'Story or History of writing'/Part:17

A language consists of spoken symbols of communication. A script, on the other hand, is a system of visual communication that uses signs or symbols having specific meanings or sounds .In the south, the old Tamil language came to be used in inscriptions in the second century BCE and early centuries CE. Tamil gained in importance under the Pallavas who issued both Tamil and bilingual Tamil- Sanskrit inscriptions from the 7th century onwards. The same trend was followed by the Pandya and Chola dynasties. Here the Surfaces used for writing included palmyra leaves, birch and aloe bark, cloth, hide, wood and paper while those for engraving included stone, earthen objects, shells, copper, gold, silver, bronze, iron and other metals. Here it is important to understand that writing
involves a softer surface while engraving a harder one. Out of these, Palm leaf manuscript is one of the oldest medium of writing, since the ancient times in India especially in Southern India as well as in Sri Lanka. It is mentioned as a writing material in several literary works and its visual representation can be seen in several sculptures and monuments too.  A very good example of usage of palm leaf manuscripts to store the history is a Tamil grammar book named Tolkappiyam which was written around 3rd century BCE and also we find Naladiyar 253 and 397 speaks about palm leaf manuscripts.For example, Naladiyar 253 says about  palm leaf manuscripts as:

"He that receives not, but despises as mere talk 
the command of his father to study, 
on a 'letter on palm leaf'  being gently held out to him in the presence of many, 
calls out to the person who presented it and seizes the rod of offence."

 [Tamil text in Tamil Brahmi - rock inscription 
    at Sittanavasal probably 4th. Century AD]
However, It is almost certain that the earlier Palm leaf manuscripts have been completely destroyed owing to the tropical climate of the region.Therefore,We have to rely on Inscriptions on stones or copper-plates as the basic source-material for the ancient and medieval history of Tamil writing .While the earliest extant Tamil inscriptions, written in Tamil Brahmi,[or Tamili], scholars have perforce to look for additional evidence for details of earlier forms of Tamil writing only in the earlier extant Tamil literature. The earliest extant work is the Tolkappiam, the celebrated work of Tamil Grammar, often considered the Tamil counter-part of Panini's work on Sanskrit Grammar, and considered  by tradition to originate in the Sangam period of the centuries prior to the start of the Christian era. The Tolkappiam (according to the commentator, Ilampuranar) is comprised 1595 Verses spread over three Books, each in turn, containing  nine Chapters. Their comprehensive content dealing with every aspect of the structure and usage of the language does quite certainly point to the language having evolved to a high degree of sophistication over several prior centuries, or perhaps millenia. The work commences with a very detailed account of the letters of the alphabet, the way their sounds  originated from the throat, and the rules and sequences in which the letters were joined to form words. The first Chapter of the First Book of the Tolkappiam is significantly entitled " Eluthu", which refers to letters of the alphanbet, and which would normally imply both their spoken and written forms. The very first verse of this Chapter runs thus :

"எழுத்து எனப்படுப அகரம் முதல் னகர இறுவாய் முப்பஃது என்ப சார்ந்து வரல் மரபின் மூன்று அலங்கடையே."

Means : " The letters are said to be from 'a' to 'n'  (அகரம் முதல் னகர இறுவாய்), thirty in number, excluding three whose use are dependent on the others"

The Tholkappiam itself has an explicit reference to writing in Book - 2, Chapter -1, Verse -60, where it refers to the inscription on commemorative stones of the name and valour of  warriors who distinguished themselves in battle.

"காட்சி கால்கோ ணீர்ப்படை நடுதல்
சீர்த்தகு சிறப்பிற் பெரும்படை வாழ்த்தலென்"

Here,Tholkappiyam, the earliest Tamil grammar describes
the complete stages of erecting memorial stones to the dead heroes , also gives the rules for erecting such memorials to the hero and about inscription on the stone. The stages mentioned are generally, “kaatchi, kaal kol , Neerppatai, Natuthal, Perumpatai, Vazhthal  [காட்சி, கால்கோல், நீர்ப்படை, நடுதல், பெரும்படை, வாழ்த்தல்]”.

The first stage in the erection of a memorial is the selection of a suitable stone for the memorial by the village community, which goes by the name kaatchi i.e to select. The villagers go to a nearby site to obtain a stone and after selection usually from a rock, sprinkle water over the stone with a prayer that all the spirits that have been inhabiting the place all long may depart so that the stone may be acquired for the memorial. The second stage (kaal kol) is offering flowers and incense and praising the stone, for it is “the stone” that is going to carry the name and fame of this great hero. Then the stone is quarried and placed on a cart and is brought to the village to the accompaniment of music and dance. The third stage is keeping the stone soaked in clean water for a number of days or specified time. It is held that since the stone remained all along exposed to vagaries of weather, like hot sun and rain, the stone is kept immersed in water, called Neerppatai.

The hero’s figure is carved and his exploits inscribed on the stone, after which it is ceremoniously planted (Natuthal) in an appropriate place. A great food offering is made to the hero, which is a rite called Perumpatai. Finally the hero is praised and prayers are offered for the bestowal of prosperity on the village community[ Vazhthal].

This unique Tamil tradition persisted for long  and  such stones dated to later centuries have indeed been found.Though the first grammar for the Tamil language called Agathiyam was composed by sage  Agasthiyar [ Agastya]  and is said to have contained no less than 12,000 sutras or aphorisms, only some fragments which have been preserved in quotations by his disciples, Tolkappiyanar in his work on the same subject, otherwise it has not survived.

[Kandiah Thillaivinayagalingam]

Part:18 will follow


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