Journey of a Civilization Indus to Vaigai

This is an exceptional book, from its high production value to well marshaled arguments and broad perspective of its author, R. Balakrishnan. He has been researching the materials for decades in a careful and constructive manner. It is also a tribute to the late Iravatham Mahadevan, one of my favorite people in ancient Indus studies and India's most accomplished Indus script scholar.

Balakirshnan takes takes on two large questions in ancient Indian history: What happened to the ancient Indus culture and/or people after 1700 or so BCE? What are the origins of Tamil Sangam literature that describe cities, creatures and landscape features far different from the south India it is first geographically located in? Balakrishnan offers a single yet multi-faceted answer, and draws on the Indus script readings proposed by Mahadevan and Asko Parpola. This is supplemented with a variety of other evidence from words, visual motifs, the division of towns and cities, DNA analysis, and much, much more to weave a substantial answer that argues for the cohesion of ancient Indus and modern Tamil and Dravidian culture.

Nonetheless, if one agrees with the general conclusions, it also raises new questions about the "continuity" of culture and peoples across thousands of years. What that relationship between culture and people and language – are they even the same thing or separate manifestations that may float across time, space and peoples? What is identity across millennia?

"Of all the suggestions on the language of the Indus civilization," writes Balakrishnan, "the Dravidian Hypothesis is by far the best working hypothesis for the decipherment of the Indus script and the understanding of the language and culture. This book attempts to assemble all possible ideas that would essentially substantiate this view" (p. 59). Indeed, it is not only the language theories from Parpola and Mahadevan that drive the approach, but also the author's painstaking look at place names in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan and their frequent parallels in Tamil Nadu and other parts of South India. "Place-names do Travel," is the first of these chapters, and it must be said that Balakrishnan has a gift for metaphor and relevant quotations – as in the preamble quote from a tribal man in Odisha for this chapter: "How can we change the name of the village given by our ancestors? Their spirits may get confused when they want to visit us!"

The analysis of place names is rooted in an appraisal of Sangam ("royal literary academy") literature, which have been thought to date to roughly 300 BCE, but contain numerous references to even earlier texts and poems as well as geographic features - like the Himalayas - far from present-day Tamil country but seemingly quite familiar to Sangam poets. They also invoke a rich, multi-cultural urban life and references to tribes in hill country, from where they emigrated, not to mention a vibrant coastal trade with goods from the west coast of India like teak wood, pearls and ivory. They could have been sourced from the region and were traded in ancient Indus times as far away as Mesopotamia – "it would be hard to believe that the Indus traders would have missed the scope and opportunity southern India offered them for sourcing their export mercantile" (p. 95). This is a very solid point. There were many roads to the South, and if Dravidian speakers originated in Iran as some have supposed (there is pre-Indus Iranian ancestry in the Ancestral South Indian genome, as well as linguistic traces), a migration of people, traditions and culture is well within the realm of possibility. In fact the free flow of peoples has been happening throughout the history of the subcontinent and Central Asia. Assuming that Sangam literature is drawing from an earlier, hazy past and oral tradition, the best candidate for this might well be the Indus civilization, however wide the gap in centuries from what we know today.

Another big argument comes from place name parallels and similarities, illustrated in facing maps of the north-west (now Pakistan and Afghanistan) and South India with place-names highlighted. They are very well presented, numerous and persuasive on one level, but one could also ask for an analysis of the frequency of random similarities between place names with other parts of India. Some sounds are bound to be repeated together and in association with one another in the rich language field of the subcontinent. That said, there are some remarkable concordances between place names in Tamil Nadu found nowhere else but Pakistan's hillier regions, and suffixes that represent places like "kai" and "kay" abundant in the northwest. Then there are words like "kot" for place which crosses, as it were, language groups and regions. The parallels between the names of Sangam chieftains and place names still used in the northwestern Indus Valley region is also important, of which Balakrishnan writes that "the idea of comparing such names with IVC [Indus Valley Civilization] place-names is not to say that such people did not live in the Tamil soil of the Sangam age or shift the place of actions to the northwest. It is to underscore the point that their names reveal their ancestral past probably had a connection with Indus and Indus peripheries" (p. 179). To be sure, we do not know what these places were called in ancient Indus times, and while the sheer volume of circumstantial evidence does lend Balakrishnan's approach weight, truly compelling proof may await further evidence of Indus sign decipherment. Wouldn't Indus inhabitants, who probably came from multiple tribes and ethnic groups, have spread all over the south and east? More research could be done here. One would think there should be some highly compelling similarities, that were rooted in similarities in the craftsmen or types or other connections like folktales with names that are irrefutable across regions.

The 'High-West: Low-East' dichotomy in Indus cities and towns – in Mohenjo-daro, Surkotada, Dholavira among others, a citadel or higher mound faced a lower area towards the east in Indus times – is another argument Balakrishnan brings up, and it does appear significant. "The knowledge of universal fixed directions (independent of geographic features)," he writes " was most likely an essential and useful component of the Indus society known for its elaborate urban layouts and long distance trade and mobility" (p. 201). This he links to a variety of terms in South Indian languages like the Tamil Mel/Kil which expresses the high-west/low-east dichotomy. It also, like many of these South Indian variants, extends their meaning. He writes of the way "the landlords share accrued from the upper part of the land is called melvaram (upperside yield) or melpati (upper half); the tiller's share is called the kilvaram (lowerside yield) or kilpati (lower half)" (p. 212).

