A historic legacy


MY wife and I visited him on November 26 evening. He could not talk but held our hands tightly. He asked for a white card and wrote on it “When shall I die? I.M.”. A few hours later, he passed on.

Iravatham Mahadevan had carried on the tradition of being a scholar-civil servant started by F.W. Ellis and Robert Sewell. His research and publications on the Tamil Brahmi script and the Indus script were pioneering works that opened up vast new areas of research. 

Born in Mannachanallur near Tiruchi, Mahadevan graduated from St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchi, and then from Vivekananda College, Chennai. He took a degree in law from Madras Law College and briefly practised law in Tiruchi. It was then that he took the civil services examination and got into the Indian Foreign Service. But Mahadevan wanted to be in India, and through Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, he was able to get his allotment changed to the Indian Administrative Service. Beginning his career as Sub-Collector in Pollachi, he served in various capacities, first in Tamil Nadu and afterwards at the Centre, including a stint as Joint Secretary, Department of Food and Public Distribution, until 1980, when he took voluntary retirement.

His first scholarly interest was early Tamil inscriptions found in caves and rock shelters in many sites in Tamil Nadu, which described mostly place names and the names of donors related to Jainism. It was Mahadevan who recognised that they were in Tamil-Brahmi script and that they belonged to the Sangam Age. He saw that Brahmi had been adapted to Tamil and christened the language of these lithic records Tamil-Brahmi. The first phase of this study lasted from 1961 to 1967. He was actively involved with the International Association of Tamil Research (IATR). He published papers on the inscription of the Cheras of the Sangam age, found in Pugalur; and of the Pandyas of the Sangam Age, found in Mangulam. He copied the inscriptions by setting up scaffolds to reach the cave roof. 

In 1967, he made a path-breaking presentation on Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions at the International Tamil Conference in Chennai, organised by the IATR, of which he was the administrative officer. He established his reputation as a scholar to be reckoned with in the field. He also traced the origin of the “dot” (pulli) in Tamil, for which he used numismatic evidence. It is this humble dot that kept each Tamil letter independent and words from becoming a string of letters. He calculated that Tholkappiam, the Tamil grammatical treatise, was written in the second century CE. F.W. Ellis had translated Tirukkural earlier and had concluded that the author of this ethical work was a Jain. He had a gold coin issued, which depicted a Jain monk, in commemoration of the author. It was Mahadevan who identified the gold coin and brought it to the notice of the world. 

Publishing history

The enstampages of these lithic records were taken, and transferred on to tracing sheets, which were then photographed. This resulted in Early Tamil Epigraphy from the Earliest Times to the Sixth century A.D., another important work, published in 2003. This was jointly published by Cre-A and Harvard University. The publication created history as it was the first one in Tamil to be brought out by the celebrated Harvard Oriental Series. The second edition was brought out by the Central Institute for Classical Tamil, with a couple of additional inscriptions.

While some of us wanted him to spend his valuable time on the Indus script, he said it was worth it to look for new finds. The book will endure as an important compendium, and Mahadevan made Tamils proud as it established that the written form of Tamil had existed in the early centuries of the previous millennium and even before that. He used to say that we needed to bring out clinching evidence even when we presented facts. He could handle Sanskrit, Tamil, English and Persian with ease. He did not have any bias towards any language. For him, research had to be free from prejudices. He said if one was serious about deciphering scripts, one had to learn old Chinese, Egyptian, Sumerian, Sanskrit, Persian and Tamil. He asked us to study Dravidian linguistics to understand the language properly.

He used to share a lot of anecdotes with us. He talked about receiving the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship for Indus Research and how, sitting in the Indian Museum, he used to copy the seals by hand. He then engaged illustrators to create the standardised sign list, which is part of the Concordance. Once he recalled jokingly how the fellowship managers asked him how many scripts he had deciphered so far, not knowing the complexities of the subject. When computers were introduced in India, he used them at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, to study the Indus script. In 1977, he produced his other important work, which was brought out by the Archaeological Survey of India: The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables

It was during this time that he got close to Dr Gift Siromoney, Professor of Statistics in Madras Christian College, who was also studying the Indus script and was using computers to study the script with cluster analysis. He admired Siromoney’s work and would often refer to him in his conversations. Later, Mahadevan would create an endowment in the name of Siromoney at the Roja Muthiah Research Library. In the first lecture he gave in the series, Mahadevan argued that the language Harappans used was related to Tamil. He created another endowment, Father Heras Memorial Oration Series. He invited Prof. Romila Thapar, Asko Parpola and other stalwarts to lecture in Chennai. He was close to all of them and they fondly called him “Jani”.

