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Records and revelations

A book that will go a long way in establishing the historicity and antiquity of Tamil, writes INDIRA PARTHASARATHY of Iravatham Mahadevan's Early Tamil Epigraphy.

STONE sculpted is Art and when scripted, it is History. Lucien, the Greek satirist and sophist, while lampooning the historians of his period (Second Century A.D.) said, "objective history has no favourites and manipulating history appears to be, now, the official pastime." (How prophetic!) Inscriptions with no set goals of literary merit, but stay as the written records of a given era, define history as Lucien had visualised it. But the inscriptions need to be accurately read and dispassionately interpreted to conform to this Lucienian dictum.



Pottery with Tamil-Brahmini inscriptions, Berenike, Egypt, First Century A.D.

Tamil is one of the oldest languages with the longest literary and spoken continuity in India. And yet, what puzzled the earlier scholars was, in spite of the literary antiquity of this language, the inscriptions discovered in the Tamil region, were in two different scripts, one in Tamil belonging to the period of the Pallavas i.e. Seventh Century A.D. and the other in Va.t.te.luttu at the time of the P-a.ndyas in Eighth Century A.D. Much more intriguing was the total absence of written records in Tamil before the Seventh Century A.D. Did this mean that Tamil had only an oral tradition before this period? Considering the historical data of such an eminent past found in the Sanga works P-uran-a-n-u-ru and Pa.t.tirrupattu, brought to light by the untiring efforts of the greatest among the Tamil scholars of the last century, Dr. U.Ve Swaminatha Iyer, can one hold the view that the idea of `recording', in whatever form, had never occurred to the Tamil?

This nagging doubt was soon set at nought by the discovery of the As´okan edicts in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu around the turn of the 20th Century. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of V. Venkayya, H. Krishna Sastri, K.V. Subrahmanya Aiyer, Mahadevan, R. Nagaswamy and a few other scholars in dating and deciphering the scripts, a few things became clear — that they were different from the edicts of As´oka in the sense that their phonological character was not Indo-Aryan, that the special characters of the Tamil language could be identified in these scripts, that the orthographic conventions were not the same as that were followed by the Mauryan Br-ahm-i but in a way related to the Bhattiproulu casket inscriptions. Once it was established that they were not in Prakrit language written in Maurya- Br-ahm-i script, it led to an astounding revelation that the earliest inscriptions in the Tamil region were in Tamil, written in the Tamil- Br-ahm-i script, which, in turn, was an innovative adaptation of the original Mauryan-Br-ahm-i script to conform to the distinctive phonological character of the Tamil language.

It was to Iravatham Mahadevan, the administrator-scholar, that this revelation came, who has been involved in this field of research for the last four decades and more. An outcome of this revelation is the book, Early Tamil Epigraphy: From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D.

The book, which is in three parts, narrates chronologically the discovery of the cave inscriptions by the pioneers involved in this research, their attempts to read them in which they partially succeeded but were left with confusion mostly because of their certain basic wrong assumptions. The language of As´okan edicts was in Prakrit in Br-ahm-i script and as such, it was assumed earlier, that the language of the cave inscriptions found in Tamil Nadu could only be in Prakrit. But once it became known that the language was Tamil, the difficulty in reading them was attributed to the defective orthography of the inscriptions.

Dr. Kamil Zvelebil, a noted Dravidinist, went to the extent of making a sweeping statement as this: "The legitimate inference seems to be that these votive inscriptions are in a hybrid language containing Tamil as well Prakrit words ... the strange jumble of words belonging to two different languages. It is of supreme importance, therefore, to remember that these epigraphs are not of great value to the study of linguistic development" (1996).



Pandya Copper coin with Tamil Brahimi Legend, Karur, First Century B.C.

The chapter on "Language" is a significant part of this book. Mahadevan studied and restudied the inscriptions over and over again and found the confusion was not in them but in the minds of those who read them wrongly. He says, "The argument for the present study is that starting from accurately copied texts and applying the orthographic rules which can be empirically formulated for reading the texts, it can be demonstrated that the language of the cave inscriptions despite the Prakrit loan words, is Old Tamil not materially different from the language of later Tamil inscriptions or even literary texts in its basic phonological, morphological and syntactical features." He made several expeditions to those caves and edited directly from the stone that helped him arrive at this most significant conclusion. Though Br-ahm-i was the mother of all the scripts in India, Devan-agari and Dravidian, it was adapted in a way to suit the genius of the language of the region. There were five variations of the Br-ahm-i script such as (1) Northern Br-ahm-i. (2) Southern Br-ahm-i, (3) Bhattiprolu script, (4) Sinhala- Br-ahm-i and (5) Tamil- Br-ahm-i.

