Buried history T. SINGARAVELOU



Frontline -Volume 27 – Issue 20 :: Sep. 25-Oct. 08, 2010
INDIA’S NATIONAL MAGAZINE – from the publishers of THE HINDU
Professor K. Rajan, leader of the excavation project, displaying a miniature four-legged jar.
OF the four Iron Age and Early Historic Age burial sites that were excavated in 2009 and 2010 at Porunthal village, one stands out for the spectacular variety and richness of grave goods that it has yielded. There are, among other things, two ring stands with similar Tamil-Brahmi scripts; a pair of stirrups placed around one of them; 7,500 beads made of steatite, carnelian, quartz and agate; 14 four-legged jars ranging in size from the miniature variety to one with a height of one metre; about two kilograms of paddy in one such jar; urns with beautiful designs on their shoulders; bowls; plates; vases; iron swords; knives, and so on. This has led to a debate among archaeologists in Tamil Nadu about whose grave it was – whether it was that of a chieftain or the leader of a clan.

An important feature of the excavation at Porunthal’s habitational site called Pasi Medu and the four graves was that it was done jointly by students of Pondicherry University; Tamil University, Thanjavur; Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupati; Mangalore University; Kuvempu University, Shimoga; and the Deccan College, Pune. Women students took part in the backbreaking work of marking the trenches, digging them, and carefully unearthing and cataloguing the artefacts. No labourers were employed in any activity. “Students played a major part in the excavation,” said K. Rajan, excavation director and Professor, Department of History, Pondicherry University. The site supervisers included V.P. Yathees Kumar, S. Selvakumar, M. Prasanna, Sandeep Shetty, R. Ramesh, G. Babu, R. Ezhilraman and A. Perumal.

Professor J.A.K. Tareen, Vice-Chancellor, Pondicherry University, said his university was taking a lead in preserving India’s culture and the Porunthal excavation showed another dimension of the multifaceted growth of the university. He congratulated Prof. Rajan and his team on unearthing a variety of rich artefacts, which would throw light on the socio-economic aspects of life in ancient Tamil Nadu. Tareen said the excavation was funded by Pondicherry University, the University Grants Commission, the Central Institute of Classical Tamil, Chennai, and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Professor D. Sambandhan, Dean, School of Social Sciences and International Studies, Pondicherry University, said an interesting aspect of the Porunthal excavation was the direct involvement of students. The richness and variety of artefacts found demonstrated that people in the area led a culturally and technologically advanced life 2,300 years ago, he said.


Grains of paddy found at the burial site.

“Double-cisted burial sites are a unique feature of Porunthal. Besides, there was a rare double porthole in a slab that transepted a chamber in two compartments,” said Rajan. (A cist is a prehistoric underground burial chamber made with stone slabs. Above the cists, on the ground, there are generally stone circles or cairn circles to indicate that there are graves below.) The four graves were cist burials, of simple and transepted varieties. They had big stone circles above, on the ground.

One of the graves had above it a stone circle of huge boulders, and having a diameter of 12.5 metres. When it was opened, it revealed that a cist with a passage was meticulously placed at the centre of the circle. The cist was divided into two parts by a transepting slab made of granite, resulting in northern and southern chambers. The slab had a porthole. The southern chamber had as many as 14 four-legged jars, ranging from the miniature variety, 12 cm in height, to one that was one metre tall. There were several pots of red polished ware, black and red ware bowls, and black-slipped ware plates. They were placed on a bench made of stone slabs at the level of the porthole and they were arranged around the remains of a human skeleton on the bench. More than 3,000 beads made of steatite, quartz, carnelian and agate were found close to the skeletal remains. “These cultural items placed on the bench indicate that some kind of ritual had taken place,” said Rajan. The northern chamber yielded several four-legged jars, pots, vases and ring stands among other things.

Interestingly, one ring stand of red-slipped ware was placed almost at the centre of the northern chamber. Around this ring stand, 22 etched carnelian beads were placed like a necklace. There were five more beads inside the ring stand. The outer surface of the ring stand had four symbols engraved on them. While the first three signs are Tamil-Brahmi letters, the fourth was a symbol of an etched bead, with a thread emerging from it. Another ring stand was found with similar Tamil-Brahmi letters and the symbol of the bead with the thread. Several pieces of pottery were also found with the symbol of the bead with the thread.


A four-legged jar containing 2 kg of paddy found in one of the graves.

Irvatham Mahadevan, specialist in the Tamil-Brahmi and Indus scripts, and V. Vedachalam and S. Rajavelu, senior epigraphists, read the three letters as “Va-yi-ra’ meaning “diamond” in Tamil.

Besides the necklace placed around this ring stand with Tamil-Brahmi letters, a pair of stirrups were kept close to it. Around this pair of stirrups, thousands of steatite beads were placed. This grave alone yielded about 7,500 beads of steatite, carnelian, quartz and agate, along with iron swords, arrow heads, plates, dishes, vases, and so on. “This was the highest number of beads so far collected from any grave in Tamil Nadu,” Rajan said.

Another important find was a big quantity of well-preserved paddy placed as a grave good in the one-metre-tall four-legged jar. “The richness of the grave goods, the chamber size, the high level of rituals performed, and the occurrence of the Tamil-Brahmi script, paddy and the stirrups point to the importance of the man who was buried there. In all probability, as pointed out by Dr Subbarayalu, this grave was that of a chieftain or a clan leader,” said Rajan.T. SINGARAVELOU


An urn found at the burial site, with a chain-like design around it. In some urns the chains meet, in some they do not. These are burial urns. The storage urns do not have the design.

Another important find in this grave was a broken four-legged jar with a beautiful painting, in black and white, of a peacock, and another animal, perhaps a bull. The peacock’s feathers are not spread out. “Such type of representations have been seen in cemetery “H” of the Harappan culture. Such paintings of peacocks are found only on grave pottery and this is so both at Harappa and Porunthal. However, there is a big chronological gap between Harappa and the Porunthal discovery,” Rajan said.

Several urns with skeletal remains were found in the cists. Some of them had designs running around their shoulders. In some, these designs were joined like a chain. In a few, the designs did not meet. Urns of these two varieties were used for burials. Urns, without any designs, were used for storage, Rajan explained.
T.S. Subramanian