In an article I wrote for a children’s magazine when I was in school, I said that the Indus script – as yet undeciphered – was Tamil. I could say it because Iravatham Mahadevan said so.

A tribute to Iravatham Mahadevan the man who first argued that Indus script was TamilIravatham Mahadevan.
Voices Tribute Wednesday, November 28, 2018 - 16:30

Iravatham Mahadevan died this Monday in Chennai, at age 88. His death is the deepest sense of loss I’ve felt in a really long time. A sharp pang, a great big jab of regret: I have never met the man I’ve thought of as my teacher, my mentor, my friend.

If there was one salve, it was that he died after a long-term archaeological and genetic study proved – as conclusively as these things can be proved – that the people of the Indus Valley were indeed Dravidian, were Tamil.

He lived to see the world slowly wake up to the truth he’d lived for 30 years. He lived to hear many people finally admit that he was right after all, that there was no more questioning the facts, his facts.

For years, since the 1970s, Mahadevan had been waging a very lonely battle to prove that the Indus script – one of the world’s most elusive archaeological mysteries – was indeed a language, and that language was Tamil, or at least Proto-Dravidian.

If there’s any doubt that this was groundbreaking work, that this was pioneering, go to any forum on Facebook and say “Tamil as a language is older than Sanskrit,” and count the number of civil replies. Iravatham Mahadevan did the academic equivalent of this in the 1970s and held his ground against the gale of academic, political, and public opinion. Even today, people doubt that the Indus scripts codify a language. Serious scholars question if the symbols and the scripts are not just totem signs, or brand marks of traders, or at best rudimentary hieroglyphs that do not add up to a comprehensive language.

For years, he wrote paper after paper, published research after research, with some pioneering linguistic studies to show that the scripts did indeed codify a language. He patiently explained the many ways in which one could read a language, and why the Indus was a language. He proved with statistics and analysis that the symbols have relationships to each other, follow specific patterns and have spatial significance, and that they are not – and cannot be – random symbols placed at the whim of an illiterate hand, but the careful and skilled markings of a literate, thinking human. He spoke at colleges and conferences of his findings. He gave away his research to others to build upon. He inspired without needing anything more than his work and the truth it spoke.

I was a masters student, pursuing a mix of archaeology and film production – a course specifically designed by British Archaeologist and Broadcaster Mick Aston to train professionals who could take archaeology out of the academic ivory tower to the communities and people to whom it mattered most. Despite failing health, and a tiring TV production schedule, Mick Aston sat me down one evening, even as cameras were waiting for him, and spoke to me at length about the responsibility each archaeologist had. He told me what I needed to do: tell my people the truth of their past. Tell the world the truth of my people. He spoke at length about communities, about giving people a deep connection to the land and the place they lived in, and a deeper connection to the past. This has been at the back of everything I have done since then. It has guided my actions, helped me understand and explain.

If Mick Aston was a mentor, so was Iravatham Mahadevan. And he did it long before I could pronounce archaeology, before I could put into words what my love of history meant.

His ‘Indus Script: Text & Concordance’ for the first time compiled and presented all of the symbols and signs of the Indus script, and presented statistical analysis of each, showing patterns and relationships that, before then, were not seen. For any linguist, for any epigraphist, this was essential to understand a language and a script.

But for me, the tables did more. They unlocked a world, unlocked an imagination of a past, a vision that would spur me on take up history and archaeology as both formal disciplines of study, and a life-long pursuit. Those symbols – written by my ancestors 4,500 years ago, and tabulated and presented by Iravatham Mahadevan five years before my birth – would give me my biggest passion.

In an article I wrote for a children’s magazine when I was in school, I said that the Indus script – as yet undeciphered – was Tamil. I could say it because Iravatham Mahadevan said so, and for 14-year-old me, it was the biggest thrill that the language I spoke (and was learning to read and write in) was perhaps older than any other.

Iravatham Mahadevan helped decipher the Tamil Brahmi script, which allowed later archaeologists to read the inscription on stone celts discovered in Keezhadi, thus telling us that Thisan or Theesan owned a stone celt in his life. Giving us not just history, but narrative. We could hold on to this name, these people and their stories and their lives and realise that the Tamil story, the Tamil civilisation stretched well into antiquity.

When the Roja Muthiah Library was set up, with a special Indus Research centre, Iravatham Mahadevan gave them all his papers and research on the Indus, thus allowing me – with an internet connection – to spend hours reading and understanding. And imagining.

Imagining a 4,500 year old Utopia, a living breathing actual Utopia that left evidence of its existence in archaeology. With its East-West cities where the walls never need be thick enough to ward off invaders, because peace and equality were taken for granted. Where the ruler was the priest and this was not a hereditary position, but just an office one went to. Behind every symbol Iravatham Mahadevan presented, and the many he deciphered and interpreted, I could imagine a story – an existence, a way of life, a truth.

It was Iravatham’s papers that allowed me to talk to students in community colleges on the antiquity of the Tamil language. It was his research which allowed me to glibly dismiss any claims to classic status by any other language. It was his research which allowed me to truly appreciate the importance of those fleeting lessons in school, and those rushed columns in newspapers.

These, and more, are why I have felt the sharpest pain of loss for any person’s death. That a person who left such a strong impact on the study of history, is no more. Someone who told the truth about history and allowed many others to dream of doing the same, is no more.

RIP sir.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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