There are other linguistic indices that speak to the book's thesis: the Dravidian tribes whose names speak of origins in the hills, the way the word malai (mountain or hill, similar to the Sanskrit word malaya which may stem from it and we hear in words like Himalaya) is frequent as a suffix in Tamil Nadu while still surviving as a single word in hill areas of what is now Pakistan. Another nice linguistic parallel comes with the word kot used frequently as a suffix designating "fort" in the northwest, and kottai as a place-name suffix almost 250 times in Tamil Nadu.

Balakrishnan then discusses Murugan, "the patron diety of Tamils" also known as "the Red God," and the dominance of this color in what we know of Indus culture, from red brick and pottery to carnelian and the traces of red paint on everything from the so-called priest-king to baby rattles. The importance of red in Sangam literature and extensions like ce-, cem-, cev- are emphasized – "colours are important for Dravidian language speakers and based on this study, red is so central to the philosophy and everyday life" (p. 243).

Parallels are also drawn between the ubiquitous bricks of Indus construction and Sangam literature which "abounds in burnt brick walls" (p. 251). Then there are numerous continuities in pottery, a specialized craft. Copper plays a role in the argument: "The lexical encoding of copper in Tamil ants polysemous associations reveal the civilizational depth, in which copper played a major part" (p. 299). In fact, the copper has great antiquity and variation in Tamil and the Sangam literature, whereas in Sanskrit it is of lesser import could also serve as a derogatory term, an analysis by Balakrishnan which shows how fruitful an archaeology of words can be.

There is an excellent chapter on "Dravidian Gujarat," with another concordance of place names, and copious parallels in the use of "vel" in place names in western Gujarat and the whole of Tamil Nadu. A similar exercise, though perhaps with less arresting similarities, is undertaken in "Dravidian Maharashtra." There is a valuable chapter on the Kongu people, looking at narratives of displacement in two contemporary yet ancient communities that brings textual abstractions alive in practice. It also reminded us of the way little has changed for thousands of years for millions upon millions of people living on the land. Place names and tribes are brought together very nicely, as well as objects like anklets and the totem fig tree. There are clear similarities in sports like bull vaulting (Jallikattu) at harvest in Tamil Nadu; an Indus seal come alive in photographs of bodies tossed like toys into the air by an enraged bull. There are dice, with an Indus 'dot in circle' motif used on similar ivory objects from Indus cities, and other congruencies whose sheer volume should give any skeptic pause.

The apotheosis of Balakrishnan's argument comes towards the end, when he moves to "tracing the connections of Gujarat to the Vaigai, on the banks of which the third Sangam flourished" (p. 311). Keeladi on the Vagai river near Madurai is one of nearly 300 sites along this river that has been subject to excavations in recent years, including the discovery of urban structures in 2013-14 by an ASI team. Some of the earliest – if not the earliest – Tamil-Brahmi potsherds were found here, as well as graffiti (especially at another site, Sanur) that evoke Indus signs. Of course, there is much work to be done: "Whether Vagai civilization predates the Indus Valley Civilization, or was contemporaneous with it or emerged sometime later, are important points which will ultimately be settled by the archaeology and other scientific means" (p. 470). Once again, there are many similar place names to locations in the northwest along the Vagai river. At the very least, these discoveries are pushing back early Sangam poems (to the 6th century BCE), and they give firmer basis to recollections in Sangam literature of a literate urban culture.

Balakrishnan's epilogue draws attention to the sophistication of his approach. He is on the one hand trying to show the intricate connections between one ancient culture and another which survives in Tamil Nadu today, yet he is also attuned to the extreme complexity and diversity of ancient Indus cities, towns and times. He looks at similarities to Indus practices like the horned headdress in areas like Odisha and among the Gond/Khonda tribes in south central India. His is not an exclusionary argument for "Tamil inheritance," but accepts that "Indus archaeology adequately vouches for the inherent diversity of the population of the IVC" (p. 494). "To sum up," writes Balakrishnan, "I would say that the mere recognition of Indian pluralism as a reality of India may not be adequate. The role played by various layers like the tribes of India, the great Indus Enterprise, the role of Dravidian South as a sign post of Indus legacy, the embedded prehistory of Sangam Tamil texts that act as flag-bearers and legacy holders of Indus urbanism, the storehouse of the archaic names that connects the Indus past with Tamil prehistory, and fresh evidence from Tamil archaeology, the Vedic traditions and early Sanskrit of North that spread to other parts of India, the Prakits, several Middle Indo-Aryan languages formerly used in India, Buddhist and Jain traditions and the impact of all other later influences – all these aspects need to be reappraised and celebrated afresh" (p. 503). To the question of identity across millennia, Balakrishnan would respond that it is part of the continuing journey referenced in the title of the book.

Journey of a Civilization Indus to Vagai is a monumental and befitting sequel to the work of Iravatham Mahadevan, a substantial fleshing out of his ideas, given new substance and coherence by a deep thinker and excellent writer.

Omar Khan
San Francisco, June 2020

Publisher: Roja Muthiah Research Library (2019)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 8193924304
ISBN-13: 978-8193924303