Biography of Kudanthai Sethuraman, Best Epigraphist and Archaeologist of India

In Tamil | தமிழாக்கம்

Early Years

Born on November 3, 1930, N. Sethuraman popularly known as Kudanthai Sethuraman, hailed from a distinguished family in Kumbakonam from the state of Tamil Nadu in India. He was a science graduate of the Madras University. In the year 1950, he joined the Madras Institute of Technology, Madras and specialized in the advanced technology of automobile engineering and earned a diploma in Automobile Engineering. In the year 1953, he joined the Hindustan Motor Factory at Calcutta. In the year 1962 he studied in England and specialized in diesel engines and bus body building. He introduced new types of bus bodies in Tamil Nadu. He served as the Director of Raman & Raman Limited of Kumbakonam, his family owned business, for several years before taking over as the Managing Director.

Interest in epigraphical research

N. Sethuraman was keenly interested in epigraphical research. Civil servants and other private individuals straying into the field of epigraphical research and making noteworthy and far reaching contributions have been abiding by historiographic traditions in India. Viewed in that background it is but natural that the exertions of N. Sethuraman, an engineer turned businessman, have not caused eyebrows to be raised in disbelief. It must be accepted on all hands that by his largely uninhibited approach to the problems of decipherment and dating of inscriptions, he opened new avenues in fundamental research. He made astonishing discoveries in the history of Chola, Pandya and Pallava dynasties. He was an eminent epigraphist and archeologist of India.

Invention of a new methodology

About a century back, German scholars like Keilhorn, Jacobe and Holtzsh laid the basic foundation for fixing the dates of several kings. This was followed by the British officer Robert Sewel and one of the greatest astronomers from India, Swami Kannu Pillai. They said that their findings were only tentative and should be reexamined in the later years. N. Sethuraman took up the thread left by them and made deep research in epigraphy and archeology. His famous methodology Applied Astronomy with Reference to Epigraphy is internationally acclaimed. He used a multi-pronged approach to fix the dates of several kings of various dynasties, using the calendar system of India, cross referencing inscriptions between temples and available Tamil literature. He brought to light more than six Chola kings and twenty six Pandya kings though their lithic records were discovered about 80 or 90 years ago. The reason for the vacuum was more or less a fear or hesitation among the scholars to approach the inscriptions through mathematics.

Pioneer in calculating the regnal year

N. Sethuraman was the first to give a concrete definition for the calculation of the ruling year of a king. He discovered that the regnal year (ruling year) of a king of India does not contain 365 or 366 days. It is of a lunar measure based on the star (constellation) in which the moon stands at the time of the coronation. The day of the same star in the same month in the following year is the beginning of the second regnal year of the king. This year could contain 354 to 385 days depending upon the occurrence of the star. This discovery of calculation of the regnal year was a breakthrough in the the epigraphical research throughout India and abroad. Dr. K. V. Ramesh then the Director of Epigraphy, Archeological Survey of India, in the International Congress of Historical Studies in Asia and North Africa, held at Tokyo in 1983 said that Mr. Sethuraman’s theory should be made applicable throughout the sub continent in discovering the hitherto unknown kings.

Books and publications

N. Sethuraman has written five books in English namely, Early Cholas, The Cholas, Medieval Pandyas, Imperial Pandyas and Chola Pandya, Chola Ganga, Chola Kerala and Chola Lankeswara. He has written three books in Tamil, namely Aruludai Cholamandalam, Pandiyar Varalaru and the heroes of the two Tamil poems Sankara Cholan Ula and Kulothunga Cholan Kovai which were discovered in manuscripts more than 100 years ago. His books are available in the libraries of reputed universities across the world. He has contributed 23 works and 41 publications in the field of epigraphy and archeology.

Discovery of the unknown Pandya kings

The manuscript Pandya Kulodaya poem in Sanskrit, written on palm leaves, was found in the Lahore museum in Pakistan. Later it was sent to The Sanskrit Research Center Hoshiyarpur, Punjab University. This was translated to English by Dr. K. V. Sharma. However the Pandya kings who figured in the poem as well as the heroes of the poem could not be identified. It was N. Sethuraman who identified all the Pandya kings and their dates referred to in the poem and the two heroes. The Epigraphical Society of India calls N. Sethuraman’s book, “Pandiyar Varalaaru” written in Tamil, a magnum opus and an encyclopedia of the history of the Pandya dynasty.

A memorial dedicated to Raja Raja The Great

In 1985, N. Sethuraman made a major breakthrough in finding epigraphical evidence to the presence of probably the last resting place of the chola king Raja Raja The Great (985 – 1014 AD) and a memorial temple dedicated to this great king. His thorough analysis on this findings is detailed in his presidential address at the seventh annual conference of the Place Names Society of India.

Lectures and conferences

N. Sethuraman was the working committee member of The Epigraphical Society of India and a patron in The Place Names Society of India. He delivered the presidential address at the society’s seventh annual conference held in the year 1986. He presented a paper on “The Date of the Tenkasi Visvanatha Temple“, at the the International Conference on Indian Epigraphy held at Banaras arranged by the American Institute of Indian Studies, in the year 1979. His exertions were very much praised and appreciated by many delegates who represented different countries. He delivered three lectures in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) conference on Epigraphy concerning South Asia, in the year 1985.

N. Sethuraman presented many papers in various conferences held all over India. Every paper was a discovery. While quoting N. Sethuraman, the Archeological Survey of India said, “with permutations and combinations of several inscriptions from various dynasties, this mathematical wizard has deduced precise conclusions, multiplied our interests in chronology, added informative details to the very last digit and thus totally can be rated as one of the foremost epigraphists”.

Beyond India

N. Sethuraman not only read inscriptions in situ but discovered many new records. He was the first to link contemporary literature with inscriptions. He deciphered the exact dates of many Tamil poems and their authors. He consulted the poems, chronicles and lithic records of Kerala, Karnataka and even Sri Lanka. Thus while writing the history of a particular period he brought to light what the other dynasties of adjoining kingdoms said about the history, religion and society of Tamil Nadu. His new interpretations for the Triconamale inscription found in the Fort Fedrik in Sri Lanka, caused the scholars in Sri Lanka to turn back to N. Sethuraman for consultation. He worked with the Cambridge University and the British museum on the project, Kumbakonam Through the Ages.

An eye opener for the society

N. Sethuraman conducted his research with dedication and moved on his own steam. His discoveries were very much helpful in reveleaving the unknown of the past concerning not only political history but humanities like culture, art, music and literature. His books and published papers serve in understanding the developments and deteriorations of the societies across various periods. No doubt they should also help us to know what we should do today for the development of human relations, service and sacrifice for all.

The best epigraphist in India

Recognizing his contributions, The Epigraphical Society of India, in its 24th annual congress held in Trissur, in the state of Kerala, India, on May 15, 1998, awarded N. Sethuraman as the best epigraphist for the year 1997. The society also presented a copper plate scroll detailing his greatness and knowledge, the highest honor to be received by a research scholar.

Final year

The passing away of N. Sethuraman on June 25, 1999, robbed the epigraphical and archeological world of one of the foremost research scholars of India.