Tamil Paleography

Tamil Paleography

Q: The last thing I'd like to ask you is about your work in early Tamil paleography, and how this is connected if at all to the Indus script work.

A: The two are very different fields. The Indus script is a logographic script, which means that each sign stands for a whole word or a whole syllable. The Tamil script, which is an offshoot of the Brahmi script, is a quasi-alphabetical script, where each symbol stands for a vowel or a consonant or a consonant combined with vowels. The principles of studying these two languages is completely different. Plus the Indus script is undeciphered. In the case of the early Tamil script we have the example of Brahmi, which is almost identical except for change in some syllables.

Nevertheless, it happens that there was some difficulty in understanding the cave inscriptions in Tamil Nadu written in the Tamil variant of the Brahmi script and I took up that challenge and I have been working on that for more than three decades and I am now completing my book on that.

Q: What had you added to that field?

A: Since the cave inscriptions represent the earliest known stratum of a Dravidian language, their phonology and their grammar are most important. I have constructed an inscriptional grammar and compared that with the oldest known grammar in Tamil and oldest Tamil literature, the Sangam poetry. The oldest stratum of Tamil language known from literature is not very different from the cave inscriptions, showing that they were not very far removed in time. At the same time, the cave inscriptions represent the very beginning of literacy, so the main contribution coming out of this is in firming up our ideas of how Tamil was at the very beginning of its literate period. Of course we have a number of other spin-off benefits. These caves were all created for Jaina monks, so we come to know about the early history of Jainism in the Tamil country. Plus the caves were donated by traders, so we know about a lot of trading, in gold, pearls, sugar cane, gems, salt and so on. We find the Kings, the Pandiyas or the Cheras who are mentioned in the oldest Sangam literature appearing in these inscriptions, giving for the first time historical veracity to what was so long known only from fables or ballads.

Paleographically, we now know how the Tamil script originated. There were many theories, but now we know it came from the Brahmi script and slowly became rounded because in the south, people wrote on palm leaves with an iron stylus and the letters got rounded. Each stage of this transformation can now be documented. The inscriptions I am studying cover from the time of Asoka, roughly the 3rd century B.C. to about the 5th century A.D. Thereafter from the 6th or 7th century A.D. we have hundreds of stone temples in Tamil Nadu with thousands of inscriptions, so there is no mystery afterwards.

Much of what I have said now I have already published, but now I will bring out a definitive book. In fact, it is this work I am now engaged in and the Indus script, for me, is somewhat on the back burner.