Last September, Uday Kumar and Vinay Kumar were walking around near the metro station in Dasarahalli, near Peenya, in Bengaluru. They were on a mission. To find an inscription stone dating back several hundreds of years. No one in the area seemed to know what the duo were talking about, apart from an old lady who told them about something she had seen nearby.

Retracing their steps to an empty plot between two buildings they found two stones standing side by side. Relics from a forgotten time, the stones, which date back approximately to the 7th-9th century CE, depict a person of importance – possibly a local chieftain – flanked by two women. The inscriptions, in early Kannada script, detail how he protected his cattle and also depict a battle scene in great detail.

Since then, Uday Kumar and Vinay Kumar have found close to 30 stones inscribed with varied messages, as they uncover a forgotten history across Bengaluru.

Inscription stones at Dasarahalli.

Where it all began

It all started when Uday Kumar, 50, a mechanical engineer, attended a talk in early 2017 by astrophysicist Dr Shylaja BS, who is the former director of JN Planetarium, Bengaluru, where she spoke about records of celestial events in inscription stones. For researchers, these inscriptions are valuable data points for the study of the variation of the earth’s rotation period.

Uday Kumar had unsuccessfully tried to trace the roots of his neighbourhood – Rajajinagar, in west Bengaluru – prior to attending the talk. “He had heard of the village Kethmaranahalli and someone had told him of the existence of an inscription stone talking about a lake,” said Vinay Kumar, 33, an aerospace engineer. “He went searching for it but to no avail.”

The talk made him even more interested in continuing his search and as it happened, Uday Kumar stumbled upon Epigraphia Carnatica, a book written in 1894 by BL Rice, the former director of the Mysore Archaeological Department. It documents nearly 9,000 inscriptions from lithic surfaces and copper plates found in and around the Old Mysore region. He discussed it with Vinay Kumar, his cycling buddy, whose curiosity was piqued. The two decided to retrace Rice’s path in Bengaluru to see what remained of the stones he had documented. “[The book] has been our guiding light,” said Vinay Kumar. “And we have used modern tools like social media, digital maps, cameras, 3D scanners and 3D printers to document and narrate stories about the stones.”

At Begur.

The stone at Dasarahalli was in a pathetic condition and one in Kodigehalli had a paint mark on it. “These stones are original records of our local history and culture,” said Vinay Kumar. “They are an unbroken link to our past, giving us insights into development of our languages – particularly Kannada – cities, lakes, temples, common areas etc.” They grew determined to do something about it.

Not an easy job

Locating stones based on Rice’s description of the location is difficult because Bengaluru and its surroundings have undergone a sea change. Names of places have changed and some of the landmarks do not exist anymore. To get around this problem, the duo narrows the search down first to a larger area – for example, Dasarahalli. They then locate the oldest inhabitants and see if they have any stories to share about the neighbourhood. “Very often the elders point to an old tree and talk of some temple or lake around which they have seen inscription stones,” said Vinay Kumar.

Once the stone is located, they photograph and video the location, and then clean the area and the stone, using detergent and hoses. “We then try to decipher the inscription using flour tracing, water, and lighting techniques like Reflectance Transformation Imaging,” said Vinay Kumar. The stones range from 750 CE to the 18th century CE and talk of land grants, tax waivers, linguistic plurality, governance practices, solar eclipses, trade and commerce.

At Kodigehalli.

One of the biggest challenges they face is locating stones in places where there is a lot of real estate development. Another problem is locals who do not believe their intentions. “Very often they think we are treasure hunters and that the government may take over their land if we find a treasure there,” said Vinay Kumar. The duo has had to battle superstitious locals who believe in myths that surround these stones.

Vinay Kumar recollects an expedition in Ganigarahalli near Chikkabanavara Lake in the northwest of Bangalore, where, while uncovering a stone, a female shepherd told them they would have a dream that would reveal to them the location of a long-lost treasure. When they returned a few days later, she was waiting there for them and asked them to recount their dream. “We told her we didn’t have any dream, but she refused to believe us,” recounted Vinay Kumar with a chuckle. “She thought we had returned there on account of the dream to locate the treasure.”

At Marathalli.

Important records

“We’ve been able to locate close to 30 of the 150-odd stones documented by Rice,” he said. “Almost 100 are known to have been destroyed in the last 15 years.”

One of the most interesting aspects of these inscriptions is they provide an illuminating glimpse into the way the languages of the region have developed. Kannada, Tamil and Telugu are the prominent languages found on these inscriptions, their use mirroring the rise and fall of the ruling dynasty of the time. While Kannada dominates overall, Tamil flourished during the Chola and Hoysala periods. Telugu gained prominence during the reign of the Vijayanagar empire.

King Vira Ballala of Unnamale (now Tiruvannamalai) of the Hoysala dynasty commissioned inscription stones in all three languages and these are located not too far from one another. The inscriptions at Dasarahalli and KR Puram are possibly the oldest-known Kannada inscriptions in Bengaluru, their script similar to the Halmidi inscription that was found in Hassan, dating back 300 years prior, giving a clear sense of the how the script was developing.

At Allalasandra.

A stone inscription at Jakkur from the Hoysala period, dated 1342 CE, 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 and the moon, signifying that the proclamation on the stone holds good for eternity.

Another inscription found in Allasandra is dated to the regency of Sadashivaraya of the Vijayanagara kingdom and records the grant of the village of Allalasandra to the god Allalanatha of Jakkur within the Sivanasamudra region of the Elahaka-nad (Yelahanka). The grant was on ashta-bogha-teja-svamya terms, implying complete ownership of all the rights over the property. The stone is testimony to the advanced legal acumen of the people.

Another interesting inscription is the one found at Kodigehalli. It records the gifting of the village Virupakshapura (the neighbourhood 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. This inscription is the earliest mention of Shivanasamudra, which helps date Hesaraghatta to 1431 CE at least. The basis for the name Kodigehalli could very likely be this inscription (kodige is grant in Kannada). The Kodigehalli stone has a record of a solar eclipse and is of particular importance to astronomers.

Uday Kumar and Vinay Kumar

Paying it forward

Last November, Vinay Kumar and Uday Kumar, together with the Archaeology Department, organised an exhibition called Inscription Stones of Bengaluru at Venkatappa Art Gallery. “The primary intent was to document the current state of the stones and create awareness about the need to preserve them,” said Vinay Kumar. “We made posters about 25 stones with photos, translation, history and transliteration of the inscriptions.”

The posters also had QR codes that provided links to the locations of the stone on Google Maps. Another QR code pointed to 3D models of the stones. India Post released a special cover to commemorate the exhibition and a special postal cancellation, which is a marking applied on a postage stamp to prevent its reuse, was made available for the duration of the exhibition.

At Allalasandra.

Ever since the exhibition, the project has picked up traction. Uday Kumar and Vinay Kumar have been part of talks across the city. A contest was run for college students to create a design for a shelter for these stones. UNESCO recently made two videos on their project in English and Spanish, and versions in Kannada and Hindi might be made in the future.

Vinay Kumar believes their mission will be successful when the people in the vicinity of a stone realise its importance and take ownership to protect it. He cites the example of inscription stones discovered at Jakkur and Allalsandra, which were moved to safer locations by local volunteers after the exhibition. “Our project is a good example of civic activism,” he said. “If two ordinary citizens could gather support from fellow citizens, government departments and crowdsource this project, I feel every citizen can do this in an area of their interest.”