Unearthing an industrial past

Published : Aug 10, 2012 00:00 IST

Excavations under way at Kodumanal. The Noyyal river is in the background, about 100 metres from the site. The excavations, which resumed after a gap of 13 years, indicate the presence of separate burial and industrial-cum-habitational areas.-K. RAJAN/V.P. YATHEES KUMAR

Excavations under way at Kodumanal. The Noyyal river is in the background, about 100 metres from the site. The excavations, which resumed after a gap of 13 years, indicate the presence of separate burial and industrial-cum-habitational areas.-K. RAJAN/V.P. YATHEES KUMAR

Excavations this summer confirm earlier evidence that a multi-industrial culture existed in Kodumanal in Tamil Nadu.

It was the summer of 1983, and the sun was blazing. Twenty-seven-year-old K. Rajan, gathering material for his PhD thesis on The Megalithic Culture of the Coimbatore Region A Study, was thirsty and tired. He had walked five kilometres and reached Kodumanal village in Perundurai taluk, Erode district, Tamil Nadu. Professor S. Raju, Head of the Department of Epigraphy and Archaeology, Tamil University, Thanjavur, and his colleague, Professor Y. Subbarayalu, had directed Rajan to Kodumanal to marshal material for his thesis. As Rajan went round the village, which has patches of scrub jungles and palmyra trees here and there, he could not believe his eyes. The place was dotted with cairn circles encasing cist burials below, tall menhirs (tall gigantic slabs in a standing position), signs of urn and pit burials, a tell-tale mound with iron slag and rocks of quartz scattered everywhere.

After I had verified the burial site and the habitation mound, I went around Kodumanal asking for a tea stall. But everybody said the village had no tea stall. I was so tired that I slept off in the bus shelter. An elderly person, G. Govindasamy Gounder, woke me up and asked me who I was. He took me home and gave me food. Later, he gave us land for excavation, said Rajan. Thus began the saga of love between Kodumanal and Rajan, who is now Professor of History, Pondicherry University. He and his team were back in action at Kodumanal in April and May 2012, after a gap of 13 years. They excavated four trenches in the habitation area and exposed two megalithic graves with cist burials.

Kodumanal is located on the northern bank of the east-flowing Noyyal river, a tributary of the Cauvery, about 40 km from Erode town. River irrigation is not possible because the Noyyal runs in a deep valley here. The area is semi-arid, with red, gravelly soil spread over a deposit of limestone and weathered rock. The economy now is agro-pastoral, and milk is the main source of income, with people rearing cattle. The ancient site of Kodumanal is situated about a kilometre to the east of the present village.

An industrial civilisation

In the period between the fourth century BCE/third century BCE to the first century C.E., Kodumanal was an important industrial and trade centre with links with the northern parts of India, as is evident from the recent excavations, which confirmed the findings of the excavations done in the 1980s and the 1990s. People who lived there extracted iron from its ore and forged steel; spun cotton using spindle whorls and made textiles; manufactured thousands of beads from semi-precious stones such as quartz, carnelian, agate, sapphire, beryl, onyx, black-cat eye and lapis lazuli; cut exquisite bangles from conch shells; and used bronze to make artefacts. Kodumanal is unique because it was entirely an industrial site with minimum agricultural practice. It was the only site where multi-industrial activities were pursued, said Rajan.

The trenches excavated this year yielded 130 potsherds with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, dating back to the second century BCE, a few hundred conches, bangles cut out of conches, ivory artefacts, terracotta spindle whorls, cotton pieces with weaving patterns, a gold wire, onyx beads, tiny beads with holes made of carnelian, quartz blocks jutting out of the trench walls, sapphire, agate, beryl, black-cat eye and lapis lazuli.

The latest excavation, as the previous ones, uncovered open furnaces where men worked up temperatures of more than 1,200 degrees Celsius to convert iron into steel. This was a remarkable feat in itself because the iron ore they received from Chennimalai, about 15 km from Kodumanal, had a high carbon content. The carbon had to be removed from the ore before iron could be made into steel in crucibles, which have survived intact. When the Frontline team visited the four trenches laid in the habitational mound, there were tell-tale remains of ash and soot in circular and square-shaped furnaces where iron ore was smelted and iron extracted. There was a water channel running through the trenches and into the industrial area, suggesting that the water was not meant for agriculture but for wetting the semi-precious stones before they were cut and polished into beads with holes.

Pointing to the artefacts in the trenches, Rajan said: You need not explain to anyone that an industrial complex existed here. There are finished and unfinished products, raw materials, conches and bangles, remnants of furnaces, a kiln floor filled with ash and soot, and potsherds with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions. We laid only four trenches. If we had excavated a bigger area, we would have got a better picture of the industrial and trade centre that functioned from here.

