Vedic Roots of Early Tamil Culture, Part 2


Map of some settlements of archaeological importance in Tamil Nadu

Oct 17, 2013 — CANADA (SUN) — A three-part study of Vedic and Puranic influence on Tamil culture, by Michael Danino.

Vedic & Puranic Culture-Material Evidence

Culturally, the megalithic people of the South shared many beliefs and practices with megalithic builders elsewhere in the subcontinent and beyond. Yet certain practices and artifacts were at least compatible with the Vedic world and may well have prepared for a ready acceptance of Vedic concepts-a natural assimilative process still observable in what has been called the "Hinduization" of tribals. Thus several cists surrounded by stone-circles have four vertical slabs arranged in the shape of a swastika.[14]

The famous 3.5 metre-high figure of Mottur (in North Arcot district), carved out of a granite slab, is "perhaps the first anthropomorphic representation of a god in stone in Tamil Nadu."[15] Some megalithic burials have yielded iron or bronze objects such as mother goddess, horned masks, the trishul etc. As the archaeologist I. K. Sarma observes, such objects are intimately connected with the worship of brahmanical Gods of the historical period, such as Siva, Kartikeya and later Amba. The diadems of Adichanallur burials are like the mouth-pieces used by the devotees of Murugan.[ 16]

The archaeologist K. V. Raman also notes :

Some form of worship was prevalent in the Megalithic period ... as suggested by the discovery of a small copper image of a Goddess in the urn-burials of Adichchanallur. More recently, in Megalithic burials the headstone, shaped like the seated Mother, has been located at two places in Tamil Nadu.[17]

Megalithic culture attached great importance to the cult of the dead and ancestors, which parallels that in Vedic culture. It is also likely that certain gods later absorbed into the Hindu pantheon, such as Aiyanar (or Sastha), Murugan (the later Kartik), Korravai (Durga), Naga deities, etc., were originally tribal gods of that period. Though probably of later date, certain megalithic sites in the Nilgiris were actually dolmen shrines, some of them holding Ganesh-like images, others lingams.[ 18] Megalithic practices evocative of later Hinduism are thus summarized by the British archaeologists Bridget and Raymond Allchin :

The orientation of port-holes and entrances on the cist graves is frequently towards the south. ... This demands comparison with later Indian tradition where south is the quarter of Yama. Among the grave goods, iron is almost universal, and the occasional iron spears and tridents (trisulas) suggest an association with the god Siva. The discovery in one grave of a trident with a wrought-iron buffalo fixed to the shaft is likewise suggestive, for the buffalo is also associated with Yama, and the buffalo demon was slain by the goddess Durga, consort of Siva, with a trident. ... The picture which we obtain from this evidence, slight as it is, is suggestive of some form of worship of Siva.[ 19]

About the third century BC, cities and towns appear owing to yet little understood factors ; exchanges with the Mauryan and Roman empires seem to have played an important catalytic role, as also the advent of iron. From the very beginning, Buddhist, Jain and Hindu[*] streaks are all clear.

Among the earliest evidences, a stratigraphic dig by I. K. Sarma within the garbagriha of the Parasuramesvara temple at Gudimallam,[*] brought to light the foundation of a remarkable Shivalingam of the Mauryan period (possibly third century BC) : it was fixed within two circular pithas at the centre of a square vastu-mandala. "The deity on the frontal face of the tall linga reveals himself as a proto-puranic Agni-Rudra"[20] standing on a kneeling devayana. If this early date, which Sarma established on stratigraphic grounds and from pottery sherds, is correct, this fearsome image could well be the earliest such representation in the South.

Then we find "terracotta figures like Mother Goddess, Naga-linga etc., from Tirukkampuliyur ; a seated Ganesa from Alagarai ; Vriskshadevata and Mother Goddess from Kaveripakkam and Kanchipuram, in almost certainly a pre-Pallava sequence."[21] Cult of a Mother goddess is also noticed in the early levels at Uraiyur,[22] and at Kaveripattinam, Kanchipuram and Arikamedu.[ 23] Excavations at Kaveripattinam have brought to light many Buddhist artefacts, but also, though of later date, a few figurines of Yakshas, of Garuda and Ganesh.[24] Evidence of the Yaksha cult also comes from pottery inscriptions at Arikamedu.[25]

