Mangulam inscription.jpg
Mangulam Tamil inscription at Dakshin Chithra, Chennai.
Time period
from the 6th century BCE to the 6th century CE
Parent systems
Child systems
Vatteluttu, Pallava
Sister systems
Bhattiprolu script
[a] The Semitic origin of the Brahmic scripts is not universally agreed upon.

Tamil-Brahmi, or Tamili aka Tamizhi is a variant of the Brahmi script used to write the Tamil language. These are the earliest documents of a Dravidian language, and the script was well established in the Chera and Pandyan states, in what is now Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka. Inscriptions have been found on cave beds, pot sherds, Jar burials, coins, seals, and rings. The language is Archaic Tamil, and led to classical Sangam literature.[1]

Tamil Brahmi differs in several ways from Ashokan Brahmi. It adds diacritics to several letters for sounds not found in Prakrit, producing ṉ ṟ ṛ ḷ. Secondly, in many of the inscriptions the inherent vowel has been discarded: A consonant written without diacritics represents the consonant alone, whereas the Ashokan diacritic for long ā is used for both ā and short a in Tamil Brahmi. This is unique to Tamil Brahmi and Bhattiprolu among the early Indian scripts.[2] This appears to be an adaptation to Dravidian phonotactics, where words commonly end in consonants, as opposed to Prakrit, where this never occurs. According to Mahadevan, in the earliest stages of the script the inherent vowel was either abandoned, as above, or the bare consonant was ambiguous as to whether it implied a short a or not. Later stages of Tamil Brahmi returned to the inherent vowel that was the norm in India.[1]


The origins of Brahmi in general and Tamil Brahmi specifically are unclear. There are a number of inscriptions whose dates have not been settled yet. Nevertheless, a number of theories have been put forward based on literary, epigraphic and archeological evidence. The consensus is a 3rd-century "post-Ashokan" dispersal, but since the year 2000, there have been two serious candidates for a pre-Ashokan date.

Literary review[edit]

Stone bed with inscription in Sittanavasal, Tamil Brahmi Inscriptions

The earliest mention of a script for writing the Tamil language is found in the Jaina work Samavayanga Sutta (300 BCE) and Pannavana Sutta (168 BCE) where a script called Damilli is mentioned.[3] In the Buddhist work, Lalitavistara (translated into Chinese in 308 CE), a script called Dravidalipi is mentioned.[3][4] According to Kamil Zvelebil, Damilli and Dravidalipi are synonymous for Tamil writing.[3] References to writing are also available in early Tamil literature. Tolkappiyam in stanza 16 and 17 mentions dots added to consonants. The author of Tolkappiyam displays awareness of a writing system and the graphic system as he knew it corresponds with later writing systems. Other works such as Tirukkural mentions writing using the word ezhuttu.[3] Cilappatikaram mentions kannezhuttu that was used to mark merchandise imported at the port emporium of Kaveripattinam, it also mentions kannezhuttalar or scribes.[3] A reference to palm leaf manuscript writing is found in Nalatiyar and Purananuru mentions a hero stone that has the name of the hero etched in it. Based on the literature analysis, Kamil Zvelebil believes writing was known to Tamil people at least from the 3rd century BCE.[3]

Epigraphic review[edit]

Jambai Tamil Brahmi inscription

Pre-3rd-century BCE dispersal[edit]

The evidence for pre-Ashokan dispersal comes from Sri Lanka and more recently, Tamil Nadu. The earliest well accepted Brahmi inscriptions in South Asia are found in the citadel of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka and are dated to the 4th century BCE.[5][6] According to Coningham et al., Brahmi developed before the southern spread of Ashokan missionary activities and spread across South Asia due to trade networks. However, these early instances of Brahmi were not considered to be examples of Tamil-Brahmi.[5][7]

