Perceptive scholars of Indian epigraphy, including Tamil epigraphy, well versed in the relevant disciplines have been of the forthright view since decades ago, that Tamil should have had its own script centuries before the time of Asoka and that the so called Brahmi script used by Asoka should have evolved later on and that too only from that script. The views of two of them, T.N.Subrahmanyan (1938/1957) and K.V.Ramesh former Director of Epigraphy of India (2006) are reproduced in the Notes below 1 and 2. I have also in my “Date of Early Tamil Epigraphs” JOURNAL OF TAMIL STUDIES, NO 65, June 2004 pp77-88 analysed this issue and pointed out that there is convincing evidence suggesting that the early Tamil script was not derived from the script of Asokan inscriptions, but existed in Tamilnadu well before the period of Asoka – i.e. at least from 6th – 5th century B.C.
2. Clinching evidence for the above stand emerged when a cist burial ( obviously of a minor chieftain) excavated by Dr.Rajan of Pondicherry University in 2009 in a Megalithic grave at Porunthal village on the foot hills of the Western Ghats, 12 km from Palani yielded a few artefacts, namely
I) two ring-stands (purimanai) inscribed with the identical word ‘va-y-ra’ (meaning diamond) in Tamil script, together with
II) a four legged jar with 2 kg of paddy inside it.
The milieu of this find enabled the fixing of the dates of the inscription as contemporary with that of the paddy. Two different samples of the paddy were carbon dated separately by Accelcrated mass spectroscopy (AMS) through Beta Analysis Inc, Miami, U.S.A) and the samples yielded respectively the dates 490 B.C. and 450 BC. ( T.S.Subramanian’s articles in THE HINDU Aug 11,2011 and Oct 11, 2011)
3. (a) The Archaeological context at Tamilnadu level justifying the reasonableness of the above much earlier dates for Tamil (Tamil-Brahmi) inscriptions has been argued convincingly in K.Rajan’s (2009) ‘Archaeological Context of Tamil – Brahmi script – some issues’ in the International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics 38-1. Jan 2009. 57-86
(b) The still wider (geographically and chronologically) Archaeological context of relationship between the proto-Dravidian Indus civilisation and the south Indian Dravidian Megalithic culture(from 1500 BC or earlier) will vouch for the reasonableness of the view of scholars like Poornachandra Jeeva (2004) who thinks that Indus Script is really Syllabic (and not “logo-syllabic” as Parpola and others take it to be). The Proto- Dravidian provenance of Indus Civilization culture, religion, artifacts(including weights and measures—see Venkatachalam(1983), language and script is accepted universally by all competent and unbiased scholors – Heras in 1950s to Zvelebil, Parpola, Wolpert, Mahadevan, R.Balakrishnan et al (vide bibliography) in our times. Therefore the following scenario envisaged by Jeeva can be accepted tentatively, till a better alternative emerges:-
“There was prolonged contact between Indus civilization and the Middle East civilization of the speekers of Sumerian, Akkadian, Aramaic etc. It was in the Indus syllabic script milieu that the phonetic concept arose first. In the Tamil land in South India of those times the ‘Tamil’ (or its fore-runner) script was evolved utilizing diacritic marks to indicate “vowel-consonants”. On the other hand the Phonecians who borrowed the phonetic concept from Indus people, did not resort to diacritic marks but evolved a Syllabary on the lines of consonant + vowel = vowel consonant (v+o = vo). The Tamil model did not evolve at once but only gradually and all other Indic scripts (including Asokan Brahmi) followed suit”.
4. The above lengthy prolegomena is unavoidable before proceeding to the object of this paper, namely to point out the unacceptability of the ex cathedra pronouncement of Dr Nageswamy in his MIRROR OF TAMIL AND SANSKRIT 2012 (one among many other such pronouncements in that book) that there was no pre-Asokan Tamil inscription; that in Saraswathi valley (present Punjab) where Sanskrit grammatical discourses were alive in pre Asokan times, the Brahmins should have evolved the Brahmi ( called Bammi in Prakrit) script in tune with the requirements of Sanskrit, taking into account also the relevant forms in Greek and Aramaic alphabets; and that Asoka utilized that Brahmi script for his inscriptions in most parts of India; Tamilnadu did not have any script at all before Asoka. The maverick nature of this pronouncement will be clear from paras 1-3 above. However it will be useful to set out some of his dicta and comment on them.
