Is Tamil-Brahmi pre-Asokan?

(via Wikipedia)

The oldest known script in the Indian subcontinent is the undeciphered Harappan script. The oldest deciphered script is Brahmi, dating to around 4th century BCE. In South India, the oldest deciphered script is Tamil-Brahmi which is dated to two centuries after Brahmi. Inscriptions in rock shelters and caves near Madurai provide proof for this.
In an excavation at Kodumanal, near Erode more than 20 pot-sherds with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions were found. On the basis of this archaeological work, some scholars suggested an older date for Tamil-Brahmi which would put it in the same period as Brahmi. Now there is new evidence from Palani which suggests 400 BCE as the date for Tamil-Brahmi. This adds a new data point to the debate on if Tamil-Brahmi is pre or post-Asokan.

When K. Rajan, Professor, Department of History, Pondicherry University, excavated this megalithic grave, little did he realise that the paddy found in the four-legged jar would be instrumental in reviving the debate on the origin of the Tamil-Brahmi script. Accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dating of the paddy done by Beta Analysis Inc., Miami, U.S.A, assigned the paddy to 490 BCE. “Since all the goods kept in the grave including the paddy and the ring-stands with the Tamil-Brahmi script are single-time deposits, the date given to the paddy is applicable to the Tamil-Brahmi script also,” said Dr. Rajan. So the date of evolution of Tamil-Brahmi could be pushed 200 years before Asoka, he argued.[Palani excavation triggers fresh debate via @amargov]

Read the article for it explains the controversies regarding this dating.

  1. Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, 1st ed. (Prentice Hall, 2009).


Vandalism of Tamil-Brahmi sites

Recently on the ancient trade path from Madurai to Kerala, archaeologists discovered pottery with Tamil-Brahmi inscription.

Epigraphists have deciphered the three Tamil-Brahmi letters on the ring-stand as “vayra,” which means diamond. The deep-set cist-burial, which has two compartments made of granite slabs, was found to have skeletal remains. A pair of stirrups lay next to the ring-stand. The symbol that followed the three Tamil-Brahmi letters showed an etched gem and bead, with a thread coming out of the bead. According to Mr. Mahadevan, the script could be dated to the first century A.D. [The Hindu : Front Page : Tamil-Brahmi script found in village]

Finding this inscription has been rather lucky because quarrying and vandalism has been destroying Tamil-Brahmi sites.

Tiruvadavur is now the most disturbed Tamil-Brahmi site in the State, with a huge quarry situated right at the foot of the hill. Quarrying has progressed so deep that the site looks like an open-cast mine. All round the quarry, for several kilometres, granite blocks as big as a truck or a car, are stacked on either side of the village roads. There is a surreal scene too: a nearby hill has been sliced in half, as if it were a cake. An official of the State Archaeology Department admitted that quarrying was under way within the prohibited/regulated area, that is, within 300 m of the protected limits of the monument.[History vandalised]

So why is Tamil-Brahmi so important?

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.[‘Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions are the only record of old Tamil’]

The History behind Ponniyin Selvan

Few days back, we had a review of Kalki’s epic novel Ponniyin Selvan and had the question – where does a historical novelist get his characters from?
Books on Indian history talk mostly about the North Indian dynasties and only a few lines are spent for the South Indian ones. Even in those few lines, only the famous kings are mentioned and details are just glossed over. Thus when it comes to the Cholas, you may hear about Raja Raja Choza I and Rajendra Choza, but not about Parantaka I or Parantaka II.

The Chozha dynasty

One of the authoritative histories of South India, Nilakanta Sastri’s A History of South India provides more detail. According to Sastri, Parantaka I ascended the throne on 907 A.D and ruled for forty-eight years. Even though there was prosperity during his time, thirty years (955 – 85) after his reign there was a period of weakness and confusion. Parantaka I was succeeded by his son Gandaraditya who with his queen Sembiyan-mahadevi played a major role in religion than in politics. By the time of the death of Gandaraditya in 957, the Choza dynasty had shrunk to the size of a small principality. Gandaraditya’s brother Arinjaya ruled only for a year and was succeeded by his son Sundara Choza Parantaka II.
His son Aditya II was made the yuvaraja and and Sundara Chozha turned his attention to the south to defeat Vira Pandya. Sundara Choza defeated him and Vira Pandya was killed by Aditya II. The last years of Sundara Chozha were clouded with tragedy and this is the story told by Kalki’s novel, Ponniyin Selvan.
According to Nilakanta Sastri, Uttama Choza conspired to murder Aditya II and compelled Sundara Chozha to recognize him as the heir apparent. He ruled till 985 A.D and after that Arulmozhi Varman, Sundara Chozha’s second son took over and started the period of Choza imperialism.
That’s all the information. So where does a novelist turn to find other characters and details of life at that time? What about Vandiyathevan or the conspirators Ravidasan and Soman, or Nandini? Did they really exist or were they created by Kalki?
Kalki’s other sources were stone inscriptions, copper plates and other books. There is a stone tablet in the great temple of Thanjavur which has the following inscription: “The revered elder sister of Raja Raja Chozhar, the consort of Vallavarayar Vandiyathevar, Azwar Paranthakar Kundavaiyar”. The book sources were K.A.Nilakanta Sastri’s The Chozas and T.V.Sadasiva Pandarathar’s Pirkala Chozhar Charitttiram. The second book has a five line reference to Vandiyathevan and from that, he became the hero of this novel. The names of the conspirators also came from a stone inscription.
Lot of information about the activities of various kings came from inscriptions like these as well as copper plates like the Anbil one. The Thiruvalangadu copper plates state, “The Choza people were very keen that after Sundara Chozan, Arulmozhi Varman should ascend the throne and rule their country. But Arulmozhi Varman respected the right of his Uncle Uttama Chozhan, the son of his father’s younger brother, Kandaradithan, to the throne and crowned him King”.
In the conclusion of the novel, Kalki frames a set of questions which the reader may have about the characters after the end of the novel and he talks about each one of them, but does not give any sources for the information.