A magnum opus on Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions




Early Tamil Epigraphy. From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century

A.D. by Iravatham Mahadevan; Crea-A:, Chennai (email: crea@vsnl.com),

and the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Harvard

University, Cambridge, USA, 2003; pages 719 + xxxix; Rs.1,500.




Iravatham Mahadevan copying a Brahmi inscription at Tiruvadavur.

IT is rarely that one comes across a study that marks, in the usual

manner of description, "a milestone" in the history of a discipline

like epigraphy. In the last century, the 1960s saw a new awakening in

the field of south Indian epigraphy and palaeography - owing to the

efforts of one man, Iravatham Mahadevan, an administrator-turned

scholar. He created history by reviving interest in the earliest

surviving and "enigmatic" cave inscriptions of Tamil Nadu in the

Brahmi script, which had defied all earlier attempts at successful

decipherment and reading. His first publication, Corpus of Tamil-

Brahmi Inscriptions (1966/68), triggered a series of institutional

and individual explorations. The Tamil Nadu State Department of

Archaeology, the Department of the Chief Epigraphist, Government of

India, and individual scholars vied with one another to make new

discoveries of cave and rock inscriptions in Brahmi.


More than the romance of discovery, these explorations proved to the

scholarly world how rigorous the discipline of epigraphy had become

and how important an interdisciplinary method was for such studies to

be meaningful. That epigraphy could no longer be treated as an

appendage to archaeological studies, but was a major discipline in

itself was firmly established. South India's rich epigraphic sources

form nearly 70 per cent of the total number of inscriptions in India,

and the "Tamil-Brahmi" inscriptions represent their beginnings in

Tamil Nadu in a language (Tamil) other than Prakrit.


The recently published book on Early Tamil Epigraphy (From the

earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D.), the result of more than

forty years of dedication and penance, is truly Mahadevan's magnum

opus. His earlier study of the Indus script is no less significant.

It is the most scientific and sober analysis of an undeciphered

script in a language that remains unknown. Further, the Indus script

has been the focus of an unresolved controversy, to which not only

genuine scholarly interest but also politically motivated hijacking

has contributed. However, it is Tamil-Brahmi that has been

Mahadevan's lifelong, magnificent obsession.


Coin with the Brahmi legend "Kuttuvan Kotai", a Chera king. 3rd

century A.D.


The names of two pioneers of epigraphic studies are indelibly

imprinted in our minds: James Princep (1850s), who deciphered the

Asokan and post-Asokan Brahmi used for the Prakrit language, and A.C.

Burnell (1874), who attempted the earliest work on South Indian

palaeography. The contributions of Indian epigraphists like D.C.

Sircar, H. Krishna Sastri, T. N. Subrahmanian and K.G. Krishnan have

made epigraphy the most important among the sources relevant for the

study of the pre-modern periods of Indian history. The deciphering of

the Grantha, Vatteluttu, Nagari and Tamil scripts of the south Indian

inscriptions dating from the 7th century A.D. and their evolutionary

stages, based on their resemblance to the modern forms of the

scripts, seemed relatively easier and more successful than that of

the early Brahmi inscriptions.

The early Brahmi inscriptions posed a greater challenge on account of

their archaic characters and orthographic conventions, which were

different from the original Brahmi used for Prakrit. The challenge

seemed insuperable even to the most competent among the pioneering

epigraphists. The major breakthrough in the decipherment of the cave

inscriptions of Tamil Nadu came with K.V. Subrahmanya Aiyer (1924).

He was the first to recognise that these are inscribed in Brahmi, but

with certain peculiarities and new forms of letters, due to its

adaptation for the Tamil language which has sounds (phonetic values)

not known to the Prakrit (Indo-Aryan) language and northern Brahmi

script. Yet, this lead was not seriously followed and was soon

forgotten. Even Subrahmanya Aiyer did not pursue his line of enquiry

to its logical conclusion.


Other scholars like V. Venkayya and H. Krishna Sastri were

constrained by the assumption that all Brahmi inscriptions were

invariably in Prakrit or Pali, as Brahmi was used predominantly for

Prakrit in all other regions of India from the Mauryan (Asokan)

period. Their readings failed to convey any meaning. By reviving

Subrahmanya Aiyer's early decipherment and reading and at the same

time more systematically studying these inscriptions in all their

aspects, including palaeography, orthography and grammar, and seeking

corroboration from the early Sangam classics and the Tolkappiyam, the

basic work on Tamil grammar, Mahadevan has virtually re-deciphered

these inscriptions and shown them to be inscribed in Tamil. Hence the

name "Tamil-Brahmi," one variety of the Brahmi script.



Square seal (silver) from Karur, with symbols like the Srivatsa and

legend "Kuravan". Ist century B.C.


The Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions are mostly short, donative

inscriptions. They are found in inaccessible rock-caverns with stone

beds for ascetics, mainly of the Jaina faith and occasionally

Buddhist. The inscriptions number 89 in all, so far discovered and

read, apart from the 21 Early Vatteluttu inscriptions studied by

Mahadevan in order to show the transformation of the Tamil-Brahmi

into the Vatteluttu and also the inscriptional usage of Prakrit and

Sanskrit words and the emergence of the Tamil script. The

distribution of these inscriptions reveals a clear pattern: they

occur on trade routes connecting the west (Kerala) coast with the

east (Tamil) coast and the upper parts of south India with Tamil

Nadu. The distribution also coincides with the distribution of coin

finds (indigenous punch-marked and dynastic and foreign, that is,

Roman) and pottery with Brahmi inscriptions in urban/craft centres,

while potsherds with inscriptions occur even in rural areas.


Mahadevan persuasively relates the significance of this pattern (Maps

I, I-A and II) with the intensive trade activities of the period (the

2nd century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D.). He points out, for the

first time, that the relatively large number of potsherds with Brahmi

inscriptions even in rural areas, signet rings, seals and other

objects inscribed with Brahmi characters, indicate a transition from

orality to literacy in this part of the country, where Tamil was both

the spoken and "official" language. Prakrit was never given the

hegemonic status that it had attained in all other parts of India,

where Prakrit/Pali was the language of the elite and administration.


This certainly is a significant finding as the Tamil literary works

(the Sangam classics) represent the earliest and only large corpus

known in a Dravidian language, a language that was spoken in the

Tamil region, which then included the territory that is now Kerala.

What is of even greater importance is the fact that the Brahmi script

was brought to the Tamil region by the Jainas and Buddhists in the

post-Asokan period. It may be added that the Jainas and Buddhists

also fostered the Tamil language and authored some of the most

remarkable literary works, above all the two epics - Silappatikaram

and Manimekalai. Even Tolkappiyam and many of the 18 didactic works,

including the Tirukkural, are often assigned to Jaina authorship.

Early Tamil Epigraphy, which is organised in three parts and thematic

sections (chapters) with charts and tables, inter-linked by cross

references, is highly readable, delightfully so, because it addresses

the lay and specialist reader with equal ease. For it takes up

serious issues such as palaeography (the evolution of script),

orthography (the system of spelling), grammar and linguistic analysis

of the inscriptions (in Part Two) with the competence of a specialist

in each field, without deviating from the simplicity of expression

that only a master of the subject can adopt.


In Part One, the author takes us on a fascinating journey through the

hazardous fieldwork of pioneers, the copying, deciphering and reading

of inscriptions. The inscriptions are found in inaccessible hills

(rocky outcrops) and out-of-the-way sites, to which the author made

two major field trips, equally difficult, but immensely interesting

and rewarding. Every inscription was rechecked, re-deciphered and

read both with the help of estampages supplied by the Government

Departments of Epigraphy and fresh copying and fresh photographs,

following a new method of tracing each letter on the rough and often

undressed rock surface. In the process of making his fieldwork

productive, Mahadevan collected around it a number of younger and

enthusiastic epigraphists, who are now actively engaged in pursuing

research in this field. The author generously acknowledges their

contribution in his book.


Parts Two and Three, the key sections of the book, make this work

unique - for the following reasons.


First, Early Tamil Epigraphy is the most comprehensive source for the

study of the Tamil-Brahmi and Early Vatteluttu inscriptions,

including inscriptions on pottery, seals, rings and other objects.


Second, the occurrence of the largest number of inscriptions on

pottery in the Tamil region not only in well-known urban sites but

also in rural areas indicates that Tamil society was in the process

of transition from orality to literacy.


Third, this is the first work to take up the study of the orthography in addition to the

palaeography of the inscriptions. This has made it possible to

recognise that these inscriptions are inscribed in the Tamil language

(Old Tamil). These are the earliest known lithic records in

Dravidian, as rare lexical items and grammatical morphemes not found

even in the earliest layer of Old Tamil occur in these records. On

the other hand, no Brahmi inscriptions in Telugu or Kannada have been

found so far, since Prakrit is the language of the early "Southern-

Brahmi" inscriptions in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.


Fourth, present day Kerala with its Tamil-Brahmi and Early Vatteluttu

records was part of a larger Dravidian-speaking south in the early

historical period. It became a separate region and culture zone from

the early medieval period (A.D. 600-1300). This fact is corroborated

by the Sangam classics as well as by later Malayalam literature and

inscriptions. Fifth, the Tamil language with its alphabet of 26 main

letters attained fixity by the 6th century A.D. and resisted any new

characters for the non-Tamil words introduced into the language. The

origin of the Vatteluttu (cursive script of the 5th-6th centuries

A.D.) can now be traced to the Tamil-Brahmi. Sixth, although the

Southern-Brahmi and the Tamil-Brahmi are derived from the Asokan

Brahmi, they evolved independently of each other, despite the close

cultural and commercial contacts between upper and lower south India

in the early period. There is a significant influence of Jain

Ardhamagadhi - and not of Asokan Prakrit - in the language of Tamil-

Brahmi inscriptions. Seventh, there is clear evidence of mutual

influence between the Tamil-Brahmi and the Simhala-Brahmi, although

the latter is used for Simhala-Prakrit, a Middle-Indo-Aryan language,

and the former for Tamil, a Dravidian language. Simhala-Brahmi and

Tamil-Brahmi show certain orthographic similarities and

peculiarities. It is interesting that recent Sri Lankan

archaeological and epigraphical studies have also recognised this

interaction and influence. Simhala-Brahmi, we are told, is "unique

among the Prakrit based variants of Brahmi, for a substratum of Tamil

influence seems to have been present and due to the processes of

assimilation and epenthesis, which were more thorough going in this

language than in Indian Prakrits, the two scripts, one for a Middle-

Indo-Aryan (Simhala-Brahmi) and the other for a Dravidian language

(Tamil-Brahmi), were able to avoid ligatures, a prominent feature in

all other regional scripts."


