The green of the coconut grove was a soothing sight in the fierce noon sun that had started frying Keeladi, near Madurai. ‘Where is the archeology excavation?’ I asked an old lady and she pointed me to three tents in one corner of the plantation. There was ‘sir’ – the Superintending Archaeologist K. Amarnath Ramakrishna. He is from Bengaluru but his Tamil is good and shows no accent.
He had been informed by Dr. Vedachalam, state department archeologist that I was coming on behalf of Swarajya. I quickly started with my questions. “The Harappan connection reported in the press…” I was cut short by Amarnath. No, it is a misunderstanding, he explained. The size of the site can be compared to some Harappan sites but there is no real connection with Harappa. What they had discovered was exciting in its own right. This was the first time a settlement—an urban habitat—had been excavated so completely in Tamil Nadu. That is a major find.
“Could this be seen as part of the so-called second urbanization?” I asked. “No culture evolves in isolation and every civilization develops its own uniqueness. We expect to find both here,” he replied. While most archeological explorations have some comparable contemporary sites, in Tamil Nadu this is perhaps the first excavated urban habitation going back 2000 years. The discovery was not accidental or a stroke of luck. It was a result of some systematic work.
Sangam literature—the ancient Tamil poetry—describes urban centers that were cosmopolitan in nature, doing business with other countries including Rome. Both contemporary North Indian inscriptions, as well as literature prior to the Sangam age have mentioned already established Tamil royal dynasties. So, any student of history would expect a lot of archeological sites to have come up in Tamil Nadu.
‘Sadly, only burial sites have come up so far and not a single settlement in the proper sense has been excavated,’ the Superintending Archeologist said. The reason is places like Madurai where interesting archeological discoveries may await beneath the surface have had continuous occupation. Today, they are busy cities. So, you have to depend only on temple inscriptions and literary evidence.
The archeologists decided to do excavations along the banks of Vaigai – the river that courses through Madurai till Rameshwaram. They identified more than 100 locations along the river bed and small but ancient villages near the vicinity of the river bank. It was through this methodology they arrived at Keeladi. And Keeladi did not disappoint them. ‘The central government is interested in history and archeology and facilitates such projects, otherwise they often remain pipe dreams for want of funds,’ Amarnath revealed.
Dr. Vedachalam arrived at the camp as we were talking. ‘Let us look around the site,’ he said.
“The Vaigai river once flowed here,” explained Vedachalam. The archeologists had to remove plenty of river soil from the depths. Brick making is a cottage industry that flourishes around this area. This particular place had remained under the coconut grove and therefore escaped destruction. Most of the rooms they had excavated are too small for living, Vedachalam pointed out. There are ovens – not for cooking – but for some kind of artisan work.
There are small drainage systems made of terracotta that crisscross the buildings.. Were they used for draining water or the effluents/formulations from whatever process they were doing? We do not know.
There are very small enclosures made of bricks which are too small for people to live.
Were the enclosures store houses and this some kind of industrial complex? ‘Maybe… even most probably,’ Dr. Vedachalam said. The professional archeologist in him issued a caveat immediately, ‘But never associate today’s housing pattern and habitation style with how it should have been two thousand years ago.’
Even as we were walking, a father came in with two children. Amarnath told me that a lot of school children and college students visited the excavations and that they allowed it. As we were talking, a big pot, almost intact, got identified in a trench. Some designs on its surface were visible and the archeologists got to work in all seriousness.
Madurai Kanchi, a Sangham literary work speaks of various artisans, goldsmiths, masons etc. working with wood, metals and beads. There could even have been a cloth dying unit, Amarnath hazarded a guess, cautiously and tentatively. Dr. Vedachalam stopped me and pointed out a particular arrangement of pots – five pots arranged together: ‘Perhaps some ritual significance or a particular arrangement for some chemical process?’ We do not know yet.
I spoke to some of the PhD students assisting in the dig. They were excited. They did not mind the scorching sun and were making sure that the trenches allocated with them showed clearly the discoveries made in them.
Recovered artifacts were being spread neatly and categorized. The work was proceeding in a systematic and professional manner.
The trenches reveal an intricate network of a well-planned urban estate. What were the people doing here? Clearly this should have been in the ancient trade route. Was there some kind of artisan complex here? Excavations have revealed beads of agate, Carnelian and quartz indicating trade links with North Indian urban trade centers and also Rome. Even Satavahana connections have been unearthed, I was informed. Pottery is typically black-red pottery which is characteristic of Sangam age. It contains Tamil Brahmi names scratched on them indicating a highly literate population. Clearly, 2000 years ago, Tamil Nadu was not in isolation. It was well connected culturally and through trade with the rest of India.
The Keeladi excavations and subsequent ones may provide us with a vivid picture of how the real Sangam society lived. I phoned eminent epigraphist S. Ramachandran. He pointed out the possibility of this site being related to some events mentioned in later day Saivaite legends which he explained could have come from an older core event – possibly the South Indian expedition of Kalinga king Kharavela which he undertook in the eleventh year of his reign (first century BCE). However, at this stage these are all speculations. A lot of studies need to be done including carbon testing, study of possible pollen grains or other such materials from inside the pottery etc.
As I returned to my hometown through Madurai, big hoardings hailing Amma, the AIADMK supremo, as the new Chief Minister and the protector of Tamil culture were everywhere. She was rivaled only by the huge posters with typo-filled flowery Tamil, praising the elder son of DMK supremo as the true heir of the Sangam golden age. The archeologists continued their work unmindful of this irony.