Keezhadi treasures caught in a swirl

Print edition : January 20, 2017

An overview of the excavated trenches in a coconut plantation at Keezhadi with a pottery yard in the middle. Photo: ASI

A trench with a wealth of finds. At bottom left, a stone slab used perhaps to wash clothes. Next to it is a trough-like structure made of bricks and beside it on a platform is an open drain. There are also brick platforms at right and in the quadrant in the middle. In the quadrant at right is a rare double-walled furnace. K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, Superindenting Archaeologist, ASI, is standing at right. Photo: ASI

A terracotta ring well that runs deep into the ground. Photo: ASI

Array of artefacts1. Stone celts found in the trenches. These were used for sharpening tools and, according to ASI archaeologists who took part in the excavation, brought to Keezhadi from neolithic sites situated elsewhere.2. Earlobes made of terracotta.3. Circular and square Chola- and Pandya-period coins.4. Earlobes made of ivory.5. Chess games made of ivory.6. A copper-antimony rod and a ring, bangles and beads made of copper.7. Arrowheads made of iron and bone.8. Tiny bi-conical gold beads.9. Iron implements such as forceps/thongs, nails, spearheads, knives, daggers, arrowheads and celts. These finds show that Keezhadi was originally an Iron Age site that metamorphosed into a Tamil Sangam Age site. Photo: ASI

A series of circular furnaces. Photo: ASI

A beautiful storage pot carved with designs found in a trench. Photo: ASI

A terracotta drain pipe found broken at two places. Three types of drains were found in the excavation: open drains lined with bricks, closed drains boxed with bricks, and terracotta pipe drains. Some of the drains led to soak jars, indicating the use of advanced sanitation methods. Photo: ASI

The Archaeological Survey of India’s decision to shift Sangam-age artefacts excavated at Keezhadi to its office in Bengaluru faces stiff opposition in Tamil Nadu, and with no means to store them at the site the ASI gets the High Court’s permission to move them to Dehradun. Text

THE Cauvery tangle between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in August-September 2016 had unintended consequences for the Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) phenomenal dig in Tamil Nadu, at Pallichandai Thidal near Keezhadi, 12 kilometres from Madurai, which points to a hitherto-unknown urban civilisation in the Sangam Age (300 BCE-C.E. 300). The excavation was being done by the ASI’s Excavation Branch VI, Bengaluru, led by Superintending Archaeologist Amarnath Ramakrishna, and in accordance with an ASI decision taken in 2014 that henceforth excavations would be done by the nearest Excavation Branch of the ASI and not by its circle offices. Under this new rule, Keezhadi witnessed two seasons of excavation, in 2015 and 2016, involving 102 trenches/quadrants, with spectacular results. But the ASI’s decision to move the artefacts to Bengaluru for study sparked a controversy that the Madras High Court’s Madurai Bench resolved ultimately by agreeing to the ASI Director General’s request to move them to Dehradun.

The treasures that had been unearthed included massive brick structures with ring wells and drainage systems dating back to the second century BCE of the Tamil Sangam Age and a wealth of about 5,600 artefacts such as potsherds with Tamil-Brahmi script; ivory earlobes; ivory dice; bi-conical gold beads; Chola- and late Pandya-period coins; rouletted ware; russet-coated ware; white-painted black pottery; decorated shell bangles; beads made out of quartz, jasper, carnelian and chalcedony; big copper beads; and terracotta figurines. In the lower depths of the quadrants were found a variety of iron implements such as axes, daggers, knives, nails and forceps, roof tiles embedded with long iron nails in sockets, and black and red ware from the Iron Age.

The second season, more rewarding than the first, was heading to a close in September when the Cauvery imbroglio intervened and put a question mark on the third season in 2017 that an understandably delighted Amarnath Ramakrishna eagerly awaited. The cornucopia of artefacts became a point of contention, with reports appearing in a section of the press that they were to be carted away to Bengaluru. An article written by S. Venkatesan, a Sahitya Akademi award winner for Tamil in 2011, in The Hindu (Tamil) on September 28 began thus: “In a few days, two lorries will leave Madurai for Mysuru [in Karnataka]. It will be known only later whether those lorries would have Tamil Nadu registration numbers or those of Karnataka. Against the background of the Cauvery issue, in case the lorries are attacked, it will not be a big loss to the government. For there are only old items in the lorries. They are antiquities that are more than 2,500 years old.”

