Origin of the Northern Brahmi
In chapter XV.1.53 of Geographica, Strabo quotes the testimony of Megasthenes on the absence of writing in India, as observed by him during his stay in Pataliputra during the days of Sandrocottus ( Chandragupta Maurya ):
All Indians live a simple life, and especially when they are on expeditions; and neither do they enjoy useless disturbances; and on this account they behave in an orderly manner. But their greatest self-restraint pertains to theft; at any rate, Megasthenes says that when he was in the camp of Sandrocottus, although the number in camp was forty thousand, he on no day saw reports of stolen articles that were worth more than two hundred drachmae; and that too among a people who use unwritten laws only. For, he continues, they have no knowledge of written letters, and regulate every single thing from memory; but still they fare happily, because of their simplicity and their frugality; and indeed they do not drink wine, except at sacrifices, but drink a beverage which they make from rice instead of barley; and also that their food consists for the most part of rice porridge; and their simplicity is also proven in their laws and contracts, which arises from the fact that they are not litigious; for they do not have lawsuits over either pledges or deposits, or have need of witnesses or seals, but trust persons with whom they stake their interests; and further, they generally leave unguarded what they have at their homes. Now these things tend to sobriety; but no man could approve those other habits of theirs — of always eating alone and of not having one common hour for all for dinner and breakfast instead of eating as each one likes; for eating in the other way is more conducive to a social and civic life.
S. R. Goyal and certain other scholars have given lot of credit to this testimony and provide certain internal and external evidences such as Sanskrit literary tradition, absence of pre-Asokan epigraphs etc., and establish that Brahmi script was invented shortly after Megasthenes’ visit to India and before the Asokan edicts were made, perhaps in the age of Asoka himself.
S.R. Goyal thinks that the socio-economic factors of the early 3rd century BC were purely responsible for the development of the Brahmi script. This age gave rise to the second urban revolution and the expansion of the most extensive empire of ancient India. Even in the field of religion and philosophy there was a remarkable tendency towards doubt, dissent and free speculation leading to a mushroom growth of ascetic teachers in the east, all preaching new ways of life. The most significant contribution was from Gautama Buddha who adopted the spoken language of the ordinary people of his region for his sermons but also emphatically denied their preservation in ‘sacred’ languages and gave his consent to learn them in one’s own language. The Prakrit languages thus became the vehicle of sacred truth and got a honoured place in literature. This gradually spread through the sub-continent setting up a background for literacy of the common people and creation of a script.
Emperor Asoka, a revolutionary himself, perhaps saw the culmination of all these tendencies. Besides, the urge for the spread of the Dhamma of Askoka itself might have provided the stimulus to develop a script.
Certain other authors seem to depend heavily on the Sanskrit tradition for the creation of the Brahmi script. A. Banerjee proposed “a new theory” on the origin and evolution of Brahmi alphabet from the Indus script with Sanskrit language as the basis. Absence of the continuum of the Indus script and insufficient evidence of intelligible pre-Brahmi epigraphs has ridiculed such theories.
Decipherment of the Tamil Brahmi Script
The first Tamil Brahmi inscription was noticed by Robert Sewell in 1882 and since then many has been reported and posed challenges and controversies.
Venkayya was the first to provide a reading of the script. He thought that the script resembled that of the Asoka edicts and hence belonged to the 3rd or 2nd century BC. He thought that the language was “Pali.” It is surprising that he didn’t consider the script to be in the local language, Tamil.
Krishna Sastri was the next to deciper the inscriptions. He thought that the script was neither Pali nor Dravidian. He noticed the southern characteristics of the inscriptions and noticed the occurrence of three other unusual characters in the script, which were later shown as the special characters ( I, r, n) of Tamil by Subrahmanya Aiyer. He could identify few Tamil words and the presence of Dravidian elements in the script but Prakrit elements were more or less clearly expressed in the inscriptions.
Subrahmanya Aiyer’s research was a breakthrough and lead to an understanding of the real nature of the script and language. He observed the presence of special characters of Tamil and also the presence of Prakrit loan words. His findings on the phonological structure and language of the script provided a foundation for further research which concluded that the script was in simple and intelligible Tamil language.
Fifteen years later, Narayana Rao made an unsuccessful effort and based on earlier reading by Krishna Sastri, argued that the inscriptions were in Prakrit. He suggested that the Tamil Brahmi inscriptions were a form of Prakrit language, “Paisaci”, as classified by Prakrit grammarians and concluded that Paisaci was a prevailing language in the Pandya country. To prove his theory, he twisted Krishna Sastri’s readings to yield texts supposedly in Prakrit.
In 1964, Kamil Zvelebil made a formal study of the language of the inscriptions. His readings also suffered problems of the earlier attempts like lack of understanding of the relevant rules of the orthography, wrong identification of special characters and poor quality estampages. Inspite of all these, he was able to conclude that the language of the cave inscriptions is basically Tamil though in a “hybridized form.”
In 1967, Mahalingam published the first book on Tamil cave inscriptions. But he was not aware of the pulli system ( we shall see this later ) and made some important omissions in his book. His interpretations consisted of errors at several places as he thought many words to be in Sanskrit.
R. Nagaswamy, R. Panneerselvam and Mayilai Seeni Venkataswamy were later contributers to the decipherment of the inscriptions.
Mayilai Seeni Venkataswamy believed that there was an earlier script in Tamilnadu in which the classical works of Cankam age were written, before the introduction of Brahmi script by Buddhist or Jain monks in about the 3rd century BC. He also believed that the inscriptions were full of errors as those who wrote or engraved them had insufficient language practice. He compared his readings with what he considered to be the corresponding forms in ‘centamil’ and interpreted them accordingly after making corrections. For example, he considered ‘atan’ and ‘antai’ as erroneous forms of ‘atan’ and ‘antai’
Modern day and most widely accepted scientific decipherment comes from the works of Iravatham Mahadevan as a result of his first ( 1962-1966 ) and second ( 1991 – 1996 ) expeditions. His corpus “Early Tamil Epigraphy” was published in 2003 and contains the most recent decipherment of the inscriptions and a scientific explanation.
Evolution of the Tamil Brahmi script
We have earlier seen the adaptation of Brahmi for Tamil. The decipherment of Tamil Brahmi inscriptions has established the presence of two parallel and independent writing systems that used different medial vowel notations. These are called as TB-I and TB-II. Both the systems were highly evolved from the Brahmi script. However in due course, both these systems gave way to further improved systems namely the Bhattiprolu system and the TB-III system. The later is very significant as it is described in Tolkappiyam itself!
TB- I ( 2nd to 1st Century BC)
TB – II ( 1st Century BC to 5th Century AD )
TB-III Pulli (1STCentury to 6th Century AD )
Bhattiprolu ( 1st Century BC to ? )
Presence of these three writing systems has been acknowledged by scholars such as Iravatham Mahadeven and Gift Siromoney.
Paleographic Chart of the Tamil Brahmi Script