Tissamaharama potsherd with alleged Tamil Brahmi inscription

Tissamaharama potsherd with alleged Tamil Brahmi inscription
An immense number of pottery sherds (more than one hundred) with Legends in Brahmi Characters have been unearthed throughout the excavations of almost twenty years at Tissamaharama in Hambantota District, Sri Lanka (Dias, 2021; Falk, 2014). Of those, one piece of pottery carrying a legend of Brahmi characters came to the attention of local academicians when it was interpreted as a Tamil Brahmi inscription by a foreign scholar (Ragupathy, 2010).

There are different opinions among scholars regarding the reading and interpretation of this inscription. Mahadevan commented on this in 2010 and brought it into the focus of the academicians (Mahadevan, 2010). Besides Mahadevan, several other scholars including Ragupathy (2010), Somadeva (2010), Falk (2014), Pushparatnam (2014) and Dias (2021) have also expressed their views on this inscription. Although Ragupathy partially followed the path of Mahadevan, other scholars including Somadeva (2010), Falk (2014), Pushpanatham (2014) and Dias (2021) have tried to publish their own interpretations and views on this finding. As a result of that, the initial interpretations by Mahadevan have become doubtful and controversial today.

The excavations at Tissamaharama were conducted by the Department of Archaeology together with German Archaeology scholars. The aforesaid potsherd was recovered from a strata that belongs to the 300-200 B.C. (Falk, 2014).

Iravatham Mahadevan's interpretation
Iravatham Mahadevan (1930-2018), a veteran epigraphist from India, published information about this finding along with a decipherment in an article titled "An Epigraphic Perspective on the Antiquity of Tamil" appeared in "The Hindu" on 24th June 2 (Mahadevan, 2010).

Sri Lanka: Tamils have been living in the northern and eastern parts of the island from time immemorial. Several small fragments of pottery with a few Tamil-Brahmi letters scratched on them have been found from the Jaffna region. However, a much more sensational discovery is a pottery inscription from an excavation conducted at Tissamaharama on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka. A fragment of a high-quality black and red-ware flat dish inscribed in Tamil in the Tamil-Brahmi script was found in the earliest layer. It was provisionally dated to around 200 BCE by German scholars who undertook the excavation. The inscription reads tiraLi muRi, which means “written agreement of the assembly” (See Figure 4). The inscription bears testimony to the presence in southern Sri Lanka of a local Tamil mercantile community organised in a guild to conduct inland and maritime trade as early as at the close of the 3rd century BCE.

According to the view of Mahadevan, this piece of pottery contains a Tamil inscription inscribed with Tamil-Brahmi scripts. Mahadevan's reading of the inscription is given below;
Tissamaharama potsherd, reading by Mahadevan

Identification of scripts
The scripts appearing on this potsherd were identified as Tamil-Brahmi by Mahadevan. His view was accepted by Ragupathy (Ragupathy, 2010) but opposed by Somadeva who identified them as ordinary Brahmi scripts found in Sri Lanka (Somadeva, 2010). Folk introduced this artifact as a broken piece of a dining plate with an alleged Tamil legend and considered all the letters as Brahmi scripts (Falk, 2014).

The identification of the scripts as Tamil-Brahmi was majorly depended on the last letter of the legend. Which is, according to some scholars, similar to the shape of the Dravidian alveolar retroflex of 'r', one of few unique scripts that is occasionally found in the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions in Southern India. However, scholars who have made doubts on this fact have raised new questions (Falk, 2014) and have shown some points that discourage Mahadevan's view (Somadeva, 2010). Falk who ascertained that Mahadevan has taken the last script as alveolar retroflex 'r+i' (Falk recognizes this letter as 'da'.), tended to show that there is incoherence with the shape of that letter. According to Falk, the form of the 'ra' with a forked lower end always starts with a C-bend above but deviating from that the last letter of this potsherd has an additional vertical line above the C-bend (Falk, 2014). Somadeva who also recognized this last letter as the 'da' tried to justify his identification by showing some examples found from the local Brahmi inscriptions (Somadeva, 2010). Dias identified this letter as dri, a conjoint consonent formed by the combination of da and ri (Dias, 2021).

