Tamil Brahmi Script Part – 2 Early writing and Evolution

Human Prehistory

If we were to ask, a geologist would say that we are living in the Quaternary period of the Cenozoic era. This period started at the trail of the Pliocene epoch. The Pliocene epoch gave way to the Pleistocene epoch. It is the Holocene epoch, we are currently living. Some scientists are suggesting an Anthropocene epoch beginning at the 19th Century AD to mark the period in which the human activity began to make significant impact on the climate and eco-system.

The Pleistocene epoch is characterized by the Paleolithic people that lived from 2.5 million years ago until 10,000 years ago. The Paleolithic people made handmade tools and sharpened stone. They were mainly hunter-gatherer societies that lived in caves or huts by the side of water bodies. The Paleolithic people also buried their ancestors. After the Paleolithic culture, the Mesolithic culture came about in some parts of the world and lasted between 11000BC to 5000BC. This period was characterized by the usage of bows, spears, canoes, fishing etc., and the people lived in more sedentary environments. The Neolithic culture began about 8500 BC in south Asia and ended by about 5500BC. The Neolithic cultures are characterized by their ability to farming, domesticating wild animals, usage of wheels and pottery. These three ages are known as the Stone Age.

The Neolithic culture gave way to Chalcolithic age by about 4500 BC, Bronze Age by 3500 BC and then Iron Age by 1500BC. The Iron Age lasted until 200BC to 200AD in different parts of the civilized world.

Pre Historic Tamilnadu

There is archeological evidence for the inhabitance of Paleolithic people in several areas of Tamilnadu. Several Paleolithic sites such as Attirambakkam, Parikkulam are studied so far. The Parikkulam site ( near Poondi reservoir ) is often known as the “Madras Industry” of the early Paleolithic area: http://www.hinduonnet.com/2006/05/13/st … 590300.htm

In December 2006, our Temple Cleaners group made a visit to the Gudiyam Paleolithic site near the Poondi reservoir and their blogs can be read at:

http://reachhistory.blogspot.com/2006_1 … chive.html

http://www.geocities.com/uma_parasurama … index.html

Contacts with the outside world, migrations and natural evolution caused the Paleolithic civilization to advance to Neolithic stage in various parts of Tamilnadu.

S.R. Rao excavated a C. 2000 BC Neolithic site at Paiyampalli. According to him it was a pure Neolithic culture not influenced by Central Indian Chalcolithic cultures.

Excavations at Korkai, Adichchanallur, Madurai, Uraiyur, Kodumanal, Karur, Tirukkampuliyur, Alagari, Alagankulam, Nallampatti (Coimbatore) reveal a culture that was in transition from the Chalcolithic to the Pre-Iron age. These sites are dated to about 1800BC to the last quarter of the 2nd Millennium BC.

Post this continuity of the earlier Neolithic-Chalcolithic-Bronze Age cultures into the Iron Age is established by lower Kaveri Valley excavations and dated to the 8th Century BC. Dr. S. Gurumurthy suggests that the Iron Age started in Tamilnadu around 1200BC and continued until 3rd Century AD, in line with the North Indian Iron Age. The beginning of Iron Age could be pushed further to 1800BC with further excavations and findings at Adichchannallur. This dating of the Iron Age in Tamilnadu aligns well with that of the Cankam age.

Evolution of writing in Tamilnadu

Probably writing came into being when the Neolithic Indians started to paint on rocks and caves. Scholars record about 100 sites in Tamilnadu with ancient rock art. White Kaolin and Red Ochre were used to paint pictures that conveyed their daily life, environment or religious beliefs. Read the following articles that capture the rock art recorded at Karikkiyur and Mavadaippu in recent times.

http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/stories … 206400.htm

http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/mag/ … 460800.htm

These include a war scene, an X-RAY bull!, a neat portrait of grazing bisons. A group of dancers probably celebrates a meal after a hunt. The portrait of a Centaur and human sacrifice indicate the presence of an early religion.

Often the rock art is accompanied by graffiti, symbols that resemble Indus signs and some even pre-Brahmi signs. The Keelvalai and Perumukkal rock art are classic examples of this proto writing.

When the civilization advanced, pottery came into being and this became a medium of writing. Early Neolithic pottery contains scratches or incisions or painted marks/motifs used as decorations.

Dr. S. Gurumurthy observes that the graffiti of the Chalcolithic culture of Tamilnadu was probably indigeneous of origin that evolved from the traditional age old painted marks and motifs on the vessels. He suggests that the practice of scratching graffiti gained momentum due to transmission of ideas or symbols from the pre-Harappan to the Chalcolithic people. He maintains that few Indus scripts were used by Chalcolithic potters for inclusion in the tradition, where as the Harappans themselves were not very enthusiastic about the tradition of graffiti.