5.(i) Dr. Nagaswamy’s view (page 59)
It is also known that there was no form of readable writing in the south beyond Kanchi to Kanyakumari either during or after him and so any claim that Brahmi Script was originally the script which was adopted of by Asoka later is untenable.
Paras 1-2 above rebut this categorically. Apart from the recent Poruntal datings the other pre-Asokan Tamil inscriptions are
(1) Tamil word found inscribed inside a funeral urn excavated at Adichanallur in 2005 (pre 500 BC according to Dr.T.Sathyamuruthi and M.D. Sampath). The Hindu, February. 17, 2005
(2) Words on sherds excavated at Anurathapura dated to BC 600 – 500 by Deraniyagala. (Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol.II, Radio Metric dating of Early Tamil Brahmi Script in Sri lanka 600-500 B.C. p.745); Bridget and Reymond Allchin’s calibrated date 370-340 B.C.
(3) Alagankulam pottery sherd inscription dated to BC 360 according to Nagaswamy himself. (Carbon 14 dating, Alagankulam Carbon)
(4) Korkai pot-sherd inscription in Tamil dated to 300 B.C. by Ngaswamy himself.(Damilica, vol. I,p. 51,(1970).
(5) Mangulam (near Madurai) inscription; 5th B.C. (Natana .Kasinathan, Tamilakam Harappan Nakarikat Tayakam, (2006), P.24)
(6) Pulimankombai dolmen and Dhadapatti menhir inscriptions discovered by Tamil University, Thanjavur. ( Prior to 3rd century B.C. (Dinamalar 5.4.2006, Hindu.5.4.2006:Dinamalar Trichy edition 23.9.2006).
(7)Battiprolu casket inscription : 4th century BC ( Dr.Jitendra Dass’s statement appeared in Hindu, on 20.12.2007.)
Obviously Dr Nagaswamy has chosen to ignore all the above facts; The figures in the Appendix will show how the Asokan Brahmi evolved new forms for “varga” letters by simple addition of strokes, circles and curves to basic “k” etc: besides new forms of other Prakrit letters.
5.(ii) Dr. Nagaswamy’s view (page 60)
It seems to us the script that was used by Brahmanas was called Bammi and we may not be wrong to identifying the Brahmi script as an invention of Brahmanas.
Bammi is one of the 18 scripts mentioned in the Jain work Samavayanka Sutta (circa BC 300) and in 1968 Nagaswami himself had expressed the view that both Bammi and Damili are probably derived from a common source. Bammi in Prakrit is written as Brahmi in Sanskrit. But it is far-fetched to argue that Brahmi should have been created by Brahmins. Nowhere has it been mentioned that the script of Asokan inscriptions is Bammi. D.P.Verma mentions ( The Origin of the Brahmi script, 1979: p 109) that Bammi might have referred to a pictorial script. Perhaps it might have referred to a Harappan-like script. Asokan inscriptions (except in Northwestern India) are all in Prakrit with certain minor variations of detail. Before Asoka, Prakrit (like Sanskrit) had also probably no script; that is why there are no words inscribed on the Archaeological artifacts in North India till Asokan period.
Bammi script in Prakrit language ought to be equivalent to Brahmi script in Sanskrit Language. Similarly Damili script in Prakrit language is equivalent to Dravidi in Sanskrit. It is acceptable. In this context those who believe that Asoka used the Bammi script for his inscriptions should have called Asokan’s script only ‘Bammi’ not ‘Brahmi’ which was a later name used for Bammi in Sanskrit Language. Further these scholars should have called South Indian or Tamilian script as Damili instead of South Indian Brahmi or Deccan Brahmi or Tamil Brahmi. If they desire to use the later Sanskrit equivalent of ‘Damili’ they should have called it ‘Dravidi’.
The Westerners were more eager to mention the Sanskrit name than Prakrit name. Because they were then of the opinion that Sanskrit is the earliest branch of Indo-European Languages. The Indian elite also followed the suit.
Damili is the Prakrit term and Dravidi the Sanskrit term for Tamil. Hence all the scholars who are in this field should prefer to use the term “Tamil” script than the Sanskrit name Brahmi ( or Tamil Brahmi)
5.(iii) Dr. Nagaswamy’s view (page 60)
Asoka was quick to recognize the importance of regional languages and scripts as evidenced by the Greek and Aramaic scripts in the North West and that Bammi was the invention of the Brahamans in the service of Asoka, drawn from the experience of seeing writing in NW India and devising a script for Sanskrit tradition before Asoka”s Kalinga war.
