From an excavation site close to Madurai: At touching distance of a 2300-year-old history
Until a few months ago, Keeladi, a peaceful hamlet some 12 kms from the temple town of Madurai, could only have been of interest to its small population. There it lay in the Vaigai River valley, a few clusters of unprepossessing houses scattered in between green coconut groves. A temple here, a teashop there, and not much more to the place than that. All that has changed now.
When I drove up to Keeladi on a mellow evening, mid-September, there were a few white tents amidst the coconut groves and a discreet sign indicating that it was an excavation site. For the last few months, a team from the Excavation Branch of the Archaelogical Survey of India has been camping here, exploring an 80-acre expanse within a perimeter of 3.5 kilometres.
The excavations have unearthed a thriving habitation which, Superintending Archaeologist Amarnath Ramakrishna confirmed, can be dated to around 2300 years ago. That was the Sangam Era, a golden period in this part of the subcontinent. It was the time of the Pandya dynasty, when literature, the arts and trade flourished here.
Digging teams comprising local labour had dug deep, creating what archaeologists call quadrants. These vast trenches hold the key to the ancient civilisation that once existed here. I peeked in to see what might have been bathing chambers, with tanks for holding water and channels for drainage. There were also large, graceful urns which possibly held grains or water. There were bits of flooring still intact and roof tiles which had been held together by iron bolts. There were perfectly formed ring wells, too, pointing to this being a dwelling place. All around were little piles of pottery shards, each piece part of a historical jigsaw puzzle slowly being pieced together.
My guide for the evening was Karthik, a research scholar from the Government Arts College, Krishnagiri, who was assisting with the excavation and who kindly stepped away from his duties directing the digging teams to explain to me some of the findings in Keeladi and what they meant in a fascinating story spanning aeons. A passionate student of History, he caressed the smooth black-and-red ware, so called because the utensils are red inside and black on the outside, and said, “Even with all the technology at our disposal, it would be difficult to create a piece of pottery with this finesse now.”
The other kinds of earthenware found here are black ware and russet-coated ware. These findings don’t merely serve as objects the making of which evokes wonder at their sophistication. Amarnath Ramakrishna explained that “The shards of roulette pottery – flatware decorated with concentric rings – establish that this settlement dates back to the 3rd century AD because the manufacture of this particular earthenware ceased in Rome shortly before that.” Another form of pottery known as Arretine, also confirms trade with Rome for it is unique to the ancient Western empire and can be dated to the pre-Christian era. ASI experts believe that the mound at Keezhadi which is under excavation could have been a significant trading township on the trade route linking Madurai to the port of Alagankulam.
I was fascinated even as I tried to recapture a time when two great civilisations intersected here, when travelers from across the ocean arrived and engaged in trade with the men and women who inhabited the dwellings that have been unearthed in Keeladi. Did they haggle over the price of pearls even as they exchanged knowledge of how to create glazed pottery?
The best of my tour of the excavation site was yet to come. While the pottery shards found on the site were gathered in little piles everywhere, the real treasures were under lock and key in the care of Amarnath Ramakrishna. After some cajoling, he agreed to show these to the small crowd that was visiting the site, but with firm instructions of ‘no photography’. These were yet to be dated, tagged, documented and sent to some museum. Karthik took out gingerly, one by one, the finds. There were beautifully shaped beads of cornelian, crystal, milky quartz and agate, some large and impressive, some as tiny as a pin-head which had been bored so they could make a string of beads. There was an ivory dice, exquisitely decorated, and arrow heads of perfect symmetry. I loved particularly a shell bangle, adorned with geometric patterns and a slender stick made of antimony that was possibly used to apply ‘mai’ or kohl to the eyes.
There was also a shard of red pottery, bearing a fish design, the symbol of the Pandyas, and to see it gave me a frisson of excitement. They ruled from Madurai, carving out a powerful empire that had an active maritime trade with Ptolemaic Egypt and, through Egypt, with Rome, and later with China, Sri Lanka and other nations in the Indian Ocean. The Pandya dynasty also nurtured the arts and it was during this time that the great and enduring works of the Sangam era came to be written by a school of poets whose skill, vigor and mastery continue to bedazzle and delight readers to this day.
I had studied Sangam poetry for my degree and standing there, with a zephyr rustling the coconut fronds, I was able to relive for a moment the beauty that those poets brought to life. There she would be the tall, ebony-skinned heroine of a poem, adorned in beads, her eyes lined with kohl, waiting anxiously for her lover who had gone off to battle. He would return, victorious, but wounded, and she would apply a pack of medicinal leaves to his hurt shoulder and feed him honey and millet flour out of a graceful earthenware bowl. They would then fall into an inseparable embrace, hoping to heal the weeks of separation. Ah, the romance of History! And I had very nearly touched it in the quiet village of Keeladi.
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