Inscriptions and Epigraphy


Tamil Brahmi inscription found in Tissamaharama

[TamilNet, Sunday, 27 June 2010, 02:59 GMT]
An early historic inscription in Tamil language and in Tamil Brahmi script, dateable to c.200 BCE, has been found in the archaeological excavations by a German team at Tissamaharama in the down south of the island of Sri Lanka. The inscription deciphered by I. Mahadevan as ‘Thira’li Mu’ri,’ which means ‘written agreement of the assembly,’ was incised on an early historic Black and Red Ware pottery. The last letter of the inscription, which is retroflex Tamil ‘Ri’, is very clearly a Tamil phoneme in Tamil Brahmi script, academics commented. The Tamil Brahmi inscription is also found mixed with megalithic or early historic graffiti marks, which were probably the symbols of the guild, they further said. Tissamaharama or ancient Mahaagama is located close to Kathirkaamam (Kataragama), a famous pilgrim centre for Tamils as well as Sinhalese.

Black and Red Ware pottery inscribed in Tamil Brahmi found in the archaeological excavation of Tissamaharama. [Photo courtesy: The Hindu, 24.06.2010]


Prakrit and Tamil were the earliest written languages of South Asia.

The first evidences in these languages, in phonetic writing, appear from c.3rd century BCE.

Sinhala, as an identifiable language appears in the inscriptions from c. 8– 9th century CE onwards.

The following is what I. Mahadevan, doyen of the study of Tamil Brahmi, wrote on Tissamaharama potsherd inscription in The Hindu, Thursday:

“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” The inscription bears testimony to the presence in southern Sri Lanka of a local Tamil mercantile community organised in a guild to conductmaritime trade as early as at the close of the 3rd century BCE”.

Writing on “An Epigraphic perspective on the Antiquity of Tamil.” Mahadevan cited the American scholar Thomas Trautman and said: “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 civilization (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.”

Mahadevan continues: “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 Swaminathiyar 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..”

Eezham Tamil academics sadly commenting on the repeated assertions of Mahadevan in giving exclusive credit to Swaminathaiyar for the publication of Changkam literature and not giving due credit to the efforts of Eezham Tamils, said scholars from Jaffna did the pioneering work decades before Swaminathaiyar.

The first ever Changkam text that saw the light of print was Thirumurukaattuppadai of Paththuppaaddu (one of The Ten Idylls), which was brought out by Arumuga Navalar of Jaffna in 1851.

The first of the Eight Anthologies (Edduththokai) of the Changkam classics that got printed was Kaliththokai (1887). This was brought out by C.W. Thamotharam Pillai of Jaffna, who was an old student of the Jaffna College and was the first graduate of the University of Madras.

Swaminathaiyar brought out his first edition of the Changkam classics Paththuppaaddu in 1889.

Earlier to bringing out Kaliththokai, Thamotharam Pillai started publishing post-Changkam classics such as Choo'laama'ni, Tholkaappiyam etc right from 1860's.

The pioneering work of translating the Changkam classics into English, to the awareness of the outside world, was also done by Eezham Tamil scholars.

J V Chellaiah of Jaffna College did the entire translation of Paththuppaaddu in 1945. This was decades before A K Ramanujan or Hart translating parts of the Eight Anthologies.

Swami Vipulanandar of Batticaloa who made arrangement for the publication of Chellaiah’s translation painfully notes how the then Madras government or the Annamalai university didn’t give any help to the venture even though they admired the translation, and how he finally brought it out as a publication of the government press of then British Ceylon.
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Tamil Brahmi potsherds found at urn burial site E-mail
March, 05 2010

 

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The Hindu

Three potsherds with Tamil Brahmi inscriptions have been discovered in an urn burial site at Marungur, 17 km from Vadalur in Cuddalore district.

A  Tamil-Brahmi inscribed potsherd with inscription reading "a-m"  found at an urn burial site at Marungur in Cuddalore district, Tamil  Nadu

The broken pots with the inscriptions were placed in urns that could have contained the bodies of the dead or their bones. "This is the first time that such inscribed pots, with Tamil Brahmi letters, placed as grave goods in urn burials, have been recovered from any archaeological site in Tamil Nadu. This opens a new chapter in archaeological research in the State," say three specialists in Tamil Brahmi inscriptions. They are K. Rajan, professor of History, Pondicherry University; Y. Subbarayalu, head, Indology, French Institute of Pondicherry; and V. Vedachalam, retired senior epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department.

