Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 17, December 16-31, 2018

Dedicated student of ancient scripts

T.S. Subramaniam pays tribute to a great scholar IRAVATHAM MAHADEVAN

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The formidable contribution of Iravatham Mahadevan, who passed away in November was in two fascinating fields: the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions and the Harappan script. He devoted 50 years of his life to visiting, documenting and deciphering the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions engraved on the brow of natural caverns found on hills in Tamil Nadu and on pottery, coins and rings. This led to an outstanding work from him: Early Tamil Epigraphy: From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D., published in 2003. His earlier work, Corpus of Tamil-Brahmi Inscriptions, created a wave of exploration to locate them in different parts of Tamil Nadu.

Mahadevan did decades of determined research in deciphering the Harappan script. He authored an extraordinary work titled, The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables. The Harappan script is, however, yet to be deciphered.

His third field of interest was numismatics. Somehow, his contribution to numismatics has not received the attention it deserves.

Mahadevan was a journalist too. As Editor of the respected Tamil newspaper, Dinamani, from the Indian Express stable, for four years from August 1987, he made important contributions to Tamil journalism.

He was 24 years old when he was selected for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and took voluntary retirement from it in 1980, after holding various posts at the Centre and in the Tamil Nadu Government. He was 88 years old when he passed away in Chennai.

As Professor R. Champakalakshmi, former Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, says, Mahadevan’s book entitled, Early Tamil Epigraphy: from the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D., published by Crea-A, Chennai, and the Harvard University, USA, in 2003, which is “the result of more than forty years of dedication and penance, is truly Mahadevan’s magnum opus. His earlier study of the Indus script is no less significant. It is the most scientific and sober analysis of an undeciphered script in a language that remains unknown. Further, the Indus script has been the focus of an unresolved controversy, to which not only genuine scholarly interest but also politically motivated hijacking has contributed. However, it is Tamil-Brahmi that has been Mahadevan’s life-long, magnificent obsession.”

He established that the language of these Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions was Old Tamil. He dated these Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions found on the rock face in natural caverns on hills, pottery, coins and rings from Second Century BCE to Third Century CE.

Mahadevan himself told this writer in 2009: “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 (the 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.”

On the Harappan front, his work The Indus Script: Text, Concordance and Tables, first published by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1977, continues to provide scholars the base for further, advanced research into the Harappan script. Mahadevan wrote monographs such as The Indus Fish Swam in the Great Bath: A new solution to an old riddle, and Dravidian Proof of the Indus Script via the Rig Veda: A Case Study, both published by the Indus Research Centre, Roja Muthiah Research Library, Chennai. He wrote scores of papers on the Harappan script.

In his convocation address to the Dravidian University, Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh, when he was conferred the Honorary D.Litt. Degree in 2015, Mahadevan asserted, “Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions are the earliest records in Dravidian.” In this convocation address titled, ‘Interpreting the Indus Script: The Dravidian Solution, he argued that “the language of the Indus script is an early form of Dravidian. I do not claim to have deciphered the Indus Script completely. But I sincerely believe that I have discovered important clues for interpreting many of the frequent signs and sequences, proving conclusively the Dravidian character of the language and the survival of the Indus elements in the twin streams of later Dravidian and Indo-Aryan traditions.”

Dr. K. Rajan, Professor of History, Pondicherry University, said: “Although Mahadevan and Asko Parpola (a world-renowned Indologist and a scholar on the Harappan civilisation and its script) had differing views, both tried to read the Harappan script based on the premise that it encoded a Dravidian language. Recent analytical studies and research in the subject support and strengthen this Dravidian hypothesis.

“With regard to Tamil-Brahmi, Mahadevan’s major contribution was that he faithfully documented all the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions that were available in Tamil Nadu on the rock surface. This documentation has become one of the primary sources for South Indian epigraphy.”

Indeed, in documenting these Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions carved on the brow of caverns on steep hills in remote villages, especially in Madurai district, he achieved what massive organisations such as the ASI, the Central universities or State-funded universities with their enormous resources could not do. Young, dedicated epigraphists such as Dr. S. Rajagopal and the late C. Bose travelled with him to these sites and provided valuable inputs in deciphering these inscriptions. Industrialist Pollachi N. Mahalingam generously helped him with the logistics. Mahalingam provided Mahadevan the scaffoldings with which to document the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions which were carved at a height on the rock face, the labourers to carry and erect these scaffoldings, and trucks to transport them. Mahalingam helped him with regard to the Harappan script too. As Mahadevan himself told Lalitha Ram in an interview, for Airavati, a felicitation volume published in his honour by in 2008, “N. Mahalingam, a well-known industrialist and philanthropist, suggested to me to use a computer to analyse the Indus script… He then took me to V.C. Kulandaiswamy, then the Director of Technical Education, Tamil Nadu, who allowed me to work on the computer (an IBM-1620) at the Fundamental Engineering Research Establishment, Guindy…”

In Dr. Rajan’s estimate, Mahadevan, individually and independently, and with utmost dedication, wrote his monumental work called, Early Tamil epigraphy… The research methodology that he employed in writing it was of international standards. He led the way for further re-interpretation of these inscriptions by providing photographs, drawings and copies of estampages of these inscriptions in the book. This has enabled scholars, who have any doubt about the original source or readings, to read the inscriptions without visiting the sites where they are found, Dr. Rajan said. He added, “It was in Mahadevan’s interpretation of the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions that the magnitude and in-depth knowledge of his scholarship in Tamil literature and linguistics were revealed. He used literary references, especially from the Tamil Sangam literature, Jain and Buddhist literature, and linguistic formulae to study the structure of the inscriptions, their grammar and syntax. His unbiased approach, without any self-glorification, made his research in Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions on par with international standards. Another important contribution he made was the methodology he developed in reading the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions in a simple manner. It was popularly called TB-1, TB-2 and TB-3.” It was Mahadevan who fixed the chronology of the Sangam literature, based on his reading of the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions found at Pugalur, near Karur, which had mentioned the names of three generations of the Chera dynasty. His identification of this Chera genealogy indirectly helped in deciding the date of the Sangam literature (the early part of the Common Era), Dr. Rajan said. Mahadevan also identified the name of the Pandya king as that of Nedunchezhiyan in the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions at Mankulam, near Madurai.

Dr. S. Rajagopal, retired Senior Epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, said Mahadevan aimed at perfection in his deciphering of Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions. The Senior Epigraphist had travelled with him to rocky outcrops with caverns on hills at Anamalai, Tiruparangunram, Siddhar Malai, Mettupatti, Vikramangalam, Meenakshipuram (also called Mankulam), Kongarpuliyankulam, Arittapatti, Azhagarmalai, Varichiyur and so on and contributed in an important manner to Mahadevan deciphering the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions. Mahadevan came up with novel methods in copying the inscriptions, Dr. Rajagopal said. He would first repeatedly run his fingers on the inscription incised on the rock face. He would then use chalk piece to trace the letters. He would next hoist a big tracing paper on the inscription and run a pencil on the letters. Thus, the entire inscription would be copied on the tracing paper. After he approved this copy, draftsman Madagadi K. Thangavelu would copy the inscriptions again on the tracing paper with Indian ink.

Mahadevan would wear his joy on his sleeve when the inscriptions threw up important information, Dr. Rajagopal said, and narrated an incident. One of the three Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions at Muthupatti, near Madurai, mentioned the place-name Musiri and spoke about how a person named Kodan of Musiri made a donation in sculpting the Jaina beds in the cavern there. “Mahadevan was very happy and kept jumping with joy because Musiri or Musiris referred to the port in the Chera kingdom on the west coast and another inscription at Keezhavalavu, also near Madurai, mentioned the place ‘Tondi’, which was a port on the east coast in the Pandya kingdom,” Rajagopalan said.

(When the excavations done by the Kerala Council for Historical Research at Pattanam from 2007 yielded potsherds with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, including the one “Amana”, a Tamil word for “Jaina”, Mahadevan argued that Pattanam was the Musiris, which was “a flourishing port on the west coast during the Sangam age”.)

Again, Mahadevan’s cup of joy was full when one of the Tamil-Brahmi insicriptions at Pugalur, near Karur, mentioned the term ennai vaanigan (that is, an oil monger). For another nearby inscription at Pugalur mentioned the name ponvaanigan (trader in gold). Mahadevan found the mention of ennai vaanigan (trader in edible oil) new and exciting although Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions at Azhagarmalai had spoken about how an uppu vaanigan (salt trader), panitha vaanigan (trader in jaggery), kozhu vaanigan (trader in plough-shares) and aruvai vaanigan (textiles trader) had made donations for sculpting beds on the floor of the caves there for Jaina monks.

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