A great past in bright colours

Published : Oct 08, 2010 00:00 IST

Two seasons of excavations, in 2009 and 2010, have put Porunthal village in Tamil Nadu firmly on India's archaeological map.

in Porunthal

START action! Camera! shouted the young Sandeep Shetty genially, as he stood in the trench with a small spade in his hand. Around him were other students, K. Shiv Shanker, N. Vinod and D. Santosh, armed with shovels and brushes. As they started shovelling the earth with great care, a beautiful four-legged jar emerged. It was a matter of time before several pots, big and small, came into view, and a cist burial was revealed. V.P. Yathees Kumar, a research scholar then, who stood outside on the edge of the trench, beamed as he clicked away his camera.

It was June 12, 2009. We were at Porunthal, a village situated in the foothills of the Western Ghats, about 12 kilometres south-west of the pilgrim town of Palani in Dindigul district, Tamil Nadu. Although it was a hot afternoon, about a score of students, belonging to different universities, were working at the site energetically. They were excavating a stone circle that entombed a cist-burial. Directing them with a keen eye for detail was K. Rajan, Professor, Department of History, Pondicherry University.

Two seasons of excavation, undertaken during May and June, in 2009 and 2010, have put Porunthal firmly on India's archaeological map. The village is a habitational-cum-burial site, datable from the second century Before Common Era (BCE) to the second century Common Era (CE). Excavation at its habitational mound called Pasi Medu and the opening of four graves about a kilometre away have yielded a wealth of artefacts. Among them are 2,000 superbly crafted glass beads in red, white, yellow, blue and green; 12,000 beads made of semi-precious material such as agate, quartz, carnelian and steatite; quartz micro-beads with a diameter of less than 1.4 mm and a hole punched through them; bangles made of glass and shell; exquisite four-legged jars that vary in height from 12 centimetres to one metre; two ring stands with similar Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions datable between the first century BCE and the first century CE; two iron swords; a big iron arrowhead; and a number of knives. A square copper coin belonging to the Tamil Sangam age; dice made of ivory; terracotta objects such as a humped bull, a woman's head with curly hair, a human figurine, gamesmen, spindle whorls and hopscotch; and weights made of quartz and ivory were among the other unearthed artefacts. An important find was two kilograms of paddy in a four-legged jar in a grave that had the remains of a skeleton. The paddy looked as fresh as if it had just been harvested.

Prof. Rajan, director of the excavation project, said: Our excavation has established that Porunthal was the largest glass bead-manufacturing site in southern India. If an earlier excavation at Kodumanal near Erode had exposed the existence of industries for making beads of semi-precious material, iron and steel in Tamil Nadu, a glass-bead industrial site was eluding archaeologists. The Porunthal excavation has brought to light that also.

V. Vedachalam, senior epigraphist, said: Porunthal was an important centre during the Tamil Sangam age. This excavation confirms it. (The Tamil Sangam age is datable from the third century BCE to the third century CE.) There had been several archaeological excavations relating to the Tamil Sangam age. But there were many unexplored sites relating to the Sangam age chieftains and poets. In this respect, this excavation is significant because Porunthal comes under the territory ruled by the Sangam age chieftain Pegan, said Vedachalam.

For an archaeologist, the name Pasi Medu in Tamil, meaning mound of beads, was a giveaway. Furthermore, the mound's surface was strewn with glass beads. It was a big mound, measuring five hectares. Excavations in 2009 yielded an oval-shaped furnace for polishing glass beads, which was the first discovery of its kind in southern India. The trench yielded 30 red ware bowls, triangular terracotta pieces and 2,000 glass beads. The raw material for making the glass beads came from the sand in the nearby river, called the Porunthilaru.

The manufacturing of glass beads, however, was not done at Pasi Medu itself but somewhere near by. The absence of glass slag, tuyeres and waste material indicated that the furnace might have been used only for polishing glass beads. Artisans brought semi-finished glass beads to Pasi Medu, reheated them in the furnace in the red ware bowls and polished them. The small triangular terracotta pieces were used for polishing the beads by removing their encrustation.

More than 2,000 glass beads were discovered within 50 square metres of the excavated area. If we excavate the entire five-hectare site, we may get more than a million beads, estimated Rajan. While the earlier, lower level yielded green-coloured glass beads, the upper level produced red beads. Yellow, white and black glass beads were also found.

