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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 


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Home  > The Tamil Heritage - History & Geography > Tamil Civilization - the Origins

Tamil Civilization - the Origins

J.M. Rajaratnam, 1998

Excavations in 1920 - 22 at Harappa & Mohenjodaro (which lie in what is now Pakistan) confirmed the existence of a hitherto unknown civilization in the Indus Valley. Contacts with dated phases of Mesopotamian civilizations showed that the great cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, built of brick, including well constructed houses, a regular city plan and an elaborate covered drainage system, were flourishing before and after 2350 BC. After this discovery the Indus Valley took its place with Mesopotamia and Egypt as the home of one of the oldest evolved civilizations of the world. It is evident from the excavated material that the civilization was essentially indigenous in character.

Indications exist that Harappa and Mohenjodaro which were strongly fortified citadels with rectangular watchtowers at regular intervals were seats of centralized government resembling that of autocratic priesthoods or priest-kings who combined the secular and religious administration, similar to temple rulers of Ur in Mesopotamia. Seventy-five smaller sites have been identified with a distance between the two extreme points of more than 1000 miles North to South, and 300 miles East to West. Its area exceeded contemporary civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Iran.

The Harappa site, unfortunately, fell into the hands of brick-diggers and this vandalism is one of the greatest losses to archeology as otherwise more knowledge about the Indus Valley culture would have been available. Excavations have revealed nine occupation levels, one above the other, indicating long periods of prosperity and then decline. It was finally abandoned around 1700 BC.

In addition to dwelling houses, there were well-organized workmen's quarters, workmen's platforms for pounding grains, and granaries. Roofs of buildings were flat and were made of wood, reed and mud. Walls were often 5 feet thick and the size of the average house was 35 ft by 35 ft with several rooms placed around a central courtyard. A majority of the houses were two stories high and some were even higher. They appear well designed and comfortable, with most having bathrooms and a circular well.

The most remarkable building at Harappa is the "Great Granary" with dimensions of 168 X 135 feet, possibly serving as a public storage, and at Mohenjodaro, the "Great Bath", possibly used for religious or ceremonial bathing. The dimension of a large palace was 242 X 112 feet and another was 177 X 116 feet.

Their system of drainage is the most complete ancient system yet discovered and might almost be termed "modern". A brick lined channel flowed down every street and into this main drain ran small tributary drains from the houses on either side. The drains were covered over with brick laid a few inches below street level and which could be lifted if necessary, to inspect or clean.

The streets run in straight lines from East to West and are crossed by others at right angles going north to South, making these cities to be considered the earliest examples yet discovered where a scheme of town planning existed. Everywhere the impression is of order and symmetry. Some of the main streets of Mohenjodaro are of considerable size. Sir John Marshall the expert archeologist has marveled at the planned city and drainage system and says that such wonderful buildings were never found in any other ancient civilization.

Some slight differences in the earthenware found in Harappa and Mohenjodaro led researchers to the conclusion that Harappa was older than Mohenjodaro.

Their ships sailed from the western port of Lottal excavated in what is now Gujerat.

The skeletal remains belong to heterogeneous races. Both cities seem to have been cosmopolitan as they had a floating population owing to their commercial character. The valley had flanks open to the intrusion of other races and the interior was occupied from times immemorial by races of comparatively lower stages of development. The main stock of the people had affinities with the Mediterranean people. Other types found were Austro-Asiatic and some Mongolian and Alpine people from the Central Asiatic highlands. The burials contained large collections of pots numbering 15 to 40. The dead wore ornaments - shell bangles, necklaces, anklets of paste beads, a copper finger ring, and earrings of thin copper wire.

In their pottery there is everything from huge storage jars down through a wide range of household utensils to tiny delicate domestic containers. Pottery is wheel-made and well fired and generally shows a thick red fabric, often treated with a bright red slip. There are offering stands, beakers, cups & saucers, goblets, dishes, basins, ladles, heaters, cooking pots and water pitchers. Painted designs include foliated and geometrical devices, mostly inter-locking circles, vase, comb, and scale motifs. Toilet articles included handled copper mirrors (the copper, when polished, had to do for the still undiscovered glass), antimony rods, shell spoons and mother of pearl shells.

Other items found are chisels, axes, saws, knives, spears and arrowheads, even a copper razor; also fish hooks, needles, frying pans and even a dinner dish with cover. There are bone and ivory objects, statuettes in stone and red sand stone with details worked out with extreme realism and artistic skill. Though antedating the Greco-Roman statuary by about 2000 years, it can easily stand comparison to it. There were also inlaid work and high-class miniature statuary.

Of the large number of terracotta human figurines found at Harappa, the majority are female, nude, except for a narrow girdle round the hips. Many wear a distinctive fan-like headdress at the back of the head and are bedecked with profuse jewelry. Similar features favor the belief that they were sacred images representing the "Great Mother Goddess" whose images are found in large numbers in Iran, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Male figurines were nude and mostly bearded and wore long hair at the back. The figurines were modeled by hand and painted red. There were similarities with such objects found in the Middle East around the second millennium B.C. Animal and bird figurines were also found in large numbers.