In 2013, Rajan and Yatheeskumar published excavations at Porunthal and Kodumanal in Tamil Nadu, where numerous both Tamil-Brahmi and "Prakrit"-Brahmi inscriptions and fragments have been found. (Rajan prefers the term "Prakrit-Brahmi" to distinguish Prakrit-language Brahmi inscriptions.) Their stratigraphic analysis combined with radiocarbon dates of paddy grains and charcoal samples indicated that inscription contexts date to as far back as the 5th and perhaps 6th centuries BCE.[8][9] As these were published very recently, they have as yet not been commented on extensively in the literature. Indologist Harry Falk has criticized Rajan's claims as "particularly ill-informed"; Falk argues that some of the earliest supposed inscriptions are not Brahmi letters at all, but merely misinterpreted non-linguistic Megalithic graffiti symbols, which were used in South India for several centuries during the pre-literate era.[10]

Post-3rd-century BCE dispersal[edit]

Based on the epigraphic review, several hypotheses have been proposed, with the theory suggested by epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan having consensus.[11] According to Mahadevan, the Brahmi script reached the Tamil country due the southern spread of Jainism and Buddhism from North India, and was adapted to suit the Tamil phonetic system.[12] This theory presupposes that the Brahmi script itself was either originated within the imperial courts of Mauryan kingdom or evolved from a more ancient foreign script and it was dispersed to South India and Sri Lanka after the 3rd century BCE. The time line of dispersal is either post-Ashokan or early Mauryan period.[12] Ahmed Hassan Dani questioned the 3rd century BCE date and suggested the 1st century CE as the probable date, but this has been discounted by others such as T.V. Mahalingam[13] and Richard Salomon.[11] A 2012 discovery of a 2nd-century BCE Tamil-Brahmi inscription in Samanamalai (Jaina hill), Madurai district, indicates widespread use in the Tamil territory in the period after the 3rd century BCE.[14]

Archeological review[edit]

Nehanurpatti Tamil Brahmi inscription

Artifacts such as inscribed potsherds, coins or any other that are found in Tamil Nadu in successive undisturbed cultural layers are dated based on stratigraphy.[15] The top layer is considered younger than the layer that is found below. Thus, a succession of layers provides a relative chronological sequence from earliest to latest.[15] The inscribed potsherds recovered from Kodumanal when analyzed on the basis of stratigraphical sequences are dated to the 4th century BCE at the lowermost level.[15] The lowermost level potsherd had scripts peculiar to Tamil characters and, in addition, a distinctive shape for the letter m. Further, there is omission of voiced consonants, aspirates and sibilants peculiar to Tamil-Brahmi. This phenomenon is not confined to the Kodumanal in Kongu Nadu but found throughout the Tamil Nadu, Kerala and in Jaffna peninsula of Sri Lanka. The evolution and uniform adoption of this peculiar script would have taken considerable time to spread widely. According to K. Rajan, the introduction or evolution or origin of the script in Tamil Nadu might well be before the 4th century BCE due to the uniformity of the script, lack of grammatical errors and the widespread usage.[15]

The script[edit]

Tamil-Brahmi had notable peculiarities when compared to the Standard Brahmi.[16] It had four different characters to represent Dravidian language phonemes not represented in the standard northern-based Brahmi used to write Indo-Aryan Prakrits. It was also the first Indic writing system that moved towards alphabetization. The attempt at alphabetization eventually failed due to strong influence from neighboring Indic abugida writing systems.[17] The closest resemblance to Tamil-Brahmi is to its neighboring Sinhala-Brahmi. Both seem to use similar letters to indicate phonemes that are unique to Dravidian languages although Sinhala-Brahmi was used to write an Indo-Aryan Prakrit used in the island of Sri Lanka. Apart from Sinhala-Brahmi, there are Tamil-Brahmi writings found in Sri Lanka from Kantharodai in the north to Tissamaharama in the south which are dated to the 2nd century BCE.

