Iravatham Mahadevan

  • Iravatham Mahadevan – a genius epigraphist who worked relentlessly on decoding and deciphering Brahmi inscriptions and ancient Tamil inscriptions. After Subramanya Iyer, he is the one who is proficient in studying Tamizhi or Tamil Brahmi script.

  • Iravatham Mahadevan was born in Thanjavur in 1930. He finished his education in Trichy and majored in the subjects of science and law. At the age of 24, he started working in civil service. After 27 years of service to the people as a government employee, he opted for voluntary retirement. After retiring, he started working full-time on his research.

  • Initially, Iravatham Mahadevan was interested only in Numismatics. He kept researching coins as a hobby. He was then intrigued by the letters on the coins. He started researching the letters and was determined to find the origin of the Tamil language.

  • In the 1960s, Iravatham Mahadevan successfully decoded the names of Nedunchezhian and Irumboraiyan, 2 kings from ancient south India. Of the 2, the inscription of the Pandiya ruler Nedunchezhian is older. This inscription dates back to 2 BC. This inscription was found in Madurai. The inscription of Irumboraiyan, a Chera King, was found in Pugalur, near Karur. This king’s reign dates back to 2 BC.

  • ‘Indus Valley Civilization was Dravidian by culture’ – Iravatham Mahadevan considered this just as a theory – until the day he uncovered new evidence to support this theory. In the Indian landscape, there are 2 broad categories of languages – Indo-Aryan and Dravidian. Mahadevan observed that the language used in Indus Valley was Dravidian and not Indo-Aryan. Therefore, it is highly probable that the Indus Valley Civilization was of Dravidian origin. To support this, he took the case of Brahui – a language that is still being spoken in parts of Baluchistan and Iran. Brahui was confirmed to be a Dravidian language!

  • Due to the lack of proper proof, Indologists and Sindhologists keep debating on the origin of the Harappan people. ‘Ok, so Harappans were not Aryans. But there is every possibility that they could be Sumerians or Akkadians’ – Researchers from the west presented this question. Sumerians and Akkadians are said to be of Greek lineage. Iravatham Mahadevan replied that it is not possible since there is no trace or influence of Sumerian or Akkadian language on the language spoken in today’s Pakistan or the languages spoken in the northern part of India. No such trace has been seen till date. So the possibility that the settlers were Sumerians or Accordions is far-fetched. [Note: Unlike the Babylonian civilization that presented researchers with clay tablets, the Harappa-Mohenjodaro civilization has presented no written documents or evidence. If any such evidence is discovered amongst the treasures of the Indus Valley Civilization, Iravatham Mahadevan’s theory will have to be revised in accordance with the information found.

  • Undue comments have tried to sway the course of the research pertaining to the Indus Valley Civilization. Religious fanatics tried to slap an Aryan label on the civilization.One of the most valuable symbols found during excavation is a symbol of a unicorn. Unicorn is nothing but a horse with a horn on its head. But how did religion find its way to the unicorn symbol? Besides the unicorn symbol was a drawing of a wine jar. Religious fanatics announced that this jar contained ‘Somabanam’ and that Harappans were Hindus who worshipped Lord Shiva. To this claim, Iravatham Mahadevan said, ‘It is not a jar, it is a sieve.’ But that did not silence the religious fanatics. They countered, ‘Why can’t it be a sieve for Somabanam?’ Iravatham Mahadevan determined himself to counter all such claims with proper evidence. He studied Rig Veda for a year to learn about Somabanam. In the respective chapter, he observed the shape of Pavamana and Indu, which are the sieves used to filter Somabanam. Having learnt this, he showed the shape of Pavamana and Indu to the people who were trying to derail the research. He asked them if there are any similarities between the sieves shown in Rig Veda and sieves drawn by the people of the Indus Valley Civilization. Those who came to argue were dumbstruck.

  • Just as any good work will be claimed by every religion to be inspired by their ideology, the unicorn symbol found in Harappa was also subject to claims by Hindu fanatics that it is a horse as represented in Hinduism. But Iravatham Mahadevan had a reply for them too. ‘During the days of Harappan civilization there were no horses, no carts or chariots to lock the horses to, and no wheel with spokes, to pull a chariot forward. So how do you claim this was a Hindu symbol?’ As expected, the religious fanatics had nothing but silence.

  • The Indus Scripts : Texts, Concordance and Tables’ – a research report released by Iravatham Mahadevan in 1977 – is an important document in this subject. He based this report on the findings of Asko Parpola, a Finnish Indologist. In this report, Iravatham Mahadevan points out the sound similarities between Dravidian language and some of the common words used in the Indus Valley Civilization. For example, let us take the Dravidian word for Fish – ‘Meen’. In the Sindh region, the fish symbol was used quite often. Parpola proposed that this symbol may indicate planets or stars. Iravatham Mahadevan matched this with the tamil word ‘Vinmeen’, which means ‘star’. The symbols fit perfectly in the context when it was replaced with the word ‘Vinmeen’. In Tamil, the planet Venus is also called ‘Venmeen’, which means ‘white star’. Iravatham Mahadevan deciphered the script used to represent the colour white- 2 lines beside a fish symbol. [Note: Till date, there has been no proof that a symbol means so and so. The understandings derived are contextual. Despite being contextual in nature, they are paramount in learning about these ancient cultures. Iravatham Mahadevan’s ‘The Indus Scripts : Texts, Concordance and Tables’ is one such milestone in the Indology and Sindhology]

  • The points we have described are just a few of his highlights. His researches and reports show how deep and accurate the facts he collected are. Despite having started full-time research only after the age of 50, his knowledge on the ancient civilizations is something that will baffle even those who have been learning history since childhood. Anytime anyone speaks about the history of our ancient civilizations, Iravatham Mahadevan will be a part of the conversation, by way of the facts he collected and the contributions he has made.