Leave History Alone: Why An Archaeological Discovery In Tamil Nadu Has Ruffled Feathers

Excavation at Keezhadi
  • All the cultures of India, native to its soil, are branches of this great banyan tree that we call Indian or Hindu civilisation.

    Adopting a chauvinistic and short-sighted partisan approach will only be self-destructive and provide fuel to wrong elements.

A report in (2 April 2017) on the transfer of an archaeologist from the “history-defining Sangam era site” that led to an uproar in Tamil Nadu, shows the utter confusion in the popular mind about ancient history. It also tells us a lot about how history can be used by politicians in India to generate us-versus-them controversies.

The issue concerns the following new archaeological discovery in Tamil Nadu: “In 2015, the Archaeological Survey of India began the first phase of its excavations in a nondescript village 12 km from Madurai in southern Tamil Nadu. Over the next two years, at Keezhadi, archaeologists unearthed a history-defining Sangam era site – the first concrete proof of the existence of urban settlements in that epoch in Tamil Nadu.”

“The Sangam era, from 400 BCE to 200 CE, refers to a period of ancient Tamil Nadu in which Tamil culture and language evolved to its zenith, producing some of the finest literature and art in the language. This period was named after the Sangams (academies) of Tamil poets and writers said to have existed in and around Madurai. In Sangam times, Tamil Nadu consisted of parts of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Sri Lanka as well.

“Carbon dating of the artefacts recovered from the Keezhadi site has placed it at 200 BCE. The artefacts excavated include pottery pieces with inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi script, copper beads and a variety of metal tools. The settlement has been found to have complex drainage systems such as the ones found in the Indus Valley Civilisation, and brick structures, showing that it was once a flourishing settlement.”

The finding of ancient settlements in any part of India should be a matter of pride for any Indian. The Sangam literature gives details, as pointed out in the Scroll report, of a period of ancient Tamil civilisation, when Tamil (or ancient Dravidian language) culture in the South reached its zenith. This newly excavated site indeed provides the "first concrete proof of the existence of urban settlements in that epoch in Tamil Nadu". It should have had lovers of ancient Indian history, archaeology and culture in India eager to find out more. Instead, it seems to have started a political battle royale between two schools of thought.

To begin with, according to opposition leaders and writers (mainly Dravidianist and Left-oriented), the centre had tried to stop funding for the project, but when that could not be done, it transferred the officer in charge, Amarnath Ramakrishna, who has since contested his transfer.

A spokesperson of the Left is quoted as saying, “those who try to paint a homogeneous picture of India’s ancient past were uncomfortable with the new findings, which suggest that a secular civilisation flourished in South India in the ancient times". A DMK spokesperson is quoted as alleging that there was an effort to “systematically subvert” the “evidence of an independent Tamil civilisation.”

The crux of the matter currently rocking academic circles in Tamil Nadu, according to critics, is that the excavated site is evidence of the theory that the “Indus Valley Civilisation” was a Dravidian language-speaking civilisation which was destroyed or replaced by the “invading Aryans” in 1500 BCE, since this site in Keezhadi represents either a kindred culture (to the Indus Valley Civilisation) in the South or the remnants of the civilisation of the Indus Valley inhabitants who fled south in the wake of the Aryan invasion.

All this again brings into the open the old game of politics in history-writing which has been the bane of historical studies in Independent India.

Firstly, the protests reek of politics: the Left spokesperson tells us that the excavated site represents a “secular civilisation!” This is probably the first time that an archaeological site (and that too one whose excavation is in the starting stages) has been described with such an adjective. What does “secular” mean in this context?

The claim that this site represents an “independent Tamil civilisation” in the South is of course undeniable. It is situated right in the middle of a Dravidian language speaking territory where no evidence has ever been found indicating that any other (non-Dravidian) language was ever spoken in the past. This proves, even in the absence of written inscriptions on this site, that the language was ancient Tamil and not Sanskrit, Chinese or Sumerian.

