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Beneath the city: Archaeologists discover remains of Sangam age near Madurai

A group of archaeologists and researchers have quietly unearthed the crumbling remains of an ancient urban centre, equal in size and importance to that of Mohenjo-daro.

india Updated: Jun 28, 2016 13:58 IST
Archaeologists and researchers have unearthed the crumbling remains of an ancient urban centre, equal in size and importance to that of Mohenjo-daro.
Archaeologists and researchers have unearthed the crumbling remains of an ancient urban centre, equal in size and importance to that of Mohenjo-daro.(Photo courtesy - Kamala Thiagarajan)

Keeladi is a small village that lies past an unmanned railway crossing, several stretches of paddy fields and swaying palms in the Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu, 12 km from the bustling city of Madurai. The only sound that penetrates the vast open fields along the way is the soft rustle of coconut trees.

Here, in a parcel of rich orange muddy land called Pallichandai Thidal, the Bengaluru-based Excavating Branch of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has made a spectacular discovery. A group of archaeologists and researchers have quietly unearthed the crumbling remains of an ancient urban centre, equal in size and importance to that of Mohenjo-daro. “It’s certainly a startling discovery,” says assistant archaeologist M Rajesh, who is part of a team of 10 archaeologists who have been working in Keeladi since 2013.

Over two phases of excavations so far, over 3,000 antiquities have been unearthed that are believed to date back to the early Sangam age, an important epoch in Tamil Nadu’s history. For the first time, these findings provide evidence for the way of life described in ancient Sangam literature.

“This is the first time since 1965 that the ASI has engaged in such a mammoth excavation in Tamil Nadu,” says K Amarnath Ramakrishnan, superintending archaeologist. “The greatest of civilisations have always sprung from the banks of rivers. Based on this premise, we first charted the course of Vaigai river, surveying 400 villages on either side of its banks to find out whether there was any evidence of an ancient river valley civilization, or any signs of ancient habitation.”

Ramakrishnan adds, “As we know, Mohenjo-daro is one of the world’s earliest ancient urban settlements. However, its equivalent had not been found in the south of India so far, even though we knew that South India has ancient roots as well. This habitation site is evidence that such a civilisation existed, and if we excavate further, there is a possibility of finding an ancient civilisation that is the parallel of Mohenjo Daro.”

The dig is being carried out entirely by hand, using special archaeological implements that they have been trained to use (Photo courtesy - Kamala Thiagarajan)

Both the Harappan and Mohenjo-daro river valley civilisations date back to 2,500 BCE. Since carbon dating has not been carried out yet at Keeladi, it is impossible to accurately estimate the age of the site yet. However, based on the script found on pottery shards, archaeologists have tentatively estimated that it dates back to 200 BCE, and believe it might be even older. Ramakrishnan feels that the site will eventually be referred to as the Vaigai River Valley Civilisation in the future, and that it has the potential to be as big as the other two, provided they have the time and resources to dig. He reminds us that digging at Mohenjo-daro went on for 20 years before all its details were uncovered.

During its survey, the ASI earmarked 293 of these villages as promising. “In the villages immediately surrounding Keeladi, we found inscriptions that referred to an ancient urban centre. Scattered across these adjoining villages were megaliths, burial grounds and dolmens (single chambered tombs),” says Rajesh. “It was evidence enough that there was possibility of finding an ancient settlement somewhere in this area, and yet, the habitation site that we sought in these parts continued to elude us.”

By early 2013, after spending months studying the terrain, the archaeologists had zeroed in on 8-10 potential sites for their excavation. However, lacking the resources to excavate indiscriminately, much still depended on being able to estimate the exact location. “There were many indications that the village of Keeladi was the perfect place for the dig,” says Rajesh. “It is situated on an elevated mound, about 2.88 m above ground level, within a 10 km radius from the river Vaigai. We found coins on the surface of the soil that dated back to the reign of the Tamil King Raja Raja Cholan (985-1014 CE). We surmised that Keeladi was once an important commercial centre, possibly a trade route between Madurai (the then-thriving capital city of the Pandya Kings) and the port town of Alagankulam on the right banks of the River Vaigai.”

Merely identifying the lands for the dig was not enough, though. There were other challenges ahead too — the archaeologists had to secure permission to excavate these parts from various land owners, who were understandably reluctant to part with their property without an iron clad agreement that it would be returned to them intact. “If people had built homes over the site, much of this wealth of history would have been lost to us forever,” says Rajesh.

Today at the site, there is rapid and industrious labour, like a well-oiled machine with wheels smoothly turning, efficient yet calm. Men are engaged in digging. Women carrying loads of pot shards pass swiftly by, little aware that these small sharp fragments balanced so casually over their heads hold secrets that can perhaps unlock centuries-old history.

Keeladi is desolate and has a tiny population of only around 5,000 people. “At first, we were so confused by all the activity,” laughs 65-year-old Theiyvamma, a local women from the area. “I could not believe my eyes when I saw all that came out of the ground. It has made Keeladi famous.”

Dressed in dark slacks and shirts, ASI officers mill around the site, engaged in inspecting the operation and grading and sorting pot-shards and other artefacts. Spread over an acre of sun-baked sands and presenting a rather startling sight to the first time visitor are 96 precisely cut square pits called quadrants, each 4 m deep. This is an excavation technique called horizontal trenching, says Rajesh, that allows archaeologists to explore a vast surface area. The ASI is focusing on this one acre in the second phase of digging.

