Retracing ancient Indian heritage via Tamil Nadu

Retracing ancient Indian heritage via Tamil Nadu

Archaeological excavations across Tamil Nadu are reigniting the debate about India's early history and the dawn of civilisation in the subcontinent

Samples being collected from an offering vessel found inside a burial urn in Sivagalai in Tamil Nadu. Credit: TNSDA

In 2017, three years into an archaeological excavation at Keeladi, a nondescript village near Madurai that turned up over 5,800 artefacts, the Archaeological Survey of India inexplicably announced that there were "no significant findings."

The ASI’s announcement, coupled with other decisions, like the transfer of Amarnath Ramakrishna — the Superintending Archaeologist who led the first two phases — to Assam led to a raging row in Tamil Nadu, which had begun to bask in the discovery of an early urban settlement having existed on the banks of Vaigai river.

The transfer of Ramakrishna, a native of Palani in Dindigul, was attributed to him going public with the preliminary findings of the digging: that the site dates back to the state’s literature-rich Sangam Era.

Tamil Nadu's political parties then accused the BJP of trying to “conceal” the findings of Keeladi and preventing the Tamil language and people from getting their due right in India’s history.

The saffron party was also accused of hobbling the excavations by not allocating enough funds to the ASI.

With an intervention from the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court following a petition filed by a lawyer, the Union Government allowed the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology (TNSDA) to resume the excavations in 2018, picking up where the ASI left off.

Since then, there has scarcely been a dull moment at Keeladi. The rich haul of artefacts — over 15,000 at last count, dating back at least 2,600 years (580 BCE) — unearthed over seven phases of digging, bear testimony to the vibrant urban life of the ancient settlement.

The findings are also seen as archaeological corroboration of events or places mentioned in Sangam literature; in fact, carbon dating of the six artefacts from the site is seen as evidence that the Sangam Era began three centuries earlier than thought, making Keeladi contemporaneous with the Gangetic Plains civilisation in north India.

Several capital cities, towns and sea ports from the Sangam Era such as Uraiyur, Karur, Kodumanal, Porunthal, Arikamedu, Poompuhar, Korkai, Alagankulam, Pattnam, and many more sites were excavated and established this link. 

Carbon dating 

The findings from the fourth phase encouraged the state’s archaeology department, then led by seasoned bureaucrat T Udhayachandran, to expand the Keeladi cluster by including Agaram and Konthagai, a nearby habitation and a burial site respectively. 

In 2020, another site some 170 km further south called Sivagalai, on the banks of the Porunai (Thamirabarani) river near Adichanallur — where excavations began a century ago in 1903 - 04 — also came under the TNSDA’s radar. Excavations are now on in seven more places across Tamil Nadu.

The carbon analysis of paddy husks found in a burial urn dates the settlement in Sivagalai further back to 3,200 years (1155 BCE), making it older than the Keeladi.

Declaring the results in the state Assembly on September 9, Chief Minister M K Stalin emphatically declared that his government would prove that the history of the Indian subcontinent should be “written from the Tamil landscape.”

Stalin also spoke of plans to conduct studies at Vengi (Andhra Pradesh), Thalakadu (Karnataka), and Palur (Odisha), demonstrating his government’s resolve to “get to the roots of the ancient Tamil civilisation”. 

A museum will be set up to exhibit the findings of the excavation in Sivagalai, Stalin added. A museum in Keeladi, the foundation stone for which was laid by the previous AIADMK government that battled allegations of siding with the BJP in “concealing Tamil history”, is expected to be open by the end of 2021.

“Keeladi is purely a Sangam Age site. We unearthed several pieces of evidence to show that it was a continuous urban settlement. The findings are just a beginning and as the digging continues, this site has the potential to throw up surprises. It is for historians to conduct further research on the findings,” Ramakrishna, who has just been transferred back to Tamil Nadu, told DH.

