In 1939, K N Dixit who was the director general of the Archaeological survey of India (ASI) professed that, couch shells which were extensively used in the Indus valley was seen in the then Madras presidency and that a thorough investigation in the Tirunelveli district will one day result in the excavation of a contemporary site. Nearly 8 to 9 decades later, his prophesy was vindicated after the path breaking excavations at keeladi, an urban settlement of the Sangam age
Why this discovery has much significance to the contemporary socio-political events in India? In order to answer this question and there by derive a conclusion that India’s dynamic and composite culture needs an acceptance of its unity in diversity we need to know about the excavations conducted by the Tamilnadu circle of the ASI and other academic institutions from both India and abroad.
In his much acclaimed book ‘’History of South India’ the late Sri KA Nilakanda Shastri writes that ever since the time of British Scholars, India’s cultural milieu was looked upon as a derivative of the cultures that sprang and spread from the Indo-Gangetic plains. Post independent scholars also looked upon the culture of India as a culture derived from the Sanskrit language. Nilkanda Shastri wrote his ‘’History of South India’’ in the middle decades of the 20th century, when scholarly literature on the annuls of history beyond the vindyachal mountains were minimal. The importance of keeladi excavations attains importance in this context.
Keeladi is a village nearly 13 km from the historic city of Madurai and is over a mound adjoining the Vaigai River. This river is mentioned in the poetic work paripatal, which is part of the eight anthologies (etu tugai), and one among the various literary sources of the Sangam period. Vaigai river originates in the suruli mountains and flows eastwards before joining the bay of Bengal near alangankulam. Showered by the advancing and retreating monsoons the river formed the basis for the development of Madurai City, where products from its fertile plains not only served its own inhabitants but were also exported to the roman kingdoms through the port of musiris (present day kodungalore in Kerala) 300 km away.
Earlier excavations near Chennai near adirapakkaum village by Robert Bruce Foote has found the remains of a prehistoric site popularly called as the madarasian industry which was more than a million years old and represented the palaeolithic-old stone age which proved that human settlements existed that time in southern India. This was followed by excavations of microliths in Madurai which indicated that the crude stone tools have got advanced and the region had a transition to the Mesolithic period. Later excavations at multiple places near Madras and North Arcot resulted in the discovery of coloured pottery indicating the mature transition of the culture to that of the new stone age or Neolithic. However it was after the adichenallur escavation an iron age culture was established with black and red pottery dating to 1500 BC. It was from here the mother goddess akin to the one from mohanjadaro-harapa civilisation was found and preserved today in government museum at Egmore. Chennai. Through these series of excavations spread over a century and along with the literary sources of the sangam literature clubbed with other epigraphic references scholars were able to come to a conclusion that a mature civilisation existed in the south, However it was the excavations at Keeladi which has pointed to much more antiquity of the culture and its linkages with the Indus valley culture.
Keeladi excavations proves that there was an advanced agrarian society and they were industrious with bead, pot making and weaving. Discovery of spindle wheels made of stone showed that cloths were woven. A lot of pottery engraved with names in tamil brahmi script were also discovered showing literary activity. Beads and stones of agate indicated high level of commercial activity in the region because these stones were used as a barter for trade. The intrinsic brick making and town planning akin to the Indus civilisation were also seen. Besides this sharp iron items for domestic use and for war were seen at the site proving the iron smelting skills of the inhabitants of keeladi.
Much more is yet to be excavated from keeladi and looking into the unavailability of significant remains of human skeletons as like in adichanalur definitive conclusions on racial complexes can’t be made at this juncture. However adichenallur remains showed skulls of sea faring austroloids and mediterarians indicating movement of people into and from the ancient Tamil country.
Irrespective of the incompleteness of the excavations, keeladi has made us understand that the sangam period started not in the 3rd century BCE but in the 6th century BCE. Further today we know that there was a continuity in the urbanization of North West India and southern India. The possibility of a connect with the Indus civilization is also evident from the similarity seen in the keeladi script and the Indus script. Prevalence of certain mercantile materials like agates at keeladi , a stone which are more often seen in the Indus region may be an indicator of trade linkages as well . Additionally there are a lot of parallels in urban planning techniques at keeladi and indus valley. Much research and excavations are further required to conclusively prove these assumptions.
As indicated earlier in this article, when we look into the contemporary socio- political events we can conclude that a simultaneous urbanisation process and contact existed between North western and southern India. The process of sanskritization which started with the spread of Vedic religions, Jainism and Buddhism further augmented this process. This helps in coming up with a composite nature of a primordial cultural identity in the Indian subcontinent which today creates the unity in India’s diversity. On the other hand Tamil nationalists looks upon keeladi as a non sanskritised tamil identity site ( It may be recalled that fearing a renewed tamil nationalist movement adichanallur excavation reports were not published by the ASI for 15 years and came to the public domain only after the interference of the Madras High court). Leaders from the Dravidian parties have started the keeladi rhetoric as part of their identity politics. Irrespective of these political undertones keeladi is a significant breakthrough of the ASI and as like the adichanallur museum proposed in the current budget a museum for keeladi should also be on the offing to showcase our cultural lineages.