Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Getting in touch with our inner South Indian

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

We have a bit of a situation over the South Indian connection with the dawn of civilization in Lanka. The Mahavansa traces the civilization impulse to North India. While the historical revisionist school wants us to stop being fixated with this hackneyed North Indian and get in touch with our inner South Indian (read inner Tamil nowadays under dictates of Tamil imperialism, which insists that South Indian is the Tamil, the whole Tamil and nothing but the Tamil; now, then and for all time.) However, during the time that interests us, the pre and the early Christian centuries, Tamil was but a chorus girl (on her way to being the leading lady) in a larger South Indian Musical.

There is a question that intrudes when we get ready to embrace our inner South Indian and it’s the same question that a child brought up by a single parent faces when the missing parent intrudes in adulthood. Why weren’t you there more? Our inner South Indian is hidden. He has to be excavated, surmised, derived and deduced out of the impressively prolific (over 1400 against Tamil Nadu’s 80 odd) stone inscriptional record of this country, which is written exclusively in old Sinhala. He is not out there, upfront in a frankly South Indian way that enables us to get our teeth into him; boldly recording in a Dravidian language (preferably Tamil) his doings, titles and genealogy. For the purpose of this analysis a South Indian presence or influence that fails to manifest independently in Tamil or some Dravidian language shall be considered to have forfeited its South Indianness and entered an Other cultural milieu. I don’t mean that there are no potsherds and coins in Tamil to attest to a peripheral south Indian presence in pre-Christian Lanka. We did have the peripheral South Indian. But what happened to all the early Dravidian potential? Why did our inner south Indian fail to thrive?

The majority of scholars hold that the widespread megalithic tradition that precedes the early historic settlement of Lanka is strongly linked to if not actually deriving from south India, which was a hotbed of Dravidian languages at the time.
“The geographical proximity, the similarity between ecological zones, common burial and ceramic traditions, including other grave ware and skeletal remains…indicate a cultural homogeneity between the megalithic monuments of south India and Sri Lanka. It also suggests community movement, the intrusion of techno-cultural elements (iron, ceramic industry, irrigation) and a new subsistence pattern (based on paddy cultivation) from south India, more specifically from Tamilnadu, well before the 3rd century BC period.”
- (Sudarshan Seneviratne: 1985).

The spread of the Early Iron Age culture (which is the proper name for the megalithic tradition) into Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu during the first millennium B.C. was almost certainly accompanied by Dravidian languages including Tamil.
“It is only when we get closer to the EHP (300 B.C to 300 A.D) that we are in a position to say with confidence that the Tamil language had achieved a dominant position among the languages spoken among the protohistoric peoples of Tamil Nadu. Assuming that the earliest of the Tamil Sangam poems were composed about the second century BCE (which is the date favoured by most modern scholars) and assigning a period of two or three centuries for the language to reach the level of a literary medium, the middle of the first millennium BCE seems to be a reasonable date to mark the emergence of Tamil in south India.”
- (Indrapala: The Evolution: p99).
“… the rise of Tamil as the most dominant language of the present day southern Tamil Nadu may not have occurred later than the middle of the first millennium BCE. It was the time when the EIA culture, with its special features of BRW, urn burials, megaliths and iron tools as well as rice cultivation associated with an early system of irrigation, was spreading in all parts of southern Tamil Nadu and crossing over to Sri Lanka. Speakers of the Tamil language were without doubt associated with this cultural movement. It is possible that there were also speakers of other languages among the recipients, and later distributors, of this culture in this part of south India.”
- (ibid: p98)

In fact when one considers the spread of the Megalithic tradition (or to be more accurate, the EIA culture) in Sri Lanka, “one cannot imagine the Tamil language not being associated with these activities or being part of this cultural movement. Just as Prakrit, and to an extent Sanskrit, was part of the cultural movement that flowed from north India…, so was Tamil part of the EIA cultural movement that spread from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka in the first millennium BCE.”- (ibid: p99)

