History Author, archaeologist and epigraphist, Dr. Rajavelu has unravelled the past from inscriptions he discovered.

In the attempt to reconstruct the past, one must have a knowledge of art, history, literature, folklore, religion and philosophy. But pride of place, perhaps, belongs to epigraphy, for inscriptional evidence can exalt conjecture to the status of history, or demolish a long held theory. Dr. Rajavelu, Head of the Department of Underwater Archaeology, Tamil University, Thanjavur, concurs. He has a PhD in Epigraphy and Archaeology, and 30 years of experience as an epigraphist. While with the Archaeological Survey of India, he discovered almost 150 inscriptions in a year.

Rajavelu says that sometimes the innocence of villagers has led to heritage being preserved. As an example, he cites his Neganurpatti experience. He was disappointed with the inscription he found there, for it was not old enough to interest him. But as he read the inscription, the villagers warned him that if he read it through, a rock some distance away would break into smithereens. To show the villagers that their fears were unfounded, Rajavelu walked up to the rock he had been warned about, and there, to his delight, he found a Tamil Brahmi inscription belonging to the 3rd-4th century A.D! Rajavelu feels that someone must have put the fear of God in the villagers, in order to protect the inscription, and the villagers had guarded it.

Treasure lost

But he also cites an instance where innocence led to a treasure being lost. To mark his victory against the Cholas, Rashtrakuta King Krishna III, while camping at Melapadi near Vellore, built three temples, the names of which he recorded in the Karhad copper plate. He gave the names of the temples as – Kalapriyadeva, Gandaramarthanda and Krishneswara. Rajavelu has identified the Siva temple in Tirumalaiceri, near Walajahbad, as the Kalapriyadeva temple. A Kannada inscription here says that the name of the deity is Kalapriyadeva. The architectural features and the decorations on the door jamb and the pillars are all of the Rashtrakuta style. A bas relief shows a victory procession, with some royal personage, possibly Krishna III, carrying a linga for consecration. A little further away in a field, Rajavelu saw a Mahesa sculpture, in Rashtrakuta style. He told the villagers that the sculpture was very valuable, and that they should guard it till he moved it to a museum. But when he went back later, the sculpture was gone. The villagers had sold it to an antique dealer for Rs. 50, 000 and said they were going to use the money to repair the dilapidated temple! So in this case, a valuable sculpture was lost, for want of awareness.

Rajavelu, who has co-authored a book on rock cut temples in Tamil Nadu, says the Pandyas were the pioneers when it came to rock cut temples, and not the Pallavas. Inscriptional evidence in Pillaiyarpatti also supports this view, he says. There is an inscription in Pillaiyarpatti, which can be assigned to the period 400 to 500 A.D. The script belongs to the transition period from Damili (Tamil Brahmi) to Vattezhuthu-Tamil. But Mahendra Varma Pallava’s Vallam inscription belongs to the 7th century.

While talking of Pillaiyarpatti, Rajavelu says that Vinayaka is not an import into the Tamil region, as some people claim. Vinayaka idols in Pillaiyarpatti and Aralipatti, for example, do not have a yagnopavitha (sacred thread), and this shows that Vinayaka was worshipped as a local deity even before Agamic practices were introduced in Tamil Nadu. Evidence points to Agamic worship in later Pandya rock cut temples, but there is no such indication in Pallava ones of the same period. In the Pandya rock cut Anaimalai Narasimha temple, there is a reference to “neer thelithal”- that is Samprokshanam.

Rajavelu, whose book on Tamil Brahmi is awaiting publication, argues that Tamil Brahmi predates Asokan Brahmi. “Asokan Brahmi has letter forms for conjunct consonants, soft sounds and aspirates. Tamil Brahmi has none of these. If Tamil Brahmi came from Asokan Brahmi, why did Tamil Brahmi not use any of these? An earlier script is bound to be simpler and a later one more complex and developed. So Tamil Brahmi an earlier script, travelled from Tamil Nadu to other places, and Asokan Brahmi must have developed from Tamil Brahmi! Scholars such as Dr. K.V. Ramesh, former Joint Director General of the ASI, have long argued that Damili met the phonetic needs of the Tamils, even before the time of Asoka, although how much older it was could not be asserted. Now, we have a date, thanks to the burial site in Porunthal, near Palani, excavated by Dr. Rajan of Pondicherry University,” says Rajavelu.

“Carbon dating fixed the date of the grains found here as 490 B.C., and so the Tamil Brahmi inscriptions in the grave must also belong to this period. Thus Tamil Brahmi predates Asokan Brahmi by 200 years.”

The Neganurpatti inscription, which Rajavelu found, records that Cekkantanni, of Perumpokai village, and mother of Cekkanti had a cave shelter made. A village by the name of Perumpokai still exists nearby.

Moving on to other interesting inscriptions he has found, Rajavelu talks about the ones he found in the ruins of the Vaikuntha Perumal temple in Pazhaiya Sivaram. An inscription of 922A.D. (15th regnal year of Parantaka Chola I), says members of the local governing bodies must declare their assets before taking the oath of office and also when their tenure ended. Anyone who did not attend the meetings of the council had to forfeit a year’s pay. A salutary practice indeed!

An inscription (1007 A.D.) of Raja Raja Chola in Ennayiram provides information on a type of village assembly known as ‘Sramakaryam Tiruttuvor.’ Rajavelu says that this can be taken to mean the Ministry of Labour and Welfare.

An inscription in Tiruvidandai Varaha temple copied by ASI in the early 1900s, remained unpublished. Rajavelu has written an interesting article about it.

It is important for an archaeologist to be widely read, says Rajavelu. His reading has resulted in many déjà vu moments, as when he saw the TV serial, ‘Chanakya,’ in which the Nanda kings were shown hiding their treasure in the Ganges. “In Aganaanooru there is a simile, which talks of the vastness of the treasure which the Nandas hid in the Ganges!” he exclaims.

Did you know?

Rajavelu has written nearly 1500 articles for the Tamil Encyclopaedia. He has published 75 research articles, and has discovered and copied nearly 2000 Brahmi, Tamil,Vatteluttu, Kannada and Telugu inscriptions.

He has participated in underwater archaeological explorations in Kaveripoompattanam

He deciphered the Mauryan Brahmi inscription at Langudi Hill, a Buddhist site in Orissa.

Useful hints

Historical fiction is one way to popularise history among the younger generation, says Rajavelu. Author Balakumaran says, “Without Rajavelu’s help, I would not have been able to write the historical novel Udayar.” The dialogue that Ajit speaks in Citizen, towards the end of the film was written by Balakumaran, and is based on the Uthiramerur inscription, and here again Balakumaran consulted Rajavelu.

Career highlights

Rajavelu has written nearly 1500 articles for the Tamil Encyclopaedia. He has published 75 research articles, and has discovered and copied nearly 2000 Brahmi, Tamil,Vatteluttu, Kannada and Telugu inscriptions.

He has participated in underwater archaeological explorations in Kaveripoompattanam

He deciphered the Mauryan Brahmi inscription at Langudi Hill, a Buddhist site in Orissa.