Digging up Madurai’s Sangam past

Print edition : February 19, 2016

Potsherds with inscriptions in Tamil-Brahmi script found in trenches dug by the ASI at Keezhadi near Madurai on the banks of the Vaigai river in Tamil Nadu. The inscriptions were of Tamil names such as Eyyan, Udhiran and Aadhan, but an unusual find was a Prakrit name, "Tissa", which pointed to the existence of trade links between Keezhadi and Sri Lanka. Photo: R. Ashok

Two brick walls that meet were revealed when an earthmover went to work in a coconut grove at Keezhadi. To the archaeologists this provided firm clues about the existence of a Sangam Age site there. Photo: R. ASHOK

A black and red ware bowl of the Sangam Age found in situ in one of the 40-odd trenches. Photo: ASHOK RAMACHANDRAN

A deep terracotta ring well with 13 rings found in association with a Sangam Age brick structure with the floor paved with bricks. This is a rarity because ring wells excavated elsewhere, such as Arikkamedu near Puducherry and Vasavasamudran in Tamil Nadu, were not found in association with brick structures. Photo: R. ASHOK

A Sangam Age earthen pot with a decorated spout. Photo: R. ASHOK

A rare decorated earthenware pot found in one of the trenches. Another big, broken pot is seen in the background. Photo: G. MOORTHY

A big pot with a lid. Photo: R. ASHOK

A beautifully crafted black and red pot and Photo: R. Ashok

A big twin pot. A spectacular variety of pottery, including perforated dishes, white-painted black pottery and Roman arretine ware, was found in Keezhadi. Photo: G. MOORTHY

A section of the 80-acre archaeological mound in a coconut grove where excavation is under way. "This was a habitation site. It was purely a Sangam Age site," says the ASI's Amarnath Ramakrishna, who is leading the excavation. Photo: G. Moorthy

A big potsherd inscribed with a beautiful fish symbol. Photo: R. ASHOK

More potsherds inscribed with fish symbols. Photo: R. ASHOK

Copper coins. Photo: G. MOORTHY

Iron spearheads. Photo: G. MOORTHY

Shell bangles. Photo: R. ASHOK

A terracotta figurine of a human head. Photo: R. ASHOK

Exquisite beads. Photo: G. MOORTHY

A breathtaking variety of pottery was found, including big pots, twin pots, bowls, dishes, lids, dish-on-stand, and so on. Photo: R. ASHOK

Sangam Age black and red ware. Photo: R. ASHOK

Remnants of furnaces with soot and ash confirmed that Keezhadi was a centre for manufacturing beads out of quartz, carnelian, glass, agate, and so on. Photo: R. ASHOK

A dying vat or an antechamber of a house built with the characteristic fired big bricks. Photo: G. Moorthy

A 13th century temple of the later Pandya period. Photo: R. Ashok

The remains of a 17th century choultry, which the ASI documented during its survey of the Vaigai river valley in 2013-14. Photo: R. ASHOK

V. Vedachalam, veteran epigraphist, reading the inscription of the Pandya king Maravarman Kulasekara Pandya I (regnal years 1268 to 1311) inscribed on the plinth of the Siva temple at Keezhadi. Standing beside him is the ASI's K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, Director of the Keezhadi excavation. Photo: R. ASHOK

The ASI’s excavations at Keezhadi near Madurai, its largest in Tamil Nadu, have unearthed hard evidence of the city’s existence in the Sangam Age of the Early Historic period.

At Keezhadi, a village not far from the southern bank of the Vaigai river near Madurai, the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) is undertaking a massive excavation, possibly its biggest to date in Tamil Nadu. Already 42 trenches have been dug in two locations in a coconut grove at a place called Pallichandai Thidal in the village. K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI’s Excavation Branch VI, Bengaluru, is leading the excavation, which has thrown up quite a few surprises and is attracting many visitors, among them schoolchildren and tourists. Amarnath takes time off to explain to visitors the significance of the finds. One such is a “deep terracotta ring well with 13 rings” that promises to go down further. “Here we have a ring well in association with a structure built of big-sized bricks. This is a peculiarity,” he tells a few visiting archaeology buffs. He contrasts this with the ring well excavated at Vasavasamudram near Kalpakkam (near Chennai), which stood independent of any other structure. The same is the case at Arikkamedu near Puducherry, he adds.

