Treasure Hunt – A quest to trace the past

Greeshma Sukumaran
Published: March 2019

Engineers Uday Kumar and Vinay Kumar, both residents of the city of Bengaluru are rewriting its known history by tracing forgotten times through inscription stones, writes Greeshma Sukumaran

The manicured lawns of The Lalit Ashok that played host to the annual Bangalore Literary Fest 2018 have etched in my recall a host of meaningful debates as well as faces of book hoppers in their hordes. But it was the words of Uday Kumar, a mechanical engineer that caught my fancy as he took the audience on a journey tracing the history of Namma Bengaluru through inscriptions stones, which we may have never thought of otherwise.

After attempts to schedule an interview drew several blanks, I finally met Uday Kumar and Vinay Kumar somewhere in the vicinity of Hebbal on a fine Saturday morning. Coming from another end of the city, I realised it was worth the 30 kilometres I had covered, once the interview began.

The two enterprising personalities are on a mission to unravel the glorious history of the beautiful city of Bengaluru. Being residents of the City, both of them turned to a treasure hunt of sorts in May 2017 after a talk piqued their interests about records of celestial events on inscription stones. While that might have been the trigger, Uday Kumar had already made unsuccessful attempts in the past to find the roots of his place Rajajinagar.

“We are cycling partners who have interest in archaeology and history,” says Vinay, an Aerospace Engineer, who opened the conversation with me in a grungy building, where they had moved four inscription stones that were uncovered recently. “A talk, which we both attended, took us to Epigraphia Carnatica, a book written in 1894 by BL Rice, the former director of the Mysore Archaeological Department.”

The cycling buddies began their sojourn with little bits garnered from Rice’s book and today, a year and more into their journey, Uday and Vinay proudly talk about the scripts and the relics in volumes. It is interesting to note that they have already stumbled upon what is believed to be the oldest inscription stone of Bengaluru, a head-turner in a nondescript village of Hebbal.

On the day of this interview, there were a number of curious onlookers keen to witness the unearthed stones of Hebbal and as Uday would later confide, it was more than a stone. Before unravelling the tale of what is believed to be the oldest inscription stone, Uday was courteous enough to show me the place where the stone remained neglected over the years.

“Nobody in the village knew what this stone was all about until a boy from the vicinity contacted our group asking if it is something that could be of interest to us,” recalls Uday with a slight twinge of disappointment. “The stones were in a pit, with its lower part submerged. When we came and removed, it had stains and mulch.” It should not be surprising as most of the inscription stones that they have traced and restored, have also been in a similar state of neglect. The duo later told me that a cart puller residing near the spot of discovery had been using these stones as a place to wash his utensils.

Uday then turned to explain to me what that inscription stone stood for. Frankly, when he asked if I could decipher any meaning from the stones, I had no inkling that I was witnessing a stone that traces back to more than 1300 years of history.

The story of Hebbal inscription stone and other treasures in the duo’s assemblage

Vinay recalls an incident while they were in search of a stone; the residents suspected them to be treasure hunters and were unwilling to share any details. The tracing of a stone begins with the search of its location. “It is difficult to find places now in a city like Bengaluru because of its rapid urbanisation, where the names of most of the places have changed,” says Vinay as he distributes the post cards of four stones to a group of people. Bengaluru has undergone a lot of change, the names have changed, the landmarks are not there anymore, but the quest to find the history of the City is unquenchable.

“These stones can tell us a lot about our ancient times,” Uday continued as he glowed with pride. “The origin of the language, the place, the culture, the taxation system and what not.” The Hebbal inscription stone has pre-old Kannada script [poorva halegannada] carved on it. It has a pictorial depiction of a battleground with two men fighting each other. Looking at it closely, one will find a strong, stout man on one side and a weak one on the other. The strong man named Kittiah is believed to be the first citizen of Bengaluru. Could you have imagined unearthing such a gem in this age?

The team has now reverted to crowdsourcing to help protect and save the lost and found Hebbal stone. But Uday informs me that unfortunately it has been unsuccessful so far despite getting many eyeballs. “The sheer ignorance and lack of awareness are to be blamed,” agree both of them. Uday and Vinay presently conduct exhibitions at schools and public gatherings. The duo has also been giving talks at different places. “While people show great interest when we talk to them, when it comes to showing it on the ground, there is none,” Vinay grimaces in disappointment.

Rice had documented 150 stones in Bengaluru and these engineers have found 30 so far. Although a good number have either been destroyed or are too difficult to locate, the expedition continues. The duo has located an inscription stone in Jakkur from the Hoysala period, which is dated to 1342 CE. It records the gift of the land of Jakkur by a local chieftain to the village accountant, Allala, as a ‘Sarvamanya Kodige’ (tax exemption to lands or villages conferred as a privilege by the rulers). On the top corners of the front face of the stone tablet are symbols of the sun (circle) and the moon (crescent), signifying that the proclamation on the stone holds good for eternity.

The team has also located the oldest existing Kannada inscription on a Veerakallu (hero stone) in Krishnarajapuram. Kodigehalli inscription stone is another interesting one. It records the gifting of the village Virupakshapura (the neighbourhood’s name even today) to the Someshwara temple at Shivanasamudra (present day Hesaraghatta), on the occasion of a solar eclipse on August 8, 1431, wishing for the long life, health and prosperity of King Devaraya of Vijayanagara.

The duo has also found plenty of other stones in their search for history. “Some see these stones as a curse and fear to touch or remove them,” informs Vinay. “There are also stones that were worshipped at the time of plague or such diseases. But what is disappointing is that the people forget about it after that. Some are cleaned and offered puja once in a year,” he says.

The group uses the latest tools such as digital maps, cameras, 3D scanners and 3D printers to document the stones they unravel. “We get calls and messages from all across the country for talks or to inform us if there is a stone of interest in some place,” Vinay says. Their focus for now, are the stones in the City before they extend it to other regions.

As my conversation came to an end, Uday stressed that the people have still not woken up to the reality that what they are tracing is the history of their own city. As I bid the duo adieu at the end of an enlightening encounter, I could not help but reflect on how easily we neglect our enviable history and how facts get distorted over time, many times without our knowledge.