Such inscribed potsherds carrying personal names were earlier found at habitational sites at Arikamedu in Puducherry, Kodumanal near Erode, and Azhagankulam in Ramanathapuram district, but rarely at burial sites. Only two cist burials at Kodumanal and Porunthal in Dindigul district have yielded potsherds with Tamil Brahmi inscriptions. But Marungur is an urn burial site.

It was J.R. Sivaramakrishnan, a lecturer in History, Annamalai University, who first noticed and collected the potsherds when an earthmover dug up the soil for strengthening the Vadalur-Panrutti Road at Marungur. Three red-ware urns with capstones were exposed, but the earthmover smashed the urns and the capstones. The potsherds with Tamil Brahmi inscriptions were inside three different urns. Several grave goods (pottery) were exposed along with the urns.

Of the three potsherds, one can be nearly fully assembled, and it has five Tamil Brahmi letters reading 'a-ti-y(a)-ka-n.' This could probably be read as 'Atiykan.' As the front portion of the potsherd is broken, the preceding word, if any, is not known. The second potsherd has four letters, of which two are Tamil Brahmi, reading 'a-m.' The remaining two are graffiti marks, resembling the Indus script, says Dr. Rajan. The front portion of the potsherd is missing.

The third has three letters, reading 'ma-la-a,' and the end portion has not been found. "It looks as if all the three inscriptions are personal names. Palaeographically, the inscriptions may be dated to the first century B.C." say the three specialists.

For the first time, in the lower Cauvery delta, Tamil Brahmi letters inscribed on pots were found in an urn burial site in an insignificant village in Tamil Nadu, says Dr. Rajan. "The discovery conveys, in clear terms, that buried grave goods also carried inscribed pots. Besides, it shows literacy had reached interior villages in the first century B.C. itself. The names inscribed on the pots were, perhaps, the names of the dead persons whose bodies were kept in the urns."

Others who examined the potsherds were N. Alagappan, head of the Department of History, Annamalai University; S. Kannan, P. Kalaiselvan and E. Manamaran.

There are a number of references to urn burials in Sangam poems. At Marungur, there is also an early historic habitational mound, called 'Erikaraimodu' and 'Pidarikollai' that yielded black and red ware, bricks and terracotta artefacts on the southern side of the village. A preliminary survey suggested that Marungur must have existed from the first century B.C. A planned excavation may yield important data on the urn burial culture and its relation to the early historic Tamil Nadu, as the site seems to be rich in inscribed pottery, say Dr. Rajan and Dr. Vedachalam.

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Skeletons, script found at ancient burial site in Tamil Nadu

By T.S. Subramanian



An urn containing a human skull and bones unearthed by the Archaeological Survey of India at Adhichanallur, near Tirunelveli town in Tamil Nadu. Twelve of these urns (below) contain human skeletons. Three of them, which may be 2,800 years old, bear inscriptions that resemble the early Tamil Brahmi script. -- Photos: A. Shaikmohideen

CHENNAI, MAY 25. In spectacular finds, the Archaeological Survey of India, Chennai Circle, has unearthed a dozen 2,800-year-old human skeletons intact in urns at Adichanallur, 24 km from Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. Three of these urns contain writing resembling the early Tamil Brahmi script. The dozen urns containing the skeletons form a part of about 100 fully intact urns unearthed in various trenches at the site, where excavation is under way. The urns were found at a depth of two to three metres. The finds may revolutionise theories about the origin of ancient culture in Tamil Nadu and the origin of writing in South Asia.

T. Satyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle, the director of excavation at Adichanallur, said: "People generally think that megalithic culture is the earliest culture in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu. In our excavation [at Adichanallur], we have come across a culture earlier than the megalithic period." The megalithic period in South India ranges from 3rd century B.C. to 3rd century A.D.

Dr. Satyamurthy called Adichanallur "the earliest historical site in Tamil Nadu." The ASI would conduct "a thorough exploration of the area" to find out whether there had been any habitation nearby. If such a site was found, it would be the first discovery of its kind in Tamil Nadu. So far, no habitation belonging to this period had been found in the State. He described the discovery of writing resembling the early Tamil Brahmi script on the urns as "very important."

Samples of the skeletons have been sent to the National Geophysical Research Institute, Hyderabad, for carbon-14 dating.


Along with the skeletons, husks, grains of rice, charred rice and neolithic celts (axe-like instruments used in agricultural operations) have been found.