Ring (silver) from Karur with legend "Velli Campan".

Eighth, Brahmi cannot be derived from the graffiti (symbols), as the

latter occurs in the inscriptions side by side with the Brahmi

characters in rock inscriptions and pottery (from Kodumanal). Also

important is Mahadevan's observation that the resemblance of the cave

symbols with the Indus script may show that they are likely to share

similar significance, but not necessarily the same phonetic value.

Ninth, of great importance is the recognition that the Tolkappiyam,

admittedly the earliest work on Tamil grammar, cannot be dated

earlier than the 2nd century A.D., as its rules regarding the

phonetic needs of Tamil and the signs (medial vowel notations etc.)

used for specific sounds not known to the Indo-Aryan appear in the

later stages that is, in Late-Tamil-Brahmi. Tenth, the revised

chronology presented by the author provides a century-wise dating of

the inscriptions and broadly classifies them into two: Early-Brahmi -

2nd century B.C. to 1st century A.D., and Late-`Brahmi - 2nd century

A.D. to 4th century A.D., followed by the Early Vatteluttu - 5th to

6th centuries A.D. Eleventh and most important, Early Tamil Epigraphy

disproves the claim by Tamil enthusiasts that there existed an

earlier independent script for Tamil, which was forgotten, and that

Brahmi came into use later.


To show how the author has arrived at these conclusions, one has

necessarily to dwell upon the technical aspects of the study in some

detail. The Brahmi script was adapted and modified to suit the Tamil

phonetic system. Palaeographic changes were made to suit the Tamil

language, with the omission of letters for sounds not present in the

Tamil language and by additions to represent sounds in Tamil that are

not available in Brahmi. All but four of the 26 letters are derived

from Brahmi and have the same phonemic values. Even these four -

i.e., l,l, r, n - are adapted from the letters with the nearest

phonetic values in (Asokan-) Brahmi, i.e., d, l, r, n. Letters were

also modified with a special diacritic mark, viz., the pulli (dot).

These are reflected in the development of the Tamil-Brahmi in three

stages (TB I, II and III): Stage I when the inherent a (short-medial

vowel) was absent in the consonants and the strokes (vowel notations)

were used for both the short and long medial a, and hence the need

for the reading of consonants with reference to context and position;

Stage II when the stroke for medial a marked only the long a; and

Stage III when the use of diacritics like the pulli was introduced

for basic consonants and for avoiding ligatures for consonant

clusters (as in Simhala-Brahmi). The pulli was used also for

distinguishing the short e and o from the long vowels, for the

shortened - i and -u (kurriyalikaram and kurriyalukaram) and for the

unique sound in Tamil called aytam, all of which are unknown to the

Indo-Aryan ( Prakrit and Sanskrit).


It is the recognition of the absence of the inherent vowel a (short)

in the early phases, e.g. ma, ka, na with strokes or medial vowel

notations, which are actually to be read as ma, ka, n (the inverted J

symbol for the nominal suffix `an' characteristic of Tamil), and the

addition of the pulli as a diacritic, that provided the key to the

whole re-decipherment. Herein lies the basic contribution of

Mahadevan to the study of the script and alphabet. That these

findings are corroborated by the phonetic rules of the Tolkappiyam is



Carefully drawn up charts and a graphemic inventory of the Tamil-

Brahmi script illustrate these palaeographic and orthographic changes

from the Early Tamil-Brahmi to the Late Tamil-Brahmi and the

evolution of the script and its transformation into the cursive

Vatteluttu. The Tamil script is basically syllabic and examples of

this are provided from Tamil-Brahmi such as segmentation in consonant

followed by vowel, vowel followed by vowel, and so on. Complex issues

such as the linguistic, grammatic and phonetic differences and the

way they were resolved in early Tamil epigraphy are handled with

expertise acquired in various disciplines such as linguistics,

grammar and lexicography of both Indo-Aryan and Dravidian families of



Potsherd with Brahmi letters from Quseir al-Qadim on the Red Sea

coast. Reads "Catan".


WHILE Mahadevan's major finding is that the language of the

inscriptions is Old Tamil, his analysis brings out other significant

features such as the nature and number of Indo-Aryan loan words -

mainly Prakrit loan words - derived from standard epigraphic Prakrit.

They are all nouns - names, religious and cultural terms. Some are

derived from Jain Ardhamagadhi and interestingly also from Simhala-

Prakrit. Sanskrit loan words appear only in the Vatteluttu

inscriptions, and increase in the early medieval inscriptions, that

is, from the 7th century A.D. Hence the absence of voicing of

consonants in Tamil acquires a special significance in the light of

the author's discussion of the way in which Prakrit loan words were

written with voiceless consonants in Tamil-Brahmi, and later the

method by which the problem of the voicing of consonants was solved

when the Grantha script was evolved and adopted for the voicing of

consonants, aspirates, sibilants and other phonetic needs of Sanskrit

in the increasing Sanskrit loan words in the early medieval (A.D. 600-

1300) inscriptions of the Pallava, Pandya and Chola periods.

Hence the conclusion that the Tamil alphabet and script attained

fixity by the 6th century A.D., resisting the introduction of new

letters for non-Tamil sounds, and that the classical age of Tamil

began under the Cholas. The graphic presentation with charts and

tables on the script and language, their evolution and relative

position, influence and interaction among the varieties of Brahmi,

such as the Northern-Brahmi, Southern-Brahmi, the Bhattiprolu script,

Simhala-Brahmi and Tamil-Brahmi, as also the later Vatteluttu and

Grantha, make these sections easy to follow and interesting even to

the lay reader. The relative position of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and

Malayalam is also graphically presented in Table 5.5. The Bhattiprolu

script, "an isolated epigraphic curio," is legitimately characterised

as the Rosetta Stone in the decipherment of Tamil-Brahmi.

All this is of considerable value for the historian. The author

consciously draws from and follows closely the historical contexts as

well as continuity and change in the subcontinent and Sri Lanka from

the Mauryan period to early medieval times, the 6th century A.D.

marking the point at which the Tamil letters attained fixity.


The grammar of the inscriptions forms an important section covering

all aspects such as the phonemic inventory, dependent sounds

(Carpeluttu), vowels, consonants and their distribution, consonant

vowels (Uyirmei eluttu) and so on. Sections on morphophonemics,

morphology and syntax deal respectively (a) with the process of

joining morphemes in a word or words in a sentence, (b) with the

forms of words, the syllabic structure of stems, parts of speech, and

so on, and (c) the various ways in which the inscriptions make up the

sentences with or without verbs as found in the inscriptions.

Mahadevan offers a complete reading and interpretation of all the

known inscriptions in Early and Late-Tamil-Brahmi and Early

Vatteluttu with illustrations in the form of tracings, estampages and

some computer-enhanced prints of direct photographs, carefully listed

with fine reproductions, thus preserving these early inscriptions for

posterity. There is an exhaustive commentary on the inscriptions,

with citations from early Tamil literature and lexicographic works

(Nighantus), which aims at situating the Early Tamil inscriptions in

the mainstream of Indian epigraphy and which will undoubtedly be a

major guide to the study of the Tamil-Brahmi and Vatteluttu. An

inscriptional glossary, index to names of places and persons,

etymology, grammatical morphemes and so on, together with a useful

bibliography make the book a tour de force in scholarship.

By way of historical background to his study, Mahadevan provides a

survey of the polity, society and religion in Part One. It may be

conceded that since Early Tamil Epigraphy is a work on epigraphy,

processes of social, economic, political and religious changes are

not major concerns for the author. Yet his overview is too cursory

and somewhat inadequate, as it is based mainly on the Tamil-Brahmi

and Vatteluttu inscriptions. There is little doubt that the Sangam

Chera-Pandya rulers appear for the first time in Tamil-Brahmi

inscriptions and that the identity of the Satiyaputas of the Asokan

edicts is now established beyond doubt as the Atiyamans of Tagadur

(Jambai inscription). Nonetheless, the author's understanding of the

nature of the major Tamil polities (Chera-Chola-Pandya) as well-

organised kingdoms with a centralised administration, government

functionaries like the atikan (adhikari - official) and kanaka

(accountant) and territorial units like the natu and ur points to his

conventional approach.


Rock-cavern inscription in Jambai. Mentions "Satiyaputo Atiyaman", a

Sangam chief, who got this "palli" (cave monastery) made.

There is no attempt to look at the new perspective on early societies

that suggests that state institutions were less evolved and

administration hardly centralised. The natu was a generic term for

any settled region, for example, Chola-natu or Pandya - natu, and a

peasant micro-region. It became a revenue unit only later, during the

period of the Pallavas and Cholas. Similarly a certain all-pervasive

political control is implied in the references to the Kalabhras as

the invading and subversive force in Tamil society after the 3rd

century A.D., for which it is hard to find epigraphic and

archaeological evidence. The so-called Kalabhra interregnum (a dark

period in conventional history) in fact marked a period of great flux

with no clear political configurations. The derivation of the term

Kaviti from the Prakrit Gahapati and its interpretation as a title

conferred on merchants and officials, as also the interpretation of

Kon as a title conferred on Kaviti, need closer scrutiny. Despite the

fact that the author has carefully refrained from any discussion on

social structure and relations, the inference that the suffix Ilanko

refers to a Vaisya is strange and needs to be substantiated, for even

in the inscriptions the term Ilanko refers to a prince.


