Indian archaeologists have discovered hundreds of inscriptions during the last 120 years. Professor E Hultzsch began collecting South Indian inscriptions systematically from the latter part of 1886 when he was appointed Epigraphist to the Government of Madras. Following Hultzsch, we have an array of epigraphists such as Rai Bahadur V Venkayya C R Krishnamacharlu, N Lakshminarayan Rao, T A Gopinatha Rao and R Nagaswamy.
Generally, Pallavas employed the Tamil script for engraving the Tamil portion of the inscriptions and the Grantha script for engraving the Sanskrit portion. The Pandyas employed the cursive script (Vattezuthu) and the Grantha script. The big bunch of Tiruvalangadu copper plates issued by emperor Rajendra Chola (1012-1044 AD) were a set of 31 copper plates, the ends of which were secured by a big, circular copper seal with the royal emblem of the Chola dynasty. The Ay king Varagunan used the Nagari script for writing the Sanskrit portion of the Paliyam grants. Nandhi Nagari was used in Vijayanagar copper plates.
Two years ago, the epigraphy branch of the Archaeological Survey of India discovered the earliest epigraphic evidence at Chebrolu village in Guntur district in Andhra for the Saptamatrika cult when they were renovating the Bheemeswara temple. It is also the earliest Sanskrit inscription to have been discovered in South India belonging to Satavahana ruler of 207 AD.
Copper plate inscriptions dated to the 8th and 9th century CE recently discovered in and around Halebelagola in Channarayapatna taluk of Hassan is reckoned to belong to the period of the Western Ganga king Sripurusha and is written in Sanskrit and Kannada.
The Paliyam copper plates, Tharisapalli copper plates, Mampalli copper plate Vazhappally copper plates, Jewish copper plates, and Thiruvalla copper plates are important in Kerala history. T A Gopinatha Rao and MGS Narayanan have made significant contributions in this context.
Where such top stalwarts once guided the academia in the past, pseudo-archaeology has made an easy entry using political influence and NGOs. Bogus artefacts have started narrating the past with the support of politics, money and media.
Brittany Jackson and Mark Rose observed: People are taken in by hoaxes and fakes for many reasons. Successful bogus artefacts often match expectations or preconceived ideas of antiquities. Spectacular fakes have worked because those who buy them are blinded by their own pride of ownership–and the higher the price tag, the harder it is to make an embarrassing admission that it’s a fake (2009: Bogus! An Introduction to Dubious Discoveries, Archaeological Institute of America).
Brian Fagan observed in his write up on Archaeology and Pseudo Archaeology. Like all forms of scientific eccentricity, pseudo-archaeology knows no intellectual boundaries, and affects people from every walk of life. Doctors, lawyers, scholars with impeccable academic credentials, the rich and the poor, the famous and the obscure—none are immune from infection with this strange disease. Buried gold, royal tombs, the words Tutankhamun, Atlantis, Ten Lost Tribes of Israel—these are some of the catch phrases that set off a bout of pseudo-archaeology. One prime symptom of the disease is obsession, sometimes to the degree of paranoia.
It was here Monson Mavungal in Kochi landed with an elephantine claim of having a mammoth collection of rare antiques, including two of the 30 coins that Judas received for betraying Jesus, a piece of clothing that Jesus had worn, the staff of Moses from the Bible’s Old Testament, a chalice that Prophet Mohammed used, the throne of Tipu Sultan and many such priceless treasures. But what hit the headline was the report by D Dileep in Marxist mouth piece Deshabhimani on December 8, 2018. It reported that the copper plate inscription from the personal antique collection of Dr Monson Mavungal of Kaloor in Kochi proved that, Sabarimala was a Dravidian centre of worship dating to 351 years. The copper plate inscription as claimed by Deshabhimani does not mention on the consecration of the idol Dharma Shastha nor any tantric rituals or associated mode of worship by Brahmin priests, which was subsequently upheld as the coherent and indisputable evidence of its historicity. Earlier, Left historian M R Raghava Warrier vindicated the historicity of Mavungal’s copper plates. But with emerging controversies, Warrier went back and said he has not examined the historicity of the plates.
Seven years ago in 2011, Dr P J Cherian then director of KCHR claimed that, his excavations at Pattanam earned him a pot rim with Tamil Brahmi script which proved Kerala had a ‘Pre Brahminical (read Pre-Hindu) past’.
This was the third Tamil-Brahmi script to be found in the Pattanam excavations as claimed by Cherian, which was praised in the beginning by Iravatham Mahadevan, a scholar in Tamil Brahmi script (Tamil-Brahmi script found at Pattanam in Kerala in The Hindu March 14, 2011). P J Cherian, told The Hindu: “The discovery, in the Kerala context, has a great significance because of the dearth of evidence so far of the pre-Brahminical past of Kerala, especially in relation to the socio-cultural and religious life of the people.
But that was also the last association of Iravatham Mahadevan with Pattanam. Never in his life time did Mahadevan until his death on November 26, 2018, associate with Pattanam excavations after the dubious claims and controversies blackened the site. Nor did KCHR discuss much about these potsherds anymore with the earlier enthusiasm.
Ekkehard Weber discusses on thousands of Roman inscriptions which were forged in the past as in the case at Carnuntum near Vienna in Austria, which was the capital of the province of Pannonia in Roman times.
Kenneth Lapatin, in Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History, describes how excavations in Crete led to the development of a new type of fake. When discoveries are published, interest in a new area of material culture can encourage production of such pieces. Where there’s a market, there’s a fake, observes Brittany Jackson and Mark Rose emphasizing this context.
With Monson Mavungal’s copper plates on Sabarimala presenting Ayyappa as a tribal deity getting propagated, the KCHR arranged a webinar on the issue on November 3, 2020. The theme of the webinar was A Review of the Idols of Buddha the Enlightened Profounder: Shasta the Guardian Deity and Sabarimala Ayyappa the Tribal Ancestral Deity from Iconographical Perspectives. The speaker was Professor Ajit Kumar of Kerala University, a Member in the panel of Pattanam Excavations (Muziris Heritage Project: Pattanam Excavations 2008 KCHR Hand book).
The KCHR speaker claimed Ayyappa as essentially a tribal ancestral deity and has an antiquity of no more than 200 years. Ayyappa’s tribal antecedents were masked by legends citing him as an incarnation of Shasta or Hariharaputra and thus resulting in his assimilation to the Brahmanical fold. The first Ayyappa idol in Sabarimala temple, replacing the tribal idol, was installed in 1910, when the temple started to get popular and was rebuilt. The tribal identity of Ayyappa was wrapped in layers of myths and legends from Puranas and Epics and he became synonymous with Dharma Shasta, when new rituals were introduced to cover his tribal antecedents, according to Ajit Kumar.
Currently Cherian claims Pattanam had contacts with over forty port sites in the world and it was the Mohenjo Daro of south India (The Times of IndiaNov.,4, 2018). Claims rejected by leading archaeologists and historians such as MGS Narayanan, Dilip Chakrabarti, Nagaswamy and Vasant Shinde.
Monson Mavungal’s home where the fake antiques and artefacts running into crores were kept is in Kochi. Pattanam where reports on creation of fake government documents and financial irregularities worth crores (Rampant irregularities detected at KCHR in Matrubhumi online, Nov 4., 2016) and hence archaeological license terminated twice raising much controversies, is located at Paravur, not far from Kochi. The Left historians are virtually silent in this context.