Sangam ‘bridge’ links Indus-Vaigai cultures

R. Balakrishnan.
24 January 2020 07:00 IST
Updated: 23 January 2020 18:47 IST

Interview with R. Balakrishnan, writer, poet and retired civil servant on his latest book “Journey of a Civilization: Indus to Vaigai”.

R. BALAKRISHNAN, who retired as an Indian Administrative Service officer in 2018, has authored several books in Tamil—Cirakukkul Vanam, Cintuveli Panpattiṉ Tiravita Atittalam, Nattukkural, Panmayak Kalvan and Irantam Curru. He has also published several research papers on place-name studies, Odisha’s history, and its plural culture. His Tamil book on the Dravidian foundations of Indus Civilisation received accolades from the Indian epigraphist and civil servant Iravatham Mahadevan as the best book written in Tamil on the subject. After 34 years of service with the Government of Odisha and the Government of India, Balakrishnan retired in 2018. He is currently Honorary Consultant in the Indus Research Centre of the Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL), Chennai.

His latest book, Journey of a Civilization: Indus to Vaigai, seeks to establish common ground and connecting threads that link the riddles of Indology, namely the language of the Indus Valley Civilisation and the origins of Dravidian language-speaking people, particularly old Tamil traditions. This book aims to place new evidence on the Dravidian affiliation with the language of the Indus people and positions the ancient Sangam Tamil corpus as a proto-document that is relevant for understanding the prehistory of Tamils, which had probable connections with the Indus Valley Civilisation. The book, published by the RMRL, was released by Justice Thiru. Mahadevan in December 2019. In this interview to Frontline, Balakrishnan speaks on the salient features of his book. Excerpts:

What is your book “Journey of a Civilization: Indus to Vaigai” about?

The book is about bridging the so-called spatial and temporal gaps between the Indus Valley Civilisation that flourished in the north-west and western parts of India and the old Tamil civilisation of the deep south. I place fresh evidence and case studies to strengthen the Dravidian hypothesis of the civilisation. The book deals with the twin riddles of Indian prehistory, namely, the linguistic affiliation of the makers of the Indus Civilisation and the contours of Tamil prehistory and the growth of Tamil civilisation. I argue that both these riddles are two sides of the same coin. Answer to one should lead to the other.

Why do you call it journey of a civilisation?

Prehistories and histories of most parts of the world are linked to layers and layers of in and out migrations. Everyone in this world, in a sense, is a migrant. Population mobility triggers language shifts, transfer of technologies and spread of ideologies and unique traditions of one region to another. Past is in a sense the sum total of travels. The journeys of individuals and smaller communities and occupation groups from one place to another have been and are taking place as a continuous process. And it will continue to happen. But there are occasions when these layers of migrations result in a “mass transfer” of lifestyles, ideologies, customs and traditions, language and cultural priorities lock, stock, and barrel and continue to flourish in a new geography while its earlier coordinates undergo cultural shifts and changes. In this journey, alongside the migrating communities gods and goddesses and, most importantly, their place names walk shoulder to shoulder. The scale and depth of these travels make me call it a “journey of a civilisation”. I attribute the connection and continuity between the Indus Civilisation and old Tamil culture to layers and layers of migrations which can be verified and validated through multidisciplinary evidences.

You have been positioning the “KVT (Korkai-Vanji-Thondi) Complex” as an important Dravidian remnant in the Indus Valley Civilisation. Can you explain?

“KVT Complex” is a conscious tag I have given to a set of identical place names that are common to north-western geographies and Sangam Tamil texts. These names have survived the intervening millenniums and are current even now in the north-western and western parts of the subcontinent. Obviously, many of these names are traceable in the place name corpus of modern Tamil Nadu as well. That is the uniqueness of place names. They outlive the birth, growth and decline of civilisations and survive geographic and linguistic shifts. Most often, the change of names as an identity issue involve places of political importance, and the place names of small habitats and unimportant places go unnoticed as a fossilised representations of the past. In a way, “folk etymology” has a way of explaining place names through the existing languages that help the old place names acquire new “meanings” and survive as such. The credibility of place names as markers for past migrations has been well established through case studies from all over the world. However, let me clarify that in this book, identical place names are one of the many verifiable sets of evidences and provide a reasonable template to reconstruct this journey. Otherwise, the arguments placed in this book are multidisciplinary in nature.

How relevant is this work in the current context?

