One of the interesting stories mentioned in Sandeep Balakrishna’s Stories From Inscriptions: Profound Real-life Tales from Hindu Cultural History comes from a village called Hebbale near Hassan in Karnataka. The story is about the contribution Hebbale made to our sacred tradition of pilgrimages.
This contribution was unique because it was done when Turkish invaders enforced jizya. According to a contemporary of Jehangir, the purpose of imposing jizya on kafirs is their humiliation. The humiliation was amplified by putting a pilgrim tax, and the one enforced on pilgrims going to Kashi and Prayag was the highest. According to a copper inscription from 1279 CE, king Vira Narasimha offered the land revenues of 645 varahas from Hebbale to pilgrims to Varanasi. Among those, 402 varahas were jizya to the Turkish tax collector. The remaining was for the maintenance of Sri Visweshwara temple.
What makes this story interesting is this: Vira Narasimha was an adherent of the Jaina philosophy. So why would a Jaina Hoysala king pay jizya on behalf of Hindu pilgrims from Karnataka visiting Varanasi?
Sandeep’s book is a collection of 15 such stories based on inscriptions. These stories were previously unknown except to scholars. This book is meant for the general audience and is written in the style of popular narrative history. The purpose is to introduce incidents from our past as narrated by kings, businessmen, bards, and warriors in their own words. These stories come from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu and span a timeline from the 9th century CE up to the 17th century CE.
The stories are organized by various themes mentioned at the beginning of each story. For example, one story is about a wealthy merchant Hatia, who purchased three marketplaces. The revenue from these marketplaces was provided as a permanent endowment to three deities at a temple complex. This story reveals political, social, and economic conditions during that time. History was boring in school because we were taught random dates, wars, and the number of trees planted by various kings. The book goes beyond that and gives us context into the country’s state at that time.
This book does three things. First, it shows how Bharat was unified as a civilization state. Second, it refutes many narratives about how uncultured and backward we were till the invaders and colonizers civilized us. Finally, it reveals many aspects of our culture we were unaware of.
Why did Vira Narasimha fund pilgrimages to Kashi and Prayag.? The answer is simple: Vira Narasimha understood Bharat as a civilization nation. Pilgrimages united the nation, and visit to a holy place was a religious duty. Even before modern transportation systems arrived, people traveled long distances for this purpose. Vira Narasimha’s grant covered payments to the staff of the Sri Visveshwara Temple, its maintenance, and various sevas. Apart from the Kashi pilgrims hailing from Narasimha’s dominions, his grant money was primarily used by strangers in a city he would never meet. It was his dharma, and he performed it.
It was not just Kashi and Prayag that were pilgrimage destinations. Inscriptions in Gujarat at the Bhillamāladeva temple mention visitors from Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli, Thanjavur, Tiruchirapalli, Ceylon, Orissa, Vengi, Jodhpur, Alwar, Bharatpur, Gujarat, and Malava. Diffusion of culture occurred due to business relations as well. For example, when there was a dispute between Karnataka-desa and Maratha-desa, it was resolved by a businessman from Kerala. Due to this, a temple was built in the Hoysala style architecture by the descendants of a Malayali businessman.
This book is a gem because it bluntly refutes narratives like “Indians had no sense of history.” Instead, evidence from these inscriptions reveals “an extraordinarily intricate system of administration and governance, a robust military machinery, a Dharma-based jurisprudence, a well-oiled and stable social order and a sprawling economic system bursting with material abundance. Moreover, there was a high degree of administrative sophistication where priority was placed on the human element.”
These fundamental values that united the country are seen in all these inscriptions. We see a world in which truth, dharma, compassion, sacrifice, loyalty, and heroism are admired. We see “donating cows is extolled, temple-building is revered, learning and scholarship are prized and patronized, reverence and respect for women are held paramount, people who die while protecting the honor of women are commemorated with tombstones, valor and death in battle are celebrated, delivering justice based on Dharmic precedents are hailed, composing, singing, and discoursing on our sacred literature are venerated, works of public welfare are supported and praised, and even the most minor act of piety is explicitly recognized and eulogized.”
This richness was not limited to culture. I learned a lot about the maturity of village administration. Our villages provided civilizational sustenance and cultural preservation while the country was being invaded and looted. Village administrations were autonomous entities responsible for managing all aspects of the village. They could administer justice; they had well-defined courts of justice in which the central ruling authority rarely interfered. In return, they deposited annual revenues to the king and prevented anarchy. Annual elections prevented monopolies and concentration of power. Every transaction was written down to the last detail and publicly ratified through voice and in writing.
In his book, India, that is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation, Constitution, J Sai Deepak defines the word ‘Coloniality’. This is the process by which the colonizer advances the goal through complete domination of the culture and worldview of the colonized society. This is what the British did to us. Even after they left, Communist party members masquerading as historians used the same ideas, rules, and tools to “civilize” us. This is how we get narratives like Buddhism and Jainism were rebellions against ‘Brahminical hegemony’ or India was not a nation until the British showed up. To understand our past, we must replace the colonial lens with an indigenous lens. This book is a perfect example of that.
These inscriptions enhance our understanding of the vibrancy of our culture and traditions. Despite enormous challenges posed by invaders and colonizers, we survived the invasion of our lands, relentless pressure to abandon our religion, enslavement, and brutal violence. The historical writings gathered in this collection provide abundant evidence of the philosophical roots that built and sustained our civilization and the values that this philosophy birthed and were upheld by our people.