Just grave markers or did they also have astronomical significance? Will we ever know?
Snapshot
  • Given the rich archaeological knowledge yield, a museum in Kodumanal is the next logical step.

It was a November afternoon in Chennai. Two men were waiting patiently to meet Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to submit a memorandum. They had an unusual request. They wanted the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to conduct an excavation at Kodumanal in Tamil Nadu.

S Ramachandran, a retired epigraphist and a prolific author, and Er Oghai Natarajan the head of Tamil Development Cell of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), knew that this was an uphill task. Earlier, the central government had sanctioned the excavation at Keeladi — which the then chief archaeologist at the site acknowledged as one of the largest project in Tamil Nadu sanctioned by the central government.

Yet, it had turned ugly with Tamil chauvinists, secessionist forces and Dravidianists turning it into a huge Aryan-Hindutva conspiracy theory against Dravidian civilisation.

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Once bitten, always cautious, why should a central minister now recommend another archaeological project?

Yet, they should try. They knew the importance of an excavation here. An archaeologist told this writer on conditions of anonymity that while the Keeladi excavations were of the usual kind and on expected lines, the Kodumanal excavations could have major ramifications in the way we see Tamil history.

On 18 November, Ramachandran and Natarajan gave the minister their memorandum for an excavation at Kodumanal.

Stone circles on the way to Kodumanal Stone circles on the way to Kodumanal

Meanwhile, in Kodumanal, a remote village in Erode district, retired village officer Somu had kept his land devoid of any activity, even as others around had been constructing on their lands or selling them.

He had seen archaeological artifacts being taken from the land. Earlier, Tamil University in Thanjavur and Pondicherry University had conducted excavations. They had uncovered a continuity from the megalithic times to the early historical period. Somu knew all about the significance of these excavations. So he knew he had to wait until the ASI makes a thorough study of the land. Hence, he had kept his land undisturbed.

Another one stone circle.  Another one stone circle. 

Soon, to everybody’s surprise the archaeological excavations started at Kodumanal. What is so special about Kodumanal?

As I travel from Thirupur to Kodumanal, friends, Sivakumar and Hari stop the vehicle at various places — deserted areas now made into plots, and where there are stone circles and more stone circles.

Definitely, there should have been patterns. There should have been a huge Stone Age settlement, and then the university team from Pondicherry had discovered pot shreds with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions. In other words, here we have a wonderful peep into the past from the Stone Age to historical times.

Yet another stone circle: this one is at Kodumanal. Yet another stone circle: this one is at Kodumanal.

When we arrived at Kodumanal, a huge menhir welcomes us. It is associated with burial sites in conventional archaeology. But were there any astronomical alignments? We do not know.

The structure in that eerie, lonely place has a strange ambiance to it. Had it been a part of a science fiction or fantasy, then this is exactly the spot from where you get into a portal to embark on a time travel. We see even more stone circles around.

Menhirs stand in Kodumanal —  almost as if like a portal to another time. Menhirs stand in Kodumanal — almost as if like a portal to another time.

Perhaps, the ‘development’ and economic necessities of the land owners may force the disappearance of these age-old structures.

However, with the modern technological development including 3D printing — perhaps we can create replicas; simulate the ancient skies in the software and study if these structures had astronomical significance etc. Surely, we can create replicas of these menhirs in a museum at the least.

Already, the chief archaeologist who conducted excavations for ASI, had informed Somu, who provided them all the help, related to our visit.

The chief archaeologist of the expedition was Sriraman. He and his team stayed in Kodumanal starting January. G Ramachandran alias Somu, who had seen several studies of the area since his father’s time is a unique person.

Sensitive to the importance of the site in his village, he has been meticulous in documenting the sites in and around the village, and now this has become a very important treasure trove for seekers of ancient history.

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He is now a happy man, having witnessed the various studies. Speaking to this writer, he said that keeping the land undisturbed for decades has been answered with proper excavations.

