Chennai

Keezhadi: hitting pay dirt and controversy

MADURAI, TAMIL NADU, 14/11/2016: The Sangam age pearls found at ASI's excavation site at Keezhadi in Sivaganga district.
Photo: R. Ashok

MADURAI, TAMIL NADU, 14/11/2016: The Sangam age pearls found at ASI's excavation site at Keezhadi in Sivaganga district. Photo: R. Ashok   | Photo Credit: R_ASHOK

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The excavation in southern Tamil Nadu points to an urban civilisation, over 2,100 years old, on the banks of the Vaigai river. But the project has been mired in all kinds of contentious issues right through, requiring frequent intervention of the court on several issues.

The third season of the ongoing excavation by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Keezhadi village of Sivaganga district came to a close on September 30. But there is no uncertainty over the commencement of fourth phase post-monsoon, thanks to the intervention of the Madras High Court. The fact that a higher court had to be approached since the second season shows how controversies, most of them avoidable, had taken the sheen off one of the most significant and challenging excavations undertaken by the ASI.

Keezhadi, located 12 km south east of Madurai, threw up many surprises when excavation began in 2015. The ASI zeroed in on this village after a four-member team, led by K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, then Superintending Archaeologist, Bengaluru, assessed the potential of 293 sites over a distance of 250 km along the banks of the Vaigai in Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts in 2013-14. Among them, 100 were identified for excavation. And Pallichanthai Thidal in Keezhadi, a naturally protected site, was chosen for its proximity to Madurai. The coconut grove, spread over an area of 100 acres, provided for unobtrusive excavation. Ironically, it was not to be.

Vibrant civilisation

Starting from March 2015, the ASI could unearth over 7,500 antiquities, unique wall structures, drainage and wells — all pointing to the existence of an urban civilisation, with trade links with other nations. Scholars saw the hardware of a vibrant civilisation in the finds as software in the form of information was available in Sangam literature. Dating of two carbon elements weighing 25 grams each, done by Beta Analytic Inc., Florida, USA, placed them at 2,160+30 years and 2,200+30 years respectively. The samples were taken at a depth of two metres from trenches with a depth of 4.5 metres. The most significant aspect of Keezhadi site has been its secular nature. No artefact resembling a religious symbol or ritual has been unearthed so far.

Keezhadi is only the third habitation site, next to Arikamedu (1947) and Kaviripoompattinam (1965), in the Tamil Nadu-Puducherry region excavated by the ASI. Alagankulam in Ramanathapuram district is another habitation along the Vaigai where the State Department of Archaeology is involved in an excavation now.

The artefacts, according to archaeologists, point to the presence of a vibrant, sophisticated urban society in Keezhadi. Stone structures oriented in cardinal directions suggest systematic urban planning; pot shreds with Tamil Brahmi inscriptions point to a highly literate society; graffiti of the sun and moon demonstrate their astronomical sense and ivory dice indicate the presence of an elite society.

Delay in sanctioning

The three-year journey has been dotted with controversies. Problems started when there was delay in sanctioning the third season of excavation, citing non-submission of report as reason. But, at that time, reports from at least 56 sites, including Adichanallur, where excavation took place in 2005, were pending. Political parties, including the CPI (M) and DMK, and other organisations raised the issue of delay in public fora and Parliament. When the extension was approved, there was further delay in allocation of funds. When the funds actually came in the first quarter of 2017, Amarnath, who was in charge of the excavation, was shifted to Assam. This triggered a wave of protest with some organisations crying foul.

The Union Minister of State for Culture, Mahesh Sharma, accompanied by the then Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Nirrmala Sitharaman, and Rakesh Tewari, Director General, ASI, descended on Keezhadi on April 28, 2017, to allay fears over the suspension of excavation and gave an assurance that it would go on for at least for three more years. Mr. Tewari explained that Mr. Amarnath's transfer was based on the policy of not retaining Superintending Archaeologists in one station for more than three years.

