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Why Tamil Nadu’s Iron Age sites are so significant

Archaeological evidence on the antiquity of Tamil culture is exciting— and goes beyond just cultural pride

Mayiladumparai has recently been declared India’s oldest Iron Age site (Kavitha Muralidharan)

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A few months before the pandemic put an end to all excursions, about 10,000 people lined up to tramp through the remains of an ancient township in Keeladi in southern Tamil Nadu, about 12km from Madurai. It’s hard to imagine that kind of excitement about old mud walls and shards of pottery but the site, dating to 6 BCE—with links possibly to the Indus Valley Civilisation—has become a source of Tamil pride.

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“Vehicles were parked for about 1km that day in September 2019. It was stunning,” recalls Tamil Nadu state archaeological officer B. Aasaithambi, who worked at the Keeladi excavation site in Sivaganga district from 2017-20. He is currently at Mayiladumparai, recently declared India’s oldest Iron Age site.

That was a few days after the state archaeology department had announced that the Keeladi civilisation was at least 2,600 years old. It suggested that the urbanisation of the Vaigai plains (the river that flows through Madurai in central Tamil Nadu) took place in 6 BCE, around the same time as in the Gangetic plains. “Such days don’t come often in our archaeological expeditions,” says Aasaithambi. Between 20 September and 10 October 2019, at least 116,000 people visited the site.

This May, an announcement by Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin brought more excitement. A report on a dig at Mayiladumparai in Krishnagiri district had confirmed the use of iron in Tamil Nadu as early as 2172 BCE, or at least 4,200 years ago. That effectively makes Mayiladumparai, in north-western Tamil Nadu, the oldest Iron Age site in India. It indicates that Tamils who lived 4,200 years ago were aware of iron technology, had tools and weapons, and were an agrarian society. This followed a September 2021 announcement that paddy from a burial urn found at Sivakalai in Thoothukudi district in southern Tamil Nadu dated back to 1155 BCE, or about 3,200 years.

Since 2015, when archaeologists began digging at Keeladi, there has been a lot of excitement about Tamil Nadu’s ancient history. Soon after the DMK won the state election in 2021, the government began work on six more sites, unearthing evidence to prove the antiquity of Tamil culture. The finds from the digs provide “much-needed evidence” that the flourishing trade, culture and cosmopolitan lifestyle described expansively in the 2,381 poems by 473 poets of the Sangam literature era, 2,000 years ago, was rooted in the real world. Even more exciting is the possibility that these sites could have links to the Indus Valley Civilisation (around 2600-1700 BCE).

The state archaeology department is currently excavating seven sites—Keeladi, Adichanallur, Sivakalai, Korkai, Kodumanal, Mayiladumparai and Gangaikonda Cholapuram. Of these, Keeladi, Sivakalai, Adichanallur and Mayiladumparai have yielded strong proof of antiquity. Samples are sent to the Beta Analytical Testing Laboratory in Florida, US, for radiocarbon dating by accelerator mass spectrometry (C14 dating), “leaving no room for any kind of speculation”, state minister for archaeology Thangam Thennarasu tells Lounge.

“The excavations done by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Keeladi in 2015 were an eye-opener,” says R. Balakrishnan, author of Journey Of A Civilisation: Indus To Vaigai and special adviser to the Odisha government. The ASI did the first three phases of excavation; the state archaeology department took over and is now into the eighth phase. “It is greatly significant. It gives a new dimension to the understanding of our cultural past,”adds Balakrishnan. The Keeladi excavations have established that the Thamizhi, or Tamil Brahmi writing system, belongs to 6 BCE.

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At a time when discussions about the origins of Indian civilisation and its achievements are all about establishing the “real inheritors” of the land, such findings take on a political hue too. On 4 July, in a virtual address to the annual conference of the Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America (FeTNA) in New York, Stalin brought up the excavations. “Some try to build their history on the basis of imaginary stories. Unlike them, we are trying to establish our historical roots through facts and science,” he said.  

In September 2021, Stalin had told the state assembly that based on archaeological findings, “the writing of the history of the Indian subcontinent should begin from the Tamil land”. The DMK government budgeted 5 crore for excavations at the seven sites as soon as it took charge. There are plans to set up museums at some of them.

Relics found in the Mayiladumparai excavation site.
Relics found in the Mayiladumparai excavation site. (Kavitha Muralidharan)

“The excavations are all about pursuing our cultural roots.… As far as the present DMK government is concerned, we are very serious about archaeological excavations and are keen to trace our cultural roots,” says Thennarasu. “We take time, we send the finds for scientific assessments to various places and only then we publish the results. This government strongly believes in the scientific approach and we will never compromise on that.”

