by The Economist, London, December 4, 2021
Rarely can a spoonful of rice have caused such a stir. When M.K. Stalin, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, addressed the south Indian state’s legislature on September 9th, he celebrated a musty sample of the country’s humble staple. Carbon dating by an American laboratory, he said, had just proved that the rice, found in a small clay offering bowl—itself tucked inside a burial urn outside the village of Sivakalai, near the southernmost tip of India—was some 3,200 years old. This made it the earliest evidence yet found of civilisation in Tamil Nadu. The top duty of his government, the chief minister triumphantly declared, was to establish that the history of India “begins from the landscape of the Tamils”.
The received wisdom about India’s early history has been that civilisation generally flowed the other way, from north to south. So why is a provincial politician so keen to turn this narrative upside down? The answer lies in modern identity politics as much as archaeology.
Mr Stalin’s party, which returned to power in Tamil Nadu in May after a decade in the wilderness, has secular roots and is sworn to defend south India, and particularly its Dravidian languages, from perceived cultural dominance by the far more populous north. This threat has grown since 2014, when the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won control of the national government. With its stronghold in the conservative north, the BJP tends to see not strength, but weakness in diversity. It also tends to view the past as a simple story of the rise of a Sanskrit civilisation—Sanskrit being the language of Hindu texts, and ancestor of most Indo-European languages spoken across north India—which peaked in a pan-Indian golden age, followed by sad decline during a millennium of Muslim and Christian rule.
Sustaining a Tamil counter-narrative requires evidence—which is why archaeology matters. Aside from the rich and sophisticated ancient Tamil poetry known as Sangam literature, until now proof of the south’s claim to equal antiquity has been thin on the ground. Tamil Nadu’s two annual monsoons and long seasons of extreme heat are destructive to brick or wooden remains. Ethnic nationalists also accuse authorities in far-off Delhi, India’s capital, of devoting far more resources to archaeology in the north than in the south.
But the balance of discoveries has been changing; Mr Stalin’s rice pot was not the first startling recent find in Tamil Nadu. Over the past decade estimates of when urban settlement began in the state have been pushed steadily back, from around 300BC to the 1155BC carbon date of the Sivakalai rice offering. The biggest breakthrough came in 2014 near a village called Keeladi, outside the city of Madurai. It is said that a local lorry driver overheard archaeologists chatting at a roadside tea stall. He took them to a palm grove where he confessed to stealing coconuts. It was littered with sherds of ancient pottery.
Now in its seventh excavation season, the 110-acre site (pictured) has not turned up big monuments or rich treasures. The grid of deep trenches, cut into six acres so far, has instead produced abundant evidence of continued urban settlement from as long ago as the early sixth century BC, as well as of industries such as weaving and pottery and extensive trade. The older strata at Keeladi reveal no signs of Hindu influence, and indeed no indications of religious worship at all. But a wealth of writing shows clear links to later Tamil script and, tantalisingly, similarities to the pre-Sanskrit graffiti of the very oldest urban settlements in the subcontinent: those of the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC), which flourished in the far north-west from around 3000-2000BC.
Dig for victory
No one disputes that Tamils, who are roughly the same in number as Germans (not including 3m in Sri Lanka and a 5m-strong diaspora spread from South Africa to Singapore to Silicon Valley), have a long and illustrious past. The Sangam literature, a corpus of some 2,381 love poems by 473 poets, dates back to a courtly age when south Indian kingdoms traded with the Roman Empire. Seafaring Tamils later carried Hinduism and Buddhism to South-East Asia; the giant temples of Borobudur in Java of the seventh century AD, and those of Angkor Wat in Cambodia from the 12th century, emblazon that legacy.
Less certain is Mr Stalin’s suggestion that Tamils represent the oldest thread in the Indian subcontinent’s complex tapestry of cultures. The evidence points firmly elsewhere and earlier. The IVC thrived at a time when Egyptians were building pyramids and the first city-states arose in Mesopotamia. Its most impressive site is Mohenjo-daro, a city that may have housed 40,000 souls, in what is now Pakistan. This thoroughly documented civilisation collapsed and disappeared before 1900BC—at least 700 years before someone popped an offering of rice into a clay pot in Sivakalai, around 2,300km to the south.
Further digging in Tamil Nadu will surely turn up more finds, but it is highly doubtful that they will outdate the IVC. Instead, what may become clear is that urban settlement emerged quite independently in India’s far south at more or less the same time as it re-emerged in the north: a lesser historical boast for Tamil nationalists, but still a prize worth having.
Partly because no Rosetta Stone has yet been found to help decipher IVC scripts, the biggest mysteries of Indian history are why it died and what happened next. Archaeology, genetics and linguistics all suggest that what followed in north India was a prolonged interregnum. Then, possibly not long before a Tamil mourner made their funeral offering, an influx of horse-riding, Indo-European-tongued Central Asian peoples seems to have brought in a new pastoral culture and what eventually became a new religion—Hinduism.
Historians believe that the first Vedas, the early oral traditions of Hinduism, may have emerged around 1500BC. The mighty Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, took form over a millennium later. A few centuries after that, around the time Alexander the Great marched a Greek army across the Hindu Kush, written history arrived. And as Indian schoolchildren learn, the first ruler to unite the country’s scattered and warring kingdoms was Ashoka the Great, in about 250BC.
But vast as it was, Ashoka’s short-lived empire never reached the Tamil south. Over time Tamils culturally assimilated with the rest of India, adopting a rigid caste system topped by a Sanskritised priesthood; but it was not until the British Raj that the far south was brought into the same polity as India’s north. The Tamil experience was unusual in other ways: whereas Muslim dynasties conquered and ruled much of the north for 800 years, in the south Muslims arrived by sea as traders, which they remained, mostly peaceably.
Tamils for the most part fit happily into today’s Indian mosaic of some 22 major language groups and hundreds of smaller ones. But they do feel a bit different, and a bit special. “They portray us as little states and want to make the history of the south a small event,” says Kanimozhi Mathi, a lawyer in Chennai who in 2018 sued the government when it threatened to close the Keeladi dig. “But we are not just one state among many. We are a nation.” ■
This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline “The rice bowl’s tale”