In 2015, the Archaeological Survey of India team carrying out excavations in Keezhadi, near Madurai struck gold – they found the first concrete proof of the existence of a complex and sophisticated urban settlement in ancient Tamil Nadu. Several artefacts found at the site linked it to the Sangam era, a period from 4th Century BCE to 2th century CE widely regarded as a golden era for Tamil culture.
Archaeologist Amarnath Ramakrishna led the team that excavated close to 102 trenches in a 100-acre plot. But in March, the ASI decided to transfer the officer to Guwahati from the Bengaluru office where he was posted, against his will. He challenged the transfer order before the Central Administrative Tribunal, but it ruled against him. A team is carrying forward the excavation at the Keezhadi site, which now in its third year.
The transfer, however, kicked up a storm in the state. Political parties in Tamil Nadu, including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, accused the Centre of deliberately trying to derail the excavation as the discoveries made those on the Hindu Right uncomfortable. The parties said Keezhadi could prove their long-held belief that Tamil Nadu may have had a non-Vedic, independent ancient civilisation, something that could challenge the notion of Vedic roots of all of Hinduism.
In an interview to Scroll.in, Ramakrishna detailed the discoveries his team made in Keezhadi and expressed hope that the new team would make even more important discoveries. Excerpts:
When and how did you identify the Keezhadi site?
In 2013-’14, a four-member team headed by me surveyed the Vaigai river banks from its starting points near the Velli Malai in the Western Ghats to Aatrankarai near the sea. We explored up to a radius of 8 km on either side. The total river length is about 250 km and it flows through five districts in Tamil Nadu.
It [the survey] involved exploring close to 500 villages. We discovered a variety of archaeological evidences in 293 locations and many of them were potential habitation sites. A variety of burial sites were also found. We identified many loose sculptures and hero stones and elaborate inscriptions and even temple sites.
So all 293 locations were settlements? How crucial was this discovery?
Among the 293, we filtered down to about 90 habitation sites. The importance of this discovery was huge. All this while, the theory was that there were no proper ancient habitation sites or riverine settlements in Tamil Nadu. All that was found till we identified these sites were primarily burial sites. In fact, the very reason to pursue this excavation was to disprove such false theories. We wanted to embark on the first large-scale river basin archaeological excavation in Tamil Nadu.
Excavations sites like Arikamedu [near Puducherry] and Kaveripoompatinam [near Nagapattinam] did not give us the kind of results we expected to authoritatively establish the existence of urban settlements. Adichanallur, which was excavated in 2005, turned out to be only a burial site after showing early potential.
We analysed the evidences we got from over 90 of these sites which showed signs of habitation and decided to focus on Keezhadi. Here, we found well-preserved burnt bricks. The situation was that bricks, a widely-recognised marker for urban settlements, were not found at all in Tamil Nadu. This changed in Keezhadi, which we picked as the best from three most promising sites. Other two were Siddharnatham, 40 km West of Madurai, and Maranadu which was 35 km Southeast of Madurai. It took a year to complete these surveys and select Keezhadi as our site for excavation.
How much was the Tamil Sangam literature an inspiration to these excavations?
The curious thing was, we have the great treasure of Tamil Sangam literature with its magnificent poetry. But there is no archealogical evidence to back the existence of the Sangams [ancient Tamil academies] mentioned in the literature. One reason is that there have not been serious excavations along the Vaigai river as it has remained a continuous settlement since the ancient times. Madurai, as you know, was the capital of this Sangam age. So logically, it is here that we should be looking for evidence of an ancient Tamil civilisation.
The fact that Madurai has had continuous settlements for centuries made it difficult to carry out excavations there. How was Keezhadi different?
Keezhadi site was almost intact, in the sense there were coconut groves that were older than 40 years. In those times, there was no disturbance to these sites as there was no development. In other areas closer to Madurai, many potential sites would have been destroyed as they dig for construction or to lay roads. Keezhadi did not have this problem as it was a naturally protected site.
How crucial was the fact that Keezhadi was being excavated by the ASI and not by any other organisation?