Furthermore, he examined about 800 ligatured graffiti and of them 50 were from Tamilnadu. They were purely built on Indus signs and therefore may constitute the Indus script. This is further corroborated with the recent findings of the Sembiankandiyur polished stone axe with Indus script , the Sulur dish in London Museum and the pottery with double arrow signs at Sembiankandiyur.

http://www.hindu.com/2008/04/27/stories … 322000.htm

http://www.hindu.com/2006/05/01/stories … 992000.htm

These give a fair evidence of the far spread of the Indus script in Tamilnadu. This could have been due to human migration or due to contacts. During the mid Iron Age, it seems the usage of the Indus script became obsolete with the evolution of the Brahmi script. The Graffiti and Indus signs continued to make its way into the punch marked coins until the Brahmi script replaced it during the Asokan era in the 3rd century BC.

Therefore, the evolution of early writing in Tamilnadu can be characterized as follows:

Rock Art—>Graffiti—>[+ Indus Signs]—> Brahmi Script

Bilingual Seal?

At Anaikottai, Sri Lanka, a bilingual seal was supposedly unearthed in 1980. This mysterious seal is reported to contain 3 Indus signs at the top row and 3 Tamil Brahmi letters at the bottom row and reported to be the “Rosetta stone” of the Indus Script. Dr. R. Mathivanan reads the Brahmi letters as “ti-vu-ko” ( i.e., king of the island ) and goes on deciphering the Indus script based on this reading. But the scribing of the seal ( especially the letter ‘ti’ ) is given differently in Dr. R. Mathivanan’s book and Dr. S. Gurumurthy’s book / Iravatham Mahadevan’s book. Iravatham Mahadevan maintains that the results are inconclusive.

Evolution of the Brahmi Script

Dr. S. Gurumurthy observes few Brahmi letter like graffiti on the Chalcolithic pottery which could have influenced the formation of certain Brahmi letters. He suggests that certain Brahmi letters such as Ka,Ta, Ma, Ya could have evolved from Chalcolothic graffiti.

Dr. Gift Siromoney suggests that the Brahmi script was invented by a single individual. He claims that the inventor of the script devised it from two basic geometric patterns. He summarily rejects that the Brahmi script evolved from the Indus script or from other non-Indian scripts


Dr. Iravatham Mahadevan believes that the Indus Script and Brahmi script were not interrelated. The reason in, the Indus script is pictorial and Brahmi script is based on alphabets.

Some scholars suggested evolution of Brahmi script from the Phenician alphabets. Dr. Clyde Winters doesn’t believe that the Brahmi script was based on Phoenician alphabets. His comparison of the Vowels of both the scripts is totally failing.

Evolution of the Tamil Brahmi script *

Iravatham Mahadevan is conclusive about the origin of the Tamil Brahmi script from the Brahmi script ( which is defined as the earliest known stage of the script from which all other native Indian scripts ( excepting Harappan ) derived. ) as follows:

  • All but 4 of the 26 letters in Tamil-Brahmi are identical or nearly so with the corresponding letters of Brahmi and have the same phonetic values.
  • Even the additional letters in Tamil-Brahmi viz. l, l, r and n are adapted from letters with the nearest phonetic values in Brahmi.
  • The alphabetical order of letters common to both the scripts is identical.
  • It is revealing that Tolkappiyam places r, n , l and l at the end of the series of stops, nasals and liquids ( Tol Elu 19-21 ). This arrangement deviates from the order based on articulatory phonetics. This small but significant detail indicates that the four special letters were originally regarded as additions to the alphabet taken over from Brahmi. The additional letter n is also described as the last in the Tamil alphabet.

He maintains that the Tamil-Brahmi is formed by adapting Brahmi to the requirements of the Tamil phonetic system in the following manner:

  • Omission of letters for sounds not present in Tamil.
  • Addition of letters to represent sounds in Tamil which were not in Brahmi Viz: l, l, r and n.
  • Modification of letters by employment of special diactitic mark viz the pulli, to:
    • Depict basic consonants in final position
    • Avoid ligaturing of consonant clusters
    • Distinguish short vowels e and o from the respective long vowels.

* – Points reproduced from Dr. Iravatham Mahadevan for a brief review. All Copyrights acknowledged and used here non-commercially.

Wide spread reach of Tamil Brahmi

What is fascinating is the wide spread reach of Brahmi scribed objects to distant nations by early contacts.


http://exhibitions.nlb.gov.sg/kaalachak … ation6.htm

http://www.hindu.com/2006/07/16/stories … 952000.htm


http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/Indi … ssage/6236