Every time the people in Keezhadi tilled their fields, dug trenches to plant coconut seeds, or disturbed the soil surface in any way at all, they were puzzled at the numerous shards of pottery that showed up. But this village, 12 km from the city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, did not think much of it. For the staff of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) scouting for any information on potential dig sites along the Vaigai river, this was the equivalent of finding Mackenna’s Gold.

“We were surveying for over two years before we finally heard of Keezhadi,” says Amarnath Ramakrishna, 45, an ASI superintending archaeologist, when we meet at Pallichandai Thidal, a coconut grove just outside the village. The cool breeze blowing at the height of summer wasn’t the only thing out of the ordinary at this spot. The other oddity were the 53 trenches, each 10x10 ft, buzzing with nearly 60 people digging carefully, collecting shards, antiquities and other clues to life from an ancient era. This is the site that promises to become one of southern India’s greatest archaeological discoveries.

Tamil Nadu’s Harappa?

“Based on the finds so far, it won’t be right to compare Keezhadi to Harappa,” says Vasantha Kumar, 27, a site supervisor involved with the project for the last few years. “Even if what we’re finding is of the Sangam age, as we all think it is, that dates the site back to 500 BCE. That’s still at least a millennium after the last stage of the Indus Valley civilisation (2600–1600 BCE). Maybe because of the lack of other equivalent sites here, people are inevitably comparing it to the Indus sites.”

Ramakrishna and his team had conducted an extensive survey along the Vaigai river in 2013-14. This included the districts of Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivagangai and Ramanathapuram — all of which line the river as it wends its way to meet the Bay of Bengal in the village of Atrangarai. “We surveyed villages located not more than five kilometres away on either side of the Vaigai river and managed to zero in on 293 archaeological sites,” says Ramakrishna.

In the late ’70s, a school headmaster in Keezhadi had found terracotta artefacts in the village, and the Madurai-based noted epigraphist V Vedachalam had visited the site after a tip-off from the teacher. So Keezhadi had long been on the archaeologists’ radar. They had also earlier discovered an ancient burial ground at the nearby village of Konthagai. When Vedachalam revisited the site in 2014 along with the ASI team, they found an exposed brick structure.

“An earthmover working in a coconut grove had hit against the structure just a few metres below ground. It was just lying there all along. That was incredible,” informs Ramakrishna.

With enough evidence pointing to a major discovery, the ASI team began the first round of digging in March 2015.

“We dug 42 trenches from March till September last year and almost every one of them opened out to something amazing,” says Ramakrishna. The finds included structures made of large-sized bricks, including a wall, quartz beads with engravings, pearl micro-beads and terracotta figurines. Reaping larger-than-expected rewards, Ramakrishna managed to renew funding for another year’s dig and the second round began early this year.

Hitting gold

The find turned out to be even more incredible — metal objects, spearheads, blackware pottery, bangles, rings, an antimony rod, a dice, terracotta figurines that may have been chess pieces, nails, roof tiles and even a few gold beads, besides the thousands of potsherds, including some with Tamil Brahmi (an early script) inscriptions.

Interestingly, the practice of etching one’s name on kitchen utensils continues even today in Tamil Nadu.

The most spectacular finds are the brick structures. Some appear to be canals, others part of a large habitation site and there is one that seems to be a furnace. “It’s still really early days and we don’t wish to speculate. Whatever we find, we’re sending it to be carbon-dated... and we’re just documenting everything meticulously,” says Ramakrishna.

While Keezhadi is the first major habitation site discovered in southern Tamil Nadu that probably dates back to the Sangam age, there are several other archaeological sites in the state, including some that have been extensively studied. Arikamedu in Puducherry, Kaveripoompattinam or Poompuhar in Nagapattinam district, Kodu Manal village in Erode district, and Mahabalipuram have all provided clues, which when combined with references in Sangam literature, hint at the existence of a vibrant civilisation in these parts 2,000 years ago.

“It’s too early to come to a conclusion, but the magnitude of the architecture suggests that this could have been a major settlement along the Vaigai river,” says Pondicherry University professor K Rajan, who has led several excavations and keeps a close watch on the developments in the field.

“Keezhadi’s finds and the results to come are bound to be encouraging. It might possibly pave the way for excavations at many of the other 500-odd archaeologically important sites across the state.”

Landowners’ pride

At the Pallichandai Thidal coconut grove, excavations are on at full steam and the villagers are becoming more involved. Most of the labourers at the site are locals, who now have a steady source of income. Landowners, too, are readily leasing out plots for the excavations, as they believe the ASI project is bringing great pride to their ancestral land. “There are about 3,000 people in our village. While we always found it strange whenever we came across the potsherds earlier, now we finally know what it means. I’m really happy that evidence of Madurai’s great past is being found in my land and I hope the archaeologists continue their work. I’ve told them they can use my land for as long as they need to,” says 80-year-old landowner Sonaisami, who has leased out a part of his holding for the dig.

Ramakrishna and team will continue the current round of excavation until September, when the rainy season begins; he hopes to return next year and continue from where they leave off. “I’ve had the opportunity to work at great archaeological sites such as Raakhigarhi (a Harappan site in Haryana) and Shravasti (a Buddhist site in Uttar Pradesh). While those were amazing, to find such archaeological wonder just 100 km from my hometown, Palani, gives me great satisfaction,” he says. Alongside the jubilation, there are ambitions aplenty too.

“As great as the Tamil civilisation is, there is a woeful lack of archaeological evidence of its past glory. I hope Keezhadi is the beginning of a magnificent discovery for decades to come. In certain trenches, we speculate that evidence of a society and culture predating even the Sangam age might be found... one never knows what a good dig might throw up.”

Sibi Arasuis an independent journalist based in Chennai