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Tissamaharama potsherd evidences ordinary early Tamils among population

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 28 July 2010 07:28 No Comment]

A potsherd inscription in Tamil Brahmi found some times back in an archaeological excavation by a German team at Tissamaharama in the Hambantota district of the Southern Province of Sri Lanka can be interpreted as meaning an equipment to measure, and thus evidences the presence of ordinary Tamil speaking people in the population of that region as early as at 2200 years before present, says archaeologist and epigraphist, Ponnampalam Ragupathy. The identification of the script of the legend as Tamil Brahmi and the decipherment getting the reading Thira’li Mu’ri in Tamil by veteran epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan in an article last month in The Hindu, has stirred interest of the archaeological circles in the island to unearth this old find from obscurity to limelight.


Inscribed potsherd from archaeological excavation at Tissamaharama, Hambantota District, Sri Lanka: From left to right the first letter is Li, second one is ra and the third one is ti. From right to left they are read as tiraLi. The fourth and fifth ones are symbols or graffiti marks. The sixth letter is mu and the seventh one is Ri. The last two are read from left to right as muRi. A little away is found a vertical line that perhaps marks the end of the legend. [Image courtesy: Department of Archaeology, Sri Lanka and the academics who sent it]

Full text of the article by Dr. P. Ragupathy:

An inscribed piece of pottery from Tissamaharama

An inscribed piece of Black and Red Ware pottery was found in the archaeological excavations at Tissamaharama in the Hambantota District of Southern Province, Sri Lanka, sometimes back.

Information of the find, along with decipherment of the legend, appeared in The Hindu on 24th June, in an article “An Epigraphic Perspective on the Antiquity of Tamil,” written by veteran epigraphist Iravatam Mahadevan. His article has kindled interest in the official circles of archaeology in Sri Lanka to take notice of the find, which was hitherto not brought by them to the knowledge of the public.

According to Iravatam Mahadevan, the piece of pottery was found in the earliest layer of the excavation and the German scholars who undertook the excavation provisionally dated it to around 200 BCE.

Mahadevan, who identifies the writing on the pottery as Tamil in the Tamil Brahmi script, reads it as “tiraLi muRi” and interprets it as “written agreement of the assembly”.

“The inscription bears testimony to the presence in southern Sri Lanka of a local Tamil merchant community organised in a guild to conduct inland and maritime trade as early as at the close of the 3rd century BCE,” he further says in the article.

A few days ago, the present writer received a clear photograph and a drawing of the pottery sent by academic sources in Sri Lanka seeking opinion.

A perusal of the pottery legend as it appears in the photographs show that Iravatham Mahadevan’s identification of the script as Tamil Brahmi and his reading of the legend in Tamil could hardly be challenged. But there are possibilities of alternative interpretations.

The legend is a combination of readable Tamil Brahmi and unreadable graffiti or symbols that usually appear in megalithic and early historic pottery.

From left to right, the first three are Brahmi letters, the next two are symbols and the following last two letters are again in Brahmi. There is a vertical line, a little bit away from the legend that perhaps marks the end of the legend like a full stop.

Mahadevan reads the first three letters from right to left to get the reading ‘thiraLi’ and reads the last two letters from left to right to get the reading ‘muRi,’ keeping the unreadable symbols in the middle.

Brahmi was usually written from left to right just like all the South Asian-origin scripts of today. In the very few occasions when Tamil Brahmi was found written from right to left, the letters were inverted to serve the purpose of reading it from the above. (Mahadevan, I., 2003, Early Tamil Epigraphy p 179-180).

However, in the island of Sri Lanka, some examples have already been noticed in which Brahmi was found written from right to left without inverting the letters, indicating that even though obscure it was a writing practice in the island. (Paranavitana 1970, Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol I, plate xxii; Karunaratne. S., 1984, cited by Mahadevan, ibid. p.180).

But, perhaps this is the first time, a single legend is partly read from right to left and partly read from left to right, keeping symbols in the middle. The reason for this way of the writing in the pottery needs investigation.

From left to right, the first letter of the pottery legend is a clear Tamil Brahmi ‘Li’ (palatal L). This script is known in the Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka too. No word begins from this letter in the known diction of Tamil, Sinhala, Prakrit or Sanskrit. Mahadevan is logical in reading the three letters placed left to the symbols from right to left to get the meaningful word ‘tiraLi’.

The last letter of the legend (as counted from left to right) is a clear Tamil Brahmi script ‘Ri’ (retroflex R). A few years ago Prof. P. Pushparatnam identified the presence of retroflex R in the Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka. (Pushparatnam. P., cited by Mahadevan I., ibid., p.195).

Once again Mahadevan is logical in reading the last two letters placed right to the symbols from left to right to get the meaningful word ‘muRi’,

But why the legend meaning “written agreement of the assembly” of trade guild connotations according to Mahadevan, should appear on a small pottery of day-to-day use is a question.

Such pottery legends usually mark individual ownership, serving the purpose of identification.

Both ‘tiraLi’ and ‘muRi’ are connected to the words tiraL, muRi and muRai, listed as Tamil words in the Dravidian Etymological Dictionary (entries, 3245, 5008, 5010 and 5015).