But what it does not is that the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC) was a Dravidian language speaking civilisation, because, by that same logic, the IVC is situated right in the middle of Indo-European (“Aryan”) language speaking territory where no evidence has ever been found indicating that any other (non-Indo-European) language was ever spoken in the past. Further, as I have noted in my blog, “The Chronology and Geography of the Rig Veda”, which no one has yet challenged, there is no doubt that the mature phase of IVC represents the heartland of the Indo-Iranian area in the period of composition of the New Books of the Rigveda, at least from 2500 BCE onwards.

The Keezhadi site cannot represent a sister civilisation of the IVC, since the mature IVC existed from at least 2500 BCE (with even older stages going back more than a 1,000 years). On the other hand, the Keezhadi site is dated to 200 BCE and is clearly a part of the Tamil Sangam Era which started in 400 BCE. This is more than 2000 years after the start of the mature IVC and 1,500 years after its demise. It cannot be a daughter civilisation either since it is separated in both time and space from the former with no connecting links. The mere discovery of bricks and some kind of drainage system in itself does not automatically link the two, much less show that the IVC was Dravidian-speaking.

Some other points to note:

1. Tamil tradition from the oldest times speaks of an ancient civilisation stretching from Tamil Nadu further south into the sea, into areas which are believed to have submerged into the sea. There is absolutely no tradition of having a civilisation stretching into the North, nor of the Dravidians in the South themselves actually having come from the North, and certainly not even the faintest ghost of a tradition that they were driven from the north by foreign invaders, Aryan or any other.

2. The Sangam literature, or remnants of lost Sangam literature quoted in the earliest available Tamil texts of the early centuries CE (AD), as well as archaeological artefacts in Tamil Nadu from the Sangam period, all show familiarity with, respect and reverence for, and even some inspiration from the Vedic, Puranic and other Classical Sanskrit texts, and even from Buddhist and Jain texts of the period, rather than opposition to or resentment of any of them.

The politics of the Left and the Dravidians is dangerous, divisive and politically subversive, and it also represents the entrenched and dominant politics of the writing of Indian history in Indian and world academic circles. But it can be easily demonstrated that it has no scholarly basis in fact and evidence, and can be effectively disproved (even if it is not easy to make them admit it).

But what is the explanation for the politics of the other side: why should “Hindutva groups” be “uncomfortable” with the findings of the excavations and try to “derail” them, as the Left and Dravidianists allege, and which seems indeed to be borne out by the sequence of events? Why should they provide fuel to the subversive politics of their opponents?

The answer is that, however biased and negative the attitude of the Left may be on historical matters, the critics are right on one point: the “Hindutva groups” (if one can brand all writers and scholars who reject the Aryan Invasion Theory with this brush), out of a misguided understanding of the facts, want “to paint a homogeneous picture of India’s ancient past”, and are therefore unable to present a paradigm which is in keeping with the facts and the truth, and this makes them tend to panic without cause due to an intrinsic lack of genuine faith in the historical model they represent (and then of course politics steps in!).

When European traders and colonialists started arriving in India in the sixteenth century, they came across a huge nation with a variegated culture which was united by one common ancient Sanskrit civilisational tradition. Later, when they discovered that the Vedic language, the oldest form of Sanskrit, was in fact genetically closely related to the oldest languages of Europe and Iran (as common members of a language family which was named Aryan or Indo-European), they speculated that their own European civilisation was also derived from this Indian civilisation. But many circumstances (discussed in my books) later led them to a consensus that the original Vedic Sanskrit speakers entered India from outside into a land originally occupied by other language speaking groups in a rudimentary state of civilisation, and that Indian Civilisation commenced, in a linear fashion, with the arrival of these Vedic language speaking Aryans in 1500 BCE.

