Tamil Inscriptions

Tamil Inscriptions

significant pointer: Potsherd with Tamil Brahmi inscription, circa first century B.C., found in Egypt.
significant pointer: Potsherd with Tamil Brahmi inscription, circa first century B.C., found in Egypt.

CHENNAI: A broken storage jar with inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi script has been excavated at Quseir-al-Qadim, an ancient port with a Roman settlement on the Red Sea coast of Egypt. This Tamil Brahmi script has been dated to first century B.C. One expert described this as an “exciting discovery.”

The same inscription is incised twice on the opposite sides of the jar. The inscription reads paanai oRi, that is, pot (suspended) in a rope net.

An archaeological team belonging to the University of Southampton in the U.K., comprising Prof. D. Peacock and Dr. L. Blue, who recently re-opened excavations at Quseir-al-Qadim in Egypt, discovered a fragmentary pottery vessel with inscriptions.

Dr. Roberta Tomber, a pottery specialist at the British Museum, London, identified the fragmentary vessel as a storage jar made in India.

Iravatham Mahadevan, a specialist in Tamil epigraphy, has confirmed that the inscription on the jar is in Tamil written in the Tamil Brahmi script of about first century B.C.

In deciphering the inscription, he has had the benefit of expert advice from Prof. Y. Subbarayalu of the French Institute of Pondicherry, Prof. K. Rajan of Central University, Puducherry and Prof. V. Selvakumar, Tamil University, Thanjavur.

According to Mr. Mahadevan, the inscription is quite legible and reads: paanai oRi, that is, ‘pot (suspended in) a rope net.’ The Tamil word uRi, which means rope network to suspend pots has the cognate oRi in Parji, a central Dravidian language, Mr. Mahadevan said. Still nearer, Kannada has oTTi, probably from an earlier oRRi with the same meaning.

The word occurring in the pottery inscription found at Quseir-al-Qadim can also be read as o(R)Ri as Tamil Brahmi inscriptions generally avoid doubling of consonants.

Earlier excavations at this site about 30 years ago yielded two pottery inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi belonging to the first century A.D.

Another Tamil Brahmi pottery inscription of the same period was found in 1995 at Berenike, also a Roman settlement, on the Red Sea coast of Egypt, Mr. Mahadevan said.

These discoveries provided material evidence to corroborate the literary accounts by classical Western authors and the Tamil Sangam poets about the flourishing trade between the Tamil country and Rome (via the Red Sea ports) in the early centuries A.D.

Tamil-Brahmi inscription on pottery found in Thailand

The presence of the characteristic letterRaconfirms that the language is Tamil

— Photo: Courtesy, Dr. Berenice Bellina of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France

IMPORTANT FIND: Pottery inscription in Tamil-Brahmi found in Thailand by a Thai-French team of archaeologists.
IMPORTANT FIND: Pottery inscription in Tamil-Brahmi found in Thailand by a Thai-French team of archaeologists.

A unique Tamil-Brahmi Inscription on pottery of the second century AD has recently been excavated in Thailand.

A Thai-French team of archaeologists, led by Dr. Bérénice Bellina of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France, and Praon Silpanth, Lecturer, Silpakorn University, Thailand, has discovered a sherd of inscribed pottery during their current excavations at Phu Khao Thong in Thailand.

At the request of the archaeologists, Iravatham Mahadevan, an expert in Tamil Epigraphy, has examined the inscription. He has confirmed that the pottery inscription is in Tamil and written in Tamil-Brahmi characters of about the second century AD. Only three letters have survived on the pottery fragment. They read tu Ra o… , possibly part of the Tamil word turavon meaning `monk.’

The presence of the characteristic letter Ra confirms that the language is Tamil and the script is Tamil-Brahmi. It is possible that the inscription recorded the name of a Buddhist monk who travelled to Thailand from Tamil Nadu. This is the earliest Tamil inscription found so far in South East Asia and attests to the maritime contacts of the Tamils with the Far East even in the early centuries AD.

Prof. Richard Salomon of the University of Washington, U.S., an expert in Indian Epigraphy, has made the following comment on the inscription:

“I am happy to hear that the inscription in question is in fact Tamil-Brahmi, as I had suspected. This is important, among other reasons, because it presents a parallel with the situation with Indian inscriptions in Egypt and the Red Sea area. There we find both Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions and standard-Brahmi insciptions; and we now see the same in Vietnam and South-East Asia. This indicates that the overseas trade between India to both the West and the East involved people from the Tamil country and also other regions.”