Keeladi’s links with IVC

With the TNSDA finding similarities between Keeladi and the Indus Valley Civilisation, some experts believe the two river-based settlements in Tamil Nadu have the potential to rewrite India’s history. But they say the picture will only get clearer with further excavations and research.

“The brick-built structure, terracotta toys, presence of inscribed pottery, and absence of religious markers in Keeladi have remarkable similarities to the material culture of IVC. I am not surprised by these findings. We have touched only the tip of an archaeological iceberg,” Indology expert R Balakrishnan, a retired Odisha-cadre bureaucrat and author of the critically acclaimed Journey of a Civilization: Indus to Vaigai, told DH.

With the Porunai (Sivagalai) site now dated to 1155 BCE, some experts feel the gap that could establish a connection with the IVC (which existed between 3200 BCE to 1900 BCE) has shrunk to 700 years. 

Though the gap is huge, Balakrishnan, Chief Advisor to Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, believes that the “temporal gap” between IVC and Tamil antiquities are narrowing down with findings in Keeladi and Sivagalai.

‘Keeladi’s period might get pushed behind further’

With just a small portion of the earmarked area being excavated so far, the chance of Keeladi and the Sangam Era’s antiquity being pushed back further is a distinct possibility. Same goes for Sivagalai, where the digging at the habitation and burial sites is on-going. 

“Keeladi is a treasure trove and this is the oldest urban settlement to have been unearthed so far in Tamil Nadu. The site qualifies every criteria to be called an urban settlement with evidence of dying units, structural activities, industries like those making beads, iron and ceramic throwing up during the excavation. The inscriptions found point to high literacy levels among inhabitants of Keeladi thousands of years ago,” Dr R Sivananthan, Commissioner of Archaeology, Tamil Nadu, told DH

The findings from Keeladi have laid to rest the long-held conviction that the Tamil land had no ancient urban civilisation, Sivananthan said , adding that the unearthing of silver-punch marked coins with designs of sun, moon, and a bull has established trade links between the inhabitants here and present-day north India.

“This means, for now, the Vaigai River Civilisation is contemporary with the Gangetic Plains Civilisation and much older than the Mauryan Empire,” Sivananthan said.

The presence of ring wells that demonstrate the fluctuation in ground water and also behaviour of the Vaigai River and advanced water conservation technology used 2600 years ago, elaborate brick structures and potsherds with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions also match references to the rich urban life celebrated in Sangam literature. 

Along with references to numerous artefacts that have been unearthed, this ancient Tamil literary text also has names similar to that found scribbled onto potsherds.

“A case study comparing dice found in Keeladi with the terracotta dice found in Lothal, along with a reference to the exact type of dice in Sangam literature will throw plenty of light,” Balakrishnan added. 

What K N Dikshit said 

The theory positing a Dravidian link to the IVC is not new. Well-known epigraphist and former civil servant Iravatham Mahadevan opined that the IVC was inhabited by Dravidians who spoke a Dravidian language and that they migrated down south, though his views are widely contested due to the lack of enough evidence.

Way back in 1939, then ASI Director-General K N Dikshit wrote he believed that a “thorough investigation” in Tirunelveli district and the neighbouring regions will one day lead to the discovery of some site which “would be contemporary with or even little later than the Indus civilisation.”

Balakrishnan says Dikshit’s prediction was profound, as Keeladi has thrown up “striking similarities” with IVC not just in terms of long-distance trade links but much beyond, connected to the core ideologies and attitudes towards life. 

 “I always take the position that the point at which IVC disappears from the scene and the points at which Sangam literature takes off are the same. I consider Sangam Literature to be the bridge that connects IVC and Tamil civilisation of the South,” Balakrishnan said. 

Require more evidence 

K Rajan, Professor of History, Pondicherry University, in his defence of the links with IVC, told DH that narrowing of the gap between IVC, and Tamil culture is slowly emerging but still “we search for more evidence”. 

