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Revisiting history: A Harappa in Tamil Nadu

By A Ganesh Nadar
June 14, 2016 10:32 IST
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Brick buildings, the drainage system excavated in Keezhadi village are on par with those found in Harappa, reports A Ganesh Nadar/

IMAGE: A water tank with feeder channels discovered during excavation at Keezhadi village in Sivaganga district, Tamil Nadu. All photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/

A major excavation by the Archaeological Survey of India of a Sangam era settlement is making big news with its amazing discoveries.

About 12 km from Madurai on the highway to Rameswaram, a large coconut field on the banks of the Vaigai river in Keezhadi village of Sivaganga district is being excavated, where Roman artefacts and vessels with writings in the Brahmi script have been discovered.

Brahmi is the earliest script which the Tamils used during the Sangam period, which roughly extended from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. There were three dynasties during this period: The Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas who traded with the Romans. After the 6th century AD, the Grantha script replaced Brahmi.

In the 13th century AD, this area was called Kuntidevi Chaturdevi Mangalam and there are no records from before that period. This area is spread over about 80 acres and covers a radius of about 3.5 km.

Since the ASI, to seek permission for the excavation, had to give the owners of the land a written assurance that they will get it back in the same condition, ASI staff refill the digs after photographing and collecting the artefacts.

The first survey in the area commenced in 2013, the excavation was conducted in 2015 and again in 2016. The ASI plans another excavation next year, but that has to be sanctioned by the Survey's headquarters in New Delhi. Students from Chennai University and the Krishna Arts College helped the ASI in the current round of digs.

IMAGE: Burnt tile pieces recovered from the site.

In the present phase of excavation -- apart from the Roman artefacts and vessels with Brahmi text -- relics confirming the presence of handicrafts like weaving, ship-building, metal working, carpentry, rope-making, ornament-making, making of ivory products, tanning etc during the Sangam period have been found.

Nails and other iron and ivory products have been found, which confirm the presence of this town during the Sangam period. Structures built with bricks and mortar have also been unearthed.

A team of ASI experts -- including Superintendent K Amarnath Ramakrishna, Assistant Archaeologists Rajesh and Veeraraghavan -- is involved in the excavation work, which began on January 18 and is likely to continue till September.

The ASI officials say the settlement was more than 2,000 years old, and dates to the Sangam era.

So far, about 3,000 ancient artefacts, including a signet made of clay with an ornamental design, have been excavated.

According to the ASI officials, the ancient settlement had an underground drainage system which was on par with the Harappan system. The sewage drains had been laid with baked clay pipelines, which are still visible.

The drainage system is similar to the one that was found in Harappa, the ASI officials said.

Apart from signets, arrows, weapons made of iron and copper, rare ornaments have been found, ASI Superintendent Ramakrishna said.

"It is very rare to find the constructions intact. The findings threw more light on the Sangakaala (Sangam era) Tamil civilisation," he added.

IMAGE: ASI archaeologists have excavated rare Sangam-era brick buildings at Keezhadi village.

This town was a residential area, Assistant Archaeologist Rajesh said, and they have discovered brick buildings in it, which were very rare during that time.

The ASI team surveyed the banks of the Vaigai in 2013-2014, checked out 293 sites for excavation, and chose the present site.

As many as 43 excavations were conducted last year and 1,800 artefacts found. This year, 53 excavations have been conducted and 3,000 items discovered and preserved.

Among the artefacts were semi-precious stones, glass, shells, burnt bricks, tusk, and iron. Products used by people in their day-to-day lives were recovered.

There were plenty of small water tanks made of bricks and mud. The water tanks were fed through well-laid channels, which are still present. Though most of the place looks residential, some business centres were also found.

They have found roof tiles and nails which suggest that the buildings were storied. Vessels with names written in the Brahmi script have been found, names like 'Sattan, Thisan, Chandan, Inavadan, Muyan' and 'Udhiran'.

"The date we are looking at is between the 3rd century BC and the 3rd century AD, which was the Sangam period. Carbon dating is still to be done," Rajesh said.

IMAGE: A water tank unearthed in the excavations.

This is the second phase of the ASI excavation and the team has sought permission for another one.

"There has been no important excavation in south Tamil Nadu, so we want to do this extensively," Ramakrishna said. "The history of this area has not been properly understood. In the third phase, we will learn more."

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A Ganesh Nadar /