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Book in honour of Prof. K. Kailasapathy: Early Historic Tamil Nadu c. 300 BC -300 CE

Mar 5, 2011 1:11:49 AM- transcurrents.com

Reviewed by Bandu de Silva

Way back in the early 1950s, Prof.Kailasapathy, former Prof. of Tamil in the University of Jaffna was two years my junior at the University of Ceylon. Perhaps, he may have been a first year student there when I attended lectures in the Tamil Department there on Sangam literature as suggested by my Professor, Hemachandra C. Ray. My attendance was facilitated by my kinsman, Dr M.H. Peter Silva who was a lecturer in Tamil in the Department.


Portrait of Professor K.Kailsapathy, President (1974~1977) of University of Jaffna (Picture By Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai - more pictures from Jaffna ~ via Jaffna mobile moments)

I still remember the expressions on the faces of students when they learnt about the new discoveries of ancient Tamil Sangam anthologies. These anthologies had opened a new vista for educated Tamils, to learn about their very ancient roots. If the earlier claim of the ‘Aryanisation’ of India and the Vedic civilization it brought about had thrown a veil of gloomy ignorance (agnana-timira) of ‘inferiority’ over those who spoke ‘non-Aryans’ languages, the discovery and collation of these Sangam anthologies by French scholars, as I was to learn in learned circles in Paris later, went a long way to removing that veil.

Wheeler’s new archaeological discoveries at Arikemadu supported by further discoveries by Gordon Childe, which placed South Indian chronology on par with that of the Roman trading activity overseas, if not at its height of prosperity but at least in the decadent period when copper coins replaced the much valued gold Dinar, nay, a Roman settlement itself at Arikemadu, the collation of several hundred Sangam fragments gave the Tamil antiquity which had earlier been built on hypothesis of language correlates that Mcrindle had conjured up in the 19th century, a much wanted boost up.

The Sangam finds which were placed in the first few centuries of the Christian era were thought to be dating even earlier based as per, internal evidence of texts which pointed to the earlier existence of the Sangam tradition. The analogy was like that of Sri Lankan Pali chronicles which were claimed to be based on earlier Atthakatha Mahavamsa. The finds of Prakrit and Tamil Brahmi inscriptions among the early cave inscriptions in Pandya (near Madura) and elsewhere and the correlation established with over1440 such Prakrit Brahmi inscriptions found and published in Sri Lanka, as well as the finds of Tamil Brahmi scribbling on potsherds in numerous places in South India helped to support the idea of Sangam chronology being based a few centuries before the Christian era.

As an Indian reviewer put it, “it was by the turn of the last century that the corpus of literature in Tamil known popularly as “Sangam literature” was brought to light from near oblivion. The hitherto accepted canons of Tamil literature were upturned, at least in Tamil Nadu, although Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) continued to cherish the old canon of Saivite literature. That proved to be the beginning of a new chapter in the understanding of the history and culture of early South India. A veritable revolution, it claimed a place for Tamil along with other classical languages such as Sanskrit, Greek and Latin.”

It was against this over enthusiasm created by Sangam anthologies to reconstruct not only the chronology of the Tamil civilisation in southern India but also the evidence they threw out on state formation, governance, social history, and economic and religious atmosphere that our scholar, Kailasapathy emerged.

As Kesavan Veluthat who reviewed the felicitation volume five months back remarked, Kailasapathy was a “…somewhat unorthodox” author. When his book Tamil Heroic Poetry was published in 1968, what it contained was nerve-chilling for the champions of the Glory that was Tamilakam.”

He goes on to say ‘He opened his book with the somewhat shocking statement that “The title Cankam Poetry is a misnomer”……and “…….went on to show that early Tamil literature would make better sense when analysed within the framework of what is described as heroic poetry, using the techniques of studying oral literature

Taking the cue from the monumental work of H.M. and N.K. Chadwick, ‘The Growth of Literature’, and following the results of the analyses of Teutonic, Greek, Icelandic, Slavonic, Sanskrit, Sumerian, and African oral poetry, Kailasapathy demonstrated that early Tamil poetry was basically oral in character. He also applied the results of Milman Parry's analysis of Homeric epics, which had attained the status of a “universal theory” for studying heroic poetry.”

For those nationalist minded Tamils in South India, and some of the confused Sri Lankan Tamil scholars who do not know whether to claim their descent from South India or project an indigenous –development theory for Sri Lankan Tamils based on Naga, Yakkha, and Vaddoid origin, Kailasapathy’s unorthodox and critical approach to Sangam literature was a pain in the eye.

As such, as Veluthat says, “his work was ignored in South India for a long time because South Indians like many of the Sangam over-adoring Sri Lankan Tamil scholars, (the parallel of Mahavamsa adorers among the Sinhalese) belieived in “unabashed glorification of the past of southern India, with every one of the constituents with which nationalist writers make the “classical” identified there, …..”in the process, history” being turned into “less about the past than about the present; and evidence” becoming “a nuisance, a liability”……. “Interpreting texts within their context became unheard of. If a historian here wrote with some semblance of methodological rigour or a literary critic there showed some sense of comparative literature, they were treated as so many traitors and they were met not exactly with academic criticism.”

