Dating Poompuhar, resolving a controversy

February 07, 2023 10:32 pm | Updated February 08, 2023 01:17 pm IST

SM. Ramasamy, National Coordinator, Project Poompuhar, Department of Remote-sensing, Bharathidasan University, had said the port city of Poompuhar was not 2,500 years old, as it is widely believed, but “appears to be more than 15,000 years old”. 

SM. Ramasamy, National Coordinator, Project Poompuhar, Department of Remote-sensing, Bharathidasan University, had said the port city of Poompuhar was not 2,500 years old, as it is widely believed, but “appears to be more than 15,000 years old”. 

Over the past few years, if there was one claim that attracted unanimous denunciation from archaeologists as “unscientific”, it was the claim of a geologist that the ancient port city of Poompuhar flourished 15,000 years ago, off the present day Kaveripoompattinam village in Mayiladuthurai district, Tamil Nadu.

He had claimed that the Poompuhar harbour was 11 km long, 2.5 km wide and had 70-80 docks for berthing ships. The harbour was found 30 km-40 km from the present day shore. There were human settlements around, and a lighthouse with a spiral staircase, too.

Archaeologists across the spectrum lost no time in knocking the bottom out of this claim on the grounds that it was illogical. 15,000 years ago, it was the Microlithic Age in the Indian sub-continent when human-beings were hunter-gatherers. They had not even learnt to domesticate cattle then. The claim had “no scientific basis” because no underwater exploration was done, archaeologists said. No archaeologist was involved in the exercise. It relied only on remote-sensing images, which could not reveal whether they were natural formations under the sea or man-made structures. No date could be assigned to an archaeological site with only remote-sensing images, experts argued.

The claim was made by geologist SM. Ramasamy, National Coordinator, Project Poompuhar, Department of Remote-sensing, Bharathidasan University, Tiruchi, at a press conference on January 20, 2023. He said one of the major findings of a research study, headed by him, was that the port city of Poompuhar was not 2,500 years old as it is widely believed, but “appears to be more than 15,000 years old. It thus appears to be one of the oldest port cities in the world.”

This came to light when the study to “digitally reconstruct the comprehensive life-history of Poompuhar” was undertaken over an area of about 1,000 square kilometres in the offshore area of the Bay of Bengal, off Kaveripoompattinam, Dr. Ramasamy said. The study was done with Indian Remote-sensing Satellite images and the General Bathymetry Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO). The National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), Chennai, chipped in with Multi-beam Echo Sounder (MBES) data. The survey was done for about 30 km to 40 km from the shore at a depth of 50 metres to 100 metres in the sea.

A statement issued by Dr. Ramasamy said the port city of Poompuhar was “discovered” undersea. It covered 250 sq. km. It was “inferred” that the harbour was 11 km long in the north-south direction and was 2.5 km broad. There were long canals running north-south. There were east-west cross-canals. The former was for the movement of big vessels and the latter for turning them. There were 70 to 80 docks over 30 km for berthing the ships, the statement said.

North of the harbour, there was a (human) settlement with a cluster of houses over four sq. km. Besides, a row of settlements with compound walls was “inferred”. The settlements within the compound walls were intact because of the protection offered by the walls. But in another settlement, found 10 km south-east of the harbour, the compound walls were intact but the houses inside “were totally buried under the sand”, the statement said.

Poompuhar, now called Kaveripoompattinam, has had an interesting history of explorations and excavations. Archaeologists say Poompuhar existed about 2,500 years ago near the confluence of the Cauvery with the Bay of Bengal. About 1,000 years ago, it went under water, submerged perhaps by a tsunami or tidal action. Excavations on land, geophysical surveys in the sea off Kaveripoompattinam and underwater explorations by trained divers-cum-archaeologists in the 1980s and the 1990s revealed man-made structures, wharfs and ceramic material, which could be dated back  to the 3rd century BCE to 5th century CE. 

Archaeologists and academics across Tamil Nadu had no hesitation in brushing aside Ramasamy’s claims as “unscientific data” and lacking in logic.

V. Selvakumar, Head, Department of Maritime History and Marine Archaeology, Tamil University, Thanjavur, said, “We have primary evidence for the existence of hunter-gatherers across South Asia 15,000 years ago. This is established scientific research.” Anybody, who is familiar with archaeological research, would say it would have been impossible for prehistoric humans to build such a big harbour with dockyards, human settlements and a lighthouse. The features seen in remote-sensing images distributed by Dr. Ramasamy “may be some kind of natural formations or other types of formations and they must be investigated further”, he added. Dr. Selvakumar is also Coordinator, Centre for Indian Ocean Studies.

Shanti Pappu, former Professor of Prehistory, Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute, Pune, said, “Around 15,000-20,000 years ago, South Asia was occupied by prehistoric populations making stone tools. These were hunter-gatherers adapting to various ecological contexts across this region. I, therefore, look forward to chronometric dates from the sites under investigation and involvement of archaeologists in these interdisciplinary studies.”

An accomplished archaeologist-cum-academic, who has excavated several sites in Tamil Nadu, argued how even the Indus Valley Civilisation did not exist 15,000 years ago. So the latest claim about Poompuhar had “no scientific basis”. He asked, “Were human beings sea-faring then? Did they know ship-building technology? Did they know astronomy? Society at that time was not even agro-pastoral.”

