Report: Tamil script ‘Tamili’ three centuries earlier than Asokan Brahmi script

Dating of ancient scripts plays a major role when it comes to the history and civilisation of a people. Differences among scholars about the date of Asokan Brahmi and Tamili (Tamil Brahmi) have led to confusion among researchers.

However, the recent findings based on accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) on the materials excavated from Keeladi, the date of Tamil Brahmi script has been arrived to the 6th century BC. Many scholars and epigraphists take this seriously, as it gives the clue that Tamili is the earliest known script in Modern India which was prevalent among the people of today’s Tamil Nadu as people’s script.

The scientific date for the Tamili script arrived through an analysis at Beta analytical
centre at Florida indicates that the script is three centuries earlier than the Asokan
Brahmi which was so far considered to be the earliest known script of India,
according to Dr. S Rajavelu, senior epigraphist and author. How does he prove it? “The
basic symbols used by common man in today’s Tamil Nadu were taken by the
northerners to suit the Prakrit language. They also created more symbols to suit the
phonetic (varga sounds) for their Prakrit around 400 BC. A standardised and
developed form of this script has been introduced by the Asoka Maurya around the
300 BC in today’s northern part of India,” says Rajavelu, in his new paper titled
“Literacy of ancient Tamils.”


To prove his point, Rajavelu highlighted Edward Thomas, an eminent scholar, who
declared that the Brahmi script was the invention of  Tamil-Proto people who were the
original inhabitants of the whole of India and subsequently adopted by the Aryans in
the later stage. He was followed by another eminent epigraphist T N Subrahmanyan
who strongly put forth the theory that the Tamili script was invented by the Tamil
people for their Tamil language which was later borrowed by north Indians for their
language, Prakrit.

Rajavelu even questioned veteran epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan who had
advocated that the script was derived from Mauryan Brahmi of 2nd century BC which
was brought to Tamil Nadu by the Jain monks from north India. He traced the
migration of the Jains from Shravanabelagola in Karnataka.

“This traditional story of Bhadrabahu and Chandragupta Maurya’s migration to
Shravanabelagola appeared in the late inscriptions and in Kannada literature of the
late period,” said Rajavelu. “No single inscription of Brahmi characters of precommon
era was found in this hilly village. The earliest inscription in Shravanabelagola belongs to the late 6th century AD. It clearly indicates that Mahadevan`s theory on the origin of Brahmi in to Tamil country through the Jain monks of Shravanabelagola is a farfetched one without any contemporary
evidences,” he said.


Epigraphists of north India could so far point out only six inscriptions belonged to the
pre- Asokan period. They were written on stones, copper plate and on the coins.

“Asoka himself in his edicts proclaimed that the people of north India did not have
the knowledge of writing for which he appointed officers Dharma Mahamathras and
Dharmayuktas to read out the inscribed stones and explain the message to the
people,” said Rajavelu.


Another important point is that at the initial stage of the inscription, the vowel
consonants and basic consonants do not have any differences either using conjuncts
or Pulli (dot) marks as we have seen the formation of conjuncts in the Asokan
Brahmi, he said. “This demarcation is clearly shown in the Asokan Brahmi by using
conjuncts. Either they were written jointly from top to bottom or side by side. One
can see the usage of this conjuncts in all Indian scripts except in Tamil language till

Rajavelu said the radiocarbon date, palaeographical and orthographical features of
Tamīḻi clearly suggests that the script was in vogue amidst the people of today’s Tamil
Nadu around 7th-6th centuries BC. How did the script originate?


“It originated from the graffiti marks which were abundantly found engraved on the
potteries of Tamil Nadu. The script was learnt by the merchants of Sri Lanka and
north India from the Tamils who visited frequently to the commercial centers like
Kodumanal , Alagankulam, Arikemedu and Kaveripumpattinam and they introduced
the soft and aspirate sounds (varga system) and some special letters to suit their
languages Prakrit and Sri Lanka Prakrit,” he said.

The script attracted the Buddhist monks and they modified and fulfilled its final shape
in the monasteries, particularly in Bhattiprolu monastery of Andhra and through them it went to north India.

“Finally, this was widely used by the Asoka on his edicts. The natural caverns with
stone beds in various shapes and sizes yielded Tamili inscriptions which were
scooped by the native people i.e., the Tamils for their departed souls as memorial
beds. These places were later occupied by the Jains around 3rd century AD and
they modified these places for their stay and sculpted Jain Tirthankaras around 5-6th
centuries AD with the Vaṭṭeḻuttu inscriptions for the religious purpose,” he said.


References & Picture Courtesy:

Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology , T.O.I, B_VELANKANNI RAJ @ TH, (Cover Image : RAJIV KUMAR PHOTOGRAPHY)

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