TN to study possible links between graffiti and Indus signs

A possible link between graffiti marks and Indus signs was first expressed by Dr B B Lal, former Director-General of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1962
Last Updated : 12 June 2022, 18:35 IST
Last Updated : 12 June 2022, 18:35 IST
Last Updated : 12 June 2022, 18:35 IST
Last Updated : 12 June 2022, 18:35 IST

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Scholars and archaeologists in Tamil Nadu have always posited a link between graffiti marks unearthed during excavations in the state and undeciphered signs of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC). Though they say there are “similarities” between the two, no methodical study or research was carried out to conclusively establish any link.

To bridge this gap, the Tamil Nadu government will soon undertake a comparative study of the graffiti, and potsherds and the IVC signs. The first-of-its-kind study will be done by the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology (TNSDA) in alliance with Chennai-based Roja Muthiah Research Library, which has an exclusive Indus Research Centre.

While the Damili script has been deciphered, the graffiti marks are yet to be and the foremost question that the project will seek to address is whether graffiti marks were the “intermediatory script” between Indus and Brahmi scripts.

A possible link between graffiti marks and Indus signs was first expressed by Dr B B Lal, former Director-General of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1962 and the issue has been studied since then. Iravatham Mahadevan, a renowned epigraphist, believed inhabitants of IVC spoke a Dravidian language (Tamil) and that they migrated to the South, but many experts did not agree with him and asked for “more evidence.”

Documenting and digitising potsherds and graffiti marks

The project led by Prof. K. Rajan, a renowned academic who has led several archaeological excavations, will document and digitize all inscribed potsherds, both Damiḻi (Tamiḻ-Brāhmī) and the graffiti marks unearthed during excavations conducted by ASI, TNSDA and universities.

These sites are Arikamedu, Karur, Uraiyur, Korkai, Alangulam, Adichanallur, Kodumanal, Porunthai, Keeladi and many other sites -- more than a hundred sites in Tamil Nadu were met with graffiti inscribed potsherds.

Once the digitization project is over, the next step will be to identify the relationship between Indus signs and graffiti marks and ascertain their context.

“Most of the graffiti marks morphologically resemble IVC scripts and are suggestive of a linguistic relationship. The ultimate goal is tracing the cultural link between the Indus script and the graffiti marks,” Dr R Sivanantham, Commissioner, TNSDA, told DH.

The government plans to place the project outcome before scholars for their scrutiny before publishing a report.

The study also comes amidst repeated assertions by Chief Minister M K Stalin that his government will take every step to scientifically prove that India’s history will have to be rewritten from the Tamil landscape.

Graffiti marks and Tamil Nadu

Though many feel a comparative study was long overdue, the government’s move should be viewed from the context of more artefacts and graffiti “similar to the IVC” emerging from Keeladi, a Sangam-Era site located 12 km south-east of Madurai, and Kodumanal, the famous trade-cum-industrial site of Early Historic period.

Add to it, the rich yield of 5,000 graffiti inscribed potsherds and 1,500 Damili inscribed potsherds, including from the Iron Age and Early Historic cultural contexts, besides cave inscriptions in the state -- such large numbers haven’t been found anywhere else in India.

Apart from providing the much-needed archaeological evidence to the literature-rich Sangam Era, carbon dating of artefacts from Keeladi pushed the Sangam period back to at least the 6th century BCE, which scholars call as “narrowing the gap” between IVC and Tamil settlements.

“Almost 90 per cent of the graffiti marks unearthed so far in the country is found in South India, more so in Tamil Nadu. We will document the entire graffiti marks and place it in the public domain for any scholar to look at and decipher. The hypothesis is that the Indus script evolved into graffiti which grew into Brahmi. But we need to prove this with data and decipherment,” Prof Rajan told DH.

“In archaeology, we call it from known to unknown. What is known or already deciphered is brahmi and what is unknown is graffiti. Once graffiti marks are deciphered, it will become easy for us to compare them with IVC signs. There is enough research already on IVC signs,” Prof Rajan added.

‘Comparative study will develop only on parallel lines’

Ravi Korisettar, Adjunct Professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, welcomed the study saying documenting and digitising graffiti marks and potsherds will create a great repository and source for further study for the next generations of scholars.

However, he said a comparative study of graffiti, Damili characters and the IVC will only develop on parallel lines and may not lead to establishing links because of vast spatial and temporal gaps between the three groups of characters.

“While IVC signs ended around 1800 BCE, the megalithic graffiti come to end after the introduction of Ashokan Brahmi in south Deccan Region,” Korisettar said, adding that it is a wise step on the part of the Tamil Nadu Government to place the project in the public domain.

He expressed the hope that “some definite directions” will emerge on the question of graffiti marks being the “intermediary script” between Indus and Brahmi. “I hope the government takes constructive criticism from scholars in the right direction and publishes the report,” Korisettar added.

‘Possible links between IVC and Tamil civilizations’

Indologist R Balakrishnan, who considers Sangam Literature to be the bridge that connects IVC and Tamil civilization of the South, said the Indus population didn't vanish in thin air. The historical period (second urbanization) and the associated scripts like Brahmi and Damili did not emerge from a “vacuum" unconnected to the lived past in the subcontinent, he said.

“The project for digital documentation of graffiti marks and making it available for comparison with the IVC signs will add significantly to unravel the updated prehistory of India,” Balakrishnan, author of critically-acclaimed Journey of a Civilization: Indus to Vaigai, told DH.

He also said the probable links “between the IVC and Tamil Civilization articulated in Sangam texts” and being attested by fresh archaeological evidence have to be estimated with the help of further multidisciplinary evidence.

‘IVC was restricted to a specific geographic area’

However, Korisettar said there was absolute “no connection” between IVC and Tamil settlements as Indus was restricted to the specific geographic area in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, between Balochistan (Pakistan) and north-western India, and, some parts of upper Godavari, and not further south.

“All the trade links of IVC were westwards as well as the movement of people. No link whatsoever with South India. Though Tamil Nadu is rich in precious stones and the bead industry flourished during the early historic period, none of this was traded with the region lying immediately to the North,” he said.

As a fresh attempt is being made to research in uncharted territory, the findings are certain to create a buzz much like the recent findings from excavations.

Published 12 June 2022, 17:55 IST

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