Ancient bowl of rice complicates the story of civilization in India
R ARELY CAN a spoonful of rice made so much noise. When Deputy Stalin, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, addressed the South Indian state legislature on September 9, he celebrated a moldy sample of the country’s humble staple. Carbon dating by an American lab, he said, had just proven that the rice, found in a small clay offering bowl – itself tucked away in a funeral urn outside the village of Sivakalai , near the southern tip of India – was some 3,200 years old. This made it the first evidence yet found of civilization in Tamil Nadu. The first duty of his government, the Chief Minister declared triumphantly, was to establish that the history of India “begins from the landscape of the Tamils.”
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The received wisdom about the early history of India is that civilization generally flowed the other way, north to south. So why is a provincial politician so eager to reverse this narrative? The answer lies in modern identity politics as much as in archeology.
Mr. Stalin’s party, which returned to power in Tamil Nadu in May after a decade in the desert, has secular roots and has vowed to defend southern India, and especially its Dravidian languages, against domination. culture perceived by the much more populated north. This threat has increased since 2014, when the Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata (BJP) took control of the national government. With its stronghold in the conservative north, the BJP tends to see not strength, but weakness in diversity. He also tends to view the past as a simple story of the rise of a Sanskrit civilization – Sanskrit being the language of Hindu texts and the ancestor of most Indo-European languages spoken in northern India. – which culminated in a Pan-Indian Golden Age, followed by a sad decline in a millennium of Muslim and Christian rule.
Supporting a Tamil counter-narrative requires evidence, which is why archeology is important. Aside from the rich and sophisticated ancient Tamil poetry known as Sangam literature, so far there has been little evidence of the southern claim to equal antiquity on the ground. The two annual monsoons of Tamil Nadu and the long seasons of extreme heat destroy the remains of bricks or wood. Ethnic nationalists also accuse authorities in remote Delhi, India’s capital, of devoting far more resources to archeology in the north than in the south.
But the balance of discoveries has changed; Mr. Stalin’s pot of rice was not the first surprising recent discovery in Tamil Nadu. Over the past decade, estimates of the onset of urban settlement in the state have been steadily pushed back from around 300Before Christ to 1155Before Christ carbon date of the Sivakalai rice offering. The biggest breakthrough took place in 2014 near a village called Keeladi, outside the city of Madurai. A local truck driver is said to have heard archaeologists chatting at a roadside tea stand. He took them to a palm grove where he confessed to stealing coconuts. It was littered with shards of ancient pottery.
Now in its seventh season of excavation, the 110-acre site (pictured) has not revealed any great monuments or rich treasures. Rather, the grid of deep trenches, cut into six acres so far, has produced abundant evidence of continued urban settlement since the early 6th century. Before Christ, as well as industries such as weaving and pottery and extensive trade. The oldest layers of Keeladi show no sign of Hindu influence, and in fact no indication of religious worship. But an abundance of writings show clear links to later Tamil writing and, surprisingly, similarities to the pre-Sanskrit graffiti of the oldest urban settlements on the subcontinent: those of the Valley Civilization. Indus (IVC), which flourished in the far northwest around 3000-2000Before Christ.
Dig for victory
No one disputes that the Tamils, who are roughly the same number as the Germans (not counting 3 million people in Sri Lanka and a diaspora of 5 million people spread from South Africa to Singapore via Silicon Valley), have a long and illustrious past. Sangam literature, a body of some 2,381 love poems written by 473 poets, dates back to a courtly era when the kingdoms of South India traded with the Roman Empire. Tamil sailors then transported Hinduism and Buddhism to Southeast Asia; the giant temples of Borobudur in 7th century Java A D, and those of Angkor Wat in Cambodia of the 12th century, bear this heritage.
Less certain is Mr. Stalin’s suggestion that the Tamils represent the oldest thread in the intricate tapestry of cultures of the Indian subcontinent. The evidence points firmly elsewhere and earlier. The IVC flourished during a time when the Egyptians were building pyramids and the first city-states appeared in Mesopotamia. Its most impressive site is Mohenjo-daro, a city believed to have housed 40,000 souls in what is now Pakistan. This well-documented civilization collapsed and disappeared before 1900Before Christ– at least 700 years before someone blew up an offering of rice in a clay pot in Sivakalai, about 2,300 km to the south.
As you dig deeper into Tamil Nadu, you will surely find more discoveries, but they are highly unlikely to render them obsolete. IVC. Instead, what may become clear is that urban settlement emerged quite independently in the far south of India around the same time as it did. D-has emerged in the north: less historical bragging rights for Tamil nationalists, but still a price to be had.
Partly because no Rosetta Stone has yet been found to help decipher IVC scripts, the biggest mysteries in Indian history are why he died and what happened next. Archeology, genetics, and linguistics all suggest that what followed in northern India was an extended interregnum. Then, perhaps shortly before a Tamil mourning person makes their funeral offering, an influx of Central Asian and Indo-European speaking peoples on horseback seems to have introduced a new pastoral culture and what is ultimately became a new religion: Hinduism.
Historians believe that the early Vedas, the earliest oral traditions of Hinduism, may have emerged around 1500Before Christ. The mighty Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, took shape more than a millennium later. A few centuries later, around the time when Alexander the Great marched a Greek army through the Hindu Kush, written history arrived. And as Indian schoolchildren learn, the first ruler to unite the dispersed and warring kingdoms of the land was Ashoka the Great, in around 250Before Christ.
But as vast as it is, Ashoka’s ephemeral empire never reached southern Tamil. Over time, Tamils have culturally assimilated to the rest of India, adopting a rigid caste system topped by a Sanskritized priesthood; but it was only under the British Raj that the far south became part of the same political regime as northern India. The Tamil experience was unusual in other respects: while the Muslim dynasties conquered and ruled much of the north for 800 years, in the south Muslims arrived by sea as traders, which they are remained, most of the time peacefully.
The Tamils for the most part fit happily into today’s Indian mosaic of some 22 large language groups and hundreds of smaller ones. But they feel a bit different and a bit special. “They present us as small states and want to make the history of the south a small event,” says Kanimozhi Mathi, a lawyer from Chennai who, in 2018, sued the government when it threatened to close the Keeladi excavation. . “But we are not just one state among many. We are a nation. ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “The Tale of the Rice Bowl”