Leiden plates, other inscriptions, and potters

Palaniappa Palaniappa at AOL.COM
Sat Apr 25 08:30:17 UTC 1998

Sometime ago, I mentioned that I shall present the inscriptional evidence
regarding the potters� role in Indian culture. I think I have gathered strong
evidence to buttress my theory that the Dravidian pre-Vedic potters gave rise
to important princely and priestly families. I consider BhRgus to be among
them and by association AGgirases also. Here is the additional material.

The Larger Leiden Plates of Rajaraja I (Epigraphia Indica, vol. 22, 213-265)
are very important for the understanding of South Indian history. The plates
deal with the grants given by Rajaraja I (who ruled between late 10th and
early 11th centuries AD) to a Buddhist vihara being built at Nagappattinam in
Tamilnadu by the Sailendra king of Southeast Asia. The geneology given in the
Sanskrit portion of the grant was considered important by historians while the
actual details of the grant given in the Tamil portion were useful for social
and economic historians. These plates along with the Anbil plates of Sundara
Chola and the Tiruvalangadu Plates of Rajendra Chola I were useful for the
dynastic history of the Cholas. But Anbil plates and especially Leiden plates
are also important in preserving information which provide invaluable clues
about the origins of South Asian culture.

Many of the Royal officials (Accountants, Chief Secretaries and Generals)
during Chola and Pandya times had the title "vELAn2". Till now, scholars have
assumed that it referred to people of the "vELALar" or "veLLALar" caste who
are supposed to be descendants of "vELir" (plural of "vEL") or chieftains
mentioned in the Classical Tamil texts. (The Telugu velumas are called
veLLALar in a tri-lingual Sanskrit-Telugu-Tamil inscription of 1257-58 AD in
Nandaluru, Andhra Pradesh) These "vELir" are supposed to be descendants of the
pre-Vedic tradition according to scholars like Iravatham Mahadevan. What no
one has noticed till now is that in the inscriptions, when the caste
affiliation is explicit, the accountants are almost always either people with
title "vELAn2" or brahmins or "vETkOvan" or its equivalent "vELkOvan2". These
were the persons who often executed the grant while it may be actually
engraved by the "taccan2/sthapati" or smith/sculptor. (In the thousands of
inscriptions I have checked, I have come across only one instance where a
"taccan2" is mentioned as an accountant.) "veLkOvan2" is a potter. So what
does it say about the identification of "vELAn2"?

Today, the caste with the title "vELAr" are potters. What was the situation
during the Chola/Pandya times? In a few cases, the title "vELAn2" occurs along
with commonly understood caste names. Only two castes, "vELkOvan2" and
"vELALan2/veLLALan2" carry the title "vELAn2" in inscriptions. For instance,
in the Leiden Plates, we find the following text. "..aRavOlai ceytu kuTuttOm
kshatriya zikhAmaNi vaLanATTup paTTaNak kURRattuc cAttamaGkalattu UrOm UrAr
colla ezutin2En2 ivvUr vETkOvan2  etiran2 cAttan2An2a nAn2URRuvap

That even brahmin villages engaged the services of these potters as
accountants is shown in the same plates when we find "..aRavOlai ceytu
kuTuttOm kshatriya zikhAmaNi vaLanATTup paTTaNak kURRattu brahmadeyam
poruvAnUr sabhaiyOm sabhaiAr colla ezutin2En2 ivvUrk karaNattAn2 vETkOvan2
mAtEvan2 Uran2En2..."

Thus, the potters acted as royally-recognized officials affixing their
signature to important royal charters and represented non-brahmin Ur as well
as brahmin sabhas. Setting aside the term "peruGkOvELAn2" for a later
discussion, we can cite another instance where "vETkOvan2" is identified with
"vELAn2". This is found in an inscription of the 13th regnal year of the
Pandyan king JaTavarman Zrivallabha of early 12th century (No. 233, South
Indian Inscription volume 14) as "...ippaTikku nATTukkaNa[kku] tirukkOTTIyUr
vETkOvan2 valaGkai nArAyaNa mUvEntavELAn2 ezuttu ivai maTTi UruTaiyAn2
vETkOvan2 [ni]RupacEkara mUvEntavELAn2 ezuttu....". An inscription of the time
of Virarajendra Chola of 11th century (no. 339, SII vol. 4) mentions
"muTicOzanal[lU]r veLLALan2 iTaiyURukizavan2 nAkan2 nArAyaNanAna rAjanArAyANa
mUvEntavELAn2". These inscriptions seem to suggest that both vETkOvar
(potters) and veLLALar (elite landowning castes) are descendants of "vELir".
(For instance, the Sanskrit portion of the Leiden plates uses the name
"muvEndavEL" for one official while the Tamil portion calls him
"mUvEntavELAn2") This is indicated by one more evidence.