The direction of the reading
Mahadevan's reading of this inscription in both ways: right to left and left to right, was accepted by Ragupathy (Ragupathy, 2010) but dissented by others (Dias, 2021; Falk, 2014; Pushparatnam, 2014; Somadeva, 2010). However, Ragupathy emphasized that the way of the writing in this potsherd needs to be investigated as it was the first time, a single legend is partly read from right to left and partly read from left to right, keeping symbols in the middle (Ragupathy, 2010).

According to the view of Pushparatnam, there is no proper reason to write some inscription from left to right and to write other inscription from right to left (Pushparatnam, 2014). He further says that there are no evidence to prove these dual trends of writing inscriptions on pottery (Pushparatnam, 2014).

The reading
Mahadevan read the inscriptions as "thiraLi muRi":  "written agreement of the assembly" (Mahadevan, 2010). He pointed out this as evidence for the presence in southern Sri Lanka of a local Tamil mercantile community organized in a guild to conduct inland and maritime trade at the close of the 3rd century B.C. (Mahadevan, 201). However, all the other scholars who tried to read this potsherd later didn't agree with this reading of Mahadevan (Dias, 2021; Falk, 2014; Pushparatnam, 2014; Ragupathy, 2010; Somadeva, 2010).

Ragupathi pointed out that it is doubtful to assume that traders had written their business deal on small pottery of day-to-day use (Ragupathy, 2010). Also, he argued that the word "muRi" which stands for "arrangement" began to appear in inscriptions for the first time since the 7th century A.D. (Pushparatnam, 2014; Ragupathy, 2010).

The validity of the interpretations (of scripts, language, and reading) by Mahadevan was critically reviewed by Falk in his academic work published in 2014;

Mahadevan took letters 4 and 5 as symbols, placed inside a running text as nowhere else. There are two symbols in Paranavitana 1970 nos. 1051 and 1052, but both end a full sentence. Mahadevan took the l+i+u as a miswritten Dravidian alveaolar l+u→lu, and he took the d+i+u as alveolar retroflex ra+i. But the form of the ra with a forked lower end always starts with a C-bend above (Mahadevan 2003: 221 chart 5B), not with a vertical as our letter da does.
That means that Mahadevan’s reading of a retrograde Tamil text (lirati →tirali + + murī) with its alleged meaning “Written agreement of the assembly”) is excluded as it presupposes too many exceptions: l+u+i hardly stand for li; if ti would have to be read, the letter would have been inscribed retrograde with an -i- hook placed on top of the vertical instead of lower down the vertical as in li, ni and di; ra would have a form which does not yet exist. Symbols in the middle of a sentence are unknown, as are Brāhmī texts on vessels written from right to left. His “text” constructs a word (tirali) which is not found anywhere else and the alleged meaning has absolutely nothing to do with a dining plate.
Citation: Falk, 2014. p. 65.

Ponnampalam Ragupathy's interpretation
An article by Dr. P. Ragupathy appeared on the TamilNet website under the title "An inscribed piece of pottery from Tissamaharama", on 28 July 2010 (Ragupathy, 2010). In this article, Ragupathi agreed with Mahadevan's identification of the scripts, language, and reading directions but was inclined to derive a new and proper reading than him (Ragupathy, 2010). By using long explanations and derivations, Ragupathy showed that "muRi" and "thiraLi" both can have many meanings in the Tamil language and therefore, it may be more appropriate to consider the meaning of the word "muRi" as a measuring utensil or a standard cubic measure while the meaning of the "thiraLi" as a piece of equipment to a mass (Ragupathy, 2010). According to Ragupathy, the "tiraLi muRi" may also mean "a mould for cooked rice" or "a measure for rice balls". Further, it could also be interpreted as "the vessel specified to serve rice portions" (Ragupathy, 2010).

Deviating from the conclusion by Mahadeva, Ragupathy finally thought that this potsherd may not perhaps mean the presence of a Tamil trade guild but means the presence of ordinary Tamil-speaking people in the population (Ragupathy, 2010).

Raj Somadeva's interpretation
By publishing an article in a local Sinhala newspaper, Prof. Raj Somadeva tried to convince that the inscription that appears on the potsherd is Brahmi and not Tamil-Brahmi as interpreted by Mahadevan  (Somadeva, 2010). He read the inscription from left to right and suggested a new interpretation by showing evidence from other Sri Lankan Brahmi inscriptions (Somadeva, 2010).

