Chennai: Political controversy has once again erupted around Keezhadi (also known as Keeladi), a major archaeological site in Tamil Nadu, four years after excavators began to unearth the remains of an ancient urban civilization that thrived on the banks of the river Vaigai more than 2,000 years ago.

While delayed allocation of funds and alleged reluctance of the Union government to continue with the excavation led to widespread condemnation in 2016, a year later the transfer of superintending archaeologist K. Amarnath Ramakrishnan led to further protests.

The latest round of controversy erupted last week when Ramakrishnan, who is posted in Assam and has submitted an interim report on Keezhadi, was denied permission to write the final report.

The Archeological Survey of India (ASI) has “authorized the superintending archeologist, EB VI (excavation branch), Bengaluru to complete the Keeladi excavation report."

“…you (Ramakrishnan) are hereby directed to restrain from communicating with the superintending archaeologist, EB VI, Bengaluru with respect to Keeladi excavation report and no further communication from you shall be entertained in this regard," said director of exploration and excavation V. N. Prabhakar, in a letter, a copy of which has been seen by Mint.

Questioning the need to change the rulebook that says the excavator should file the report, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, in a statement said it is “an attempt to hide an old civilization linked to the Tamil society."

K. Balakrishnan, state secretary of the CPI(M), alleged that the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government has attempted to impose the Hindutva ideology of “one nation, one culture" by denying the diversity of India and is engaged in rewriting history according to its convenience.

Earlier this year, the Madras high court expressed its displeasure over ASI’s lack of interest in carrying out work at Adichanallur site in Thoothukudi where traces of Iron Age people, whose skeletal remains buried in big urns have been identified.

T. Satyamurthy, who undertook the excavation between 2003 and 2005 at Adichanallur is yet to submit the report, a decade after his retirement.

Terming the treatment meted out to Ramakrishnan as a blatant violation of rules, Sahitya Akademi-winning writer Su. Venkatesan said, “When someone who is retired is allowed to write the report, why is Ramakrishnan denied?"

K. Sridharan, former deputy superintending archaeologist at the state department of archaeology, said, “In general, one who does excavation is supposed to write (the report) as the excavator will be familiar with the findings. And, only in certain exceptional cases archaeologists who aren’t involved will write reports."

In 2013-14, ASI carried out explorations along the Vaigai river valley in 293 sites in districts of Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram. Keezhadi in Sivaganga was chosen for excavation.

During the second phase of the excavation, the artifacts unearthed by the team led by Ramakrishnan established a substantial evidence that an ancient urban civilization had thrived on the banks of Vaigai. Last year, carbon dating of charcoal found at the site confirmed that the settlement was from 200BCE.

More than 8,000 artifacts including pottery with Tamil Brahmi inscriptions, gold coins, beads, iron tools and jewellery, that were unearthed indicated that an urban civilization had existed during the Sangam era — between the 4th century BCE and 2nd century CE that is regarded as a golden era for Tamil language, literature and culture — and that it had trade link with other civilizations including Rome.

While the third phase was led by ASI superintending archaeologist P.S. Sriraman, the Tamil Nadu archaeology department after obtaining approval from Central Advisory Board of Archaeology (CABA) began the fourth phase earlier this year.

R. Sivananthan, deputy director of the Tamil Nadu archaeology department confirmed that the fourth phase is “complete with the excavation of more than 7,000 antiques and document preparation is underway."

The state archaeology department has requested the CABA to permit excavation for the next phase too and will start work by the beginning of next year if approval is granted, said Sivananthan.

Close