The Legacy of Iravatham Mahadevan

Iravatham Mahadevan was an Indian epigraphist and civil servant, known for his successful decipherment of the Tamil-Brahmi script and expertise in Indus Valley inscriptions.

Iravatham Mahadevan is no more. He passed away in Chennai on November 26, 2018 at the age of 88, leaving behind a formidable legacy of scholarship. He was one of the most imaginative students of Epigraphy in our times. His two masterpieces, The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables (1977) and Early Tamil Epigraphy: from the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. (2003), have earned recognition as the most authoritative among sourcebooks in Indian Epigraphy. They will remain so for decades to come.

I have not had the fortune of meeting Mahadevan. It was in 2006 that I began serious engagements with his works. My first acquaintance with Epigraphy was in the early months of 2004, when as student of ancient Indian History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, I was introduced to the Maurya and Satavahana Brahmi scripts in a course that Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya had offered. I was now trying to expand and consolidate my familiarity with South Indian Epigraphy. Mahadevan’s Early Tamil Epigraphy turned out to be an indispensable source in this pursuit.

I travelled across Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, looking for early inscriptions. I had to decipher them with available estampages as well as photographs and eye-copies that I had managed to make. It was then that the true worth of Early Tamil Epigraphy began to dawn upon me. I wasn’t prepared for the surprise that Mahadevan was not a Historian or an Epigraphist by training, but a member of the Indian Administrative Service. This had for some reason appeared odd. For in my imagination, an IAS officer was expected to write nothing more than file-notings and the occasional demi-official letter. The only concession available was to write fiction, which a few officers, such as Malayattoor Ramakrishnan, Upamanyu Chatterjee and N.S. Madhavan, had excelled in. And here was an officer writing the most enviable of books in a discipline that demanded profound methodological rigour!

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Mahadevan was born on October 2, 1930. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Chemistry from Vivekananda College in Chennai and a law degree from Madras Law College, he joined the IAS in 1953 and remained in service for twenty-seven years, before taking voluntary retirement in 1980. It was while serving in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry as Assistant Financial Adviser between 1958 and 1961 that he befriended the epigraphist, C. Sivaramamurti, then a curator at the National Museum in New Delhi. From him, Mahadevan learnt the basics of Indian Epigraphy. Epigraphy soon turned out to be a subject of abiding interest and by 1966, he had already published Corpus of Tamil-Brahmi Inscriptions, the original version of Early Tamil Epigraphy.

In the coming years, Mahadevan turned his interest to the decipherment of the Indus script, for which he was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship in 1970. This resulted in the publication of The Indus Script, which has from the time of its publication in 1977 remained the most important sourcebook on the subject. In this work, Mahadevan identified the signs on the Indus seals in terms of their frequency and positional distribution, and the distribution of the images or object-types that the signs represented. He also mapped, among other things, the geographical spread of the signs. This work is now a classic in Harappan studies.

After his retirement from administrative service, the study of epigraphy became a mission of his life. He also served as Editor of the Indian Express group’s Tamil daily, Dinamani, from 1986 to 1991. It was here that Mahadevan’s commitment to progressive reforms in Indian public life found robust expression. At a time when the Indian Express had, under its editor Arun Shourie, opposed the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations, Mahadevan’s Dinamani chose to champion its cause.

Mahadevan resumed work on the Tamil Brahmi inscriptions in 1991 and accepted a three-year National Fellowship from the Indian Council of Historical Research in 1992, which led to the publication of Early Tamil Epigraphy. He continued work on the Indus script in later years, and established the Indus Research Centre at the Roja Muthaiah Research Library in Chennai as a platform to promote research in this field. Mahadevan served as the General President of the Indian History Congress in 2001, and the Government of India awarded him the Padma Shri in 2009.

The readings of the Indus script and the Tamil Brahmi inscriptions that Mahadevan offered were products of long years of reflections. They reflect a measure of adventure that a subject expert may shy away from risking. And for this reason, there were times when Mahadevan’s readings appeared to be unsatisfactory. One such instance is the Tamil Brahmi label “palpuli tatta kari,” found in the Edakkal Caves of Kerala. Mahadevan interpreted “palpuli” (many a tiger) as a place name and “tatta kari” as a personal name, making the label read “Tatta Kari of Palpuli.” I had preferred to read it as “Kari, who brought down/killed many a tiger.” Mahadevan deciphered another of the Edakkal labels as “venko malai kachchavanu chatti,” meaning “Chatti/Shakti of the Kashyapa Gotra, from the Venko Hills.” I had chosen to read it as “vetko manaka chchavana chatti,” i.e., “Chyavana Shakti, the chief of the Mahanaga line.” I was of the view that the label belonged to the Sendraka chiefs, who had Shakti as a suffix in their names and identified themselves as belonging to the Mahanaga clan that worshipped the serpent goddess, Maninageshwari.

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The manner in which Mahadevan went about deciphering the Indus script was oftentimes fantastic. He tried to locate Dravidian elements in the signs and argued that several of these elements found their way into Vedic hymns. In one case, he interpreted the word Meluhha – by which name the Harappan country was apparently known in Mesopotamia – as mel-akam or mel-aham, i.e., the inner part (akam / aham) of the elevated (mel) citadel. He even went on to identify one of the signs as signifying Meluhha. In another instance, he derived the name Agastya from akam or akattil (inside), linked it with the sign of a pitcher that occurs with great frequency on the seals, and drew connections with the legend that Agastya was a sage born from the jar (kumbha-yoni).

Such eccentricities have not undermined the worth of The Indus Script and Early Tamil Epigraphy. For these works arose from several decades of unswerving commitment to explore the unknown and make it intelligible. Mahadevan has not made the strange old worlds intelligible, but he had made them familiar to us in ways few masters of epigraphy have succeeded in doing. And for this reason alone, Mahadevan’s writings will continue to show us the way in our journeys into the past for a long time. His absence from our midst will be felt for years to come.

Manu V. Devadevan is Assistant Professor of History at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi, Himachal Pradesh.