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Decoding history cast in stone

It became an abiding interest  while studying Kannada at the pre-university level at Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial College.

Published: 27th June 2021 04:29 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th June 2021 04:29 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

SHIVAMOGGA: ToD Ismail, the mastigallu (masti stone) is a fascinating storyteller. It talks about the history and the people as he peers into the inscrutable inscriptions whether it is in Modi lipi or Halegannada (ancient Kannada).

The epigraphist from Birur town in Chikkamagaluru district took a fancy to the knowledge hidden in stones, and is one among a small number of people who can understand ‘Modi lipi’, a cursive script used to write several languages, including Kannada. It is just like English running hand, he says. It became an abiding interest  while studying Kannada at the pre-university level at Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial College.

Ismail (63) says Modi lipi is a kind of early Kannada writing found from the times of Ashoka to the 18th century, which was used to record events and facts about emperors and their empires. In English, it is termed ‘cacography’, which according to the Kannada dictionary, means ‘illegible handwriting’, seen mostly in ancient stone inscriptions called mastigallu and veeragallu (hero stone).

Ismail is studying stone inscriptions to analyse their contents for anything related to astronomy and is compiling a research paper on the subject ‘Astronomy in Inscriptions’. Other issues that he is studying include natural calamities, music and life events, recorded in inscriptions to understand the culture of people going back to the Cholas, Gangas, Rashtrakutas and others who ruled South India.

The curiosity that drew him to these stones soon became his passion. “I studied various books related to Modi script, and under the guidance of epigraphist Shambhu Lingappa, I visited ancient sites in and around Birur, Kadur and Chikkamagaluru with him. I learned to read inscriptions in Modi script and also in Halegannada. I started reading books written by famous epigraphists like M M Kalburgi, Chidanandamurthy, A V Narasimhamurthy and others.”

Though Ismail could not pursue his education after pre-university, he never missed an opportunity to upgrade his Halegannada-related knowledge. Today, he is a well-known epigraphist who offers guidance to students of Kannada literature researching inscriptions and Halegannada in various universities. He has a rare collection of more than 5,000 books related to epigraphy, Halegannada, mastigallu and veeragallu.

He has written a book titled ‘Madhya Karnatakadalli Beeradevaru’ (still a manuscript) about Beeradevaru, a deity worshipped by the Kuruba community. The book throws light on the community, where they came from, and how they settled in Shivamogga, Chikkamagaluru and Chitradurga districts. He has travelled the length and breadth of these districts to collect information and did a field survey for more than two years.

He suggests that people interested in inscriptions read the book ‘Kannada Lipiya Ugama Mathu Vikasa’ by A V Narasimhamurthy, and ‘Lipi, Lipikara, Lipi Vyavasaya’ by Shettar, for those who want to learn Halegannada.

Ismail is one of the four sons of E M Dastagir Saab and Razia Begum of Birur, who have had a grocery business at M G Circle in Birur town for many decades. Even today, Ismail is the one who opens the grocery shop in the morning and takes care of the business.

He has a rare collection of more than 5,000 books related to epigraphy, Halegannada, mastigallu and veeragallu



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