Orality to literacy: Transition in Early Tamil Society

Print edition : April 11, 2003
From the forthcoming publication: Early Tamil Epigraphy : From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. by Iravatham Mahadevan (Harvard Oriental Series 62), simultaneously published in India by Cre-A:, Chennai, and in U.S.A. by Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

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 the southern spread of Jainism and Buddhism. However, the results of introduction of writing in these two regions were markedly different. The most interesting aspects of Tamil literacy, when compared with the situation in contemporary Upper South India, are: (i) its much earlier commencement; (ii) use of the local language for all purposes from the beginning; and (iii) its popular democratic character.

Tamil-Brahmi rock inscription of King Atan Cel Irumporai at Pugalur. 2nd century A.D. It records the endowment of a cave shelter at the investiture of the King's grandson as heir-apparent.

Early literacy in Tamil society

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 Kannada and Telugu occur more than half a millennium later. The earliest Kannada inscription at Halmidi (Hassan district, Karnataka), is assigned to the middle of the 5th century A.D. The earliest Telugu inscription of the Renati Colas at Kalamalla in Cuddapah district of Andhra Pradesh belongs to the end of 6th century A.D.

The earliest extant Tamil literature, the Cankam works, are dated, even according to conservative estimates, from around the commencement of the Christian era. The earliest extant literary works in Kannada and Telugu were composed almost a millennium later. The earliest known literary work in Kannada is the Kavirajamarga, written early in the 9th century A.D. and the earliest known literary work in Telugu is the famous Mahabharata of Nannaya, composed in the middle of the 11th century A.D. It is also probable that Kavijanasraya, a work in Telugu on prosody, composed by Malliya Rechana, is about a century earlier. There were earlier literary works in Kannada and Telugu, as known from references in earlier inscriptions and later literature. But none of them are extant.

The earliest inscriptions in the Tamil country written in the Tamil-Brahmi script are almost exclusively in the Tamil language. The Tamil-Brahmi cave inscriptions are all in Tamil though with some Prakrit loanwords. There are no Prakrit stone inscriptions in the Tamil country. Coin-legends of the early period are also in Tamil (with the solitary exception of a Pantiya copper coin carrying bilingual legends both in Tamil and Prakrit).

Seal-texts are also in Tamil (with the exception of a seal impression on clay in Prakrit found at Arikamedu and a few gold rings with Prakrit legends from Karur). Inscribed pottery found at various ancient Tamil sites is mostly in Tamil, with a few exceptions in Prakrit confined to cities or ports like Kanchipuram and Arikamedu. In contrast, during the same period, all early inscriptions from Upper South India on stone, copper plates, coins, seals and pottery are exclusively in Prakrit and not in Kannada or Telugu, which were the spoken languages of this region.

Popular versus elitist literacy

Another noteworthy feature of early Tamil literacy was its popular or democratic character, based as it was on the language of the people. Literacy seems to have been widespread in all the regions of the Tamil country, both in urban and rural areas, and encompassing within its reach all strata of the Tamil society. The primary evidence for this situation comes from inscribed pottery, relatively more numerous in Tamil Nadu than elsewhere in the country. As mentioned earlier, excavations or explorations of several ancient Tamil sites have yielded hundreds of inscribed sherds, almost all in Tamil, written in the Tamil-Brahmi script. The inscribed sherds are found not only in urban and commercial centres like Karur, Kodumanal, Madurai and Uraiyur and ports like Alagankulam, Arikamedu and Korkai, but also in obscure hamlets like Alagarai and Poluvampatti, attesting to widespread literacy. The pottery inscriptions are secular in character and the names occurring in them indicate that common people from all strata of Tamil society made these scratchings or scribblings on pottery owned by them. On the other hand, inscribed pottery excavated from Upper South Indian sites are all in Prakrit and mostly associated with religious centres like Amaravati and Salihundam.

Literacy is not merely the acquisition of reading and writing skills. To be meaningful and creative, literacy has to be based on one's mother tongue. In this sense, the early Tamil society had achieved true literacy with a popular base rooted in the native language. On the other hand, Upper South India had in this period only elitist literacy based on Prakrit and not the native languages of the region.

What are the reasons for such contrasting developments between the two adjoining regions of South India? It cannot be that Prakrit was the spoken language of Upper South India at any time. If proof were needed to show that Kannada and Telugu were the spoken languages of the region during the early period, one needs only to study the large number of Kannada and Telugu personal names and place names in the early Prakrit inscriptions on stone and copper in Upper South India. The Gatha Saptasati, a Prakrit anthology composed by Hala of the Satavahana dynasty in about the 1st century A.D., is said to contain about 30 Telugu words. Nor can it be said that Kannada and Telugu had not developed into separate languages during the Early Historical Period. Dravidian linguistic studies have established that Kannada and Telugu (belonging to different branches of Dravidian) had emerged as distinct languages long before the period we are dealing with. Telugu and Kannada were spoken by relatively large and well-settled populations, living in well-organised states ruled by able dynasties like the Satavahanas, with a high degree of civilisation as attested by Prakrit inscriptions and literature of the period, and great architectural monuments like those at Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda. There is, therefore, no reason to believe that these languages had less rich or less expressive oral traditions than Tamil had towards the end of its pre-literate period.