The discovery (in the early twentieth century) of the IVC, with its dates going back into the remote past beyond 1500 BCE, led to an academic reappraisal of the assumed state of the civilisation of the pre-Aryan “natives” of India: now, instead of “civilised Vedic Aryans” versus barbaric natives, it became a case of “nomadic” Vedic Aryans versus a great native civilisation. However, this great native civilisation was restricted to the north-west of India (and disappeared without a trace by 1500 BCE); further, in the interior, there were still people in rudimentary stages of civilisation, who in the course of time became civilisationally (if not all of them linguistically) part of a great Sanskrit-based Indian civilisation, which commenced with the Vedic civilisation “brought” into India by the Vedic Aryans.

The only difference between the official paradigm of the western (and corresponding Indian) academic scholars and the paradigm of those who reject the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) is that the latter reject the external origin of the Vedic language and its speakers. Otherwise both see the story of Indian Civilisation as a linear story commencing with the Vedic age.

The idea that the Dravidians of the South represent the descendants of the original IVC people driven to the South, or their kin, is a leftist sideshow adopted by the so-called "Dravidian movement" in Tamil Nadu (and its academic supporters in India and the west), and not necessarily a part of the official AIT. But anything which seems to challenge the linear story tends to make “Hindutva groups uncomfortable”, whether the idea that the Vedic language is not the ultimate ancestral Aryan language, or the idea that Dravidian languages and Indo-European languages belong to different language families. And now the discomfort is over the discovery of Keezhadi (even when it represents a late date in the Sangam period, around 200 BCE, and has nothing really to do with the IVC).

The fact is that this linear story is itself wrong, and totally out of line with the facts and with Indian historical traditions recorded in the Puranas. And until this is officially understood and accepted by the alleged “Hindutva groups” (as well as by their opponents), the politics of both sides will continue to play havoc with Indian historical studies.

The truth is that the Vedic civilisation commencing with the Rig Veda is not a civilisation or culture brought in by “Aryan invaders” in 1500 BCE (as alleged by the AIT proponents). And nor is it an ancient primordial civilisation (as alleged by Hindutva groups) which represents the ancestral starting point of Indian Civilisation as a whole. It is one of many branches (although the oldest and the one recorded in most detail and more widespread) of the magnificent banyan tree that we call Indian or Hindu Civilisation. It is the Civilisation or culture of the Purus, one of the many native tribes of ancient India. For the detailed and unchallengeable evidence, see my books or my following blog: Who were the Vedic Aryans?

According to the Puranas (which contain core historical details heavily interspersed with myths, cosmology, philosophy and religion), the different parts of ancient historical India were ruled by the 10 sons of the mythical Manu Vaivasvata (or inhabited by the descendant tribes of these 10 mythical sons). Of these, the texts only really give details about the descendants of two of these sons: the Iksvakus (the Solar Race) who inhabited eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and the Ailas, or Saudyumnas (the Lunar Race), who are divided into five main groups: the Purus (in the Central area in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh), the Druhyus (to their west, in the Greater Punjab or present-day northern Pakistan), the Anus (to the north, in Kashmir and the western Himalayas, but later expanding southwards into the Greater Punjab and driving out the Druhyus westwards and northwards), the Yadus (to the south-west, in Rajasthan, western Madhya Pradesh and areas to their south), and the Turvasus (to the south-east, i.e. to the east of the Yadus).

As per the accounts in the Puranas, at the same time as the Puru (actually the Vedic) civilisation and culture was flourishing in the Haryana and western UP, there were kingdoms and civilised tribes (obviously with different kinds of civilisations and cultures) flourishing in different parts of India. The cultural and civilisational picture always becomes clear when what is described in texts is complemented and corroborated by archaeological finds fitting the space-time aspects of that culture or civilisation: this is the case in respect of other ancient civilisations outside India.

As I have conclusively demonstrated in my blog “The Chronology and Geography of the Rig Veda”, the Indus Valley/Harappan/Sindhu-Sarasvati civilisation is proved by a study of the Mitanni records of Syria/Iraq, the Avesta, and the New Books of the Rig Veda, to be the "Indo-Iranian" culture described by the common data in those texts: a joint culture of the (Vedic Indo-Aryan) Purus and the (pre-Zarathushtrian proto-Iranian) Anus of Puranic records. The recent find in Keezhadi is naturally the archaeological testimony to the Sangam-era Tamil culture described in the Sangam texts. This is admittedly of a much later date (post 400 BCE), but there is always the strong possibility that diligent archaeological excavations in Tamil Nadu in future may throw up evidence of the much older ancient Tamil civilisation of Tamil traditions: stretching from Tamil Nadu further south into the sea (into areas which are believed to have submerged into the sea), different from but as old as the Harappan civilisation.