The skeletons found in two or three urns show that prior to the megalithic period, these people used to inter the dead in urns along with the items they had used. Early Tamil Sangam works contained elaborate descriptions of the urn-burial custom. At Adichanallur, pottery belonging to the early historic period, which stretches from 3rd century B.C. to 3rd century A.D., was found on the upper layers of the trenches and the urns were found below. So the discoveries at Adichanallur may go back to 7th or 8th century B.C., probably earlier than the Sangam period, Dr. Satyamurthy said.

He said that since the Brahmi script was found together with the skeletons, the date of the script could be determined if they could fix the date of the skeletons. "So far, we have been doing it on palaeographic grounds. Now, we will get a scientific date." He said that the script might refer to names.

Dr. Sathyamurthy said that the Brahmi script of around 500 B.C. had been found in Sri Lanka. Dr. S.U. Deraniyagala, former Director-General and now Consultant to the Archaeological Survey Department, Sri Lanka, called the discovery of the writing on the urns at Adichanallur "fantastic" and "very, very important." The evidence of writing on more than 75 pieces of pottery had been found in Sri Lanka and radio-carbon dating had established that they belonged to the period between 600 B.C. and 500 B.C. This discovery "sheds a completely new light on the origin of writing in South Asia," said Dr. Deraniyagala. Interestingly, there has been no evidence of habitation close to the cemeteries (burial sites) discovered there.

According to G. Thirumoorthy, Assistant Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle, many artefacts had been found along with the skeletons at Adichanallur.

They included miniature bowls made of clay that were used in rituals, black and red wares of megalithic period ranging from the 7th century B.C. to 2nd century A.D., potsherds with graffiti marks, iron spearheads, knife-blades and hopscotches of various shapes including those in perfect circles. These hopscotches were used as weights, he said.

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Rudimentary Tamil-Brahmi script' unearthed at Adichanallur

By T.S. Subramanian



The picture shows the urn with the rudimentary Tamil-Brahmi script, and a human skeleton and miniature pots at the Iron Age urn burial site at Adichanallur in Tamil Nadu. The inset with the arrow mark depicts how the script has been written inside the urn. — Photo courtesy: ASI, Chennai Circle.

CHENNAI, FEB. 16. A piece of writing has been discovered inside an urn at the Iron Age burial site at Adichanallur, 24 km from Tirunelveli town in Tamil Nadu. The script has six letters. The urn has a human skeleton in it along with miniature pots. What is unusual is that the script was inscribed inside the urn after it was baked. Normally, scripts are inscribed on the outer surface of urns.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Chennai Circle, made this discovery when it resumed its excavation at Adichanallur after about 100 years. Dr. T. Satyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist and Director of the excavation, first noticed the script. He has proposed that the piece of writing is in very rudimentary Tamil-Brahmi. M.D. Sampath, retired Director, Epigraphy, ASI, Mysore, also "suggested that the writing is in Tamil-Brahmi in a rudimentary form." Dr. Sampath says he has "tentatively read" the script as "Ka ri a ra va [na] ta." He says the script has seven letters.

"Might date back to 500 B.C."

Dr. Satyamurthy has proposed, on the basis of "preliminary thermo-luminescence dating," that the pottery found at the site, including the pots found in the urn along with the script, might date back to circa 500 B.C. This date is, however, subject to confirmation by carbon-14 dating, which is the more reliable method.

The claim on the date of the script and the assertion that it is in Tamil-Brahmi will be subjected to the scrutiny of scholars in the field.

The term `Tamil-Brahmi' is used when the script is in Brahmi but the language is Tamil. The Brahmi script was predominantly used for Prakrit from the Mauryan (Asokan) period. The Brahmi script was brought to the Tamil country in the third century B.C. by the Jain and Buddhist monks during the post-Asokan period.

According to Iravatham Mahadevan, one of the foremost authorities on the Tamil-Brahmi script: "The Brahmi script reached Upper South India (Andhra-Karnataka regions) and the Tamil country at about the same time during the 3rd century B.C. in the wake of southern spread of Jainism and

Buddhism." In his magnum opus, Early Tamil epigraphy, From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D., Mr. Mahadevan says that "the earliest Tamil inscriptions in the Tamil-Brahmi script may be dated from about the end of 3rd century or early 2nd century B.C. on palaeographic grounds and stratigraphic evidence of inscribed pottery. The earliest inscriptions in the Tamil country written in the Tamil-Brahmi script are almost exclusively in the Tamil language."

