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)
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)

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.
By Kamala Thiagarajan
UPDATED ON JUN 28, 2016 01:58 PM IST

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)
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)
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)

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
app
Close
FILE PHOTO: The logo of Amazon is pictured inside the company's office in Bengaluru, India, April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Abhishek N. Chinnappa(REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: The logo of Amazon is pictured inside the company's office in Bengaluru, India, April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Abhishek N. Chinnappa(REUTERS)

ED books Amazon to probe alleged FEMA, FDI violations

UPDATED ON JAN 28, 2021 10:08 PM IST
  • In a judgment last month, the Delhi High Court said that Amazon appeared to have indirectly obtained control of Future Retail's Big Bazaar without the government’s approval.
Close
Paramilitary personnel deployed at Red Fort in New Delhi on Wednesday. A group of protestors climbed to the ramparts of the fort and unfurled flags on the 26th of January. (ANI Photo)
Paramilitary personnel deployed at Red Fort in New Delhi on Wednesday. A group of protestors climbed to the ramparts of the fort and unfurled flags on the 26th of January. (ANI Photo)

15 more detained in connection with Republic Day violence in Delhi

PTI
PUBLISHED ON JAN 28, 2021 10:04 PM IST
Nearly 30 farmers who were camping at DDA Ground in Burari were also moved towards the Singhu border to clear the site, they said.
Close
A man hangs on to pole holding a Sikh religious flag along with a farm union flag at the historic Red Fort monument during a farmers protest against new farm laws in New Delhi, India. A sea of tens of thousands of farmers riding tractors and horses stormed India’s historic Red Fort this week — a dramatic escalation of their protests. (AP)
A man hangs on to pole holding a Sikh religious flag along with a farm union flag at the historic Red Fort monument during a farmers protest against new farm laws in New Delhi, India. A sea of tens of thousands of farmers riding tractors and horses stormed India’s historic Red Fort this week — a dramatic escalation of their protests. (AP)

Red Fort saw 'irreplaceable' damage, historic brass urns missing: Minister

By hindustantimes.com | Edited by Arpan Rai
UPDATED ON JAN 28, 2021 10:06 PM IST
Speaking to reporters, the minister said that two historic brass urns installed near the place where Tricolour is hoisted have gone missing. The main gate of the fort has also been damaged, he said.
Close
The Noida IDC is said to be inspired by the Taj Mahal, an UNESCO world heritage site and one of the seven wonders of the world, located less than 200 kilometers away in Agra.
The Noida IDC is said to be inspired by the Taj Mahal, an UNESCO world heritage site and one of the seven wonders of the world, located less than 200 kilometers away in Agra.

Microsoft launches Taj Mahal inspired engineering hub in Noida

By hindustantimes.com | Edited by Ayshee Bhaduri, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON JAN 28, 2021 09:51 PM IST
  • The IDC is said to be inspired by the Taj Mahal. Microsoft said that its design will amalgamate the company's technological prowess with locally sourced materials. It will feature artworks by local artisans and incorporate features of the Taj, like vaulted doorways, marble inlays and domes, arches.
Close
A view of a crowded highway as farmers protest against new farm laws at a state border in Shahjahanpur, in the desert state of Rajasthan, near New Delhi.(REUTERS)
A view of a crowded highway as farmers protest against new farm laws at a state border in Shahjahanpur, in the desert state of Rajasthan, near New Delhi.(REUTERS)

Kisan Mahapanchayat calls off protest at Shahjahanpur border

ANI
PUBLISHED ON JAN 28, 2021 09:51 PM IST
This comes a day after Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan and the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Bhanu) withdrew from the agitation at the borders of Delhi.
Close
The deceased have been identified as A Maibongsa (60) and Amit Nunisa (42).(Representaional Photo)
The deceased have been identified as A Maibongsa (60) and Amit Nunisa (42).(Representaional Photo)

2 Assam villagers killed in firing at Busu Dima festival

PUBLISHED ON JAN 28, 2021 09:42 PM IST
The incident is suspected to have been carried out by Dimasa National Liberation Army (DNLA), a rebel outfit formed in 2019.
Close
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration is under pressure to shore up economic growth after the pandemic resulted in widespread job losses and pushed millions into poverty due to one of world’s strictest lockdown.(AFP | Representational image)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration is under pressure to shore up economic growth after the pandemic resulted in widespread job losses and pushed millions into poverty due to one of world’s strictest lockdown.(AFP | Representational image)

