The Indian school teachers who are pioneering archaeology
Across India, school teachers and other people from ordinary walks of life have made stunning archaeological discoveries of great import, and this piece honours them and their contributions to the world.
Karu. Rajendran looks simple. He wears a white dhoti and a white shirt. As Rajendran, a photographer and this writer entered a street in the Kottur main village in Pudukottai district, Tamil Nadu, three women were seated on the ground in front of a nondescript house. On spotting Rajendran coming down the unpaved street, the women got up quickly and cried out respectfully in Tamil, "Vadhiyar Iyah vandhu irukkiraru." ("Teacher sir has come.”)
Soon we were on our way, with the villagers and a priest having given us permission to take pictures of the Ayyanar temple at the Kottur Melavasal village. The open-air temple has a couple of hundreds of massive terracotta horses installed there. The temple is surrounded by hillocks, boulders and scrub jungles. A large rock forms the backdrop to the sanctum with the images of the Ayyanar; Karuppar with a sickle in his right hand, Pillaithachi Amman, a female deity with an infant, and other deities. In front are rows of painted terracotta horses and dogs with bared teeth that are both large and small. The villagers had earlier told us, "But for our teacher, Rajendran sir, coming with you, we would not have given you permission to take pictures of the Ayyanar temple with the terracotta horses."
It is the same reaction everywhere. At the arid Melappanaiyur village in Pudukottai district, to which Rajendran belongs, Adheena Milagi, the priest of the Angala Amman shrine, was polite but blunt. "But for teacher sir, we will not give you permission to take pictures of our temple", Adheena Milagi said. The Angala Amman temple has rows of armed warriors, riding horses, all made of terracotta. Rajendran then leads to a "kaattu kovil" (jungle temple), situated a few km away. It is an incredible sight. Surrounded by the jungle, in a clearing inside are several hundreds of large and small terracotta horses, beautifully decorated with applique designs. Besides, there are terracotta figurines of bulls and cows, hooded serpents, and large-breasted women and babies called madhalai.
In about 10 other villages, we take pictures of these armies of terracotta horses in the open-air Ayyanar temples in Pudukottai district, thanks to "teacher sir" Rajendran. These armies of terracotta horses constitute what is called puravi eduppu or kudirai eduppu , a religious festival that is celebrated in Pudukottai and Madurai districts in Tamil Nadu. The figurines of horses are votive offerings, installed by villagers who pray to the Ayyanar for plenty of rain and a good harvest. The villagers carry these horse figurines in a procession on palanquin-like structures and install them in front of the Ayyanar deity in a thanksgiving ritual.
Cut to Athangudi, Kadiapatti, Kanadu Kaathan, Kothamangalam, Kottapattu, Rangiyam or any prosperous village in the Chettinad region in Pudukottai and Sivaganga districts. As we stood awestruck in front of huge Chettinad houses in these villages, which are virtually palaces with a built-up area of 50,000 square feet to an acre and a half, somebody or the other always recognised Rajendran. In no time, we got permission to take pictures of the interiors of these massive Chettinad houses, with their array of priceless artefacts. Rajendran is knowledgeable about the architecture of these houses with their domes, turrets and stained glass windows.
In sum, Rajendran, who was a primary school teacher in Government-run schools in Pudukottai district, is a self-taught epigraphist and archaeologist. He is widely regarded for his discovery of more than 900 ancient Tamil inscriptions that belong to various dynasties.
Importantly, it was Rajendran who discovered the three inscriptions relating to the Kalabrahs at Pulangurichi village in Sivaganga district in 1980. He found the inscriptions engraved at the bottom of a sloping rock near the mouth of an irrigation tank. Dr R. Nagaswamy, reputed epigraphist, archaeologist and iconographer called it "an outstanding epigraphical discovery of Tamil Nadu". For only scanty information was available then about the Kalabrahs, who ruled parts of Tamil Nadu from the third century CE to the sixth century CE. Dr Y. Subbarayalu, reputed historian and archaeologist, in his essay called "The Pulangurichi Inscriptions", described them as "quite exceptional and interesting, both for political and socio-economic history." Dr Subbarayalu has assigned the Pulangurichi letters to "a date around AD 500." (Studies in Cola History by Y. Subbarayalu, 2001, Surabhi Pathippakam, Chennai-20).
Cycling his way around and gifted with an eagle eye, Rajendran keeps discovering inscriptions on rocks, sluice slabs in irrigation tanks, in temples and other places. Although he is in his 70s, age has not dimmed his zest for making discoveries. "Yesterday [on July 14, 2020], I discovered an inscription at Kottur in Tirumayam taluq in Pudukottai district and took an estampage", he told this writer with justifiable pride.