The Bhattiprolu inscription found in present-day Andhra Pradesh also shows systemic but not paleographic similarity to Tamil Brahmi.[16] According to Richard Salomon, the Bhattiprolu script was originally invented to write a Dravidian language but was reapplied to inscribe in an Indo-Aryan Prakrit. Hence both the Bhattiprolu and Tamil Brahmi share common modifications to represent Dravidian languages.[17][18] Bhattiprolu script is also considered the Rosetta Stone of Tamil Brahmi decipherment.[17] According to Iravatham Mahathevan there are three stages in the development of the script. The early stage is dated from the 3rd or 2nd century BCE to 1st century BCE. The later stage is dated from the 1st to 2nd century CE. The third stage is dated from the 2nd century CE to the 3rd or 4th century CE.[4] According to Gift Siromony, the types of Tamil Brahmi writings do not follow a very clear chronology and can lead to confusion in dating.[19] According to K. Rajan, the Ashokan Brahmi corresponds with the Stage II of Tamil Brahmi per Mahadevan’s classification. Hence according to him, Stage I may have to be reassessed from the proposed time line.[15] From the 5th century CE onwards Tamil is written in Vatteluttu in the Chera and Pandya country and Grantha or Tamil script in the Chola and Pallava country.[17] Tamil Brahmi inscriptions in cave beds and coins have provided historians with identifying some kings and chiefs mentioned in the Sangam Tamil corpus as well as related Ashokan pillar inscriptions.[17][20]


Mamandur rock cut caves Tamil Brahmi

There is currently no consensus as to whether Tamil Brahmi usage began amongst Jaina religious adherents or common people using it for secular purposes. Epigraphists believe that it was initially restricted to inscriptions of religious nature, but archaeologists postulate that the earliest writings are secular in nature as they are found on menhirs, hero stones commemorating raids and deaths in raids and on burial urns.[21] Notwithstanding its beginnings, it soon spread throughout the country with kings, chiefs, potters, toddy tappers and merchants using it extensively throughout Tamilakam and abroad.[22][23]

Cave inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi

According to archaeological findings, the script was widely used along with Megalithic graffiti symbols for funerary and other purposes and such usage predates the use by different religious sects.[15] The language used in most of religious inscriptions betray a thorough assimilation of Prakrit elements per rules established by Tamil grammarians.[24][25] A few of the early inscriptions also show potential Kannada influences from what is today Karnataka. In its usage, it differed considerably from other scripts used in contemporary South Asia as its use was widespread in rural and urban areas and across different social classes.[17][26]


Tamil Brahmi was not deciphered as a separate script until the mid-20th century. Until then it was assumed to have been Standard Brahmi writing in a Prakrit language. The deciphering of the Grantha, Vatteluttu, Nagari and Tamil scripts of the south Indian inscriptions dating from the 7th century CE and their evolutionary stages, based on their resemblance to the modern forms of the scripts, seemed relatively easier and more successful than that of the early Brahmi inscriptions. The early Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions posed a greater challenge on account of their archaic characters and orthographic conventions, which were different from the original Brahmi used for Prakrit.[17]

A. C. Burnell (1874), attempted the earliest work on South Indian paleography, but it was due to the efforts of K. V. Subrahmanya Aiyar (1924), H. Krishna Sastri and K. K. Pillay that it was understood to be written in an early form of Tamil, not Prakrit.[20] The early attempts assumed more Prakrit loan words than what was actually used, hence the decipherment was not entirely successful. Iravatham Mahadevan identified the writings as mostly consisting of Tamil words in the late 1960s and published them in seminars and proceedings.[17][20] This was further expanded by T. V. Mahalingam (1967), R. Nagaswamy (1972), R. Panneerselvam (1972) and M. S. Venkataswamy (1981).[4]

Significant Tamil Brahmi findings[edit]

