Early Inscribed Hero Stones in Tamil Nadu

George Hart glhart at BERKELEY.EDU
Tue Mar 4 02:38:17 UTC 2008

Recently, 4 inscribed hero stones (naTu kal) have been unearthed in  
Tamil Nadu.  The writing on them, in Tamil Brahmi script, can be  
conclusively dated to the 2nd or 3rd century BCE.  They show that even  
at this early date, literacy was common in Tamil Nadu and was not  
confined to a small elite group -- hero stones were most often erected  
to men who died in cattle raids (such inscribed stones are mentioned  
several times in Sangam literature).  The language is pure Tamil;  
there are no Prakrit or Sanskrit words.  Archeological evidence shows  
extensive trade and connections with North India during this period,  
and it is not surprising that the Brahmi writing system made its way  
down the coast (probably through traders) and was adopted in Tamil  
Nadu in about the the 3rd century BCE.  The Sangam poems can be dated  
to the first two or three centuries CE on much evidence -- linguistic,  
historical, paleographic (inscriptions found with the name of the  
Sangam king Atiyamaan), etc.  It makes perfect sense that this great  
literature was written about 3 centuries after writing was adopted and  
literacy became fairly widespread.  A similar thing happened in Greek  
5 centuries earlier.

The finds have been written up by Prof. K. Rajan, Dept. of History,  
Pondicherry University: "The Earliest hero Stones of India" in  
International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics (vol.36 no.1 Jan. 2007,  
pp.51-57) and "Thathappatti:Tamil-Brahmi Inscribed Hero Stone in Man  
and Environment" (vol.32, no.1, 2007, pp.39-45.)

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