From March 2015, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has unearthed an impressive 7,500 artefacts from its Keezhadi excavation. What scholars found here were remnants of a vibrant urban civilisation that recorded its data through Sangam literature. This showed that the Sangam era could be dated to at least the 3rd Century BC. But more importantly, the excavations at Keezhadi showed signs of a secular culture; so far no evidence of a ritualistic or religious object has been found.
This last discovery however, is what could spell doom for this groundbreaking project, worry academicians.
"The material found in Keezhadi provide undeniable evidence of a secular culture in South India. This is completely in odds with the BJP government's Hindutva agenda and they will take every measure to ensure further research is not done in these sites," alleges V Arasu, former HOD of Tamil Literature at University of Madras, who has researched Sangam literature, and teaches the subject.
It is no secret that the three seasons of excavations over three years at this site, located to the south east of Madurai, has been dotted with controversy. The problems started with a delay in sanctioning the third season of excavation, citing non-submission of a report as the reason. When the extension was finally approved, there was a delay in allocation of funds. And when the funds came, Dr Amarnath, who was in charge of the excavation, was shifted to Assam.
"The Centre, which has the ASI in its control, has made deliberate attempts to stop this project, which is the only ongoing excavation in South India," says Arasu.
"The material found here shows that there was no religion back then in this part of the country. But for the government, which uses religion as a political tool, this discovery will cause problems as it proves that such faith was created by the state," he alleges.
The former HOD further tells TNM that both the money and effort put in by the ASI in south India is far lesser compared to projects in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. An allegation that the state government vehemently disagrees with.
"Over 39 excavations have been done in Tamil Nadu post independence. There is no substance to the claim that the Centre is withholding funds," says Tamil Language Minister Mafoi Pandiarajan. But he admits that the money spent on projects in other sites is higher.
"We have unfortunately had a very antagonistic relationship with the ASI but we would like to hold hands with them. Yes, it is true that we need more museums to display the artefacts. But that is something that we are conducting discussions on," he adds.
Pandiarajan had earlier announced that the State Archaeology department will take up the fourth phase of excavation at this ancient site and establish the exact date of the Tamil civilisation that had existed there. The work is set to begin after the monsoons.
Critics however remain sceptical. "We all know that the current dispensation in Tamil Nadu works under the BJP government. They will allot money for the excavation, do little to no work and claim they found nothing," says Arasu.
Arasu is an academic who has researched about Sangam literature and â€˜Keezhadi and its potential impact on Indian historyâ€™.