Between 900 and 600 BC, when the Early Iron Age culture derived from Tamil Nadu was the dominant cultural milieu, Tamil (and other Dravidian languages) may have been part of (or even dominated) the linguistic scene of Lanka. Unfortunately this can only be a surmise and a speculation (albeit a very reasonable one). Because, this was a pre-literate cultural milieu.
“Without the aid of written records there is no way of determining the language or languages spoken by any pre-literate society. That the people associated with the EIA culture used some kind of writing system for certain limited purposes may not be disputed. They used a set of characters, commonly referred to as non-Brahmi symbols or graffiti symbols, which have survived as graffiti marks on sherds of pottery. These were in use long before a phonetic script, the well known Brahmi, was adopted in peninsular India and Sri Lanka. As long as they remain undeciphered, they cannot provide any clue to the language or languages spoken by the users of these symbols...”
-(ibid: p.88).

When the literate phase dawns in Sri Lanka, not surprisingly it dawns in Anuradhapura, the largest EIA settlement in the island and the most unique among all the other known Lankan EIA sites due to its early urban character. But surprisingly it dawns in Prakrit, not in Tamil. Even more surprisingly, it dawns early (beginning of the fourth century B.C.) preceding the Asokan edicts. The surprises keep piling up and when the literate phase comes of age in Lanka around 200 BC, Tamil and other Dravidian languages have become so peripheral in the island, that even Damedas and other recognizably South Indian lineages are inscribing on stone in old Sinhala, not in Tamil. Hence we come up against the mystery of our inner South Indian, who failed to thrive.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Dawn of civilization in an island called Lanka

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Waiting for Vijaya
“Given that possession of a historical homeland helps solidify nationalism, it is hardly surprising that both the Sinhalese and the Tamils claim to be the island’s original settlers. The Sinhalese claim that their Aryan North Indian ancestors were the first settlers to reach Sri Lanka’s shores, almost 2,500 years ago…The Tamils, on the other hand, claim that their Dravidian South Indian ancestors first settled the island.”
This is a bird’s eye view of the historical dimension of the former conflict in Sri Lanka by Neil DeVotta, the Sri Lankan born author of ‘Blowback’, a book which used to be highly recommended by all the social scientists. De Votta presents this reading under the heading; ‘A Mythology of Conflict’. Presents it as an intractable problem of squabbling natives, though at the time of writing (2003) it was not an issue of claim and counter claim left to the discretion of the masses, but an issue on which a wealth of information was available backed by remarkable interpretational consensus among specialized scholarship. He also presents the claim of one set of natives falsely; for since the 19th century when the local pre-Vijayan groups referred to in the Vamsa chronicles as yakkhas (demigods) and nagas (serpents) first came to be interpreted as actual populations already settled in the island, the mainstream Sinhala view has never claimed that the first settlers were north Indian ancestors.

The moment these nagas and yakkhas were interpreted as people however they were ripe for appropriation by the other set of natives. And so they were duly appropriated in the 20th century. This whole ‘who came first?’ was a mock contest scripted into existence by Oriental social scientists for an Oriental purpose; to make research papers more interesting? Who knows. This is the mystical East, so intractable, indecipherable and indefinable. These traits of the Orient are detectable in the following communication by an Oriental social scientist, Radhika Coomaraswamy (‘Myths without Conscience: Tamil & Sinhalese Nationalist Writings of the 1980s’);
“The Sinhalese have always claimed that they were the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka, with the Tamil presence always being that of the invader. The Sinhalese chronicles, the Mahavamsa and the Dipavamsa, are used as evidence of this claim to priority…”
(This is a lie. The moment the era of rationality dawned in the 19th century and the yakkhas and nagas assumed peoplehood, the chronicles had started giving evidence against ‘first come’ claims. But this is the Orient, where truth is only to be used with extreme caution. To continue the quote ;)
“…To combat this myth of origin, Tamil scholars such as Ponnambalam have this to say. ‘According to tradition the Tamils of India and Sri Lanka are the lineal descendants of the Naga and Yaksha people. (According to Harry Williams). Nagadipa in the north of Sri Lanka was an actual kingdom known to historians and the people who occupied it were all part of an immigrant tribe from South India, Tamil people called the Nagars... The conclusions that could validly be drawn from the new historical data clearly establish that the present day Tamils were the original occupiers of the island long before 543 B.C. which the Pali chronicles date as the earliest human habitation of Sri Lanka.’… ”
The same chronicles that are supposed to have provided the basis for one set of natives to claim original inhabitation also provide the impetus for another set of natives to claim the same (by giving them yakkhas and nagas). This twist is so typically Oriental.