Indian pluralism is foundational in nature. The “idea of India” cannot be meaningfully discussed without discussing its multilayered foundations—the tribes of India; the Harappan foundations made of “standard bricks” and numerous local community traditions rooted in the subcontinent; the unmatched spirit of enterprise that reached out to distant shores; and the subsequent flourishing of what is now known as Indian culture as an amalgam of various streams of thoughts, ideologies and ways of life. The discovery of the Indus Civilisation in 1924 was a path-breaking event with inestimable consequences. But, the reappraisal of Indian prehistory, and, particularly, cultural history with the aid of Indus archaeology and other intangibles, has not yet been done. And, it is long overdue. For example, one well-known scholar draws conclusions about the pottery in Indian Civilisation without taking the entire pottery types and sequences of south and eastern India because of their close affinity in technique. This book takes cognisance of such inadequacies and approaches the Indus Civilisation from the Dravidian perspective. The Dravidian hypothesis is considered a reasonably viable proposition by scholars such as Asko Parpola and Iravatham Mahadevan. This reappraisal is the need of the hour to reiterate that the inclusive nature of the idea of India is a root-level quality to be probed at its foundations. Indian pluralism is neither a “melting pot” moment nor a “salad-bowl syndrome” but a story of a “tropical rain forest” with multiple layers of coexistence, conflicts and accommodation.

How will “Journey of a Civilization” be different given the current interest in the subject? How long did you take to write this book given the nature of your job as a civil servant?

It has been a long journey. Getting into the civil services in 1984 and being allotted the Odisha cadre was the starting point. Tribal Odisha was a “new world” to me. As a student of Tamil literature, I found the life I observed in the Dravidian tribal villages of Koraput to be a near reflection of the life portrayed in Sangam Tamil poems set in the backdrop of the kurinci landscape [hilly tracts]. I was fascinated by the tribes of Koraput and Bastar [now in Chhattisgarh]. I started observing the place names of the region and their similarities with the names found in certain parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. One finding led to another. I studied many aspects of the Odia culture and its multilayered diversity; wrote many research papers based on the place name corpus of Odisha. When I pursued the genesis and spread of sun worship in India with a view to assessing the indigenous tribal origins and external influences, my investigations took me to the north-western landscapes. Only in that context I studied the place names of that region and thought of using place names for tracking post-Indus legacies. Use of place name evidence in the context of Indus studies is not new either. Scholars such as Sankalia, Asko Parpola, South Worth and Iravatham Mahadevan have used place name evidence to argue their points in the context of the Harappan culture. In that process, I found what I call the “KVT Complex” in the region. But, soon I realised that I should not propose the identical place name clusters as a “standalone evidence”, but must build my arguments using a multidisciplinary approach.

How do you bridge the spatial and temporal gap between Indus and Vaigai?

Spatially, by locating the prehistory of Tamils in the regions situated not only in the geography of the Tamil-speaking areas as defined in the Sangam texts but also in the areas towards north and north-west of those boundaries. These “extended landscapes of Sangam texts” take us to the vicinity of the archaeologically confirmed locations of the Indus Civilisation. Temporally, by tracing the events and carried-forward memories embedded in the Sangam texts. In the process, I find the “left behind” old Tamil markers in the Indus geography and the “carried forward” Indus markers in the Sangam texts being entangled. The new archaeological findings [at Keeladi] in Tamil Nadu not only help reduce this gap but also point towards a remarkable continuity.

The Sangam corpus

In the absence of a bilingual text, we do not know the language of the Indus Valley Civilisation people. In this context, to what extent do you consider the Sangam Tamil texts to be relevant to Indus studies.

The Indus people excelled in many fields—town planning, metallurgy, making of fine ornaments and crafts. What they wrote on non-perishable materials were unearthed but could not be deciphered. Whatever they could have written on perishable materials was obviously lost. We know the art, craft, sculpture and architecture of the Indus times; but what about “Indus literature”? Even if there were limitations for the “written format”, considering the importance that seems to have been given to leisure-time activities, the existence of rich oral traditions can be reasonably anticipated. If many imageries and telltale markers of the Indus Valley Civilisation could survive in the later art and craft traditions, is it unreasonable to anticipate continuity in oral traditions and their subsequent reflections in later Indian literature, be it Sanskrit or old Tamil?