“It is against this background of near jingoism that one has to place the work of Kanagasabapathy Kailasapathy”, wrote the learned reviewer. “The revolution brought about by the discovery of Sangam literature was matched only by the kind of unorthodox and critical thinking that he inaugurated in the analysis of this early literature and the society studied on its basis. Perhaps the Ceylonese origin of Kailasapathy, as well as of other scholars who have contributed immensely to the study of early South Indian history, such as Kathigesu Sivathamby or Sudarshan Seneviratne and the editor of this volume, is significant, because they are heirs to a tradition that did not quite idolise Sangam literature.”

The Editor of the present volume, K.Indrapala too displayed these scholarly traits when he wrote his PhD Thesis and the Paper to the RAs Journal on “Early Tamil Settlements in Ceylon” though he succumbed to political/ethnic pressure finally to produce his new book “Evolution of an Ethnic Identity” (2005). However, it is refreshing to see him offering to edit the volume in dedication to his former colleague whom the country lost at the young age of 49 years.

The present book in honour of Kailasapathy is not a massive volume. It contains only five contributions besides the Introduction by the Editor, K. Indrapala and an essay taken from the late Professor’s major work, ‘Tamil Heroic Poetry’ which as the editor observes, still forms a valuable assessment of the literary sources. Prof. Subbarayalu’s essay on historical implications of names in Tamil –Brahmi inscriptions is a valuable study not only for South Indian studies but also in respect of Sri Lankan Prakrit (Proto-Sinhala) -Brahmi inscriptions, if undertaken in depth by a future Sinhalese or other scholarship. An interesting point that Prof. Subrayalu makes on the identity of authors of the Prakrit Brahmi in South India is that some of them could have come from Sri Lanka while the majority may have come from the north. The purpose of this long distance travel he says, could be both pilgrimage and trade.

However, he argues more in favour of the latter because except for cave inscriptions in and around Madurai the sites of others have no religious significance. This observation also supports Raman’s observation that Prakrit Brahmi in South India could be a reverse process from Sri Lanka. These conclusions are supported by the fact that the island has the largest collection of Brahmi inscriptions found in the whole peninsular India/Sri Lanka. This is a point that has not been emphasized enough by scholars. The significant contribution of Prakrit- Brahmi to Sri Lanka’s state formation, cultural, religious and social development has then to be recognized and recent debates by quasi-historians to deny this have to be rejected.

K. Rajan reviews evidence on the presence of Tamil Brahmi in Tamil Nadu commencing from pre-Asokan dates. He also draws attention to two finds of Tamil Brahmi in Sri Lanka, one occurring in a seal found at Annaikoddai in the Jaffna peninsula (Raghupathy) and another in a potsherd far south in Tissamaharama (Mahadevan/Raghupathy).

However, this has not led to the conclusion of presence of wide use of Tamil Brahmi in the island. The Tissamaharama find with its peculiar reading by Mahadevan, the first three letters from right to left and the last two letters after graffiti in the middle, from left to right, to give a meaning to the scribble has even led to reservations on the part of Raghupathy who says there could be alternate readings. (TamilNet, 28, 7, 2010.)

As Rajan points out, what is present in the island on a far wider scale is the use of Prakrit Brahmi to an extent not found anywhere in India (1440 cave inscriptions have been published) while none such Prakrit Brahmi inscriptions have been found in the Cola country (Rajan,2009). Nevertheless, he draws attention to similarities in Sri Lankan Prakrit Brahmi and the Tamil Brahmi script found in South India. There is a very learned discussion on the Tamil Brahmi and Sri Lankan [Prakrit] Brahmi without the polemics customarily found in the writings of some Tamil writers.

Rajan even makes reference to the suggestion that the script might have been introduced in Tamil Nadu from Sri Lanka (Raman quoted by Deraniyagala /Subbarayalu).

The essay by Prof. Champakalakshmi presents an overview of social formation in Tamil Nadu. Her emphasis on the need to introduce new perspectives to understand the transformation of Tamil society from the Early Iron Age to the early Historical period and to the later period is something that Sri Lankan scholarship should address itself.

Dr.Indrapala’s essay on ‘People and Language’ as a ‘Prelude to the emergence of Tamil identity’ is an interesting one. Speaking of Tamil Nadu of the Early Historic Period as a Land filled with a conglomeration of ethnic and social groups as well as ‘lineage groups,’ also with evidence of tribalism and localism, he thinks if there was anything there was unifying people it was language, ‘Tamilakam’- Tamil land. This is a view that could be applied in the case of Sri Lanka as well, how the early Prakrit Brahmi cave writing is seen as a unifying factor of all communal groups in the island, including Kambujas, Damedas, Milakas (Mlecchas) and others. But in the midst of arguments trying to prove that Sri Lankan Prakrit Brahmi referred to as Proto-Sinhala by some, this important point is lost in Sri Lanka.

