Iravatham Mahadevan, Extraordinary Scholar of Indus and Brahmi Scripts

A bureaucrat who took early retirement to focus on his hobby in epigraphy, he wrote two magisterial books, "The Indus Script" and "Early Tamil Epigraphy".

The scholar-epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan passed away at the age of  88 on November 26 in Chennai, having lived a life – or should one say half-a-life – devoted to scholarship. Like many who have made a career out of the study of ancient India, I will fondly remember him as a man who made a large contribution to a key foundation stone in this edifice – through the study of epigraphy.

Mahadevan’s two magisterial works – The Indus Script: Texts, Concordances and Tables (1977) and Early Tamil Epigraphy: From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century AD (2003) – are essential reading for anyone interested in the Indus and Brahmi scripts. He would later link the two and see vestiges of the Indus Civilisation in old Tamil. That is not an interpretation I would agree with, but I write this piece not to remember those publications but to draw attention to some lesser-known aspects of his life and the choices he made.

Born on the banks of the Kaveri river in 1930, a couple of hundred kilometres from Chennai, Mahadevan was educated at Tiruchirapalli. There was nothing in his education in that part of Tamil Nadu which showed any inclination towards a career in ancient writings. The young Mahadevan studied science and law. His chose, in fact, to be a bureaucrat and joined the Indian Administrative Service at 24. It was only much later that he became an epigraphist. He saw himself, as he once put it, in a long tradition of such men in India. “Many of the greatest scholars of the 19th century had been civil servants, so I may claim to be in that tradition.” When summed up like this, it would seem as if he himself had planned his life in the manner he lived it.

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Well into his bureaucratic life, when he was posted to Delhi as an IAS officer, Mahadevan began to seriously look at artefacts with writing. When I met him in January 2006 in Chennai, he recounted that in Delhi, his official work in the ministry that he was attached to used to get over rather quickly and by late morning, he had nothing to do. So, he would amble down Janpath to the National Museum, where C. Sivaramamurti, the director of the museum, took him under his wing and encouraged him to begin working on all kinds of ancient epigraphs.

What had started as a pursuit for making his working day as a bureaucrat meaningful soon became an all-consuming passion. Once he turned 50, he took voluntary retirement: “I felt that the remaining years of my life I must devote to the Indus script and the Brahmi script, especially the Tamil Brahmi script.”

Mahadevan’s turn to epigraphy reminds us that outstanding epigraphists are not always those who trained in the study of signs and symbols within academic portals but, instead, became scholars because a bureaucrat’s life allowed serious hobbies to be pursued. It is a pity, though, that it is only a rare bureaucrat, as Mahadevan was, who excels in what begins as a hobby.

On a personal note, he was appalled when I became a babu at the University of Delhi for a few years and urged me to get back to my academic work as soon as possible. “You will make valuable contributions as an academic scholar,” he reminded me “and not by pushing files in an office (This advice is from a former bureaucrat!).”

This advice and a great deal else came from Mahadevan through a series of emails from 2006 till 2014. I met him only once, but because of these exchanges, I felt close enough to be able to discuss all kinds of things with him, from the career of D.D. Kosambi to Classical Tamil. As he told me, he was not a Marxist but remained a great admirer of Kosambi. He had copies of Kosambi’s books and studied his ideas carefully, being particularly fascinated by his account of the survivals of the Indus civilisation. He felt that his tracing of the Harappan influence on later cultures remained true. He was also planning to write a paper that took its leads from Kosambi’s reconstruction of the Great Bath at Mohenjodaro. Kosambi, it should be remembered, saw it as a religious structure. Kosambi also saw the three-faced deity on stamp seals as having some of the attributes of the later Hindu god Shiva.

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But more than his views on scholars of ancient India, what struck me was Mahadevan’s ability to address academic disagreements through scholarly commerce rather than through vitriolic sniping. In 2010, for instance, he wrote in The Hindu that Asko Parpola, a distinguished Finnish Indologist, who had become the first recipient of the Classical Tamil award instituted by the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, richly deserved this honour. After reading the piece, I immediately wrote to Mahadevan that although Parpola’s scholarship was undoubted, he himself would probably be the first to admit that he had not made a contribution to Classical Tamil which was the award he was honoured with. I also hoped, as I told him, that he would not misunderstand what I wrote.

His reply was instantaneous: “Where is the question of misunderstanding when the debate is academic and not personal?”

We disagreed on lots of issues such as a supposed Aryan influx into India after the decline of the Indus civilisation, and whether there was a Dravidian language encoded in the Indus script, as he believed.

Such exchanges, though, were always conducted by him in such a fundamentally  decent and dignified way that it never failed to fill me with admiration. His belief about how scholars must conduct themselves remains, beyond question, the one aspect of his persona that I will remember – and miss – the most.

Nayanjot Lahiri is a Professor of History at Ashoka University.