Oral history


The archaeological artefacts from Keezhadi excavation show evidence of a well-developed Tamil script and civilisation already in 6th century BCE. The existing printed Tamil literature is from the three periods of the Sangam era, which is calculated to be between 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD.

It is important to notify that development of script and writing practices do not automatically lead to creating, capturing records and archiving. Lack of capture of records leads to no archive. And no archive leads to no documented history. But it is also important to underline that lack of documented history does not mean that history did not exist.

On the other hand, the sea trade of Tamils with the Roman Empire in the Sangam Era indicate that documents must have been created for their sea trade administration. That means, there must have been a record-keeping and archiving system. The only preserved and available archival documents about the Tamil trade with the Roman Empire are foreign archival materials. For instance, the English translation of the Greco-Roman periplus, “The Periplus of the Erythrean sea” (1912)1, by Wilfred H. Schoff. The original manual is a manuscript document that lists the ports and coastal landmarks. It includes approximate intervening distances, that the captain of a vessel could expect to find along with a shore. It contains the business practice in the sea trade, the laws to be followed at the ports (customs), details about the traders that came from Roman, Arabia, and various places in, nowadays, India to the ancient Tamil country2 in South India. As well as the business events and details about major trade items.

Another evidence for administration is the ancient seals. These seals are from the Sangam era found at the sixth phase of the Keelazhi excavation. According to Dinamalar National Daily, these are seals of the ancient tortoise image. These may have been used to identify people leaving and entering countries, and may be assigned by the authorities to monitor this. It is said that the seals have been used to effectively manage and identify outsiders.

Dinamalar National Daily, 26th August 2020.

When Tamil has such an ancient history for its script, written practice, civilisation and administration why did record-keeping and archiving practices evolve to oral history?

Recorded documents protect the continuity of history. There are various continuing factors for the lack of recorded documents among Tamils. For instance, migration, invasion, colonisation, seize of governance, war and militarization. Consequently, it has brought a necessity to document and preserve3 the surviving oral history into audio or video formats. Documenting oral history in audio or video format is a form of reconstruction or representation of history. It is not a pre-planned or directed or edited entertainment or commercial media production. However, it might have some amendments based on privacy policy and confidentiality of people that are involved in the recorded oral history.

The author of this article has been interviewing the first generation of migrated Tamils in Norway for another historical book project. It was not started as a project of DsporA Tamil Archive. The prepared interview guide for the historical book project is modified and given here.

In the conjunction with the local history book project, the author of this article was also in contact with Memoar and Minner.no. The collected information is given here as experience and knowledge sharing about oral history.


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