The structure associated with the well is made of burnt bricks, and the floor is also paved with big bricks. In fact, trench after trench, each five metres long and five metres wide and several metres deep, has structures made of burnt bricks. No mud bricks have been used. One trench features two brick walls, looking imposing and meeting each other. One of the walls is ten bricks thick and set in mud mortar. Each brick is 36 cm long, 24 cm wide and 6 cm thick. Another trench features a rectangular brick structure that looks like an antechamber. Large-sized hand-made grooved tiles have also been found in this trench, suggesting that the structure may have had a tiled roof. One trench has a channel made of bricks, perhaps for releasing water. In most of the trenches, below a certain level, layers of river sand have been found, signalling the existence of paleochannels in the area many centuries ago. There are big storage jars, pots with spouts, twin pots, big decorated pots, black and red pottery, white-painted black ware, and so on, jutting out of the trench walls.

There are potsherds and artefacts, too. When this writer visited the site, K. Vadivel, a research scholar in the Department of History, Government Arts College, Krishnagiri, was showing them to schoolchildren standing around him. He is one of the five research scholars from the college, led by Assistant Professor P. Venkateswaran, assisting the ASI. The others are K. Vasanthkumar, D. Balaji, R. Manjunath and G. Karthick. “What do you see engraved on this potsherd?” Vadivel asked the children, holding aloft a potsherd that he picked up from one of the several boxes on the table in front of him. “It is a fish,” exclaimed one of the children. Vadivel took out artefact after artefact and held them up for the children to see —pearl micro-beads, a big quartz bead with a superb engraving, ivory dices, terracotta human figurines, a copper rod for painting eyelashes, bangles made of conch shells, potsherds with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, arretine ware, and shining white-painted black pottery. At the end of it, the children appeared mesmerised. “Were all these that were shown now found here?” asked one of them.

In fact, all these and more found here point to this being a Sangam Age site. “This is definitely a Tamil Sangam Age site…. It was a habitation site. It was purely a Sangam Age site,” said Amarnath Ramakrishna. What is “impressive” is the discovery of big brick structures in the trenches. “We have got good structures. We have found big-sized walls.” Similar brick structures were found at Arikkamedu, Kancheepuram, Uraiyur, Kaveripoompattinam and Azhagankulam. “On the basis of a comparative study of Keezhadi with these sites and the availability of black and red ware at stratigraphically lower levels, we can say that this site belongs to the 3rd century BCE. This is tentative. We have not done carbon-dating yet,” the Director of Excavation said. The Sangam Age of the Early Historic period is datable from circa 3rd century BCE to 3rd century C.E. Keezhadi derives its importance from its proximity to Madurai, the capital city of the Pandya dynasty. The Pandya kings were known for their patronage in convening assemblies or gatherings, called Sangam, at Madurai, where Tamil literature was composed and compiled.

V. Vedachalam, veteran epigraphist and domain expert for the excavation, said, “The excavation provides strong evidence that a habitation site belonging to the Sangam Age existed close to Madurai. This site is important because we have got here all the evidence that we normally get from a Sangam Age site. We have got intact a portion of a beautifully built house. Nearby there is a deep ring well. A number of brick-built structures have been unearthed. These must have been elite people’s residences.” He argued that educated people must have lived there because many potsherds had on them the Tamil-Brahmi script. The trenches also yielded black and red ware, Roman arretine ware, rouletted ware, hundreds of beads made of semi-precious stones, ivory dices, iron spearheads and so on. “We have got a rich haul of antiquities. They show the nature of the habitation site of the Tamil Sangam Age and provide evidence about the culture that existed then,” said Vedachalam, who retired as Senior Epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department.

K. Rajan, Professor of History, Pondicherry University, who visited Keezhadi, also asserted that it was an Early Historic site that had many urban components. “It was one of the urban centres on the Vaigai river basin. It was located between the capital city of Madurai and the port city of Azhagankulam of the Pandya country,” he said. Its urban components were indicated by its civic amenities, external trade, existence of a multi-ethnic society, a communication system, use of luxury items, occurrence of expensive pottery, and so on. The discovery of carnelian beads indicated Keezhadi’s external trade links—the carnelian stone came from Gujarat. Luxury items such as pearl micro-beads and ivory dices showed that the Early Historic residents of Keezhadi had surplus wealth. Potsherds with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions showed the prevalence of a communication system. While Brahmi was the script used, the language used was both Tamil and Prakrit. The name “Tissa” inscribed in Brahmi script on a potsherd belonged to the Prakrit language. Rajan was sure that the Prakrit name signalled that Keezhadi had maritime trade with Sri Lanka.

Keezhadi was a chance discovery. In 2013-14, the ASI conducted a survey of the Vaigai river basin, covering about 400 villages on either bank of the river in Dindigul, Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Sivaganga and Theni districts. The river, a major lifeline for southern Tamil Nadu, originates near Vellimalai in Theni district in the Western Ghats and traverses about 250 km through the aforementioned districts before debouching itself in the Bay of Bengal near Azhagankulam, a port city that belongs to the Sangam Age. Amarnath Ramakrishna led the survey, and the team included Vedachalam and the assistant archaeologists N. Veeraraghavan and M. Rajesh. The aim was to identify sites for excavation in order to help in the understanding of the cultural transformation that took place in southern Tamil Nadu during the various periods.

“Despite having immense archaeological wealth, the Vaigai river basin remained neglected for an intensive excavation. Barring sporadic diggings in the pre-Independence era, no appreciable effort was made to explore and document archaeological remains along the Vaigai river valley,” said Amarnath Ramakrishna.

In the 1950s, K.V. Raman of the ASI Southern Circle undertook a village-to-village survey of Madurai, Melur, Periyakulam and Tirumangalam taluks and reported several archaeological sites and remains. The Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department excavated Kovalanpottal near Madurai. In 2006, Vedachalam, Rajan, S. Selvakumar and V.P. Yathees Kumar found several archaeological sites in the Vaigai valley, especially in its upper reaches.

“In the Vaigai river basin, the excavations done were minor in nature. The only major excavation done was at Azhagankulam by the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department for six seasons in the 1980s,” said Vedachalam. Thus, there was a felt need to document the villages on the banks of the Vaigai for their archaeological remains and, therefore, choose a site for excavation. With ASI Director General Rakesh Tewari clearing Amarnath Ramakrishna’s proposal for exploring the Vaigai basin, the four-member team embarked on the survey within a 5-km distance on either side of the Vaigai. They were assisted by Professor Venkateswaran and the research scholars mentioned above.

“We found archaeological remains in 293 sites in the form of urn burials, megalithic circles, dolmens, menhirs, hero stones, potsherds and gold bars with the Tamil-Brahmi script, Early Historic inscriptions, sculptures of the Buddha, Tamil Vattelluttu inscriptions and even inscriptions in Arabic,” said Amarnath Ramakrishna. Among the discoveries the team made were the ruins of a Siva temple and a dilapidated choultry, both at Kallikottai near Paramakudi in Ramanathapuram district. While the Siva temple, with important inscriptions and exquisite sculptures, belonged to the 13th century, of the later Pandyas, the choultry was built by Rani Mangammal of the 17th century, of the Nayaka period. “We were disappointed to find that many of the sites that had been discovered earlier had disappeared under the onslaught of urbanisation, cultivation and industrialisation,” said Vedachalam. For instance, the habitation site Uthamapuram, of the Sangam Age/Early Historic period, has vanished. In fact, expanding cultivation has erased many sites of the Sangam Age in the Cumbum valley. The habitation site at Dombichery has also disappeared. It is at Dombichery that a hoard of punch-marked silver coins of the Early Historic period was found. Called the Bodinaickanur hoard, it was important enough for the historian D.D. Kosambi to write an article about it.