This is also a baseless inference. Aramaic and Kharoshti were written from Right to Left. Whereas Asokan Brahmi is written from Left to Right like Tamil. For Northwest India, Asoka followed the Kharoshti script known there; and for South India he followed the Bammi, a modified version of the Tamili in use in South India since a few centuries earlier.
5.(iv) Dr. Nagaswamy’s view No.4 (page 60)
Asoka has not left any inscription in Tamil or other language. Therefore we come to the conclusion that there was no Tamil script prior to Asoka.
The Tamil country was never under Asokan (Mauryan) rule. But was ruled by Chera, Chola, Pandyan kings and chieftains like Atiyaman (Paras 1-3 above have marshelled the evidence for the wide use even by common people of the Tamil script from BC 5th century or earlier). There is ample evidence for the gradual evolution of the Tamil script in Tamilnadu and South India (and an analogous script in use in Ceylon) from much earlier than 500 BC. There are references to different varieties of script in the verses quoted in the commentary to the last Sutra of YAPPARUNKALA VIRUTTI (11th c.AD), The nikantus, Pinkalantai and Divakaram also refer to different varieties of script.
Had the “Saraswati valley” Brahmans created a new script (later used by Asoka) as Nagaswamy believes, such an epochal achievement would have been recorded repeatedly in resounding terms. But we find no reference to such an event in any of, say the following works, which would have recorded it if it had really happened:-
Katyayana (3rd C BC) in his Varttikas mentions only Yavanani script)
Pathanjali (2nd C BC) in his Mahabashya on Panini refers to Brahmi only as a medicinal plant.
Brhatkatha, Puranas, Mahabharatha, Ramayana and Historical works lik Bana’s Harshacharita and Kalhana’s Rajatarangini and Ceylonese Mahavamsa also do not mention either Bammi or Brahmi.
Amarakosa, the Sanskrit nikantu: mentions Brahmi only as one of the Saptamatrikas.
The Indian philosophers considered “Brahmi” as divine only as referring to the spoken word, and not as referring to any script as the scholar Sankaranarayanan points out.
5.(v) Dr. Nagaswamy’s view (page 59)
There is a 7th century Chinese annal that speaks of the creation of Brahmi and Kharoshti script in India and by Indians . We may confidently say the invention of Brahmi script was made by Brahamanas in the region of Saraswati valley, Punjab.
What he mentions as “Chinese Annals” is obviously the CHINESE ENCYCLOPEDIA, Fa – Wan – Shu – Lin, dated 668 A.D, in which the author of the relevant entry mentions only the Brahmi script running from left to right was created by Brahma (God) referred to in Chinese as “Fan”.
5.(vi) Dr. Nagaswamy’s view (page 30)
Scholars mainly rely on palaeographical evidence to date the cave inscriptions, the earliest of them vary from 3rd century B.C to 2nd century C.E.
Till some 25 years ago Scholars relied mainly only on Palaeographic evidence . When the excavations at Korkai, Kodumanal, and Alagankulam, revealed Archaeological evidences also, such evidence also began to be used. Korkai has given a carbon date to 3rd century B.C as Nagaswamy himself announced. Kodumanal inscribed sherds were, dated to 4th century B.C. by Dr. Rajan and Alagankulam sherds assigned to 4th century B.C. vide my Tamils Heritage (2006), p.78.
Leave alone the recent irrefutable Porunthal datings 490/450 B.C., it is not clear how Dr. Nagaswamy chose to ignore all the said earlier datings also.
It is pathetic to find that he safely ignored all those above datings proved by the archaeological evidences.
5.(vii) Dr. Nagaswamy’s view (page 32)
The sounds la and na are clearly based on the parent form with slight addition. A stroke is added to the right of Brahmi la to represent this la. So also a curve is added at the top right of Brahmi dental na to represent the sound na (in his book it is na). These are clear adapataions.
The method of the formation of the above letters are acceptable. But it can not be agreed that these were the derivatives from Prakrit Bammi (Sanskrit Brahmi). These letters were the products of those who created Tamil letters.