If Pasi Medu yielded glass beads, the four graves belonging to the Iron Age and the Early Historic period which were opened during the excavation, yielded a bonanza of beads made of agate, carnelian, steatite and quartz. The highest number of steatite micro-beads so far discovered in Tamil Nadu is from Porunthal. We found 9,639 micro-beads made of steatite. We also got the largest number of micro-beads made of quartz. There were about 1,015, the professor said.

The craftsmanship of the quartz micro-beads is astounding. S. Selvakumar, research scholar in the Department of History, Pondicherry University, measured their diameter with a digital vernier calliper: the reading stood at just 1.43 mm. They had a hole in them, too, for a thread to pass through, for Porunthal residents to wear them as chains round their necks. There were specialists during the Tamil Sangam age, called tiru mani kuyinars ( tiru mani means semi-precious beads and kuyinars were artisans who drilled holes in them), said Rajan, quoting from a Sangam age poem called Madurai Kanchi (line 511).

More than 12,000 beads made of semi-precious stones were discovered in two seasons of excavation from just four graves. There are hundreds of graves at Porunthal waiting for the spade of the archaeologist, he said.

He argued that the availability of carnelian and agate beads suggested that the people of Porunthal had direct or indirect cultural contacts with Gujarat and Maharashtra even during early historic times, that is, during the Sangam age. These beads came to Porunthal in finished form. But the glass beads were manufactured at Porunthal itself and exported to the outside world. This was possible because Porunthal was located on the trade route that connected Madurai, the capital of the Pandyas, situated on the banks of the Vaigai river, and the ancient Chera port of Musiri on the west coast, in present-day Kerala. This trade route touched Nilakottai, Dindigul, Udumalpet, Pollachi and the Palakkad Gap.

Y. Subbarayalu, Head of the Department of Indology at the French Institute of Pondicherry, underlined the importance of the presence of the relatively large quantity of paddy in a four-legged jar in one of the graves. He said: Generally, we get a few grains in burials. We have never before found so much of paddy from a burial site as at Porunthal, which shows that paddy cultivation was going on at such an early age there. Generally, in Iron Age [datable from 1000 BCE to 300 BCE] burial sites, we get rain-fed millets. This is the first time we found a cultivated crop, that is, paddy, which is an interesting discovery. The site reflects the last stage of the Iron Age and the presence of paddy demonstrates the agricultural aspirations of the people of the age.

The presence of a brick structure at Pasi Medu, according to Subbarayalu, is equally interesting. Brick structures belonging to such an early age were found in Tamil Nadu only at a few places. A brick structure, which was perhaps a Buddhist one, was found at Kaveripattinam. Another, found at Arikamedu in Puducherry, could have been used for commerce.

The brick structure discovered at Porunthal was not used for any religious purpose. It was, however, difficult to surmise what purpose it served, he said.

A great deal of study went into the selection of Porunthal for conducting the excavation. More than 20 years of exploration by Rajan and his team had revealed the existence of hundreds of sites in southern India that covered the period from prehistoric to early historic times. Analysis of data from these sites revealed that there was a cultural gap in terms of time and space between the Neolithic Age and the Iron Age, and between the Iron Age and the Early Historic Age. The introduction of iron and the manufacture of iron implements in the Iron Age led to deforestation and the introduction of agriculture. Agriculture led to economic prosperity, and there were cultural exchanges between different regions. New schools of philosophy such as Jainism and Buddhism came into being. In sum, there was a cultural revolution around the sixth century BCE in the whole of India. The evolution of Asokan-Brahmi and Tamil-Brahmi scripts took place three centuries later. Archaeologists and scholars are divided on how the Tamil-Brahmi script evolved.

In northern Tamil Nadu, the metamorphosis of the Neolithic Age into the Iron Age was well documented by the excavations done at Payamballi, Mayiladumparai and Mallappadi, all situated near Dharmapuri. But no clear-cut Neolithic site was available in southern Tamil Nadu. To understand this cultural gap, Rajan and his team designed a programme of micro-regional study of various sites. Continuous exploration and excavation by them in southern Tamil Nadu brought to light several microlithic and Iron Age sites. However, identification of a Neolithic Age site in southern Tamil Nadu is still eluding archaeologists. As part of this programme, Yathees Kumar, who is now an assistant archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), discovered Porunthal.