Whats in a name

A prized artefact found in one of the trenches excavated this year was an oversized pot with the name Samban Sumanan engraved in the Tamil-Brahmi script below the rim. The excavators unearthed four levels in the two months of digging this year. The pot was found in the second level. The first level yielded a potsherd with the name Samban. Rajan explained that Samban must have been the father and Sumanan the son. Since there were many potsherds with the names Samban and Sumanan, it is surmised that Sambans family owned the industrial complex.

The name Periyan Sathan was found carved in the Tamil-Brahmi script on one potsherd. Its significance lies in the Tamil-Brahmi inscription found on a hill at Arasalur, about 15 km from Kodumanal. A trek through a scrub jungle and a short climb take one to the hilltop, where there are two Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions datable to the second century C.E. While one inscription is about notations in music, the other talks about Ezhuthu punarathan maniya vannakkan thevan sathan. While mania vannakkan is the tester of the quality of stone beads, thevan sathan means a great merchant. When you take into account the bustling bead-making industry in Kodumanal, the Arasalur inscription is important because it mentions the man who tests the quality of stone beads. So the quality of the beads made was of paramount importance at that time. While sathan stands for the man who tests the quality of beads, thevan sathan is a great trader of beads, Rajan explained.

Other potsherds have yielded personal names in the same script: Visaki, Thissan, Pannan, Siligan, Kuviran Athan, Uranan, Periyan Saathan, Kannan Atan, Antavan Atan, and so on. Rajan said, We got more than 30 complete words. All of them are personal names. Some of these names have triggered a debate on Kodumanals links with the north. Even though the letters are in Brahmi and the language is Tamil, names such as Sumanan, Visaki, Thissan and Kuviran could be Prakrit or Sanskrit, said K. Nachimuthu, Professor of Tamil and Chairperson, Centre of Indian Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Some of the names are in Prakrit, but their endings are in Tamil [with the suffix an]. So they [the people living here] could have been Tamils with Prakrit names or they could have been Tamilised Prakrit-speaking people, he surmised. A pluralistic culture prevailed at Kodumanal although it was predominantly a Tamil culture, Nachimuthu added.

Subbarayalu, who now heads the Department of Indology at the French Institute of Pondicherry, pointed to the occurrence of the word nikama, which may denote a merchants guild. It seems that the megalithic people started using Brahmi writing in about the second century BCE. The occurrence of north Indian names such Varuni, Kuviran and Visaki and the word nikama establishes the fact that Kodumanal played a pivotal role as an industrial and trade centre of this region with close links with other parts of India, Subbarayalu said.

Burial complex

While the habitation mound of Kodumanal covers 20 hectares, the megalithic burial ground, which has 180 graves, is spread over 24 ha. All the graves belong to the megalithic period (1,000 BCE-300 BCE). Cairn circles (big boulders placed in the form of a circle) with menhirs mark the cists below the ground. The cists, each covered with a capstone, comprise chambers made of granite slabs. The slabs have circular, trapezoid or keyhole-shaped portholes. Some cists have passages in front of them. It is in these cists that skeletons were found. Around the skeletons were found grave goods such as pottery, arrowheads, daggers and carnelian beads specially made for the occasion. While in the earlier megaliths, the offerings were placed inside the chambers, they were kept outside the cists during the later period. All the burials faced east. While the bodies were kept in the east-west direction, the heads faced north.

Rajan argued that the availability of pit burials with skeletons in different postures, urn burials and chamber tombs of different types clearly suggest that multi-ethnic groups lived here. Of the graves exposed so far in India, the biggest, measuring three metres long, three metres broad and three metres deep, is in Kodumanal. Grave number 5 yielded 2,200 carnelian beads the highest number of semi-precious beads found in any grave in India.

An artefact of extraordinary beauty a tiger made of bronze and inlaid with alternating triangular pieces of lapis lazuli and carnelian stones was found in one of the graves exposed in 1989. A pit burial had a skeleton in the padmasana pose, with the head turned upwards. Two burials yielded silver spiral bangles and rings. There were rings interlaced with plain or barrel-shaped carnelian beads to form a necklace and spiral rings made of gold.

Interestingly, each burial had a typical graffito symbol on the pottery kept inside or outside the cists. The fact that each megalithic grave had a special symbol engraved on all its pottery may suggest that the particular symbol is important for and closely related to the person in whose memory the megalith was erected. As the same symbol occurs in more than one burial, it could be something of a clan symbol, said Rajan.