India said to forecast 11% growth buoyed by Covid-19 vaccine roll out

Bloomberg
PUBLISHED ON JAN 28, 2021 09:39 PM IST
The forecast for next year is in line with the International Monetary Fund’s estimate for 11.5% expansion, which will once again make India the fastest-growing major economy in the world ahead of China’s 8.1% pace.
Close
File photo of Nagaland chief secretary Tali Temjen Toy.(Photo@temjentoy)
File photo of Nagaland chief secretary Tali Temjen Toy.(Photo@temjentoy)

Nagaland chief secretary Temjen Toy dies after battle with cancer

By Alice Yhoshü
PUBLISHED ON JAN 28, 2021 09:34 PM IST
Chief minister Neiphiu Rio said Temjen Toy's demise is a huge loss for the government of Nagaland and for the Nagas as a whole.
Close
The Kerala CM said the daily testing rate will be hiked to one lakh and at least 75 per cent will be RT-PCR tests. (REUTERS PHOTO).
The Kerala CM said the daily testing rate will be hiked to one lakh and at least 75 per cent will be RT-PCR tests. (REUTERS PHOTO).

Kerala announces new curbs as Covid-19 cases continue to surge

PUBLISHED ON JAN 28, 2021 09:23 PM IST
  • On Thursday, the state reported 5771 cases with a test positivity rate (TPR) of 9.87. The active case load is 72,392 and it reported 19 deaths taking the death toll to 3682. Almost 45 per cent of fresh cases of the country are from Kerala.
Close
On this day 71 years ago, the Supreme Court had its inaugural sitting.(HT Photo )
On this day 71 years ago, the Supreme Court had its inaugural sitting.(HT Photo )

No offs, could be annual event: CJI on Supreme Court's inaugural sitting anniv

By Abraham Thomas
PUBLISHED ON JAN 28, 2021 09:23 PM IST
Cheif Justice of India SA Bobde said that this event is worthy of commemoration.
Close
Protesters forcibly entering Red Fort, attacking the police at various places on India's 72nd Republic Day. (Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)
Protesters forcibly entering Red Fort, attacking the police at various places on India's 72nd Republic Day. (Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)

Video shows hundreds inside Red Fort, protestors running amok with tractor

By hindustantimes.com | Edited by Arpan Rai, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JAN 28, 2021 09:39 PM IST
The unfolding of violent clashes in the Mughal-era fort forced authorities to shut down the monument till January 31 to take stock of the damages.
Close
Parties like the Shiv Sena had even supported the farm laws in Parliament before making a U-turn, so did the Shiromani Akali Dal, Bhatia said.(Reuters)
Parties like the Shiv Sena had even supported the farm laws in Parliament before making a U-turn, so did the Shiromani Akali Dal, Bhatia said.(Reuters)

BJP slams opposition for decision to boycott President's address to Parliament

PTI, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JAN 28, 2021 09:19 PM IST
16 opposition parties led by the Congress, NCP, Shiv Sena and the TMC on Thursday decided to boycott the President's address to the Parliament in solidarity with the protesting farmers.
Close
Policemen stand guard in front of the historic Red Fort after Tuesday's clashes between police and farmers, in the old quarters of Delhi, India, January 27, 2021. (REUTERS)
Policemen stand guard in front of the historic Red Fort after Tuesday's clashes between police and farmers, in the old quarters of Delhi, India, January 27, 2021. (REUTERS)

Republic Day violence: Protesters snatched magazines from constables, says FIR

PTI, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON JAN 28, 2021 09:10 PM IST
The FIR has been filed at the Kotwali police station in north Delhi. It said 141 security personnel were injured during the violence at Red Fort.
Close
The West Bengal Assembly passed a resolution to rename the State as ‘Bangla’ in three languages — Bengali, English, and Hindi, in Kolkata on July 26, 2018.(PTI Photo)
The West Bengal Assembly passed a resolution to rename the State as ‘Bangla’ in three languages — Bengali, English, and Hindi, in Kolkata on July 26, 2018.(PTI Photo)

West Bengal Assembly demands repeal of farm laws, Mamata Banerjee taunts BJP

PUBLISHED ON JAN 28, 2021 09:10 PM IST
  • The resolution in the Assembly also extended support to the protesting farmers.
Close
The electoral alliance between the Congress and the Left parties for the upcoming assembly polls made noticeable progress on Thursday(ANI)
The electoral alliance between the Congress and the Left parties for the upcoming assembly polls made noticeable progress on Thursday(ANI)

News updates from HT: Cong-Left to share seats for Bengal polls

By hindustantimes.com, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON JAN 28, 2021 09:02 PM IST
  • Here are today’s top news, analysis, and opinion. Know all about the latest news and other news updates from Hindustan Times.
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP