Reading the past in a more inclusive way

Print edition : January 27, 2006


Interview with Dr. Sudharshan Seneviratne.

During the early Iron Age, otherwise known as the megalithic period, south India and Sri Lanka "had shared a culture going all the way to the pre-historic period". This was a revelation for Dr. Sudharshan Seneviratne, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, in the course of his research. Not only were megalithic burials similar, but paleo-biological and biological research showed that there were significant technological and cultural traits in common between the two regions, he said in an interview to T.S. Subramanian.

Dr. Seneviratne was in Chennai last December to deliver the keynote address of a seminar organised by the Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL). He is co-Director, Anuradhapura Citadel Archaeology Project, Sri Lanka and Consultant Archaeologist, World Megalithic Association, Government of South Korea. In 2000, he was Visiting Fulbright Professor, Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, United States. His research interests include megalithic archaeology, environmental archaeology and ethno-archaeology. Excerpts:

You have come to give a lecture on megalithic burials at the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Chennai Circle, and deliver the keynote address at the RMRL seminar.

I am pleased to be back in Chennai because it is a privilege to be invited for the Roja Muthiah Memorial Lecture to deliver the keynote address. At the ASI, I am going to talk on "Early Iron Age Megalithic Culture in Sri Lanka". The topic of the RMRL seminar is "Regionality, Identity and History Writing". Both these themes are linked and they focus on two regions, south India to Sri Lanka, and ancient material culture. What is important about both is that they provide the first tangible evidence of this formative period both in south India and Sri Lanka.

Formative period of what?

Formative period of south India and Sri Lanka because the pre-historic period cannot be counted as a formative period since it is represented by nomadic stone-using groups, which did not sustain institutions. These institutions do not develop by themselves. But, with the ushering in of iron, then semi-settled village culture and most importantly, the domestication of plants and animals in the far south and Sri Lanka in association with the early Iron Age culture. This was a watershed development because it is from this period onward that you find tangible, identifiable, recognisable social, economic, political and cultural institutions. So this is in a way the point of commencement of early Iron Age culture. When I say far south here, it is an area south of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, going all the way down to Sri Lanka, that is, an area engulfing modern Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka.

The second aspect is that in the subsequent period, by the early historic period, more developed and advanced institutional structures - what we call the period of civilisation - were built upon the cultural and technological matrix that was laid down during the early Iron Age.

My interest in the area goes back to the doctoral research I did in the 1970s at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. I was looking at the broader aspects and processes of ideological formations in society. My guru Romila Thapar and another teacher, Prof. R. Champakalakshmi, suggested that it would be interesting to take up the case study of Buddhism as an ideological process and look at how at a given point of time in history, a particular social ideology appeals to a society. This was the basis of my thesis and then I worked backwards to understand what elements constituted the social base of Buddhism in south India and Sri Lanka. It was first a cross-regional study undertaken in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. I was looking at the cross-regional perspectives, similarities and variations in three regions where north Indian social ideologies arrived and why these ideologies did not take root in particular areas.

A good half of my doctoral research went back in time, looking at the pre-state, pre-urban, pre-specialised societies and it dropped me directly into the early Iron Age, what was popularly known as proto-historic megalithic culture. We now consider it a misnomer to use the term "proto-historic". The term "early Iron Age" is far more encompassing because particular traits you find in the so-called proto-historic megalithic culture need not wind up or terminate in the early historic culture but they had actually moved into the historic or subsequent cultures. So it is more rational to use the term "early Iron Age" which has a chronological bracket from about 1200 B.C to the early historic period, what we call second or first century B.C.

In my doctoral research, I had to study the material cultures of both south India and Sri Lanka. When I started looking at the early Iron Age culture... it was a revelation that we had a shared culture going all the way to the pre-historic period.

Could you expand on that?

The pre-historic period in Sri Lanka is identified with the mesolithic or middle Stone Age culture. Scholars such as S.U. Deraniyagala have strongly suggested that we may even have middle or upper paleolithic culture in Sri Lanka which came before the mesolithic period. I am confident that it is possible that even in the far south in south India, you may have that situation. Paleo-biological research done by Kenneth Kennedy and others, and biological research done by Deraniyagala and pre-historians such as H.D. Sankaliya and F.R. Allchin in south India have indicated that technological and cultural traits are similar.