When it comes to ancient literature, there is no third claimant of considerable antiquity that can compete with Sanskrit and Tamil. In this context, Sangam literature happens to be the ancient extant literary corpus in any language of India that does not belong to the Indo-Aryan family. If so, any search for Indus legacies in ancient Indian literature from the Dravidian perspective cannot afford to miss the Sangam texts. Even without getting into the details, I can confidently say that Sangam texts are the earliest literary reflections on the Indus past not only of Tamils but also the Indian people. The earliest Sanskrit texts are religious in nature, and certain elements of secular narratives came into Sanskrit only through the works of Kalidasa and others, whereas within the Sangam Tamil corpus religious contents were neither the most ancient nor the central theme. The nature of beliefs and faith systems portrayed in Sangam texts differs vastly from the religion of Vedic texts.

You mean to say Sangam texts hold the key to the reconstruction of the Bronze Age urban civilisation of India?

Yes. Early Tamil texts mostly define the linguistic boundaries of “Tamil-speaking areas” with Venkatam [identified with modern Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh] in the north and Kumari in the south. Whereas, some of the “locations and events” referred to in Sangam poems indicate “a much deeper timeline and a much wider geography”. If we follow that thread of carried-forward memories and prehistorical flashbacks it takes us to the geography of the Indus-Harappan culture. For example, the detailed account of camel in Sangam texts as a draught animal and its eating habits; the geography of prehistoric Tamil chieftain Nannan, and so on. The fivefold landscape-based thematic divisions of the old Tamil traditions fit perfectly in the Indus context, particularly with reference to sprawling townscapes, maritime trade and desert wastelands. And, the continuity of these elements in the Sangam texts elevates the corpus to be the inheritor of the entire Indus legacy and the subcontinental experience rather than confining the scope of the literature to the known political and linguistic boundaries of what is now known as Sangam Age.

Historians have been apprehensive about using Sangam literature as a source of history. Are they not poetic imaginations? How do you handle this problem in your book?

Yes. Sangam literature is not a “history” book. But it does not mean that Sangam texts do not contain “historical” material. Religion was not the central theme of Sangam texts. The landscape orientations, the truthful density of narratives and pragmatism of Sangam texts add to the credence. Besides, I am not suggesting that Sangam texts give any specific chronology to any prehistoric and historic events. But no motives can be attributed to past events recollected in the course of narratives. Although the copper plates and inscriptions commissioned by the later kings give fodder for history, they cannot be taken at face value; there is always a motive for highlighting achievements. But there are Sangam love poems, with no names of heroes and heroines, that point to unknown past events and describe obscure locations with graphic detail. They may not lead to the so-called “history proper”, but they certainly provide valuable clues about the period in which the Sangam texts were compiled but also the timelines preceding that period.

What are the non-archaeological sources one can rely upon to understand the Indus Valley Civilisation?

I consider place names, both historical as well current, to be an important source. Besides, certain unique ideologies inferable from Indus archaeology can be superimposed on certain cultural traits unique to certain regions and linguistic groups of India. As the Harappan Civilisation has played a key foundational role in anchoring what is now known as Indian culture, its influence would be everywhere in India as in the case of mother goddess worship in all parts of India. Yet, there are certain unique traits like bull-vaulting that has a prominent place only in a few locations in India.

New findings in the field of genomics—the study of both ancient and modern DNA—are fast adding greater clarity about the population of the Harappan Civilisation.

Do you think in the Indus Valley Civilisation some sort of singular culture was practised? What kind of culture was the Indus Civilisation?

I don’t think so. The Indus Civilisation, I think, had all the ingredients of a plural society. It was spread over large geographical areas with various types of landscapes—hills, valleys, agricultural tracts, vibrant towns and coastal life—and it had maritime trade with many outside interactions. Indus seals terracotta figurines and other artefacts vouch for this inherent diversity. But the entire length and breadth of the Indus Civilisation had a certain amount of obsessive uniformity, standards and protocols. It must have required a common language for official and commercial communication. That particular language must have been certainly more evolved than the languages spoken in isolated pockets and interiors. Hence, the legacies of the Harappan standard language have to be sought to be identified in the literary corpuses of the later times. It is reasonable to assume that the carried-forward memories and traditions can be anticipated to find expression in the panegyric poetry compiled through institutional efforts. I find a remarkable parallel between the concepts of “Standard Tamil” and the “12 dialect areas” which had its precedents in the linguistic structure of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

You seem to have preferred the Vaigai over the Tamiraparani but Adichanallur (the archaeological site in Thuthukudi district of Tamil Nadu) has been dated around 905 BCE. Can you throw some light on this?

