Friday, July 6, 2012

Was Tamil script derived from Brahmi? – Some thoughts on Dr Nagaswamy’s book “Mirror of Tamil and Sanskrit”.


The following article from The Hindu on a discussion with Dr Nagaswamy on his latest book "Mirror of Tamil and Sanskrit" contains many break- through ideas which are likely to stay on in the coming decades, as independent studies on a variety of branches of analysis of the past history and culture of India have already started showing similar results. I for one, am doing an analysis from different angles which are recorded in my Tamil blog ( ), showing similar singular or unitary past for all the people of India. The one place where I differ from Dr Nagaswamy is in his belief (as with every archaeologist or linguist of today) that Tamil script was derived from Brahmi!

I have not read his book - but wish to read it soon, and so do not know exactly what he has said on Brahmi connection. But from what he has said in this interview, the Tamil-Sanskrit connection does not go with the claim that Tamil script was derived from Brahmi. Does it mean that Brahmi was also in existence when Sanskrit was there? In that case it would mean Tamil, Brahmi and Sanskrit had coexisted and developed together.

If Tamil has derived most of its grammar from Sanskrit, it would mean that a written script was already there or formed when grammar was developed. But Brahmi had a very later development, say as late as 3rd century BC only. The available inscriptions on Brahmi show an already developed Tamil. Of peculiar nature is the use of ALapedai – the extended letter which is used in poetry to conform with grammar. But this is found in proper nouns in the inscriptions. This can happen only when the writer does not exactly know how Tamil is written and where and how to apply grammar.  At some places the Brahmi letters are written upside down or in mirror view showing that the sculptor did not know the script but only tried to reproduce the shape from a source leaf in which it was first written.

Tamil Brahmi so far found in Tamilnadu does not have all the 12 Uyir ezuththu (soul –letters or vowels) of Tamil. Only 8 letters are available whereas the Tholkaapppiyam Grammar says in very certain terms that 12 letters are there. This could not have been told without 12 letters already given shape. For example the letter 'Ai' () has not been found in Brahmi inscriptions as a letter. The sound is adopted but the letter is written as a-iy (ய்). What we see in Brahmi inscriptions is the use of Brahmi to write the already developed Tamil. Why it could not write all the 12 letters if Tamil derived its letters from Brahmi?

The fact was when Brahmi entered Tamil lands, Tamil was already a developed language with its own script whose progenitor was Agasthya. Brahmi came to Tamilnadu with the Jains who spread their theology. They were opposed to the use of Sanskrit and hence formed their own script which in my opinion was derived from the pre-existing script in the Northwest regions of Indian sub continent among the artisans (perhaps the Indus script). To support this, we find Brahmi in potsherds excavated in Tamil lands that were occupied by VeLirs and the migrant people from Dwaraka (Indus civilisation). The Brahmi inscriptions are found only in Jain dwellings thereby showing that Jains taught or spread Brahmi writing. When they came to Tamilnadu, Tamil was already in popular use with a well developed grammar. They did not contribute anything to Tamil language but only wrote Tamil in Brahmi script. The use of (zha / )  is a case in point.

This letter zha is unique for Tamil. This letter is found in Tamil Brahmi inscriptions found in Tamilnadu. The interesting feature is that it is written in the same way as it is written even now. In other words, this is the only letter of Tamil Brahmi that has not changed over time and still remains now. What does this imply?  

It implies that the Brahmi writers (Jains) have adopted zha in its pre existing form. They did not attempt to change it. This letter is not there any other language. It was not there in Asokan Brahmi. When the Jains came to Tamil lands, they found this letter as new to them. They  thought it wise to use the pre-existing letter because they could not split the letter and write as they did for "ai" (- ய்), nor  could employ any new means to convey the sound. It was copied from the pre-existing Tamil and was used in the inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi. If it is said that the form of this letter originated  Brahmi and was not a pre existing Tamil letter, why this letter alone had survived in the same form, whereas none of the other letters of Brahmi  had continued in written Tamil till today?  In contrast check the Tamil Grantha, it has more Tamil letters intact ( as we use today).