The Pondicherry University team was exposing a megalithic grave when the Frontline team visited Kodumanal on May 19 and 20. The burial was primarily a cairn circle eight metres in diameter enclosing a main cist and two subsidiary cists. The main cist was one with transepts, but the two subsidiary cists were simple ones. Each cist had a separate capstone and there was a common passage in front. The cists yielded barrel- and button-shaped carnelian beads, smoky quartz beads and ritual pottery. There were disintegrated human bones too. Around the double-cist, some pots had been kept and broken with small rocks that had been thrown at them. This was obviously a ritual.

An important feature of this grave was that the cists had three types of portholes circular, trapezoid and keyhole-shaped. Whenever there is a main cist and subsidiary cists, the south-facing cist will always have a keyhole-shaped porthole. Inside the chamber of this key-holed cist, there will always be a bunch of arrowheads, Rajan said and added that it was not known why this was so. There were arrowheads in the key-holed cist here, too. Also, it has been seen that the northern chamber of the main cist had grave goods and the southern chamber the skeletal remains. Probably there was a belief that the soul of a dead person travelled south.

The 63 trenches and 18 megalithic graves that were excavated in the 1980s and 1990s yielded potsherds with graffiti marks and Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, russet-coated ware, black and red ware, red polished ware, crucible furnaces, iron-smelting furnaces, spindle whorls made of terracotta and glass objects and storage pits. Many hundreds of beads made from smoky quartz, agate, beryl and amethyst in various stages of manufacture were unearthed. There were carnelian beads, etched and plain. A remarkably well-preserved cotton piece with weaving patterns and several spindle whorls made of terracotta and pierced with an iron rod at the centre indicated activities such as spinning and weaving. Storage bins indicated some agricultural activity.

The people of Kodumanal could engage in multi-industrial activities because raw materials were available within a radius of 15 km. The iron ore came from Chennimalai. Quartz came from Arasampalayam, 5 km away. Even today there is an abandoned quartz mine belonging to the Geological Survey of India at Arasampalayam. A quartz outcrop called Vengamedu (Venga means quartz and medu is mound) is situated about 2 km north of the site. Sivanmalai, where sapphire is available, is also nearby. Padiyur has a beryl mine. While carnelian and agate came from Maharashtra, Kodumanal got its lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.

Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions have been found in every excavation since 1985, indicating the high literacy level here, Rajan pointed out. Graffiti marks were found separately below the shoulder portions of pots or bowls. A few graffiti marks were also found at the end of Brahmi inscriptions: sun, swastika, star, ladder, nandipada, fish, bow and arrow and wheel were some of them. A close observation of these symbols, their place of occurrence, frequency and position clearly demonstrate that these symbols were used to convey certain messages, either pictographically or ideographically, said Subbarayalu. The semi-precious stones collected from the graves suggest the inhabitants were wealthy, Rajan said, and the size of the graves indicates the social status of those buried.

From the artefacts unearthed, it can be estimated that the Kodumanal site falls into two cultural periods, the megalithic and the early historic. Rajan argues that the site can be dated prior to the third century BCE and that the early historic period [of the site] is datable from the fourth century BCE to the first century BCE because we get inscribed Tamil-Brahmi potsherds from the topmost level of the site.

Subbarayalu, however, held that while the sites megalithic period was datable from 250 BCE to 100 C.E., the early historic period could be dated from 100 C.E. to 250 C.E. Rajan, who had concurred with this date, is arguing now for an earlier date on the basis of some assumptions, which he has yet to prove on some solid evidence, Subbarayalu said. It was obvious, from the data and artefacts available at the site, that Kodumanal more or less chronologically coincides with the date of the Sangam anthologies, second century BCE to second century C.E., Subbarayalu argues. The palaeography of the Brahmi letters engraved on the potsherds and the names they contain are somewhat similar to the names of persons mentioned in Sangam literature. These names also link Kodumanal to the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions found in the rock shelters in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, which also fall in the same time bracket on palaeographic grounds.

Rajan argued that on the basis of the stratigraphical evidence of the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, he pushed back the earlier historical period there to the fourth century BCE. However, a scientific confirmation of the date was yet to be done, he said.

Dr Rajan and his team deserve full appreciation for these new finds, Subbarayalu said. The in situ big urn-like pot with big-sized letters may provide significant clues to the identity of the craftsmen who handled the pot in their workshop and also about immigrant workers at Kodumanal. The names with clear Prakrit features would certainly support the fact there were a good number of northern merchants visiting the site and perhaps staying there for long durations. The findings in the limited excavation should goad any archaeologist or history student to undertake big area excavations to unravel the hidden mysteries. I wish that the ASI [Archaeological Survey of India] will wake up and join hands with the Pondicherry University team and other like-minded institutions and support them with its enormous unutilised resources to realise this dream.

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