On the antiquity of Dravidian scripts.

On the antiquity of Dravidian scripts.


Partha Desikan



Sri M V Vasu has interviewed Professor S. Settar for the Friday Review section of The Hindu dated May 8, 2009. The interview made very interesting reading.

Professor Settar was awarded Sahitya Akademi’s Bhasha Samman for the year 2007, for his work ‘Sangam Tamilagam’.  The Professor’s main thesis is that while the major credit for the creation of Tamil Sangam literature should be given to the ancient Tamils, the literature was in fact the outcome of a collective effort of hundreds of bards who lived both within and outside Tamilagam. This does seem possible if, because of social and commercial contacts, Tamil was known to several people outside the then borders of the Tamil region. The Professor also holds that script played no role in the creation of this literature as ‘there was no script’! He avers that like the scripts of languages immediately north and northwest of the then Tamilagam, the Tamil script was also a gift of Ashoka Maurya. This script gift is believed by him to have been received earliest by the Kannada region and eventually also by the Tamils, so that the oldest Dravidian script of Southern Dravidian region would be Kannada and not old Tamil script!


The good Professor’s work has run into four editions and is very popular among the elite Kannada language readership. There have been four awards and the subject matter of the book has been the major theme for seven seminars and workshops. As repetition of truth, modified accidentally or in good faith, especially in knowledgeable circles has the ability to confer full-truth status on the modification, I hurry to add the following, which is from a highly experienced long term researcher in Tamil language and literature. More important, he is not a Tamilian. These words were not in answer to Professor Shettar’s views. They are some remarks by Professor George Hart, Prof. of Tamil and Chair of Tamil Studies, Univ. of California, Berkeley, USA.’ on Herman Tieken’s book, ‘Kavya in South India’. He firmly disagrees with Professor Tieken’s contention that the Tamil anthologies were written either as late as or later than the ninth century. He asserts equally firmly that the Sangam anthologies were definitely not fashioned after Prakrit or Sanskrit kavyas. Any person who has read the anthologies in the original form will understand this statement of Professor Hart. In the course of his remarks, Professor Hart refers to dateable Tamil script inscriptions of 1st to 3rd century establishing the antiquity of the older Tamil script. While Prof. Hart may not be quoted on subjects concerning Sanskrit literature and North Indian culture, on which subjects too he is more than just well-read, his scholarship on subjects having to do with Tamil literature cannot be questioned.


Professor Hart’s spontaneous remarks quoted below were made on seeing the back cover of Prof Tieken’s book reproduced in a journal in advance notice. The well-written summary itself was adequate to give him the essential message of the book.

To get a full feel of his remarks, the following link can be browsed:






The relevant extract alone follows below:


Some remarks from Prof. George Hart, on Prof. Tieken’s ‘Kavya in South India’



‘I notice the message reproduced at the end of these comments in Indology in July. While I have not yet seen Prof. Tieken’s book, I can certainly respond to the ideas on the back

Cover. There is overwhelming and indisputable evidence that the anthologies were not written as late as the ninth or tenth century. It is, moreover, quite certain that the Sangam anthologies were not patterned after Prakrit or Sanskrit. Let me make a few brief points.

1. Language. This is absolutely indisputable. The Sangam texts use very different (and demonstrably much more archaic) forms and vocabulary than later texts of the sixth century onward. Many verb forms that disappeared by the sixth century can be shown to be part of an older Dravidian verb system that is quite consistent with an age of the second or third century. The vocabulary is also quite different from that of later works — it has much less Sanskrit, and uses words that are not attested later. A good source for these older forms is V. S. Rajam’s A Reference Grammar of Classical Tamil Poetry : 150 B.C.-pre-fifth/sixth Century A.D. Philadelphia, Pa., American Philosophical Society, 1992.


2. Content. While the akam (love) poems share some themes with Prakrit and even Sanskrit (as I have shown), they are still radically unlike the poems in those languages. Prakrit has nothing like the five tiNais, and it is not nearly as carefully worked out, with stock speakers, stock images for each landscape, ragas (called paNs) for each, and the like. There is absolutely nothing like the PuRam (heroic) poems of the PuRananuru and the Patirruppattu in Prakrit or Sanskrit. That is because the Puram poems are mostly written as imitations of the productions of low-caste bards and drummers.