I don’t differentiate much between the archaeological significance of the Vaigai and the Tamiraparani. Still, if you get such an impression because of the title of my book let me explain. The Indus Civilisation is known variously as Harappan, Indus-Harappan, Indus-Sarasvati, and so on. I prefer Indus Civilisation as a common denominator to represent the entire region and the civilisation. I preferred Indus because it is a river name, and among Tamils the expression “Sindhuveli” is far more popular than “Harappan”. Similarly, Vaigai is an ancient river attested in the Sangam texts. Besides, because of its association with the Pandya capital Madurai, the river gets linked inextricably to the Tamil language and Tamil culture. Vaigai is called “Tamil Vaigai” in Sangam texts. Even today, Madurai is considered a sort of “cultural capital” of Tamil Nadu more so because of its past association with the Tamil corpus.

The Adichanallur excavations took place more than a century ago, even before the excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. But they were not followed up. The recent excavations at Keeladi have drawn wide attention and its similarities with some of the artefacts and lifestyles associated with the distant Indus Valley have raised eyebrows. Hence, I have chosen Indus to Vaigai as part of the title. Otherwise, it is only a symbolic representation. Any archaeological excavation in the deep south gives me equal curiosity. Say, for example, the excavations at Pattanam in Kerala. In fact, the archaeological leads available from Adichanallur, Poruntal, Kodumanal, Pattanam and Keeladi require a composite assessment, and larger pictures need to be drawn without compartmentalising the implications of the findings.

In your lectures, you have said that “Sinthuveli vitta idamum Sanga Ilakkiyam thotta Idamum onre” (the axis where the Indus got phased out and the Sangam made its beginning is one and the same).

During the Indus period, the writing must have had its limitations in terms of script, length of the script, and tools and techniques. Even if anything was “written” on cloth or any other perishable item, those things obviously could not have survived. If we approach the Indus riddle from the perspective of the Dravidian hypothesis, the earliest document available are Tolkappiyam and other Sangam texts. Of course, there is early Tamil epigraphy and potsherds with Indus-type marks found in Tamil Nadu. But, only a literary corpus can give a fair picture about life, ideologies and social systems. When we estimate the Sangam texts, we should not take that as a “journalistic report” of the day-to-day events of the Sangam period. They contain numerous references to past events. There is mention in Tolkappiyam about earlier grammatical works. Those earlier works are probably lost forever. The traditions of three Tamil Sangams functioned in different geographical locations; the displacement of the Pandyan kingdom and the royal academies due to repeated natural calamities represent a public memory. You can accurately establish that. But those public memories and traditions documented provide the clue.

Sangam texts are an important treasure trove to go back in time and space to explore the Tamil prehistory and the Indus Civilisation. In effect, it amounts to probing two sides of the same coin.

Human migrations

When did this migration take place? How do you substantiate this? And how do you establish the direction of the migration?

Human migrations are a continuous process. At some point of time in human history there were accelerated migrations, mass migrations. However, gradual movements of populations are an ever-flowing event. “Seeking better pasture” is essentially a biological instinct. Migrations have been triggered by natural calamities, arrival of newcomers and their dominance, and so many other reasons. Chronologies for migrations have to be reconstructed with the help of archaeology and other scientific dating methods. Archaeological evidence already points towards similarities. Regarding post-Indus migrations, the direction was obviously north-west to south. I have non-archaeological methods to support this; the Sangam corpus provides enough clues. The memories of past migrations are always preserved in the minds of the people who took the pain to travel, not [in those] at the departure point. Today’s Tamil diaspora is a perfect example. Kannagi and her anklet story are woven around three Tamil kingdoms and the theme of the first Tamil epic. But, Kannagi as a goddess and her anklet is more vibrant and a part of living traditions in Sri Lanka. It offers a case study. Similarly, Tamil-related issues have their vibrations in different parts of the world today because of the Tamil diaspora that has travelled far and wide. To take a scientifically-based view of the direction of the post-Indus migration from Indus to Vaigai, we can use both archaeological and non-archaeological evidence. For example, the chronology of Black and Red Ware [BRW] pottery, which is one of the most important and, in my opinion, the pan-Indian pottery type will make a point. People do get confused about Palaeolithic evidence found in Tamil Nadu with archaeological findings connected to Early Historic periods and proto-history or immediate prehistory. No one can deny the human presence much before the settled life and the period of urbanisation. By bringing the focus on the Indus-Vaigai connections and continuity, we are only dealing with a limited window of prehistory in time and space.

You are an expert in place name studies. How far does this lend you a hand in this subject?

