History & Culture

Defacing History

Sculpture of Jain on top of the Arittapatti hill near Melur in Madurai District on May23, 2011. Photo: S. James   | Photo Credit: S_James

In Tamil Nadu, a variety of archaeological sites and temples with murals are facing destruction and vandalism. They are under ceaseless assault from the officials of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR and CE), granite quarry contractors, vandals and ignorant villagers.

These sites, which are under threat, include rock-art sites, cairn circles, dolmens, menhirs, petroglyphs, Tamil-Brahmi sites around Madurai,

bas-reliefs of Jain tirthankaras and Jain beds on hills, exquisite murals, inscriptions and sculptures in temples, heritage buildings and so on. In a few cases knowledgeable villagers have protested and managed to save the heritage.

On May 20, 2011, 24 km from Madurai, about 2,000 people belonging to the villages of Mankulam/Meenakshipuram, Arittapatti, Koolanipatti, Vallalapatti and Kallampatti sat on a hill called Kalinjamalai, in protest. Their demand was that the quarrying of Kalinjamalai for granite (by a private contractor) should be stopped. Some hundred feet away, from where the quarrying had begun a few days earlier, was a beautiful bas-relief of a Jain tirthankara, with inscriptions in Tamil Vattezhutu that could be dated to circa 7th century CE.

“We sat on the hill and raised slogans that quarrying of Kalinjamalai be stopped,” said B. Ramanathan, a farmer belonging to Arittapatti village. “The quarrying of the hill will destroy agriculture on about 1,000 acres in these villages lying in the foothills. The land is irrigated by the water flowing down the hill which collects in a kanmaai (big lake),” explained Ramanathan.

The villagers were also worried that the bas-relief of the Jain tirthankara and the Vattezhutu inscription might disappear if the quarrying continued. They, therefore, presented a petition to the Madurai District Collector U. Sahayam, on May 16 demanding that the quarrying be stopped.

After the demonstration by the villagers, quarrying has now “temporarily stopped,” Ramanathan said.

The villagers have vowed to stop the quarrying permanently. They are inspired by the people of the villages around Anaimalai, near Madurai, who stopped plans to quarry Anaimalai hill last year.

Not far from where the quarrying began at Kalinjamalai are six Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions on the brow of four caves on a hill near Mankulam village. The six Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, all dating back to second century BCE (Before Common Era), are among the most ancient of the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions. There are scores of Jain beds cut on the rocky floor of the caves but several of them have been vandalised.

Two of these six inscriptions are very important because they refer to the Pandya king Nedunchezhiyan. One says that Nedunchezhiyan was instrumental in donating the ‘palli’ (Jain beds) as ‘dhamma’ to a Jain monk called Nanda Siriyakkuvan and it refers to Nedunchezhiyan’s titles such as ‘Pana An’ (that is, Panavan), ‘Kadal An’ (Kadalan) and Vazhuthi.

The second inscription that also refers to Nedunchezhiyan talks about his relative ‘Sadikan’ donating rock-cut beds to Nanda Sirikuvan.

There are two Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions on the hill near Arittapatti, both belonging to second century BCE that refer to a donor called Sizhivan

Adhinan Veliyan of Nelveli and Imayavan, son of Ilam Perathan, of Ilanchi village donated the Jain beds there. Scholars surmise that Nelveli could refer to Tirunelveli, 160 km away.

Way back in 2004, when Prof. G. Chandrasekaran of Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai, and K.T. Gandhirajan, specialist in art history, stood in front of the big rock towering above them, they were mesmerised by what they saw. For on the rock-face, 53 metres long and 25 metres wide, were hundreds of beautiful pre-historic paintings, showing a procession of bisons, monkeys running up a tree branch, grazing deer, tigers, shoulder-clasping dance after a successful boar-hunt, battle scenes of men armed with bow and arrows, and so on.

The rock-art site was situated near Karikkiyur, about 40 km from Kotagiri in the Nilgiris district, Tamil Nadu. It turned out to be the biggest in south India in terms of size and the number of paintings, murals datable to 2000 BCE to 1500 BCE. Gandhirajan was so fascinated that he would trek to the remote site every year.

However, when he made the arduous trek early this year, he was shocked. Vandals had been at work, defacing the gallery with their own crude depictions of Sivalingam, three-tiered vibhuti marks, trisul and so on. On the ground below the rock, there were broken bricks and stones as if somebody had plans to build a shrine there.

“The vandalism shook me up. I felt devastated,” said Gandhirajan. The new paintings done over the rock-art covered about 20 feet by 10 feet.

In May and June 2009, K. Rajan, Professor of History, Pondicherry University, led a team of students to excavate a habitational-cum-burial site at Porunthal village, near Palani. The site, which could be dated to second century BCE, had important links to the Sangam age (third century BCE to third century CE). The excavation revealed a bead-making industry and a furnace for polishing glass beads. What was unearthed included 2,000 glass-beads in red, white, yellow, blue and green, 12,000 beads made of semi-precious material, four-legged jars, terracotta figurines, a Tamil-Brahmi inscription from a grave, a copper coin from an archaeological stratigraphy and so on.

Dr. Rajan said, “When I returned to Porunthal in 2010 to continue the excavation of the habitational site, I was shocked to see that a brick kiln had completely occupied it. Due to non-availability of habitational site, I excavated the graves (consisting of cairn-circles, or a massive capstone with cist-burials below). But the graves have also been completely destroyed now. Earthmovers have destroyed the burial site with all the capstones and the earth leveled for cultivation. Personally, it (the destruction of the site) is a big disappointment for me because we got a Tamil-Brahmi inscription from a grave. The biggest collection of beads came from Porunthal.”

It was obvious that the villagers were worried that if Dr. Rajan and his team were allowed to continue the excavation, the State Government might take over the site. So they chose to destroy the site itself.

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