5.(viii) Dr. Nagaswamy’s view (page 33)
“ It seems to me that, following the method of writing Samyuktakshara in Brahmi, the Tamils have also used ‘tha’ and ‘da’ one above the other. Thus the two letters ‘ra’ (‘tha’ and ‘ta’) and ‘la’ (‘tha’ and ‘da’) are denoted by conjunct letters of the Brahmi and ‘la’ and ‘na’ shown with a slight addition to the Brahmi equivalent. It is therefore clear, that there is no letter in cave inscriptions.which is not a Brahmi letter.
the purport seems to be is to assert that the Samyuktakshara method also was adopted in the Tamil cave inscriptions and that the supposed four special letters la, la, ra and na of Tamil, are also to be considered as Prakrit Bammi (Sanskrit Brahmi).
The method applied for la and na should also be applied for the letters la and ra . The formation of la appears to have happened by making ‘va’ sign upside down (topsy turvy position) extending the lower line through the circle upto the top. in some cases the la is found written in the form of a full circle without a central vertical line and having a small curve at the end of the lower line. (Mangulam, No.3; karungalakkudi, No.34, Sittannavasal; No.49.) Likewise the ‘ra’ sound could have been the basic form for the formation of ‘ra’ sign. In some cave inscriptions ‘ra’ is found written only as a line having few curves. (Nos.8and 9, Tiruvatavur). Hence the top curve of the line could have been altered as a slightly big curve and a slanting line was added on the right of the lower part of the same line. Hence the la and ra letters have also been formed by adding curves and lines.
It is erroneous to argue that the samyuktakshara method was adopted in the Tamil cave inscriptions, these special characters were created by Tamil calligraphists to suit the phonology of Tamil language following the simple method of adding of lines and curves.
5.(ix) Dr. Nagaswamy’s view No.9 (page 36)
The innovation of a dot to denote a pure consonant seems to me an adaptation from the Asokan system.
The renowned philologist T. N. Subramanian’s following remark about the dot is crucial. “It will thus seen that in writing the Tamil language the addition of a dot to the form of ‘i’ denotes the shorter form of it , while in the northern Brahmi it denotes the longer form. Probably the above change was effected in conformity with this southern principle”. (S.I.T.I.Vol.III,Part II,p 1510)(1957)
It is obvious from his observation that the system of applying dot in Tamil alphabets is the reverse of the Brahmi alphabets. It is not correct to argue, that the application of dot to indicate Tamil short ‘e’ and ‘o’ was the adaptation of Asokan Prakrit Bammi alphabets.
In Asokan Prakrit Bammi script the pure consonants do not have dots. If the pure consonants are added with anusvara dots they should be read as ‘kam’ (ka+anusvara), cam(ca+anusvara) etc But in Tamil script if the vowelled ‘Ka’ is added with a dot it should be taken as pure vowelless consonant only and it will not have any added sound. Therefore the innovation of a dot to denote a pure consonant was not an adaptation from Asokan system. The dot system on consonants was also in conformity with the Tamil language principle.
In this conncetion one should bear in mind that in the earlier Tamil cave inscriptions the dot was not used to differentiate either short e or short o from long e or o vowels and they are to be read according to the context only. Dr. Mahadevan’s view and the table given at pages 198, 199 of this book are. He says pulli (dot) does not occur in the early Tamil Brahmi inscriptions and it occurs for the first time in the Late Tamil Brahmi inscription at Anaimalai (No.60 ca 2nd century A.D.) However its use is rare in the late period. The frequency of the pulli (dot) gradually increases until it occurs without exception with all the basic consonants in the early Vatteluttu period. The pulli is however seldom found in pottery inscriptions. It may also be noted that , when compared with its occurrence with the basic consonants, the pulli occurs relatively much less with the short ‘e’ and ‘o’ (initial and medial) even in the Early Vatteluttu period. Nagawamy appears to have ignored all the above facts conveniently. That there was no pulli in the Early Tamil inscriptions is itself a proof that Tamil inscriptions are earlier than Prakrit inscriptions.
Had Tamil script followed the anusvara method for applying dots, why it didn’t adopt the original anusvara system itself. If it had followed the anusvara system it would not have shortened the sound, instead it would have lengthened the sound. Dr.Nagasamy feels the Tamil script had adopted the anusvara as if it would have adopted the entire ‘varga’ forms also for writing varga phonetics. But it did not do so. This also proves clearly that the Tamil script had originated in Tamil Nadu earlier than Prakrit Bummy (Sanskrit Brahmi) of Mauryan Empire. After adopting the Tamil script, the Northerners created varga form in order to suit Prakrit phonetics.