The predominant references to Jaina ascetics in these inscriptions

and the close interactions between Karnataka and Tamil Jainas are

duly emphasised. While most of these caverns with stone beds in the

interior sites were executed for the Jainas by rulers, merchants and

craftsmen, the significant presence of Buddhism in the coastal sites

cannot be ignored. The Andhra and Tamil coasts were linked through

trade and traders of the Buddhist persuasion and also with Sri Lanka,

which had close contact with Amaravati and its art traditions.

The decline of the Jainas (and Buddhists) is rightly attributed to a

religious conflict and to the revival of the Brahmanical religions,

Saivism and Vaisnavism, revitalised by the Bhakti movement. The

theory of "revivalism" however, poses serious problems in the

understanding of the religious changes, especially the emergence of

organised and institutionalised forces in Brahmanical/Puranic

religion and the decline of the "heterodox" Sramanic faiths of

Buddhism and Jainism. In the course of the conflict, the Jainas were

persecuted, which Mahadevan believes was "uncharacteristic of [the]

Indian polity."


Yet there is impressive evidence of patronage, persecution and

marginalisation occurring in periods of major socio-religious and

economic change. These processes have to be situated in the larger

context of the decline of trade and the beginnings of a land-grant

system in early medieval India, with predominant agrarian

institutions like the Brahmadeya and the temple emerging and Puranic

religion providing the major world-view and ideology of the ruling

families. Thus the temple appears as an institution in its incipient

form even in the Pulankuricci Vatteluttu inscription (circa A.D.

500), although it assumes a multi-faceted institutional role only in

the early medieval period, that is, the 7th to the 13th centuries



Approaches to history may differ. Interpretation and analysis of

historical processes may vary and justifiably so. However, the

discipline of history will greatly be in debt to Mahadevan for his

first authentic study of Tamil-Brahmi. Early Tamil Epigraphy will

prove to be a major source of enduring value not only for Tamil-

Brahmi and Early Vatteluttu inscriptions, but also for Indian

epigraphy as a whole.


Dr R. Champakalakshmi is former Professor of History, Jawaharlal

Nehru University, New Delhi; she has specialised in socio-economic

history and religion and society in South India.


Orality to literacy: Transition in Early Tamil Society



From the forthcoming publication: Early Tamil Epigraphy : From the

Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. by Iravatham Mahadevan

(Harvard Oriental Series 62), simultaneously published in India by

Cre-A:, Chennai, and in U.S.A. by Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.


THE Brahmi script reached Upper South India (Andhra-Karnataka

regions) and the Tamil country at about the same time during the 3rd

century B.C. in the wake of the southern spread of Jainism and

Buddhism. However, the results of introduction of writing in these

two regions were markedly different. The most interesting aspects of

Tamil literacy, when compared with the situation in contemporary

Upper South India, are: (i) its much earlier commencement; (ii) use

of the local language for all purposes from the beginning; and (iii)

its popular democratic character.


Tamil-Brahmi rock inscription of King Atan Cel Irumporai at Pugalur.

2nd century A.D. It records the endowment of a cave shelter at the

investiture of the King's grandson as heir-apparent.


Early literacy in Tamil society

The earliest Tamil inscriptions in the Tamil-Brahmi script may be

dated from about the end of 3rd century or early 2nd century B.C. on

palaeographic grounds and stratigraphic evidence of inscribed

pottery. The earliest inscriptions in Kannada and Telugu occur more

than half a millennium later. The earliest Kannada inscription at

Halmidi (Hassan district, Karnataka), is assigned to the middle of

the 5th century A.D. The earliest Telugu inscription of the Renati

Colas at Kalamalla in Cuddapah district of Andhra Pradesh belongs to

the end of 6th century A.D.


The earliest extant Tamil literature, the Cankam works, are dated,

even according to conservative estimates, from around the

commencement of the Christian era. The earliest extant literary works

in Kannada and Telugu were composed almost a millennium later. The

earliest known literary work in Kannada is the Kavirajamarga, written

early in the 9th century A.D. and the earliest known literary work in

Telugu is the famous Mahabharata of Nannaya, composed in the middle

of the 11th century A.D. It is also probable that Kavijanasraya, a

work in Telugu on prosody, composed by Malliya Rechana, is about a

century earlier. There were earlier literary works in Kannada and

Telugu, as known from references in earlier inscriptions and later

literature. But none of them are extant.


The earliest inscriptions in the Tamil country written in the Tamil-

Brahmi script are almost exclusively in the Tamil language. The Tamil-

Brahmi cave inscriptions are all in Tamil though with some Prakrit

loanwords. There are no Prakrit stone inscriptions in the Tamil

country. Coin-legends of the early period are also in Tamil (with the

solitary exception of a Pantiya copper coin carrying bilingual

legends both in Tamil and Prakrit).


Seal-texts are also in Tamil (with the exception of a seal impression

on clay in Prakrit found at Arikamedu and a few gold rings with

Prakrit legends from Karur). Inscribed pottery found at various

ancient Tamil sites is mostly in Tamil, with a few exceptions in

Prakrit confined to cities or ports like Kanchipuram and Arikamedu.

In contrast, during the same period, all early inscriptions from

Upper South India on stone, copper plates, coins, seals and pottery

are exclusively in Prakrit and not in Kannada or Telugu, which were

the spoken languages of this region.


Popular versus elitist literacy

Another noteworthy feature of early Tamil literacy was its popular or

democratic character, based as it was on the language of the people.

Literacy seems to have been widespread in all the regions of the

Tamil country, both in urban and rural areas, and encompassing within

its reach all strata of the Tamil society. The primary evidence for

this situation comes from inscribed pottery, relatively more numerous

in Tamil Nadu than elsewhere in the country. As mentioned earlier,

excavations or explorations of several ancient Tamil sites have

yielded hundreds of inscribed sherds, almost all in Tamil, written in

the Tamil-Brahmi script. The inscribed sherds are found not only in

urban and commercial centres like Karur, Kodumanal, Madurai and

Uraiyur and ports like Alagankulam, Arikamedu and Korkai, but also in

obscure hamlets like Alagarai and Poluvampatti, attesting to

widespread literacy. The pottery inscriptions are secular in

character and the names occurring in them indicate that common people

from all strata of Tamil society made these scratchings or

scribblings on pottery owned by them. On the other hand, inscribed

pottery excavated from Upper South Indian sites are all in Prakrit

and mostly associated with religious centres like Amaravati and



Literacy is not merely the acquisition of reading and writing skills.

To be meaningful and creative, literacy has to be based on one's

mother tongue. In this sense, the early Tamil society had achieved

true literacy with a popular base rooted in the native language. On

the other hand, Upper South India had in this period only elitist

literacy based on Prakrit and not the native languages of the region.

What are the reasons for such contrasting developments between the

two adjoining regions of South India? It cannot be that Prakrit was

the spoken language of Upper South India at any time. If proof were

needed to show that Kannada and Telugu were the spoken languages of

the region during the early period, one needs only to study the large

number of Kannada and Telugu personal names and place names in the

early Prakrit inscriptions on stone and copper in Upper South India.

The Gatha Saptasati, a Prakrit anthology composed by Hala of the

Satavahana dynasty in about the 1st century A.D., is said to contain

about 30 Telugu words. Nor can it be said that Kannada and Telugu had

not developed into separate languages during the Early Historical

Period. Dravidian linguistic studies have established that Kannada

and Telugu (belonging to different branches of Dravidian) had emerged

as distinct languages long before the period we are dealing with.

Telugu and Kannada were spoken by relatively large and well-settled

populations, living in well-organised states ruled by able dynasties

like the Satavahanas, with a high degree of civilisation as attested

by Prakrit inscriptions and literature of the period, and great

architectural monuments like those at Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda.

There is, therefore, no reason to believe that these languages had

less rich or less expressive oral traditions than Tamil had towards

the end of its pre-literate period.


Literacy and political independence

The main reason for the contrasting developments in the growth of

literacy as between the two regions appears to be the political

independence of the Tamil country and its absence in Upper South

India during the relevant period. Upper South India was incorporated

in the Nanda-Maurya domain even before the beginning of the literate

period. Asoka specifically lists Andhra among the territories

included within his domains in his thirteenth rock edict. The region

was, therefore, administered through the medium of Prakrit, which was

the language of the rulers and also became the language of the local

ruling elite, of learning and instruction, and of public discourse,

as clearly shown by the presence of Asoka's Prakrit edicts in the

region. This situation persisted even when the Mauryas were succeeded

by local rulers, the Satavahanas, and later by their successors like

the Ikshvakus, Kadambas, Salankayanas, Vishnukundins and Pallavas. It

would have been in the interest of the ruling elite to protect their

privileges by perpetuating the hegemony of Prakrit in order to

exclude the common people from sharing power. Persian in the Mughal

Empire and English in British India (and even after Independence)

offer instructive parallels to this situation.


The situation in the Tamil country during the early period was

entirely different. The Tamil country was never a part of the Nanda-

Maurya empires. The Tamil states, Cera, Cola and Pantiya, and even

their feudatories like the (Satiyaputra) Atiyamans maintained their

political independence as acknowledged by Asoka himself in his second

rock edict in which he refers to them as his `borderers'. As a direct

result of political independence, Tamil remained the language of

administration, of learning and instruction, and of public discourse

throughout the Tamil country. When writing became known to the

Tamils, the Brahmi script was adapted and modified to suit the Tamil

phonetic system. That is, while the Brahmi script was borrowed, the

Prakrit language was not allowed to be imposed along with it from

outside. When the Jaina and Buddhist monks entered the Tamil country,

they found it expedient to learn Tamil in order to carry on their

missionary activities effectively. An apt parallel is the case of the

European Christian missionaries in India during the colonial period,

who mastered the local languages to preach the gospel to the masses.

Facilitating factors for spread of literacy in early Tamil society

Apart from political independence and the use of the mother tongue,

there were also several other factors facilitating the spread of

literacy in early Tamil society. Of the factors which will be briefly

discussed here, the first three were inherent features of early Tamil

society and the next three were new elements from outside which

influenced the spread of early literacy in the Tamil country.


Pottery inscription in Tamil-Brahmi giving the name Catan. 1st

century A.D. Found at Quseir-al-Qadim on the Red Sea coast of Egypt.