The figural art is also illustrated by steatite seals bearing life-like representations of such animals as Brahamani bull, buffoon, tiger, rhino, crocodile, unicorn, a human figure with horns and a tail, and a horned tiger. The seals also bear short inscriptions in pictographic script. The plastic art was also well developed.

Ornaments are of many materials - terracotta, shell, copper, bronze, beads, precious metals overlays with gold, ivory, carnelian and other stones. Necklaces & pendants of beads of semi-precious stones are most common. Square disc-shaped etched carnelian beads decorated with white designs similar to those of Mesopotamia & Iran have also been found, to indicate trade with those neighbors to the west. Gold necklaces, armlets, bangles, finger rings and fillets for head wear were worn both by men and women while carnelian beads, earrings, nose studs, anklets and conical head ornaments were worn exclusively by women.

The most characteristics of all objects found are the seals and sealings. Some Indus Valley seals found in Mesopotamian sites have helped to establish the close connections between the two cultures and to fix a date for the Indus Valley civilization. The date of the Indus Valley has been fixed with some certainty as contemporaneous with the early dynastic period of Babylonia - about 2500 - 1800 B.C. It must be remembered that it depends on Mesopotamian chronology, and any modification of the latter must entail a corresponding re-dating of the Indus Valley finds.

Their system of weighing was binary, the ratio being 1:2:4:8:16:32:64. Of a large number of weights found, very few were fraudulent. Copper and bronze were used for making domestic utensils, implements, statuettes and ornaments. The total absence of iron made implements indicates that they belonged to the Bronze Age.

Agriculture was the main occupation. They grew wheat, barley and date palm and were meat eaters. The existence of brick lined street drains and rain water pipes, the universal use of brick in construction and the representation of the seals of animals such as the tiger, rhino, elephant and buffaloes which favor moist habitat showed that the Indus Valley enjoyed heavy rainfall. They bartered crop surplus to import essential raw materials such as metals and other commodities. The architecture was plain and utilitarian. The aim seems to have been to make life comfortable rather than luxurious. Their religion seems to have included "Mother Goddess", and trees and animal worship.

It is certain that they were of non-Aryan racial stock and highly civilized, possessing a high standard of art and craftsmanship and a well-developed system of pictographic writing that had existed for a considerable period before the arrival of Indo-Aryans. It could be that they were invaders as their settlements have also been found in Baluchistan. They were probably already highly civilized before they entered the country. Almost all experts call the civilization "proto-Dravidian" and many are of the opinion that they are the ancestors of Tamils.

Prof Ra. Mathivanan, a research scholar, has determined that letters found in the Harappa inscriptions were ancient Tamil. The pictographic writing found under a painting on a rock formation in the South Arcot district of Tamil Nadu was the same as that found in the Indus Valley. A four foot long brick found during excavations in the Karunool district of Andrapradesh has inscriptions in Indus Valley letters. A seal found during excavations in Anaicoddai in Eelam contained both Indus Valley letters and brahmic script. All these have been translated into modern day Tamil.

More evidence of who the Indus Valley people were is found in the translations of the Vedas ( which were written by the Aryans who came to India some 3500 years ago) by H.H. Wilson, Ralph Griffith, and A.A. McDonnell and A.B. Keith in English and by M.R. Sambunatha Iyer in Tamil. The Indus Valley people are described as noseless, black and godless barbarians. They are called Dravidians, Thasar, Thayook, Asurar, Arakkar, Rakshather and Sutra. They are also described as anti-gods, chandalas, milechas, sons of prostitutes and in many other derogatory terms. However, their courage and fighting abilities are praised. There are several reference to the town of Hariyupa (later became Harappa).

Some of the many major kings of the Thasar (Tamils) referred to in the Vedas are Samparan, Varacinan, Viruthiran and Susunan with whom the Aryans fought many battles. With Samparan they fought over a period of 40 years. Several sub-rulers and army chiefs are also mentioned. Thanu who went to the battle front to help her son Viruthiran and Kiraki and Arayi, wives of the sub-ruler Kijava, who also went to the front are some of the heroines mentioned. Even today these names are common in parts of Tamil Nadu. The army of the Tamils had women battalions.

The Vedas also refer to the Dravidians occupying the whole of the then known India from the Himalayas to Cape Comrin. They also mention that during the war the Aryans killed hundreds of thousands of Tamils, took several as slaves, destroyed several cities and fortresses, plundered their wealth, broke dams against rivers and bunds of tanks thus inundating the areas, and took their livestock and weapons.

The abandoning of Harrapa and Mohenjodaro was probably due to several factors such as sacking and flooding by invaders, progressive desiccation of the Indus Valley and dangers of floods.

There is no doubt that the civilization was ancient and well advanced. Tamils should be proud to belong to it.

[see also

Asko Parpola of Finland, a world expert on the ancient Indus script - one of his major works is to interpret pictographic scripts dating back to Harrapa and Mohenjodaro - he concludes that they are of Tamil origin.

Iravatham Mahadevan, another expert in the field, also comes to the same conclusion ]


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