Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions are the only record of old Tamil

Print edition : July 17, 2009

Iravatham Mahadevan: "It is a tragedy that cave inscriptions are being vandalised."-R. RAGU

IRAVATHAM MAHADEVAN, an administrator-turned-scholar, has done acclaimed work on the Tamil-Brahmi and Indus scripts. His Early Tamil Epigraphy (From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D.), which was published in 2003, is the fruit of 40 years of dedicated work on Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions. His earlier work Corpus of Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions created a wave of exploration for Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions. Mahadevan received the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship in 1970 for research on the Indus script and was awarded the National Fellowship of the Indian Council of Historical Research in 1992 for his work on Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions. He has also authored The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables. He received the Padma Shri this year. Excerpts from an interview Mahadevan gave Frontline on Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions and their place in history:

Tamil-Brahmi sites near Madurai are facing destruction owing to granite quarrying in the hills in which they are found. The Jaina sculptures and beds situated adjacent to these are being vandalised. What is the relevance of Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions in Indian history?

Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions are important not only in the history of Tamil Nadu and the rest of South India but for the whole country. They have many unique distinctions. They are the oldest writings in any Dravidian language. They are also the oldest Jaina inscriptions in India. I believe that the Mankulam Tamil-Brahmi inscription of [Pandyan king] Nedunchezhiyan is older than the Karavela inscription at Udayagiri in Orissa.

Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions are the only record of the old Tamil, the one prior to Sangam poetry. Many Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions are important landmarks in our history. For example, the inscriptions of Nedunchezhiyan at Mankulam, the Irumporai inscriptions at Pugalur near Karur and the Jambai inscription of Adhiyaman Neduman Anji link the Sangam age with the Tamil-Brahmi age. It is the Jambai inscription that prove that the Satyaputo mentioned by Asoka was none other than the Adhiyaman dynasty, which ruled from Tagadur, modern Dharmapuri.

Recently, Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions have been found on hero stones in the upper Vaigai valley near megalithic graves, thus providing a link, for the first time, between the megalithic and the early historical periods of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions occurring on coins, rings, potsherds and seals add another dimension to the history of Tamil Nadu. For example, the Pandyan coin of Peruvazhuthi or the silver portrait coins of Cheras. There are also numerous gold, silver and bronze rings of merchants and noblemen from the prosperous trading town of Karur of the Sangam age. Again, recently, excavations at Pattanam in Kerala have brought to light the remains of the ancient and famous Sangam age port of Musiri, known as Muziris to the classical historians of the West. These facts demonstrate the importance of Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions to our history.

It is, therefore, a great tragedy that the cave inscriptions of Tamil-Brahmi and Jaina sculptures [and beds] are being systematically vandalised by ignorant tourists and destroyed by granite quarries. It is impossible to stop quarrying because of vested interests and the money power and the muscle power at their disposal. Already, in my lifetime, many Tamil-Brahmi cave inscriptions have been lost or have been damaged severely. I understand from scholars undertaking recent field work that the destruction is now proceeding much faster. It is sad that the public are indifferent [to this], and the State government and the Central government are helpless to stop this wanton destruction of our cultural heritage. Perhaps all the Tamil-Brahmi cave inscriptions will disappear within a decade.

The only consolation I have is that a serious attempt to record whatever remains by means of video photography and digitisation has been made by the classical Tamil project authorities. In Early Tamil Epigraphy: From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D., I had anticipated this disastrous development and I had pleaded for greater awareness of our cultural heritage and more purposeful steps for their conservation. What I did not expect was that the destruction would be so swift and so colossal. I can only shed tears at whatever has been lost as, frankly, I am not hopeful that whatever remains will be saved.

Do you think there has been a dereliction of duty on the part of the Archaeological Survey of India and the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department?

Tamil-Brahmi inscription at Kongarpuliyankulam near Madurai.-

I do not think that the ASI or the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department has been effective in preventing the vandalism and destruction. I think that part of the problem is that the ASI and the Archaeology Department are headed by IAS officers who come and go at short intervals. They are not scholars and have little interest in the academic and intellectual work of the department under them. It is time the government of India and the State government recruited scholars of international repute by invitation to head the ASI and the State Archaeology Department for a fixed tenure.

Personally, I think it is also tragic that the original estampages of thousands of inscriptions from Tamil Nadu are stored in the Epigraphy Branch of the ASI in Mysore, out of reach for researchers in the State. Originally, the office of the Government Epigraphist was at Udhagamandalam. Since the vast majority of inscriptions are in Tamil and in Tamil Nadu, the Epigraphy Branch of the ASI should have remained in Tamil Nadu. The State government did nothing to retain the office in Tamil Nadu. We can at least think of digitising the ink impressions available in Mysore and store them in Chennai, Tiruchi and Madurai for easy access to local scholars. There is very little coordination between the Archaeology Department and the universities, especially in Tamil Nadu. A recent, glaring example is that the ASI, while excavating at Adichanallur, claimed to have discovered a Tamil-Brahmi pottery inscription of antiquity. But no epigraphist from Tamil Nadu outside the Archaeology Department was allowed access to it. I am now told that the inscription never existed or has disappeared. There is no other recorded instance of Tamil-Brahmi inscription being found but erased owing to exposure to atmosphere if that indeed is the case.

What steps should be taken to protect the Tamil-Brahmi sites?

Just as sand quarrying is destroying the water wealth, granite quarrying is destroying the cultural wealth of Tamil Nadu. I am not hopeful, considering the money involved, that anything can be done to stop the destruction in either case in the near future. To tell you the truth, I dont believe anything will be done.

The small Jaina community in Tamil Nadu is unhappy that the ancient Jaina cave inscriptions are being destroyed but they are powerless to stop it as the number of Jainas in the State is so small that they do not command enough votes You have pricked my conscience.

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