2,600 years old Keezhadi: Link between Tamil Nadu and Indus Valley Civilisation
In what may be a major discovery for Tamil’s history as per 5th excavation report released on 19 September 2019 by TN Archeological Department, artefacts found in excavations carried out at Keezhadi in Tamil Nadu’s Sivagangai district have determined a possible link between the scripts of the Indus Valley Civilisation and Tamil Brahmi, which is the precursor to modern Tamil. Another major discovery was that there was an urban civilisation in Tamil Nadu that was contemporary to the Gangetic plain civilisation.
The Indus Valley Civilisation was situated in the north-western part of modern India between 5,000 BCE and 1,500 BCE. Around 1500 BCE, the civilisation collapsed and some have speculated that its people have moved south. The script that was used by the people of this civilisation has been termed the Indus script, and experts have long speculated that the language could be Tamil with Tamizhi script. Now research coming out of Keezhadi shows a possible high connection between the two cultures.
The samples featuring graffiti discovered from Keezhadi date back to 580 BCE. This graffiti is believed to be the link between the Indus script and the Tamil Brahmi (Tamizhi).
T Udhayachandran, Commissioner of TN Archeological Department, says, “It’s an initial finding. Researchers note there is a gap between the Indus script and Tamil Brahmi script and this graffiti could fill that gap. We have to position this graffiti marks in that gap. We found 1000 different marks. We have chosen a few that distinctly relate to the Indus. Research is going on.”
A report released by the Tamil Nadu Archeological Department explains the significance of the finding. “Among the available scripts of India, the Indus scripts are considered to be the earliest one and were 4500 years old. One kind of script that survived between the disappearance of Indus script and the emergence of Brahmi script is called as graffiti marks by the scholars. These graffiti marks are the one evolved or transformed from Indus script and served as precursor for the emergence of Brahmi script. Therefore, these graffiti marks cannot be set aside as mere scratches. Like Indus script, this also could not be deciphered till date,” it states.
Recent genetic studies show that the Indus people may not have had what’s known as the ‘Steppe Pastoralist’ DNA, thus placing the civilization before the arrival of Indo-European speakers in the subcontinent. DNA studies have shown that people of the Indus Valley Civilisation could be of Tamil origin.
Urban civilisation in TN dating back to 2500 years ago
The findings of the Tamil Nadu Archeological Department also indicate another major discovery — that an urban civilisation was thriving on the banks of the Vaigai River in Tamil Nadu in 6th Century BCE, around 2500 years ago. What this suggests is that the Sangam era – considered Tamil Nadu’s golden age – began much earlier than what was once thought.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had conducted three excavations in Tamil Nadu – in 1947, 1965 and 2005 – before turning to Keezhadi. Since the first phase of excavation in 2014 here, archaeologists have found it to be a relatively more prominent site. The Tamil Nadu government’s archaeology department released the findings of the fourth phase, undertaken in 2018, calling them a “turning point in the cultural historiography of the Sangam era”. It further claimed that the urban centre in question, on the banks of the Vaigai river, is at least 2,600 years old, making it contemporary to the Gangetic plain civilisation.
The results are based on six samples collected from the fourth phase and analysed at a lab called Beta Analytic, in Miami, Florida, with accelerator mass spectrometry, a technique used to isolate rare isotopes. The data it obtained seemingly pushed the date of Tamil-Brahmi, a version of the Brahmi script used to write Tamil and which later evolved into the modern script, to the sixth century BC.
“These results clearly ascertained that [the residents of the settlement] attained literacy, or learned the art of writing, as early as the sixth century BCE,” T. Udayachandran, the commissioner of the state archaeology department, said.
There are also other markings alongside Tamil-Brahmi symbols and which apparently suggest a connection with the Indus Valley civilisation. Two major studies published earlier this month, in the journals Science and Cell, suggested that after this civilisation began to decline around 2,000 BC following a cultural invasion (as well as shifting weather patterns that affected agriculture) by immigrants from eastern Europe and western Asia, its settlers moved east and south. The other markings numbered around a thousand and were dated to 580 BC. They are believed to be a ‘bridge’ between the Indus script and the Brahmi script that took shape later.
Apart from the matter of the settlement’s age, the report highlights the supposedly sophisticated high standard of living in the Sangam era. The document describes “well-laid floors made of fine clay”, “roof tiles” with “grooves” to “drain water”, joints fastened with “iron nails”, etc. Archaeologists also unearthed 110 dies made of ivory, and attributed them to the Sangam people’s alleged participation in sports and other recreational activities. The report additionally discusses evidence of cattle-rearing, structural engineering, handicrafts, a local weaving industry, household utensils, ornaments, terracotta figurines, skeletal remains of animals, including that of a bull with a hump, spindles for weaving and a comb made of ivory besides sharp weapons made of bones.
