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.

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