As the survey was winding down, the team reached Madurai city proper. Around Madurai, its team members once again studied the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions chiselled on the brow of natural caves situated atop hillocks at places such as Arittapatti, Keezhakkuyilkudi, Keezhavalavu, Kongarpuliyankulam, Mankulam, Melakkuyilkudi, Tiruvadavur, Varichiyur and Arittapatti. These Tamil Brahmi inscriptions are datable from the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century C.E. The team documented the Jaina bas-relief sculptures, Jaina beds and Tamil Vattelluttu inscriptions of the 9th century in these sites. However, in Madurai city proper, the team found no evidence of any Early Historic habitation site because the entire cityscape had been built up.

Truck driver’s tip-off

As the team members came down further, they reached Keezhadi. There a truck driver, who was loading coconuts into his truck, suggested to them in the course of casual conversation that they go inside the coconut grove and study the place. “The grove is littered with potsherds,” he told them. They went, and what they saw took their breath away. On the surface of a sprawling mound (Pallichandai Thidal), which had become a coconut grove, they saw hundreds of potsherds, some inscribed with graffiti, lying everywhere. Big fired bricks were scattered around. An earthmover was digging a pit in a vacant space among coconut trees. The team members could not believe their eyes when an ancient brick structure—two walls meeting each other—came into view inside the pit. There were other brick structures, too, in the exposed area, besides a lot of black and red ware. The team realised that it was on to something big and that this was an ancient habitation site. For, a few days earlier they had found an urn burial site at Konthagai, about a kilometre from Keezhadi.

Of the 293 archaeological sites that the team located in the Vaigai river basin, about a hundred turned out to be habitation sites. On the banks of the Vaigai, each habitation site does not have a burial site of its own. A cluster of four or five habitation sites had one burial site.

Soon, the team shortlisted three sites: Keezhadi, Maranadu and Sithar Natham for excavation. While Sithar Natham is 50 km from Madurai city, Maranadu is 30 km away. Keezhadi is only 12 km south-east of Madurai. In fact, it is located in Tiruppuvanam taluk, Sivaganga district, adjoining Madurai district. Besides, Vedachalam had, in 1978, documented Tamil inscriptions of the later Pandya king Maravarman Kulasekara Pandya I (regnal years 1268 to 1311) on the plinth of a small Siva temple in Keezhadi village itself.

“After seeing the brick structures, we surveyed the Keezhadi site four times. It was impressive,” Amarnath Ramakrishna said. A contouring of the site was done. The area of the archaeological mound, that is, Pallichandai Thidal, was estimated at 80 acres and its circumference was 3.5 km. The mound’s height was 2.88 metres from the ground level. What was touching was the generosity of Sonai Chandran, the owner of the coconut grove, who readily handed it over for excavation. “I liked the way Amarnath spoke to me. We knew that the ASI will not take away our land permanently. Besides, we are getting important evidence that our village belonged to the Sangam Age. So I told Amarnath and Vedachalam that they can do the excavation in my grove for as long as they want,” Sonai Chandran said.

Pallichandai Thidal is surrounded by Keezhadi, Konthagai and Manalur. If these villages were to form a circle, it is as if Pallichandai Thidal forms the centre point of the circle. Keezhadi and Konthagai were together called Kuntidevi Chaturvedi Mangalam in the 13th century. The eastern portion of Kuntidevi Chaturvedi Mangalam was called Keezhadi. Kuntidevi Chaturvedi Mangalam later got corrupted to “Konthagai”.