What artefacts indicate this?

The stone-tools, the faunal remains, tool types, production technology and so on are similar. We have a shared culture there. Then you find that in Sri Lanka and south India, in the post-1500 B.C. period, new changes had begun to occur. In my research, I also started looking at the migratory routes of megalithic burials from the Deccan to especially Tamil Nadu. One of the maps prepared for my doctoral thesis was about the [migratory] routes taken.

What were the routes?

Mainly through the hill passes. One route came all the way to southern Karnataka into the upper Cauvery in Tamil Nadu; from the Palghat pass into the Coimbatore region; again, in the far south, moving into Agathiya Malai from Tammapanni [Tamiraparani] valleys. I hypothesised that these were the areas where you find a dense location of a variety of burials. I also argued that typical megalithic burials with lithic [stone] appendages were found in a particular ecology or mountain region, and that the urn burials gradually shifted to more areas that were conducive to alluvial plains and agriculture.

Prof. A. Sundara, Prof. K. Paddaya and others had done excellent work in the 1970s in Karnataka and the southern Deccan region, and I continued from that point onwards into Tamil Nadu.

The megalithic or Iron Age urn-burial site at Adichanallur, on the banks of the Tamiraparani river, near Tirunelveli, was excavated about 100 years ago by Alexander Rea. Dr. T. Satyamurthy and G. Thirumoorthy of the ASI have in the last two years excavated more than 165 urns at Adichanallur, and about 15 of them had full-scale skeletons inside. What kind of similarities do you find among the urn burials of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Sri Lanka?

One of the hypotheses I suggested at that time was that there might have been an intrusion at a very early date into the upper Vaigai [river] and also along the Tammapanni valley where the urn burials are. That must have been one of the intrusive areas into north-west Sri Lanka for this culture.

Interesting research done by Prof. Sundara shows that there might be a connection... looking at the graffiti symbols... black and red ware seem to be more prominently associated with urn-burial groups, and megaliths with stone appendages. The whole term "megaliths" should be re-defined because some of the urn burials do not have any lithic appendage. There have been strong suggestions that urn burials might have been a trait that prevailed from the pre-Harappan period to the post-Harappan through Chalcolithic cultures, than they moved into the Iron Age culture through the Deccan Chalcolithic.

B.B. Lal did an excellent study, indicating the movement of the symbols. An excellent study was done in the mid-1970s, looking at the literature and these sites. For the north, this study was done by Prof. Romila Thapar, who looked at the movement of the black and red ware from western India into central India and the Gangetic plains. She associated this with the movement of the Yadavas. In the same volume, the southern section was taken up by Prof. Champakalakshmi. Champakalakshmi spoke about the movement of black and red ware and its connection to the early Velir families.

This in a way overlapped with the movement in jar burials [urn burials]. In fact, the Satavahanas are connected with jar burials. You find various lineages mentioned in the early Sangam texts. Symbols associated with the carriers of the jars/urns are also found in the north-west burial [sites] of Sri Lanka. We also have in Sri Lanka lineage chieftains called Parumakkas. Other scholars and I feel that this term is derived from Perumagan. They have their family names as Vela. Obviously, this comes from Velirs.

Coming to the megalithic monuments, I have argued in my thesis, by looking at the radio-carbon dates and qualitative differentiation between the iron implements found in the hill areas of Tamil Nadu and the alluvial plains and the coastal areas that the alluvial plains and the coastal areas have a later chronology and better produced artefacts. The exception is Tammapanni valley. Besides, there seems to be an intermingling of burial types. In the eastern coastal areas of Tamil Nadu, there seem to be sarcophagus urn burials mixing with cairn-circles, cist burials, dolmens and so on. It is an interesting thing.

Here, I must refer to the excellent research done by Prof. K. Rajan of the Department of Epiraphy and Archaeology, Tamil University, Thanjavur. He has done a tremendous amount of work from the 1980s, doing scientific excavations, and mapping the megalithic sites.