“Regarding the relation between IVC and Porunai or Vaigai valley, we have encountered many graffiti marks and most of them are morphologically near identical to IVC scripts and are suggestive of linguistic relationship. Other cultural items are yet to be encountered and future explorations and excavations may come with more concrete evidence,” Prof Rajan added.

On Sivagalai, Prof Rajan said that the findings clearly suggest that rice cultivation was in existence as early as the 12th century BCE and unearthing of iron objects from them indirectly indicates that iron technology, a prerequisite for intensive agricultural activity, was already in place. 

“The high-level ritual performed in placing the urns in a grave, the size of the graveyard, a large number of grave goods such as ceramics, artefacts, iron objects and others are suggestive of specialised craftsmen living in a structured society to meet the demands of a large society,” he said.

Adding to this, Prof Rajan pointed to the highest number of graffiti inscribed potsherds and Damili (Tamil-Brahmi) inscribed potsherds — more than 5,000 and 1,000 respectively — were found in Tamil Nadu during the archaeological excavations. 

Harappan horse 

However, Kurush F Dalal, an archaeologist and historian based out of Mumbai, said there are no similarities between Harappans and Keeladi, even objection to the usage of the word civilisation.

“There are no similarities between Harappans and Keeladi. What Keeladi shows us is evidence of flourishing urbanisation, while the excavation in Sivagalai (Thamirabarani) is beautiful evidence of the Iron Age in Tamil Nadu. But they are not Tamil civilisations. We should stop abusing the word civilisation,” he told DH.

“These are fascinating discoveries that throw light on urbanisation at Keeladi and an early iron age at Sivagalai. It is fabulous but we have to stop riding this Harappan horse,” Dalal said.

The archaeologist believes that Keeladi “needs a lot of work” and stressed “transparency” in writing and releasing reports on the findings from the site. 

Dalal’s views were echoed by Ravi Korisettar, Senior Academic Fellow, Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi.

"It is an important early historic site, where Sangam period remains and later period remains have been unearthed. It does not reflect anything unique in terms of archaeological features such has been found in other parts of Southern India. It is just a late iron age, early historic period site. It also represents the expansion late Neolithic iron age culture into Southern India, especially the plains of Tamil Nadu,"

"These people made productive exploitation of mineral resources in Tamil Nadu, especially gem stones and other geological resources. But otherwise it is not anything unique in terms of Tamil civilization," Korisettar added.

Speaking about the IVC, he said “There is no need to bring Indus Valley civilisation in this particular context. There is absolutely no relation between any part of Southern India and the province where Indus Valley civilization flourished. They were contemporary but not related.”

“There is no archaeological evidence to support the theory that Indus Valley civilisation people moved down south to Tamil Nadu. When the Indus valley civilisation prospered, early village settlements began to appear in this part of the Deccan and South India,” 

But Balakrishnan contests the view strongly and cites the “huge archaeological apathy with reference to digging in down south” for the lack of links being established with the IVC.

This, despite the leads provided by sites like Adichanallur from a century ago.

“If you don’t dig you won’t find. It is obvious. Now you are digging and finding it,” he said. “If we conduct more excavations, the missing links will shrink further and eventually disappear,” the bureaucrat-scholar asserted.

‘History is about people’

Prof Rajan also opined that South Indian history has received less attention in Indian history irrespective of the occurrence of many inscriptions in Tamil, Kannada and Telugu besides numerous outstanding monuments.

“The entire Indian history needs to be restructured based on the archaeological epigraphical evidences that is forthcoming to understand the history of the period for which written documents are not available,” he said.

A case study of dice found in Keeladi compared with terracotta dice found in Lothal and reference to the exact type of dice in Sangam literature will throw plenty of light, Balakrishnan added.

He concluded by saying history is not just about empires, kings, and their wars, but essentially about people. “I hope that focussed attention to the archaeology of Tamil Nadu will provide new and hitherto unknown contours for the people’s history of India,” Balakrishnan said.