Early Life and Work

Early Life and Work

Q [uestion, by Omar Khan]: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

A [nswer, Iravatham Mahadevan]: Welcome to Madras Mr. Omar Khan. I am Iravatham Mahadevan. I am a native of this place.I was born in a village about 200 kilometers South of Madras, on the banks of the River Kaveri. I was educated in the nearby town of Tiruchirapalli. After I took my degrees in chemistry, science and law, I joined the Civil Service, the Indian Administrative Service [I.A.S.]. I was born in the year 1930, so I am now 68. When I joined the Civil Service I was 24. I was in the Civil Service for about 27 years. Then I took voluntary retirement from the service as I became more and more interested in my research in Indian epigraphy, the science of writing.

The two areas which have claimed my attention all through have been the Indus script and the Brahmi script, the earliest deciphered script of India, especially as it obtains in South India, in the Tamil caves for example. I began collecting coins, which is how I became interested in epigraphy. In order to read the legends on old coins I began learning elements of epigraphy. Soon, however, my interest in writing overshadowed my interest in numismatics and I slowly moved away from numismatics to epigraphy. I was encouraged in my studies because it is part of the Indian tradition that Indian civil servants have passionate hobbies. Many of the greatest scholars of the 19th century had been civil servants, so I may claim to be in that tradition. After I reached the age of 50 I felt that I had enough of administrative work in which I was getting less interested. I felt that the remaining years of my life I must devote to the Indus script and the Brahmi script, especially the Tamil Brahmi script.

Even when I was in service, I published my first monograph on the Tamil Brahmi inscriptions. These are cave inscriptions found in natural caverns in the small hillocks of Tamil Nadu. They remained a puzzle for a long time. They were discovered in the early years of this century but they could not be deciphered because when you read them according to the Asokan Brahmi script the result was just gibberish. It was neither Ashokan Pali, nor Prakit nor Tamil. I worked out a solution in the mid 1960's with the help of a key which was available but long forgotten. Buehler a great German Indologist, towards the end of the 19th century had discovered some inscriptions in a place called Bhattiprolu, a place in the north not far from Madras city which had used a variety of the Brahmi script very different form the Ashokan Brahmi script. He had given a method of reading it and without going into technicalities, I may say that while in the Asokan script if you write the letter for "K," it has to be read as Ka, it includes the vowel "a," in the Bhattiprolu variety this is not so, it is more alphabetic and you have to add a sign to show that the "a" is present. This is the case with regard to the Tamil cave [inscriptions]. So my solution attracted wide attention, and because of the decipherment we were able to read the names of the Pandian King, Nertunchezhiyan, in Madurai, a second century B.C. cave inscription, the Chera Kings, Irumporais, in 2nd century A.D. inscriptions in a place called Pugalur near Karoor. This early work of mine was recognized and I was invited to take part in the first international Tamil conference at Kuala Lumpur in 1966, my first exposure to an international conference.

The same year I published my monograph on the corpus of the Tamil Brahmi inscriptions. Now there came a break. In 1970 the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship was awarded to me and I was asked to work on the problem of the Indus script. At that time I was based in Delhi and having completed my early work on the Tamil Brahmi script, I turned to the Indus script.