MADURAI: Over 13,000 artefacts have been unearthed from five phases of excavations at Keezhadi in Sivaganga district. Now, the Centre has okayed the sixth phase of excavations. Yet, the site of an ancient urban civilization finds itself in the eye of a very modern storm. Does the urban settlement on the banks of the Vaigai dating back 2600 years represent a Dravidian, Tamil or “Bharath” civilization? What you believe may depend on which political argument you agree with.
Politics from day one
The excavations at Keezhadi have been entangled in politics from the very beginning. The first three phases were conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India while the State government’s Archaeology Department conducted the fourth and fifth phase. Many in Tamil Nadu believe that the BJP-ruled Central government is averse to any discovery that suggests a non-vedic past to the region. This belief was strengthened by the Centre’s reluctance to make the reports of the first three phases public -- it has only recently handed them over to the State government. It was further strengthened by some of the findings in the State’s report of the fourth phase of excavations.
First, the fourth report found that the Sangam era was older than previously thought, dating back to 6th century BC. Second, this discovery made the Tamil Brahmi script -- an early form of Tamil -- older as well. Third, the excavations, which found signs of industry, literacy and water management, did not unearth any artefacts that were used for worship. And a tenth of a 110-acre piece of land have been excavated so far. These key discoveries have led to various parties seeking to stake a claim to what the civilization represents, much like how recent discoveries on the Indus Valley Civilization have been read from the perspective of modern politics.
Bharatham or Dravidian?
It was arguably the State Minister for Tamil Language and Culture, K Pandiarajan, who sparked the arguments. Pandiarajan termed the Keezhadi’s heritage “Bharatham’s civilization”. Pandiarajan argued that there were similarities between the Vaigai river civilization and others, so there was nothing wrong in terming it a civilization of Bharatham. However, he also said there was no necessity to compare the civilizations. The minister’s comments were seen as aligning with the views of the BJP, the ruling AIADMK’s ally.
The DMK, of course, reacted sharply to this argument. Madurai Central MLA PTR Palanivel Thiagarajan asked how the findings dating back 2600 years could be representative of nationhood formed just 70 years ago. Pointing out that modern India had been ruled by thousands of kings and divided into thousands of kingdoms, he accused the minister of speaking in line with Hindutva thought.
The DMK’s rationale for claiming the civilization as Dravidian stems from it being a term referring to a family of languages, although in modern Tamil understanding it represents a political ideology.
“Everyone agrees Dravidian languages such as Telugu, Kannada, Tulu came from Tamil and there is no distinction between ‘Tamil’ and ‘Dravidian’. We may call the Keezhadi settlement whatever we want as it is our culture but we will never accept it as a culture of Bharatham,” Thiagarajan said. “The notion of the Dravidian is also proven as something non-Aryan and so there is nothing wrong in calling Keezhadi a Dravidian civilization,” he claimed, slamming attempts to claim it as “Aryan” culture.
Meanwhile, there are some -- namely followers of Naam Tamilar Katchi’s brand of Tamil nationalism -- who believe that the settlement is representative of Tamil culture. Seeman, the NTK chief, is a strident critic of the Dravidian parties and ideology. He and his followers believe that something found in “Tamil” land must represent the Tamil people not a broader group of Dravidians, as politically, the movement and its leaders were not always ethnically Tamil.
Politics aside, there appears to be one acceptable -- or at least accurate -- answer to the question.
Pon Arunachalam, a retired history professor, pointed out that the key script -- Tamil-Brahmi -- found on artefacts at Keezhadi was linguistically Dravidian. “Tamil is the mother of all Dravidian linguistic structure/languages,” he said.
Arunachalam referred to the findings of epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan, who had believed that if the Indus script was deciphered, similarities between proto-Dravidian roots of Harappan language and South Indian Dravidian languages may be found. He pointed out that the fourth phase report noted the discovery of graffiti marks which were thought to be a script evolved from the Indus script and a precursor to the Brahmi script suggesting the two civilizations were linked.
He similarly pointed out that no religious or Vedic symbols had been found at the site.
“The Keezhadi findings date back to 6th century BC and the people then could have spoken only one language. But as we have also found graffiti, it is not fair to name the civilization as Dravidian or of Bharath.
Every civilization is named after its geographical location and it is only appropriate to name the Keezhadi settlement as the Vaigai River Civilization,” he asserted, expressing hope that future excavations would provide more information. Madurai MP, Su Venkatesan of the CPM, concurs. The writer, who has taken it upon himself to speak on the findings in various parts of the State, explained his point of view. “Definitely it is a representative of Tamil culture and there is nothing wrong in terming it Dravidian culture either -- the term Dravidian is being misunderstood in this context,” he said.
However, he asked how the concept of India, which emerged just a century ago, could be applied to these ancient findings. “All civilizations around the world were named after the river or location. Hence Keezhadi is a river valley civilization and should be termed Vaigai River Civilization and it is an indigenous civilization,” he said, cautioning against using the findings from such an early stage to legitimise certain political ideologies with no base in archaeology and social sciences.
‘One among a hundred’
Amarnath Ramakrishna, who led the first two phases of excavations as part of the ASI, recalled that the team had chosen 293 sites on the Vaigai river bank for excavation, of which 100 were sites of possible human habitation. “Keezhadi is one among the hundred,” he said.
“One has to remember that the mother of all races is language, and in this land it is Tamil. It has been scientifically proven. There is no use in fighting among ourselves on whether it’s Tamil culture or Dravidian heritage,” he said, adding that as Keezhadi was on a river bed it would be appropriate to call it Vaigai River Civilization. However, he noted that despite a rich collection of literature from the Sangam period, not much proper research had been done based on the literature. “This literature belongs to Tamils and we should excavate more to explore the Sangam period scientifically,” he said.
A total of five phases of excavations have taken place at Keezhadi and over 13,000 artefacts have been unearthed till now
‘Mother of Dravidian languages’
Pon Arunachalam, a retired history professor, pointed out that the key script -- Tamil-Brahmi -- found on artefacts at Keezhadi was linguistically Dravidian. “Tamil is the mother of all Dravidian linguistic structure/languages.”
K Pandiarajan termed the Keezhadi “Bharatham’s civilization”. Pandiarajan argued that there were similarities between the Vaigai river civilization and others, so there was nothing wrong in terming it a civilization of Bharatham
Need more proof
An archaeologist said, the findings indicated a unique identity. “We need more evidence to disprove all theories about Tamils being in a rudimentary civilization stage.”