3. Culture. The poems show a coherent culture that is utterly different from the 9th or 10th century. It is clear, if one reads the Purananuru, that the poems are directly about events the authors have heard of. Many of the poems concern marginal people at the borders of society. This is not the case of the Sanskrit or Prakrit traditions. Where is there anything like the famous Kalittokai poem of the lame man pursuing the hunchback woman?

4. History. The poems name hundreds of poets and kings — and string them together in a narrative that is chronologically coherent. The names are quite unlike the names of the 9th and 10th century. There are many historical facts that have been confirmed by archeological and other evidence — some kings who appear on coins, or in datable contemporary inscriptions (1st-3rd century), Roman coins, description of trade also found in outside sources, and the like.

5. Literary theory and usage. The Tolkappiyam describes theories and systems that are mostly quite foreign to Sanskrit and Prakrit, but which fit Sangam literature quite well. Its grammar describes some forms that are quite old (as shown by the earliest inscriptions), and even the writing system it describes, with the puLLi, has now been shown to be as early as the second century or even earlier. The Sangam poems do not use anything related to Sanskrit meter, unlike the poems of later times. By the ninth and tenth centuries, almost all literature in Tamil divided its stanzas into four parts, like Sanskrit and Prakrit (though they never actually borrowed Sanskrit meters).

6. Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina elements. In the Sangam poems, Murugan has not yet been identified with Kartikeya — he is a folk spirit that possesses people and must be propitiated. There is not much mention of Visnu or Siva, while it is clear that Jainism and Buddhism are both present in Tamil Nadu. Many of the gods are local and do not appear in later literature. All of this accords perfectly with what we know of that period, and does not fit at all the later period.

This is only a cursory response — it seems almost a waste of time to go on, as the evidence is so abundant and convincing. The fact is, the poems are quite unaware of Prakrit or Sanskrit literature — though they do know of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (which fits with their accepted date of 1st-3rd century AD). They do not resemble Prakrit or Sanskrit literature enough to be modeled upon them — I have argued that both Tamil and Prakrit/Sanskrit use the same body of conventions, which they got through southern (Tamil and Maharastri) folk traditions. But the poems themselves are quite different and work in very different ways. Finally, there is a convincing — and enormous — body of coherent and mutually reinforcing historical, linguistic, cultural, religious and literary evidence that shows clearly the poems are much earlier than the 9th or 10th century. Yes, some 9th or 10th century poets might have decided to write some "old" literature based on Prakrit and Sanskrit. But would they have invented hundreds of archaic forms and words that fit the development of Dravidian? Would they have eschewed Prakrit/Sanskrit ideas and metrical patterns? Would they have carefully gotten rid of almost all their Sanskrit words and invented hundreds of words that are not found in the other 9th century literature? Would they have made up the names of hundreds of poems and kings and woven them into a huge corpus that is chronologically consistent (and fits with inscriptional and numismatic evidence)? Tieken’s argument (if it is correctly reflected in the blurb on the back cover) just does not make sense. It is as if one were to claim the Vedas were written in the 10th century AD by a group of people who wanted to reflect an idealized past. Indeed, the Sangam works contain much more historical information than the Vedas — it would be much easier to ‘prove’ that the Vedas were written in the 10th century than that the Sangam poems were. What is it about some European Sanskritists that makes them unwilling to accept that a non Indo-European people could create a great literature on their own in South Asia? The evidence of the non-derivative nature of Sangam literature is absolutely convincing. I hope that some will read the translation of the Purananuru that Heifetz and I recently published. How these poems could be derived from the Sanskrit/Prakrit tradition utterly mystifies me — and I have read most of the kavya literature (Kalidasa, Magha, Bharavi) in the original. And I have read the Prakrit poems with the chaayaa anuvaada. By the way, the Purananuru is one of the seminal texts of premodern India — it is quite as important as the epics and the Vedas for understanding the development of South Asian culture.

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