Keezhadi: hitting pay dirt and controversy
 

The third phase of excavation did start on May 27, 2017, under P. S. Sriraman, Superintending Archaeologist, also hailing from Tamil Nadu. In between, there was furore over shifting the antiquities from Keezhadi to Bengaluru for testing and documentation. Here again, the Madras High Court had to intervene, even while frowning at the delay in continuing the excavation.

Two judges of the Madras High Court — Justice M.M. Sundresh and Justice N. Sathish Kumar — hearing the public interest litigation on the preservation of excavated artefacts, on-site museum and other issues inspected the site on September 19.

While the Union Minister of State for Culture had given an assurance that the artefacts would be kept in museums in Sivaganga, Madurai and Chennai, the State government identified a place for housing the museum in Keezhadi. However, residents of nearby Konthagai said that the proposed site was earlier meant for the extension of a government higher secondary school that faced severe space crunch.

A new controversy has come up on the findings of the third season. After a delay of five months, the ASI took up excavation in 10 trenches over an area of 400 metres. Mr. Sriraman said that the key objective of this season was to trace the continuity of remnants of brick structures discovered earlier. The team did not find any continuity or related artefacts, barring three ring wells and a small fragmentary brick wall below the level of brick structures.

Size of excavation

Su. Venkatesan, Sahitya Akademi awardee and general secretary of Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artistes' Association, questioned why the excavation was restricted to 400 square metres, while an area of 2,500 square meters had been dug up in earlier phases. He pointed out that 43 trenches were dug up in 2015, when there was a delay of three months, and 59 in 2016. He also saw a conspiracy in not extending the excavation till virgin soil in this phase as any carbon dating of materials found above this level would place Keezhadi as a recent society. Mr. Sriraman, however, refused to be drawn into any controversy by saying that his focus was on the meticulous archaeological work his profession demanded and not on unreasonable allegations. Another ASI official said that the allegations were largely unfounded and made due to lack of domain knowledge.

Mr. Sriraman was of the view that carbon dating of samples collected from the fragmentary wall in this phase, which must have been constructed earlier, could push the period of the site further behind. About 1,500 of the roughly 1,800 artefacts found in the third season were only beads, of which nearly 90% were glass beads, he said. The remaining artefacts included five small objects made of gold, a broken piece of a comb made of ivory, copper coins, earrings, and small toys. He said that at least 14 inscriptions of names in Tamil Brahmi script, similar to those discovered in earlier seasons, were found in pot shreds.

Keezhadi: hitting pay dirt and controversy
 

During the judges’ visit, Mr. Sriraman told them that the artefacts excavated thus far had not given any clear indication of the type of settlement — urban or industrial — particularly because of the absence of structures generally associated with urban or industrial settlements and artefacts like human or animal bones and tools.

On the question why the excavation was done on the northern side of the site instead of south, which could have shown the continuity of brick structures, another ASI official said that it was primarily because of the reluctance of land owners since the area had coconut trees. “Moreover, there was no strong possibility that the continuity of brick structures would be found on the southern side,” he said.

Similarly, on the allegation that the area excavated was small compared to earlier two seasons, the official said that the size of the area was not a significant factor in an excavation. “Had we found the continuity of structures, we would have extended the area. Also, this season was just three months long, with intermittent rains.”

Fourth season

The Madurai Bench of Madras High Court has, meanwhile, ordered the continuance of excavation into its fourth season. It has also directed the ASI to grant permission to the State Department of Archaeology as well to excavate the site. Though ASI officials said that such simultaneous excavations had happened elsewhere in the past, a decision on the modalities and when to commence the excavation was yet to be decided.

“It may not commence before January since a lot of procedures are involved. Importantly, documentation of all the artefacts and findings of the third season must happen in the meanwhile,” a senior official said. Despite controversies, Keezhadi promises to be an ‘index site’ for the ASI, if work goes on, uninterrupted.

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 10:24:04 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/keezhadi-hitting-pay-dirt-and-controversy/article19779268.ece

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