Early Inscribed Hero Stones in Tamil Nadu

George Hart glhart at BERKELEY.EDU
Tue Mar 4 15:10:06 UTC 2008

I find this baffling.  1. The order of the words is quite normal --  
kal (stone) is the subject, akol is the predicate nominative.  There  
is nothing strange at all about the order of the words.  I have been  
reading Sangam Tamil intensively, and see nothing at all anomalous  
about this.  2. The poems and the inscriptions indicate that these  
stones were raised to men fallen in a cattle raid.  Obviously, someone  
in this environment knew how to read and write -- is it such a stretch  
to suppose the stone mason could actually read what he was writing?   
The writing system is quite simple and quite logical.  And if writing  
was used by people who lived in marginal areas in the 2nd century BCE,  
it must have been used more widely 3 centuries later (the time of  
Sangam literature).  Are we to suppose that no one could read or  
write, and these illiterate people were engraving stones, somehow  
intuiting how to write the name of the fallen hero, just copying "a  
string of images"?

On Mar 4, 2008, at 3:42 AM, Tieken, H.J.H. wrote:

> Dear Richard,
> Mahadevan's conclusions regarding literacy in early Tamilnadu should  
> be
> treated carefully. See my review of Mahadevan's edition of the Tamil
> Brahmi inscriptions, which has appeared in ZDMG 157/2 (2007),
> pp.507-511. In it I discuss, among other inscriptions, no. 54. If my
> interpretation is correct, it would follow that the scibe who was
> responsible for engraving the text could himself neither read nor  
> write.
> He was a stone mason, whose job consisted mainly in copying the  
> letters
> of his examplar, which for him was just a string of images. I, for  
> one,
> am unable to follow Mahadevan where he argues that the inscriptions
> testify to the widespread literacy in Tamilnadu at the period and that
> literacy had spread to all strata (sic) of the population. The same
> question, namely if the stone mason could read or write, arises in
> connection with one of the inscriptions discussed by Rajan. In any  
> case,
> his inscription no. 1 shows a highly curious word order. Actually, it
> seems to consist of three parts: 1. kal "stone", 2. petutiyan antavan,
> personal name, 3. kutal ur a kol, "of kutal ur" and "stealing of
> cattle". Rajan translates: "This hero stone is raised to a man called
> tiyan antavan of petu village who died in the cattle raid that  
> happened
> at kudal ur", ignoring the irregular word order.
> Apart from all this, the use of the northern Brahmi script does  
> testify
> to an amazingly sharp observation of Tamil phonology, in which the
> voiceless and voiced plosives are allophones.
> Kind regards
> Herman Tieken
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Indology [mailto:INDOLOGY at liverpool.ac.uk] On Behalf Of Richard
> Salomon
> Sent: dinsdag 4 maart 2008 3:50
> To: INDOLOGY at liverpool.ac.uk
> Subject: Re: Early Inscribed Hero Stones in Tamil Nadu
> Interesting discovery. George Hart's comments on early literacy in  
> Tamil
> seem to accord well with those of I. Mahadevan in his Early Tamil
> Epigraphy (2003), pp. 160-1.
> Richard Salomon
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: "George Hart" <glhart at BERKELEY.EDU>
> To: <INDOLOGY at liverpool.ac.uk>
> Sent: Monday, March 03, 2008 6:38 PM
> Subject: Early Inscribed Hero Stones in Tamil Nadu
>> 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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