During the Chola period, if any member of a profession is considered to be
eminent in his, their status was signified by adding the adjective "perum"
(big/high) in front of the name of the profession/caste. For instance an
eminent goldsmith (taTTAn2) was called "peruntaTTAn2", eminent barber
(nAvican2) was called "perunAvican2", eminent astrologer (kaNi) was called
"peruGkaNi", and so on. But in the case of potters, when the honorific title
was formed using the word "kucavan2", he was called "peruGkucavan2". For
instance, an inscription of the time of uttama Chola in ciRupazuvUr (no. 238,
SII vol. 19) mentions "pazuvUr vETkOvan2 pacuvati nakarattAn2An2a karuviTai
peruGkucavan2". But when the honorific title is formed using the form
"vELkOvan2", the two parts of the word (leaving the glide -v- and suffix -an2
aside) "vEL" and "kO" get switched. In other words, instead of getting
"peruvETkOvan2", we get "peruGkOvELAn2" as exemplified by the Leiden plates.
This seems to suggest that the potters "vETkOvar" are basically of "vEL"

One of the earliest Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions is the word "vELAn2" found in a
pot sherd found at Paramankiray in Sri Lanka. According to Iravatham
Mahadevan, this is datable to third or second century BC. In his paper in the
Journal of the Institute of Asian Studies, vol. XII, no.1, he said that this
inscription proved the presence of the Tamil "vELir" (pl. of "vEL") in Sri
Lanka at that early date. Recently, when I suggested to him that the word on
the pot sherd could in fact mean "potter" and that "potters" and "chieftains"
belonged to the same group, he said it is possible and mentioned the story of
"sAlivAhana", the potter who defeated King Vikramaditya and in whose honor the
Indian era is named.  He also mentioned the pot symbol as the most prevalent
Indus symbol. Coincidentally, the vELAr potters of Madurai also when asked
about their geneology mentioned "sAlivAhana" as one of their ancestors. (More
on vELars of Madurai and ancient potters using saws to making bangles in a
later posting.)

Now how does all this relate to bHRgus. According to Monier Williams, the word
"bhRgu" is derived from "bhrAj"a root meaning "to shine". Regarding the Pali
equivalent "bhaggava", the Pali-english Dictionary, citing the etymological
meanings "shining, bright, radiant", wonders "How the meaning "potter" is
connected with this meaning is still a problem.." The problem is solved when
we consider "veLLAn2", a variant form of the word  "vELAn2". This type of
alteration is common in Dravidian. In fact, we find that even within the same
inscription, both forms occur. If one views "veLLAn2" as being derived from
the root "veL"(DED 4524 meaning white, pure, shining, bright), and translates
it into Indo-European, one can very easily get "bhRgu". Consider the famous
bhRgu "zukra". The Tamil equivalent is "veLLi".

As I see it, the results have fundamental ramifications for South Asian
cultural history. The ideas concerning Great Tradition and Little Tradition,
as well as George Hart�s concept of Dravidian caste system, dangerous sacred
powers, etc. all may have to be changed.

Established notions of Aryan/Dravidian, Brahmin/non-Brahmin, veLLALa/kuyavar
hierarchical differences may make it hard for some to accept this. Regarding
the "vETkOvan2" who was one of the signatories of the Anbil Plates of Sundara
Chola, T. A. Gopinatha Rao, the famous epigraphist who analyzed the plates,
remarked, "The word vETkOvan2 means at present a potter. I do not believe it
meant the same thing in early times; in many documents vELkOvan2s are
signatories. Literally it means �a prince of a feudatory dynasty�
(vEL+kO+an2)." (Epigraphia Indica, vol. 15, p.72) Not only Tamil literature,
but even inscriptions provide definite identification of vETkOvan with
kuyavan2/kucavan2 (potter). It was unfortunate that Rao had let the social
hierarchy of his times cloud his analysis.


S. Palaniappan

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