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.