Pune’s octogenarian translates 1000-year-old book by Raja Bhoja

Two decades ago, Pune-based Prabhakar Apte was approached by Chintamani Kand, a retired engineer of Madhya Pradesh, for the translation of Samarangana Sutradhara, a book written 1000 years back by Raja Bhoja, the ruler of Malwa region in the 11th century. During the same time, he was contacted by Indira Gandhi National Centre of Arts (IGNCA, Delhi), with the same proposal. Thus began Apte's work on translation of the ancient book, which will be released by IGNCA in six volumes by October. Samarangana Sutradhara, written in Sanskrit, is a discourse in 80 chapters, on civil engineering detailing construction of buildings, forts, temples, idols of deities and mechanical devices.

"It hasn't been an easy task. Translation and decoding of such a text is only possible when a Sanskrit-oriented technologist and technology-oriented Sanskritist come together. In my case, I had a strong background of Sanskrit and I had a kind support of my engineer friend Aravind Phadnis. With his help, I could translate difficult engineering terms," says 80-year-old Apte, who has an educational background of MA and PhD in Sanskrit. Prior to his retirement, he was working with Archaeology Department of Deccan College and Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth (Tirupati). At Deccan College, he was also the editor of Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Sanskrit.

During his professional stint at Tirupati, he came in contact with temple architecture discipline. "The experience came handy during translation of Samarangana Sutradhara," says Apte, who began the translation work two decades ago and was ready with the first draft of the manuscript six years ago. He says that Raja Bhoja's work on Samarangana Sutradhara is elaborate with all necessary text, calculations, photos and tables. "Architects and engineers can refer to the book, which has great potential of reconstruction," he adds. Some of the elements covered in the book include master plans of all site plans, town planning, basic measurement units, colonies according to social strata, palace complex, residential houses, temples, military camps, definition of machines and more.

Giving the background of the book, Apte says that according to mythology, Vishwakarma had four sons, Jay, Vijay, Siddharth and Aparajita. When Vishwakarma asks his sons to go in four directions to colonise the earth, his son Jaya came up with several questions pertaining to geology, astrophysics, measurements, norms of town planning, residential houses, colonising, temples, military camps and so on.

"The answers of all questions were given by Raja Bhoja through his book Samarangana Sutradhara," explains Apte, adding that the manuscripts of questions asked by Vijay and Siddharth are available at Pune's Bhandarkar Oriental Institute, but are not yet published. This was brought to Apte's notice by a Lithuanian scholar Valdas Jaskunas. However, the questions by Aparajita were translated by one Bhuvana Devachary. "If we put together questions of all four brothers and translate them, it will be a compendium of ancient engineering science," says Apte.

Elaborating some interesting elements he came across in the book, Apte says, "Bhoja described types of machines as automotive, one-stroke engine, remote-control machine and driver-run machine. Whether he created a remote-control machine or not, we can't say, but its interesting to know that 1000 years ago, he gave the definition of such a machine."

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