Updated: May 18, 2010 16:03 IST

Account of early historic Tamil country

V. Selvakumar
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Commemorating the academic contribution of K. Kailasapathy, five eminent scholars present in this volume a coherent account of research undertaken during the past three decades on the early historic (Sangam Age) Tamil country. It can well be called the first inter-disciplinary monograph on this subject. Studies in this area have acquired an interdisciplinary character since the second half of 20th century, with a greater focus on archaeology and epigraphy.


In the context of the early historic Tamil country, there are extensive debates on the nature and antiquity of political organisation, and the source and chronology of the Tamil script, variously labelled ‘Damizhi' and ‘Tamil-Brahmi.' One school of thought (example, Rajan Gurukkal) argues that the Cheras, the Cholas, and the Pandyas represented a chiefdom-level political organisation, while another school, as presented by K. Rajan in this book, argues for a “well established state” and the introduction of script and literacy among laypersons in the early historic period, prior to 4th century BC.

Y. Subbarayalu, who presents an analysis of the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions ascribed to this period, states that literacy was confined to the elite sections of society — namely, the merchants, the ruling group, and the monks. He contends that the Prakrit-speaking merchants were instrumental in introducing the Tamil-Brahmi script.

Tamil dominance

K. Indrapala, who has edited this volume, brings out the dominance of the Tamil language and highlights the presence of various ethnic groups. He goes on to explain how the processes of amalgamation and assimilation were active in this region.

R. Champakalakshmi discusses the social formations and the urban processes and calls for alternative approaches to understand the transformation of Tamil society from the proto-historic to the early historic. Y. Sivasamy speaks about the influence of Vedic ideas on the early historic Tamil society.

Over the past five decades, research on the early historic Tamil country has yielded enormous, valuable information. However, in the case of archaeology related to the ‘Classical Tamil' period, a more scientific thrust is needed for a better understanding of the transformation from the Iron Age to the Early Historic. The number of AMS C-14 dates available pertaining to these periods is very minimal, and not even one settlement has been as extensively excavated and scientifically analysed as, for instance, Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. The recent multidisciplinary research at Pattanam in Kerala by the Kerala Council of Historical Research is a welcome development in this regard.

Another vexed issue concerns the conservation of the Sangam Age archaeological sites. If less than one per cent of excavated area of Kodumanal could yield more than 204 pottery sherds with Tamil Brahmi inscriptions, surely the remaining part of the site should throw up a lot more of such valuable material. This highlights the need for more scientific excavations at similar sites and serious conservation efforts.

A valuable addition to the studies on the ‘Classical Tamil' period, this book — brought out to mark the 25th death anniversary of Kailasapathy — has an essay written by him on the Sangam texts. Without doubt, the commemorative essays meet the research standards set by Kailasapathy, one of the dedicated and methodical scholars in Tamil studies. The appendices provide useful additional information. It would have been more useful for the lay readers if a few maps and illustrations on the study area had been provided. A must read for those who are interested in the early historic Tamil country.

EARLY HISTORIC TAMIL NADU C 300 BCE-300 CE: Edited by K. Indrapala; Kumaran Book House, 3, Meigai Vinayagar Street, Kumaran Colony, Vadapalani, Chennai-600026. Rs. 380.

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