Tamil Nadu, Rice, Identity

In the early days of our posting here south Indian rice was a staple in our meals, and we knew that this now global foodstuff had a long history in other cultures. But it looks like the state neighboring where we lived may have found a clue to how much longer they have had rice in their diet:

An ancient rice bowl complicates the story of civilisation in India

In Tamil Nadu, archaeology is part of a contest over history and identity

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…

Read the whole story here.

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