Keeladi: Unearthing the 'Vaigai Valley' Civilisation of Sangam era Tamil Nadu

Excavations in the tiny hamlet of Keeladi prove that an urban civilisation existed in Tamil Nadu in the Sangam era on the banks of the river Vaigai. What links did this civilisation have with the Indus Valley Civilisation? S. Annamalai reports on the findings and the questions and answers they have thrown up

November 02, 2019 12:15 am | Updated December 03, 2021 04:59 pm IST

The excavation site at Keeladi.

The excavation site at Keeladi.

In the last week of September 2019, Keerthi Jeyaraj, Director of EduRight Foundation, flew from Texas, the U.S., to Pallichandai Thidal, a nondescript mound at the far end of Keeladi, a tiny hamlet located 12 km southeast of the historic city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. The next week, three Sri Lankan Tamils arrived at the same spot. It was their second visit to the excavation site. Also on his way by rail was Chennai-based documentary filmmaker Amshan Kumar. To accommodate these visitors and thousands more , a temporary parking lot was created in Keeladi. A stall selling snacks and coffee sprung up at what looked like a new picnic spot.

An astonishing 1.16 lakh people visited the site between September 20 and October 10. The visitors flocked to the hamlet in curiosity and fascination following the publication of a report by the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology (SDA) on September 18. Earlier, carbon samples from Keeladi had been sent to the Beta Analytic Lab in Miami, Florida, for carbon dating, a widely accepted tool to ascertain the age of archaeological and historical remains. The Lab had found that the cultural deposits unearthed during the fourth excavation at Keeladi in Sivaganga district could be safely dated to a period between 6th century BCE and 1st century CE. These place Keeladi artefacts about 300 years earlier than previously believed.


Findings over the years

The Keeladi tale began to unravel in March 2015. The first round of excavation, undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), unearthed antiquities that “may provide crucial evidence to understanding the missing links of the Iron Age [12th century BCE to 6th century BCE] to the Early Historic Period [6th century BCE to 4th century BCE] and subsequent cultural developments.”

The second round (2016) threw up strong clues about the existence of a Tamil civilisation that had trade links with other regions in the country and abroad. This civilisation has been described by Tamil poets belonging to the Sangam period. (Tamil Sangam, an assembly of poets, had its seat in Madurai between 4th century BCE and 2nd century BCE. The works of this period are collectively called Sangam Literature). This round was significant as it provided archaeological evidence about what was found in Tamil literature. Results of carbon dating of a few artefacts, which were released in February 2017, traced their existence to 2nd century BCE (the Sangam period).


The third round (2017) saw a delayed start. First, the excavation report was submitted late. Then the Superintending Archaeologist, K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, was transferred , in a perceived attempt to play down the excavation findings. Keeladi almost faded from public memory as there was no “significant finding” in the third round. This led to criticism that the excavation had been deliberately restricted to 400 metres. On the intervention of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, ASI permitted the SDA to take up further excavation on its own. Thus, the excavations in the fourth round were carried out by the SDA.

In the fourth round (2018), 5,820 antiquities were found. These included brick structures, terracotta ring wells, fallen roofing with tiles, golden ornaments, broken parts of copper objects, iron implements, terracotta chess pieces, ear ornaments, spindle whorls, figurines, black and redware, rouletted ware and a few pieces of Arretine ware, besides beads made of glass, terracotta and semi-precious stones.

The excavation site at Keeladi.

The excavation site at Keeladi.


A sense of history

The recent dating is very significant, says K. Rajan, archaeologist at the Department of History, Pondicherry University. “Based on radiometric dates recovered from archaeological sites like Kodumanal, Alagankulam and Porunthal [all in Tamil Nadu], we know that Tamili [the Tamil-Brahmi script] was dated to 5th century BCE. But the recent scientific dates obtained from the Keeladi findings push back the date by another century,” he writes in the SDA publication, Keeladi: An Urban Settlement of Sangam Age on the Banks of River Vaigai.


Commenting on the Keeladi findings, Dilip K. Chakrabarti, Emeritus Professor of South Asian Archaeology, Cambridge University, observes in an e-mail note sent to Rajan on September 26 that the recent excavations conducted in the State, including in Kodumanal and Porunthal, which have been “strengthened by a large number of radiocarbon dates, have brought about a sea-change in our understanding of the archaeological developments in Tamil Nadu, taking our gaze from megalithic burials and the finds of Roman coins to megalithic habitation sites and their chronological developments.”

The fifth round (2018-19), which ended on October 13 , was a game changer. The SDA plunged into “guided excavation” using the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Survey, the Magnetometer Survey and the Ground Penetrating Radar Survey. “We wanted to blend technology with traditional wisdom in Keeladi. The lessons learnt are significant and the results are good. We are positioning archaeology as a multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary area of knowledge,” says T. Udhayachandran, Principal Secretary, Department of Archaeology. Guided excavation has led to the discovery of a lot of structures this round. The report for this is being prepared.