“They have done a thorough job. They stayed here for months and worked, and they made some really good discoveries.”

Tamil-Brahmi names written in pot shreds discovered earlier. Tamil-Brahmi names written in pot shreds discovered earlier.

A series of excavations had been carried out here by Tamil University, Thanjavur, and Madras University with help from Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology from 1985 to 1990. They unearthed 13 megalithic burials.

In 2012, funded by ASI, Pondicherry University conducted excavations. The last one uncovered a huge complex which produced iron, steel, conch shell bangles, and a semi-precious stone industry.

Among the previous discoveries there was a skeleton buried in a sitting position — or a yogic posture, one could say.

Previous discoveries: skeleton buried cross-legged (yogic burial?); iron smelting furnace (right-top) and gemstones factory (right-bottom): from Somu (Ramachandran) collection. Previous discoveries: skeleton buried cross-legged (yogic burial?); iron smelting furnace (right-top) and gemstones factory (right-bottom): from Somu (Ramachandran) collection.

The pot shreds discovered in the complex had Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions which included 30 words. These findings throw light on the way Tamil-Brahmi was used in the life of the people.

We are seeing a highly literate population here. And the names we have are highly illuminating as to the nature of culture the people had in Tamil Nadu almost 2,200 years ago.

There are names like 'Visakan', Santhathan ('Sa' used is the Sanskritic 'Sa') and Sumanan. There is a fragment which reads ‘chabaa makatai pammaata’, another pottery piece has the letters ‘Vaaruni aka(l)’. Vaaruni is the wine made from dates. It is called Vaaruni because it was loved by Varuna.

Top to bottom: ‘Visakan/Visaki’; ‘Thissan’; ‘Cabaa ...’ ; ‘Sannaathan’; ‘Vaaruni Aka(l)‘; ‘Sumanan’: some of the names in the Tamizh-Brahmi of Kodumanal (Dr.K. Rajan) Top to bottom: ‘Visakan/Visaki’; ‘Thissan’; ‘Cabaa ...’ ; ‘Sannaathan’; ‘Vaaruni Aka(l)‘; ‘Sumanan’: some of the names in the Tamizh-Brahmi of Kodumanal (Dr.K. Rajan)

Somu turns the pages of his album. He had personally supported the excavations. His family chips in too. They prepare food and provide water for the archaeologists and their team.

He awaits eagerly for the report from the ASI. We will get the final picture when the reports arrive. Nevertheless, he shared some of the findings, which serve as a curtain-raiser.

Archaeological findings of 2018 at Kodumanal: a curtain-raiser Archaeological findings of 2018 at Kodumanal: a curtain-raiser

A copper pin with dog finial, a shred with first four letters of Indic alphabets ‘a’, ‘aa’, ‘e’ and ‘ee’ — a very interesting discovery indeed. A seal maker with floral pattern and a twisted drill bit of a carpenter — are some of the discoveries made.

We will have to wait for the final report.

Ramachandran alias Somu, left, shows his documentation of decades of archaeological discoveries at Kodumanal to a visitor.  Ramachandran alias Somu, left, shows his documentation of decades of archaeological discoveries at Kodumanal to a visitor. 

Somu is very happy sharing with the visitors his huge collection of decades of archaeological findings documented as photos.

For him, the 2018 excavations conducted directly by ASI is a dream come true. But this man is a visionary. He envisions a museum here, in this small non-descript village, which was for many centuries an important industrial and trade settlement.

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Given the rich archaeological knowledge yield, if the punishing sands of Kodumanal yields a museum, it is indeed the next logical step.

It will generate employment and boost the economy of this small village and make people around aware of the knowledge and tourist-economic potential of their own history lying right under their feet.

This article is part of Swarajya’s series on Indic heritage. If you liked this article and would like us to do more such ones, consider being a sponsor – you can contribute as little as Rs 2,999. Read more here.

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