The same site also yielded one square copper coin of the early Cholas, depicting on the obverse an elephant, a ritual umbrella, the Srivatsa symbol, and the front portion of a horse.[ 26] This is in fact an important theme which recurs on many coins of the Sangam age[27] recovered mostly from river beds near Karur, Madurai etc. Besides the Srivatsa (also found among artefacts at Kanchipuram[28]), many coins depict a swastika, a trishul, a conch, a shadarachakra, a damaru, a crescent moon, and a sun with four, eight or twelve rays. Quite a few coins clearly show a yagnakunda. That is mostly the case with the Pandyas' coins, some of which also portray a yubastambha to which a horse is tied as part of the ashvamedha sacrifice. As the numismatist R. Krishnamurthy puts it, "The importance of Pandya coins of Vedic sacrifice series lies in the fact that these coins corroborate what we know from Sangam literature about the performance of Vedic sacrifices by a Pandya king of this age."[29]

Finally, it is remarkable how a single coin often depicts symbols normally associated with Lord Vishnu (the conch, the srivatsa, the chakra) together with symbols normally associated with Lord Shiva (the trishul, the crescent moon, the damaru).[30] Clearly, the two "sects"-a very clumsy word-got along well enough. Interestingly, other symbols depicted on these coins, such as the three- or six-arched hill, the tree-in-railing, and the ritual stand in front of a horse, are frequently found in Mauryan iconography.[31]

All in all, the material evidence, though still meagre, makes it clear that Hindu concepts and cults were already integrated in the society of the early historic period of Tamil Nadu side by side with Buddhist and Jain elements. More excavations, for which there is great scope, are certain to confirm this, especially if they concentrate on ancient places of worship, as at Gudimallam. Let us now see the picture we get from Sangam literature.

Vedic & Puranic Culture-Literary Evidence

It is unfortunate that the most ancient Sangam compositions are probably lost for ever ; we only know of them through brief quotations in later works. An early text, the Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam, dated by most scholars to the first or second century AD,[*] is "said to have been modelled on the Sanskrit grammar of the Aindra school."[32] Its content, says N. Raghunathan, shows that "the great literature of Sanskrit and the work of its grammarians and rhetoricians were well known and provided stimulus to creative writers in Tamil.... The Tolkappiyam adopts the entire Rasa theory as worked out in the Natya Sastra of Bharata."[33] It also refers to rituals and customs coming from the "Aryans," a word which in Sangam literature simply means North Indians of Vedic culture ; for instance, the Tolkappiyam "states definitely that marriage as a sacrament attended with ritual was established in the Tamil country by the Aryas,"[ 34] and it uses the same eight forms of marriage found in the Dharmashastras. Moreover, it mentions the caste system or "fourfold jathis" in the form of "Brahmins, Kings, Vaishyas and Vellalas,"[35] and calls Vedic mantras "the exalted expression of great sages."[36]

The Tolkappiyam also formulates the captivating division of the Tamil land into five regions (tinai ), each associated with one particular aspect of love, one poetical expression, and also one deity : thus the hills (kuriñji ) with union and with Cheyon (Murugan) ; the desert (palai ) with separation and Korravai (Durga) ; the forests (mullai ) with awaiting and Mayon (Vishnu-Krishna) ; the seashore (neytal ) with wailing and Varuna ; and the cultivated lands (marutam) with quarrel and Ventan (Indra). Thus from the beginning we have a fusion of non-Vedic deities (Murugan or Korravai), Vedic gods (Indra, Varuna) and later Puranic deities such as Vishnu (Mal or Tirumal). Such a synthesis is quite typical of the Hindu temperament and cannot be the result of an overnight or superficial influence ; it is also as remote as possible from the separateness we are told is at the root of so-called "Dravidian culture."

Expectedly, this fusion grows by leaps and bounds in classical Sangam poetry whose composers were Brahmins, princes, merchants, farmers, including a number of women. The "Eight Anthologies" of poetry (or ettuttokai ) abound in references to many gods : Shiva, Uma, Murugan, Vishnu, Lakshmi (named Tiru, which corresponds to Sri) and several other Saktis.[37] The Paripadal, one of those anthologies, consists almost entirely of devotional poetry to Vishnu. One poem[38] begins with a homage to him and Lakshmi, and goes on to praise Garuda, Shiva on his "majestic bull," the four-faced Brahma, the twelve Adityas, the Ashwins, the Rudras, the Saptarishis, Indra with his "dreaded thunderbolt," the devas and asuras, etc., and makes glowing references to the Vedas and Vedic scholars.[39] So does the Purananuru,[40] another of the eight anthologies, which in addition sees Lord Shiva as the source of the four Vedas (166) and describes Lord Vishnu as "blue-hued" (174) and "Garuda-bannered" (56).[41] Similarly, a poem (360) of a third anthology, the Akananuru, declares that Shiva and Vishnu are the greatest of gods[42]