After his retirement, he took up the editorship of the Tamil daily Dinamani and brought in many innovations. Earlier, the Tamil used in the newspaper was of the Manipravala style and Mahadevan changed this. He also brought in the reforms in Tamil alphabets that Periyar had proposed. One of the interesting things he accomplished in Dinamani was the supplement Tamilmani where he used to feature stalwarts in Tamil. With the artist Trotsky Marudhu’s illustrations, it became a collector’s item. He featured the contributions of Roja Muthiah as an avid book collector. The editorials he wrote, particularly the ones opposing nuclear energy, are still remembered.

After working in the area of the Indus script, he returned to the Tamil-Brahmi field in 1991. He was active for five years, copying cave inscriptions. I had the privilege of accompanying him on some of his field trips. One such trip was our visit to the Doosi Mamandur caves near Kanchipuram. Clad in sneakers for the walk up the hillock, he walked up slowly, assisted by the archaeologist Gandhi Rajan and a friend of his, K.R.A Narasiah. It was touching to see these two elderly men moving up the hill. The moment Mahadevan located the engraving, a childlike enthusiasm gripped him. 

Mahadevan drew links between the Indus civilisation and the Dravidian cultures of south India. Working on Tamil-Brahmi, finding the connections between the Indus civilisation and a proto Dravidian language (during private conversations he did say that it must have been an old form of Tamil), finding bilingual parallels between Sanskrit and Tamil literature, thereby identifying how words travelled from Tamil to Sanskrit and how they got translated to Tamil again (he followed the Thomas Young and Joseph Champollion model of identifying legacies of the Indus civilisation in the oldest surviving religious texts. However, he did not hit upon a Rosetta stone); endowing memorial lectures for Dravidian scholars, and announcing that the Indus civilisation’s Dravidian connection hypothesis was no more a hypothesis. Father Heras, Gift Siromoney, V.C. Kulandaiswamy are known names. In 1964, when he laid his hands on the Pugalur inscription, he danced in joy and told the world that the inscription contained the name of a royalty referred to in Sangam literature. He danced on another occasion. When a neolithic axe was found in Sembian Kandiyur in Mayiladuthurai, it was shown to him for confirmation and he noticed that Indus script-like signs were inscribed on them and he put the axe on his head and danced. He said it was the find of the century. He spent his time only on two areas: early Tamil inscriptions and the Indus script. For him, both were related to Dravidian culture. He did not have time for any other topic. To relax, he would listen to Carnatic songs on his favourite radio in the evenings. 

He supported the World Tamil Conference held in Coimbatore by the Government of Tamil Nadu. When the IATR was not in favour of the conference then, he, along with VCK, wrote an open letter saying how pertinent it was to hold such a conference and that the IATR should change its stance And when it was held, he suggested that an exhibition on the Indus Civilisation be showcased. The government welcomed the idea and sanctioned space to curate the exhibition. Asko Parpola, who saw the exhibition, hoped that this exhibition would find a permanent location so that it could be seen by more people. More than a lakh people visited this exhibition.

When the Supreme Court banned jallikattu in 2008, he quickly pulled one of the seals (No. M 312 as given in his concordance) from Mohenjodaro which depicts a bull overthrowing people and gave it to a journalist for an article in The Hindu. That afternoon the judges lifted the stay.

Active until the end

He worked untiringly until the end. His latest paper was published as part of a festschrift volume for Prof. J.M. Kenoyer in August 2018, published by Archaeopress, Oxford. In this paper, “Toponyms, Directions and Tribal names in the Indus Script”, he interpreted certain signs as place markers and drew heavily from the works of another civil servant, Dravidianist scholar R. Balakrishnan, from his work on the “High West Low East”, the Dravidian paradigm. His last presence at an academic event was at Balakrishnan’s lecture on the Pot Route in October, on the occasion of the 94th anniversary of the announcement of the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

The man’s life can be summed up from the people who attended his funeral: All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) Minister Ma.Foi. Pandian, Leader of the Opposition in the Tamil Nadu Assembly M.K. Stalin, former Minister for School Education Thangam Thennarasu, leaders from the CPI(M), the Congress, Dravidar Kazhagam leader K. Veeramani, BJP and RSS leaders, and editors of dailies and other literary magazines; not to mention several scholars, his old friends and the general public. Some of them had never met him.

