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Friday, October 2, 2020

Reading Ancient Texts

  In my book on Our Shared Sacred Space I devoted a chapter on how to read sacred texts. Some of those points are relevant to reading any ancient text. If we read with an open mind, we can learn many things about the history, geography, language, customs and so much more. This is true particularly to Indian literature. It is only through these texts that most of Indian History has been reconstructed, since our ancestors did not leave many monuments behind. Even what they left were ravaged by the weather and the invaders. Even the bodies were cremated and there are not many funerary relics either.

I re-learnt this lesson when I studied Silappadikaram, a literary Tamil classic written sometimes before the 6th century CE. The text suggests that it was influenced by writers from earlier generations and the grammar. Obviously, the south had already felt the influence of the north particularly the four Vedas, Samkhya philosophy and of the language, Sanskrit. Jainism and Buddhism came from the north.

The first fact I discovered, re-discovered was, that the Tamil language was very advanced. It had a vast amount of literature already. Its grammar was as advanced as that in Sanskrit. Music and dance were very advanced with their own grammar and structure. The port city of Poompuhar was a major center for foreign trade. The culture of the people of Poompuhar was probably so advanced that they were the envy of other city-states. 

Indeed, there was a settlement of foreigners – the name used was yavana, referring to people of Roman and Greek origin. It is a term suggesting the origin of these people near the Ionian Sea. Some of you may know that there is an archeological site near Puducherry called Arikamedu where there was a Roman settlement in the 1st century of CE.

I re-learnt the classic description of Tamil land as consisting of seashore (neydal, நெய்தல்), countryside (marudam,மருதம்), forest and pastoral land (mullai,முல்லை), mountain (kurinci,குறிஞ்சி) and arid land (paalai, பாலை). From the descriptions of these lands I learnt about the trees, flowers , birds and animals common in those lands. Some of them are familiar and some seem to have become extinct. Various deities specific to each of these five lands are given. It appears that early temples were already existent at that time because temples of Tiruppati and Srirangam are mentioned.

We know that the Goddess of the waste land was named Korravai, who may be the forerunner of Durga and Kali in our days. It also appears that those who worshipped her lived in waste lands and lived essentially by robbing travelers and that they probably practiced human sacrifice. 

I was amazed at the depth of knowledge the author (Ilango, a prince turned Jain monk) had of music and dance. Indeed, he must have been a scholar and teacher. I learnt that many of the ragams (melodic scale) we hear now and the taalams (rhythmic structure) that are used now had their forerunners at that time in history. It could not have been imported idea because the ragas and taalams had their own unique Tamil names with no hint of phonemic similarity. He also knew how the music instruments were constructed and how the strings were attached.

Finally, there are names of several food items (அப்பம், பிட்டு, எள்ளுருண்டை for example), various ornaments women dancers wore in the arms, legs, waist, and hair. 

Some new words in Tamil I learnt are:  கங்குல் (night, darkness), யாக்கை (body), வெகுளி (anger), குரவன்           (one worthy of respect, could be a parent), கடம் (path, specifically a path in an arid land) and              வாரணம் ( may mean elephant, a rooster or a pig). And many more words, some of them we still use.

Finally, even though I do not have any knowledge of ancient classic Tamizh, I still could enjoy the beauty of this classic. 

I also learnt that Tamizh is the oldest continuously used language in the world. (

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