Not only deities or scriptures, landmarks sacred in the North, such as the Himalayas or Ganga, also become objects of great veneration in Tamil poetry. North Indian cities are referred to, such as Ujjain, or Mathura after which Madurai was named. Court poets proudly claim that the Chera kings conquered North Indian kingdoms and carved their emblem onto the Himalayas. They clearly saw the subcontinent as one entity ; thus the Purananuru says they ruled over "the whole land / With regions of hills, mountains, / Forests and inhabited lands / Having the Southern Kumari / And the great Northern Mount / And the Eastern and Western seas / As their borders...."[43]

The Kural (second to seventh century AD), authored by the celebrated Tiruvalluvar, is often described as an "atheistic" text, a hasty misconception. True, Valluvar's 1,330 pithy aphorisms mostly deal with ethics (aram), polity (porul) and love (inbam), following the traditional Sanskritic pattern of the four objects of human life : dharma, artha, kama, and moksha-the last implied rather than explicit. Still, the very first decade is an invocation to Bhagavan : "The ocean of births can be crossed by those who clasp God's feet, and none else"[44] (10) ; the same idea recurs later, for instance in this profound thought : "Cling to the One who clings to nothing ; and so clinging, cease to cling" (350). The Kural also refers to Indra (25), to Vishnu's avatar of Vamana (610), and to Lakshmi (e.g. 167), asserting that she will shower her grace only on those who follow the path of dharma (179, 920). There is nothing very atheistic in all this, and in reality the values of the Kural are perfectly in tune with those found in several shastras or in the Gita.[45]

Let us briefly turn to the famous Tamil epic Shilappadikaram (second to sixth century ad), which relates the beautiful and tragic story of Kannagi and Kovalan ; it opens with invocations to Chandra, Surya, and Indra, all of them Vedic Gods, and frequently praises Agni, Varuna, Shiva, Subrahmanya, Vishnu-Krishna, Uma, Kali, Yama and so forth. There are mentions of the four Vedas and of "Vedic sacrifices being faultlessly performed." "In more than one place," writes V. Ramachandra Dikshitar, the first translator of the epic into English, "there are references to Vedic Brahmans, their fire rites, and their chanting of the Vedic hymns. The Brahman received much respect from the king and was often given gifts of wealth and cattle."[46] When Kovalan and Kannagi are married, they "walk around the holy fire," a typically Vedic rite still at the centre of the Hindu wedding. Welcomed by a tribe of fierce hunters on their way to Madurai, they witness a striking apparition of Durga, who is addressed equally as Lakshmi and Sarasvati-the three Shaktis of the Hindu trinity. There are numerous references to legends from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Puranas. After worshipping at two temples, one of Vishnu and the other of Shiva, the Chera king Shenguttuvan goes to the Himalayas in search of a stone for Kannagi's idol, and bathes it in the Ganges-in fact, the waters of Ganga and those of Cauvery were said to be equally sacred. Similar examples could be given from the Manimekhalai : even though it is a predominantly Buddhist work, it also mentions many Vedic and Puranic gods, and attributes the submergence of Puhar to the neglect of a festival to Indra.

As the archaeologist and epigraphist R. Nagaswamy remarks, "The fact that the literature of the Sangam age refers more to Vedic sacrifices than to temples is a pointer to the popularity of the Vedic cults among the Sangam Tamils."[47]

I should also make a mention of the tradition that regards Agastya, the great Vedic Rishi, as the originator of the Tamil language. He is said to have written a Tamil grammar, Agattiyam, to have presided over the first two Sangams, and is even now honoured in many temples of Tamil Nadu and worshipped in many homes. One of his traditional names is "Tamil muni." The Shilappadikaram refers to him as "the great sage of the Podiyil hill," and a hill is still today named after him at the southernmost tip of the Western Ghats.

It would be tempting to continue with this enumeration, which could easily fill a whole anthology. As a matter of fact, P. S. Subrahmanya Sastri showed with a wealth of examples how "a knowledge of Sanskrit literature from the Vedic period to the Classical period is essential to understand and appreciate a large number of passages scattered among the poems of Tamil literature."[48] Others have added to the long list of such examples.[ 49] In other words, Vedic and Puranic themes are inextricably woven into Sangam literature and therefore into the most ancient culture of the Tamil land known to us.


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