  • A broken storage jar with inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi script in Quseir-al-Qadim, (Leukos Limen) Egypt, 1st century BCE. Two earlier Tamil Brahmi inscription discoveries at the same site, 1st century CE.[23][27] The inscribed text is 𑀧𑀸𑀦𑁃 𑀑𑀶𑀺 paanai oRi "pot suspended in a rope net" (which would be பானை ஒறி in the modern Tamil script).[28]
  • An inscribed amphora fragment in Tamil at the ancient Ptolemic-Roman settlement of Berenice Troglodytica, Egypt, 1st century BCE- 1st century CE.[27]
  • Tamil-Brahmi inscription on pottery found in Phu Khao Thong, Thailand, 2nd century CE. Touchstone (uraikal) engraved in Tamil in the Tamil-Brahmi script at Khuan Luk Pat, 3rd–4th century CE.[29]
  • Potsherds with Tamil Brahmi inscriptions found in Poonagari, Jaffna, 2nd century BCE.[30]
  • Black and red ware potsherd with Tamil Brahmi inscriptions in Ucchapanai, Kandarodai, Jaffna, 3rd century BCE.[31][32]
  • Tamil Brahmi inscriptions on a pot rim at Pattanam, central Kerala, 2nd century CE.[33][34]
  • Four Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, 3rd century CE, found on Edakal cave, Ambukuthi hill, Kerala. One contained the word ‘Chera' (‘kadummipudha chera'), the earliest inscriptional evidence of the dynasty Chera.[35]
  • Potsherd with Tamil-Brahmi script found in Oman. The script reads “nantai kiran” and it can be dated to the 1st century CE.[36]
  • A fragment of black and red ware flat dish inscribed in Tamil in the Tamil Brahmi script excavated at the earliest layer in southeastern town of Tissamaharama in Sri Lanka. It is dated to approximately 200 BC by German scholars who undertook the excavation.
  • Tamil Brahmi script dating to 500 BC found at Kodumanal, Chennimalai near Erode[37]
  • Tamil-Brahmi script dating to 500 BC found at Porunthal site is located 12 km South West of Palani[38]
  • Tamil-Brahmi script found on Tirupparankundram hill, Madurai it read as “Muu-na-ka-ra” and “Muu-ca-ka-ti, 1st century BCE.[39]
  • Fifth ‘hero’ stone found with Tamil Brahmi inscriptions at Porpanakkottai[40]
  • Tamil-Brahmi script dating back to the 3rd century BCE near Thenur, Madurai. Script is written in gold bar.[41]
  • Tamil-Brahmi script dated to the 3rd century AD found preserved in laterite in Karadukka in Kasaragod district, Kerala.[42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Richard Salomon (1998) Indian Epigraphy: A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan Languages
  2. ^ Tamil Brahmi does not, however, share the odd forms of letters such as gh in Bhattiprolu.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Zvelebil 1975, p. 17
  4. ^ a b c Mahadevan, Iravatham (1994). "Recent discoveries of Jaina cave inscriptions in Tamilnadu". Rishabh Dev Foundation. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
  5. ^ a b Coningham, Robin; Prishanta Gunawardhana; Gamini Adikari; Ian Simpson. "Anuradhapura (Sri Lanka) Project, Phase I: ASW2". Arts and Humanities Research Council. Archived from the original on 7 March 2013. Retrieved 7 October 2011.
  6. ^ Coningham, R.A.E; Allchin, F.R.; Batt, C.M., "Passage to India? Anuradhapura and the early use of Brahmi Script", Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 6: 73–97, doi:10.1017/s0959774300001608
  7. ^ Tripathi, Sila (2011), "Ancient maritime trade on the eastern Indian littoral", Current Science, 100 (7): 1084
