An interpretation of RV "pura" made of "ayas"

Sudalaimuthu Palaniappan Palaniappa at AOL.COM
Fri Aug 28 16:03:20 UTC 1998

Yesterday, I read the review of "The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia:
Language, Material Culture, and Ethnicity" in the Journal of the American
Oriental Society 118.1 (1998), pp.120-121, by Greg Possehl. In the review,
Possehl says, "The Rgveda does refer to places as pur, "walled," a "fort" or a
"stronghold." There is  a reference to places of this sort as being of metal
or ayas."

In light of Michael Witzel's discussions on the meaning of RV ayas as actually
meaning copper or perhaps bronze, anybody familiar with Classical and post-
Classical Tamil literature cannot but be struck by the implications of the RV
pura of ayas. I think one might have to revisit the view that Vedic texts "do
not know of cities or towns but speak, instead, of ruined places where one
might collect potsherds for ritual purposes." (Michael Witzel in Early Indian
history: Linguistic  and textual parameters, p.98, in Indo-Aryans of Ancient
south Asia)

Some of the instances of RV pura made of ayas are given below. (Source: John
Gardner's Vedavid web site)

prati yadasya vajraM bAhvordhurhatvI dasyUn pura AyasIrni tArIt || (RV

shatam mA pura AyasIr arakSann adha shyeno javasA nir adIyam || (RV

manojavA ayamAna AyasImatarat puram | (RV Griffith RV in
Vedavid web site)

A misinterpretation of ayas as iron led Griffith to explain the last example
as referring to the stronghold or cloud in which Soma or ambrosial rain was
imprisoned. If ayas meant copper, the interpretation "cloud" is not correct.

The pura made of ayas seems to be a translation of a longstanding Dravidian
literary device to describe a brick fort. Consider the following examples from
Tamil texts. The Tamil texts will be followed by necessary translation.

cempu uRaz puricai cemmal mUtUr  (puR. 37.11)

"The prominent old city/town with copper-like fort". Please note the obvious
etymological connection of "puricai" with "pura".

cempu iyan2Ran2n2a ceJcuvar pun2aintu (matu.485)

"Having built a read wall as if made of copper"

We also have following examples where by the use of metonymy, the fort is said
to be made of copper.

cempu pun2aintu iyaRRiya cEN neTu puricai
uvarA Ikai tuvarai �..                                   (puR.201.9-10)

"The city of tuvarai (dwAraka?) of non-exhausting philanthropyvery tall fort
made using copper"

The motif of forts like copper or made of copper can be found even in medieval
tamil texts.

cempu iTTuc ceyta ijncit tirunakar�(kamparAmAyaNam

"The auspicious town with a rampart made with copper"

What are these forts/walls made of which gave rise to the comparison with
copper? It is clear from the examples below.

nAL pali maRanta narai kaN iTTikai
puricai mUzkiya pori arai Alattu          (aka.287.6-7)

Here an enclosing wall around a sacred banyan tree is mentioned. The wall
(puricai) is made of brick (iTTikai).

cempu iyan2Ran2n2a ceyvu uRu neTu cuvar  (neT. 12)

"The tall wall made as if with copper'

iTTikai neTu cuvar �             (aka.167.13)

"The tall wall (made of) bricks"

A comparison of CT usages in neT.12 and aka.167.13 show that the bricks were
viewed as copper-like. The following post-CT text explicitly describes the
bricks (iTTikai) as red metal or  copper-like (cempon2).

aLavu il cempon2 iTTikaikaL ALmEl neruGki aNi ArUrt (periyapurANam 3208.2)

Of course, the common word for brick in Tamil is ceGkal (red stone)

Why do I think that this literary device of describing a brick fort as copper
fort is Dravidian? For one thing, the bricks were not part of RV culture.
Secondly, if the concept was widely prevalent in the Sanskrit tradition, with
the long history of Vedic/Sanskrit scholarship, the correct interpretation for
pura made of ayas would have been arrived at by now. The fact that an
archaeologist such as Possehl (who would be expected to rely on the
interpretation of Vedic scholars) refer to forts made of metal suggests to me
that the Sanskrit scholars have not interpreted the usage as referring to
brick forts. I am willing to be corrected on this.

S. Palaniappan

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