The 110-acre (one acre is 0.4 hectare) site had in its innards “the great symbols of the ancient Tamil civilisation”, Venkatesan said, and suggested that the State government also excavate the site. He called for the establishment of a museum at the site. “Only when it is done, all the antiquities can be displayed. Otherwise, they will be taken to the store of the ASI in Mysuru and we will have to believe that they are lying bundled up in gunny bags there,” he said. He added: “The ASI is prepared to set up the site museum. It is the responsibility of the State government to provide two acres for it. Despite efforts in the past two years [to set up the museum], nothing has moved forward.”

He then narrated how when he mentioned this “bitter truth” at a meeting in Madurai a Tamil lecturer named Karu. Murugesan met him and told him that it was Tamil that had provided him his livelihood. Murugesan said he was prepared to gift the land he owned at Keezhadi for the site museum. Venkatesan concluded his article thus: “If somebody in power or others believe that it is Tamil which has enabled them to earn their bread, let them come forward to be grateful to Tamil. In a few days, the lorries are about to depart for Mysuru.”

It did not take long for the public to demand that the artefacts should not be taken to Bengaluru as they belonged to Tamil Nadu. Newspapers took up the issue with gusto and said that a site museum should be established at Keezhadi.

On September 29, M. Karunanidhi, former Chief Minister and president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), said it was the “duty of the State government to allot two acres” at Keezhadi to set up the site museum. “Otherwise, thousands of artefacts will be taken to Mysuru and dumped there in a store,” he said. Karunanidhi argued that more than 5,000 antiquities excavated at Keezhadi proved wrong the theory that the Tamil Sangam Age was not an urban civilisation. The excavation had thrown up many potsherds with Tamil-Brahmi script. “Of all the excavations done in Tamil Nadu so far, the excavation at Keezhadi is the finest,” he stated.

Vaiko, general secretary of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), also wanted the Tamil Nadu government to provide land and funds to set up a site museum.

Discovery and excavation

The person who really took the lead in demanding that a site museum should be set up was V. Balasubramaniam, who taught history at the Government High School at Keezhadi from 1970 to 1979. Indeed, the credit for discovering the mound where the excavation took place should go to him ( Frontline, February 19, 2016). In 1978, Balasubramaniam found 14th century terracotta artefacts at Pallichandai Thidal and informed V. Vedachalam, then an epigraphist in the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department in Madurai, of them. Vedachalam made a visit to the area and saw for himself the male, female and Ayyanar (a folk deity) terracotta figurines. Matters rested there until Amarnath Ramakrishna took charge of the ASI’s Excavation Branch in Bengaluru a few years ago. He decided to undertake a study of the Vaigai river basin and brought in Vedachalam as a domain expert. In 2014, Amarnath Ramakrishna led a team that included Vedachalam to survey the Vaigai river basin, and they identified 293 sites with archaeological remains on either side of the river. Vedachalam suggested to Amarnath Ramakrishna that Pallichandai Thidal was the place to excavate. The excavation began in January 2015, and large quantities of artefacts belonging to the Tamil Sangam Age were unearthed ( Frontline, February 19, 2016). On June 16, 2016, Balasubramaniam, now 75, wrote to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa with a request that the Tamil Nadu government allot two acres at Attaiyadi Kanmai, an abandoned waterbody at Keezhadi, to enable the ASI to set up a site museum. He also wrote to T.K. Ramachandran, Principal Secretary (in charge), Tourism, Culture and Religious Endowments, and S. Malarvizhi, Collector, Sivaganga district, requesting for land at Keezhadi for the museum. He received no replies to any of his letters. (Although Keezhadi is only 13 km from Madurai, it comes under the Tiruppuvanam taluk in neighbouring Sivaganga district.)

Three months later, Venkatesan’s article appeared in The Hindu (Tamil), following which Karunanidhi made the demand for the site museum. A few days earlier, on September 24, Father Jegath Gaspar Raj, founder of an organisation called Tamil Maiyam and who had organised Sangam 4, a 10-day festival in August 2016 that focussed on Madurai’s history, culture and tradition, visited Keezhadi along with Kanimozhi Mathi, an advocate. Amarnath Ramakrishna took them around and showed them the trenches.

Matter goes to court

Kanimozhi Mathi then filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court with the prayer that the ASI should not be allowed to take the artefacts to Karnataka and that it should not be allowed to close the trenches it had dug at Keezhadi. In her PIL, she said the ASI’s excavation since 2015 had led to the discovery of an ancient urban civilisation that had flourished along the banks of the Vaigai river. “Keezhadi is the first extensive find of an enviable ancient Tamil civilisation. Keezhadi proves that Sangam literature was not merely poetic imagination but a substantive record of the experience of the Tamils,” she said and claimed that she had learnt that the ASI had decided to close down the site and shift the artefacts to Karnataka. The ASI itself had set up site museums at several places, including Agra, Sarnath and Sanchi, she added.