The DMK government has also announced plans, without setting dates, to undertake expeditions to Egypt and Oman, with which the ancient Tamil land had trade links. “As a first step, we have taken up explorations in Kerala (Pattanam, Musiri) and Odisha, where we had historical trade connections and war expeditions. We propose to do this work in collaboration with the respective state governments. Once this is done, we would move to foreign explorations and tie up with suitable agencies,” says Thennarasu. An amount of 77 lakh has been set aside for documentation and digitisation of graffiti and Tamizhi-inscribed potsherds (found at different sites in the state) to explore the links with the Indus script.

The Keeladi civilisation is at least 2,600 years old.
The Keeladi civilisation is at least 2,600 years old. (Kavitha Muralidharan)

While the current interest is perhaps spurred by a keen desire to know about the past, archaeologists have considered Tamil Nadu a site of ancient history for over a century, though excavations till recently were carried out only sporadically. Paucity of funds, a focus on the history of northern India, disinterest, and other reasons have made the going slow.

“When Alexander Rea, former ASI superintendent from Southern Circle, excavated Adichanallur (southern Tamil Nadu) between 1899 and 1905, and published a catalogue of antiquities in 1915, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa were not even in the scene. The idea of what is now known as Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC) was unheard of. Even before Rea in 1876, Dr Jagor, a German ethnologist, had explored Adichanallur. In that sense, Adichanallur represents one of the earliest and significant excavations done by ASI,” says Balakrishnan.

The Link To Literature

S. Venkatesan , an acclaimed Tamil writer and CPM MP from Madurai, draws parallels between ancient Tamil literature and the current findings from excavations. “Planting kaalkol (a tradition of planting a pole to mark the beginning of any event) is a practice followed till date. It is described in detail in the Tholkaapiyam, Tamil’s first grammar text, written over 2,000 years ago. Old inscriptions found in Tamil Nadu at Pullimaankombai in Theni also use the word kaalkol. Archaeological excavations are tools that help us identify the strength of society’s memory and its time-frame,” he says.

There are other links to literature. A Sangam poem, Kalithogai, describes a “woman as excited as getting a ten (on dice) when her man appears on the pearl-like sand”. One of the objects excavated at Keeladi in September 2019 is a six-faced dice that could give a 10 on rolling. “This shows that it is very possible to link Keeladi and the Sangam Age,” says Balakrishnan.

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Several Sangam-era epics speak of the use of iron. A Puranaanooru poem, a classical text from that era, speaks about how it is the duty of the mother to give birth and nurture the child, of the father to make him a warrior and an intellectual, of the blacksmith to give him instruments (for warfare) and of the king to show him the path of righteousness. 

“The archaeological findings have increased the reliability of the Sangam texts,” says Balakrishnan. “It is very encouraging that the material culture and sociology narrated in Sangam literature has begun to show up as archaeological artefacts.” The Sangam texts must be revisited in light of these findings, he adds. “Keeladi represents a new lighthouse in that context,” he says.

Another IVC?

The link between the IVC and Tamil society is something many archaeological experts and enthusiasts are keen to explore. Large buildings or structures, similar to the ones seen in the IVC, have not yet been excavated in Keeladi but archaeologists and the government are convinced it could yield more. “Keeladi was certainly a civilisation,” says Thennarasu. “In Keeladi, we have the foundations of building structures and channels for water. These are indicative of the existence of a civilisation.”

Balakrishnan is more emphatic: “If in the north-west, where the Indus civilisation once flourished, there is no recollection in literature to match the lifestyle, it indicates a huge void in literature. In the ancient Tamil texts, there are unmatchable, carried-forward memories about an urban past which has not (yet) been established in equal measure in terms of archaeological proof. That means there is a different kind of gap.” According to him, some of the artefacts found in Keeladi reminded even “the generalists of Harappan culture.… Keeladi gives a fresh articulation to the Dravidian hypothesis of IVC (that the two civilisations were contemporaries).”

Archaeologists working in the field, however, are guarded. “We have made a little bit of progress on that front but it’s too early to speculate on anything,” says one of them. Either way, with all the activity across the archaeological sites in Tamil Nadu, the future of the past looks bright.

About the Big 3 sites

Keeladi: About 12km south of Madurai, on the banks of the Vaigai, is Keeladi. Artefacts from this site date back 2,600 years (6 BCE). The site attests to the presence of an ancient urban Tamil civilisation similar to the one described in Sangam literature from the same time—until now, this been dismissed as political rhetoric. The eighth phase of excavations is under way. The museum there is expected to open in October.

Adichanallur: Located in the lower valley of the Thamirabarani river in Thoothukudi district in southern Tamil Nadu, carbon dating results in 2019 indicated the relics here date back to 905-696 BCE, making it one of the oldest archaeological sites in India.

Sivakalai: About 25km from Adichanallur, on the northern bank of the Thamirabarani river, is the six-acre Sivakalai site that has yielded artefacts, urns and paddy at least 3,200 years old. The third phase of excavation by the state archaeology department began in March. Along with Adichanallur and Korkai, an 8 BCE port about 11km away, this establishes the existence of the Porunai River Civilisation along the Thamirabarani.

Kavitha Muralidharan is a Chennai-based journalist.

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