From the 1960s, school teachers in different parts of India have made a remarkable contribution to archaeology with their discoveries. Besides Rajendran, these school teachers include Ramesh Kumar Pancholi from Madhya Pradesh, and V. Balasubramaniam and A. Manickam, both from Tamil Nadu. They do not live in big cities or towns but in interior villages. Their passion for archaeology is such that despite the logistical handicap of living in interior villages, they are on the hunt for new finds. During weekends and vacations, they would cycle about 40 km a day, looking for rock art sites, loose sculptures of Jaina Tirthankaras or the Buddha lying in paddy fields, Iron Age megalithic urn burial sites, menhirs, dolmens, inscriptions, copper plate charters, palm leaf manuscripts, hill-top forts in ruins etc.
Ramesh Kumar Pancholi, who was a teacher in a Government middle school in Madhya Pradesh, discovered the world's longest rock art gallery at a place called Chaturbhujnath-Nala in the Chambal valley in Mandsaur district. These paintings in a series of rock-shelters at Chaturbhujnath-Nala (CBN) run to a length of 1.2 km. There are more than 2,510 paintings, including miniature paintings less than one cm in size. By any standard, it is an extraordinary discovery. The paintings belong to the late Mesolithic Age. The Mesolithic Age is datable from circa 10000 BCE to circa 3000 BCE. Pancholi's obsession with rock art was such that his dissertation for his M.A. from Vikram University was on the rock art of the Bhanpura region in Madhya Pradesh.
Dr Giriraj Kumar, secretary-general, Rock Art Society of India (RASI), is so enamoured of the paintings at CBN that he declared, "Visiting the rock art site at Chaturbhujnath Nala is a pilgrimage for me." Dr Giriraj Kumar, who has been studying the paintings at CBN from 1978, said, "I have documented all the rock art there and written an analytical study of them." His book on the CBN rock art will be out soon. He retired as Professor in Rock Arts Science at the faculty of arts in Dayalbagh Educational Institute, Agra.
It is to the credit of 77-year-old Pancholi that he also discovered what he called "the oldest site of petroglyphs [cupules] in the world" at Daraki-Chattan in the Chambal valley. Daraki-Chattan is a narrow and deep cave made of hard quartzite rock in Bhanpura tehsil and its vertical walls have 530 cupules. These cupules are hollow, cup-marks hammered into rocks by pre-historic man. Hammerstones, which were used to make the cupules, were found in the Daraki-Chattan cave. The cupules here form various patterns. The cupules at Daraki-Chattan belong to the lower Paleolithic age and they are estimated to be two lakh years old.
R.C. Agrawal, retired joint director-general, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), said on July 17, 2020: "The cupules at Daraki-Chattan were first noticed by Pancholi in 1989. But its significance was not established then. Later, they were seen by Dr Giriraj Kumar who realised their significance. The entire credit goes to Dr Giriraj Kumar for establishing the site's importance."
Dr Agrawal, who is a specialist in rock art, was sure that the cupules at Daraki-Chattan belonged to the lower Paleolithic age. "They are about two lakh years old. This is not absolute dating but conservative dating", he said.
Again, it was school teacher V. Balasubramaniam, who discovered the Sangam age urban site at Keezhadi, about 13 km from Madurai. It has turned out to be a seminal discovery because excavations at Keezhadi during the past six field seasons have yielded a spectacular bonanza of artefacts. While the ASI teams led by K. Amarnath Ramakrishna and P.S. Sriraman excavated Keezhadi during the first three field seasons, the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department (TNAD) did the fourth and fifth. TNAD is currently digging the site in the sixth field season.
Indeed, it was Balasubramanian, who was the Headmaster of the Government High School at Keezhadi, who first demanded that a site museum should be established there to showcase to the world the cornucopia of artefacts unearthed there.
A. Manickam, another school teacher, is sought after now by journalists and archaeology buffs after he discovered the Iron Age urn burial site at Sivakalai village, Tuticorin district, Tamil Nadu in 2015. He teaches history at Sri Kumara Gurubarar Higher Secondary School at Sivakalai. An important feature about the Sivakalai site is that it has both a burial mound and two habitational mounds. He wrote to the ASI, New Delhi and TNAD about what he found on the surface of the burial and the habitation mounds at Sivakalai: exposed rims of urns, black and redware, iron implements such as daggers, knives and swords, copper objects and so on. Today, the 44-year old Manickam is thrilled that his sustained efforts to get Sivakalai excavated have paid off. TNAD is currently excavating the burial and excavation mounds there. (Asiaville News, June 20, 2020).
S. Sathasivam, 37 years old, is not a teacher. He is a carpenter by profession. He dropped out of school after he completed the fifth standard but he has the knowledge to be called an archaeologist. He has read 54 historic novels in Tamil, authored by the popular writer Sandilyan. "It is surely Sandilyan who led me to the field of history and archaeology," Sathasivam said. He talks about Iron Age burial sites with cairn circles, rouletted ware, black and redware, dolmens, hero stones and so forth. He lives in Gudimangalam village, about 12 km from the small town of Udumalpet, Tiruppur district, Tamil Nadu. But he "roams", as he himself says, around Coimbatore, Tiruppur and neighbouring districts, and has discovered several megalithic burial sites with cairn circles, inscriptions, dolmens, menhirs and hero stones. He can read inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi and Vatelluttu scripts.
A single incident would suffice to reveal the young Sathasivam's zeal for archaeology. When he applied for admission to a one-year diploma course in Epigraphy and Archaeology in the PSG College of Arts and Science, Coimbatore, he was chagrined to learn that he could not join the course because he had studied only up to the fifth standard and that the minimum qualification was a pass in Plus Two examinations. So he made his wife, who had passed Plus Two examinations, join the course and he went along with her. On learning about his passion for archaeology, lecturer S. Ravi allowed him to join the course.
Coming back to teacher Rajendran, his forte lay in discovering Tamil inscriptions engraved on sluice slabs in irrigation tanks and ponds in Tamil Nadu. "In 1980, I became the first person to discover the 13th-century Tamil inscription engraved on the sluice slabs in the irrigation tank in my village, Melappanaiyur", he said. In addition, he found sluice inscriptions of Uttama Chola (regnal years 970 CE to 985 CE) and Raja Raja Chola (regnal years 985 CE to 1014) CE at Ariyur and that of Rajendra Chola (1012 CE to 1044 CE) at Arasamalai. He discovered the sluice inscription of Varaguna Pandya in the sprawling irrigation tank called "Kavinattu Kanmaai" near the Pudukottai town.
"In Tamil Nadu, there are about 46,000 irrigation tanks and ponds. So far, 250 inscriptions in Tamil have been found on the stone sluice gates erected in them. Of these 250 inscriptions, I found 50 in Pudukottai, Sivaganga and Madurai districts," Rajendran said. In sum, he has discovered more than 900 undocumented inscriptions on sluice gates, temple walls, pillars and door jambs, stone slabs lying in the open and other places. He has written a 302-page book titled, "Lithic Inscriptions in Pudukottai Region (New Discoveries)", published by the Pandya Nadu History Research Centre, Madurai, in 2017.
Rajendran's interest in epigraphy blossomed in 1966 when he was a school student in 1966 and he would go to the Siva temple in his village Melappanaiyur to play in the temple premises or take part in its festivals. The temple had a surfeit of inscriptions, which puzzled him. He wanted to know what they said. He slowly learnt how to read these inscriptions. Over a period of time, he could read them fast. "So, wherever I went and chanced upon lithic inscriptions, I had the urge to read them", he said. When he read the book, published in 1929 by the rulers of the Pudukottai princely State, which had details of 1,130 inscriptions in the region, he figured out whether the inscriptions he had discovered were new or they were already documented in the book. If it was a new inscription, he would inform the TNAD. "Epigraphist S. Rajagopal from the TNAD will arrive. We will go together to the findspot and Dr Rajagopal will analyse the new inscription," he said.
Other disciplines in archaeology have also fascinated Rajendran. He has discovered a number of Iron Age megalithic burial sites in Pudukottai, Sivaganga and Madurai districts, including the one at Kannanur. He has so far found 50 villages in these districts with armies of big terracotta horses in the open-air Ayyanar temples. He has documented 20 choultries built by the Pudukottai rulers in the 17th and 18th centuries.
"On Saturdays and Sundays, I used to cycle about 40 km a day, looking for unpublished inscriptions, megalithic burial sites, dolmens and menhirs. For the past seven years, I ride a moped", said Rajendran.
Schoolteacher Pancholi's flair lay in discovering rock art sites. As already mentioned, his two outstanding discoveries are the world's longest rock art gallery at CBN and the cupules in the narrow cave at Daraki-Chattan, which is the world's oldest site with cupules.
Pancholi, who lives in Lotkhedi village, Mandsaur tehsil, Madhya Pradesh, said his interest in archaeology grew when his mother's uncle would take him to various monuments in the Bhanpura region. After he became a teacher in the Government Middle School in Bhanpura town, he started collecting stone tools made by pre-historic man. "On Sundays, I will pack some flour and fill a water bottle, and wander around on the Aravalli hill ranges and the Vindhya ranges. I will take my students to rock shelters in the Chambal valley. I discovered so many rock shelters with paintings there," he told this writer.