Literacy and political independence

The main reason for the contrasting developments in the growth of literacy as between the two regions appears to be the political independence of the Tamil country and its absence in Upper South India during the relevant period. Upper South India was incorporated in the Nanda-Maurya domain even before the beginning of the literate period. Asoka specifically lists Andhra among the territories included within his domains in his thirteenth rock edict. The region was, therefore, administered through the medium of Prakrit, which was the language of the rulers and also became the language of the local ruling elite, of learning and instruction, and of public discourse, as clearly shown by the presence of Asoka's Prakrit edicts in the region. This situation persisted even when the Mauryas were succeeded by local rulers, the Satavahanas, and later by their successors like the Ikshvakus, Kadambas, Salankayanas, Vishnukundins and Pallavas. It would have been in the interest of the ruling elite to protect their privileges by perpetuating the hegemony of Prakrit in order to exclude the common people from sharing power. Persian in the Mughal Empire and English in British India (and even after Independence) offer instructive parallels to this situation.

The situation in the Tamil country during the early period was entirely different. The Tamil country was never a part of the Nanda-Maurya empires. The Tamil states, Cera, Cola and Pantiya, and even their feudatories like the (Satiyaputra) Atiyamans maintained their political independence as acknowledged by Asoka himself in his second rock edict in which he refers to them as his `borderers'. As a direct result of political independence, Tamil remained the language of administration, of learning and instruction, and of public discourse throughout the Tamil country. When writing became known to the Tamils, the Brahmi script was adapted and modified 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. When the Jaina and Buddhist monks entered the Tamil country, they found it expedient to learn Tamil in order to carry on their missionary activities effectively. An apt parallel is the case of the European Christian missionaries in India during the colonial period, who mastered the local languages to preach the gospel to the masses.

Facilitating factors for spread of literacy in early Tamil society

Apart from political independence and the use of the mother tongue, there were also several other factors facilitating the spread of literacy in early Tamil society. Of the factors which will be briefly discussed here, the first three were inherent features of early Tamil society and the next three were new elements from outside which influenced the spread of early literacy in the Tamil country.

Pottery inscription in Tamil-Brahmi giving the name Catan. 1st century A.D. Found at Quseir-al-Qadim on the Red Sea coast of Egypt.

(i) The presence of a strong bardic tradition: Bards were so much respected in early Tamil society that they could move from court to court across the political barriers even when the princes were at war. The oral bardic tradition, which must have been rich and expressive even in the pre-literate era, flowered into the written poetry of the Cankam Age with the availability of writing under the active patronage of the Tamil princes, chieftains and nobles.

(ii) The absence of a priestly hierarchy: There was no priestly hierarchy in early Tamil society with vested interest in maintaining the oral tradition or discouraging writing after its advent. (It was the presence of such a priestly hierarchy in early Brahmanical Hinduism in North India that prevented Sanskrit from being recorded in inscriptions for about four centuries after the introduction of the Brahmi script. Prakrit inscriptions are available from the time of Asoka in the middle of the 3rd century B.C. The earliest Sanskrit inscription of consequence is the rock inscription of Rudradaman dated in the middle of the 2nd century A.D.) Learning does not seem to have been the prerogative of any particular class like the scribes or priests. This is clearly shown by the wide diversity in the social status of the nearly five hundred poets of the Cankam Age, among whom were princes, monks, merchants, bards, artisans and common people. Quite a few of them were women. We have earlier noticed the evidence of the inscribed sherds for widespread literacy in the rural areas and among the common people.

(iii) A strong tradition of local autonomy: Reference to self-governing village councils like ampalam, potiyil and manram in Cankam literature and to merchant guilds (nigama) in the Tamil-Brahmi records show that there was a long tradition of strong local self-government in the Tamil society. In such an environment, literacy would have received special impetus as it would serve to strengthen local self-government institutions and merchant guilds.