(i) The presence of a strong bardic tradition: Bards were so much

respected in early Tamil society that they could move from court to

court across the political barriers even when the princes were at

war. The oral bardic tradition, which must have been rich and

expressive even in the pre-literate era, flowered into the written

poetry of the Cankam Age with the availability of writing under the

active patronage of the Tamil princes, chieftains and nobles.

(ii) The absence of a priestly hierarchy: There was no priestly

hierarchy in early Tamil society with vested interest in maintaining

the oral tradition or discouraging writing after its advent. (It was

the presence of such a priestly hierarchy in early Brahmanical

Hinduism in North India that prevented Sanskrit from being recorded

in inscriptions for about four centuries after the introduction of

the Brahmi script. Prakrit inscriptions are available from the time

of Asoka in the middle of the 3rd century B.C. The earliest Sanskrit

inscription of consequence is the rock inscription of Rudradaman

dated in the middle of the 2nd century A.D.) Learning does not seem

to have been the prerogative of any particular class like the scribes

or priests. This is clearly shown by the wide diversity in the social

status of the nearly five hundred poets of the Cankam Age, among whom

were princes, monks, merchants, bards, artisans and common people.

Quite a few of them were women. We have earlier noticed the evidence

of the inscribed sherds for widespread literacy in the rural areas

and among the common people.


(iii) A strong tradition of local autonomy: Reference to self-

governing village councils like ampalam, potiyil and manram in Cankam

literature and to merchant guilds (nigama) in the Tamil-Brahmi

records show that there was a long tradition of strong local self-

government in the Tamil society. In such an environment, literacy

would have received special impetus as it would serve to strengthen

local self-government institutions and merchant guilds.

(iv) The spread of Jainism and Buddhism: As mentioned earlier,

knowledge of writing was brought to the Tamil country, as to the rest

of South India, in the wake of the spread of Jainism and Buddhism to

these regions. As protestant movements against Vedic Brahmanical

Hinduism, these faiths kept away from Sanskrit in the initial phase

and conducted their missionary activities in North India in the local

Prakrit dialects. The monks followed the same tradition in the Tamil

country, learning the local language and, in the process, adapting

the Brahmi script to its needs. They had no vested interest in

maintaining the oral traditions nor any bias against writing down

their scriptures in the local language. As a result of this attitude,

the Jaina scholars (and to a lesser extent, the Buddhist scholars)

made rich contribution to the development of Tamil literature during

the Cankam Age and for centuries thereafter. A similar development

did not take place in Upper South India in the early period

presumably because Prakrit was already the language of administration

and public discourse in the region. The monks who were familiar with

Prakrit had perhaps no opportunity or incentive to change over to the

local languages in this region.


(v) Foreign trade: The Tamil country, with its long coastlines,

carried on extensive trade during the Cankam Age with Rome and the

Mediterranean countries in the west and with Sri Lanka and Southeast

Asian countries in the east. Trade with Rome brought in not only

wealth (as attested by numerous Roman coin-hoards in the Tamil

country) but also early contacts with other literate societies using

alphabetic scripts. Recent excavations of Roman settlements on the

Red Sea coast of Egypt have brought to light a few inscribed sherds

with Tamil names written in the Tamil-Brahmi script of about the 1st

century A.D. An ancient papyrus document written in Greek and datable

in the 2nd century A.D. in a museum at Vienna has been identified as

a contract for shipment of merchandise from Muciri to Alexandria.

While the document itself is not in Tamil, one can infer from it the

milieu of advanced literacy in Tamil society whose merchants could

enter into such trading contracts.


A democratic, quasi-alphabetic script

The Tamil-Brahmi script is a quasi-alphabetic script with just 26

characters (8 vowels and 18 consonants). The enormous importance of

such a simple, easy-to-learn script in the spread and democratisation

of literacy can hardly be overestimated. Palm leaf as a writing

surface was also a happy choice, as in the semi-arid Tamil

countryside it is abundant, perennial and virtually free. Palm leaf

and the iron stylus radically altered the ductus of the script from

the angular Brahmi to the round Vatteluttu in the course of a few



The consequences of literacy in early Tamil society

There is little doubt that literacy transformed the early Tamil

society in several ways yet to be fully evaluated. A preliminary

listing of changes can be as follows.


(i) Transformation of tribal chieftaincies into states with more

centralised administration; levy of taxes and tributes properly

accounted for; and external relations based on written communications

like treaties and trade contracts.


(ii) Urbanisation of royal capitals, port towns and commercial



(iii) Temple administration based on written records, including



(iv) Increased foreign trade as evidenced by the occurrence of Tamil

inscriptions in the Tamil-Brahmi script in Roman settlements in Egypt

to the west and Thailand to the east.


(v) Democratisation of society and strengthening of local rule, which

came about with widespread literacy based on a simple quasi-

alphabetic script and with the mother tongue as the language of

administration, learning and public discourse.


(vi) An early efflorescence of Tamil language and literature leading

to the truly great epoch of the `Cankam Age' almost a thousand years

before any other regional language in South India reached that level

of development.


The author

The author Iravatham Mahadevan (b. 1930) is a specialist in Indian

epigraphy, especially in the fields of Indus and Brahmi scripts. He

was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship in 1970 for his research

on the Indus script and the National Fellowship of the Indian Council

of Historical Research in 1992 for his work on the Tamil-Brahmi



His book, The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables (1977) is

recognised internationally as a major source book for research in the

Indus script. He has also published Corpus of the Tamil-Brahmi

Inscriptions (1966), besides numerous papers on several aspects of

the Indus and Tamil-Brahmi scripts.


He has served as the Coordinator, International Association of Tamil

Research, for 10 years (1980-90). He was elected the President of the

Annual Congress of the Epigraphical Society of India in 1998 and the

General President of the Indian History Congress for its session in

2001. He served the Indian Administrative Service and retired

voluntarily to devote himself to full-time academic pursuits. He

lives in Chennai.


The book

The book Early Tamil Epigraphy is the first definitive edition of the

earliest Tamil inscriptions in the Tamil-Brahmi and Early Vatteluttu

scripts, dating from ca. second century B.C. to sixth century A.D.

The book is based on the author's extensive fieldwork carried out in

two spells between 1962-66 and 1991-1996. The study deals

comprehensively with the epigraphy, language and contents of the

inscriptions. The texts are given in transliteration with translation

and an extensive word by word commentary. The inscriptions are

illustrated with tracings made directly from the stone, estampages

and direct photographs. Palaeography of Tamil-Brahmi and Early

Vatteluttu scripts is described in detail with the help of letter

charts. The special orthographic and grammatical features of the

earliest Tamil inscriptions are described in this work for the first

time. A glossary of inscriptional words and several classified word

lists have been added to aid further research. The introductory

chapters deal with the discovery and decipherment of the

inscriptions, relating their language and contents to early Tamil

literature and society. The recently discovered Tamil-Brahmi

inscriptions on pottery and objects like coins, seals, rings, etc.,

have also been utilised to present a more complete picture of early

Tamil epigraphy.






Paraiyars Ellaiyamman as an Iconic Symbol of Collective Resistance and Emancipatory Mythography

by Sathianathan Clarke


Sathianathan Clarke, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department

of Theology and Ethics, United Theological College, Bangalore, India.

This article originally appeared in Robinson, Gnana (ed.) Religions

of the Marginalised: Towards a Phenomenology and the Methodology of

Study (UTC: Bangalore and ISPCK: Delhi, PO Box 1585, Madarsa Road,

Kashmere Gate, Delhi-110006), 1998, pp. 35-53. This material was

prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.



To me, Dalit is not a caste. He is a man exploited by the social and

economic traditions of this country. He does not believe in God,

Rebirth, Soul, Holy books teaching separatism, Fate and Heaven

because they have made him a slave. He does believe in humanism.

Dalit is a symbol of change and revolution. (Gangadhar Pantawane,

Dalit thinker).


I do not ask for the sun and moon from your sky your farm, your land, your high

houses or your mansions. I do not ask for gods for rituals castes or

sects Or even for your mother, sister, daughters. I ask for

my rights as a man. Each breath from my lungs sets off a violent

trembling in your texts and traditions your hells and heavens fearing

pollution. Your arms leapt together to bring ruin to our dwelling

place. You'll beat me, break me, loot and burn my habitation. But my friend!

How will you tear down my words planted like a sun in the East ? My

rights : contagious caste riots festering city by city, village by

village, man by man.


For that's what my rights are-sealed off outcast, road-blocked,

exiled. I want my rights, give me my rights.


Will you deny this incendiary state of things ? I'll uproot the

scriptures like railway tracks.


Burn like a city bus your lawless laws My friend!


My rights are rising like the sun. Will you deny this sunrise?

(Sharankumar Limbale, Dalit Poet)


This paper attempts to wed together descriptive documentation and

interpretive analyses.1 It focuses upon a religious phenomenon that

is central to one community of Dalits in South India.2 Accordingly,

it seeks to probe and explicate the resistive and creative dynamic

that is operant in the religion of the Paraiyars. This two-fold

dynamic of the Paraiyars' religion is unveiled by examining a

principal Paraiyar goddess. I believe that such an investigation of

this key symbol allows us to put into discursive circulation the

collective experience and the voice of the Dalit community.

Although the Dalits are themselves said to be drawn from numerous

Jatis,3 it must be noted that in Tamilnadu they are primarily made up

of the following three : the Paraiyars constitute 59 percent, the

Pallans form about 21 percent and the Chakkilis make up approximately

16 percent.4 If we go by the updated 1991 census records of

Tamilnadu, which places the State Dalit population at 10,712,266 in a

total Tamilnadu population of 55,858,946, a conservative estimate

would put the Paraiyars population at about 6.32 million.5

Furthermore, in the district of Chingleput (the area in which this

study is located) 94 percent of the Dalits are Paraiyars. Therefore,

the community that is a focus of this inquiry is representational of

the Dalits in general, both in the state of Tamilnadu and the

district of Chingleput. K. R. Hanumanthan reiterates this when he

suggests that the Paraiyar "can be considered as the typical

representatives of the untouchables of Tamil Nadu."6

My description and interpretation of a central constituent of the

religion of the Paraiyars draws upon the following three sources. It

brings together (a) fragmented reflections from my three years of

living and working with the Paraiyar communities in about 20 colonies

around the town of Karunguzhi in Chingleput District, Tamilnadu (1985-

87); (b) systematically documented data from a six-week intensive

field trip in two of these 20 colonies, i.e., Malaipallaiyam. and

Thottanavoor (June-July 1992), and (c) ethnographies and religious

and cultural writing on Dalit communities in South India.