(I will write a separate post one each and every letter of Tamil Grantha letter to show how most of them were the same as today's Tamil which means that the Tamil as we write today had come down almost without much change from pre Brahmi days. Tamil Grantha was a developed script which could not have been done without the knowledge of both Tamil and Sanskrit. The Tamil Grantha was developed to identify the correct sound for the Tamil consonants that make no differentiation as in Ka-varga etc of Sanskrit. Only a non Tamil speaking person will have troubles in speaking Tamil consonants correctly – say for example   Kandam or Gandam  where the same Tamil letter is used for both ka and ga. The Palllavas were new to Tamil and hence had trouble in using the right sound for the consonants. They must have asked for creation of a script with which they can understand the correct pronunciation. This could have been done only by Brahmins who were knowledgeable in both Sanskrit and Tamil. Even Tamil grammar was refined by Brahmins as we find Tholkaappiyam telling the reader to refer to Vedas of Brahmins to determine the maatra and intonation of a Tamil letter.  

"எல்லா எழுத்தும் வெளிப்படக் கிளந்து

சொல்லிய பள்ளி யெழுதரு வளியின்

பிறப்பொடு விடுவழி உழற்ச்சி வாரத்

தகத்தெழு வளியிசை யரில்தப நாடி

அளபிற் கோடல் அந்தணர் மறைத்தே"

(பிறப்பியல் – 20) )


If Grantha was a developed / derived script, Brahmi was just a script which was used to write Tamil. Since it was found engraved in stone for the first time, it is not right to say that it was the earliest script. Stone cutting and engraving on stones came into existence only 2000 years ago. Stone cutting is a part of construction activity. They were the Kammaalars or Vishwa karmas, or kammas or kammiyars etc. The earliest evidence of use of stone is found in Kancheepuram.

(  )  Even Karikal Chizan went to Kancheepuram to procure the stone cutting instrument called chendu to be taken on his Himalayan expedition for the purpose of chiselling his emblem on the Himalayas. Kancheepuram was occupied by "Aruvalar" the sect who migrated from  Dwaraka as per Nacchianrkkiniyar's commentary to Tholkaappiyam. The term Aruvalar also signifies the aruval, sickle or an instrument. The Aruvalars were thrown out of Kancheepuram by Karikal Cholan but was brought back by Athondai, the founder of Thondai nadu. Thus we find the presence of stone workers in Kancheepuram as early as 2000 years ago. The Pallavas made use of them in building temples – a culture which was continued by the Cholas of middle age. Before the Pallavas, the Jains made use of them in getting the donations engraved on stone. The Jains must have handed out to them the script in Brahmi to be engraved. That is why we find presence of Brahmi only in Jain dwellings.

Before this, the practice of stone cutting was almost nil in Tamilanadu as there was no expertise in this field. So all the documents of the previous period must have been written on palm leaves. Therefore the absence of stone inscriptions prior to this period must not be construed as absence of written Tamil.

-          Jayasree



The cultural connection.

Dr. R. Nagaswamy's 'Mirror of Tamil and Sanskrit'

- Kausalya Santhanam



July 5, 2012
The cultural connection


Dr. R. Nagaswamy, Former Director, Dept. of Archaeology, Govt. of Tamil Nadu. Photo: Archives

R. Nagaswamy's latest book, 'Mirror of Tamil and Sanskrit,' shows the reciprocal relationship shared by Tamil-Sanskrit traditions.

"At no point was there an isolated development of Tamil culture," states R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Archaeology, Government of Tamil Nadu. "At no point of time was any part of the world isolated from its neighbourhood. The impact of the North Indian tradition on various spheres in the Tamil region cannot be denied. We are able to trace this tradition up to the Vedas."

Nagaswamy's latest book, 'Mirror of Tamil and Sanskrit,' is an integrated study that shows the impact of Vedic tradition and Sanskrit on Tamil life - its literature, art, music, dance, legal system and social customs. In the book, he gives examples from inscriptions, historical records, Tamil literature, social life, civil administration, the judicial and legal fields.