While Upper South India was under the sway of the Nanda-Maurya domain, the Tamil country was politically independent. As a result of political independence, Tamil was the language of administration in the Tamil country. "When writing became known to the Tamils, the Brahmi script was adapted to suit the Tamil phonetic system. That is, while the Brahmi script was borrowed, the Prakrit language was not allowed to be imposed along with it from outside," says Mr. Mahadevan.

Dr. Satyamurthy, however, proposes that the script found inside the urn may belong to circa 5th century B.C. According to him, this was based on "preliminary thermo-luminescence dating," which "takes the site to the period from 1500 B.C. to 500 B.C. So the script is also likely to be dated to 5th century B.C. even if we take the latest date into consideration."

Name of hero?

He pointed out that the Tamil-Brahmi script had been found in Sri Lanka too. The script found at Adichanallur could be the name of the hero whose skeleton is in the urn. "The associated pottery including the thin black and red ware [found in the urn] indicate the importance given to the dead person," he said. The denture has been sent to the Anthropological Survey of India for examination.

Delivering the T. Balakrishna Nair Memorial Lecture on "The geneses and features of Brahmi scripts," organised on January 12 by the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, Madras University, Dr. Sampath said: "It may be suggested that the writing is in Tamil-Brahmi script in a rudimentary form. Attempts were made to blow up the writing so as to decipher it. It may be tentatively read as, `Ka ri a ra va [na] ta'. The reading is subject to improvement."

"A rare occurrence"

Estampages of the script could not be taken because it was inside the urn. So eye-copies were taken. Although the exact meaning of the script was not clear, it was quite likely to be the name of the engraver or the maker of the urn or the person whose skeletal remains were interred inside, he said. He described the script found inside the urn as "a rare occurrence."

Six trenches dug by the ASI, Chennai Circle, at the Iron Age urn burial site Adichanallur in 2004 yielded a cornucopia: 157 burial urns, 50 of them intact and 15 with human skeletons. The urns with skeletons had exquisite miniature pots inside along with paddy and husk. Around the urns were ritual pots and iron implements, including daggers, broken swords, a spearhead, celts and so on. One of the urns had the script inside it and this urn had a big lid too. It is called "twin pot."

Excavations - Adichchanallur

Adichchanallur, An Iron Age Urn Burial Site

Adichchanallur (8° 37’ 47.6" N; 77° 52’ 34.9"E) is located on the right bank of the Tambraparani River, in the Tuticorin District of Tamil Nadu. The extensive urn burial site at Adichchanallur in Tuticorin District (formerly Tirunelveli) was first discovered by Dr. Jagor of Berlin Museum in 1876. A. Rea excavated a good number of urns during 1910s and discovered gold diadems with parallels from Mycenae; bronze objects notably lids with exquisite finials depicting many animal forms, iron objects besides thousands of potsherds. The excavation was resumed during 2003-04 and 2004-05. More than 160 urns within the area of 600 square meters have been exposed.

 

 

General View of the Excavatede Trenches with urn burials in Situ, Adichchanallur

 

 

The burials have been classified into three phases, viz., Phase I, II and III. Phase I contains predominantly primary burials, while in Phases II & III, both primary and secondary burials are found.

 

 

 

 

General View of the Excavated Trenches with urn burials in Situ, Adichchanallur

 

 

The skeletal remains inside the urns are invariably placed in crouched position. No orientation seems to have been followed. There are two examples of double burial. A potsherd with appliqué narrative scene is an important find. It depicts a slim and tall woman standing near by plantain tree. An egret is shown sitting on the tree and holding a fish. A deer and alligator are also depicted near the woman. Good number of graffiti on pottery has been discovered.

 

 

 

Contents of an Urn burial: Remains of bones and burial goods in situ, Adichchanallur

 

 

Pottery types include black and red ware, red ware and black ware. The dominant shapes include bowls, dishes, vases etc. Some of the pots are painted in white. Iron implements like arrowheads, spearheads and axe are found, but eroded and badly preserved. Few copper ornaments have also been found. Husk and cloth impression has been found on one of the Iron sword. A potter’s kiln was also exposed in the habitational site.

 

 

 

Contents of an Urn burial: Remains of bones and burial goods in situ, Adichchanallur

 

 

 

 

 

Contents of an Urn burial: Remains of rice husk, Adichchanallur

A team of scientists from Department of Advanced Zoology and Biotechnology of Sri Paramakalyani College, Alwarkurichi have found new burial sites in the western parts of the district in Tamil Nadu, all belonging to the prehistoric era.

