Book review: R. Balakrishnan's "Journey of a Civilization: Indus to Vaigai" seeks to establish common ground between the Indus Valley and Old Tamil traditions

Print edition : February 26, 2021

Journey of a Civilization - Cover page

Pots excavated from Adichanallur displayed at the Archaeological Survey of India in Chennai. The Keeladi excavation on the banks of the Vaigai and the Adhichannallur excavation on the banks of the Tamiraparani are pregnant with stories that will unravel in the days to come. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

A seal made of stone, found at Mohenjodaro, depicting ‘jallikattu’ that was prevalent during the Indus civilisation. The author skilfully connects the seal to ‘jallikattu’, the famous bull sport in Madurai district.

The book holds a treasure trove of surprises relating to the Indus Valley Civilisation and Tamil literature and seeks to establish common ground.

Intellectuals across the globe face a unique challenge today. Amidst the prevailing pandemic situation, they need to fight the gloom, triggered by unsubstantiated beliefs and stereotypes, simmering in the minds of various social groups. Unfortunately, a few time-tested and glorified phrases such as promotion of scientific temper and constructive criticism based on sound logic are slowly getting drowned out in the high-decibel levels of extreme views expressed in some quarters.

Given this situation, the role played by historians and archaeologists assumes significance. Armed with unassailable evidence, they have the historical duty to guide people on the right path to promote universal brotherhood and enable everyone to appreciate the pluralist nature of global society.

Two monumental works, Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From (2018) by Tony Joseph and Journey of a Civilization: Indus to Vaigai (2019) by R. Balakrishnan, hit the stands within the span of a month. The former uses genetic studies to base its arguments on migrations and how they created the culture of the subcontinent. Balakrishnan’s book opens a treasure trove of surprises relating to the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC) and Tamil literature.

Journey of a Civilization seeks to establish common ground and connect the threads that link the riddles of Indology, namely authorship and language of the IVC and the origins of the Dravidian language speaking people in general and Old Tamil traditions in particular. Balakrishnan seeks to answer two major riddles in Indian history: where did the people of the IVC move during its decline?; what is the origin of Sangam literature and the people who wrote it? Sangam literature talks about strong copper-like forts, a rich and diverse landscape, and has carried forward memories of directional winds, the Himalaya, a bone-eating camel, a lion fighting an elephant, and so on. The author supplements this with numerous pieces of evidence such as place names, visual motifs, DNA analysis, prominent patterns of locations and structure of cities.

The book is organised into 17 chapters under three major categories, namely, fundamentals of DNA, migrations, place name theories and Dravidian hypothesis. The second establishes the Dravidian proof through the pot route, literature connections and current geographical information, and the third one is through case studies. The author brilliantly uses information from the documentation of the Nagarathar and Kongu Vellalar communities.

Sangam literature is more than just love and war poems. It is an encyclopaedia and a fountainhead of knowledge depicting both the material and the philosophical dimensions of Tamil culture. The Tamil language and the lexical encoding of words and their meaning seemingly offer extensive scope to understand the civilisational growth Sangam literature has attained. Balakrishnan juxtaposes these encodings with place names, the ideas expressed in Sangam literature with archaeological finds. The archaeological excavation at Keeladi on the banks of the Vaigai and the Adhichannallur excavation on the banks of the Tamiraparani are pregnant with stories that will unravel in the days to come. Balakrishnan excavates literature to find parallels between the cultures described in them and the IVC.

Also read: Of India’s genetic roots

Sangam literature, which talks about cemmai (brilliant, perfect, great), cenkal (red brick) and ceyon (red God), echoes in the landscapes of Mohenjodaro and Harappa. That is why Balakrishnan pronounces, Sinthuveli vitta idamum Sanga ilakkiyam thotta idamum (where Indus ends and Sangam takes off). The IVC geography is far from the current Tamil geography. How does one make sense of the connections between these two locations, especially when separated by distance and time? Balakrishnan’s proficiency in Tamil has come in handy and helped him do meticulous and methodical research to provide brilliant insights into an uncharted territory.

One of the most convincing arguments and theses he provides in order to show that the IVC was indeed Dravidian is by establishing the patterns in all the cities or IVC posts, such as Lothal, Kalibangan, Harappa and Mohenjodaro. In these places the established practice was to locate the elites in the western quarters on a higher location, while the common people lived in the eastern quarters lower to that of the western quarters. He calls it the High-West: Low-East paradigm, which is unique to Dravidian language-speaking cultures.

From Indus to Adichanallur

Balakrishnan traces the pot route from the Indus region to Adichanallur through the Vaigai. There are several books on pottery but the fresh shreds of evidence provided by him, especially with regard to the Black and Red Ware (BRW), and the emphasis he places on reorienting research towards establishing a pan-Indian pottery and the place the BRW had in different societies over different time lines are worth exploring in detail. Balakrishnan provides a road map for further research in these areas.