Seventeen pottery specimens were sent to the Earth science department of the Pisa University, Italy. A mineral analysis there indicated that the Keezhadi people’s earthen vessels had been produced by the same technique and with the same mineral composition for four centuries from the sixth century BC. Researchers were also able to find materials from other parts of the subcontinent of similar make-up, suggesting the people of Keezhadi “exchanged goods between neighbouring regions, probably through traders, craftsmen and visitors”.
For writers and activists like Su Venkatesan, the CPI(M) member of Parliament from Madurai constituency and a vocal proponent of the Keezhadi excavation, the findings are vindication.
“Since the first excavation … in 2014, we have been saying that it was a fertile urban civilisation and that the entire area should be excavated for at least ten to fifteen years,” he says. “Year after year, we have been proved right and now stand vindicated.”
“More than anything else, the Keezhadi excavations sheds new light in our understanding of the history and evolution of ancient Tamil society,” said Su Venkatesan.
“What (the) Keezhadi (excavations) show is that it (the civilisation there) was a highly advanced urban society. To reach that level, it would have crossed more than 1000 years. Hence, the age of Sangam period would be pushed back. Further, it throws fresh light to carry researches on the connection with IVC, which is Proto-Tamil. That major religious worship is absent at Keezhadi proves that it is non-Vedic,” he added.
The second phase of excavation, led by Amarnath Ramakrishnan, then a superintendent with the ASI, dated the start of the Sangam era to 290 BC. Venkatesan was miffed, however: “The carbon samples were taken at [three] metres in a six-metre-deep pit. There were three more metres [to go] and more samples [to be] recovered from there. But despite our demands to send it for examination, the Centre refused to do so citing various reasons, including financial ones.”
Venkatesan thought this specious. The ASI transferred Ramakrishnan away after the second dig and shuttered the project after the third, citing a lack of findings. This prompted a furore in Tamil Nadu, so the state government stepped in with Rs 40 lakh to continue the Keezhadi excavation. The findings of the fourth and fifth phases, especially that the Sangam era could be 300 years older than presumed, thus carry a prominent vindictive flavour. Venkatesan even called it a “strong scientific rebuttal” to the ASI, and the Centre by extension. The state government also set aside Rs 50 lakh for the excavation last year and has already earmarked Rs 47 lakh this year.
High Levels of Literacy
Another major discovery is that people in the ‘Sangam’ period were literate as early as the 6th Century BCE encompassing today’s Tamil Nadu, Kerala, the southern parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and northern Sri Lanka. It is named for scholarly congregations in and around the city of Madurai, located about 400 km southwest of Chennai. The finding was based on potsherds which had names of people – like Aadhan and Kudhiranaadhan – written in Tamil-Brahmi script.
According to the report, “The recent scientific dates obtained for Keeladi findings pushback the date of Tamil-Brahmi to another century i.e. 6th century BCE. These results clearly ascertained that they attained the literacy or learned the art of writing as early as the 6th century BCE.”
Udhayachandran notes, “Professor Rajan from Pondicherry University who is considered an authority in archaeology in south India has said that this indicates high levels of literacy during this period.”
Earlier when excavations were conducted at Arikkamedu in 1947, Kaveripoompattiam in 1965 and burial sites at Adichanallur in 2005, there was, says the Commissioner, no proof of urban settlements.
“However now, in Keezhadi, we have found proof that this was an urban civilisation. We have found what looks to be a pottery industry here,” he says.
The report also suggests that 70 samples of skeletal fragments of faunal remains were collected from the site. The remains had been sent to Deccan Collect, Post Graduate and Research Institute in Pune for analysis, and species such as cow and ox, buffalo, sheep, goat, Nilgai, blackbuck, wild boar and peacock were identified. It’s noted that while some animals were used for agriculture purposes, cut marks on other animals such as the antelope, goat and wild boar suggest that they were consumed.
While phase five of the excavations at Keezhadi began in June this year, Udhayachandran says that they are planning ahead for the next phase.
“We have filed necessary proposals before Archeological Survey of India. Not only Keezhadi, but we also want to do excavations in adjoining habitations like Kondahai, Agaram and Manalur. We may find traces of the old Madurai. Keezhadi is an industrial area. Kondahai looks to be a burial site, and Agaram and Manalur could be residential areas,” he says.
During the five seasons of excavations, over 13,638 artefacts and samples had been found. “7,818 artefacts recovered which include beads of different materials, bangles, copper, different articles made of deer horn, iron and ivory by the ASI have been shifted to its office in Chennai from Mysuru,”.
(ABOVE) : Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department has put on an exhibition in Madurai showcasing artifacts excavated at Keezhadi during the 4th and 5th phases, providing a rich haul of material and data about the past.