Friday, October 14, 2011

The Hindu - Sunday, Jun 28, 2009

Tamil-Brahmi script found in village

T.S. Subramanian
Pointer to how writing followed commerce in Tamil country

FINDS: The cist-burial with two chambers, port-hole, ring-stand, a four-legged jar and pots at Porunthal; the ring-stand with Tamil-Brahmi inscription; decorated carnelian beads.
CHENNAI: A largely intact piece of pottery with a significant inscription in Tamil-Brahmi and the symbol of a gem or bead was found this week from a burial site at Porunthal village on the foothills of the Western Ghats.

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.

K. Rajan, Head of the Department of History, Pondicherry University, who directed the excavation, about 12 km from Palani in Tamil Nadu, called the discovery of Tamil-Brahmi script “very important” because it had been found in a remote village and goes to show that literacy had spread to even far-flung villages during the early Christian era. On palaeographical grounds, the script could be dated between the first century B.C. and the first century A.D., he said.

The cist-burial also yielded thousands of tiny, beautiful beads of different varieties such as carnelian, steatite, quartz and agate, four-legged jars, vases, bowls, plates, iron arrow-heads and so on.

Excavation at a site 2 km away yielded thousands of beads and the remnants of the furnace where the beads were possibly made. Terracotta figurines of a humped bull and a man, and a square copper coin of the Tamil Sangam Age, were also found.

Trade route link
Iravatham Mahadevan, a scholar in the Tamil-Brahmi and Indus scripts, described it as “a great discovery” because it established that writing followed commerce. Porunthal lay close to a major, ancient trade route from Madurai, capital of the Pandya country, to Chera country in present-day Kerala. He said the script could be read as “vayra.”

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 grave belonged to a royal personage. Mr. Mahadevan said the site called for greater exploration and more allocation of funds from the Central Institute of Classical Tamil.

Graffiti marks?
Opinion is, however, divided on whether the three letters are in Tamil-Brahmi or they are graffiti marks. Dr. Rajan quoted Y. Subbarayalu, Head of the Department of Indology, the French Institute of Pondicherry, and epigraphist S. Rajagopal as saying they were graffiti marks. However, V. Vedachalam, retired senior epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, and S. Rajavelu, senior epigraphist, Archaeological Survey of India, agreed with Mr. Mahadevan that it was Tamil-Brahmi. Dr. Vedachalam said the symbol of the bead had been found on every pot found in the cist-burial.

The cist is at the centre of a circle of boulders. It has two chambers, one in the northern direction and the other in the southern direction. The dividing slab has a port-hole. Both chambers yielded four-legged jars and pottery. The ring-stand, with the carved script on its surface, was placed at the centre of the northern chamber. Around the ring-stand were 22 beautiful, etched carnelian beads; inside were five more beads.

This grave alone yielded 7,500 beads made of steatite, carnelian, quartz and agate. “These are the largest number of beads collected from any grave in Tamil Nadu,” Dr. Rajan said. Porunthal was an important bead-making centre. Another important find was 2 kg of well-preserved paddy inside a four-legged jar.

Dr. Rajan added: “The occurrence of paddy in a 2000-year old grave reflects the agricultural potential of the period. The richness of the grave goods, the size of the chamber, the high level of rituals performed, the finding of the script, paddy and the stirrups point to the importance of the man who was buried there.”

Students from four universities including Mangalore, Sri Venkateswara (Tirupati), Tamil (Thanjavur) and Pondicherry conducted the excavations in both places.

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