Debate Reopens After Class XII State Board Text Book Mentions Sanskrit To Be Older

‘Archaeological evidence establishes antiquity of Tamil’ – N SULOCHANA

Tamil isn’t just a language, it is an important identity of Tamil culture. The Sangam age literary work ‘Kalithogai’ has references to Lemuria continent, where it is mentioned as ‘Karodaiyaaru’. It was destroyed during ‘Kadal Kol’ (tsunami). Ancient Tamil poet Kaniyan Poongundranar’s popular quote ‘Yaadhum Oore Yaavarum Kelir’ has been recognised by the United Nations.

It is difficult to fix the age of the evolution of the language because of its rich vocabulary. ‘Tholkappiyam’, which is 2,000 years old, is the first literary work in Tamil. According to Tamil language expert M Srinivasa Iyengar, Tholkappiyam dates to before 350BC. The other Sangam Tamil literature is estimated to be around 5th century BC and recent archaeological evidence has proved this.

Researchers of the subject have differing estimates for the age of Tamil. While recent excavations at Keezhadi throw light on the ancient civilization of Tamils, earthen burial urns (Mudumakkal Thazhi) have been found in Adhichanallur and Kodumudi that go back 2,000 to 2,500 years.

A stone inscription in Modi script (used to write Marathi language), that was unearthed in Thanjavur reveals that the age of Tamil language could date back to more than 10,000 years. Such archaeological evidence provide ample proof to establish the antiquity of Tamil as an ancient language. Discoveries also point out that the first ‘Tamil Sangam’ existed in 8th century BC. Ancient Tamil words are still in use.

After elaborate research on western languages, late professor and author Devaneya Pavanar has established that Tamil is the mother of all languages. As a conclusion of his research in Greek, Latin and English, he says words from Tamil have gone on to influence Latin and English languages. Words such as ‘coin’, ‘coffee’ and ‘navy’ are a few examples that have their roots in Tamil language.

Linguistic experts have often highlighted that the first couplet in Thirukkural has Sanskrit words. But ‘Bhagwan’, the word they are referring to in Thirukkural, is not the ‘Bhagwan’ that is mentioned in Sanskrit. Thiruvalluvar, has in fact, never used Sanskrit words in Thirukkural. The word ‘Bhagawan’ that appears in the first couplet of Tirukural is actually a Tamil word ‘Pagalavan’, which means sun. As far as the usage of Sanskrit words in ancient Tamil scriptures is concerned, it is minimal.

(N Sulochana is an assistant professor at the International Institute of Tamil Studies)


‘Languages borrow from, complement, each other’ – DUSHYANT SRIDHAR

The antiquity of a language is viewed differently by historians and traditionalists. The latter group takes their source to be scriptures, while historians depend on evidence based on archaeological sources, and as and when new revelations are made, they carbon date it and assign dates. Rarely do these two come to a consensus.

Historians say Valmiki Ramayana dates to 8th century BC, but they do not conclude it is the oldest work because there could be other undiscovered works or inscriptions predating it or new historical evidence could be found that the Valmiki Ramayana is older than what is presumed.

Similarly, earliest probable Tamil literature is found to be between 2nd century BC and 5th century BC, most of which belong to the early Sangam era. But still there is scope to understand which is older because there are Tamil words in Sanskrit texts and viceversa. Sanskrit and Tamil are undoubtedly the oldest languages in the country. It is when we compete between the two languages that the problem arises.

Sanskrit traditionalists believe the oldest ever literature in Sanskrit is Valmiki’s Ramayana which is referred to as the ‘aadi kavyam’ (first poetry). Prior to that were the Vedas, the language of which is similar to Sanskrit language but not the same. The language Sanskrit that we refer to today is the classical Sanskrit or literaturebased Sanskrit, in which the Valmiki’s ‘aadi kavyam’ was written.

But, today when we are debating which is older, we cannot do so from the standpoint of traditionalists without evidence. We have to approach with historical facts. Historians depend on carbon dating by looking at inscriptions on stones as found in temples, copper plates retrieved from archaeological sites, manuscripts and available literature.

Nachinaarkiniyar the earliest Tamil commentator for Tholkappiyam, the earliest available Tamil treatise dated between 3rd century BC and 5th century BC mentions Agastiya, Markandeya and Vanmiki as suitable inspirations to the work. While some opine that the Vanmiki (Valmiki ) mentioned here is a Siddha, some other researchers say he is the same Valmiki of Ramayana.

Vanmiki in Sanskrit is Valmiki, one who has come from an ant hill. Ant hill is called Valmikam, and in Tamil the same term is Vanmikam, so even the oldest Tamil work quotes Valmiki and Agastya. In the Thirukkural, the first kural has the words ‘aadi bhagavan’, instead of using the Tamil words ‘mudal iraivan’, these words from the Vishnu purana are used. In these instances, a Tamil text quoting Sanskrit makes the latter older.

But the reverse is also true. In Valmiki’s ‘Ramayana’, there is a portion in Sundara Kandam, where he talks of a scene with Hanuman, who speaks in Sanskrit, but Sita is slightly confused by what he is talking about, so Valmiki at that point says Hanuman switches to ‘madhura bhasha’ (sweet language). The interpretation of this is Hanuman begins speaking in ‘manushya bhasha’ (language of masses), which is Tamil.

A pyramid in Egypt was excavated where the urns and vessels had Tamil words but that cannot be taken as proof to claim the language to be oldest as Sanskrit words have been found at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Since both languages have influences on each other and compete to be older, instead of going into superlatives like oldest what could be concluded by traditionalists and historians is that both are old languages. To conclude which is older overwhelming evidence needs to be available.

(Dushyant Sridhar is a scholar of Shri Vaishnavism)

  • Courtesy : TOI, Chennai

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