Kerala (Inde): Digging up the past

Anand Narayanan

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The narrow stretch of land bordered by the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea had a rich history of cities, commerce, wealth, and wisdom. Today, much of Kerala’s past is hidden from us. Uncovering its ruins, scattered in space and time, is a skilful adventure. Few know its rigours better than archaeologist Ajit Kumar of the University of Kerala. Season after season, Ajit and his team of researchers have carried out excavations in sites of historical importance, piecing together hard evidence that go right into the antiquity of Kerala.

“The history of human race in Kerala stretches back into incredibly early periods,” says Ajit. “Our explorations have exposed quartz tools and other artefacts from the Nilambur area that can be traced back at least to 50,000 years, which means the land was inhabited during the Palaeolithic period itself. The most prolific evidence of human habitation in Kerala comes in the form of stone structures called megaliths, which lie scattered all throughout Kerala and date as early as 3,000 years. There are also a few sites which have yielded rock-art, though their dating has been controversial. Some of the engravings in Edakkal caves seem to stretch back to around 2,500 years.”

Kerala’s porous borders meant there was always a steady trickling in of people. It mutes the question of who the original dwellers of this land were. “The history of our land is inextricably linked with the great dynasties of Chera, Chola and Pandyas of the Sangam, and post-Sangam periods and with many smaller chieftains who had administered the land. There was cultural and biological mixing with people from Northern India as well as those from Mediterranean, Egypt, Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, who came to our shores from time to time for trade and other reasons,” says Ajit.

There are many historical references to Kerala’s rich maritime trade with ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. An example is the ancient travel guide Periplus Of The Erythrean Sea. In Periplusthere are references to a port town called Balita as a village by the sea with a naturally deep harbour. The next destination mentioned South of it is Kumari, which evidently is Kanyakumari. Balita’s identity has been long searched for. Ajit talks about his team’s latest excavations in Vizhinjam which could turn into a landmark finding in Kerala’s archaeology.

“Balita is, in all probability, Vizhinjam. In the Sangam literature and its contemporary Pandya and Chola copper plate inscriptions there are very graphic descriptions about Vizhinjam as a trading hub with an impregnable fort surrounded by sea on three sides. Taking a cue from these, we conducted a search for this fort in the Vizhinjam area, which we could finally succeed in locating, exactly in the same setting as described in the records. The fort is in its ruins now. To spot it you need to go around with an archaeologist’s eye. Our first round of analysis dates the fort to around 8th century AD which pushes back its antiquity to one of the earliest fort remains in Kerala.


The remnants of a fort believed to be of the Chera era. Photo: S. Gopakumar

The excavations highlight Vizhinjam’s strategic importance in the east-west Indian Ocean trade of the ancient world,” claims Ajit.

As someone with a passion for collecting things, the decision to pursue archaeology came naturally to Ajit. “Even as a little boy, my favourite pastime was collecting old and discarded artefacts. I had collections of almost everything that looked curious to my mind.”