Prof. Rajan recently gave a memorial lecture on "Sangam Literature and Excavations" at Tamil Sangam, Colombo, where he spoke about a number of references in Tamil Sangam literature to urn burials, and argued that Tamil-Brahmi script is older than Asokan-Brahmi script and so on... .

My focus was more on using the material culture and looking the institutional and social formations. I tried to give a new perspective on this, using material evidence, Sangam literature, the inscriptions and the pre-state polities. I took two nuclear areas - eastern Orissa and the lower Krishna valley, and I drew information from Tamil Nadu. Subsequently, several articles appeared on kudi and naadu as elements for looking at how early social and political formations took place, the transition from mobile to sedentary societies and how structural changes took place. I was using a whole group of data, identifying chieftains, their political structures and the formation of early polities under the Vendas or crown kings. It appears that both long-distance trade and the Mauryan empire had an impetus on this, and it is here that Buddhism synchronises with the whole process of state formation...

It was Dr. Deraniyagala who established the existence of megalithic black and red ware layer at a deep level, nearly four metres deep from the surface, at the citadel of Anuradhapura, where in terms of technology and cultural elements, the production of wootz-steel [ultra-high carbon steel] is similar to both the regions [south India and Sri Lanka].

This led me to start a series of studies in the early 1980s about the resource areas between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, the movement of resources and the production techniques. Once it was established that we definitely had black and red ware which was attributable to megalithic culture, accompanying cultural traits such as the pottery types, symbols on megalithic pottery, iron technology, bead types and megalithic burials were also taken into account in my study.

The first map was prepared during my doctoral research in the 1970s and a monograph called "The Archaeology of the megalithic Black and Red Ware Complex in Sri Lanka" was subsequently published in the volume Ancient Ceylon. It provided maps and descriptions of each of the megalithic sites known up to that point in Sri Lanka and their social archaeological aspects. It dealt with the study of symbols, the burial types, artefact types and so on. It made a comparative study of the south Indian megaliths and the movement of megalithic trade into south India, and from south India into Sri Lanka.

Interestingly enough, the introduction of paddy into Sri Lanka seems to have occurred from south India, according to the earliest strains of paddy found in Deraniyagala's excavation. We also found that there was movement of resources from south India into Sri Lanka as much as resources moved into south India from Sri Lanka. For instance, resources from Sri Lanka such as particular types of gems, conch shells or shanks, pearls and pearl shells moved into south India. Looking at the copper deposits in Sri Lanka, I have suggested that at an early age copper moved into the Tammapanni valley. The high prestige value given to copper, even at Adichanallur, seems to be evident, and the source of copper seems to be Sri Lanka.

Did copper for the artefacts found at Adichanallur by Alexander Rea come from Sri Lanka?

Yes, for Adichanallur also because the other nearest, workable, good copper deposits were in Chota Nagpur. It is too far to get the material from there. Sri Lanka was the obvious choice.

In the Department of Archaeology, University of Peradeniya, we have a strong focus on the formative period of archaeology in Sri Lanka. What we did in our university was to understand the early Iron Age culture in its historical, environmental and societal contexts. For this, we began searching the river valleys.

The second aspect of this study was to work on resource areas and understand the dynamics of the locational factors of these sites. This opened up a big area of research for us, which included looking at resource movements, how they affected social formations and connections with south India. For example, the movement of agate, a prestigious and luxurious item, from south India to Sri Lanka. When you fire agate, you get a nice red colour called cornelian, which is found in megalithic burials as a [symbol of] prestige. The raw material was brought to places such as Anuradhapura where the beads were manufactured and they moved all the way to megalithic sites in the lower hills of Sri Lanka.