The issue was not really about who came first but how the modern populist Sinhala view factored in the pre-Sinhala populations to their origin theories. Most social scientists preferred to think that the Sinhalese thought that their ancestors (the North Indians) had arrived first, because if it was conceded that the modern Sinhalese (at the popular level) knew about the existing populations, the question arose; ‘what did the Sinhalese think had happened to the existing populations?’ If the social scientists had bothered to ask around, they would have discovered that some Sinhalese thought that most of those pre-populations had been annihilated and the remnant had been driven into the jungles and become veddas (what I too thought at fifteen), while some Sinhalese actually thought that those existing populations too had gone into the making of the Sinhalese and they too were ancestors. If the social scientists had tuned in to these obvious insights into modern Sinhala mass opinion, they would have been unable to formulate simple punch lines like ‘both the Sinhalese and the Tamils claim to be the island’s original settlers’. But simple punch-lines are what capture Western audiences.

This is not to say that there is no issue. There is an issue, one critical aspect, where the popular Sinhala view on the dawn of civilizations in Lanka is at odds with the archeological discoveries, which, if only they had cottoned on to it, the social scientists could have made substantial hay with. True, there is wide acceptance of the existence of pre-indo Aryan populations. Yes, there is willingness to regard them as a primordial civilizational presence, even willingness to claim them as ancestors, sometimes even readiness to feel more kinship towards them than towards the Indo Aryan ethos. But, there is considerable pulling back of ears, significant digging in of heels, remarkable flaring of nostrils and stiffening of bodies at the suggestion of any Dravidian connection for this pre Indo-Aryan heritage. Yet the majority of scholars hold that the widespread megalithic tradition that precedes the early historic settlement of Lanka is strongly linked to if not actually deriving from south India, which was a hotbed of emerging Dravidian languages at the time.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tamil Brahmi and Sinhala Brahmi made easy

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

                        The Elara Vs Dutugemunu as depicted on a mural from Dambulla

Today the vast majority of common people in Sri Lanka can distinguish between a language and its script. They may not be able to articulate what the difference is, but instinctively they know. I surmise that this instinctive knowledge came with their exposure to European languages, where the Latin script is used to write a multitude of different languages. If their experience had been limited to the two local languages that have their own specific scripts, the Sri Lankan proletariat too would have been trapped in a quagmire of Chandre Dharmawardana like ignorance and been reduced to equating languages with scripts. Luckily, the commonest man has daily dealings with at least two scripts and two languages, often using the Latin script to write native languages in forums that don’t support vernacular scripts. Sometimes the Sinhalese common man writes English and Tamil in the Sinhala script during the course of language lessons given in Sinhala.

Take English and Portuguese, both written in the Latin script. In the Latin-Portuguese script a lot of irritating (to an exclusive English reader) diacritics (dots and squiggles and thingies above and below letters) occur and while some digraphs in the Portuguese Latin script (ch)would be familiar to an English only reader, there are other digraphs (lh and nh) that would be gobble-de-gook. Still there’s no denying that the scripts used to write English and Portuguese are the same. But it would be a rare simpleton in the modern day who would conclude that the English and Portuguese languages are close dialects. But apparently, simpletons are far from rare when the subject is ancient languages.

Speech dialects

See this candid display of ignorance by Chandre Dharmawardana; “The language in BCE Sri Lanka was a form of Prakrit. The distinctions between Tamil Brahmi and Sinhala Brahmi at the time were perhaps not even that between Brooklyn English and Texan English.”- (The Nation, 10/02/2013). Here we see an academic, albeit in a field unrelated to history, nevertheless commenting on history with an air of authority, hopelessly confusing scripts and languages; likening the distinction between two scripts (Tamil Brahmi and Sinhala Brahmi) to that between two speech dialects of the same language.

