphists faced during the initial days of this field in India.

His approach

Hultzsch’s thoroughness in approach is also evident from his letters. In many villages, he records the titles of palm leaf manuscripts he was shown by the locals, even if they didn’t fit into his mandate of epigraphy. On April 30, 1887, he received “an assistant in the person of V. Venkayya B.A. (by 1891, he had an M.A.) who was efficient and intelligent.” It was this team of the two that confirmed many facts that even schoolchildren know by rote today – that Mahabalipuram was built by the Pallava kings and that the Brihadeeswara temple was built by Raja Raja Chola. Some of these findings appeared as articles in the newspapers of those days. The former was written about in The Madras Mail of September 3, 1887. The article also fixed the Kailasanatha temple as a Pallava temple.

It is not just temples that came within their purview. Even “broken stones lying near deserted temples” were recorded. Other temples “overgrown with poisonous cactus and allowed to decay” were explored, as were “damp, oily and dark cells where my team had to crouch in unnatural positions to copy inscriptions.”

The obituary mentions what an inspiration he must have been for his team of epigraphists. “Those young scholars whom he initiated in Indian epigraphy were very devoted to him. Many of those Indians who have distinguished themselves as epigraphists since he came to India are his direct or indirect pupils, and they will all remember him with gratitude and affection. He never hesitated to place his rich store of knowledge at the disposal of fellow students who sought his advice and his help, and in this way and through his personal qualities he had won numerous friends, who will miss the man not less the scholar.”

Thanks to the ARE reports, we get to know the names of the many Indians who helped Hultzsch and Venkayya, something we don’t easily know for many of the other achievements during the British rule. Hultzsch is diligent in his acknowledgement to anyone concerned whether it is Pandit S.M. Natesa Sastri, who translated Sanskrit inscriptions and must have been a major help, or the ‘Chengalpet’ Collector E.C. Johnson who helped the team get access to temples in his area. The Collector’s writ did not always run and Hultzsch records that “most of the inscriptions in Srirangam and Jambukeswara temple were recorded by my assistant Mr. V. Venkayya since I was not allowed inside the inner prakara-s.” By 1901, he had more team members and his tours covered present-day Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. One of them, T.A. Gopinatha Rao (resigned in 1904), later wrote a series of tomes on Hindu Iconography that are still the standard work for reference.

Commitment to conservation

Hultzsch in one of his reports on his stay in Virinjipuram (February 23 - March 29, 1886) laments that “none” of the large number of Vijaynagar inscriptions has been completely deciphered, as they are damaged by whitewash which was so injudiciosly laid over them. The whitewash had to be scraped off before the copies were taken.” Other laments include inscriptions defaced by later construction or water erosion. In one instance, he seeks out the Chief Secretary to persuade some members of a community intent on renovating a temple from demolishing a wall with stones full of inscriptions and suggests that alternative arrangements be made. G.S. Forbes, the acting Chief Secretary, regretted his inability to issue prohibitory orders but requested all Collectors to inform Hultzsch of any ancient temple being rebuilt and persuade trustees to at least have the inscriptions copied if not preserved. Although this writ did not run in the French territories, many of Hultzsch’s reports mention support from those quarters as well.

Carrying the torch forward

In August 1904, ‘MRRy.V. Venkayya Avargal’, takes over as the ‘Officiating Government Epigraphist’. The first report mentions the reason:

Dr. Hultzsch left India on combined priviledged leave and leave on private affairs on May 27, 1903... He subsequently resigned his appointment with effect from November 27, 1903, having accepted the Professorship of Sanskrit in the University of Halle.” This letter has some rare financial information too. For 1903-04, Rs.903-7-2 was spent for “facsimile plates”, “non-official contributors”, and “miscellaneous charges”. Some of the expenditure included buying antiquarian objects for the “Central Museum in Madras”.

Venkayya by 1906 has the title Rai Bahadur. The new Superintendent, Archaeological Survey (Madras and Coorg), is Alexander Rea. Rea’s book and drawings on the Pallava temples in Kanchipuram and his excellent photos of Kumbakonam in the 19th Century are testaments to his commitment to the Department. In 1908 Venkayya was promoted as Epigraphist to the Government of India. The team now had H. Krishna Sastri, G. Venkoba Rao and K.V. Subramanya Ayyar, all of whom figure frequently in later reports and epigraphy trips. Maduranayagam Pillai was the photographer. No mention is made of Venkayya from 1910.

After this, reports with letters continue and become progressively more comprehensive, recording the names of more assistants and increments given to old ones (varying from Rs.53 to Rs.100). H. Krishna Sastri succeeded Venkayya and the reports start becoming much longer and include inscriptions in Urdu or Persian, lists of photographs taken, and occasionally inscriptions from the Bombay Presidency as well. Inscriptions also become documented more systematically with their gist summarised, whereas in the early records of Hultzsch they are concerned primarily with dating key monarchs of the Tamil country.

The obituary reads, “Hultzsch’s incessant and conscientious work are all characterised by critical acumen, unbiased reasoning, scrupulous accuracy and solid learning. Such qualities made him eminently suited for epigraphical work, and when Indian epigraphy has at the present day reached such a high stage, a large share in the merit belongs to him.”

Today, the reports of Hultzsch and Venkayya and all those who succeeded them and stuck to a fact-based, rigorously-researched approach are used only by academics and scholars. It is possible that in the intervening period, many inscriptions have been irrevocably damaged by construction or vandalism. This becomes one more reason for their works to be more readily available and their lives commemorated for teaching us our history based on factual information.


1. The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No.3 (Jul., 1927), pp. 646-648.

2. ARE reports 1886 to 1910.


In this issue

Your Worship, could these names remain?
Here’s why Munro should stay
Recording the wall writings
Madras’s oldest Bank
Historic Residences of Chennai - 45
Other stories

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