FOR FIVE YEARS now, archaeologists have been unearthing traces of an urban civilisation on the banks of the Vaigai in Tamil Nadu that is described in gorgeous detail in the Sangam era (300 BCE-300 CE) literary canon. Like the quest for Homer’s Mycenae, the excavation at Keezhadi (Keeladi as per revenue records) near Madurai sought to ground what was largely dismissed as lore in history. The very first field season, and then the second, threw up inscriptions of Sangam-age names in Tamil Brahmi (also known as Tamili) script and a cache of pots and artefacts as concrete evidence of the first advanced river valley civilisation in Tamil Nadu, contemporaneous with the second wave of urbanisation that had swept the Gangetic plains. Now, an interim report of the findings from the fourth phase of exploration has pushed back the date of this southern civilisation to the 6th century BCE, effectively claiming pre-Mauryan antiquity. Published on September 19th by the Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department (TNAD), which took over the site last year after the controversial suspension of explorations by the Archaeological Survey of India, the report reveals that a piece of charcoal, found at a depth of 3.53 metres, has been dated by the Beta Analytic Lab in Miami, Florida, at 580 BCE and uses the evidence to claim that the Tamil people ‘attained literacy or learned the art of writing as early as 6th century BC’.
The report, titled Keeladi—An Urban Settlement of Sangam Age on the bank of Vaigai River, has been under a cloud of suspicion for various reasons, with right-wing politicians claiming Dravidian supremacist motives and scholars decrying the lack of proper scientific review. Indeed, it stopped short of answering a crucial archaeological question: were potsherds inscribed with Tamil Brahmi found in the same trench and at the same stratigraphic layer as the sample dated 580 BCE—a necessary condition to claim widespread literacy during that period? T Udhayachandran, Commissioner of Archaeology, Government of Tamil Nadu, tells Open that the two inscriptions were indeed recovered from the same trench and layer as the tested sample. “Thitha and thamathi [likely to be incomplete names] are the two Tamil Brahmi inscriptions over potsherds found in the same layer as the charcoal dated 580 BCE. In a few days, we will publish trench drawings and more details in an updated report,” he says. “Since most of the inscribed pottery we find at Keezhadi and other sites in Tamil Nadu is the post-firing kind, indicating that the buyer of the pots could read and write, we can safely say that this ancient civilisation, which we have now dated back to 600 BCE, was a literate one,” he added.
What is also undeniable is the pluck it must have taken to suggest that the Tamils were likely the earliest people in India to develop their own script and literature, independent of Asokan Brahmi. Could their ancestors have come from the Indus Valley, where an urban civilisation existed between 5,000 BCE and 1,500 BCE? “Keezhadi’s link with the Indus Civilisation has to be studied further,” says Udhayachandran. “All we have said is that a few of the graffiti marks found at Keezhadi resemble the Indus script.” Vasant Shinde, an archaeologist known for his study of the Harappan cemetery of Rakhigarhi in Haryana and former Vice-Chancellor of the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, Pune, says the gap of a thousand years between the decline of the Indus Civilisation and the date claimed at Keezhadi cannot be wished away. “The Union Minister for Culture has asked members of the Standing Committee for Excavations to visit Keezhadi. If they are claiming a link to the Indus Valley, this has to be probed seriously,” Shinde says. “What we know is that the Harappan people spread and merged with the local population and passed on knowledge of urban planning. Early farmers lived across India at the time.” Recent excavations in southern India, he concedes, have “pushed back the dates”, indicating early urbanisation. “We cannot yet say for certain which came first—the Gangetic towns or sites in the south, like Keezhadi. We need to take another look at some of the early sites from the Gangetic plains—perhaps that would yield fresh dates from north India too,” he says.
The delicious possibility that the Tamils were a distinct civilisation has generated palpable excitement about Keezhadi. Towards the fag end of the fifth season, the dig site is swarming with schoolchildren, locals and curious Tamils who have journeyed from other districts for a peep at an early version of themselves. In a clearing amid a coconut plantation, a group is engaged in a charged conversation over the sophistication of early Tamils. The trench—one of 50 quadrants spread over the four to five acres excavated this year—that has sparked this discussion among strangers, had revealed an intricate terracotta water pipe, a section of it intact and still attached to the excavated surface, and a water filter. “You read that the Harappans had the technology to filter water and you feel proud of it, don’t you? But when we find evidence of indigenous technology in Tamil Nadu, do you accept it easily?” asks K Arumugam, who introduces himself as an engineer first and then as a resident of Madurai, about 15 km northwest of Keezhadi. A visitor points out that water treatment finds mention in the Sangam-era anthology Kalithogai, where a verse likens the state of mind of a woman who has united with her lover to muddy water that has cleared up after adding thetraankottai (clearing nut, Strychnos potatorum) to it. “It will take time to reconcile the written word with what they find on the ground, but at least now we know that we are an ancient, advanced civilisation,” says L Palanimanickam, a retired Tamil teacher from Tiruchirappalli.
