It was a warm noon in December 1886 when Dr Eugen Hultzsch, the acclaimed German Indologist and later epigraphist to the Madras government, decided to visit the Mamallapuram group of monuments. Fascinated by the rich edifices that the chisels and sharp eyes of the Pallava craftsman had created, Hultzsch was walking around the five rathas campus. Little did he realise that destiny was waiting to introduce him to a person who would eventually turn out to be his intellectual companion.
On the same day, Valaiyathur S Venkayya, a sharp 22-year-old gentleman well versed in many languages, had travelled to Mamallapuram to feed his appetite for Indian history. Venkayya, a graduate in physics who was then teaching in a school in Kanchipuram, was obviously interested when he saw Hultzsch copying the inscriptions. It would have been wonderful to watch the two bright minds with mutual appreciation for their scholarship and interests getting together. Venkayya, a scholar in his attitude and approach, had in him the potential to fulfil all requirements for becoming a successful paleographer and epigraphist.
Seeing a promising assistant with dedication and extraordinary talent in Venkayya, Hultzsch absorbed him into the department at once. After completing his course work for the academic year, Venkayya quit his teaching profession and joined the Bangalore office of the Archaeological Survey of India on 30 April 1887. In November 1887, Hultzsch was appointed as the government epigraphist along with his committed assistant Venkayya. As a prodigy and a disciplinarian, Venkayya was quick in grasping the subject matter and also excelled in field work. With a natural flair for Indian history and arts and due to his proficiency in Tamil and Sanskrit, Venkayya was tailor-made for the job of an epigraphist.
The duo spent their next few years travelling around Tamil Nadu and visiting temples. The inscriptions copied from Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram are present in the first volume of South Indian Inscriptions published in 1890. Passionate about epigraphy, Venkayya used that as a tool to enrich his knowledge in history. Equipping himself through library visits squeezed in between his busy schedule, he earned a master’s degree in history in 1889 from the University of Madras as the first rank holder. Thanks to his proficiency over South Indian languages, scientific approach to epigraphy and vast knowledge of South Indian history, Venkayya came in contact with several scholars in Indology and Sanskrit and this helped expand his horizons even further.
Hultzsch acknowledged the contributions of Venkayya thus: “For the Tamil inscriptions I was fortunate enough to have an able and efficient helpmate in my assistant, Mr. Venkayya, M.A.” With this started the saga of annual publication of a series titled South Indian Inscriptions, with inscriptions copied, compiled and published in phases. These are still the go-to references for anyone interested in South Indian inscriptions.
Venkayya’s experiences along with his guru Hultzsch by themselves are records that reflect 19th century South Indian society. Hultzsch should have in several occasions been thankful to Venkayya since the former was denied entry into many temples as ordained by the traditions. However, Venkayya’s entry into the innermost corridors of the Tirumala temple was also denied and it needed the intervention of none less than Dr James Burgess, the then director general of ASI, who wrote to the chief secretary of Madras. One cannot but appreciate the determination of these stalwarts in such situations as the loss would have been huge had the inscriptions not been documented.
An important challenge faced by them was vandalism of these ancient structures in the name of renovation. Hultzsch, in his correspondence about the renovation happening at Ekamranatha temple in Kanchipuram, says, “This is much to be regretted as both the shrine and the enclosures are covered with ancient inscriptions with such thick layer of chunnam that only a few letters are visible here and there and would have to be carefully cleaned before its inscriptions can be read and copied.” He goes on to suggest numbering the stones before removing them, advice that is relevant to this day.
Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram were followed by Thanjavur in the second volume of South Indian Inscriptions. The oft quoted Uthiramerur inscription elaborating the local body election process ten centuries ago is Venkayya’s find too (Democracy in Indian history, Uthiramerur and beyond, Feb 18). A detailed study of letters, notes and diary entries of Hultzsch throws light about his deep appreciation of his “first assistant” Venkayya. The Indian’s untiring field work, impeccable reading of inscriptions and applied knowledge of history paved the way to understanding revenue surveys of Tamil country prior to 10th century, administration of criminal laws in 12th century, and the dates of Azhwar and Nayanmar saints, to name a few. On the contributions of Hultzsch and Venkayya, the great historian K A Nilakanta Sastri remarked, “Without them, South Indian history must have remained a sealed book.”
After Hultzsch resigned from his post in 1903, Venkayya was appointed as the government epigraphist in Madras. Hundreds of thousands of inscriptions, tens of copper plates, successful attempts to figure out the genealogy of Pallavas, Cholas and Pandyas, tackling the Kalabhras puzzle, literally this man left no stone unturned. In recognition of his immense services to South Indian history, the title of Rai Bahadur was conferred on him in 1906 during the visit of George V. Soon in 1908-09, he was promoted as the chief epigraphist of the Government of India. He had to from then on play the dual role of attending to his offices at Simla and Madras. Involved in several path-breaking excavations, the constant monitoring of work in two different offices took a toll on his health. He fell ill and spent his last days at his posh bungalow, Venkayya Gardens in Mambalam, and breathed his last in the early hours of 21 November 1912 when he was only 48.
Described by John H Marshall, the then ASI director general, as “a heavy and irreparable loss”, Venkayya’s death was mourned by scholars around the world by remembering his sky-high contributions to the field of ancient history and epigraphy. “It is to be hoped that other young native graduates will follow on Mr Venkayya’s lines and take up the neglected subject of South Indian Epigraphy”, said Hultzsch, about the duty of the coming generations. A polymath in its true sense, Venkayya’s pursuit for knowledge and zeal for imparting the same have made him immortal. Rai Bahadur Venkayya’s name shall resonate till the time Indian history is studied.
Architect, serves on the govt-instituted panel for conservation of temples in TN
(The author thanks Prof. Sunitha Madhavan, great granddaughter of Sri Venkayya, for her book on the polymath published by Tamil Arts Academy)