  8. ^ Rajan, K.; Yatheeskumar, V.P. (2013). "New evidences on scientific dates for Brāhmī Script as revealed from Porunthal and Kodumanal Excavations" (PDF). Pragdhara. 21–22: 280–295. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 October 2015. Retrieved 12 January 2016.
  9. ^ Tilok Thakuria, R. K. Mohanty (2014). Iron Age in the Peninsular and Southern India. Aryan Publisher and Vivakananda Center, New Delhi. p. 365.
  10. ^ Falk, H. (2014). "Owner's graffiti on pottery from Tissamaharama", in Zeitchriftfür Archäeologie Aussereuropäischer Kulturen. 6. p.46, with footnote 2.
  11. ^ a b Salomon 1999, p. 37
  12. ^ a b Zvelebil 2002, p. 94
  13. ^ Prematilleka & Indrapala 1978, p. 277
  14. ^ 2,200-year-old Tamil-Brahmi inscription found on Samanamalai. The Hindu (2012-03-24). Retrieved on 2013-07-28.
  15. ^ a b c d e f Rajan, K (2008), "Situating the Beginning of Early Historic Times in Tamil Nadu: Some Issues and Reflections", Social Scientist, 36 (1/2): 40–78
  16. ^ a b Salomon 1999, p. 35
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h Champahalakshmi, R. "A magnum opus on Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions". Frontline. Chennai, India: The Hindu. Retrieved 7 October 2011.
  18. ^ Salomon 1999, p. 36
  19. ^ Siromony, Gift (January 1982). "The origin of the Tamil script". Tamil Studies. International Institute of Tamil Historical Studies. 8 (23).
  20. ^ a b c Zvelebil 1975, p. 44
  21. ^ Subramaniam, T.S (30 July 2010). "Saying it with stones". The Hindue. Chennai, India: The Hindu. Retrieved 18 January 2013.
  22. ^ Zvelebil 2002, pp. 94–95
  23. ^ a b Lakshimikanth 2008, p. 8
  24. ^ Zvelebil 1975, p. 47
  25. ^ Zvelebil 2002, p. 95
  26. ^ Mahadevan, Iravatham (11 April 2003). "Orality to literacy: Transition in Early Tamil Society". Frontline. The Hindu. Retrieved 7 October 2011.
  27. ^ a b "Tamil Brahmi script in Egypt". The Hindu. November 21, 2007. Retrieved 2007-12-06.
  28. ^ Tamil Inscriptions Archived 2013-01-17 at Archive.today. Archaeologyindia.com. Retrieved on 2013-07-28.
  29. ^ "Tamil-Brahmi inscription on pottery found in Thailand". Chennai, India: The Hindu. July 16, 2006. Retrieved 2007-12-06.
  30. ^ Mahadevan 2003, p. 48
  31. ^ S. Krishnarajah (2004). University of Jaffna. Archaeology Department.
  32. ^ Thiagarajah, Siva (2010). "The people and cultures of prehistoric Sri Lanka – Part Three". The Sri Lanka Guardian. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
  33. ^ Subramanian, T. S. (March 14, 2011). "Tamil-Brahmi script found at Pattanam in Kerala". The Hindu. Chennai, India.
  34. ^ "'More studies needed at Pattanam'". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 24 May 2013.
  35. ^ Edakal cave yields one more Tamil-Brahmi inscription. The Hindu (2012-02-09). Retrieved on 2013-07-28.
  36. ^ Subramanian, T. S. (28 October 2012). "Discovery in Oman". THE HINDU. Chennai, India.
  37. ^ Subramanian, T.S. (20 May 2013). "Tamil Brahmi script dating to 500 BC found near Erode at Kodumanal near Chennimalai". The newindianexpress. Chennai, India.
  38. ^ Kishore, Kavita (15 October 2011). "Porunthal excavations prove existence of Indian scripts in 5th century BC: expert". THE HINDU. Chennai, India.
  39. ^ Subramanian, T. S. (14 February 2013). "Tamil-Brahmi script discovered on Tirupparankundram hill". THEHINDU. Chennai, India.
  40. ^ "Fifth 'hero' stone with Tamil Brahmi inscriptions found". Newindianexpress.
  41. ^ Thenur gold treasure found four years ago is 2300 years' old, recent study reveals
  42. ^ [1]

Cited literature[edit]

External links[edit]