On the highway southeast of Madurai, leading to Sivaganga district, the dust rises in the afternoon heat, swirling in circles, and mirages turn the road into imaginary mirrors. Just 13 km on, the road to the right turns into a near dirt track, verdant fields on either side, until it ends in a clearing where conspicuous asbestos roofing guards deep pits. This dead end is where history stole a pause, captured the world in awe; it marks a watershed moment in Indian archaeology. Welcome to Keeladi.
On the banks of the winding Vaigai river, Keeladi extends over a vast area of more than 110 acres in a sylvan setting — flourishing farmland and coconut groves. The mound has yielded antiquities through nine rounds of excavations, and records unequivocally, the presence of a rich, advanced civilisation that thrived as far back as 6 BCE to 1 BCE.
The artefacts from here pushed the Sangam age 300 years back, revising the belief that the age began in 3 BCE. The historic wealth that the Keeladi digs have yielded clearly suggest that the second urbanisation that was observed in the Gangetic valley happened in Tamil Nadu too in 6 BCE.
From deep pits
Vast geometric pits show a civilisation with advanced brick structures, water pipes, elaborate glazed pots, bits of toys and minted coins that remain open on display right beside mounds of potsherds. Explanatory posters on the surrounding walls of the shed establish that the Tamil Brahmi script might actually date back further than was earlier believed. In the deep pits of Keeladi lies a civilisation at its zenith.
Just a kilometre away from the historical dead end is a palatial structure in the classic architecture of the Chettinad style, rising in the largely flat landscape, glinting at night like a jewel in the crown of the Vaigai. That was exactly what it was conceived as.
Thangam Thennarasu, State minister for archaeology, says the project that brought the world’s attention to the cradle of Tamil civilisation needed to be housed in a structure that could match, in some measure, the hoary significance of the exploration underground. “We decided on an in situ museum, with artefacts excavated from the digs.”
With some inspiration from Bihar Museum in Patna, plans were made for different galleries within the two-acre campus.
T. Udhayachandran, the State’s finance secretary, who has been involved with the project, says: “Most museums just have exhibits, but here, we ensured a blend of many elements such as artefacts validated scientifically, replicas, recreations, interactive games, sensory experiences, selfie spots, and detailed references to Sangam literature.” It is indeed a living lab for the study of Sangam literary references, with each artefact on display matched with a relevant quote from the ancient literature.
Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin inaugurated the Keeladi museum, built at a cost of ₹18 crore, this March. The museum, lit up at night, is reminiscent of the Mysore Palace during Dussehra, only subtler. In just the first month, nearly 1 lakh people visited it.
“It is only a society that has matured sufficiently that will try to trace its roots to the past. Tamil society has reached that comfort level, so the studies of the past are naturally important to us. In fact, the government budgets ₹5 crore every year for excavation work alone,” Udhayachandran says.
The Archaeological Survey of India has site museums at 44 locations spread across the country in proximity to important archaeological sites, according to the National Portal for Museums. The Tamil Nadu archaeology division has set up 15 site museums close to excavated sites, including the underwater museum at Poompuhar.
The categorisation of artefacts has been sensibly structured on trades, thus indicating the presence of a fairly advanced urban settlement in the area. Sections include iron tools, ceramics, sea trade, weaving, agrarian and water management, and lifestyle.
Between ornaments and tools, the museum has been cleaned up to display ivory combs, gold ornaments, coins and seals, precious and semi-precious stones, all singing silent paeans to the smelting abilities and craft of the people of the Sangam age, and the vibrant trans-oceanic trade prevalent at the time. A tiny Roman coin glints under the spotlights in a case, just an infinitesimal piece, but in historical value, a veritable treasure.
Even if you are not of a morbid disposition, a display section that is bound to draw jaw-dropping attention is the grave goods section excavated from the Keeladi-Kondagai site where the burial urns with skeletons are stacked in pretty much the same position they were found in, with the husks that remain of rice offerings, carnelian beads, and other oblations to send the dead on their way.
Between trade and death, there was also life: on display are children’s toys, beads, daggers, games, agricultural implements, spindles, kitchen tools, and intricate ring wells. The visual displays are bound to be interesting for children, as there are virtual simulation consoles, allowing the little ones to have a sense of games of the past.