Dr. Dharmawardana has been frolicking in public under the staggering misconception that Brahmi is the name of a language and using Prakrit and Brahmi as synonyms. Even his presentation to the Royal Asiatic Society, SL was not free from this error; “Swaminathaiyaar interpreted cave inscriptions in Tamil Nadu as Prakrit. This is the main-stream view. Subraaniya-Aiyar in the 1930s began to make claims for a “Tamil Prakrit”, a minor variant of Prakrit, blown up by Tamil-Nadu Nationalism. Claims of “Tamil Brahmi” potsherds in SL. The Dravidian scholar Iravatham Mahadeva began the spin. Pushparatnam (Jaffna University), and P. Ragupathy have expanded the spin.”

Tamil Prakrit

No one in this world has made claims for a ‘Tamil Prakrit, a minor variant of Prakrit’. The claims have been made for ‘Tamil Brahmi’, the result of specially adapting the original, standard Brahmi script to write the Tamil language, which has sound values not known to the Indo-Aryan language family, the Prakrits.

The following excerpt from a review by R. Champakalakshmi of Iravatham Mahadevan’s ‘Early Tamil Epigraphy. From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D.’ will help unravel many of Chandre’s nonsensical convolutions.
“The early Brahmi inscriptions (of Tamil Nadu) posed a greater challenge on account of their archaic characters and orthographic conventions, which were different from the original Brahmi used for Prakrit. The challenge seemed insuperable even to the most competent among the pioneering epigraphists. The major breakthrough in the decipherment of the cave inscriptions of Tamil Nadu came with K.V. Subrahmanya Aiyer (1924). He was the first to recognise that these are inscribed in Brahmi, but with certain peculiarities and new forms of letters, due to its adaptation for the Tamil language which has sounds (phonetic values) not known to the Prakrit (Indo-Aryan) language and northern Brahmi script. Yet, this lead was not seriously followed and was soon forgotten. Even Subrahmanya Aiyer did not pursue his line of enquiry to its logical conclusion.

Other scholars like V. Venkayya and H. Krishna Sastri were constrained by the assumption that all Brahmi inscriptions were invariably in Prakrit or Pali, as Brahmi was used predominantly for Prakrit in all other regions of India from the Mauryan (Asokan) period. Their readings failed to convey any meaning. By reviving Subrahmanya Aiyer's early decipherment and reading and at the same time more systematically studying these inscriptions in all their aspects, including palaeography, orthography and grammar, and seeking corroboration from the early Sangam classics and the Tolkappiyam, … Mahadevan has virtually re-deciphered these inscriptions and shown them to be inscribed in Tamil. Hence the name "Tamil-Brahmi," one variety of the Brahmi script…there is clear evidence of mutual influence between the Tamil-Brahmi and the Simhala-Brahmi, although the latter is used for Simhala-Prakrit, a Middle-Indo-Aryan language, and the former for Tamil, a Dravidian language. Simhala-Brahmi and Tamil-Brahmi show certain orthographic similarities and peculiarities. It is interesting that recent Sri Lankan archaeological and epigraphical studies have also recognised this interaction and influence…”
Not everyone believes in ‘Tamil Brahmi’ as a separate and distinctive entity. Raj Somadeva contends  that even the early Brahmi inscriptions in Tamil quoted in Mahadevan’s book confirms that the South Indian Brahmi inscriptions contain in the main, Northern Brahmi characters with a few rare exceptions. He points out during his alternate reading of the contested Tissamaharama potsherd that many of the early South Indian Brahmi lithic inscriptions in old Tamil use the letter ‘ra’ of the Asokan Brahmi script. Only a few South Indian inscriptions actually use the modified letter ‘ra’ (formed by reversing the letter ‘da’ of standard Brahmi) assigned for Tamil Brahmi. While one old Tamil lithic record uses both forms of ‘ra’ in the same sentence. He then shows that reversing of the standard Brahmi letter ‘da’ is seen in two of the Sinhala Brahmi lithic inscriptions from SL as an idiosyncratic usage but is still read as ‘da’. He questions the justification for preferring ‘ra’ over ‘da’ for the contested letter form.