Iravatham Mahadevan adds: “Already we know of the existence of a touchstone engraved in Tamil in the Tamil-Brahmi script of about the third or fourth century AD found in Thailand and presently kept in a museum in the ancient port city of Khuan Luk Pat in Southern Thailand. There is every hope that the ongoing excavations of the Thai-French team will bring up more evidence of ancient contacts between India and Thailand.”

`Rudimentary Tamil-Brahmi script’ unearthed at Adichanallur

By T.S. Subramanian



The picture shows the urn with the rudimentary Tamil-Brahmi script, and a human skeleton and miniature pots at the Iron Age urn burial site at Adichanallur in Tamil Nadu. The inset with the arrow mark depicts how the script has been written inside the urn. — Photo courtesy: ASI, Chennai Circle.

CHENNAI, FEB. 16. A piece of writing has been discovered inside an urn at the Iron Age burial site at Adichanallur, 24 km from Tirunelveli town in Tamil Nadu. The script has six letters. The urn has a human skeleton in it along with miniature pots. What is unusual is that the script was inscribed inside the urn after it was baked. Normally, scripts are inscribed on the outer surface of urns.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Chennai Circle, made this discovery when it resumed its excavation at Adichanallur after about 100 years. Dr. T. Satyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist and Director of the excavation, first noticed the script. He has proposed that the piece of writing is in very rudimentary Tamil-Brahmi. M.D. Sampath, retired Director, Epigraphy, ASI, Mysore, also “suggested that the writing is in Tamil-Brahmi in a rudimentary form.” Dr. Sampath says he has “tentatively read” the script as “Ka ri a ra va [na] ta.” He says the script has seven letters.

“Might date back to 500 B.C.”

Dr. Satyamurthy has proposed, on the basis of “preliminary thermo-luminescence dating,” that the pottery found at the site, including the pots found in the urn along with the script, might date back to circa 500 B.C. This date is, however, subject to confirmation by carbon-14 dating, which is the more reliable method.

The claim on the date of the script and the assertion that it is in Tamil-Brahmi will be subjected to the scrutiny of scholars in the field.

The term `Tamil-Brahmi’ is used when the script is in Brahmi but the language is Tamil. The Brahmi script was predominantly used for Prakrit from the Mauryan (Asokan) period. The Brahmi script was brought to the Tamil country in the third century B.C. by the Jain and Buddhist monks during the post-Asokan period.

According to Iravatham Mahadevan, one of the foremost authorities on the Tamil-Brahmi script: “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 southern spread of Jainism and

Buddhism.” In his magnum opus, Early Tamil epigraphy, From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D., Mr. Mahadevan says that “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 the Tamil country written in the Tamil-Brahmi script are almost exclusively in the Tamil language.”

While Upper South India was under the sway of the Nanda-Maurya domain, the Tamil country was politically independent. As a result of political independence, Tamil was the language of administration in the Tamil country. “When writing became known to the Tamils, the Brahmi script was adapted 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,” says Mr. Mahadevan.

Dr. Satyamurthy, however, proposes that the script found inside the urn may belong to circa 5th century B.C. According to him, this was based on “preliminary thermo-luminescence dating,” which “takes the site to the period from 1500 B.C. to 500 B.C. So the script is also likely to be dated to 5th century B.C. even if we take the latest date into consideration.”

Name of hero?

He pointed out that the Tamil-Brahmi script had been found in Sri Lanka too. The script found at Adichanallur could be the name of the hero whose skeleton is in the urn. “The associated pottery including the thin black and red ware [found in the urn] indicate the importance given to the dead person,” he said. The denture has been sent to the Anthropological Survey of India for examination.

Delivering the T. Balakrishna Nair Memorial Lecture on “The geneses and features of Brahmi scripts,” organised on January 12 by the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, Madras University, Dr. Sampath said: “It may be suggested that the writing is in Tamil-Brahmi script in a rudimentary form. Attempts were made to blow up the writing so as to decipher it. It may be tentatively read as, `Ka ri a ra va [na] ta’. The reading is subject to improvement.”

“A rare occurrence”

Estampages of the script could not be taken because it was inside the urn. So eye-copies were taken. Although the exact meaning of the script was not clear, it was quite likely to be the name of the engraver or the maker of the urn or the person whose skeletal remains were interred inside, he said. He described the script found inside the urn as “a rare occurrence.”

Six trenches dug by the ASI, Chennai Circle, at the Iron Age urn burial site Adichanallur in 2004 yielded a cornucopia: 157 burial urns, 50 of them intact and 15 with human skeletons. The urns with skeletons had exquisite miniature pots inside along with paddy and husk. Around the urns were ritual pots and iron implements, including daggers, broken swords, a spearhead, celts and so on. One of the urns had the script inside it and this urn had a big lid too. It is called “twin pot.”