The first TNAD dig yielded a vast haul of 5,820 antiquities, including 56 potsherds inscribed with Tamil Brahmi and 1,001 sherds with graffiti marks—an undeciphered system of writing found across sites in the state and thought to be a transitional script that existed before Tamil Brahmi—beside precious stones, utensils, bangles, spindles, toys, games, terracotta images and other articles, all pointing to a thriving, prosperous society. It could well have been an industrial site, going by the ringwells and the furnaces found in situ. The report notes ‘the recovery of 10 spindle whorls, 20 sharply pin-pointed bone-tip tools’ found here. Other sites in the vicinity identified for future excavations, including Konthagai, Manalur and Agaram, are expected to yield human remains and further insights on town planning and the lifestyles of the early Tamils of the region. “There are pleasant surprises in store in the Keezhadi cluster,” Udhayachandran tells Open. “This is public archaeology in the truest sense of the term and the response has been tremendous. We want to use this opportunity to build momentum for archaeological excavations in the state. Next year, we hope to excavate not only other sites in the cluster but also Kodumanal, neolithic sites in northern Tamil Nadu and port cities. The state government has a positive attitude—they increased funding for archaeology to Rs 2 crore this year and they are ready to sanction more as and when required.”
AT KEEZHADI, THE focus this year has been on excavating structures—a continuation of a 13 metre-long brick wall revealed in the second phase and another structure that archaeologists working on the site say could be linked to the larger one. A closed curvilinear water channel, made of brick and measuring about 8.6 metres, is one of the attractions on display this season. When we visit, the team of 14 archaeologists and researchers who have been living and working here for the last four months, led by B Asaithambi, the archaeologist in charge of the site, are on the verge of wrapping up for the season. The site was supposed to be shut down by the end of September, but on popular demand, the government opted to keep it going for a fortnight longer. Asaithambi and team have made the best of the extra time, but now they must run helter-skelter in their white T-shirts, taking drone photographs of every trench, double-checking the stratigraphic markings delineating each cultural deposit, and taking copious notes that would go into the making of the final report. The team used thermal and mineral scanning, unmanned aerial vehicles and magnetometer surveys to improve their chances of locating structures underneath the surface and found well-laid floors of clay, roof tiles with holes punched into them to drain water, side walls and water chambers. “In most trenches, we have hit virgin soil at a depth of 3.7-4.2 metres. We need not go deeper, but we must explore a wider area. We have only excavated 10 per cent of the 110-acre expanse that constitutes the Keezhadi site,” says Asaithambi.
Next season, the TNAD plans to invite some of the top institutes in the country to collect and study samples from Keezhadi using archaeobotany, archaeozoology, geochronology, isotopes, provenance studies and ancient DNA analysis. “Archaeology has become multi-disciplinary. There is an opportunity to take a holistic approach to understand various aspects of the civilisation at Keezhadi,” Udhayachandran said. “We are eager to work with and learn from institutes, like IIT Madras, Deccan College, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, the French Institute of Pondicherry, the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany in Lucknow and others.”
Keezhadi is hardly the first site in Tamil Nadu to yield evidence of an early literate civilisation. Decades of research at Kodumanal, a site in Erode district, had yielded 551 Tamil Brahmi inscriptions and thousands of precious stones and beads, pointing to the existence of a 4th century BCE manufacturing and trading centre mentioned in Sangam epics. In 2009, K Rajan, professor of history, Pondicherry University, began excavating a spectacular burial site in Porunthal near Palani, and found paddy grains dated between 510 BCE and 490 BCE. The find pegged the age of the Tamil script at the cusp of the 6th century BCE and lent weight to the theory that there existed cities and towns in southern India that were contemporaneous with the mahajanapadas of Magadha, Avanti and Kosala. Rajan has written a foreword for and edited the TNAD report on Keezhadi. Prior to the Porunthal findings, the view held by epigraphists, such as Iravatham Mahadevan and Y Subbarayalu, that Tamil-Brahmi was post-Asokan was a popular one, but increasingly, experts have refuted the idea that there cannot be any pre-Asokan inscriptions. “Keezhadi must be seen in the context of successive finds establishing older dates for Tamil civilisation,” says C Santhalingam, a retired archaeological officer who has been closely tracking the excavation. “It is one of several sites along the Vaigai and it is important for the sole reason that massive structural foundations have been found here—a first for Tamil Nadu,” he says.
“There is no need for this type of blow-up. People are engaging with the site because of coverage in the media—tell me, who knew about the 5th century dating of the Tamili script before Keezhadi?” asks an archaeologist associated with Keezhadi, requesting anonymity. There is much yet that is unknown about the ancient Tamil people other than what the Sangam epics tell us. That is why it is hard to resist using references from literature to interpret the archaeological finds at Keezhadi. Among the 700-odd artefacts from this year’s excavation, plastic-bagged and stored in a house about 20 minutes away that researchers use when they are tired of sleeping in the tents on site are a carnelian bead inscribed with the image of a wild boar and Tamil Brahmi letters that seem to spell out the name ‘Ambanai’, to everyone’s amusement. “Keezhadi is an effort at snatching from oblivion a portrait of a cultured people,” says Su Venkatesan, the CPM MP from Madurai and a Tamil writer who had lobbied hard for the state government to take over the excavation at Keezhadi. “Right now, we can only draw a faint outline—the portrait awaits completion,” he says.
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