Certainly, many recent excavations in eastern UP and Bihar have exposed sites as old as the Harappan sites, or older, with (obviously) cultural and civilisational features not identical to or even like those of the Harappan sites. But our Puranic accounts do tell us that there were different kingdoms and cultures at the same time all over India. The eastern sites undoubtedly represent the Iksvaku cultural and civilisational areas, and any sites equally ancient discovered and excavated in future in eastern and far southern parts of India will represent the cultural and civilisational areas of the people classified in the Puranas as descendants of some others of the “10 sons of Manu”.

But this is difficult to understand if one has been brainwashed into accepting the linear story of Indian civilisation starting from the Vedic civilisation, which was initially expounded by academic scholars on the basis of the AIT but which has been internalised by the “Hindutva groups”.

As for the position of Vedic culture and religion in Indian or Hindu civilisation, the Puranas record the expansion of Puru kingdoms from Haryana-western UP (the central areas around Brahmavarta or Kurukshetra) into eastern areas, Panchala, Kashi, Magadha, Anga. The initial Vedic or Puru religion was like the one that we see in the Rig Veda and the Avesta (and latter-day Zoroastrianism). Indeed, this can be reconstructed for the ancient Celtic Druids as well, consisting of the composition and chanting of sacred hymns and worship of the elements (particularly the sun, the sea and rivers, and fire, especially in the form of fire-altars or “yajna”, Avestan “yasna” or the later Iranian “jashan”).

This was the common religion of the ancient people of northern and north-western India:

a) The Druhyus: linguistic ancestors of the ancient Anatolian, Tocharian, Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and Slavic branches of Indo-European speakers, whose migration from India through a northern route via Afghanistan and Central Asia is actually recorded in the Puranas.

b) The Anus: linguistic ancestors of the Albanian, Greek, Armenian and Iranian branches of Indo-European speakers, whose presence in India at the time of the Dasarajna Battle, and the beginning of their subsequent migration westwards is actually recorded in the Rig Veda.

c) The Purus: The Vedic "Indo-Aryans".

As this Puru religion spread all over India from its original centre in Haryana/western UP, it incorporated the religious aspects of all the different parts of India into the grand religious banyan tree that we call Hinduism today. It’s somewhat like the Buddhist and Jain religions, in later times, spreading all over India from their original centre in Bihar, a religious trend common in India (see the all-India identities of the “panj pyaras” of Guru Gobind Singh, and the locations of the four Shankara mathams, the jyotirlingas and the shakti-peethas).

The original Vedic or Puru religious layer only forms the formal umbrella layer of this banyan tree. The core of Hinduism consists of aspects of the original religions of other parts of the country: idol-worship in all its myriad aspects, which constitutes the real central core of Hinduism today, was incorporated from the religions of the South (ironic, since idol-breaking is one of the main ideological activities of the so-called Dravidianists). Philosophical and spiritual practices were incorporated from the Iksvaku people of the east (Buddhism, Jainism including vegetarianism, atheistic philosophies of the Charvakas, etc. Note that the philosophical centre of activity in the Upanishads is always in the east, often in the courts of Janaka), and tantrik practices from further east. Needless to say, prominent Hindu deities, gods and goddesses, have their origins in every single corner of India.

It is necessary to counter the subversive and divisive politics of the leftists, and other elements inimical to the Indian identity in the study of Indian history. But let us adopt the right perspective in doing it. All the cultures of India, native to its soil, are branches of this great banyan tree that we call Indian or Hindu civilisation. Adopting a chauvinistic and short-sighted partisan approach will only be self-destructive and provide fuel to wrong elements.

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