5.(x) Dr. Nagaswamy’s view (page 90)
There is substantial Prakrit usage , especially in the early inscriptions listed by IM. When the very first inscription listed by IM is studied there are only 12 words in it , out of which six Kani, Nandaka, Siri, Kuvakan, Tarumam and Pali are indisputably Prakrit words. In such a usage the language cannot be asserted as Tamil, as claimed, but clearly a mixed language of Prakrit and Tamil……..
The inscription in question reads as follows, in IM’s list.
“Kan-iy Nanda-.a-.siri-y- i
Pana-an- Kadal-an Valutti-y
Kottupitta-a- Pali- iy”
The above inscription does not contains the words Nandaka , Kuvakan, Tarumam and Pali? (Paali) as imagined by Nagaswamy.
The above inscription is readas follows by this author as follows in his Kalleluttukkalai (2009) as stated below.
“Kani Nandasiriyai Kuvanke Dammam itta Netuncaliyan panan katalan valutti kottipitta paliy”. (Pali).
Out of these eleven words only one, Dammam belong to Prakrit; all the other words Tamil .This author has given a table in his recent book Tamilaka Varalarrut Thatayankal (The sources for the History of Tamilnadu, 2011) classifying in separate columns the Prakrit Tamil Pali words of the cave inscriptions. In the same book (page, 83) this author has pointed out that less than 10% Prakrit words are found mentioned in Early Tamil inscriptions and pottery inscriptions. Hence the argument of mixed Prkrit and Tamil language in Early inscriptions is untenable.
6. Conclusion: Asmentioned in paras 1-3 above, read along with the two Foot notes below –the views of the two pre-eminent scholars in the field, T. N. Subramanian and K. V. Ramesh, we can conclude that the Tamil (Damili) script was in use widely in Tamil country (and in adjacent south Indian/Ceylonese regions) since very much earlier than 5th century B.C. ; that after being used by the name “Polindi” in Ceylon it spread to Bhattiprolu and from there to Bengal, Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan with appropriate modifications required by Prakrit language. The Archeological finds such as Punch marked coins, Northern Black Polished ware Pot-sherds, semi precious stones etc., at numerous places in Tamilnadu attest the wide commercial contact between TamilNadu on the one hand and Magadha (and other parts of India ) as well as Ceylon on the other. For his inscriptions adjacent to the Tamil country Asoka just adopted the Tamil (Damili) script with such modifications as were necessitated by Prakrit phonetics (varga letters etc)
1. View of T. N. Subramanian (in his South Indian Temple Inscriptions,Volume III , part II ,(1957) work).[ He had expressed the same views earlier in tamil in 1938 in his pantai tamil ezhuttukal].
The Brahmi script would have been designed for a Dravidian language very likely the Tamil which was the oldest and primary language of the group and later on adopted for Prakrit when it was evolved synthesizing the Dravidian Languges and made the common language of the whole country.
2. Views of K.V. Ramesh (2006)
1. There was the Damili script, fully answering to the phonetic needs of ancient Tamil in use in the Pandyan tract of the extreme south of the peninsula even before the days of Asoka, though we have, at present, no means of asserting how much before.
2. The script is found used, without the need for using any Indo-Aryan phonetic symbols, not found in ancient Tamil, for writing out a three-letter word ‘arama’, of Buddhist import on a potsherd found at the 5th-4th century B.C. levels of an excavated site in northern Sri Lanka, which sherd should have belonged to the boat people who were plying between the eastern coastline of Northern India and north Sri Lanka.
3. These very boat people carried this Damili (Polindi) script first to Bhattiprolu and then to Bengal, eastern UP and Rajasthan, all the time displaying gradual transformations as demanded by Prakrit and Sanskrit phonetics.
4. It is this script that the composers, writers and engravers of the Asokan edicts used in their writings, introducing in that process, many far-reaching changes and developments which we find in the North Indian vernacular script.
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I am thankful to Thiru.P.Ramananathan former Additional Secretary to Govt for having kindly clarified certain important points in connection with this paper.
* Author of this article is the
Former Director, Tamilnadu State Department of Archaeology.