State archaeological departments lack the funds to conduct extensive excavations. The Bengaluru ASI office was started in 2001. We were tasked with excavations in South India. This was a great advantage as ASI has the financial provisions to exploit the site to its full potential.
Once you identified Keezhadi, how did you go about the excavations?
First, we measured the archaeological mound. The Mean Sea Level in that area is 119 metres. This mound was 123 metres. It had over 3.5 metres of sediment deposits. The circumference was 4.5 km. It is very rare to find this kind of a settlement in these areas.
We started the excavations in 2014-2015 in two localities. One was on the eastern side and other slightly near the river. When we began the excavations, we immediately started finding fine pottery. In a short time, we stumbled upon structures.
What were the most crucial findings of the first phase of excavations?
We found ring wells. Now this is a crucial finding which indicated that it was an urban settlement because it was in such settlements that people make wells. Essentially, wells make people’s life easy and saves time. They don’t have to go to the river or lake every time to fetch water. On a lighter vein, you can say wells are the innovation of human laziness.
But wells are also crucial for small-scale industrial activity. Then we found walls and platforms and large brick floors. There were flourishing antiquities, including ivory dayakattai (a Tamil dice game).
In the first phase in March to September 2015, we dug 43 trenches of 4 feet by 4 feet measurements. By this time, a lot of scholars started visiting.
Tell us about the second phase..
In the second phase in 2016, we did 59 trenches. In total, there were 102 trenches, the largest ever in Tamil Nadu. In the second phase, we found even better evidence of urban settlements like a complex drainage systems with terracotta pipes. We found bigger platforms made of bricks and six furnaces, indicating industrial activity.
What do these findings tell us? Is there a larger narrative here?
What all this did was it disproved the theory that there were no urban settlements in the Sangam era. The blame should be squarely placed on ourselves, because there were no attempts in the past to find concrete archaeological evidence. It was lying there but we did not explore it.
If we excavate the 90 other sites we found along the Vaigai river, I am sure we will find more settlements. They could be more ancient and perhaps more complex. I believe much of what is mentioned in the Sangam literature, of a great Madurai city that was the epicenter of a bustling civilisation, could be very much accurate and could present itself if we dig carefully.
How do you connect these to the Sangam age?
In all, we found 74 Tamil Brahmi inscriptions. They were similar to characters used in 200 BCE. Another significant thing was that these inscriptions were on potteries. Inscriptions commissioned by kings are found in stones and walls of temples. When you find inscriptions on pottery, it tells you a story. That story is that the common man was literate – another sign of a great settlement.
There were poetic Tamil names on those inscriptions, some of which you find in the Sangam literature. These people knew about the literature. By writing names on pottery, you sort of claim ownership. This is still in vogue.
But is this evidence enough to prove that a major civilisation existed?
If you look at the 130 BCE Kharavela inscriptions in Hathikhumba in Odisha, it tells us that there was a Tamil confederation at that time. There was a big kingdom down South with confederates, which Kharavela of Kalinga is said to have disbanded. This means there should have been a urban settlement, a civilisation and a kingdom in the South. Scholars in the North usually point to lack of archaeological evidence to deny these. After 70 years of independence, we got a chance to provide this evidence.
Is it right to make comparisons between the Vaigai settlements and the Indus Valley civilisation?
Vaigai river civilisation was as complex as the Indus Valley or Gangetic civilisations. We completed two seasons of excavations. I cannot say it is older than Indus Valley and Gangetic civilisation since dating of the site is not complete. We have done only till four metres and that too on only one site. The site goes deeper, even up to 6.5 metres.
Also, only the eastern and central sides of Keezhadi have been analysed. The northern and western sides remain. This is a great moment for all of us as these excavations could throw light on the rich past of this extraordinary region.
Were you disappointed that you were transferred in the middle of such a crucial project?
For the third season, I made the proposal. I was given the approval as well. Funds were allotted in March after a delay, claiming status report needed to be filed. But unfortunately, I have been transferred in the middle of this crucial excavation. While I am disappointed, I wish the new team takes forward the excavations and we find even better and older evidence.