Romila Thapar lauds Iravatham Mahadevan in his Moment of Passing

Romila Thapar, in The Hindu, 27 November 2019, where the title is “Remembering Iravatham Mahadevan”

“He knew more about Indian epigraphy and the linguistic aspects of Dravidian and Indo-Aryan than some specialists”

I heard the news on Monday morning of the passing of Iravatham Mahadevan and was deeply saddened. Mahadevan, or Jani as his friends called him, was a special person of extraordinary talent and a much-respected scholar despite his having worked in administration for most of his professional life.

I met him first in 1968. I had received a small book from Asko Parpola of the University of Helsinki: it was his initial attempt at deciphering the Indus script. The news that I had a copy spread quickly and I was inundated with callers asking to borrow the book. One of the calls was from Mahadevan: he introduced himself as the Director of Modern Bakeries in Delhi but added that he spent his spare time working on epigraphy and on the Indus script. He added very quickly that he was not a man of idle fantasies but a serious student of the subject. He said he only wanted to come to my house and sit in a corner and read the book, so I took a chance and invited him.

I was startled to discover that he was more knowledgeable about Indian epigraphy and the linguistic aspects of Dravidian and Indo-Aryan than some of the specialists. So we got talking on and off on what he was doing and there were even long telephone calls discussing his theories. This also resulted in a friendship between him and his wife and my mother and myself. He maintained that Gowri made the softest idlis and so she did and we would go to their home for an occasional Sunday brunch.

Two interests

His main interests were two. One was the study of the adaptation of the Brahmi script to Tamil, what came to be called Tamil Brahmi, which was available in large numbers of short inscriptions scattered in south India. The second was the decipherment of the pictograms from the Indus Civilisation, based on the seals in the main, and found in large numbers at Indus sites — what is often called the Indus script.

The first was relatively easier once the language of the inscriptions was recognised as Tamil. It required a few small adjustments which Mahadevan recognised and that he worked out and that enabled him to read them. They had names of people and recorded small gifts. But they were, significantly, the earliest written records in Tamil, dating to a couple of centuries before the Christian Era and continuing for a few centuries. Both the names and the locations of the inscriptions, which were often found on rock surfaces, were important. Mahadevan became quite an explorer of the south Indian landscape in searching for the inscriptions. He published the corpus with readings and annotations in 1966 but the major volume was published as Early Tamil Epigraphy from the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. by Harvard University Press in its prestigious series, the Harvard Oriental Series, in 2003.

Deciphering the Indus script

The work on deciphering the Indus script was a far more complicated study on which he spent half a century. His was not a hit-or-miss reading of what the symbols might represent. He applied the rules of linguistics and determined by positional analysis what might have been grammatical forms. As in all his work, his essentially rational approach was impressive. He realised that there was a need for an up-to-date concordance of all the symbols, so he spent some years preparing this. It was published by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1977 as The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables.

From this Mahadevan moved to examining individual symbols and testing readings in possible languages. He was initially more inclined to read them as designations. Gradually he arrived at an interesting linguistic relationship where he argued that the Harappans were Dravidian speakers with their own distinctive culture and religion. The presence of the later Indo-Aryan speakers led to some degree of cultural and religious inter-connections that are apparent in the sources of the post-Harappan period.

In some ways he continued the earlier tradition of some of the administrator-scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries. What was truly amazing was that he was professionally so good as an administrator and yet, at the same time, was acknowledged as a scholar of a dimension that many of the best scholars would envy.

Romila Thapar is a distinguished historian of early India



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