In Tamil Nadu, Indrapala speaks also of different layers of ethnicity, with a common identity, at the top, as Tamil speakers. Tamils as a dominant group does not find mention but is referred to in sources of neighbouring groups, [e,g. those of Sri Lankans (Hela), Andhras and northern Prakrit-speaking Buddhists]. He sites the analogy of the Germans who did not call themselves ‘German’ though others did. Would this be a proper answer to those who argue, for the purpose of scoring points in the debate of ‘who came first to the island’, that ‘Simhala’ was not used by the Sri Lankans to identify themselves till late centuries? It is, then an observation that should apply to the Sri Lankan situation where the early Prakrit Brahmi inscriptions do not refer to ‘Simhala’ as a people, language or even a land, though it is used by neighbouring groups, e.g. Kalinga, (2nd century B.C. Hathigumpa inscription ), Andhra (Upasika Bodhi Sri’s 4th century A.C. inscription), Samudragupta’s 5th century A.C. Pillar inscription and the number of Chinese references from pre-christian times as a reference to people and the land, and Buddhagosa (5th century A.C.) to the language itself when he speaks of it as a Manoramam (pleasant) language.

In this discussion, Indrapala also brings in the ‘Nagas’ but the discussion is subdued and does not try to link them with Tamils as such. Speaking of another people called ‘Ilavar,’ he quotes the interesting Kerala tradition that ‘Ilavars’ came from Sri Lanka an introduced coconuts!

As a whole, the discussions go to show the close link that Sri Lanka has had with Southern India including Kerala in the early phase leading to state formation which should not be overlooked in the midst of the overtly north Indian biased early chronicler tradition and the single interpretation of Sri Lankan Prakrit Brahmi as a derivation of Asokan Brahmi. This should, however, not lead to an over-emphasis of the South Indian link to the exclusion of the northern influence which commenced with the introduction of Buddhism and Prakrit Brahmi writing in the 3rd century, if not earlier. The views expressed in this volume and elsewhere that the Prakrit Brahmi of South India could be the result of a reverse flow from Sri Lanka should also deserves attention, notwithstanding the view expressed by the leading south Indian epigraphist that Prakrit Brahmi inscriptions relate not to donations of caves to the Buddhists Sangha but to Jain ascetics. The latter view would look like a bit of our own Paranvitana’s views at times!

Even on historical issues, one sees how even experts in respective fields are still moving towards ‘single cause’ theory or substituting such a ‘single cause’ theory as against another despite paying lip service to new methodologies that have evolved. Sociologists like Michael Mann completely and forcibly reject the evolutionary model resulting from a natural progression from pre-historic societies to civilization and called for what he calls, “polymorphous crystallization” based on ecological exploration of different sociospatial, overlapping, intersecting networks. In Sri Lanka, we have the famous case of the first Capital Anuradhapura, which has disproved the evolutionary explanation and points definitively to an imposition on the environment which has given credence to the account in Mahavamsa of Pandukabhaya building the metropolis.(Deraniyagala on results of exploration at the Citadel).

That it took nearly thirty years to honour this scholar, who transferred himself from journalism – he was Editor –in - chief of Thinakaran, the Tamil Daily - to the world of academia and followed his post-graduate training at Birmingham University under the guidance of Prof. George Thompson, a scholar reputed not only as a Classical scholar but even more importantly, for his Marxist orientation, are matters for reflection. When one recalls the unwelcome response his major work on ‘Tamil Heroic Poetry’ received in South India, as reviewer Veluthat recalled,(Frontline) and Editor Indrapala’s own experience of having to leave the country under pressure from Sri Lankan Tamil nationalists and pro-Eelamists, am I then right in asking if the resurrection of men like Kailasapathy who were intellectually honest and bold enough to express views which were not very palatable to the ‘nationalist’ minded Tamils in South India and pro-Eelamist, as also applied to Indrapala in Sri Lanka and in the Diaspora who were not prepared to listen to an alternate point of view, had to await the first signs of the emerging collapse of the LTTE and pro-Eelamist support to it which had presented an impediment to honest scholarship, to honour this scholar?

I am pleased to note also, the Editor, Indrapala’s more moderated and scholarly views presented in the present volume.

The collection of essays in this volume are a valuable addition to the study of history of South India and gives an insight into the new approach to history some of the South Asian scholars are prepared to introduce. Besides, it provides valuable insights into the study of Sri Lanka’s pre-historic, proto-historic and early historic past and helps discard some of the parochial view now being presented. The book can be recommended to readers who are interested in dispassionate study of Sri Lankan as well as south Indian history.