Deep inside each pit, you can view artefacts that the ASI has painstakingly unearthed — a portion of a kiln (oven or furnace), an enclosure which may have been used as a water tank, even grooves in stone that appear to be an ancient drainage system. They are working with archaeology students, some of whom are bent over double inside the quadrants, scraping away at the sand on either side of the artefact in soft, gentle strokes.

The dig is being carried out entirely by hand, using special archaeological implements that they have been trained to use. Sometimes they cannot cut more than 10 cm every day. Forty-three quadrants were cut last year and 54 this year, entirely using hand-held implements. Using machinery could destroy whatever they are seeking beneath the soil. It is a process that requires a considerable deal of patience, knowledge and skill.

“One of the most remarkable discoveries that we’ve made are the remains of brick homes,” says Rajesh. “Being prohibitively expensive, bricks were not normally employed in civic structures in early history. They’re usually restricted to public spaces or houses of worship. This is a rare finding, especially significant when you consider how most other excavations in these parts have revealed only gravestones and cemeteries.”

Peer into each grid and you will be fascinated by the fact that you are actually looking at the crumbling yet solid remains of homes that existed over 2,500 years ago. “The most significant finding we made last year was that of a deep terracotta ring well with 13 steps,” says Ramakrishnan. “Never has there been such overwhelming evidence that this was a very civilised society where urban planning mattered.”

During excavation, stone dice, quaint chess pieces, jagged chunks of semi-precious gems were found. (Photo courtesy - Kamala Thiagarajan)

On display in a makeshift tent in a corner of the site are the exquisite artefacts uncovered during the excavation. I am amazed by the stone dice, quaint chess pieces, jagged chunks of semi-precious gems such as agate, carnelian, chalcedony (these were once worn by both men and women), metal knives, rings, ivory earrings, and even carvings made from bone. Not only did people live well, it appears that they had ample time for leisure. The chess pieces are plain, deeply coloured and heavy, but similar in shape and size to our modern-day versions. You can even count the dots on the dice!

But more than anything, it is the shattered fragments of pots found scattered abundantly on the site that harbour a wealth of Tamil history.

“It’s an eye-opening discovery,” agrees V Vedachalam, retired senior epigraphist of the Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department. “The names inscribed on the pots — Sadan, Thisan, Udhiran, Avadhi — all originated during the Sangam period. The Tamil epic Silappatikaram refers to the existence of an urban civilisation at Poompuhar and Madurai. There’s no doubt that this was once a prosperous trade centre where elite people lived and worked.”

“Interestingly, the names on the pots have been inscribed in a script called Tamili (Tamil Brahmi), from which the current Tamil alphabet is said to have originated,” says C Santhanalingam, archaeologist and secretary of Pandya Nadu Centre for Historical Research, who has studied Tamili script extensively. In the absence of carbon dating, it has been the identification of these Tamili script inscriptions on artefacts that has helped the ASI date the site back to the Sangam age. “The Sangam age marked the beginning of the written word,” adds Santhanalingam. “It was a time when an academic body called the sangam (a group of Tamil poets) was established by the Pandya rulers, indicating a highly developed civilised society, one that cared about the arts and literature.”

One of the potshards is inscribed with an image of a fish — once the insignia of the great Pandya rulers. One of the names on another shard has been traced back to Sri Lanka, indicating a trade link or perhaps a long-ago immigrant.

“In many of the excavated pot shards, we’ve observed a roulette design (with ringed borders), similar to the kind used in ancient Rome. This points to the possibility of trade being established with foreigners at this time,” says Rajesh. Indeed, Tamil literature has evidence to support this theory.

In Sangam age literature, there is also mention of large-scale trade in peppercorns, sold by locals to Greek merchants. “The Tamili name for peppercorn is yevanapriya. Incidentally, ‘yevanar’ also refers to the Greek traders,” explains Santhanalingam. “In Sangam literature, there are references to how yevanars served the Pandya kings and how they brought their lamps, jars, wine and fermentation methods to this part of the world.”

Another theory has it that the roulette pottery was actually a product of Gujarat, where it was once produced locally. This could indicate a trade between north and south Indian merchants. “Archaeological digs are rather like jigsaw puzzles,” Rajesh says with a smile. “Each piece you uncover deepens your understanding of the past, but there’s always an element of conjecture.” It is this intellectual speculation that adds vibrancy to their work and makes it leap to life. And one suspects that it is also this excitement that keeps the officers in the field day after day, living in makeshift tents and bearing the harshness of the elements, spending hours patiently extracting tiny, delicate fragments of the past, wedged between walls of hard, uncompromising rock, stone and sand.

The ASI has now applied for permission to establish a site museum on the premises to display all the items excavated over the past months. The second phase of the excavation is set to end in September this year, and there is a good chance that it will extend into a third phase. “We need more time and resources,” says Ramakrishnan. “There is still much that we hope to find, considering how we’ve only excavated the centre of the mound — a single acre of the 80 acres in this area,” says Ramakrishnan.

There are so many secrets to this ancient city — the planning of its public spaces, its cultural nuances, the way people lived, worked and played — that the team still hopes to explore. For now, Keeladi has already become a startling portal into Tamil Nadu’s ancient past.

(This story has been published in arrangement with GRIST Media)