Tissamaharama potsherd, reading by Somadeva .
Harry Falk's interpretation
Harry Falk has interpreted the inscription on this potsherd more carefully. He describes this artefact as a piece of a dining plate with an alleged Tamil legend (Falk, 2014). Considering the letters appear on the potsherd as Brahmi, he showed that the only single meaningful word that could be extracted from the inscription is Shamuda, if it is read as a standard Ceylonese Prakrit in ordinary Brahmi running left to the right (Falk, 2014). He further thinks that the original inscription on it may have been enhanced by the owner or someone else (Falk, 2014).

I suspect that after śamuda was written, that either the owner or someone else “enhanced” the legend with vowel signs at the da, then to the left of the śa and then added more and more letters to the left of śa, first na+i+u+u, then a straight ra with -i and with a stroke slanting to the left, then the wavy ra, then la with -i and -u. All additions with no meaning at all.
Strange as the case is, it is not singular. One more sherd from Tissamaharama provides such “enhancements”:
Citation: Falk, 2014. p.65.

Tissamaharama potsherd, reading by Falk
Pushparatnam's interpretation
Pushparatnam tended to read this inscription from left to right (Pushparatnam, 2014). He read it as "Pulaitti muRi" and showed that the second letter from left has a unique characteristic of the Tamil language (Pushparatnam, 2014). He considered Pulaitti as a name of a person who was probably the maker or the possessor of the pottery and Muri as the vessel or container belonging to Pulaitti (Pushparatnam, 2014).

However, the sketch drawn by Pushparatnam is seemed to be a corrupted version of the original graffiti (inscription) that appears on the potsherd.

Tissamaharama potsherd, reading by Pushparatnam
Malini Dias's interpretation
Malini Dias who read this inscription as "Porati Mudri" showed that the Brahmi letters on this piece of pottery could belong to the 2nd century B.C. (Dias, 2021). She has pointed out in her article that the word Porati could mean baked beans (Dias, 2021). As per her view, the vessel (now broken) was a measure of one mudri and 96 mudris made a Yava according to the measurements used in ancient India (Dias, 2021).

Tissamaharama potsherd, reading by Dias .
The discovery of this potsherd as well as its legend read by Mahadevan were strangely highlighted on several websites on the internet. Just three days after the publication by Mahadevan, TamilNet which is described as a Tamil nationalist and pro-LTTE website (Fuglerud, 2009) published an article on 27 June 2010 under the title "Tamil Brahmi inscription found in Tissamaharama". In this article, they had attempted to gain an academic approach to hint about their Tamil homeland concept (in Sri Lanka) to others by pointing out some false information (Somadeva, 2010). By the time, only a year had passed since the Sri Lankan government forces had defeated the LTTE, a Tamil secessionist group designated as a terrorist organization by a number of countries (Van de Voorde, 2005).

1) Dias, M., 2021. The South Indian ascendancy depicted in the Tamil inscriptions in Sri Lanka from the 3rd century BCE to 12th century ACE. Ancient Ceylon. No.27. Department of Archaeology, Sri Lanka. pp.43-58.
2) Falk, H., 2014. Owners’ Graffiti on Pottery from Tissamaharama. Zeitschrift für Archäologie Aussereuropäischer Kulturen. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, pp.45-94.
3) Fuglerud, Ø., 2009. Fractured sovereignty: The LTTE’s state-building in an interconnected world. Spatialising Politics: Culture and Geography in Post-Colonial Sri Lanka. p.195.
4) Mahadevan, I., 2010. "An epigraphic perspective on the antiquity of Tamil ". The Hindu (published on 24 June 2010).
5) Pushparatnam, P., 2014. Tamil Brahmi Inscription Belonging to 2200 years ago, Discovered by German Archaeological Team in Southern Sri Lanka. Jaffna University International Research Conference. pp.541-545
6) Ragupathy, P., 2010. "An inscribed piece of pottery from Tissamaharama". Tamilnet. (published on 28 June 2010).
7)  Somadeva, R., 2010. තිස්සමහාරාම කුරුටු ලිපියේ ජර්මානු කියැවීම ශාස්ත්‍රීය නොමග යැවීමක්ද? (In Sinhala). Dinithi: Vol. 1: Issue IV. ISSN 2012-7189. pp.2-5.
8) Van de Voorde, C., 2005. Sri Lankan terrorism: Assessing and responding to the threat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Police Practice and Research, 6(2), pp.181-199.

This page was last updated on 8 December 2023
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