(iv) The spread of Jainism and Buddhism: As mentioned earlier, knowledge of writing was brought to the Tamil country, as to the rest of South India, in the wake of the spread of Jainism and Buddhism to these regions. As protestant movements against Vedic Brahmanical Hinduism, these faiths kept away from Sanskrit in the initial phase and conducted their missionary activities in North India in the local Prakrit dialects. The monks followed the same tradition in the Tamil country, learning the local language and, in the process, adapting the Brahmi script to its needs. They had no vested interest in maintaining the oral traditions nor any bias against writing down their scriptures in the local language. As a result of this attitude, the Jaina scholars (and to a lesser extent, the Buddhist scholars) made rich contribution to the development of Tamil literature during the Cankam Age and for centuries thereafter. A similar development did not take place in Upper South India in the early period presumably because Prakrit was already the language of administration and public discourse in the region. The monks who were familiar with Prakrit had perhaps no opportunity or incentive to change over to the local languages in this region.

(v) Foreign trade: The Tamil country, with its long coastlines, carried on extensive trade during the Cankam Age with Rome and the Mediterranean countries in the west and with Sri Lanka and Southeast Asian countries in the east. Trade with Rome brought in not only wealth (as attested by numerous Roman coin-hoards in the Tamil country) but also early contacts with other literate societies using alphabetic scripts. Recent excavations of Roman settlements on the Red Sea coast of Egypt have brought to light a few inscribed sherds with Tamil names written in the Tamil-Brahmi script of about the 1st century A.D. An ancient papyrus document written in Greek and datable in the 2nd century A.D. in a museum at Vienna has been identified as a contract for shipment of merchandise from Muciri to Alexandria. While the document itself is not in Tamil, one can infer from it the milieu of advanced literacy in Tamil society whose merchants could enter into such trading contracts.

A democratic, quasi-alphabetic script

The Tamil-Brahmi script is a quasi-alphabetic script with just 26 characters (8 vowels and 18 consonants). The enormous importance of such a simple, easy-to-learn script in the spread and democratisation of literacy can hardly be overestimated. Palm leaf as a writing surface was also a happy choice, as in the semi-arid Tamil countryside it is abundant, perennial and virtually free. Palm leaf and the iron stylus radically altered the ductus of the script from the angular Brahmi to the round Vatteluttu in the course of a few centuries.

The consequences of literacy in early Tamil society

There is little doubt that literacy transformed the early Tamil society in several ways yet to be fully evaluated. A preliminary listing of changes can be as follows.

(i) Transformation of tribal chieftaincies into states with more centralised administration; levy of taxes and tributes properly accounted for; and external relations based on written communications like treaties and trade contracts.

(ii) Urbanisation of royal capitals, port towns and commercial centres.

(iii) Temple administration based on written records, including inscriptions.

(iv) Increased foreign trade as evidenced by the occurrence of Tamil inscriptions in the Tamil-Brahmi script in Roman settlements in Egypt to the west and Thailand to the east.

(v) Democratisation of society and strengthening of local rule, which came about with widespread literacy based on a simple quasi-alphabetic script and with the mother tongue as the language of administration, learning and public discourse.

(vi) An early efflorescence of Tamil language and literature leading to the truly great epoch of the `Cankam Age' almost a thousand years before any other regional language in South India reached that level of development.

The author

The author Iravatham Mahadevan (b. 1930) is a specialist in Indian epigraphy, especially in the fields of Indus and Brahmi scripts. He was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship in 1970 for his research on the Indus script and the National Fellowship of the Indian Council of Historical Research in 1992 for his work on the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions.

His book, The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables (1977) is recognised internationally as a major source book for research in the Indus script. He has also published Corpus of the Tamil-Brahmi Inscriptions (1966), besides numerous papers on several aspects of the Indus and Tamil-Brahmi scripts.

He has served as the Coordinator, International Association of Tamil Research, for 10 years (1980-90). He was elected the President of the Annual Congress of the Epigraphical Society of India in 1998 and the General President of the Indian History Congress for its session in 2001. He served the Indian Administrative Service and retired voluntarily to devote himself to full-time academic pursuits. He lives in Chennai.

The book

The book Early Tamil Epigraphy is the first definitive edition of the earliest Tamil inscriptions in the Tamil-Brahmi and Early Vatteluttu scripts, dating from ca. second century B.C. to sixth century A.D. The book is based on the author's extensive fieldwork carried out in two spells between 1962-66 and 1991-1996. The study deals comprehensively with the epigraphy, language and contents of the inscriptions. The texts are given in transliteration with translation and an extensive word by word commentary. The inscriptions are illustrated with tracings made directly from the stone, estampages and direct photographs. Palaeography of Tamil-Brahmi and Early Vatteluttu scripts is described in detail with the help of letter charts. The special orthographic and grammatical features of the earliest Tamil inscriptions are described in this work for the first time. A glossary of inscriptional words and several classified word lists have been added to aid further research. The introductory chapters deal with the discovery and decipherment of the inscriptions, relating their language and contents to early Tamil literature and society. The recently discovered Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions on pottery and objects like coins, seals, rings, etc., have also been utilised to present a more complete picture of early Tamil epigraphy.

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