The third aspect was to understand the problem of identity - how archaeology applies in identities and contemporary politics. This is an interesting theme because of the chronological context of the megalithic culture in south India was assigned for a long time on the basis of Wheeler's dating for Brahmagiri in southern Deccan. He post-dated that to the Mauryan period. In the 1950s and 1960s, Sri Lankan historians and archaeologists took this chronological basis of Wheeler's and applied it in Sri Lanka. They argued that megalithic sites in Sri Lanka could be assigned a date around 3rd century B.C. or 2nd century B.C. at the earliest. But Indian/south Indian history/archaeology has pushed the date back to 1500 B.C., and in Sri Lanka, there are definitely good radiometric dates coming from Anuradhapura that the non-Brahmi symbol-bearing black and red ware occur at least around 900 B.C. or 1000 B.C. So it is possible to assign a much earlier date to the north-west or north-east of Sri Lanka. If it was so, it is possible that Tammapanni valley has a relatively earlier chronology. I am aware that the radio-carbon date given to Korkai is not acceptable to most scholars, but looking at the typology and relative chronology, it is possible to assign an earlier date to the Tammapanni valley. And if the movement of megalithic culture came from the Tammapanni valley, Sri Lankan sites such as Pomparippu on the north-west coast may be assigned an earlier date than 1000 B.C.

A chart of the symbols I did from the megalithic complexes in Sri Lanka is very similar to the symbols found in southern Deccan. We also discovered that megalithic symbols found on the pottery and cap-stones of the cist burials continue all the way into the early Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka, indicating that the people who practised megalithic culture also patronised Buddhism around 3rd century B.C.

Megalithic people patronised Buddhism?

Their descendants... Paleo-biological studies done by people like Kennedy did not indicate a difference between the biological composition of the Stone Age people in south India and the early Iron Age people in south India. The same extended to the Sri Lankan context. What seems to have happened was rather than large groups migrating, the technology of the megaliths seems to have come from small lineage groups under chieftains to Sri Lanka and intermingled with the pre-existing Stone Age people in Sri Lanka.

They [the lineage groups] seem to have moved from coastal areas, absorbing Stone Age people into their fold. Or may be, there were conflicts. They moved along river valleys into fertile land. By about 4th and 5th century B.C., they had moved all the way into the lower hills of Sri Lanka, that is, the central country.

What I forgot to mention was that the dominant types of burials you find in Sri Lanka are cist burials and urn burials, and to a lesser extent dolmens and cairn circles, in some cases pot-burials, and very rarely a full skeleton is found, and their chronology is still not known. This is the technological and cultural matrix both in south India and Sri Lanka into which intruded into social ideologies from north India. Long distance merchants from north and central India brought in a new culture - a more dynamic urban ethos - into these regions.

It is now argued that Brahmi script came with trade and religious carriers, if you may call them so, the missionaries. But one also has to look at the pre-existing - what I would call the megalithic symbols - that may have had phonetical sounds. The discovery of the famous copper ring at Anaikoddai from the early historic context that [the copper ring] had both the megalithic symbols and the Brahmi symbols, the Brahmi symbols reading a Dravidian term. There are doubts whether it is Kovendha or Kovendhan. Both refer to the identity of a ruler or chieftain. But what is important is there seems to be a phonetical value in these [megalithic] symbols. For instance, the Brahmi ka is often found among the megalithic symbols as well. There are other symbols, which are found [both] in the Brahmi script and the megalithic symbols.

I don't want to emphasise this too much because we should be aware that ideas were borrowed. None of us can take the exclusive credit of `inventing' a script or language because all these were nurtured by shared cultures. This is a fact we have to bear in mind. If we push the exclusiveness far, we will tend to become parochial in the application of a wider spectrum of archaeological data that has distributed itself in a wide time and space context. For you must remember that the megaliths found in south Asia have traits similar to those found on the coast in West Asia and may be even in north Africa. Black and red ware have been found from an earlier chronological context all the way from north Africa, West Asia and the late-Harappan context. We should not, therefore, get parochial about the `indigenous' context of the megaliths.

It is unfortunate that the megalithic monuments happen to be one of the most racialised monuments in south Asia. I have mentioned in my keynote address and elsewhere about how this got entwined with the Dravidian identity. Both `Aryan' and `Dravidian', being language terms, have been used in such a vulgar manner as to identify non-existent races and this racial connotation have been extended as a marker to identify archaeological monuments, which derails the entire intellectual concept of reading the past.

These are some of the areas we have been looking at. We have tried to use the concept of reading the past from a more inclusive situation, where no region or culture could be exclusively credited with triggering advanced developments. It is in conjunction with both the material and thinking processes that the cultural effervescence of this region took place.

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