Tamil- Br-ahm-i evolved after certain changes were made in Br-ahm-i to suit the phonetic system in the Tamil language.

Tamil- Br-ahm-i omitted sounds not present in Tamil viz., voiced consonants, aspirates, sibilants, the anusv-ara (.m) and the visarga (-h). Tamil has certain sounds for which there were no signs in Br-ahm-i, which called for additional letters viz. -l, .l, -r, -n.

By introducing a diacritical mark called pu.l.li (dots) three things were achieved: (a) basic consonants in final position were indicated (b) ligaturing of consonant clusters was avoided (c) the short vowels `e,' `o' were differentiated from the respective long vowels.



Music inscription in Tamil Brahimi, Arachalur, Fourth Century A.D.

In Tamil, the consonants are basic and the "inherent" medial — a, as in Sanskrit, is absent. The pu.l.li was used as a minus-vowel marker. It was invented in Tamil-Br-ahm-i to accommodate this concept, as the parent Br-ahm-i script did not have this. The pu.l.li did not occur in the Early Tamil-Br-ahm-i inscriptions and occurred for the first time in the Late Tamil-Br-ahm-i inscription at Anaimalai (Second Century A.D.) and its frequency increased until it occurred almost without exception with all the basic consonants in the Early Va.t.te.luttu period (ca. Fifth Centuries A.D.).

Tolk-appiyam says the "the nature of the consonant is to be provided with a dot and `e' and `o' are also of the same nature." It is evident from the way Tolk-appiyam defines the consonants that their nature was to have the dots, this grammatical work, one can assume, was written later than the period the pulli was invented. Also, the early Tamil-Br-ahm-i inscriptions do not represent graphically the letter -aytam (.) at all which is described by Tolk-appiyam as mupp-al pu.l.li (dots in a triangular pattern). From the inscriptional evidences, Mahadevan says that Tolk-appiyam was perhaps written between the Second and Fourth Centuries A.D. Many Tamil scholars would like to assign a much earlier date for Tolk-appiyam, that it belonged to a period not later than Sixth Century B.C.

Based on the Tamil-Br-ahm-i script's rendering of the singularly different sounds in Tamil, Mahadevan refutes the theory of some Tamil scholars, who argue that although Tamil has no voiced consonants (as in Indo-Aryan and other Dravidian languages), voicing in medial position exists in Modern Tamil and as such, should have existed in Old Tamil also. They were not provided for in the orthography because, according to them, the early Tamils should have felt that it was not necessary to borrow Br-ahm-i voiced consonants, as they were well aware of the principle of phonemes. If this argument were true, the natural question would be, what could have been the reason for avoiding the voiced consonants even in the Prakrit loan words in the early inscriptions. Was it is not for accommodating Tamil phonology with its lack of voicing? Tolk-appiyam, the earliest Tamil grammar, made no reference to the voicing of consonants. One feels that Tolk-appiyam would have definitely dealt with this issue, had there been voiced consonants during its period, as it had devoted a whole chapter on articulatory phonetics. "On the basis of the direct and unambiguous evidence from the Tamil-Br-ahm-i inscriptions taken together with the native grammatical tradition," Mahadevan states emphatically, "there was no voicing of consonants in Old Tamil."

The learned author of this book holds the view that, although one cannot say that the Tamil script got derived directly from the Br-ahm-i script, it cannot be satisfactorily countered that Br-ahm-i was not the origin for all the scripts in the Indian languages. From Br-ahm-i, the Southern Br-ahm-i and Tamil- Br-ahm-i came into existence (Second Century B.C.) From Tamil- Br-ahm-i came Va.t.te.luttu (Fifth Century A.D.) This led to the arrival of Grantha script in the Sixth Century A.D. A simplification of the Grantha script resulted in the formation of what we now know as Tamil script (Seventh Century A.D.) The greatness of the Tamil language and literature will not suffer any devaluation just because its script was derived and succeeded the language after several centuries, which was true of many of the languages in the world, including Sanskrit.