The word ‘muRi’ as a noun has several shades of meaning in Tamil. In its literary usages it means sprout or young leaf in Cankam diction; writing, deed, document, written agreement etc in early medieval diction and settlement in old lexicons (Glossary of Historical Tamil Literature, Santi Sadhana, p.2028).

The word ‘muRai’, apart from agreement, approved code of conduct etc (DED 5015), also means share (panku), measure (aLavu) and portion (pakuti) in the Cankam diction itself. (nattiNai 336:6; neTunalvaaTai 70, 177)

The latter shades of meanings are from the verb form of the word muRi, which means ‘to divide, break down etc’ (DED 5008). In the lexicons muRai also means anything that is amassed (kooTTu). (Pinkalam 10:953).

In some instances of usage in Tamil inscriptions muRi means a division of land (DED 5008, Glossary of Tamil Inscriptions, Santi Sadhana, p.510).

Interestingly in a surviving usage of contemporary Eezham Tamil muRi means a chunk, portion etc (as in ‘meen muRi’ for a piece of fish in the curry).

The shade of meaning, deed, agreement or written bond for the word muRi is found for the first time only in the devotional literature of the 7th century CE (Glossary of Historical Tamil Literature, ibid.). This shade of meaning must have come from the Cankam usage of the word for leaf. But the meanings share, division, measure etc from the verb root muRi are older shades of meaning as found in muRai and are more or less contemporaneous in usage to the pottery legend under discussion.

Therefore, it is more appropriate to consider that the word ‘muRi’ in the potsherd legend means a measuring utensil or a standard cubic measure. The pottery in question is a flat bottomed and raised edged dish. But it is deep enough to be a cubic measure.

Interestingly, the other word ‘tiraLi’ could also mean the same – ‘an equipment to amass’.

The word ‘tiraL’ as a verb means, to become round, globular, assemble, congregate, collect in large numbers, accumulate, abound etc (DED 3245) and as a noun or adjective means, mass, matured produce, group, ball of rice, society, heap, pearl, congregation of people etc (Glossary of Historical Tamil Literature p.1049).

Even though tiraL could mean an assembly of people, neither the word nor the derivate tiraLi was ever found used to indicate a trade guild.

In fact, in available Tamil diction tiraLi as a noun only means a kind of fish. Another derivate tiraLai means a ball of cooked rice.

However, originating from the verb root tiraL, the word tiraLi could very well mean a utensil or equipment that was used in amassing commodities – in other words a cubic measure.

In this context note the word formation for the vessel ‘uruLi’ in Malayalam from the verb root ‘uruL’ (to round).

There is another possibility that tiraLi muRi may mean ‘a mould for cooked rice’ or a measure for rice balls (from tiraLai), but the fact that one word being written from right to left and the other word from left to right make it not much sensible to think that both words belong to one phrase.

It seems, both words tiraLi and muRi are synonyms for an equipment of cubic measure and one word was written right to left and the other left to right, keeping the symbols in the middle.

This also means that the symbols or graffiti at the centre were given the foremost importance in the legend and were probably incised first before writing the words in either direction in Brahmi. Whether the symbols or graffiti have anything to do with the meaning of the words needs further research.

Megalithic graffiti, the lineage of which is traced back to the Indus Writing, appearing along with Brahmi in suggesting ways during the transition period of megalithic into early historic, is a very significant topic for serious further investigation.

In 1980, a similar find, a steatite seal having graffiti in the first line and Brahmi in the second line, has been found in the excavation of a megalithic burial at Aanaikkoaddai in the Jaffna Peninsula and its significance has already been discussed (Indrapala, K., 26-04-1981, The Hindu; 2006, The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity, pp 337-338; Ragupathy. P., 09-07-1981, The Hindu; 1987, Early Settlements in Jaffna: An Archaeological Survey, pp. 199-204).

Many pottery fragments having legends written in the combination of Brahmi and graffiti have also been found in the excavations of the megalithic site at Kodumanal in Tamil Nadu by Y. Subbarayalu and K. Rajan. (Subbarayalu. Y., 1988 and 1996, unpublished, cited by Mahadevan. I., ibid., pp. 206-210).

As far as the Tissamaharama find is concerned it may not perhaps mean the presence of a Tamil trade guild but may mean the presence of ordinary Tamil speaking people in the population.

Dr. P. Ragupathy taught archaeology at the University of Jaffna in the early 1980s, was Professor of South Asian Studies and Head of the Postgraduate Departments at the Utkal University of Culture, Bhubaneswar, and for a brief period served as consultant at the National Centre for Linguistic and Historical Research in the Republic of Maldives. He has authored Early Settlements in Jaffna: An Archaeological Survey (1987), An Etymological Dictionary of Maldivian Island Names (2008) and has co-authored Inscriptions of Maldives Vol I (2005).


The photograph of the inscribed piece of Black and Red Ware pottery, appeared in the article of Iravatham Mahadevan in The Hindu, 24th June 2010 [Image courtesy - The Hindu]

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