The archaeologist-cum-academic pointed out that Dr. Ramasamy had claimed that the then Poompuhar’s harbour was 11 km long, 2.5 km wide and had 70 to 80 docks. “With whom did the people of Poompuhar trade with such a big port? What were the commodities exported and imported? Even the Shanghai port today in China is not so big,” he said.

Even on land, no urban settlement has been discovered, which is 15,000 years old, he said.

What has galled archaeologists is that the claims were made without any artefacts being produced. No underwater exploration was done. There were no archaeologists or divers in Dr. Ramasamy’s team. The findings were based on remote-sensing images. 

Remote-sensing images of the structures under the sea would not reveal whether they were natural formations or man-made structures, asserted a young archaeologist, who did not want to be quoted by name. “Using remote-sensing images, you can provide information about the geographical features of an area, including an area which is under water. However, you cannot give a date to an archaeological site using remote-sensing images. A date can be given only by underwater excavation.”

There are several methods such as accelerated mass spectrometry (AMS), optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), thermo luminescent dating (TLD), carbon-14 method, uranium dating etc., to determine the age of an archaeological site or an artefact. 

The formations seen in the images provided by Dr. Ramasamy could have been formed by wave action. “Whether they are natural formations or man-made structures can be determined only by diving under the sea and exploring the area,” the archaeologist said.

To go back to the history of Poompuhar, it was a busy port of Sangam age Chola kings. (The Sangam age is datable from the third century BCE to third century CE). It reportedly flourished about 2,500 years ago. The port was situated near the mouth of the Cauvery. Merchants from different parts of India and South East Asia traded goods there. Poompuhar is celebrated in Sangam age poems such as Silappadhikaram, Manimegalai, Pattinappalai, Purananuru and Agananuru. The city was ruled by Sangam age Chola rulers such as Ilanchetchenni, Killivalavan, Karikalvalavan and others.

Poompuhar held a fascination for M. Karunanidhi, the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister. He set up a Silappadhikaram Art Gallery there in the 1970s when he was the Chief Minister.

Onland excavation took place first in 1981 on the shore of Kaveripoompattinam. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) did it under the guidance of S.R. Rao and K.V. Raman. The excavations revealed some structures on the shore: a wharf at Keezhaiyur, a reservoir at Vanagiri and a Buddha vihara at Melaiyur.

Hence, a preliminary geophysical survey of the sea, off Kaveripoompattinam, took place in 1981 under the guidance of Dr. S.R. Rao and R. Nagaswamy. The latter was then Director of the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology (TNSDA). This survey was done jointly by the TNSDA and the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), says a report published during a workshop held on September 29, 1994. K.H. Vora of the NIO took part in this geophysical survey, which deployed a side-scan sonar, an echo sounder and a magnetometer. Based on the survey’s findings, which included three “peaks”, about two to three metres tall, the NIO suggested that an intensive underwater exploration be made by divers. The NIO sent its findings to the TNSDA in 1987.

Subsequently, in three underwater explorations that took place in the 1990s, K. Rajan, who retired as Professor of History, Central University, Pondicherry, took part. He dived, too. Dr. Rajan, an accomplished archaeologist and excavator, is a specialist scuba diver. He discovered a circular stone structure, made of three courses of stone, at the easternmost end of the site. It was a man-made structure. Dr. S.R. Rao declared that it was part of a lighthouse.

Natana. Kasinathan, in his book written in Tamil titled ‘ Poompuharum, Kadal Agazhvayvum’ (Poompuhar and Under-sea Explorations), says the underwater exploration began on February 25, 1991, under the guidance of Dr. S.R. Rao and himself. Dr. Kasinathan took over as the Director of State Department of Archaeology in 1988 from Dr. Nagaswamy. The book ‘ Poompuharum, Kadal Agazhvayvum’ was published in 1992 by Tirunelveli, Then Indhiya Saiva Siddhantha Nool Pathippu Kazhagam, Chennai.

In the 1991 underwater exploration done by divers and in which a side-scan sonar and an echo-sounder were used aboard a vessel, three man-made structures were found. In the underwater exploration done close to the shore from January 27, 1993 to February 28, 1993, several brick structures were found. According to Dr. Kasinathan, these brick structures could be dated from the second century BCE to the fourth century CE.

A wide paleo-channel of the Cauvery was found on the sea-bed.

Since ceramics, such as black and red ware, and black ware belonging to the Megalithic period and buff ware were found close to the man-made structure, built with three courses of stones, under the sea off Vanagiri village, they could be dated to the third century BCE, he added.

In the underwater exploration, done by divers again from February 4, 1997 to March 12, 1997, remnants of a structure built with laterite stones were discovered. Thus, the date of Poompuhar could be circa fifth century BCE, that is, 2,500 years before the present, archaeologists said.

When asked how he had estimated that Poompuhar existed about 15,000 years ago, Dr. Ramasamy said, “We have established that the ancient shoreline existed 15,000 years ago.” The sea-level data, collected by 3-D elevation models, indicated it. “Obviously, the harbour must have been built there at the same time.” On why he did not use divers or keep archaeologists in his team, he replied, “We have discovered the structures now. We will take pictures using ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) in the next stage of our research-study. After the ROVs, we will plan for diving.”

But no archaeologist, worth his salt, is convinced that the port of Poompuhar existed about 15,000 years ago with a harbour, dockyards, a lighthouse et al.

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