October 29, 2010
Recently, Mr. Sri Rama Sharma proposed to the Unicode consortium that space be allocated in the Tamil unicode block for Grantha (Sanskrit) characters. This has occasioned considerable discussion, as one might expect. Some have seen this as an attempt to Aryanize Tamil, to deprive it of its basic character. At the same time, there is an extensive manipravalam literature in Tamil which must use Sanskrit sounds if it is to be accurately represented. There are several ways that have been used to do this in the past. Many such books were published in Telugu script, using the Tamil letters ழ் ற் and ன் for sounds or equivalents that do not exist in Telugu. Others were published using a combination of Tamil and grantha, the writing system traditionally used in Tamil Nadu for writing Sanskrit. Grantha, the only alphabet I know used exclusively for Sanskrit, is part of the heritage of the Tamil people.
It would, in my view, be a serious mistake to include Sanskrit sounds (except for those in general use, like ஜ்) in Tamil unicode. At the same time, it should be possible to write Tamil manipravalam. The solution seems simple. The Unicode consortium is working on the implementation of Grantha. When we have that, someone can write an editor that allows easy switching between unicode Tamil and Grantha. The editor might have text entered in Roman and then converted; for example, abhayam would give all Tamil characters, but would use the Grantha character for bh. Another option is that many operating systems make it easy to switch from one unicode language to another (it is command-space on my Mac), and this would also make it simple to use Grantha glyphs for Sanskrit sounds.
In the end, I think it is important to preserve Grantha and not let it be entirely supplanted by Devanagari. In more recent times, many books have appeared that use Devanagari for Sanskrit and Tamil for Tamil — producing a result that is readable but rather ugly. It would be especially unfortunate if Devanagari came to be used in the middle of Tamil words. Using Grantha for such purposes is both desirable and necessary, as the combination of Grantha and Tamil has a long history (including many inscriptions).
Keeping Grantha and Tamil separate, with separate Unicode blocks, should satisfy everyone. If one looks through Sangam literature or Kampan, there is not a Grantha letter to be found. In modern Tamil books, the only Grantha letters are those few that are needed for foreign words. There is absolutely no need to expand the Tamil unicode slots to include the unused Grantha letters. The inclusion of Sanskrit sounds in Tamil, where necessary, can easily be accomplished by combining Tamil and Grantha, leaving Tamil as it is at present.