It was a delight to converse with Mahadevan as he had a puckish sense of humour. When we visited him on his last birthday, he said he was at a unique age. “Unlike the Indus script, you can read my age right to left, left to right, from top to bottom or bottom to top.” He was 88 that day. He twisted the famous line of the poet Subramanya Bharathi, “As soon as you wake up, you read” (Kaalai ezhundhavudan padippu), to “As soon as you wake up, you drink coffee”. Even during stressful times he would joke and reduce the tension of the moment. After an open-heart surgical procedure, he quipped: “You know something? Finally, the doctors found that I have a heart.” He would urge us in the Roja Muthiah Research Library to complete the tasks relating to his projects as soon as possible as he was getting older. Or else we would have to communicate with him only through H-mail—he would add that one would not know if it would be hell or heaven. He would give a copy of his autographed paper when we went to see him. And the autograph would be in Indus script as he interpreted it.

When he visited our exhibition on Gandhi in Tamil Nadu at the library, he shared an anecdote. As a schoolboy, he took part in the Independence movement. He collected money for Gandhi and went to hand it over to Gandhi who was travelling on a train. Mahadevan quickly reached Gandhi and dropped the coins in his hands and left with a great feeling that his hands actually touched Gandhi’s. He was jailed once, during which time his sacred thread was snapped: he never wore it again. 

Patient and generous

Mahadevan had the magnanimity to encourage other scholars in the field and was generous with fellow researchers. He patiently answered emails from individuals interested in epigraphy or the Indus Valley Civilisation, whatever may be his/her station in life. He never had time for anything else. He never entertained academic gossip and never got into polemical writing. 

In 2007, he established The Indus Research Centre, at the Roja Muthiah Research Library, which has emerged as a leading forum of inquiry in this area. During the preliminary discussion we had, he insisted that the research on script and the civilisation had to be done on a scientific basis, without any trace of chauvinism. In 2009, he was conferred with the Padma Shri award. Experts opined that this was the first time epigraphy was recognised by the Government of India. He received the Tamil Nadu government’s highest award, the Tiruvalluvar Award. The Tamil University, Thanjavur, conferred an honorary doctorate (D.Litt.) on him for his contributions. He has received numerous other awards.

He was not a wealthy person. Yet, he was generous. He sold his house and from the major portion of the proceedings, he founded the Vidyasagar Educational Trust in memory of his elder son, with a donation of Rs.50 lakh. This Trust has donated Rs.40 lakhs to Sankara Nethralaya, Chennai, to establish the Vidyasagar Institute of Bio-Medical Technology and Science, affiliated to BITS, Pilani, for M.S. and PhD degrees. He had no big savings, but he would still pay from his pension to run courses and programmes. He once told me that if I needed money I should ask him. He was fond of U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer and his works. He funded the publication of the seventh edition of Kuruntokai in 2017. Finally, he also donated his eyes to Sankara Nethralaya. 

He was not afraid of his impending end, and he wished to depart from home. He wanted to go peacefully without too many medical interventions. Even as he recovered after a brief hospitalisation, he wrote that night “I fear I am recovering. Shame!” He was at peace at home, and until the end, lucid and clear in his thoughts. As he wished, there were no rituals at the funeral, and he had wanted to be cremated. His ashes were immersed around the same spot where his wife Gowri’s ashes were scattered 26 years ago. He is survived by his son Sridhar Mahadevan, who is Adjunct Professor, Director, Data Science Lab, Massachusetts, United States. Mahadevan has a granddaughter and a grandson through his elder son Vidyasagar. All his papers and books are now preserved at the Indus Research Centre of the Roja Muthiah Research Library (www.rmrl.in). Whenever an idea struck him, he would jot it down in a notebook and he called it “Gnanodayam”. Now there must be several volumes of Gnanodayam. 

While writing his obituary, one cannot ignore his caretaker, Lakshmi, who called him “Thathamma”. For several years, she was the one who took care of him. Lakshmi knew every gesture of his. He would turn to one side and Lakshmi would bring the spectacles for him. She will be the one who will miss him the most. She was like a daughter or even a mother to him. Sometimes Lakshmi would also read the script and say if it was Muruku or Nedumal or Mel Akam (Indus scripts) and so on. Whom did Mahadevan not influence?

Sundar Ganesan is the Director of Roja Muthiah Research Library. His association with Iravatham Mahadevan directly is from 2004. The Indus Research Centre was established in the library in 2007 on the advice of Iravatham Mahadevan, who was its first honorary consultant (until 2012). Sundar Ganesan has worked with him closely and published papers on the Indus civilisation along with Iravatham Mahadevan.


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