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'No evidence of Tamil script in Indus civilisation'

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: June 25, 2010 14:41 IST
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President Pratibha Patil presented the 'Kalaignar M Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Award' to Professor Arko Parpola, Professor-Emeritus of Indology, Institute of World Cultures, University of Helsinki, Finland, at the inauguration of the World Classical Tamil Conference in Coimbatore on Wednesday. Parpola was given the award for his study that links Tamil with the script found in the Indus Valley texts.

Striking a different note, Dr S Kalyanaraman, Indologist, director of the Sarasvati Sindhu Research Centre, and full-time researcher in Indus Valley scripts, says that Dr Parpola is wrong, in an e-mail interview to's Sheela Bhatt..

What do you think about the ongoing Tamil conference? Will it serve any purpose?

The World Classical Tamil Conference is an initiative of the central institute set up after the Government of India declared Tamil as a classical language. Any conference to promote language studies is laudable if the intent is to promote a better understanding of the underlying cultural traditions and look towards the future for general welfare of the people. If the conference deliberations result in a set of action plans to provide an impetus to such cultural studies, they will be of value for the present and future generations.

What do you think about the status of Tamil in Tamil Nadu?

Discussions about the status of Tamil gets blurred by dominant political agendas and overtones. These tend to promote language chauvinism or isolationist or separatist trends, to score political points about unauthenticated 'Dravidian civilisation', instead of promoting the essential cultural unity and identity of Hindustan and pride in the nation's collective heritage. These aberrations are created by the 'Dravidian' political parties who talk about mythical 'Dravidian' identity.

How do you see its importance within India?

I hope this Dravidian political colouring of objective language studies does not lead other language groups in the nation to indulge in divisive political dialogue. Every effort should be made by all politicans to promote a national identity and the civilisational strengths of Hindustan which was the richest nation on the globe in the 18th century, accounting for over 27 percent of the world GDP (according to the study by Angus Maddison, economic historian from Cambridge).

Do you agree with renowned Indologist Dr Asko Parpola's study that the Dravidian language was also found in Indus Valley scripts?

I do not agree with Parpola's unproven 'decipherment' of the Indus script with the premise that old Tamil was the underlying language. It is simply a belief system and not premised on evidence of the corpus of inscriptions and the underlying cultural foundations of the civilisation of 4,000 years ago. Parpola's contribution is preparing the corpus of Indus script inscriptions in a logically organised set of concordances, but he cannot claim to have deciphered that old Tamil was the underlying language.

The reason is this: language studies exemplified by scholars of languages and archaeology like F B J Kuiper, Colin Masica, Murray Barnson Emeneau, Franklin Southworth point to a linguistic area where many languages interacted with one another and absorbed language features from one another. This is why many words used even today are commonly found in many languages of the nation, ranging from Munda, Prakrit, to Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Sindhi, Kashmiri and other languages which are the lingua franca of the nation.

Many of these words can be traced to the time of the Saraswati-Sindhu civilisation which produced these inscriptions in a unique pictorial writing system. It should be noted that over 80 percent of the archaeological sites of the civilisation are on the banks of the Vedic river Saraswati and the people living there today are likely to be descendants of the cultural continuum from 2,000 BC.

The civilisation did not vanish; the cultural legacy continues even today in many parts of India. For example, worship of Shiva linga, use of Sankha bangles, wearing of sindhur in the parting of the hair, namaste, yogasanas and other cultural phenomena such as making bronze statues using cire perdue (metal casting) technique and writing on copper plates or punch-marked coins from 6th century BC in all areas ranging from Takshashila in Afghanistan to Karur in Tamil Nadu.

Do you think the Tamil conference is merely a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam show? Or is it truly cultural event?

The conference is unfortunately not a cultural or academic event since the entire show has been hijacked by Dravidian politicians led by the atheist Chief Minister Kalaignar Karunanidhi. The atheist streak is evident in the exclusion of the enormous body of Tamil literature from Sangam times and in the brilliant literary works produced by the Azhvars and Nayanmars. It would have been nice if the entire event involved language scholars from other parts of the country also. Tamil has enriched and has been enriched in the vibrant linguistic area of Hindustan thanks to interactions among various language-speaking peoples governed by one socio-cultural identity of India, that is Bharat (as stated in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution).

Do you think the Rs 180 crore plus expenditure to organise the event is worth it?

The Rs 180 crore plus spent on the conference could have been better utilised to reach out to the children and students all over India, conveying the richness of Tamil literature and traditions evolved by the people of Tamil Nadu which are mirrored in other parts of the country. A cultural event should not end up as a photo-op for politicians but as a sustainable, abiding cultural memory in every nook and corner of the land.

Why there are very few non-Tamil Indians who want to study Tamil?

Chauvinism is the reason why people get turned away from studying the literature of languages other than their own. Tamil texts and traditions should be studied by non-Tamils. Such cross-cultural studies enrich the brilliant fabric of the nation. More translations of works from one language into other languages and in arranging cultural tours across the country as Bharat Yatras should be encouraged.

For instance, a part of the Rs 180 crore could have been spent in taking groups of students to other parts of the country, visiting hundreds of heritage sites and encouraging the Tamil students to write about what they have learnt from their heritage tours. The Tamil Nadu government should encourage the study of Sanskrit and other Indian languages in educational and research institutions and study of Tamil speaking peoples' contribution to Indian science and technology.

In summary, be Indian, be proud be to be Indian and a world citizen and do not get closeted in an insular, narrow domain. India has a destiny to fulfil in constituting the Indian Ocean community as a counterpoise to the European Community, and the Tamil-speaking people should become leading partners in this trans-national, civilisational enterprise.

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Sheela Bhatt