Tirunelveli district, blessed with the perennial Tamirabharani river and its tributaries, is believed to be a favourable spot for human settlement in the prehistoric periods. Archaeological excavations done by Alexander Rea in 1899 and the Archaeological survey of India in recent years at Aditchanallur, a hamlet situated on Tamirabharani basin, and excavation of ancient port of Korkai, have exposed how megalithic period or an earlier period of human civilization had got deep roots in this district.

The ancient burial urns excavated from Aditchanallur has confirmed the methodology of the burial practice mentioned in a ‘sangam' period Tamil literature ‘Manimekalai,' one of the twin epics of post-sangam period. ‘Manimekalai' enumerates the different modes of disposing of the dead, namely, those who cremate (suduvor), those who simply expose the body and leave it to decay (Iduvar), those who entomb the dead in strong low vaults (Thaazhvayin-adaippor) and those who put it in urns and cover them up (Tazhiyir-kavippor).

The urn burial sites found in the district indicate the uniqueness of the early inhabitants in this district. In the present observation by A.J.A. Ranjitsingh, Head, Department of Advanced Zoology and Biotechnology, Sri Paramakalyani College, Alwarkurichi and his team comprising scholars K.R. Narayanan, M.R. Sudhakaran and A. Murugan have found the presence of burial sites belonging to megalithic or prior to megalithic period in the hillocks adjacent to Western Ghats in Sivasailam forest area of Ambasumudram Taluk in the district and along the basin of the river Karunai (Ghadana river) originating from Western Ghats in this area.

“The findings may revolutionise theories about ancient settlers and origin of ancient culture in Tamil Nadu,” Dr. Ranjitsingh told The Hindu.

Technology of megalithic potters

“In our survey we have noticed the presence of several megalithic burial sites and broken pieces of clay wares and burial urns. Our mission is to understand the technology adopted by megalithic potters to produce fine quality clay utensils with beautiful red and black colour and to understand the technique of creating mega size burial urns, which are different from clay storage chambers called ‘Kuthir,' used to store food grains (more than 300 kg of paddy) in the houses of villagers.

The burial urns were found in the hillocks of Govindaperi – Meenakshipuram zone and the Karunai river basin, Paappaankulam, Kakkanallur, Kalyanipuram, Vellikulam, Adaichany, Valluthoor and Ambur. Few other places like Valluthoor, Pananchadi, and Rengasamudram, which is 5 km away from the river basin, provide valuable information on early human settlement. Of these several locations Kakanallur is a major site, where burial urns are found in several acres of land inside the village and on the northern banks of the Karunai river,” Dr. Ranjitsingh says.

Interesting information

The presence of burial urns on the hilly terrains and rock surrounded localities is really interesting information for future analysis as this may indicate the migratory routes of people through the hills before settling along the river basins. The presence of an urn containing the remains of the buried persons can be located by stones put in circular formation amidst which perennial shrub Leucas sp (Thumbai) is seen, as this flower is referred on several occasions in the ‘sangam' literatures.

Below these stone circles at a depth of 1 – 2 metres, clay ellipsoidal burial urns are seen with the measurements: Size: 2 feet – 4.6 feet height; capacity: 160000 cm3; depth: 80 cm; mouth diameter: 150 cm and decoration in the neck of the pot: dotted and lined.

Close to the clay urn in many locations the presence of mini-pots (‘kollikudam') has been noticed. As the number of small pots varied in different locations, it may indicate the number of sons of the buried person who had performed the last rites in some urns these potsherds are seen inside the urns.

Many megalithic smaller bowls in red and black colour were seen inside the urns. The lids in the pots and bowls are airtight and very precisely designed to cover the opening.

Researcher in clay pottery A. Murugan wonders about the thinness of the potsherds with multi-colours and said no present day potters can do this type of work without mould and instruments.

“They had also used some sharp instruments to make some lines and markings in the neck of the burial urns that showed their interest in art. So far, there is no writing or scribbling seen in this area. This make us to think that people lived in this zone may be earlier to Brahmi script developmental age or may be illiterate. But in the burial urns collected in the Aditchanallur showed Brahmi script, so people lived in the Karunai river basin must be earlier to their civilization,” Dr. Ranjitsingh adds.

On the northern bank of Karunai river in Kakanallur region extensive area of megalithic burial sites are seen. These burial sites can be seen in rocky terrains with intermittent soft soils. Entire Kakanallur area has a lot of burial urns in the fields and also in the hills adjacent to the river. The burial urns located in the hillocks are 1 – 2 meters deep below the surface.

