Brhadratha, ancient astronomy and dating of ancient Tamil literature

Palaniappa at Palaniappa at
Fri Feb 14 03:27:20 UTC 1997

Tamil historians and Western scholars have generally based the dating of the
history of ancient Tamil literature on the Gajabahu synchronism. This refers
to an episode in the Tamil epic Cilappatikaram where the Srilankan king
Gajabahu attends a temple inauguration ceremony along with a Cera king
Cenkuttuvan. But the author of the epic also states that he was also present
at the ceremony. The scholars consider the fact of Gajabahu and Cenkuttuvan
being together as  'historical'. However, the scholars consider the author's
statement of being there as poetic fancy. Others consider the mention of
Balacarita in a prose passage (which is suspected to be an interpolation) to
date the epic as later than the incidents mentioned in the epic.  All these
approaches have not been satisfactory. In fact, Zvelebil states, "One is
unfortunately forced to admit that, till this very day, the only certainty we
have with regard to the earliest Tamil literature is that the classical Tamil
poems are genuine and were composed before Pallava times; more exact dating
cannot reasonably be attempted, glottochronology and computers
notwithstanding."(Companion Studies to the History of Tamil Literature,

According to the currently accepted chronolgy, most of the poems were
composed between 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E. However, I see many problems with
this dating.

1. Asoka in his edict mentions four Tamil dynasties as outside his empire.
They are the Cheras, Cholas, and Pandiyas, and "Satiyaputas". The last
dynasty is supposed to be the 'Atiyar' mentioned in Tamil literature. But
they were considered as chieftains and not as kings. No Atiyar chief is known
by name prior to Atiyaman mentioned in the Classical literature. The only
mention of an ancestor of him is that he gave (introduced) sugarcane (into
Tamilakam). On the other hand Atiyaman is very well known to Tamil poets. If
indeed there were Atiyar in Asoka's time, and the lineage continued for
another 400-500 years (if we accept the dating of Atiyaman as belonging to
2nd or 3rd century C.E, the Tamil poets would have talked about the Tamil
land as being shared by the four dynasties instead of three.

2. Tamil poems refer to Telugu and Kannada speakers as vatukar (meaning
northerners). The people living north of vatukar were called aariyar (arya)
or by the individual dynastic names.  The poems talk about the wealth of the
Nandas. The poems also talk about an expedition by the Mauryas who had the
vatukar  in the lead of the army and how they cleared mountainous roads for
their chariots to traverse. The poems also talk about the defeat of the Aryan
kings at some specific places. There is one king called "ariyap paTai kaTanta
neTunceLiyan" (one who crossed/defeated the Aryan army) who authored one
poem, according to the colophon. Of the famous Indian kings, I can only think
of two kings who could have come and fought in Tamilakam, Bindusara and
Kharavela. Asoka stopped his battles with Kalinga and Samudragupta is later
than the Tamil poems. Also Kharavela's inscription mentions a confederacy of
Tamil kings which had lasted for several years. So, who were in fact these
Aryan kings (apart from Mauryas) whom the Tamils fought if the poems were
composed around ? 

There are other questions as well which I am not going into. In any case, I
am suggesting another approach. The colophon of a work says that it was
composed to instruct an Aryan king "yaaL pirakattan" into the Tamil
culture/literature. If we can try to identify this northern king, we would
have another synchronism. While there are several possible reconstructions of
the Sansrit/Pali/Prakrit original, one name which can be the source is
"Brhadratha". The naturalization process could have occurred as shown below.

Br > Pira    
ha > ka
dra > ta
tha > ta + n (masculine marker)

Thus one would get "Pirakatatan". Because of Tamil orthogrphy which did not
distinguish between a pure consonant and a consonant combined with "a" in a
geminate context, one could have mistaken "Pirakatatan" to be "Pirakattan".

I know the last king of the Mauryan dynasty was called Brhadratha. Were there
any other kings by that name? The pre-fix "yaaL" in "yaL pirakattan" may mean
either that the king was well versed in the playing of lute or that he was a
"gandharva" or a king/prince of Gandhara. (Gandharvas are called "yaaLoor" in
Tamil.) Was there any king/prince from Gandhara called Brhadratha? Is there
any information in Sanskrit/Pali/Prakrit/Karoshti sources about a king who
learnt Tamil who might have been good at playing lute?

If any scholar can provide this information, it can help a lot in getting a
good fix on the dates of at least some of the Old Tamil poems.

Alternately, there is a poem in Purananuru (no. 229) in which the asterisms
auguring the death of a Ceral king is described. John Marr gives Kanakasabhai
Pillai's translation as " On the day of Kuddam (Karttika) when the sun was in
the sign of Adu (Mesha) at midnight when the asterisms from the first star of
Mudappanai (Anuradha) to the last star of Kulam (Punarvasu) were visible in
the sky, and while the asterism which is in the zenith during the first half
of the month of Pankuni (Phalguni) was declining from the zenith, the eighth
asterism before it was setting and the eighth asterism after it was rising, a
brilliant meteor which illumined the whole sky fell towards the
northeast...."   John Marr quotes Sesha Aiyar according to whom the
astronomical data could not help us to discover the date of the king's
demise.  I do not know the details regarding Sesha Aiyar's conclusions. If it
is due to insufficient information about Tamil terms, can the progress in
Indology in the past 70 years make it possible for another attempt by someone
at first understanding the terms first and then applying astronomical
knowledge to arrive at the date? 

S. Palaniappan

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