Vedic Roots of Early Tamil Culture


Oct 16, 2013 — CANADA (SUN) — A three-part study of Vedic and Puranic influence on Tamil culture, by Michael Danino.

In recent years attempts have been made to cast a new look at ancient India. For too long the picture has been distorted by myopic colonial readings of India's prehistory and early history, and more recently by ill-suited Marxist models. One such distortion was the Aryan invasion theory, now definitively on its way out, although its watered-down avatars are still struggling to survive. It will no doubt take some more time-and much more effort on the archaeological front-for a new perspective of the earliest civilization in the North of the subcontinent to take firm shape, but a beginning has been made.

We have a peculiar situation too as regards Southern India, and particularly Tamil Nadu. Take any classic account of Indian history and you will see how little space the South gets in comparison with the North. While rightly complaining that "Hitherto most historians of ancient India have written as if the south did not exist,"[ 1]Vincent Smith in his Oxford History of India hardly devotes a few pages to civilization in the South, that too with the usual stereotypes to which I will return shortly. R. C. Majumdar's Advanced History of India,[2] or A. L. Basham's The Wonder That Was India[3] are hardly better in that respect. The first serious History of South India,[4] that of K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, appeared only in 1947. Even recent surveys of Indian archaeology generally give the South a rather cursory treatment.

The Context

It is a fact that archaeology in the South has so far unearthed little that can compare to findings in the North in terms of ancientness, massiveness or sophistication : the emergence of urban civilization in Tamil Nadu is now fixed at the second or third century BC, about two and a half millennia after the appearance of Indus cities. Moreover, we do not have any fully or largely excavated city or even medium-sized town : Madurai, the ancient capital of the Pandya kingdom, has hardly been explored at all ; Uraiyur, that of the early Cholas, saw a dozen trenches ;[5] Kanchipuram, the Pallavas' capital, had seventeen, and Karur, that of the Cheras, hardly more ; Kaveripattinam,[6] part of the famous ancient city of Puhar (the first setting of the Shilappadikaram epic), saw more widespread excavations, yet limited with regard to the potential the site offers. The same may be said of Arikamedu (just south of Pondicherry), despite excavations by Jouveau-Dubreuil, Wheeler, and several other teams right up to the 1990s.[7]

All in all, the archaeological record scarcely measures up to what emerges from the Indo-Gangetic plains-which is one reason why awareness of these excavations has hardly reached the general public, even in Tamil Nadu ; it has heard more about the still superficial exploration of submerged Poompuhar than about the painstaking work done in recent decades at dozens of sites. (See a map of Tamil Nadu's important archaeological sites below.)

But there is a second reason for this poor awareness : scholars and politicians drawing inspiration from the Dravidian movement launched by E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker ("Periyar") have very rigid ideas about the ancient history of Tamil Nadu. First, despite all evidence to the contrary, they still insist on the Aryan invasion theory in its most violent version, turning most North Indians and upper-caste Indians into descendants of the invading Aryans who overran the indigenous Dravidians, and Sanskrit into a deadly rival of Tamil. Consequently, they assert that Tamil is more ancient than Sanskrit, and civilization in the South older than in the North. Thus recently, Tamil Nadu's Education minister decried in the State Assembly those who go "to the extent of saying that Dravidian civilization is part of Hinduism" and declared, "The Dravidian civilization is older than the Aryan."[8] It is not uncommon to hear even good Tamil scholars utter such claims.

Now, it so happens that archaeological findings in Tamil Nadu, though scanty, are nevertheless decisive. Indeed, we now have a broad convergence between literary, epigraphic and archaeological evidence.[9] Thus names of cities, kings and chieftains mentioned in Sangam literature have often been confirmed by inscriptions and coins dating back to the second and third centuries BC. Kautilya speaks in his Arthashastra (c. fourth century BC) of the "easily travelled southern land route," with diamonds, precious stones and pearls from the Pandya country ;[10] two Ashokan rock edicts (II and XIII[11]) respectfully refer to Chola, Pandya and Chera kingdoms as "neighbours," therefore placing them firmly in the third century BC ; we also have Kharavela's cave inscription near Bhubaneswar in which the Kalinga king (c. 150 BC) boasts of having broken up a "confederacy of the Dravida countries which had lasted for 113 years."[12] From all these, it appears that the earliest Tamil kingdoms must have been established around the fourth century BC ; again, archaeological findings date urban developments a century or two later, but this small gap will likely be filled by more extensive excavations. But there's the rub : beyond the fourth century BC and back to 700 or 1000 BC, all we find is a megalithic period, and going still further back, a neolithic period starting from about the third millennium BC. While those two prehistoric periods are as important as they are enigmatic, they show little sign of a complex culture,[*] and no clear connection with the dawn of urban civilization in the South.

Therefore the good minister's assertion as to the greater ancientness of the "Dravidian civilization" finds no support on the ground. In order to test his second assertion that that civilization is outside Hinduism, or the common claim that so-called "Dravidian culture" is wholly separate from so-called "Aryan" culture, let us take an unbiased look at the cultural backdrop of early Tamil society and try to make out some of its mainstays. That is what I propose to do briefly, using not only literary evidence, but first, material evidence from archaeological and numismatic sources as regards the dawn of the Sangam age. I may add that I have left out the Buddhist and Jain elements, already sufficiently well known, to concentrate on the Vedic and Puranic ones, which are usually underemphasized. Also, I will not deal here with the origin of South Indian people and languages, or with the nature of the process often called "Aryanization of the South" (I prefer the word "Indianization," used in this context by an archaeologist[13]). Those complex questions have been debated for decades, and will only reach firm conclusions, I believe, with ampler archaeological evidence.


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