Some of the urns contained bones, skull bones, rib bones, femur bones, jaw bones with intact teeth and remains of other bones were seen. “These remains of the bones and molar teeth are to be studied with carbon dating and DNA analysis so as to find out the race of the people who were buried,” Dr. Ranjitsingh says.

Keywords: Sri Paramakalyani CollegeTirunelveliburial sites,

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.)

Keywords: Tamil literatur

I chanced upon this news report of discovery of an old site in Tamil Nadu (2004 report) - where urns were found with human skeletal remains and other objects. About 100 fully intact urns were found here with writings - probably from a period of around 500-600 BC. This was termed as significant. The language has been called "Tamil Brahmi" (Tamil Brahmi is a script that is similar to the Brahmi script of the time of Ashoka that was used to write Sankrit but with 4 tamil characters). Does this have any significance in terms of the Aryan-Dravidian theory - which I believe was bunk anyways!

Strangely we never heard of what happened of this discovery later!



An urn containing a human skull and bones unearthed by the Archaeological Survey of India at Adhichanallur, near Tirunelveli town in Tamil Nadu. Twelve of these urns (below) contain human skeletons. Three of them, which may be 2,800 years old, bear inscriptions that resemble the early Tamil Brahmi script. -- Photos: A. Shaikmohideen

CHENNAI, MAY 25. In spectacular finds, the Archaeological Survey of India, Chennai Circle, has unearthed a dozen 2,800-year-old human skeletons intact in urns at Adichanallur, 24 km from Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. Three of these urns contain writing resembling the early Tamil Brahmi script. The dozen urns containing the skeletons form a part of about 100 fully intact urns unearthed in various trenches at the site, where excavation is under way. The urns were found at a depth of two to three metres. The finds may revolutionise theories about the origin of ancient culture in Tamil Nadu and the origin of writing in South Asia.

T. Satyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle, the director of excavation at Adichanallur, said: "People generally think that megalithic culture is the earliest culture in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu. In our excavation [at Adichanallur], we have come across a culture earlier than the megalithic period." The megalithic period in South India ranges from 3rd century B.C. to 3rd century A.D.

Dr. Satyamurthy called Adichanallur "the earliest historical site in Tamil Nadu." The ASI would conduct "a thorough exploration of the area" to find out whether there had been any habitation nearby. If such a site was found, it would be the first discovery of its kind in Tamil Nadu. So far, no habitation belonging to this period had been found in the State. He described the discovery of writing resembling the early Tamil Brahmi script on the urns as "very important."

Samples of the skeletons have been sent to the National Geophysical Research Institute, Hyderabad, for carbon-14 dating.

Along with the skeletons, husks, grains of rice, charred rice and neolithic celts (axe-like instruments used in agricultural operations) have been found.

The skeletons found in two or three urns show that prior to the megalithic period, these people used to inter the dead in urns along with the items they had used. Early Tamil Sangam works contained elaborate descriptions of the urn-burial custom. At Adichanallur, pottery belonging to the early historic period, which stretches from 3rd century B.C. to 3rd century A.D., was found on the upper layers of the trenches and the urns were found below. So the discoveries at Adichanallur may go back to 7th or 8th century B.C., probably earlier than the Sangam period, Dr. Satyamurthy said.

He said that since the Brahmi script was found together with the skeletons, the date of the script could be determined if they could fix the date of the skeletons. "So far, we have been doing it on palaeographic grounds. Now, we will get a scientific date." He said that the script might refer to names.

Dr. Sathyamurthy said that the Brahmi script of around 500 B.C. had been found in Sri Lanka. Dr. S.U. Deraniyagala, former Director-General and now Consultant to the Archaeological Survey Department, Sri Lanka, called the discovery of the writing on the urns at Adichanallur "fantastic" and "very, very important." The evidence of writing on more than 75 pieces of pottery had been found in Sri Lanka and radio-carbon dating had established that they belonged to the period between 600 B.C. and 500 B.C. This discovery "sheds a completely new light on the origin of writing in South Asia," said Dr. Deraniyagala. Interestingly, there has been no evidence of habitation close to the cemeteries (burial sites) discovered there.

According to G. Thirumoorthy, Assistant Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle, many artefacts had been found along with the skeletons at Adichanallur.

They included miniature bowls made of clay that were used in rituals, black and red wares of megalithic period ranging from the 7th century B.C. to 2nd century A.D., potsherds with graffiti marks, iron spearheads, knife-blades and hopscotches of various shapes including those in perfect circles. These hopscotches were used as weights, he said.


 

 



 

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