An epigraphic perspective on the antiquity of Tamil

June 24, 2010 12:56 am | Updated 12:56 am IST

FIGURE 1: Memorial stone, Pulimankombai. 1st century BCE.

FIGURE 1: Memorial stone, Pulimankombai. 1st century BCE.

The legend that Sanskrit and Tamil emerged from the two sides of the damaru (drum) of Shiva says it all — the immemorial antiquity and the equal divine status accorded in our tradition to the two languages recognised as Classical. And yet, Western scholarship in the colonial period concentrated almost wholly on Sanskrit studies. It is only from the mid-20th century, when Burrow and Emeneau published the Dravidian Etymological Dictionary, that interest in the Dravidian languages, especially Tamil, gained momentum.

According to Thomas Trautman ( The Aryan Debate, 2005), the three “fundamental discoveries” in Indological studies are the discovery of the Indo-European language family (1786); the discovery of the Dravidian language family (1816), and the discovery of the Indus civilisation (1924). It is significant that two of the three “fundamental discoveries” relate to the Dravidian, though the latest one is still being “debated” for want of an acceptable decipherment of the Indus script.

Part of the problem in the delayed recognition accorded to Tamil in Indological studies was the non-availability of really old literary texts and archaeological evidence for the existence of Tamil civilisation in ancient times. The critical editions of the earliest Tamil literary works of the Sangam Age, especially by U.V. Swaminathaiyar from 1887, have led to a radical reassessment of the antiquity and historicity of Tamil civilisation.

What Swaminathaiyar did for Tamil literature, K.V. Subrahmanya Aiyer accomplished for Tamil epigraphy. He demonstrated (in 1924) that Tamil (and not Prakrit) was the language of the cave inscriptions of Tamil Nadu, written in a regional and linguistic variant of the Mauryan Brahmi script adapted to Tamil phonetics. His discovery has been amply confirmed by the increasing number of Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions on stone, coins, seals, rings and, last but not least, the humble pottery of common people. The following are a few select examples of the more recent discoveries.

Stone inscriptions: The most important historical inscriptions include those of Nedunchezhiyan at Mangulam near Madurai, the Cheral Irumporai dynasty at Pugalur near Karur and Athiyan Neduman Anji at Jambai near Tirukkoyilur, all assigned to the period from the 2nd century BCE to 3rd century CE, coinciding with the Sangam Age described in the earliest Tamil anthologies.

Equally important are very recent (2006) discoveries of a clutch of menhirs (memorial stones) found in megalithic urn-burial fields in the Upper Vaigai valley. They are in Tamil and inscribed in Tamil-Brahmi. They date from about the 2nd century and first century BCE and are among the earliest herostone inscriptions found in India ( See Figure 1).

Coins: Among the most notable discoveries are the copper coins of Peruvazhudi, a Pandya king of the Sangam Age (2nd century BCE) and the Cheral Irumporai-s of Karur (1st century CE), and the silver portrait coins of the Chera dynasty from the 3rd century CE (See Figure 2). Interestingly, the Satavahanas from Andhra issued a series of silver portrait coins (1st century to 3rd century CE) with bi-lingual legends, Prakrit in Southern Brahmi script on the obverse and Tamil in the Tamil-Brahmi script on the reverse . This indicates that only Prakrit and Tamil were the official languages of the regions where the coins circulated.

Pottery: Excavations undertaken at sites such as Uraiyur, Azhagankulam and Kodumanal, and surface explorations of many more sites, have yielded a growing number of pottery inscriptions in Tamil written in the Tamil-Brahmi script (dated between 2nd century BCE and 3rd century CE). It is significant that inscribed pottery is much more abundant in Tamil Nadu than elsewhere in India. The pottery inscriptions are also secular in content. The main reasons for such widespread and early literacy in Tamil Nadu are political independence and the use Tamil in administration and other spheres of public life.

Those scholars who were initially reluctant to admit that there could be early and widespread literacy in ancient Tamil society now accept the reality in the light of the sheer numbers and archaeologically established antiquity of Tamil-Brahmi pottery inscriptions from Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. The pottery is fragile, but the evidence is firm.

Tamil Nadu: A Tamil-Brahmi pottery inscription of about the 3rd century CE from Andipatti in Vellore district reads naakan uRal ‘ Nakan's [pot with] toddy-sap' (See Figure 3). He has apparently inscribed his kalayam so that it is not taken away by other toddy-tappers. Here is a case of a toddy-tapper living in the countryside who is literate enough to write down his name and the purpose for which the pot is used. Surely he did not hire the services of a professional scribe. This illustrates the state of literacy in early Tamil society.

Sri Lanka: Tamils have been living in the northern and eastern parts of the island from time immemorial. Several small fragments of pottery with a few Tamil-Brahmi letters scratched on them have been found from the Jaffna region. However, a much more sensational discovery is a pottery inscription from an excavation conducted at Tissamaharama on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka. A fragment of a high-quality black and red-ware flat dish inscribed in Tamil in the Tamil-Brahmi script was found in the earliest layer. It was provisionally dated to around 200 BCE by German scholars who undertook the excavation. The inscription reads tiraLi muRi, which means “written agreement of the assembly” (See Figure 4). The inscription bears testimony to the presence in southern Sri Lanka of a local Tamil mercantile community organised in a guild to conduct inland and maritime trade as early as at the close of the 3rd century BCE.

Berenike, Egypt: The excavations of a Ptolemaic-Roman settlement at this ancient port on the Red Sea coast have yielded an inscribed amphora fragment. The inscription is in Tamil and written in the Tamil-Brahmi script, precisely dated by stratigraphy to 60-70 CE. The reading is ko(R)Ra-pumaan, the name of a chieftain . The pottery inscription bears evidence to the Western trade of the Tamils in the Sangam Age.

Thailand: A Thai-French team of archaeologists discovered a sherd of inscribed pottery during excavations at Phu Khao Thong in Thailand. The pottery inscription is in Tamil written in the Tamil-Brahmi script of about the 2nd century CE. The fragmentary inscription reads tu Ra o…, part of the Tamil word meaning ‘monk' . This is the earliest Tamil inscription found so far from South-East Asia and attests to the maritime contacts of the Tamils.

(The author, an epigraphist and Tamil scholar, is an authority on the Indus and Brahmi scripts. )

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