The lines read as “Muu-na-ka-ra” and “Muu-ca-ka-ti”

Young archaeologists M. Prasanna and R. Ramesh like to climb the hills around Madurai, which have pre-historic rock art, Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions on the brow of natural caverns, beautiful bas-reliefs of Jaina “tirthankaras” and beds cut on the flat rock surface for the Jaina monks to sleep on. These hills include Mankulam, Keezhavalavu, Tiruvadavur, Varichiyur, Mettupatti, Anaimalai, Kongar Puliyankulam and Muthupatti.

The duo aspired to discover a Tamil-Brahmi script on the hills. While Prasanna is an assistant archaeologist in the Archaeological Survey of India, Ramesh works in the University Grants Commission-Special Assistance Programme under Professor K. Rajan of the Department of History, Pondicherry University.

On January 20, 2013, they climbed the Tirupparankundram hill, where three Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, datable to the first century BCE, were discovered many decades ago. As they climbed the several hundred steps leading to the Kasi Viswanathar temple, they wondered whether they would be lucky this time. Behind this temple are bas-reliefs of Jaina tirthankaras on the rock surface. There are also recently carved images of Ganesa, Muruga, Bhairava and others. Near the temple, there is a pond and a shrine dedicated to Machchamuni (matsya muni), meaning fish god. The pond is full of fish. There are steps cut on the rock, leading to the pond.

As they were scanning the rock surface, their eyes fell on the steps leading to the pond and they saw what looked like a Tamil-Brahmi script in two lines. Excited, they turned the pages of the book titled “Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions,” published by the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department in 2006. They read the pages on the earlier discoveries of the Tamil-Brahmi script at Tirupparankundram and found that this was a new discovery. They rang up Dr. Rajan who confirmed that it had not been documented earlier.

The lines, each having four letters, read as, “Muu-na-ka-ra” and “Muu-ca-ka-ti.” The first line has a trishul-like symbol as a graffiti mark at its end. The first letter “muu” can mean “three” or being ancient or old. “In the present context, the meaning of ancient is more probable,” Ramesh and Prasanna said. The na-ka-ra/na-kar-r represents a town or city. So the first line could be read as “ancient town,” probably meaning Madurai, they suggested. In the second line, the first letter “muu” again stands for “ancient or old.” The remaining three letters, ca-ka-ti/ca-k-ti may represent a “yakshi,” they said. (Yakshis are women attendants of the 24 Jaina tirthankaras). “So the inscription can be read as goddess of the ancient city. But it is open to different interpretations,” they said.

V. Vedachalam, retired senior epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, said the first line stood for an elderly Jaina monk and the second one could mean “motcha/moksha gadhi.” So the script could stand for a Jaina monk who, facing north, went on a fast unto death there. That is, he attained nirvana. This is the first time that a Tamil-Brahmi script, referring to a Jaina monk who fasted unto death, had been discovered. Other Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions referred to donors who cut beds on rocks for Jaina monks or sculpted rock-shelters for them.

A. Karthikeyan, Professor, Department of Tamil Studies in Tamil University at Thanjavur, suggested that the inscription could be read as “the attainment of liberation or salvation (moksha) of a female monk (saadhvi), namely elderly naakaraa. “Moksha gadhi” could be changed into muccakati. “It is difficult to assign a date to this inscription but it can be dated prior to the first century BCE,” said Dr. Rajan.