A Methodological Confession

Let me begin with an explicit affirmation that discloses a

fundamental methodological presupposition of this interpretation the

religion of the Paraiyars is much more than a compliant and

unreflective internalization of the beliefs and practices of caste

Hindus. There are many Indologists who interpret Dalit religion and

culture solely through the lenses of caste Hindus. The latter is

taken to be the all-pervading and all-determining social, cultural

and religious reality. Therefore, all other frameworks can only be a

reflection and product of the omnipotent nature of the Hindu

religious worldview.


In his explication of the worldview of the Dalits, Harold R. Isaac

bases his interpretation on such a misconception He says, Because

they [`the Ex-Untouchables"] accepted its beliefs and sanctions, they

submitted to this condition for more generations than can be

remembered. Millions of them still do. Only the great compelling

power of the Hindu belief system accounts for this uniquely massive

and enduring history of submission.7 Isaac goes on to make the case

that because of the religious rationalization behind this belief

system, the Dalits submitted to it with a "sense of propriety and

even . . , a certain dignity" since they consider it to be "their

inescapable fate."8 Michael Moffatt strengthens and reinforces a

similar perspective in his interpretation of religion and culture of

the Pbraiyars He claims that the cultural and religious system of the

Untouchables is "not detached or alienated from the `rationalization'

of the system. . . [Thus, it] does not distinctively question or

revalue the dominant social order."9 He proceeds to describe the

religion and society of the Paraiyars as a "replication" of the

religion and society of the caste Hindus. This notion of the inert,

non-resistive and unthinking nature of the Paraiyars is indeed a

stereotype posited by the caste communities. This is best captured in

a Tamil proverb advanced by caste people: "Though seventy years old,

a Paraiyar will only do what he is compelled."10 Another commonly

recounted Tamil proverb complements this notion that the Paraiyars

will always be unreflectively placid and uncritically

submissive : "Though the Paraiyar woman's child be put to school, it

will still say Ayya." Here the word "Ayya" can be translated to

mean "sir", which augments the sweeping belief in the inherent

submissiveness of this community.


I do not (nor can I) seek to establish the overall autonomous

character of Paraiyar religion. However, in this chapter I do venture

to lift up the creative, dynamic and active side of the Paraiyars'

religion. This will enable one to see that the Paraiyars are actors

in their own ongoing social drama rather than mere spectators. The

Paraiyars are thus self-reflecting human beings who are continually

creating their own conceptual religious world which houses their

collective existence with meaning and order.


Ellaiyamman as an Icoñic Symbol of collective Resistance

In order to shed light on the actively resistive and creative aspects

of Paraiyar religion I shall focus on their colony goddess

Ellaiyamman. Among the various classes of gods and goddesses extant

in the religion of the Paraiyars (the chosen god/goddess, the

household god/goddess, the lineage god/goddess and the colony

god/goddess), the colony deity11 is most representative of the

communal anti corporate religious life of the Paraiyars.

Specifically, Ellaiyamman is central to the religious framework of

the particular Paraiyars living in the colonies I studied in detail.

Moreover, the goddess Ellaiyamman is generally distinctive to the

Paraiyar religion; she has not been coopted by the caste Hindu

religious iconographic and mythological imagination. Pupul Jayakar

alludes to this special relationship between Ellaiyamman and the

Paraiyars. She states, "The composite female form of the half-

Brahmin, half-outcaste was named Ellama, the grama devata, the

primeval Sakti of the South. She was to be worshipped throughout the

country South of the Vindhya mountains by the pariah and



Ellaiyamman is, thus, principally a Dalit goddess. She is the hamlet

or colony goddess of Malaipallaiyam. Also, she is inextricably linked

to the other predominant Paraiyar goddess, Mariyamman. Most of the

myths concerning the origins of the Paraiyar goddesses stem from an

elemental or foundational core-myth that involve both Ellaiyamman and

Mariyamman. There is no indication that Ellaiyamman is worshipped by

caste Hindus around the villages with which I am familiar. The notion

that this goddess is the axis of the Paraiyars' religion can be

inferred from Oppert's etymological explanation: he claims that the

name Ellamma is derived from the Tamil ellaam (all or everything)

making her "Mother of All".13 In the colony of Malaipallaiyam the

predominance of Ellaiyamman is preserved by referring to her both as

the "Mother of all beings" and as the eldest sister of all the

manifestations of Sakti14 The other common interpretation for the

name Ellaiyamman stems from the Tamil word for boundary ellai, making

her the Mother/Goddess of the boundaries.15 This is the most

prevalent interpretation among the Paraiyars of Malaipallaiyam. They

pointed out to me that the positioning of the image of the deity at

the boundary of the colony suggests that the goddess presides over

the colony and safeguards its perimeters. In this case, the image of

Ellaiyamman is strategically situated on the boundary that is

regularly used as crossing from the colony into the outside world.

One cannot but notice the dialectic nature of the two motifs that can

be extrapolated from the Paraiyars' goddess Ellaiyamman;

particularity and universality; geographical locatedness and

boundlessness; fixity and fluidity; determinedness and openness;

resistance and assimilation. I want to start with focusing on the

particularity of Ellaiyamman within the overall context of the

Paraiyars. It is this particularity and distinctiveness of the colony

goddess Ellaiyamman that reveals the Paraiyars' resistance to the

expansionist and overpowering nature of caste Hindu hegemonic forces.

Ellaiyamman is an iconic representation of the resistance of

Paraiyars to the conquering tendencies of the caste Hindu world In

any reconstruction of the history of the Paraiyars we can at a

minimalistic level agree on the following Even though the Paraiyars

are an ancient and distinct people, they have had to endure a long

and systematic process of economic oppression and cultural

marginalization, primarily because their particular heritage was not

in conformity with traditions of the caste Hindu communities

The caste Hindu people and their religious and cultural worldview

continuously threatened the Paraiyars. Economically, they were forced

into living in non-productive, dry, and low-land areas. They were,

and still are, coerced to survive mostly as landless agricultural

laborers, wholly dependent on the good-will of the caste Hindu

landlords. Geographically, they were, and still are, cut-off from the

caste village community since they live outside the outskirts of the

village. Because of the location of their living space they are

constantly endangered by the forces of nature (they live in low-land

areas that are periodically threatened by flooding and dry-land areas

that are threatened by drought) and by the historically successful

attempt of the caste communities to annex their land. Culturally,

they were, and continue to be, either marginalized or coopted; thus,

they have to be vigilant in their endeavor to preserve their own

culture and religion. It is within this historical situation that one

must comprehend the characteristic of Ellaiyamman as a deity that

protects the boundaries of and for the Paraiyars. She shields and

polices the geographic, social, and cultural space of the Paraiyars

from the continued colonizing of the caste peoples.

On a concrete level, Ellaiyamman guards the boundaries of the land

that the Paraiyars possess. Her icon which is situated on the border

of the colony symbolizes this guarding power. Furthermore, during the

procession of the yearly festival she is taken to the borders in

every direction (North, South, East and West) and a sacrifice is

performed for her in order to energize her powers to guard and

protect the colony and its inhabitants at all the strategic points of

the geographic boundaries. On a conceptual level, Ellaiyamman guards

the cultural and religious particularity of the Paraiyars. In the

words of a song of praise sung by the Paraiyar Pucari Subramani, "O

Mother Goddess Ellaiyamman, grant us the service of your true

blessing, for you are the goddess who protects our religion." By

protecting the religion and culture of the Paraiyars Ellaiyamman

safeguards their identity as the indigenous ("original") people of

the land, their dignity, their women and children, and their lives.

In one of my discussions with the youth of Malaipallaiyam they

brought out the idea that the goddess is situated at the boundary of

the colony because she stands as a warning to those persons who may

cast an "evil eye" on the people (particularly, the women and the

children), land and property of the Paraiyars. In this sense

Ellaiyamman represents the divine power of the Dalits which is able

and responsible for guarding them against the destructive, possessive

and conquering gaze of the Hindu caste people.16

It is pertinent to stress that this notion of protecting boundaries

of the Paraiyars is engendered within the context of the caste

communities' conception of the seamlessness of the uur. The uur,

which is the caste Hindu's conception of the village, "is not so much

a discrete entity with fixed coordinates as a fluid sign with fluid

thresholds."17 Interestingly, thus, the uur (the geographical and

socio-cultural space of the caste community), which is distinguished

from its counterpart, the ceri or colony (the geographical and socio-

cultural space of the Paraiyars), represents the pervading frontiers

of the caste community. It is this infiltrating and usurping trend

that is challenged by the guardian of the boundaries (Ellaiyamman). A

portion of a song in praise of Ellaiyamman reveals this cry of the

Paraiyars to safeguard aspects of their local, particular, and

parochial world from the "torture of the High caste."18

You are the deity who expels our troubles; come rid us of evil.

You are present in the neem leaves used for driving out women's



You are present in the fire, the head of our religion.

You have lived with fame in our village, Malaipallaiyani.


In Padavethi a buffalo was sacrificed to You, even in Poothukaadu;

A sacrifice to inspire You, our goddess, to destroy evil.