On September 29, 2016, a division bench of Justices S. Nagamuthu and M.V. Muralidaran directed the Tamil Nadu government to spell out by October 18 the possibility of providing enough land near Pallichandai Thidal for the site museum. In their interim order, the judges restrained the ASI from closing the trenches and shifting the artefacts to any place outside Sivaganga district until October 18.

When the case came up for hearing on October 18, Justices Nagamuthu and Muralidaran appreciated the State government for stating that it was keen on establishing a site museum at Keezhadi. The submission on behalf of the government was made by the Commissioner, State Archaeology Department. The bench, in a modification of its earlier order, permitted the ASI to close the trenches following a submission by Assistant Solicitor General G.R. Swaminathan, representing the ASI, that the north-east monsoon would harm the site and affect future excavations if the trenches were kept open for a long time. Justices Nagamuthu and Muralidaran permitted the ASI to send samples of the artefacts to the United States or any other place to carbon-date them.

What brought about the change in the Tamil Nadu government’s attitude when earlier the Chief Minister and other officials did not bother to reply to Balasubramaniam on this issue? When he did not get a reply, the retired headmaster wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 19 requesting him “to urge the Government of Tamil Nadu to allot two acres of land to construct a site museum” at Keezhadi. He told Modi that “this archaeological mound is a rare phenomenon in the early history/Sangam period of Tamil Nadu”. Balasubramaniam received a reply from the Prime Minister on September 23, which directed the Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary to take “action as appropriate”. It brought about a sea change in the State government’s attitude. A few days later, District Collector Malarvizhi, the District Revenue Officer, the Revenue Divisional Officer and others descended on Keezhadi and met Balasubramaniam. The government later said it had identified a parcel of land at Keezhadi for the museum. As for the demand that the trenches should not be closed, Balasubramaniam attributed it to the feeling of “Tamil pride and overenthusiasm about Tamil culture”.

Spectacular excavation

A spectacular excavation took place at 102 trenches/quadrants at Keezhadi in 2015 and 2016. The twin-mounds are situated on the southern banks of the Vaigai river, about 100 metres apart and spread over 110 acres. The perimeter of the mounds is 4.5 km. The excavation in the eastern part of the bigger mound in 2015 yielded ancient brick structures, 32 potsherds with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, deep terracotta ring wells, big storage pots, pots with spouts, decorated pots, white-painted black ware, black and red pottery, beads made of semi-precious stones, and so on. All this and more pointed to its being a Tamil Sangam site.

Amarnath Ramakrishna had then asserted: “This is definitely a Tamil Sangam site.... It was a habitation site.” He tentatively estimated that the site belonged to the third century BCE. But no carbon-dating was done. The ASI resumed its excavation in the central part of the bigger mound in January 2016 in the second field season, which ended in September.

Amarnath Ramakrishna said: “The site proves that we had an urban centre during the Sangam period. This is the first time in Tamil Nadu that we have found so many ancient structures. All the structures are built with burnt bricks, that is, fired bricks. Our large-scale excavation has revealed the urban culture of the Sangam period. But we need to do more systematic excavations in the coming years to get more information.” The brick structures had classical features such as platforms, ring wells, rectangular tanks, square tanks with extended structures, and channels made with bricks. Inside one of the tanks were found two pottery bowls incised with Tamil-Brahmi scripts. “They are fantastic bowls and they were tableware. On the basis of the palaeography of these Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, we can definitely date the structure to the second century BCE,” said Amarnath Ramakrishna.

‘Tamil Nadu’s index site’

Nanda Kishor Swain, Deputy Superintending Archaeologist, Excavation Branch VI, ASI, Bengaluru, who took part in the excavation, said: “This is Tamil Nadu’s index site. It means you can date other sites in Tamil Nadu with the help of this site. Until now, other sites in the State were dated with reference to Kaveripattinam and Arikkamedu [near Puducherry town]. From now on, the cultural sequence, time frame and trade relations of other archaeological sites in the State will be determined with reference to Keezhadi. It will be a lighthouse for future excavations in Tamil Nadu.”

Keezhadi was as important as other Early Historic sites such as Ahichhatra, Hastinapur, Kousambi, Singaverpur and Sravasti, all in Uttar Pradesh; Kondapur and Nagarjunakonda in undivided Andhra Pradesh; Sisupalgarh in Odisha; and Kurukshetra in Haryana. All are Early Historic sites contemporaneous with Keezhadi, said Swain.