The Vaigai Valley Civilisation

The Keeladi findings have led academics to describe the site as part of the Vaigai Valley Civilisation. The findings have also invited comparisons with the Indus Valley Civilisation. A researcher of the Indus Valley Civilisation and retired civil servant, R. Balakrishnan, points to the similarities in urban planning between the Indus Valley and Keeladi. Rajan refers to the cultural gap of 1,000 years between the two places: “This cultural gap is generally filled with Iron Age material in south India. The graffiti marks encountered in Iron Age sites of south India serve as the only residual links between the Indus Valley Civilisation and south India.” Some of the symbols found in pot sherds of Keeladi bear a close resemblance to Indus Valley signs. Graffiti marks are found in earthenware, caves and rocks in or near the excavation sites of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil Brahmi script, found engraved on the outer surface or the shoulder of black and red earthenware in Keeladi, carries personal names, say archaeologists. According to the SDA report, “One of the sherds carries the vowel ‘o’ at the beginning of the name which is rarely found in both cave and pottery inscriptions.”

Udhayachandran affirms that the qualification of Keeladi as an urban habitat cannot be questioned as it reflects all the characteristics of an urban civilisation, with brick structures, luxury items and proof of internal and external trade. An interesting feature of Keeladi is that it has not revealed any signs of religious worship in all the five rounds. Till now, it has been a tale of an industrious and advanced civilisation that celebrated life. The artefacts unearthed at Keeladi are evidence of this. Recent finds include seven gold ornaments, copper articles, gem beads, shell and ivory bangles, and brick structures that point to the existence of industrial units. Structures that could have been used to convey molten metal or filter liquid strongly point to the existence of people who were involved in industrial work.

The SDA report concludes that the “recent excavations and the dates arrived at scientifically clearly suggest that the people were living in Tamil Nadu continuously... and the Keeladi excavation [has] clearly ascertained that they attained literacy or learnt the art of writing [Tamil-Brahmi] in as early as 6th century BCE during [the] Early Historic Period.”

The excavation site at Keeladi.

The excavation site at Keeladi.


A sophisticated urban settlement

For Balakrishnan, Keeladi is significant for many reasons. It has given evidence of urban life and settlements in Tamil Nadu during the Early Historic Period. It was around this time that evidence for a second urbanisation started appearing in the Gangetic Valley. Keeladi has added greatly to the credibility of Sangam Literature. At the same time, he cautions that we should not feel intimidated by the ‘spatial-temporal gaps’ of 1,300 years and 1,500 km between the Indus Valley Civilisation and Keeladi.

To substantiate this point, he recalls the observations made by K. N. Dikshit in 1939 when he was Director General of ASI: “Considering that the conch shell, typical of the Indus Valley civilisation, and which seems to have been in extensive use in Indus cities, was obtained from [the] south-east coast of the Madras Presidency, it would not be too much to hope that a thorough investigation of the area in Tinnevelly District and the neighbouring regions such as the ancient seaport of Korkai will one day lead to the discovery of some site which would be contemporary with or even little later than the Indus civilisation.” This is exactly what has happened in Keeladi. Twenty-three bangle pieces made of shell and glass were found in the fourth round. Another Director General of ASI, B.B. Lal, had suggested in 1960 a possible link between the undeciphered Indus signs and the graffiti marks on black and red ware pottery of Tamil Nadu.

“Technology helped to fine-comb the search for structures in this round. The most significant find is the continuous brick structure that runs over 340 metres,” says B. Asaithambi, excavation in-charge at Keeladi. Over 900 antiquities, including unique signature Carnelian beads, were unearthed during this round.

At the end of the third round of excavations, an ASI official is said to have told a team of High Court judges who visited Keeladi that the excavated artefacts did not give a clear indication of the nature of settlement as urban or industrial.

But artefacts from the fourth round proved that Keeladi was indeed an urban habitation. Seventy samples of animal skeletal fragments, which were tested by the Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, Pune, show 53% of them belonging to oxen, cows, buffaloes and goats. This indicates that the habitants were predominantly cattle-rearing people. Balakrishnan is excited about the presence of oxen and cows belonging to the Bos indicus species. The hump of the Bos indicus species is referred to as imil in Tamil literature, which later came to be known as timil . The grandeur of this species, which was also present in the Indus Valley, lies in its hump, points out Balakrishnan. Bos indicus is also the icon of the ancient sport eru thazhuvuthal or eru anaithal (embracing the bull), which was prevalent in villages around Keeladi. In this sport, now practised as jallikattu, the contestant is supposed to hold on to the hump of the bull inside the arena for a particular distance or period of time.