You are the goddess who guards our boundaries:


You protect with you spear;


You will protect us from 4408 diseases;


You will protect the Harijans from the torture of the High caste.19


There is yet another aspect of the Paraiyars' godesses that further

attests to this idea that the colony deity represents their

distinctiveness and particularly in its resistance of the social,

economic, and religious nexus of the caste people, which threatens to

colonize their overall existence: the Paraiyars' goddesses remain

single, unmarried, and unobliged to the Hindu Gods. They refuse to be

coopted and domesticated by the larger symbols of power as

represented by Hindu gods. While there are myths that link Dalit

goddesses to Shiva and Vishnu, the independence of Ellaiyamman can be

construed as reflecting the underlying desire of the Paraiyars to be

distinct, different, even separate. Interestingly in the case of both

Ellaiyamman and Mariyamman, even though one component of their

constitutive nature is rooted in being the spouse of a Brahmin rishi,

once they come into being as deities they claim independence from

their past relationships. Both these goddesses cease to be obliged to

the hierarchy of Hindu gods. This buttresses the resistive dimension

of the Paraiyars dieties.20


In suggesting that the goddess Ellaiyamman symbolizes the resistive

character of the Paraiyars in a historical context of the colonizing

trend of the Caste communities, I am not subscribing to a view that

the religion of the Paraiyars has not continually been interacting

with the beliefs and practices of Hinduism. It is a fact that

Hinduism in its diverse forms and guises penetrates the various

domains of Dalit life in South India. Nonetheless, it is not as if

Paraiyar religion is a replication of the general ideological and

practical manifestations of caste Hinduism. Rather, I am suggesting

that the religion of the Paraiyars evolved a process of both

resisting and refiguring the Hinduism it was faced with so as to

serve its own ends.


Ellaiyamman as an Iconic Symbol of Emancipatory Mythography

Thus far, in this discussion of the Paraiyars' goddess Ellaiyamman I

have merely focused on one of the dimensions of the deity: iconic

resistance. However, this aspect cannot be studied apart from another

dimension that is intrinsic to the goddess Ellaiyamman: the process

of weaving emancipatory mythographies.21 This process signifies the

deliberate and artful manner by which the Paraiyars utilize their

goddess to tell their own story through the mythological framework of

the caste Hindu. By recasting the myth of the goddess to serve their

purposes the Paraiyars are reimagining their own history, identity

and corporate personality.22


In what follows I want to examine one particular locally evolved myth

to look for clues regarding the dynamics of the formulation of

religio-cultural frames of meaning among the Paraiyars. Through the

weaving of these mythographies one can find the creative and

imaginative dynamics of an attempt at historicization. One can

observe a remarkable process by which the local peoples, in this case

the Paraiyars, reimagine their own communal subjectivity as a counter-

history to the hegemonic one. These local myths are mostly oral,

multiform, open-ended, and provisional (in the sense of being

circulated only among the Paraiyars). They signify the colloquial

word. This form of oral transposition of myths is perhaps strategic:

it does not risk being codified in written text except by outsiders

(like me) who are outside the power system. Because they are not

textually inscribed they can be transformed, suppressed, and modified

to suit the situation in which they are rendered. For example, a

portion of the song to Ellaiyamman that is derogatory of the caste

Hindus may be omitted or rephrased when performed in front of an

audience that has both Dalits and caste Hindus. This fluidity is not

possible if the myths are preserved in written form.


The following mythography which encapsulates the origins of

Ellaiyamman may be a good example It is a version that was sung to me

by a Paraiyar religious functionary from Malaipallaiyam.23

There were seven girl children born in Uppai. One of these children

was abandoned and discovered by a wasbennan. [Kaufman, in The Face of

Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University

Press, 1993), p.127]. They do have their own active and creative

manner of collectively representing their historicity, which I am

arguing, is closely intertwined with their experience with what they

take to be the Divine Power, Ellaiyamman as the goddess of the

Paraiyars is a pivotal symbol of the source (and the hope of

protection) of this distinct physical and conceptual space: she

conserves their geographic space by guarding their particularity as a

community and she represents their conceptual space as self-

reflective human beings.


Since there were seven brothers who fought for this child it was

decided that the child would be given to King Varunaraja, who was

childless, in exchange for some gold. The queen Vethavalli nurtured

the child. The child was named Renuka Pararneshwari and was brought

up lovingly in the royal household. Renuka attained puberty when she

was twelve years old and a grand function was held with the three

auspicious fruits (Mango, Jackfruit and Banana).

There was a miscreant called Naratha.24 According to Brahma's curse

his head will burst if he does not continually stir up trouble.

Naratha sees the rishi Jamarthakini in solitary, deep meditation. He

decides to get Renuka married to him. He tells Jamarthakini that he

has found a wife for him who can assist him well in performing his

worship rites. Together they meet the King with this proposal and the

marriage alliance is settled.


The wedding is a grand event and the celebration lasts for five days

The whole town is decorated with flowers and fruits. The bride and

the bridegroom are decorated with flowers. And in the presence of

Ganapathy (God of all obstacles) they are married. After the wedding

the King sends his daughter to the Ashram, which is the home of the

rishi. The rishi refuses any dowry. Together Jamarthakini and Renuka

have four children: Anuvaan, Dhanwaan, Visbwathi and Parasuraman.

The family worships Shiva. Renuka assists the Rishi in his

performance of the puja by fetching water from the river Ganga. Every

morning she walks to the Ganga where a pot of water is miraculously

churned out of the river and given to her. Her mind is so pure and

chaste that the water is held within the imaginary pot till she

brings it to her husband for his worship rituals.


One day while receiving the pot of water at the river she sees the

reflection of Arjunan who flies past as Gandharvan. Renuka admires

his beauty and at that moment loses her chastity. The water recedes

from her pot and she is afraid of being cursed by her husband. She

calls for her fourth son (Parasuraman) and asks him to kill her.25

He refuses and runs back to report this to his father. The rishi is

furious and orders Parasuraman to kill his mother.


In the mean time Renuka runs for her life and seeks refuge in a hut

in a "Ceeri" (The hamlet that is separated from the main village in

which the Paraiyars live) The people of the "Ceeri" hide Renuka in a

hut along with an old Paraiyar woman who is to be of comfort to her

When Parasuraman did not find his mother at the place that he had

left her he searched all over. Eventually he traced her to the hut

and in his rage and confusion beheads and kills both the women. He

goes back and reports this to his father. To show his good pleasure

to Parasuraman his father grants him one boon. The son asks that his

mother's life be restored. The Rishi gives Parasuraman a pot of water

and some ash. He asks him to replace Renuka' s severed head to her

body, apply the ash on her forehead and bathe her with the water in

the pot. Parasuraman goes back to the hut and does as he is told.

However, in his enthusiasm to restore his mother he mistakenly puts

the head of the old Paraiyar woman on to Renuka' s body. Now Renuka

has the head of the old Paraiyar woman.


She goes home to the rishi but he is unwilling to take her back. She

is sent out into the village to live from the gifts of the people.

Here she utilizes her powers to protect all those who sustain her

with food, offerings and worship.


Because of her transformed nature the goddess is able to assume

various forms. They are imaged in the seven sisters. Of all these

forms Ellaiyamman is the most powerful. She does good and protects

the people from all evil. She has a troop of devils under her

control. She protects the colony in all four directions.


This legend about the origins of Ellaiyamman is no doubt closely

linked to the mythical origins of Mariyamman 26 Many important

themes can be extrapolated from the legend. But primarily this myth

points to the complex nature of the relationship between Paraiyar

religion and Hinduism. On the one hand, one is struck by the copious

borrowing of Hindu story lines, mythological characters, and themes.

There is a resolute effort by the Paraiyars to work within the

mythologically symbolic world of Hinduism. The setting of the myth

reflects a conventional Hindu plot: the divine power emerges through

a process of transposition of heads.27 Furthermore, the mythological

characters contained in this song present easily identifiable figures

from common Hindu stories that are fairly well-known in South India.

The names of Brahma, Naratha, Ganapathy, Shiva, Arjunan, and

Parasuraman are common to most South Indian Hindus; and they are

invoked to give the story a ring of familiarity. There are also many

themes inherent in this mythological song about Ellaiyamman that are

prominent in various Hindu legends: the symbolic alliance between the

king and the Brahmin, the efficacy of the holy water of Ganga, the

ideal ritualistic pattern of daily puja performed by the rishi, the

idea of purity and chastity being a quality of the mind for a devout

wife, the commission of matricide, arid the cutting off of the head

because of a suspicion that a wife has been unfaithful.

On the other hand, one cannot but notice the manner in which these

themes and mythological characters are utilized with a view toward

reinterpreting the collective identity of Paraiyars in an affirmative

way. This remythologizing of the origin of Ellaiyamman functions to

valorize the Paraiyars. Through an emancipatory retelling of the

story of Ellaiyamman their particular version of history is inscribed

and validated. In this myth the Paraiyars, firstly, presented as

being a helpful community; they are even willing to suffer

persecution in the service of protecting a refugee.28 Secondly, this

remythologised version of the emergence of the goddess reinforces the

notion that the Paraiyars are the recipients of undeserved violence;

they are caught within the various subtle conflicts of the caste

community and they are affected because of it spilling over onto the

Dáevas.29 What is most interesting in this regard is the association

of this victimization with symbolic figures of Women. Both Reñuka and

the old Paraiyar lady are represented as the victims who miraculously

survive the vengeful power of a male antagonist and then become the

foundation of Paraiyar divine power. Finally, this myth reinforces

the fact that formidable divine power is generated through being an

outcaste. Ellaiyamman utilizes this power to protect and guard her

subjects from all harm.


Another definitive element of the legend of Ellaiyamman must be

emphasized at this juncture: this Dalit goddess has the head of the

Paraiyar and the body of a caste Hindu woman. Commenting on this,

Elmore writes, "the Dravidian goddess, Ellamma, is sometimes

represented with the tom-off head of a Brahmin in her hand."30 While

I did not come across this icongraphical or mythological

representation, which gives Ellaiyamman control over the torn-off

head of the Brahmin woman (Renuka), I want to contend that this

further supports my contention that the goddess Ellaiyamman

exemplifies this process of emancipatory remythologization, This

particular reinscription of the story as expounded by the Paraiyars

reimagines the accepted social configurations of South Indian polity

by reversing the position of the Paraiyars and the Brahmins. The head

that symbolizes power/ knowledge of the Brahmin (erudition in the

vedas and schooling in the proper practice rituals: wisdom of

orthodoxy and orthopraxis) is replaced with the head that signifies

the power of the Paraiyars (brute mundane power in the realm of the

material! physical: tangible power to protect and to punish). This is

in many senses a symbolic act of subversion: an inversion of the

status quo as propagated by Hindu myth and practice.