Besides the brick structures, the 2016 excavation in the mound’s central part to a depth of 4.5 m revealed that the first 3 m from the top belonged to the Early Historic period, while the 1.5 m below that belonged to the Iron Age. This was confirmed by the discovery of a number of iron implements such as axes, daggers, spades, knives, forceps and nails at the lowest level. There was plenty of black and red ware associated with the Iron Age. Neolithic celts were found. “The discovery of iron implements proved at once that Keezhadi was an Iron Age settlement which evolved and continued into the Historic period. So this site is definitely a crucial site for Tamil Nadu to determine its cultural sequence,” Amarnath Ramakrishna said.

What was amazing was the discovery of many structures built of bricks of three different sizes in quadrant after quadrant. All the structures were oriented north-south. A rectangular brick structure resembled a trough. There were other brick structures situated nearby. The quadrants revealed three types of drains: open and covered drains built with big-sized bricks and a third one made of terracotta pipes. There were several furnaces too. A double-walled furnace was a standout discovery. Adjacent to the double-walled furnace was a chamber-like structure, with walls built with bricks and the floor also lined with bricks. This structure led to another small tank/trough-like structure. This trough was pretty deep and its floor too was lined with bricks. The ring well in one of the quadrants ran deep into the natural soil. Near the top-most ring of the well was a floor made of bricks of two courses.

Sanitation system

A terracotta pipe ran through several quadrants over a distance of many metres and ended in a soak jar. “The pipe and the soak jar indicate the advanced sanitation system of the people who lived here. It demonstrates their civic sense. The people were well versed in city planning,” said Swain.

Another brick structure, which also looked like a tank/trough, had an inlet and an outlet. A covered drain was found below this trough. Nearby was a small structure with a stone slab on top, perhaps meant for washing clothes. While it is clear that these structures and furnaces formed part of an industrial unit, a debate has erupted among archaeologists whether the structures were dyeing vats for colouring textiles. Both Amarnath Ramakrishna and Swain said separately that it might be premature to conclude that the structures were dyeing vats.

The director of the excavation said: “We cannot define the structures right now because we have come across this type of structure for the first time in Tamil Nadu. If we continue the excavation for a few more years, we will know where the structures are headed. They are extending from north to south. Only when we excavate the entire area, can we tell you the purpose for which the structures were built.”

The ASI archaeologists are puzzled about the purpose for which the double-walled furnace and other furnaces were used. In the double-walled furnace, the additional wall was built to trap heat and to get a controlled temperature. “We cannot identify the purpose for which the furnaces have been made because we do not get any raw materials in them. They might have been used for dyeing textiles because we got a spindle-whorl nearby. But no artefacts [such as beads] were found in them,” an archaeologist said.

When the excavation was reaching its peak in September 2016 came the demands that the ASI should not close the trenches and that the artefacts should not be taken away to Bengaluru. Three individual pattadars—Sonai Chandran, Dilip Khan and Peer Mohammed—had given their lands, which were in fact coconut groves, for the excavation in 2015. Two more, Gajendran and Krishnan, gave their lands in 2016. Since they were coconut groves, only quadrants and not big trenches were dug between trees. The landowners had entered into an agreement with the ASI for the excavations for 2015 and 2016. The signatories included Amarnath Ramakrishna, Balasubramaniam, and Vedachalam and other ASI officials.

Balasubramaniam said that under the agreement after the excavation in 2015 and 2016 ended, the ASI would close, that is, fill the trenches and hand the land over to its owners. “So you cannot preserve the trenches as they are,” he said. Since the excavated area was big, it was difficult to erect a shed over the trenches. Coconut trees would intervene too. If the trenches were kept open, people would come in droves to see them. “You cannot protect the area with the trenches open when people come in,” he said. During the rainy season from October/November, the trenches, with the exposed brick structures and furnaces, would be ruined. After the excavation was over for the field season, the coconut trees had to be watered. “We said we would hand over the land to its owners after the excavation was over. The agreement should be honoured. People may glibly talk that the government should acquire the 110 acres. It is easier said than done,” argued Balasubramaniam.

The 5,600 artefacts found at Keezhadi could not be studied in the cramped tents there, Amarnath Ramakrishna said. They had to be taken to Bengaluru [where enough space was available in the Excavation Branch VI], for a proper study. “After the research is done, the Government of India will definitely give back the artefacts to be displayed in the site museum once it is set up at Keezhadi,” he said. Amarnath Ramakrishna also said it was not easy to keep the trenches open because the ASI would then have to acquire the 110 acres and declare it a protected site under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act, 2010. “It will take a long time. It is not possible to do it immediately. If the trenches are to be kept open, it has to be an ASI site. Right now, the land is private property,” he said. If it rained, the exposed brick structures would be ruined. So the trenches were covered with plastic sheets and filled up. Since the ASI staff knew where the quadrants had been dug and were aware of their measurements, the quadrants could always be reopened if the need arose.

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