Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Tale of a Broken Pot

From The Hindu: The tale of a broken pot May 13, 2008 Iravatham Mahadevan and S. Rajagopal Today I am a broken pot stored away in a museum. But, about eighteen hundred years ago, I was a shining new kalayam. My proud owner was a toddy-tapper named Naakan. He lived in a small hamlet at the edge of the forest (near present-day Andipatti in Theni district of Tamil Nadu). Naakan was too poor to own land; but he earned his living by taking on lease some coconut and palmyra trees, tapping and selling the toddy. There were several toddy-tappers in the hamlet. They would climb the trees early in the morning, make deep cuts on the crown of the trees with their sharp bill-hooks, and tie their pots beneath to collect the sap (juice) that oozed from the cuttings. The pots, when full, would be taken down and stored for a few days to allow fermenting of the sap into toddy, for which there was a good market. Etched belongings Poor he might have been, but Naakan was literate. In order to identify his kalayam and its contents, he scratched this message on it with his sharp iron tool: naakan uRal ‘Naakan’s (pot with) toddy-sap’ The Tamil word ooRal (from ooRu ‘to ooze’) meaning ‘freshly tapped toddy’ is spelt here with the short vowel u probably due to oversight or reflecting the colloquial usage. Determining age Archaeologists who dug me out of the earth near Andipatti a couple of years ago, have determined from examining the fabric of my body, that I was made in about the third century A.D. Epigraphists (who study old inscriptions) have identified the writing on my shoulder as in Old Tamil written in the Tamil-Brahmi script of the same period. And that is not all. The two-word inscription carries an important message, namely, how widespread literacy must have been in the ancient Tamil country, if a poor toddy-tapper, living in a remote hamlet far away from urban and commercial centres, could write down his name and what he was doing with the pottery he owned. That is the reason why I am preserved in the museum and not discarded like other broken pottery! Iravatham Mahadevan is a well-known researcher of the Indus and Brahmi scripts. Dr. S. Rajagopal is a senior archaeologist specialising in Old Tamil inscriptions, who retired from the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology. The issue is the controversy surrounding translation (or, to be more accurate, no translation) of the Indus script. Various translations of the script have been put forward through the years, but none of them has been accepted by the archaeological/academic community. In the background is the other always-simmering, sometimes explosive controvesy of the "Indo-European invasion" versus some Indologists' claims that the Indus civilization was not destroyed by this "invasion" but gradually transformed into the civilization of southern India as the Indus people migrated south. There is, frankly, a racist component involved, as the people who live in Tamil Nadu and areas of southern India are very dark-skinned compared to the peoples further north and west. All is even more complicated by the gloss of the Hindu caste system and religious beliefs involving "karma" and reincarnation. Whew!

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