A rare inscription

Print edition : July 01, 2005

A burial urn, its contents and (inset) inside it an inscription in rudimentary Tamil-Brahmi script. - COURTESY: ASI

The chance finding of an rudimentary Tamil-Brahmi script. It was written on the inside of an urn that held a human skeleton has the potential to upset theories about the date of origin of the Tamil-Brahmi script. Satyamurthy found the script under chance circumstances. After visiting the Adichanallur, he was returning to Chennai on a train. He was examining photographs of the urns with skeletons to see whether the skeletons had a primary or secondary burial. It was then that he noticed some letters written on the inside of the urn. He cut short his journey and returned to Adichanallur to examine the inside of the urn closely.

According to M.D. Sampath, retired Director, Epigraphy, ASI, Mysore, the script has seven letters. He said: "It may be suggested that the writing is in Tamil-Brahmi in a rudimentary form. Attempts have been made to blow up the writing so as to decipher the same. It may be tentatively read as follows: Ka ri a ra va [na] ta.

"Though the exact meaning is not clear, it is quite likely that the expression seems to suggest the name of the engraver of the record or the maker of the pottery or the person whose skeletal remains are found interred inside the urn. The reading is subject to improvement. It is necessary to compare it with the graffiti and other scribbling found on the potsherds at different stratigraphical levels. The script seems to be archaic, perhaps coeval with the early megalithic period."

Dr. Sampath pointed out that "this was "a rare occurrence" that the script was written inside the urn. Normally, such writings were seen outside the urns. The technique of inverted firing used in the baking of black and red ware must have been adopted in baking this urn also. "How this method has been used here is a question that needs an answer from archaeologists," he said.

Satyamurthy has proposed, on the basis of "preliminary thermo-luminescence dating," that the pots found inside the urn along with the script might date back to circa 500 B.C. He said this method of dating "takes the site to the period from 1,500 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." This date is, however, subject to confirmation by carbon-14 dating, which is a more accurate method.

It is called Tamil-Brahmi because the language is Tamil but the script is Brahmi. The Brahmi script was predominantly used for the Prakrit language from the period of Emperor Asoka (circa 270 B.C.).

Iravatham Mahadevan, an authority on the Tamil-Brahmi script, says in his seminal work "Early Tamil Epigraphy, From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D.", that "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." Mahadevan writes, "The earliest inscriptions in the Tamil-Brahmi script may be dated from about the end of the 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."

Satyamurthy, however, has proposed that the script inside the urn may belong to 5th century B.C.

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