The State Department of Archaeology’s comparison of graffiti found in Keeladi with Indus Valley signs.

The State Department of Archaeology’s comparison of graffiti found in Keeladi with Indus Valley signs


Analysis of samples of materials used in the construction of walls, sent to the Vellore Institute of Technology, has shown that every specimen contained elements like silica, lime, iron, aluminium and magnesium. “The long survival of these materials is due to the quality of material deployed in construction activities,” says the SDA report. More significant are the letters engraved on pots that clearly demonstrate the “high literacy level of the contemporary society that survived in 6th century BCE.”

It is inferred from the spectroscopic analysis of black and red ware by the Earth Science Department of Pisa University, Italy, that “the potters of Keeladi were familiar with the technique [of using carbon material for black colour and hematite for red] and knew the art of raising the kiln temperature to 1100°C to produce the typical black-and-red ware pottery.” They had also followed the same technique and materials from 6th century BCE to 2nd century BCE. “A few pottery samples of 2nd century BCE do contain earth content similar to that of other regions, thereby suggesting that they exchanged goods with neighbouring regions, probably through traders, craftsmen and visitors,” says the SDA report. The antiquities, taken together, suggest that the prime occupation of the people of Keeladi was agriculture, which was supplemented by the iron industry, carpentry, pottery-making and weaving.

Expanding sites

There is already a demand in the region to expand the excavation to more areas along the Vaigai so that there is archaeological evidence to prove the glory of life along the river in the ancient Pandya kingdom. Noted epigraphist V. Vedachalam supports the idea of an extended excavation beginning in Madurai. More evidence could be unearthed to re-establish the antiquity of Madurai and its relationship with towns and villages along the Vaigai. Su. Venkatesan, winner of the Sahitya Akademi award for his book on Madurai, Kaaval Kottam, and who represents Madurai in the Lok Sabha, wants the Union government to recognise Keeladi and its surrounding villages as a heritage cluster and declare Keeladi as a protected monument.

Udhayachandran says that the State government has already approached ASI to declare five villages — Keeladi, Agaram, Manalur, Konthagai (a burial site) and Pasiapuram — as the Keeladi cluster. The sixth round of excavation is expected to commence in mid-January. The State government has also decided to continue excavation in other sites and scientifically prove the link among places such as Adichanallur, Alagankulam and Mangulam.

Importance of carbon dating

Is carbon dating enough to establish Keeladi as the centre of the ‘Vaigai Valley Civilisation’ or connect it to the Indus Valley Civilisation? Researchers caution that unverified claims or positions may derail the effort at revisiting history. Udhayachandran says, “We have placed the available archaeological evidence before the intellectual community to ponder, discuss and arrive at a conclusion by comparing them with literary references.” He says more guidance and collaboration is required to come to conclusions on Keeladi. “It looks like we are sitting on a major city. We need corroborative evidence. We want to bring in more experts. People have a fundamental right to own history. That is why we have maintained transparency in the Keeladi excavations,” he says.

Recalling the late epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan’s observations about the continuity of Indus legacies in old Tamil traditions, Balakrishnan says that the unassailable identical place name clusters suggest that the Indus civilisation and the recalled “flashback memories” of Sangam Tamil texts are closely interlocked. However, more excavations have to be carried out in the Vaigai and Tamirabarani regions to conclusively figure out how close the the Vaigai civilisation was to the Indus Valley in “temporal terms”. More excavations in the region are required, he says, along with timely submission of reports.


Many institutions of higher learning have come forward to collaborate with the SDA in the scientific analysis of Keeladi’s artefacts. Madurai Kamaraj University is in the process of finalising its plans to conduct a DNA analysis of bones. R.M. Pitchappan, renowned scientist who has worked as Regional Director for National Geographic Corporation’s Genographic Project, which traced the origin and migration of man, will be the mentor for the project. Madurai Kamaraj University, according to him, is now looking at the feasibility of setting up an ancient DNA laboratory in Madurai itself. “Human genomic data of thousands of people are available and scientists from institutions like the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, have past experience in analysis of this data. They can be roped in for interpretation. Technology for DNA sequencing is also available in the country. By comparing ancient DNA with the available samples, one can deconstruct the migrational story of Tamil Nadu in the pre-Sangam period,” says Pitchappan.

The Keeladi excavations have triggered a healthy debate on Indian civilisation and added value to the discipline of archaeology. “Till now, we have been deploying orthodox methods of excavation tempered with our intuition but now technology has given us more strength by proving that our intuitions are right,” says Asaithambi, who has earlier worked in Alagankulam excavation. Keeladi could well be a priceless piece in a massive geographic jigsaw puzzle.

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