It is clear from the above discussion that religious

remythologization is a domain of specific meaning-making for the

Paraiyars. It is the arena of tactful contestation in which the

hegurnonic outlook of Hinduism is weakened. The process of construing

emancipatory mythographies involves both an interaction with an

appropriation of forms from the dominant group and a subtle rejection

of it in order to reclaim for the Paraiyars their own human identity

and rationale for existence.31


This explication of the goddess Ellaiyamman as symbolizing the

resistive particularity and the emancipatory remythologization of the

Paraiyars gives us a glimpse into the dynamic, creative, calculating,

and empowering features of the Paraiyars' religion. The religious

arena for them, thus, is both an arena of continual contestation and

conscious reformation: it both discerningly rejects and contextually

redefines certain dominant "conceptions of a general order of



One can notice again the process of emancipatory transmythologization

at work in the story as remembered by the Paraiyars. There is a

deliberate attempt to work within the categorical and symbolic

framework of Hinduism and yet recast it to advantage the collective

identity of the Paraiyars. Thus, the goddess of the Paraiyars,

Mariyamman, is able to subdue all the major caste Hindu deities and

annex segments of their powers. The divine powers of Hinduism are

brought under the powerful and inauspicious curse of the goddess of

the Paraiyars. The domain of Mariyamman expands toward universality;

even the underworld is under her control.


In this presentation I have highlighted the active side of Paraiyar

religion. It does not merely represent a passive replication and

acceptance of all that was passed on to the Paraiyars from the caste

Hindu's interpretations of religion. Rather, the Paraiyars' religion

points to an arena of ongoing contestation and transformation of

dominant and, sometimes, oppressive cultural and social patterns that

are founded on religious narratives (plots?). However, it must not be

forgotten that Paraiyar religion is not only the collective

expression of dismantling and reassembling dominant patterns of

meaning for the sake of this Dalit community's human survival and

humane enrichment. It is also a symbolic manifestation of their very

own experience of the Divine.



1. This paper is written in honor of Professor Eric J. Lott. It will

appear in a festschrift that is to be published this year to

commemorate Dr. Eric Lott's retirement. As a first year B. D.

student, Dr. Lott introduced me to the world of Hinduism at the

United Theological College in 1981. At that time his approach was

phenomenological. He taught us to describe the complexity of

religious phenomena with respect and in detail. The approach in this

study affixes imaginative interpretation to a predominantly

descriptive project. Having read Lott's later work, especially on

tribal religions and ecological resources in Indian religious

traditions, I know that he will not be unhappy with this dimension of

the enterprise. Besides tutoring his students in the class room, Dr.

Lott was a great sportsman on the field. The many hours of playing

cricket along with our sessions in the class room made our

relationship uniquely collegial in an otherwise hierarchical ethos.

It is indeed a pleasure for me to be included in this endeavor of

honoring my teacher and friend, Eric J. Lott. May his tribe increase.


2. I think that the term Dalit has been around long enough in Indian

theological discussion that it does not require detailed explication.

The magnitude of their numerical strength must be pointed to: In the

most recent 1991 census Dalits numbered 138 million in a total Indian

population of 846 million. [Census of India, 1991 Volume 11, (New

Delhi:Registrar general and Census commission of India, 1992). p.5.]


3. T. K. Oommen, "Sources of Deprivation and Styles of Protest: The

Case of the Dalits in India," Contributions to Indian Sociology

(n.s.) 18:1 (1985): 45.


4. As quoted in Joan P. Mencher, "The Caste System Upside Down, Or

the Not-So-Mysterious East", Current Anthropology. 15:1 (December,



5. Census of India, 1991, p. 18.


6.. K.R. Hanumanthan, Untouchability: A Historical Study Up to 1500

AD. With Special Reference to Tamil Nadu (Madurai: Koodal

Publications, 1979), p. 74.


7. Harold R Isaac Idols of the Tribe Group Identity and Political

Change (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1989), p.158.


8. Ibid., p.159


9. Moffatt, An Untouchable Community in South India: Structure and

Consensus (Princeton, N. J. : Princeton University Press, 1979), p.

3. Through a detailed analysis and interpretation of the religion of

the Paraiyars in comparison with the caste community in Endavur,

Chingleput District, Tansilnadu, Moffatt attempts to prove that there

is a certain commonality in the structure of religious belief and

ritual practice: "Every fundamental entity, relationship, and action

found in the religious system of the higher castes is also found in

the religious system of the Untouchables." (Ibid., p.289).


10 Edgar Thurston, Schedule Castes and Tribes, vol. VI (New Delhi:

Cosino Publications, 1975), p.117.


11. Ibid.


12. Pupul Jayakar, Earth Mother: Legends, Ritual Arts, and Goddesses

of India (San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers, 1990), p.44.


13. Gustav Oppert, The Original Inhabitants of India (Delhi,

Oriental Publishers, 1972), p.464, First published in 1893.


14. This conception that the term Ellaiyamman derives from the view

that she is considered to be the "Mother of all" was articulated by a

Paraiyar priest. The notion that Ellaiyaminan is the eldest of the

sisters among the manifestations of Sakti was expressed by a few

devotees. This feature of being the oldest among a line of siblings

must be understood within the social and cultural context of South

India where age and position of birth determines the status Of the

person. The role and status of the oldest is qualitatively higher

than the rest of the children born into that same family


15. Thurston, one of the earliest systematic researchers into Dalit

and Tribal religions in South India, says the following in reference

to Paraiyar religion: "Each village claims that its own mother is not

the same as that of the next village, but all are supposed to be

sisters. Each is supposed to be guardian of the boundaries of the

cherished. She is believed to protect its inhabitants and its

livestock from disease, disaster and famine, to promote the fecundity

of cattle and goats, and to give children." He goes on to identify

Ellaiyamman as "the goddess of the boundary [who is] worshipped by

Tamil and Telugu Paraiyars." Thurston, Castes and Tribes of South

India, Vol. vi, p.105.


16. This conception of the "evil eye" (dishti) is not uniquely

distinct to the Dalits. It is a fairly general South Indian belief

that harm and misfortune is caused by the envious and covetous gaze

of the beholder. The view articulated by the Paraiyar youth is a

contextual and communal Interpretation of this common belief For

further details pertaining to the evil eye in South India see. C.J.

Fuller, The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India (New

Delhi: Viking, 1992), pp. 236-240 and David F. Pocock, Mind, Body and

Wealth: A Study of Belief and Practice in an Indian Village (Oxford:

Blackwell, 1973), pp. 28-33.


17. Valentine Daniel, Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p.104, Daniel

delineates the meaning of two Tamil words that denote the village:

while uur implies a emotional and cognitive conception Kraamam

designates the geographically determined territory In contemporary

Tamilnadu the latter conception (Kraamam) is fairly fixed because of

government documentation of geographical space. However, the former

conception (uur) is active in its expansionist vein and ,t is this

conceptual Caste worldview that threatens to usurp the distinctness

of the Paraiyar social cultural and religious space


18. This is part of an opening prayer of adoration sung by a local

Paraiyar Pucari, K. Pallaiyasn. The song is sung to the beat of

drums. I am aware of the fact that my own interpretation of the

central idea of the characterisitic of iconic resistance is confined

to the relationship between the caste Hindus and the Paraiyars. I do

not deal with the other facet of guardianship that the goddess

epitomized protection against disease death, and natural calamity.

19. It must be noted that Mariyamman has the very same function. She

has the powers to "guard the boundaries of her territory, to protect

all those inside these boundaries against disease in humans and

cattle, particularly epidemic disease, and to bring rain for those

who worship her." Moffatt, An Untouchable Community, p.247.


20. I find the concept of "spousification", suggested by Lynn E.

Gatwood, a useful one for determining the dynamic of resistance and

assimilation of the local indigenous traditions to the more prevalent

Sanskritic traditions. She explicates three categories based on the

degree of spousification of local goddesses: "First are the

untouched, apparently permanently unspousified Devis. . .The second

category consists of Devis who undergo temporary

spousification . . .but whose popular symbolism remains essentially

Devi-like. . .[And) A third and more complex category, that of

partial spousification, involves more than minimal manipulation."

Gatwood, Devi and Spouse Goddess: Women, Sexuality and Marriage in

India (Riverdale, MD: Riverdale Company, 1985), pp.156f.


21. This notion of weaving an alternate mythography, as a way by

which peoples deny and defy the construction of unitary and

universalizable history, is expressed by Ashis Nandy in his

interpretation of how the victims of colonization express their own

historical perspectives in the midst of the dominant Western colonial

discursive practice. See Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and

Recovery of Self Under Colonialism, (Delhi:Oxford University Press,

1983). Also see Gym Prakash, "Writing Post-Orientalist Histories of

the Third World: Indian Historiography is Good to Think" in

Colonialism and Culture, Ed., Nicholas B. Dirks, (Ann Arbor: The

University of Michigan Press, 1992), pp. 353-388.


22. A profound theo-anthropological postulate underlies this

interpretation: Dalits are thinking and self-reflexive human beings.

If we agree with Kaufman that "that which most sharply distinguishes

human beings from other forms of life . . , is their historicity,

their having been shaped by and their having some control over the

process of historical change and development," then we must attribute

this element of self-reflexivity to the Paraiyars.


23. K. Pallaiyam is a Pucari who travels around the area performing

priestly roles. He claims to have the power to induce the power of

the goddesses to descend upon people. This legend was translated and

edited with the help of Roja Singh who lives and works in Karunguzhi,

which is about a mile away from Malaipallaiyam.


24. Hiltebeitel refers to him as the "inveterate troublemaker

Narada". See Alf Hiltebeitel, The Cult of Draupadi: Mythologics From

Gingee to Kuniksetra (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1988),



25. Parasuraman himself is identified with the qualities that are a

product of mixed unions, which are quite compatible with the

characteristics attributed to Dalits. According to Shulman "In the

myth's earliest version, there is no mention of Parasuraman's divine

identity: he is simply the startling, unruly product of a horrifying

mixed union. . . Brahmin and kingly blood flows in almost even

quantities in his veins, and he acts accordingly, in a tragic life

guided throughout by conflicting impulses. (We shall ask ourselves to

what extent the dread "mixing" of genetic strains is the true source

of his trouble)." It must be kept in mind, however, that "by the time

of the major Puranic versions, of course, our hero [Parasuraman] has

become the avatar of Visnu." David Shulman, The King and the Clown in

South Indian Myth and Poetry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University

Press, 1985), p, 110.