Dr Giriraj Kumar (repeat Giriraj Kumar) said the pre-historic man had used two types of naturally occurring pigments in painting the figures at CBN. They were red ferric oxide and red ferrous oxide (red ochre). Black colours were used rarely. CBN rock art belonged to the late Mesolithic Period when there was a transition from the hunting and gathering of food to the domestication of cattle, he said. The themes represented in the CBN rock art included hunting scenes, group dances, men hunting elephants with spears, bird riders etc. "The paintings show men mostly using stringless bows and different kinds of arrows. The figures portrayed are dynamic," Dr Giriraj Kumar said. These paintings showed the pre-historic artists' "perception of reality" around them, he added.
The artists also drew miniature forms of animals and humans, which vary from a few millimetres to about five cm in size. There are a total of 115 miniature figures in eight rock shelters at CBN. A beautiful miniature composition, 9 cm x 6 cm in size, showed in perspective four persons marching one behind the other.
Although a series of controversies and court cases have hobbled the excavations at Keezhadi, there is no doubt that the Keezhadi Sangam age site will be a lighthouse for other excavations that might follow in the Vaigai river valley. The credit for discovering the site in 1974 goes to V. Balasubramaniam, who was then a teacher of history in the Government High School at Keezhadi. "As a teacher of history, I was keen that my pupils should first learn the local history," 78-year old Balasubramaniam said. "I, therefore, encouraged my pupils to look for lithic inscriptions, palm-leaf manuscripts, sculptures and abandoned buildings", he said.
In 1974, some students told him that big bricks had been found when a well was being dug at a place called Pallichandai Pudur in Keezhadi. When Balasubramaniam went to the spot, he found fired bricks large in size, a terracotta figurine of a human head, black and redware, beads, and more. Balasubramaniam brought those artefacts to the school and displayed them in what he named the History Corner. The then Headmaster P. Palaniappan encouraged him to do so. When a letter was written to the then Ramanathapuram Collector about the finds, "the letter went down like a stone dropped in a well", Balasubramaniam said.
When TNAD organised a six-week course in 1976 at Madurai on epigraphy and archaeology for teachers, Balasubramaniam joined it. He reminisced, "I informed Dr R. Nagaswamy, then Director, TNAD, about the Keezhadi artefacts kept in the school. He sent epigraphist V. Vedachalam along with me in a vehicle to fetch them. The artefacts were displayed in Madurai. When Dr Nagaswamy saw them, he declared that they belonged to the Sangam age." The ASI excavation began in 2014, with Amarnath Ramakrishna as the director of the excavation.
Several thousands of artefacts have been found in the last five seasons of excavations. They include Sangam age bricks, beads made out of pearl, gold, semi-precious stones and glass, ivory combs, ivory dices, ivory gamesmen, conch shell bangles, silver coins, spectacularly deep terracotta ring wells, furnaces, dyeing vats, paved brick floors, remnants of residential houses built with bricks, terracotta pipelines, potsherds with Tamil-Brahmi scripts, potsherds with fish symbols and graffiti, black and redware, rouletted ware, white painted black and redware, grooved roof tiles, and iron objects such as spearheads, daggers and knives.
Balasubramaniam has also discovered several undocumented inscriptions, and sculptures of Jaina Tirthankaras and the Buddha.
With his infectious enthusiasm for archaeology, Sathasivam talks non-stop like a machine gun firing. A carpenter by profession, he does not allow his lack of high school and collegiate education to deter his quest for discovering archaeological sites. At Kongal Nagaram, Tiruppur district, he found an Iron Age, urn burial site and a habitation mound too. He was, however, pained that people had indiscriminately dug up many artefacts when they were working under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme at Kongal Nagaram. "I found many urns and a sarcophagus. All were broken," he said with distress. There were 80 potsherds with graffiti signs and a potsherd with a Tami-Brahmi script reading "Amana". The Tamil word Amana or Samana means a Jain.
In 2011 in Tiruppur district, he discovered megalithic urn-burials with cairn circles in villages such as Metrathi, Orambur, Chithur and Injipatti. At Karappadi, he found cairn circles with urn burials and a habitation mound too. "In the Siva temple at Karappadi, I found 40 undocumented inscriptions. The ASI staff arrived and took estampages of them. The temple belongs to the Kongu Chola period", Sathasivam said. His list of finds includes hero stones, menhirs and dolmens.