Dr. Zevelbil, while computing the relative frequency of Dravidian and Indo-Aryan stems in the words used in the scriptions, put the ration as 1:1. Mahadevan has calculated in all the 307 stems of 89 Tamil- Br-ahm-i inscriptions, 213 are Dravidian, 81 are Indo-Aryan and the remaining 13 are of doubtful etymology. So according to him the ratio is 2.5:1, which only goes to prove that the language of the inscriptions is not definitely "a hybrid jargon", as was believed by some of the reputed scholars. In the lexical items category, it is found that the Tamil inscriptions are richer in verbs when compared with the votive inscriptions in Prakrit. There are 15 verb stems, which are all Dravidian. Intransitive, transitive, causative forms, past and non-past tenses (there was no future tense in Old Tamil), participal and verbal nouns, adjectival participles and the infinitive are found in the language of the inscriptions. It only shows how the language was well settled and had acquired a considerable amount of linguistic maturity even from the date of the earliest inscriptions available to us.

As the earliest lithic records in Dravidian languages, there are some rare words used in the inscriptions, which are not found in Old Tamil and the literary texts. They are dismissed by some of the scholars as "scribal errors". Mahadevan has found these words were used in much later inscriptions also, which, according to the learned author, only establishes that these words could have continuously existed in the spoken idiom from early times, though not represented in the literary texts. He gives the examples of the words "a.n.ni and antai". A.n.ni is feminine honorific suffix and as it is found along with its masculine honorific suffix anna in ancient Prakrit inscriptions (borrowed from the Dravidian sources), the antiquity of this word is attested. `Antai' as an independent word appears to be the primary kinship term, which cognates like enthai ("my father") tantai ("our father" — reflexive pronoun, which has now become a generic word to denote `father'). Antai, as a bound word is merely honorific (like "appa-n", "ayya-n") and it cannot mean "father of", as is interpreted by the Tamil grammatical tradition, according to Mahadevan. He gives illustrations from the inscriptions themselves, in which "Pi.t.tantai" and "Ko-r-rantai" mean "revered Pi.t.tan" and "revered Ko-r-ran" respectively and not "father of Pi.t.tan" and "father of Ko-r-ran". He has, accordingly, suggested that the commentaries and the grammatical sutrams in Tolk-appiyam (E-lu.t.tu 347) and Na-n-n-ul (238) respectively, "need reinterpretation to be consistent with actual usage".

Some of the significant observations made by the author in the "Language" chapter are, that in the Inscriptions, (1) there are no finite verbs (2) present tense is totally absent and (3) the occurrence of rare grammatical morphemes, like -a, functioning as accusative case suffix, genitive suffix and as genitive case suffix, which is not attested elsewhere in Tamil but is found in Old Kannada as genitive suffix.

Mahadevan has brought to light in this work the influence of Old Kannada on Tamil-Br-ahm-i inscriptions from a period (Second Century B.C. to Fourth Century A.D.) anterior to the earliest Kannada inscriptions and literature. This is a very interesting observation he has made on the basis of lexical and grammatical usages showing the influence of Old Kannada.



Memorial Stela for a fighting cock, Vatteluttu inscription, Arasalapuram, Fifth Century A.D.

"Erme" in Old Kannada means "buffalo", and the Mysore region came to be known later as "mahisha-ma.ndala" (`the land of buffaloes' in Sanskrit). In a Tamil- Br-ahm-i inscription, there is reference to "erumin-a.tu", which would be in literary Tamil "erumainadu". In Akan-a-n-u-ru, an important Sangam work, "erumai uran" and "erumain-a.tu" find mention in three poems written by Mamulanar and Nakkirar. "Ka.vuti" was a personal name of a Jaina nun, belonging to Mysore, who was gifted a resting place by "I.layar". I.layar belonged to the martial race in the Tulu region. It looks like "ka.vuti' could also be a variant of `gavu.da,' the name strikingly similar to `Kavundhi Adigal,' a Jaina nun, and an important character in Tamil epic Cilappatik-aram (Fifth Century A.D.) The author of this great work was a Jaina monk and said to be a C-era prince.

