In 2015, a team of archeologists from the Archeological Survey of India (ASI), a body under the culture ministry in the central government, began excavations at a coconut-tree farm at Keezhadi, near Madurai, in southern Tamil Nadu. Over the subsequent two years, the archeologists found over 5,500 artefacts. The team found upon investigation that the artefacts were dated to the Sangam era—a period between 400 BCE and 200 CE, which is widely as the crowning point of Tamil art and literature. The discoveries were the first-ever evidence of an urban civilisation from the Sangam era. But the project has been mired in controversy—at first, a tussle between the ASI and political parties in the state took place, with the latter demanding that the former not take any objects from the site to Karnataka for observation, as they belonged to the state. Then, in October 2016, when approvals and funding for the upcoming year was expected to be granted, the central government withheld approval for a third season of excavation at the Keezhadi site. This prompted severe criticism from within Tamil Nadu. Members of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam raised the issue in parliament, and G Ramakrishnan, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the state, alleged that the move was a result of “political design”—that it was in the interest of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and favourable to the ideology it espouses to prevent details of an independent Tamil culture from surfacing. The excavation was subsequently given the green light in February 2017.
In late March 2017, a few weeks before the third phase was due to begin, the ASI issued a transfer order to Amarnath Ramakrishna, the superintendent archeologist at the site. The transfer did not find favour with experts and politicians in Tamil Nadu, who expressed concern that the order would affect the work at the site. “Such transfers are not generally made during ongoing excavations, particularly in the initial phases,” an archeologist told The Hindu.
Saradha V, a journalist based in Tamil Nadu, spoke to Ramakrishna over the phone. The archeologist discussed the significance of the evidence found at Keezhadi, the issues the team faced in obtaining approval to continue excavation, and his concerns regarding his transfer.
Saradha V: Can you explain the archaeological significance of the Keezhadi site?
Amarnath Ramakrishnan: There have been only two habitation sites excavated in Tamil Nadu so far: Arikkamedu, in 1947, and Kaveripoompattinam, in 1965. All the others have been only burial sites. Keezhadi is only the third habitation site, but it has a far greater importance than the other two. As soon as I took charge of the Bengaluru branch of excavation [the ASI has six excavation branches, of which Bengaluru is one], in 2013, along the Vaigai river, we carried out site identification survey at 293 places. We found 100 habitation sites [that could be excavated]. Of all, those Keezhadi was the most important.