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A Harappan Site In South India?


Ground Report From Keeladi, Madurai
Aravindan Neelakandan - June 06, 2016, 12:38 pm

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The green of the coconut grove was a soothing sight in the fierce noon sun
that had started frying Keeladi, near Madurai. Where is the archeology
excavation? I asked an old lady and she pointed me to three tents in one
corner of the plantation. There was sir the Superintending Archaeologist K.
Amarnath Ramakrishna. He is from Bengaluru but his Tamil is good and shows
no accent.

The Superintending Archaeologist at the site, Mr Amarnath Ramakrishna.

He had been informed by Dr. Vedachalam, state department archeologist that I


was coming on behalf of Swarajya. I quickly started with my questions. The

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A Harappan Site In South India? Ground Report from Keeladi,... http://swarajyamag.com/culture/there-is-no-real-connection-wit...

Harappan connection reported in the press I was cut short by Amarnath.


No, it is a misunderstanding, he explained. The size of the site can be
compared to some Harappan sites but there is no real connection with
Harappa. What they had discovered was exciting in its own right. This was the
first time a settlementan urban habitathad been excavated so completely
in Tamil Nadu. That is a major find.

Could this be seen as part of the so-called second urbanization? I asked. No


culture evolves in isolation and every civilization develops its own uniqueness.
We expect to find both here, he replied. While most archeological
explorations have some comparable contemporary sites, in Tamil Nadu this is
perhaps the first excavated urban habitation going back 2000 years. The
discovery was not accidental or a stroke of luck. It was a result of some
systematic work.

Sangam literaturethe ancient Tamil poetrydescribes urban centers that


were cosmopolitan in nature, doing business with other countries including
Rome. Both contemporary North Indian inscriptions, as well as literature prior
to the Sangam age have mentioned already established Tamil royal dynasties.
So, any student of history would expect a lot of archeological sites to have
come up in Tamil Nadu.

Sadly, only burial sites have come up so far and not a single settlement in the
proper sense has been excavated, the Superintending Archeologist said. The
reason is places like Madurai where interesting archeological discoveries may
await beneath the surface have had continuous occupation. Today, they are
busy cities. So, you have to depend only on temple inscriptions and literary
evidence.

The archeologists decided to do excavations along the banks of Vaigai the


river that courses through Madurai till Rameshwaram. They identified more

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A Harappan Site In South India? Ground Report from Keeladi,... http://swarajyamag.com/culture/there-is-no-real-connection-wit...

than 100 locations along the river bed and small but ancient villages near the
vicinity of the river bank. It was through this methodology they arrived at
Keeladi. And Keeladi did not disappoint them. The central government is
interested in history and archeology and facilitates such projects, otherwise
they often remain pipe dreams for want of funds, Amarnath revealed.

Dr. Vedachalam arrived at the camp as we were talking. Let us look around the
site, he said.

Vedachalam, archaeologist working at the site.

The Vaigai river once flowed here, explained Vedachalam. The archeologists
had to remove plenty of river soil from the depths. Brick making is a cottage
industry that flourishes around this area. This particular place had remained

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under the coconut grove and therefore escaped destruction. Most of the rooms
they had excavated are too small for living, Vedachalam pointed out. There are
ovens not for cooking but for some kind of artisan work.

An oven structure

There are small drainage systems made of terracotta that crisscross the
buildings.. Were they used for draining water or the effluents/formulations
from whatever process they were doing? We do not know.

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A stack of pots and a small drainage(?) pipe.

There are very small enclosures made of bricks which are too small for people
to live.

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Were the enclosures store houses and this some kind of industrial complex?
Maybe even most probably, Dr. Vedachalam said. The professional
archeologist in him issued a caveat immediately, But never associate todays
housing pattern and habitation style with how it should have been two
thousand years ago.

A small enclosure ... a storage area, perhaps?

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Even as we were walking, a father came in with two children. Amarnath told
me that a lot of school children and college students visited the excavations
and that they allowed it. As we were talking, a big pot, almost intact, got
identified in a trench. Some designs on its surface were visible and the
archeologists got to work in all seriousness.

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Madurai Kanchi, a Sangham literary work speaks of various artisans,


goldsmiths, masons etc. working with wood, metals and beads. There could
even have been a cloth dying unit, Amarnath hazarded a guess, cautiously and
tentatively. Dr. Vedachalam stopped me and pointed out a particular
arrangement of pots five pots arranged together: Perhaps some ritual
significance or a particular arrangement for some chemical process? We do
not know yet.

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I spoke to some of the PhD students assisting in the dig. They were excited.
They did not mind the scorching sun and were making sure that the trenches
allocated with them showed clearly the discoveries made in them.

Phd students from Madras University are involved in supervising trench level
excavations.

Recovered artifacts were being spread neatly and categorized. The work was
proceeding in a systematic and professional manner.

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The trenches reveal an intricate network of a well-planned urban estate. What


were the people doing here? Clearly this should have been in the ancient trade
route. Was there some kind of artisan complex here? Excavations have
revealed beads of agate, Carnelian and quartz indicating trade links with North
Indian urban trade centers and also Rome. Even Satavahana connections have
been unearthed, I was informed. Pottery is typically black-red pottery which is
characteristic of Sangam age. It contains Tamil Brahmi names scratched on
them indicating a highly literate population. Clearly, 2000 years ago, Tamil
Nadu was not in isolation. It was well connected culturally and through trade
with the rest of India.

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The Keeladi excavations and subsequent ones may provide us with a vivid
picture of how the real Sangam society lived. I phoned eminent epigraphist S.
Ramachandran. He pointed out the possibility of this site being related to
some events mentioned in later day Saivaite legends which he explained could
have come from an older core event possibly the South Indian expedition of
Kalinga king Kharavela which he undertook in the eleventh year of his reign
(first century BCE). However, at this stage these are all speculations. A lot of
studies need to be done including carbon testing, study of possible pollen
grains or other such materials from inside the pottery etc.

As I returned to my hometown through Madurai, big hoardings hailing Amma,


the AIADMK supremo, as the new Chief Minister and the protector of Tamil
culture were everywhere. She was rivaled only by the huge posters with
typo-filled flowery Tamil, praising the elder son of DMK supremo as the true

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A Harappan Site In South India? Ground Report from Keeladi,... http://swarajyamag.com/culture/there-is-no-real-connection-wit...

heir of the Sangam golden age. The archeologists continued their work
unmindful of this irony.

sangam Harappan Civilisation Madurai Keeladi

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Aravindan Neelakandan

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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