Place names have an ability to survive population and language shifts. Beyond a time they get “fossilised” in the sense that they are just there. Different people may give different meanings to a place name, but whatever the meaning, a place name stays within ageography until somebody consciously changes it. When people move from one place to another, along with other intangibles they carry their place names as a link with their past. I have done many case studies to validate this. It is a globally established practice. Place names are heritage material. They are an important articulation of identities, and geography becomes human geography only when names are superimposed on land. I followed this logic. Reaching the KVT Complex was not a short journey. It was a step-by-step understanding. I first identified place names common to central Indian tribal areas and Tamil Nadu and then started focussing on the Indus Valley Civilisation and ultimately landed in the KVT Complex.

All the evidence gathered is important because these names are not just another set of names. You cannot make a narrative of Tamil identity without using place names such as Korkai-Vanji-Tondi; these names have attested antiquity in terms of multiple references in the Sangam texts. While old Tamil texts celebrate these names, there is no counterclaim or even awareness about these places in early Sanskrit texts. This puts these names in the exclusive domain of Tamil prehistory and history, and these names are relevant to Tamils even now.

Thus, the identical place names provide a prima facie lead for this human story.

Can you throw some light on the importance of pottery to understand our prehistory and history?

Ceramic assemblage represents one of the most important resources from an archaeological site. In the context of archaeology, pot may not equal people but it does indicate people. It is often said that the cultural history of mankind is the history of pottery-making cultures. But, unfortunately, the sociocultural dimensions of pottery and, particularly, the potter sociology are seldom studied in detail. Harappan pottery styles and traditions have survived even today in Rajasthan, Gujarat and in parts of Pakistan. The connecting thread of clay, it seems, is still relevant. The spatial and temporal mapping and sequencing of ancient pottery types of India needs a holistic approach. The tagging of BRW of peninsular India as “megalithic” diverted the focus. Understanding the chronologies, sequences and geographical spread associated with BRW is an important aspect, which has been grossly neglected or sidestepped. In a way, the enigma of the Indus Civilisation, the puzzles relating to the origin of the Dravidians, the genesis of Tamil culture and the spread of BRW are interlinked issues. This requires a thorough probe with an open mind.

First Indians

Do you think there was no settled, organised life in the deep south before the Indus-specific migrations from the north-west?

I would never say that. Rather, I would say the opposite. I am glad you asked this question. South India has been one of the ancient human settlement regions in India since time immemorial. That is why the so-called “First Indians” are designated as “Ancient Ancestral South Indians” [AASI]. They are the earliest to arrive in the Indian subcontinent. This specific gene type is called AASI irrespective of its current place of occurrence. Of course, it is predominant in the south. Archaeological evidence for Paleolithic habitats and tool types found in Tamil Nadu will vouch for it. This flow of population involved in various types of economic activities, such as hunting, food-gathering, primitive farming, agro-pastoralism and settled agriculture, has been a continuous process. We have no clue about the language spoken by them. We can only make certain assumptions. But when the agro-pastoralism of a few millenniums in the north-western parts of the subcontinent eventually led to the Indus Civilisation, it was a huge leap forward. The sophistication had no precedence. My argument here is only about a particular window of migration between the Indus and the Vaigai. Future archaeology will paint a clearer picture. As of now, I can confidently say that the Indus Civilisation and the ancient Tamil culture had an ideological connection and continuity in terms of lifestyle and attitude towards life. And, the Sangam literature represents “a bridge” that links both.

Studies of ancient and current DNA make a correlation between the spread of agriculture, the spread of the Dravidian languages and the making of the Indus Civilisation as connected events. It does not mean that the arrival of the Dravidian languages in the south or of Tamil in the geography of current Tamil Nadu should have post-Harappan chronology. Future studies may throw more light. As of now, I talk about the flow of people and the thought processes that constituted the sociology of the Sangam literature, the timeline of which could be concurrent to the Indus Civilisation or slightly later. I have no confusion about that.

What are the takeaways of this book?

India’s pluralism is not a superstructure of the Indian culture but foundational in nature.

The distinctive contribution of the Indus Valley Civilisation in the making of subsequent Indian culture needs to be duly recognised in the light of new archaeological and other evidence such as genetics.

The fact of continuity is equally important, if not more, as of the timelines of antiquity.

The relationship and continuity between the Indus Civilisation and the old Tamil culture need reappraisal. Consequently, the importance of old Tamil texts in understanding the prehistory of India requires a fresh stocktaking.

There is a need for intensive archaeology in Tamil Nadu as people have an inherent right to history.

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