The traditional accounts say that Jainism reached the Tamil region from Karnataka. The Tamil-Br-ahm-i inscriptions are mostly associated with the Jaina faith. The author says, "out of 30 sites with 89 Tamil- Br-ahm-i inscriptions, included in the Corpus, 28 sites with 84 inscriptions are Jaina and the remaining two sites with five inscriptions are secular, that is, having no apparent religious significance." Merchants and the chieftains in and around the P-a.ndyas and C-era countries supported this faith by giving grants to the monks and nuns to have their own resting place in the caves. A resting place was called "Pa.l.li", which meant "bed", also "a teaching centre", and in fact, it functioned as both. The monks and nuns lived in these caves and taught their disciples. From the name of any place in Tamil Nadu that ends with "pa.l.li" suffix, like "Tiruchirapalli, Tirukattuppalli" one can say that was once a strong Jaina centre. Madurai in the P-a.ndyas country had headquartered as the seat of Jaina order during the early centuries before and after the Christian era.

Mahadevan says that D-evas-ena, the author of Darsan-asara, a Prakriti work written in 853 A.D. has mentioned that Vajranandi, the pupil of P-ujyap-ada, founded the Dravida Sa.mgha in Madurai in 468-469 A.D. The Dravida Sa.mgha was so famous that it has been referred to in the Kannada inscriptions from Karnataka. Mahadevan's speculation that the legends relating to the three successive Tamil Sangams (literary academies) at Madurai are probably based on later recollection of the name. Dravida Sa.mgha deserves a further probe by Tamil scholars. That many of the outstanding authors like Tolk-appiyar, Tiruvalluvar, I.la.nko and Tirutthakkathevar were Jainas is also a significant point.

The Sangam society as reflected in its poetry (ca. First-Third Centuries A.D.) was free from hierarchy of any kind, social or cultural. The poets, who wrote these poems, came from all sections of the society, princes, Brahmins, farmers, merchants, workers and women. This is no surprise. Mahadevan says that the Early and Late and Va.t.te.luttu inscriptions depicted a high literate society, literacy of very popular and democratic character. It was free from elitism. Literacy was widespread covering almost all the regions, urban and rural, as evidenced by the inscribed pottery obtained during the excavations and explorations. The number of such finds is much more than elsewhere in the country. The author states, "the pottery inscriptions are secular in character and the names occurring in them indicate that common people from all strata of Tamil society made these scratchings and scribblings on pottery owned by them; on the other hand, inscribed pottery excavated from Upper South Indian sites are all in Prakrit and mostly associated with religious centres like Amaravathi and Salihundam."

How did this happen? The author has a very convincing reason for this that cannot be bettered. The mother tongue (Tamil) was the vehicle of social transaction between all sections of the people. Literacy can be "meaningful and creative", only if the society conducts its activity of any nature in its own mother tongue. The political independence of Tamil country was also one of the important factors for the popular literacy ratio in this region. The Upper South India was under the Nanda-Maurya domination and the administrative language was Prakrit, the language of the Northern rulers and the local ruling elite. The common people were alienated and they had no participatory role in the Government. Mahadevan's brilliant analysis of the situation is one of the crowning achievements of this book.



Copying of cave inscriptions by the author and his team (1992).

Nothing has been written until now, on Tamil Epigraphy, so rewarding and communicating, as this book is. It is a comprehensive in-depth treatise, in which a multi-disciplinary learning of an awesome dimension is much in evidence. Mahadevan brings to bear upon this book, running to 719 pages, his rare insights, cool objectivity, immense patience, intense and rigorous scholarship, backed by a thorough knowledge of Sanskrit, Tamil and Prakrit.

The book, jointly published by Cre-A, Chennai and the Sanskrit Department of Harvard University, U.S., (the first ever book Harvard has issued on Tamil Studies) would go a long way in establishing the historicity and antiquity of Tamil, in the context of the earliest inscriptions found in this ancient language.

Early Tamil Epigraphy: From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D., Iravatham Mahadevan, Cre-A, Chennai and the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Harvard University, Cambridge, U.S., 2003, Rs. 1,500.

Indira Parthasarathy, well-known Tamil writer, is a retired Professor of Tamil, Delhi University and former Director of the School of Performing Arts, Pondicherry University.

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