In this Dalit version, Parasuraman is really the hero who uses his

boon to produce the Dalit goddess. Perhaps, it may be interpreted as

a vindication of mixed unions I say this in the awareness that there

is a school of thought that believes that Dalits are the products of

inauspicious mixed unions. See Simon Casie Chitty, The Castes,

Customs, Manners and Literature of the Tamils, (New Delhi: Asian

Educational Services, 1988), pp. 53-54; 133, First published in 1934.

26. Whitehead recounts a similar story after which he adds, "The

woman with the Brahman head and the Pariah body was afterwards

worshipped as Mariyamman; while the woman with the Pariah head and

the Brahman body was worshipped as the goddess Yellamma" Henry

Whitehead, The Village Gods of South India Revised Edition (New

Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1988), p.116. For variations of

this account with regard to Mariyamman see Wendy D. O'Flaherty, The

Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley University of California

Press 1976) p 351 E R Clough While sewing Sandals (New York, Hodder

and Stroughten, 1899), pp. 85ff; Thurston, Castes and tribes, Vol. VI

306 ff. Moffatt, An Untouchable Community p. 248.


27. Thomas Mann, The Transposed Head, A Legend of India, Trans. H.

T. Loew­Porter, (New York, 1941). For a classical myth of Renuka see

MBH. 3.116.1-18.


28. This is a counter point to the usual stereotype that the

Paraiyar is a double dealing unreliable person This quote is

attributed to H Jensen a missionary who worked among them in South

India See Thurston, Castes and Tribes, Vol. VI, p.118.


29. This is consistent with Dehege's conclusion Recent analyses of

untouchables myths of origin clearly reveal contrary to Moffatt s own

interpretation that Hanjans consider their low degraded position as a

result of a mistake some mockery or an accident Robert

Deliege, "Replication and Consensus: Untouchablity, Caste and

Ideology in India," Man, vol.27 (March, 1992), p.166.


30. W T Elmore Dravidian Gods in Modern Hinduism Revised & Reprinted

Version (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1984), p.7. Also see

Oppert The Original Inhabitants, p.464.


31. A version of the Mariyamman myth of origin suggested by a

Paraiyar pucari further illustrates the process of emancipatory

remythologization. This version was translated and edited with the

help of Roja Singh from a compilation of oral sources furnished by K.

Palaiyam, Gunadayalan and Gunaseelan. The latter two work as

community leaders in the villages of Pasumbur and Vallarpirrai

respectively. The story is very similar to the myth of Ellaiyamman.

However, it refers to the other woman who was restored; the one with

the head of Renuka and the body of the Paraiyar woman. She is

worshipped as Mariyamman and her legend continues thus:

Renuka who now has the body of the Paraiyar woman returns home. The

rishi is not willing to accept her in her changed form and curses

her. She becomes the bearer of the "Pearl", which is the name given

to small pox. Renuka has authority over this agonizing disease. She

brings this disease upon the rishi who begs for healing. She offers

him healing if she be permitted to go to the four worlds of Shiva,

Vishnu, Brahma, and Yama. He enables her to visit the Four worlds.

She goes to Shiva and causes a disease on him. In exchange for

healing she receives his Shoolani (a forked weapon) and his cow. She

inflicts Vishnu and gets from him his Conch shell and wheel. From

Braluna she gets consent for converting her name. She is no longer

Renuka but assumes the name Mariyamman (the changed Mother). She then

inflicts Yama with a disease. She requires that Yama's wife arrange

for a huge festival for her. She agrees to this and asks her to

remove the "pearl-like" disease in return.


32. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic

Books, 1973), p.90. It is quite obvious, I think, that my methodology

of the study of religion is dependent on the work of Geertz. However,

I think that this study attempts to throw light on the social forces

that operate in the forging of religion. According to his critics,

this is an aspect that Geertz does not explore. See Tale! Asad

Anthropological Conceptions of Religion Reflections on Geertz in Man

vol. 18 (1983) 237-259 and Brian Moms Anthropological Studies of

Religion: An Introductory Text (Cambridge : Cambridge University

Press, 1987), pp. 318-319.


Another Tamil Brahmi inscription found in Egypt


Archaeologist uncovers evidence of long-lost civilizations

When Steven Sidebotham, history, was 14, he knew he wanted to become

an archaeologist. His family was living in Turkey at the time, and he

had become interested in collecting ancient coins, visiting the

market stalls where vendors sometimes had brass bowls put aside with

odd coins for sale. "Collecting coins led to an interest in where

they came from and in ancient history and, in turn, to archeology,"

he recalled.


His first dig was a Roman villa rustica in Italy the summer he

transferred to the University of Pennsylvania after three years at

universities in Greece and Egypt--an invaluable experience for his

later work because he learned Egyptian Arabic. He later received his

doctorate in history from the University of Michigan.


Sidebotham recently returned to that part of the world for his

current UD project at Berenike, a prominent port city on the Red Sea

in Egypt. He has spent the past seven winter seasons there,

unearthing the evidence of long-gone civilizations. "There were

references to the site by Europeans in 1818, so we knew the port

existed," he said.


"Berenike was a major trading gateway between the Roman Empire and

the Persian Gulf, southern Arabia, sub-Sahara Africa, India and Sri

Lanka and was a melting pot of many peoples. During its heyday from

the third century B.C. to the sixth century A.D., it was a busy port.


But over the years, the harbor filled with silt, and although it

could have been dredged, instead the port was deserted," he said.

Sidebotham is in charge of the field work at Berenike, supervising

the trench work and photographing the site. His codirector is W. Z.

Wendrich, a basketry specialist formerly of Leiden University in the

Netherlands and now at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Wendrich handles the logistics– government permits and getting the

camp up and running for the team–a formidable task since ordinary

water is 70 miles away, and food and drinking water are more than 190

miles away and costly.


There is a total staff of 35 to 40, plus 80 Bedouin workmen, during

the season, which runs from mid-December until early February. Some

UD students have indicated an interest in joining the team, whose

members range in age from late teens to over 60 and who come from all

over the world. The team includes volunteers and specialists in such

areas as textiles or pottery, who can examine artifacts as they are

discovered. Nothing can leave Egypt, so the finds from the dig are

analyzed, photographed and then sent to storage magazines on the Nile.

The team has published extensively and made several presentations

about Berenike with the fifth book on the work, soon to be published

by the Center of Non-Western Studies at Leiden.


Finds at the site include coins, spices, cameo blanks, beads,

pottery, glassware, statuary, basketry, fabrics, bones and seeds,

plus emeralds and sapphires from India, Sri Lanka and Europe.

Written documents on papyri or inscriptions on pottery or stone, as

well as sea shells, are in several languages, including Latin, Greek,

Egyptian and Tamil-Brahmi.


Many religions were represented, from the worship of Isis and Jupiter

to Judaism to Christianity. "We have found altars, statuary, such

pieces as an almost life-size statue of Isis, inscriptions, wooden

bowls used for incense and sculpted reliefs, indicating who was being

worshiped," Sidebotham said.


"The focus of the project is to find out more about trading, the

governments and especially the people who lived at that time through

analyzing artifacts and evidence of their lives," he said. "We also

have discovered two piers and a sea wall and hope someday to do some

underwater explorations for remains of ships."


Even with more than 40 trenches, only 2 percent of the site has been

excavated, Sidebotham said. Private donors, the National Geographic

Society, the Kress Foundation, the American Philosophical Society,

the Dorot Foundation and Columbia University have funded the project

during the past years.


What does an archeologist do on his days off?


Sidebotham takes a busman's holiday, and with a Bedouin guide goes

exploring for other sites.


"We discovered the remains of a fifth-century emerald mine, with

grinding stones and tailings, which we hope to excavate someday" he



Another find was a fort. "We knew it existed because of references to

it in a 1925 British magazine. I asked a Bedouin guide if he knew

anything about it, and the following season he had found out about it

from his network and took me to the site which was only 7 kilometers

from Berenike. Excavating the fort, we discovered an eight-foot-long

inscription that had originally stood over the front gate, with the

date of 76-77 A.D., and information about the names of the Roman

emperor and governors at the time."


A restored fort in the Red Sea area will display some of the Berenike

artifacts, and there is discussion of a regional museum on the Red

Sea to exhibit antiquities from the area.


"I hope this plan comes to fruition because some of our finds are

significant, and it would be fitting to have them exhibited in the

region where they were discovered," Sidebotham said.

Sue Moncure


Arabian Bedouin holding bilingual Greek-Palmyrene (Syrian)

religious/military inscription of the late second century/early third

century A.D., found in excavations at Berenike.


Location map, drawn by A. Hoseth


A small fort at Siket, approximately 5 miles northwest of Berenike,

supplied drinking water to the city and also guarded approaches to

Berenike. A Latin inscription found in excavations at the main gate

notes that the site is a fortified water station built in the year



What does an archeologist do on his days off?


Sidebotham takes a busman's holiday, and with a Bedouin guide goes

exploring for other sites.


"We discovered the remains of a fifth-century emerald mine, with

grinding stones and tailings, which we hope to excavate someday" he



Another find was a fort. "We knew it existed because of references to

it in a 1925 British magazine. I asked a Bedouin guide if he knew

anything about it, and the following season he had found out about it

from his network and took me to the site which was only 7 kilometers

from Berenike. Excavating the fort, we discovered an eight-foot-long

inscription that had originally stood over the front gate, with the

date of 76-77 A.D., and information about the names of the Roman

emperor and governors at the time."


A restored fort in the Red Sea area will display some of the Berenike

artifacts, and there is discussion of a regional museum on the Red

Sea to exhibit antiquities from the area.


"I hope this plan comes to fruition because some of our finds are

significant, and it would be fitting to have them exhibited in the

region where they were discovered," Sidebotham said.