Opinion
It’s too early to foist theories of religion or secularism on Keezhadi – we need to dig first and write stories later.

There’s controversy over the Keezhadi excavation. Once again.

Keezhadi, in TN’s Sivaganga district, was originally just one of over 200 potential sites along the Vaigai river identified by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for further study. And the organisation hit pay dirt with it. In many ways.

So far, 5000+ artefacts have been unearthed at the site, including pot sherds, stone celts (axe-like stone tools), beads and jewellery, iron implements, coins of the Pandya and Chola kingdoms, and lots more. And these are just the bits and pieces that can be moved and taken out of the context, to study further.

The dig also revealed a vast, planned layout of a city, aligned to the cardinal directions, with stone structures, brick walls, platforms, and the like which point to a masterplan, and the presence of an unknown master planner.

Professor Arasu, a Sangam scholar, has claimed that the Centre has delayed the extension of digging at the site, because it doesn’t fit their politics and worldview. He claims that the site has not shown any ritualistic or religious artefact yet, and this proves that the people who lived in the area 2200 years ago, and the culture they created, was secular.

This may well be true.

The artefacts found could very well be prosaic, everyday items. They could very well be evidence of the absence of a religious cult that governed the everyday life of Keezhadi’s ancient residents.

However, as my mentors in archaeology taught me – absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Yes, so far Keezhadi points to a secular site, but it’s still early days for Keezhadi. We’ve been assured that digging will resume, with a different team – led by the TN State Department of Archaeology. If the new team digs deeper, digs wider, digs more, they may find cult objects, remnants of rituals: after all, valiant kings, martyrs were deified.

Apotheosis of fallen protectors happened even in Sangam times. A song by Auvvayyar points to a clear ritual – the planting of a hero stone, the washing of it with bark wine, the offering of food and drink to the deified hero, and the invocation of the spirit.

But that does not mean Keezhadi will not be politically important.  

There are many things to focus on. Secularism is important, but that alone isn’t the story. And if that is proved to be false, that too isn’t the story. The story is the archaeology.

Many of the objects have inscriptions on them in the Tamil Brahmi script – with names, signatures, personal stories, the stories of an era. These are invaluable to us. We need to learn these, find out more about Thisan, Aadhan, Udhiran, and their sisters, wives, mothers, brothers, fathers, friends.

For every object of Thisan we find, we must wonder why the women did not get to put their names on record. For every celt of Aadhan we find, we must ask who made it, when it was made, what was the need for it, and how it was used. We must ask if Aadhan lost it in his lifetime, or was it buried along with him.

We must ask other questions too, of the objects found. Who were these artisans making carnelian beads? What was their place in society? Where did they produce the stunning jewels, and how did it reach Keezhadi?

Answers to these questions would tell us who and what was valued in Keezhadi. And how that value was celebrated and treasured. Not everything ritualistic needs to be religion. But asking the right question as archaeologists and historians will point us to where religion comes from for each of us, and to our ancestors, and that is valuable information.

These objects and artefacts could very well be prosaic, and not eclectic. But they are no less significant for it.

The city layout also tells us important stories. The site’s very name tells us an important story.

If, as is shown by the archaeology, the ancient city is aligned to the cardinal direction, that points to an even more fascinating idea.

The Indus cities – Harappa, Mohenjo Daro, Dholavira, Khalibangan, Lothal, and more – were planned layouts aligned east-west, with mud brick walls, raised platforms, wide open streets aligned to the cardinal directions. Further, according to a paper by R Balakrishnan, all these cities had a raised Western quarter, and a lower but bigger Eastern quadrant where the merchants, artisans, and commonfolk lived.

Balakrishnan speculates that the ‘High West: Low East’ dichotomy of city planning points to a Dravidian worldview and language for the Indus city designers.

If that is true, then this could be a further, and an exciting area of study for the next team that goes to Keezhadi. What if the Keezhadi was the “low-east” quadrant of a much larger city, and the political centre, the power centre of the “High West” was perhaps in the next coconut grove, or in a village a little to the west – perhaps once called Meladi?

This controversy may roll on, and other hands may come to dig and search for the truth. It’s important to focus on the actual archaeology, and leave the politicking for later.

This is not a pitch to say Keezhadi had religion, or that the claims that it was secular is wrong. It is a plea to keep an open mind when digging for the truth. It is a reminder to not judge a 2200-year-old civilisation based on 2017’s metrics of religion. It is a request that we dig first, and write stories later.

The views expressed are the author's own.