Vedachalam said several chieftains, like Pegan, ruled the different parts of the Tamil country during the Sangam age. Porunthal village, situated on the banks of the Porunthilaru belonged to a territorial division named Vaikavur Nadu. Porunthal was originally called Porunthil. The Sangam poet Porunthil IIlangiranar belonged to Porunthal. He composed a poem in the collective work called Puranaanuru, in praise of the Chera king Cheraman Mantharal Irumporai. This king issued inscribed coins with the title Kollipporai' in the Tamil-Brahmi script datable to the first century CE. Legend has it that the Chera kings' family goddess, Kotrravai, resided at Aiyiarai Malai , about 10 km from Porunthal. All this placed Porunthal in a historical context.

Musiri, which was linked with Porunthal by a trade route, was a thriving port in the first century BCE. Some scholars had earlier identified Vanchi with present-day Kodungallur. However, there is difference of opinion among scholars on the identification of Vanchi. Excavations under way now at Pattanam, 7 km from Kodungallur, indicate that Pattanam could be Musiri. From Karur, another trade route led to the Palakkad Gap and it passed through Kodumanal, Sulur, Vellalur, and Velanthavanam.

It was no coincidence, therefore, that nearly 90 per cent of the Roman gold coin hoards discovered in India were found on this route. Of this, almost all the hoards were found in the Kongu region of the Tamil country. One such hoard of 63 gold coins was discovered at Kalaiyamuthur on the left bank of the Porunthilaru, 8 km from Porunthal. This highlighted Porunthal's importance. Other archaeological sites that yielded Roman coin hoards in the vicinity were Boodhinattam, Udumalpet, Pollachi, Dharapuram and Karur.

The reason for the availability of Roman coin hoards on this trade route was the extensive trade in iron and steel, semi-precious stones made of quartz, sapphire and beryl, spices and medicinal plants between Rome and the Tamil country through the Musiri port. Steel was manufactured at Kodumanal and semi-precious gems were produced in and around Kangeyam, near Karur. Both Kodumanal and Kangeyam are in the Kongu region.

Besides, two trade guild inscriptions were found on the left and right banks of the Porunthilaru in villages named Rajapuram and Tamaraikulam. This was a clear pointer to the trade route passing through Porunthal. The inscription of 1192 CE, found at Tamaraikulam and issued by the Kongu Chola Prakesari Veera Cholan, referred to the existence of a trade guild called Ainurruvar (a guild of 500 members). The availability of early historical vestiges, coin hoards, trade guild inscriptions and graffiti marks in the pottery in the archaeological sites in and around Porunthal clearly pointed to the site's potential, said Rajan. However, what puzzled Rajan and his team before they began their excavation in 2009 was the existence of two villages called Porunthal. One was situated on the road that led from Cholavandan (near Madurai) to Nilakottai. An inscription belonging to Kulasekara Pandya of the 13th century CE made a reference to this village as Poorunthil alias Devendra Vallavapuram. The other Porunthal, near Palani, is where the excavation ultimately took place. What decided the choice was a fragmentary inscription that the excavation team found placed as part of a door jamb in a medieval temple dedicated to Madurai Kali Amman at this Porunthal. The inscription, in medieval Chola Tamil script of the 12th century CE, referred to this village as Vaikavi [Vaikavur] Nattu Porunthal. Rajan said, This cleared the historical mist.

Two trenches were laid, one in the central part and the other in the southern part of Pasi Medu. Artefacts such as glass beads, paste (opaque) beads, glass bangles, a gold pendant, a bell made of copper, ivory weights, stoppers, spouts and gamesmen were found. Human and animal figurines, made of terracotta, were recovered. The craftsmanship of the figurine of a humped bull is superb. A human figurine has an elongated body, broad shoulders and short legs. Another exquisite figurine was the head of a woman with curly hair and prominent ear lobes, which could have come from Alexandria. Adjacent to these figurines, a copper coin, belonging to the Sangam age, was found.

The discovery of copper coins, in a highly corroded condition, was a surprise because excavations at Kodumanal, Karur, Perur and Poluvampatti (20 km west of Coimbatore) never yielded coins. The only site that has yielded Chera coins in an archaeological context is the current Pattanam excavation, which has yielded 40 of them.

An important revelation was the existence of a brick structure in the north-eastern corner of a trench in Pasi Medu. The brick wall with five courses was built over a base made of a 20-cm-thick clay foundation. The bricks' sizes were 7 cm x 21cm x 42 cm and 8 cm x 24 cm x 48 cm in the ratio of 1:3:6. They are typical Early Historic bricks. The standardisation of size shows the Porunthal people's engineering skill, observed Rajan.

+ SEE all Stories
Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment