My Review of Mr. Balakrishnan’s book – Journey of A Civilization

(The review appeared on 1 May 2020 in The Federal)

R Balakrishnan – Journey of a Civilization

Mr Balakrishnan’s  Journey of a Civilization is without doubt a publishing milestone. The book is impeccably produced and it has great charts and photographs. The style of the author is lucid and uncomplicated. He also has a delectable way of presenting his points upfront without padding them in academic mumbo jumbo. Even chapters that are technical in nature are generally readable without much difficulty. He has toiled selflessly for many years and his efforts are very much evident in the book.

The purpose of the book according to the author is this:

This book investigates the connections between two riddles – Indus authorship and the Tamil origins. It seeks to present an argument that not withstanding the spatial-temporal gaps, the ‘point’ at which Indus civilization ends and the point from where the extant ‘Sangam texts’ commences are probably one and the same. This book argues that these riddles are two sides of the same coin and the understanding the pre-history of India cannot be complete without realizing this connection.

We all know that the Indus Valley Civilization itself is a riddle, leave alone its end. What about the ‘Sangam Texts’? At what point do these texts commence? The truth is nobody has any idea. Depending on which camp you belong to, you could either push them back to 3rd century BCE or relegate them to 8th century CE, as Herman Tieken has done. In the Tamil country itself, it has been fashionable to try and push the dates of the Sangam corpus as far back as possible, without bothering about a trifle called proof. For instance, Tolkappiyam, the Tamil work of grammar, has been slotted rather arbitrarily to the 3rd BC or even earlier. But several scholars have dated it as far back as 4th Century CE.  Iravatham Mahadevan, to whom this book is dedicated, says it cannot be earlier than 2nd Century CE.  The first time its name is mentioned is in Irayanar Akapporul which is dated sometime after 8th century CE. It is the same story with the other works of Sangam.  In all probability, the corpus which is available to us was written between First Century BCE and 4th Century CE. It was compiled several centuries later. What is more, the urban societiy it portrays is strongly influenced by Vedic, Jain and Buddhist religions.  It speaks about Vedas and Veda- chanting Brahmins. Tolkappiyam speaks about them. Maduraikkanchi and Pattinappalai do too. Almost every god of the Hindu pantheon appears in these poems. Thus, one has to be very brave to make a claim that he has found a point where the Indus civilization ends and Sangam texts commence without the intruders from the Gangetic plains butting in and spoiling the show. The author is one such brave person. Let us analyze his claims.

A research paper was published in PNAS in the year 2016 which said that words with the same meanings in different languages often seemed to share the same sounds — even when those two languages were completely unrelated. They added, rather significantly, that it would be far too easy to come up with unfounded theories to explain such patterns. The more we looked into languages the more we learnt, the scientists said, that they were extremely complex.

The author tries to do something similar in his book. He finds patterns between the current place-names in the area where Indus valley civilization once prospered and the names used in the Sangam poems. This seems extremely contrived. Let me illustrate with a few examples. The name Korkai, the famous Sangam age port, is found in Afghanistan, the author says, with the slightly changed version of  Korkay and Korgay. But there is a Korka in Nepal, Korka in Madhya Pradesh. Korka also happens to be a European name. If I am not wrong, Korka is the name of a weed in Bengali.  Similarly, Tonti is the name of a town in the state of Arkansas in the US. It is also an Italian name.  Tondi is a village in the Bareilly district of UP and also a town in Estonia. Let us now take Vanji. It happens to be a language in Tajikistan. There is a Vanj river too. A town by the name of Vanci exists in the US. Akuto may be a place name in Pakistan, but it is also a Japanese name, meaning a bad man. Armanabad in Afghanistan is obviously derived from the urdu word (arman – the ultimate goal) rather than from Aruman Atti.  Tamil Nadu during the Sangam period was so thinly populated that an overwhelming majority of the present day towns and villages did not exist in the early years of the Common Era at all. It is farfetched to claim that their names signify the memories of the Indus valley. Moreover, if the same logic is applied  in the case of the present dat Indus valley, the people who moved in there were all outsiders and they would have carried their memories and named the towns and villages they founded in memory of the places they left.  India has more than 6,50,000 villages, Pakistan 45,000 and Afghanistan another 35,000. Since culturally India, Pakistan and Afghanistan share the same ancient heritage, some of the names are likely to be similar. In any case, there is absolutely no clue as to what the original names of the Indus valley cities and villages were. Whatever they were, these places were overrun many times over by various invaders and settlers. Thus, the present name of a place in Pakistan or Afghanistan, is unlikely to have anything to do with the name it might have carried,  when Indus civilization was in existence, if at all the place itself had existed then.

His second theory is that Indus citadels were usually built on the western side (high- west) and the dwellings on the eastern side (low-east) and this could be linked to the Tamil usage of mel and kil.  Mel means west and also an elevated place, while kil means East and also a low- lying place. There is a very simple explanation to this.  Tamil Nadu has mountains on the western side and the land slopes towards the sea on the eastern side. Major rivers of Tamil Nadu join the Bay of Bengal. In the case of Indus valley civilization, the citadels were built on the Western side, most probably because the enemies were likely to arrive from the west. Moreover, even in the Vedic mythology west is treated with some respect., Varuna, who is the god-sovereign and the personification of divine in the Vedas , is the god of the West.

Mr Balakrishnan’s third theory is even more strange. He says rather grandly that “BRW (Black and Red Ware) is the pan-Indian and Sangam literature is pan-Indian literature. The Pot Route that links Indus and Vaigai was made of clay, overlaid with burnt bricks and embellished with copper. It is the red-topped road to Tamil antiquity and the colour was a deep Dravidian red.”

Firstly, while it is true that Sangam literature had absorbed many pan-Indian elements and the Black and Red pottery is found all over India, there is a marked discontinuity in the usage of burnt bricks after the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization. The hiatus is more than one thousand and five hundred years. Burnt brick structures start appearing in the south only around 3rd/2nd Century BCE. What has been found in Keeladi too doesn’t support the claim that there is an unbroken road from the Indus Valley to Vaigai. In the Keeladi report published by the government of Tamil Nadu clearly states that the brick structures excavated belong to the early phase of the Christian era, by which time the Tamil country had come under the influence of the Vedic and other religions. Even this structure can hardly be called massive.  It is because of this inconvenient fact that Professor Rajan in his foreword to the report says, ‘One need not depend on brick structures alone for urbanization, as we could not come across any such massive brick structures even during medieval dynasties such as the Pallavas, Pandyas and Cholas.’  Secondly, it should be sobering to remember that there is not a single Tamil word signifying red brick in Sangam literature. The word செங்கல் appears much later in Tamil literature.   We have the word சுடுமண் which may or may not mean brick. In the entire corpus there are few passages which speak about copper walls, which the author says mean brick walls, but that remains just his surmise. Akananuru speaks of இட்டிகை which is a Tamil rendering of the Sanskrit work Ishtika.  Thus, the burnt brick route could have been laid from the Gangetic plains through the Satavahana empire right up to  the Tamil country.

Incidentally, the God of the Dravidian Red, Murukan, about whom the author writes with such passion is depicted to be a Vedic deity in Paripadal. He is born to பைங் கட் பார்ப்பான் – the Brahmin (Shiva) with lovely eyes.

I am not a for a moment suggesting that we don’t carry the memories of our Indus Valley ancestors. According to a study by Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, the Indus Valley civilisation remained under severe drought for about 900 years around 4,350 years ago, which led people to abandon their settlements and migrate to southern and eastern regions of India. This migration must have happened very slowly and not in large number. The  entire India must therefore be carrying  tiny slivers of  memory of the Indus valley civilization. The Tamil country is not alone. But carrying memories and continuing with the most essential material elements of a civilization are two different things.

The Indus Valley people were great builders. After the civilization’s decline, for many centuries, we do not find in India man-made structures as extensive as the ones found in places like Mohenjo-Daro. In Keeladi too, despite the propaganda blitz, there is scarcely any credible evidence that a city or even a significant brick structure existed at the site in the years preceding the Common Era. In fact,  in the entire South India, the earliest significant brick structure is the Amravati Stupa which belongs to the 3rd/2nd Century BCE.   

The author also makes an astounding statement that Sangam Tamil corpus emerges as the most ancient urban literature of India that intensely celebrated the life in the cities. The Sangam works like Madurai Kanchi and Pattinapalai that describe urban life date back to 3rd or 4th century AD. On the other hand,  leave alone Mahabharata and Ramayana, even some of the Jataka tales which describe urban life in much greater detail belong to the 3rd Century BCE.

To sum up, despite his awe-inspiring efforts, Balakrishnan has failed to prove that the Dravidian South stands as a sign-post of Indus legacy or that Sangam Tamil texts act as the flag-bearers and legacy holders of Indus urbanism. What is presented in the book, archaeology-wise or literature-wise, is not enough to arrive at such a revolutionary conclusion. Balakrishnan’s claims are extraordinary but extraordinary claims need extraordinary proof, which is unfortunately lacking in the book.  Yes, tomorrow may tell us a different story, but tomorrow is yet to come. I sincerely hope that it will belong to Balakrishnan and his theories.

P A Krishnan

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