The toponomical survey of the names relating to the wanni tree is also explained. This provides scope for deeper anthropological studies. Wanni seems to be a conscience keeper, under which people took oath or held arbitrations; people always spoke the truth when they stood under the tree. Balakrishnan traces their remnants through anthropological, sociological and onomastic narratives.

It is a known fact that rooster fights are held in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in India and the region that is Pakistan today. This is traced in seals, numismatics, epigraphy and in the current Tamil-speaking geography. Balakrishnan establishes the connections through all these primary sources.

The jallikattu bulls of Alanganallur in Madurai district of Tamil Nadu remind us of the magnificent Zebu bull in the seals of Mohenjodaro. The author skilfully connects the seal M-312 from Mohenjodaro to jallikattu. Bulls are revered in different societies in the subcontinent. These are the cultural remnants and legacies of the Harappan culture, as is evident from the seals and the prominence given to them.

Place names

How does one make sense of the common place names in Tamil Nadu and the north-western geographies? Balakrishnan provides evidence through recent historical migrations—Europeans travelling to America and the Parsi migration to India and how they carried their names, surnames and place names to these places. Balakrishnan says it is important to avoid etymological traps for Tamil words, especially place names. There is a need to use etymology in other areas but not in connection with place names. He lists different types of possibilities for place names—glossonym (named after a language), demonym (name of natives or inhabitants), toponym (place name), associative names (names associated with a characteristic feature), commemorative name (named after a person), possessive name (a place occupied by a person or group), and so on.

A theoretical framework has been provided to substantiate the current place names in their respective geographies. What is fascinating is that he has provided the matching names in present-day Tamil Nadu and in the IVC posts. The volume of place names is abundant. The empirical data using Google Earth to discover the names and the places they have travelled to and are still travelling to can be traced.

The parallels he draws between the material culture that is found in the Indus archaeology, Keeladi excavations and Sangam literature are profound. He provides new insights into the Sangam literature by extracting important pieces of solid evidence to substantiate the Indus archaeology. Balakrishnan also surveys Sanskrit literature to check if there are parallels, and what he has found are contradicting to the centrality of the lives of the Tamils.

Also read: The Deccan chronicles

In one section, he provides everything that one needs to know about the terms Tamil and Dravidian. Overall, the book articulates ideas of harmony and underscores the plural nature of Indian society. It argues that more than the oft-repeated metaphor of ‘melting pot’ or the new-found ‘salad bowl’, the most appropriate metaphor would be ‘rainforest’. Presenting the cultural history of the Indian subcontinent as rainforest pluralism right from the beginning, the author emphasises the need to understand what constitutes the roots and what represents the canopy of the complex Indian civilisation as we know it now. The author calls for a revisit of the whole issue with an open mind and a celebration of the subtle nuances of Indian pluralism.

The long epilogue enables us to understand the philosophy and ideology that Tamils held and the South Asian population practised. Balakrishnan in a way ends the book with where he started his research. What prompted him to look deeply into the subject was that when he was en route to a village in Odisha, he found a village named Tamili. Surprised that it bore a name sounding similar to Tamil, he halted at the village and during his interaction with the people found that the language they spoke was similar to Tamil. This invoked a curiosity that led him to further research.

The book is constructed in such a way that both a serious researcher and the common man will benefit from it. For instance, when you get to read the section relating to DNA analysis, enough background material is provided so that even a lay reader can understand the nuances of DNA and how it mutates over generations.

This book will certainly form the basis and solid foundation for and positively trigger several hundred research papers in Tamil studies, archaeology, place names, and so on.

Brilliant production

If the researcher has shown his meticulousness in organising the content, the publisher (Roja Muthiah Research Library) has matched it with a carefully curated and designed layout, which has resulted in a brilliant production with quotations, illustrations, maps and infographics. The index alone is proof of the serious work that has gone into the writing of the book. The design elements, right from the cover page to the blurb, have been used artfully. Without passion for such work, such a quality production may not have been possible. In a way, this book unintentionally redraws the boundaries of research by successfully incorporating a multidisciplinary approach as well as raising the bar in the areas of research methodology, usage of technological tools and qualitative production.

The book is dedicated to the late Dravidian scholar and bureaucrat Iravatham Mahadevan. The contribution of civil servants to language, literature and scholarship has been immense right from the days of F.W. Ellis (1777-1819), the British civil servant and Tamil and Sanskrit scholar. Iravatham Mahadevan worked on IVC and Tamil epigraphy for about 40 years. Balakrishnan’s contribution and name will find a place in this grand lineage of scholars.

T. Udhayachandran is Commissioner, Department of Archaeology, Government of Tamil Nadu.

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