Antique beginnings

I opted for ASI without any hesitation because the subject of archaeology was exciting.

When I was selected for the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) way back in the fifties, my boss-to-be summoned me to his residence at Madras and warned me of the harsh living conditions that work in ASI may entail.

I opted for ASI without any hesitation because the subject of archaeology was exciting and there was the perceived prestige of a Central Government job and the higher emoluments (all of Rs 220)! The good samaritan then typed out my appointment order on his portable Olivetti typewriter and gave it to me with instructions on where I was to report to duty.

That is how I landed one hot summer day, in May 1954, at the Vadamadimangalam railway station on the Katpadi Thruvannamalai route. My senior colleague, Mr Hegde, was there to receive me and take me to the village, two miles away, where our field office cum residence was located.

The work site – a Jain cave with mural paintings of the 13th century, – was at a distance of another two miles from the village. After a morning meal at around 9.30 am in the only Iyer hotel in the place, we both would set out for work, with umbrellas to keep out the burning  sun. The only way to reach the cave was to walk over paddy field bunds initially and then take a mud road the rest of the way.

We had to climb a few steps along a dark passage to reach the interior of the cave and the paintings. Our attendant would lead us with a torch light, and on the rare occasions when the torch was not available, we would grope our way upward, making loud clapping noises to scare away snakes!

We would be busy working on the paintings till 4 pm with a couple of tea breaks in between. The funny thing was that neither of us had a wrist watch then and we would estimate the time, in a primitive fashion, from the position of the sun and the shadows around.

Back home by 5 pm, it would be time for relaxation over cups of tea and snacks, listening to film music on radio.Our landlord had kindly provided us speaker connection from his battery- operated set to our upstairs rooms. A little later, some local boys would join us and we would go for long walks.

A simple and arduous life but how happy we were! Incidentally, it was here that I learnt swimming, in a rather dangerous way, in an irrigation well! Our local friends were all expert  swimmers. Four of them would station themselves at the four corners of the well and ask me to jump in.

I was terribly scared on the first day and stood hesitating on the edge, when a fellow stole from behind and pushed me into the water. I  thought I was lost but they lifted me up at once, supported me asking me to move my hands and legs. After a few days, I myself would jump in with glee!

An amusing aspect of this simple life was that our landlord’s house – a new one and one of the best in the village – still had no toilet and we had to go into the fields in the mornings with the proverbial ‘lota’ in hand. A scary aspect, however, was the high incidence of leprosy in the village.

Almost every other household had a patient sitting outside and the locals seemed to have no fear of infection even as these affected people  freely played with the children. After only a few months in this place, I was transferred to Ajanta and another interesting chapter in my ASI life began!

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