Monday, March 14, 2011

Archaeological findings in Pattanam, Kerala : Jainism in West Coast and epigraph in Tamil.

Can you read and decipher what this is :  it is in tamil……


The communication amongst humans is through language – a complex system of communication. There are thousands of languages – not all are written as some are only spoken.  Our Nation has hundreds of languages with Hindi in Devanagari script  being the principal official language.  Indian languages belong to several linguistic families – Dravidian being an important one.   The Dravidian family includes 85 languages approx and is spoken by millions of people, predominantly in Southern India and parts of Sri Lanka and some other countries.  Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam, Kannada are the prominent ones.  The antiquity of the language is studied through epigraphs which is study of inscriptions on stones and on others forms dating back to centuries. 

Tamil is one of the 22 scheduled languages of India and the first Indian language to be declared as a classical language by Govt in 2004.  Tamil script has 12 vowels and 18 consonants and one character with is neither.  The script is syllabic and not alphabetic.  These 31 and additionally 216 combinant letters represent sum total of 247 letters.  Combinants are formed by adding vowel (mostly a marker) to the consonant combinant letters are formed by adding a vowel marker to the consonant. The Tamil script is written from left to right.

We proudly claim that Tamil literature is existent for over 2000 years with the earliest epigraphic records found on rock edicts.  The earliest period – Sangam literature is dated from 300  BCE.  Often the inscriptions are found in many other places as distant as Egypt, Sri Lanka and Thailand indicating that tamil literature had spread across to these places in olden days itself.  In fact the two earliest manuscripts from India to be acknowledged and registered by  UNESCO Memory of World Register were in Tamil.  UNESCO Memory of world Programme also known as World documentary heritage is an international initiative for safeguarding documentary heritage of humanity by preserving valuable archives.


The earliest source are inscriptions found in caves and on pottery.  These were found written in a variant of Brahmi script known as Tamil Brahmi.  The earliest traces of epigraphy were found in Indus valley and the earliest deciphered epigraphics are those of Ashoka of 3rd century BCE written in Prakrit.  After the 1st millennium Indian epigraphy became more widespread engraved on cliffs, on pillars, on tablets of stone, rocks then on palm leaves, coins, copper plates and on temple walls. 

In deciphered epigraphs, Brahmi appears to be most common and earliest writings so far discovered in tamil are in characters which closely resemble brahmi and known as Tamil brahmi script.  Epigraphists record that many books printed in India during the latter part of 19th century exhibit variations for medial vowel forms corresonding to ‘aah’ and ‘ai’.

Recently a tamil-brahmi script on a pot rim has been found in Pattanam in Ernakulam Dist., Kerala.  This establishes the prevalence of Jainism on the West coast from 2nd century CE.  The words were  “a ma na”, meaning a Jaina.  The Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) has been conducting excavations at Pattanam since 2007, with the approval of the Archaeological Survey of India. The pot-rim was found during the sixth season of the excavation currently under way. Pattanam is now identified as the thriving port called Muziris by the Romans. Tamil Sangam literature celebrates it as  Musiri.  Musiripattanam was a flourishing Port during the Sangam age.

According to the Director KCHR, the pot might have belonged to a Jaina monk. The broken rim with the script was found at a depth of two metres in trench 29 in the early historical layer which “by our stratigraphic understanding could belong to third-second CE period,”.  The associated finds included amphora sherds, iron nails, and beads among others.

Tamil-Brahmi is considered to be an early variant of the Brahmi script used to write Tamil characters.   Earlier inscriptions were found in Adichanallur in Tamilnadu which dated back to very early years.

In Nov 2007, it was reported that a broken  storage jar with inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi script was  excavated at Quseir-al-Qadim, an ancient port with a Roman settlement on the Red Sea coast of Egypt, which dated back to 1st Century  BC.   It was discovered by an archaeological team belonging to the University of Southampton.   It was reported that the inscription was quite legible and read : paanai oRi, that is, ‘pot (suspended in) a rope net.’   There was also a similar finding in 1995 at Berenike also a Roman settlement on the Red coast of Egypt.  These are clear indicators of flourishing trade between Tamil land and countries closer to Red sea ports.

It amuses one to know that One cannot read their own mother tongue – no potshot at today’s children – but factually as languages undergo changes over a period of time – even somebody who has mastered the language and literature cannot quite read this inscription.

 --- to think that they sailed in country boats and other contraptions to overwhelm the Ocean is quite amazing.. !!

Regards – S Sampathkumar.

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