The book is a chronological evaluation of the progress of Tamil culture. The archaeologist talks to this correspondent on certain aspects of his work. Excerpts:

Sanskrit and Vedic traditions; Brahmi

This book establishes for the first time that Tamil attained classical status by adopting Vedic and Sanskrit traditions, especially with the help of Brahmins in the formative stages. The Tamil script is derived from Brahmi, which was invented by the Brahmins or the Brahmanas when Emperor Asoka wanted to propagate his message through his edicts. The earliest known written records in Tamil are assigned to 2nd century BCE and are in the Brahmi script.

Asoka embraced Buddhism no doubt. But nowhere does he mention that he is spreading Buddha Dharma. His edicts are about how a civilised society should be - he is emphasising righteous conduct. What the emperor says is not new; he is propagating the ancient code ofconduct. "I want to enforce what kings have tried to enforce earlier but have failed to do," says Asoka. All that he propagated was derived from the age-old teachings enshrined in the Upanishads, especially Taittriya Upanishad. Also, Asoka is not anti-Brahminical as is believed by some. Repeatedly he emphasises in his edicts that Brahmins must be accorded respect.

Legal terminology

You find the legal terminology employed in Sanskrit legal texts applied in early Sangam, Pallava, Chola and Pandya times. The terminology found in the Dharma Sastras is employed in all these administrative systems based on the general code of conduct formulated during the Vedic period.


The earliest Tamil grammar available today is Tolkappiyam. By the time of Tolkappiyar and the Sangam poets, Tamil had been so integrated with Prakrit and Sanskrit tradition that it is impossible to isolate it from Sanskrit tradition. Tolkappiyar deals with both Tamil and Sanskrit grammatical structures… he exhibits it in many sutras in his work. The Sastraic tradition is reflected in Agattinai.

Tolkappiyam shows that many of the concepts followed in Tamil Nadu were found in the northern tradition, something that has been denied in the past 50 years.

The Tamil poetics as prescribed in Tolkappiyam was adopted from Sanskrit sources as for example phonetics and alankaras such as Upama.

I'm looking at Tolkappiyam from two angles in the book. The division of the land was into five groups. This is stated by Bharata in his Natya Sastra when he talks of how the images of these various divisions should be created on the stage so that the audience experiences the feeling of being transported there. The people of these five divisions in Tolkappiyam had their own gods and they were all Vedic gods such as Indra, Varuna, Siva, Vishnu, Kumara (Muruga)…

I have also dealt with the social aspect. There were the Brahmanas, then the Kshatriyas, the Vanigars, and the Vellalars, the last named were divided into two groups - all of them were eligible for Moksha which is also mentioned in Sanskrit literature. If you go deeper, the customs such as registration of marriage were also introduced by Brahmins. The whole of Porul Adhikaram of Tolkappiyar is based on Sanskrit literature.


Silappadikaram is only a Nadaga Kavya, not an epic as it is made out to be. It is purely creative poetry for the purpose of dance. "I'm using it to mirror society," says the author Ilango Adigal. Silappadikaram consists of three cantos. Each end-poem describes what is contained in the canto. And that is based on the particular virutti. This is the Sanskrit influence for it is present in Natya Sastra.

The Vedic mode of worship was followed in the time of Silappadikaram. Natya Sastra was the basis of aesthetics of music, dance and literature. In turn, Tamil Kavyas were translated into Sanskrit - it was a two-way or reciprocal relationship.

Sangam Literature

I have said that these poems are not folk poems but poetically embellished works. They are not narrative poems and they are not history. It is said that the old Sangam poets were relegated to the background. But I have pointed out how century after century, the rulers studied Sangam poets and how Brahmins have not suppressed Tamil. There was no antagonism to Tamil anywhere and both Sanskrit and Tamil have prospered.

There is no iron curtain - Tamil culture is part of the total Indian culture. The whole of India was called "Navalar Theevu," the Tamil equivalent of Jambudvipa, and it was ruled by different dynasties in different regions. But the outlook of the people was the same and the culture was one.

Response to the book

The book has already generated a positive response from a few scholars abroad. If scholars or others here want to refute anything I have pointed out, they are welcome. But their arguments should be based on facts and evidence and not on emotional response.