The original credit for discovering archaeological artefacts at Pallichandai Thidal goes to V. Balasubramanian, who was the headmaster of the Government High School at Keezhadi. In 1978, Balasubramanian found 14th century terracotta artefacts at Pallichandai Thidal and informed Vedachalam. “I reached Pallichandai Thidal and saw the male, female and Ayyanar [a folk diety] terracotta figurines,” said the noted epigraphist. “Then, in the survey we did in 2014, we identified 293 sites with archaeological remains on either side of the Vaigai river. Of these 293 sites, I said Pallichandai Thidal was an important site. We went there, saw the mound, the brick structures exposed by the earthmover, and potsherds lying everywhere. So we decided to excavate at Pallichandai Thidal because there has been no major excavation in the recent past in the habitation sites in southern Tamil Nadu,” Vedachalam said.

Burnt bricks and artefacts

The first season of excavation began on March 2, 2015, and ended in September. Forty-two trenches were dug and, astonishingly, many of them yielded structures made of large-sized bricks that typically belong to the Early Historic period. For instance, a trench dug in the highest point of the mound yielded a massive brick wall. They were all burnt bricks. Another trench yielded a pot with a conical bottom, whose occurrence was rare. Yet another trench yielded a small room built of bricks, whose floor had a spread of river sand. This led to a debate on whether it was a dry toilet. The centre of the mound revealed a lot of structural activity. Small brick-built rooms threw up plenty of pots.

A bonanza of artefacts was found in almost every trench. What stood out was a big quartz bead with a superbly made engraving. “We can say with confirmation that it was made about 2,200 years ago,” Amarnath Ramakrishna said. “It was found at a depth of 180 cm,” he added. A perforated shallow dish was found as well. “This is a rarity in Tamil Nadu,” he said. Prized discoveries included gleaming pearl micro-beads and hundreds of beads made of semi-precious stones such as carnelian, agate, lapis lazuli and quartz. Glass beads were also found. From the surface of the mound, Vedachalam picked up a human terracotta figurine.

Other artefacts found in the trenches included shell bangles with decorations, ivory dice incised with concentric circles, terracotta gamesmen and spindle-whorls with iron roads (indicating the existence of a textile industry).

Amarnath Ramakrishna said: “The artefacts are a confirmation that Keezhadi was a trade centre and that a big town existed there [during the Early Historic period]. Stratigraphically, in the lower levels, we get all the material such as arretine ware, rouletted ware and white-painted black ware which are associated with the Early Historic period. A wealthy, cultured society must have lived there. Stratigraphically, we have found a lot of deposits which offer good evidence to correlate Madurai with the Sangam Age. This site definitely gives a clue to the date of the Sangam Age.”

So far, no archaeological evidence other than rock-cut Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions around Madurai have been found to relate the antiquity of the town to the Early Historic period. Keezhadi fills that gap, Amarnath Ramakrishna argued. “We have dug only 1 per cent of the mound’s area. If we dig about 10 per cent, we will know the city’s dimensions,” he added.

Vedachalam also argued that the occurrence of brick houses, which were “elite people’s residences”, black and red ware, arretine ware, rouletted ware and russet-coated ware, hundreds of beads, ivory dices and so on revealed “the nature” of a habitation site of the Sangam Age. An irrigation tank, too, existed at Keezhadi. He said: “We did a complete exploration of the archaeological sites on both banks of the Vaigai river, right from the place where it originates to Azhagankulam, where it empties into the sea. Then we chose Keezhadi for excavation. The excavation at Keezhadi will help us to appreciate southern Tamil Nadu’s history and the life and culture of the people of the Sangam Age. Similar exploration should be done on the banks of every river in Tamil Nadu to locate archaeological sites, and excavations should be done in important sites to help us understand the settlement patterns in ancient times. Only then will we understand fully the sweep and magnitude of Tamil Nadu’s cultural antiquity.”

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