Into the caves to follow the scripts

Early Tamil Epigraphy

October 31, 2003

Tamil is one of a small number of languages with a continuous recorded history of more than two millennia. Until the middle of the third decade of the 20th century, the earliest known specimens were in the magnificent verses on love and heroic deeds that collectively make up what is known as Sangam poetry - poems now assigned by a common consensus to a period round about the beginning of the Christian era. It goes without saying that there are no manuscripts of any poems dating back to the period of their composition, for contemporary records of the Tamil of 2,000 years ago could have survived only if made on durable materials such as stone, pottery or metal. Inscriptions in Tamil were known to modern investigators, but until the late 19th century, the earliest were from the 7th and 8th centuries, the former produced in the Tamil script under the Pallava dynasty and the latter in the Vatteluttu script under the Pantiyas.

Both of these writing systems are derived from the Brahmi script, the source of all indigenous Indian scripts, with the exception of the still-undeciphered Indus Valley script. Other inscriptions in a variety of the Brahmi script were discovered within the Tamil-speaking part of India in 1882, with further examples being found at regular intervals up to the present day. Though the identity of the script was clear, the inscriptions were unintelligible. It was not until 1924 that K. V. Subrahmanya Aiyer was able to show that they were in Tamil, with some admixture of loanwords from Prakrit. One of the keys to this conclusion was the identification of special symbols for three Tamil sounds not found in any Indo-Aryan language.

Many more years were to pass before scholars understood the precise nature of Tamil-Brahmi, that is to say the special form of the Brahmi script that evolved through its being adapted to the writing of Tamil, a language whose phonology was significantly different from that of the Indo-Aryan languages for which the script had earlier been used. It is now possible to say that the language of Brahmi inscriptions found mainly in caves in the Tamil region of the subcontinent is Tamil, and that it is a variety of the language closely resembling that found in the Sangam classics. It is possible also to give a precise account of the orthographic conventions followed in writing Tamil sounds and sequences of sounds, to give a clear indication of the meaning of each individual inscription and to show that the occupants of the hermitages made out of the caves were for the most part Jaina monks and nuns, and not Buddhists or Ajivikas, as had previously been thought.

Though Iravatham Mahadevan gives full credit to predecessors and contemporaries who have done work on the inscriptions, the greatest contribution to our present knowledge of Tamil-Brahmi has been made by him. He has to his credit a major publication on the Indus script ( The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables , 1977), but his principal passion over more than 40 years has been early Tamil inscriptions. His first important published work on Tamil epigraphy was a presentation of the full corpus of Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions known at the time of its publication ( Corpus of the Tamil-Brahmi Inscriptions , 1966). This was an important step forward, but it was less authoritative than his high standards demanded, for some uncertainties in the readings and the translations remained. Aware that part of the reason for this was the lack of clarity in published ink estampages or photographs taken of the inscriptions, and that in his first period of concentrated research he had not been able to visit every site, he embarked during 1991-96 on an investigation of all sites that he had not been able to see earlier, making tracings of all the inscriptions.

The result is a book that not only gives Mahadevan's own carefully considered readings but also provides other researchers with reliable material. Each inscription is presented in two forms: first, a copy of a tracing taken in situ and second, an estampage (in most cases) or a computer-enhanced photograph. Because in each case the scale of the reproduction is given, the reader can see the great variation in the size of inscriptions, ranging in height from 1.5 to almost 40cm. The tracings are accompanied by a transliteration of each individual symbol (each of which represents a syllable - either a consonant-plus-vowel or a vowel), versions with word-breaks in both roman and Tamil script indicating the sequence of Tamil sounds, and a translation. Earlier chapters give details of the discovery of the inscriptions, their decipherment, the language in which they are composed, what they tell us of the society of the times in which they were made, the palaeography of Tamil-Brahmi and early Vatteluttu - as used not only on rock faces, but also on pottery, coinage, seals and rings - and the phonology and grammar of the variety of Tamil represented. A later chapter gives a detailed commentary on each inscription.

The work is made very easy to use and consult, not only by its systematic arrangement, but also by a detailed table of contents, and by appendices on topics such as the evolution of Brahmi and the two of its descendants that are the subject of the book. The inscriptions studied cover the eight centuries from the 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD and are presented in three periods: early and late Tamil-Brahmi, each covering three centuries and comprising 87 inscriptions from 29 different sites, and early Vatteluttu comprising 21 from 12 sites. A classification is also given century by century.

This beautifully written book brilliantly conveys the thrill of scientific discovery and the excitement of academic research. It is very up to date and will be of value to specialists in epigraphy, archaeology, the history of Tamil and the Dravidian languages, and the political and religious history of India, but could also interest inquiring general readers.

R. E. Asher is emeritus professor of linguistics, University of Edinburgh.

Early Tamil Epigraphy: From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century AD

Editor - Iravatham Mahadevan
Publisher - Cre-A, Chennai (Madras)
Distributed by Harvard University Press
Pages - 719
Price - £48.95
ISBN - 0 674 012 5

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