Monday, December 13, 2010

The granddaddy of inscriptions

Q: What do you call a man who was teacher, Principal, administrator (all before he turned 30), census officer, prolific author, historian, polyglot and archaeologist all rolled into one? A: The granddaddy of inscriptions, aka, Benjamin Lewis Rice.

There isn't a historian in Karnataka (amateur or otherwise) who has not repeatedly reached for books by Benjamin Lewis Rice, his best known being the Gazetteers and the many volumes of Epigraphia carnatica which carry translations of thousands of old inscriptions.

But the history of the man who uncovered so much of our history is also fascinating. School principal at 23, Inspector of Schools (for the whole state, mind you!) at 28, Director of Public Instruction (again, for all of Mysore) at 31.... I could feel feelings of inadequacy creeping up on me, reading about Rice! And what an adventurous life he led, full of the thrill of discovery! The man spent at least half the year on tour ferreting out historical relics and obscure inscriptions from all around Karnataka, braving cobras, disease and goodness knows what else along the way. Remember, this was the pre-automobile era so all touring was done on horseback, or ponyback to be precise, for Rice had a white pony that he took on all his tours.

He knew Kannada, of course, having been born in Bangalore, but he also studied Hindi and Sanskrit, and later picked up Tamil and Grantha when he found he needed these to study inscriptions.

You can hear Lewis Rice's love of all things related to Karnataka's history and heritage in his writings, even in the dry official reports. He writes with indignation about people destroying old sculptures and with irritation about some bumbling restoration efforts.

I visited the house where he lived last week. It's a beautiful bungalow, well-maintained, set in a sprawling garden, with giant, stately trees. But the present owner wants nothing to do with Rice or his memories. "That was all so long ago," she kept saying.

You can read more about Lewis Rice in today's Spectrum supplement in Deccan Herald which carries an article on him that I wrote recently.

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