How floods brought to life Kerala's Iron Age

How floods brought to life Kerala's Iron Age
Pottery shards and a sword's iron handle discovered recently from Gopalakrishnan Nair's plot.

The baked-clay figurines of exquisite craftsmanship – naked ornamented goddesses and fang-spouting 'naga' gods – the floods had unearthed along the Pampa near Aranmula last September could perhaps throw open a new window to Kerala's medieval history. But these medieval clay sculptures, while themselves revealing a side of Kerala that was thought lost, were also a clue that led archaeologists to another valuable find said to be innumerable centuries older. Iron Age burial chambers.

“On seeing these terracotta figurines and pottery shards near Aranmula, one of my students, Gopika, told me that she had seen similar things at her home nearby,” said Rajiv Puliyoor, an archaeology enthusiast. He was at the site where the figurines had washed up after the floods with the students of Nedumkandam College of Teacher Education.

Gopika's house was slightly up the hill some four kilometres away from the site. A single-storey concrete house stands dwarfed in the middle of a vast coconut and palm grove. The cists or chambers were found at the left side of the house. “I went there with experts and our preliminary exploration established that there were at least four underground Iron Age burial chambers in the plot,” Rajiv said. The site has not yet been explored as it requires the permission of the Archaeological Survey of India.

In Marquez's world

Gopika's father Mathesseril Gopalakrishnan Nair is still amused by what had happened. “The archaeologists told me that these cists are some 3000 years old,” Nair said. As he took the Onmanorama team around the plot, the 52-year-old man seemed as excited as someone who had suddenly found himself in a magical realist world. Stories that he was told as a child had suddenly acquired new meanings. It was as if myth and reality just found common ground in his plot.

“During my childhood I was told that gold particles had risen from this land like sparks from a flower pot cracker,” Nair said. He was also told by his 80-year-old mother that her father had a strange experience while digging this property nearly a century ago. “When the digging reached a certain depth, my grandfather who is known for his strength is said to have lost breath. He just couldn't go on digging,” Nair said.

How floods brought to life Kerala's Iron Age
Mathesseril Gopalakrishnan Nair

The grandson had done worse things to the land but Nair has not had any such out-of-the-world experience. He said that construction workers had found large clay pots when they dug up the place to build the house some 35 years ago. “We did not think much of it then. We did not preserve it either because these pieces crumbled the moment you touched it,” Nair said.

Unknown flows the past

Nair shows us a long slab of laterite stone above ground in his plot. “This stone has been here for as long as I remember. They say that this is the boundary of the cist,” he said. He then points a few metres ahead where just a few months ago his washing stone was. “They say that there is a chamber under that area, too,” he said. Reason why he shifted his washing stone to another place.

“Earlier we used to wonder why the water never sinks near the washing stone even if we had not washed for two or three days,” Nair said. He then leads us a few metres behind to his small chicken coop that stands on stilts. “There was another stone under this,” Nair points to the space under the coop. There was nothing. “I had taken the stone out for construction but it was of no use,” Nair said.

Return of the past

Now, it is as if Nair's entire plot is filled with ancient booty. A fortnight ago, when he tried to dig up a place he thought was safe to plant a plantain tree, Nair found some pottery shards, including a large pot lid of refined craftsmanship, and the rusted handle of an iron sword. “After about one feet we found these pottery pieces. On further digging, I hit a stone slab. I was unable to dig further,” Nair said. Underneath could be yet another cist.

Rajiv Puliyoor was worried when we told him about Nair's latest find. “He should not be doing this. These pieces should not be exposed to sunlight and should be taken out in a highly scientific manner,” Rajiv said. But this can be done only after the ASI gives its green light.

Noted historian N K Raghava Warrier who had visited Nair's house said the place had megalithic cists. “The terracotta figurines found near Pampa are not as old. But the cists underneath that plot belong to the megalithic period or Iron Age,” Warrier said. He reckons that the cists were constructed between 1000 BCE and 500 CE (Christ Era). The invention of iron tools during the age had made the sculpting of stone and granite easier.

Two months ago, megalithic cists were discovered in a place called Poonthangara, a few kilometres from Nair's house. Almost a decade ago, another burial cist was discovered near Konni, which is also less than 20 km from Nair's house.

Once the ASI grants permission, Nair's plot will be taken over. “However, the land will be given back to him as it was after the excavation,” said Rajiv Puliyoor who is also the secretary of Pampa Basin Study and Research Committee.

Burial cists and afterlife

According to noted archaeologist P Rajendran, underground cists are deceptively simple structures. “They have a vertical lid, four slabs on the sides and then a stone floor,” he said. Interestingly, hundreds of burial cists excavated in various parts of the state have nearly similar architecture. “This perhaps suggests uniform burial rituals across the span that now forms Kerala,” Rajendran said.

He said that it was usual to find pottery, ornaments and hunting tools along with fragments of skull and other bone parts. People might have been buried along with the things that are closest to them. The similarity of the ornaments and the clay utensils also suggest flourishing trade in these products during those times.

Curiously, a full skeleton was never found in any of these cists. “This could mean that these cists are not primary burial sights. These could have been the places where people kept the remains after the cremation,” Raghava warrier said.

Inside certain cists in North Kerala, gold of the purest variety has been found. “Alloy technology was unknown then and therefore the gold was found in its purest form,” Rajendran said. Nair and family could be lucky. “If gold or silver or other precious gems are discovered from these underground chambers, the owner of the plot will be offered the current value of the gold and then an additional 20 per cent,” Rajiv Puliyoor said.

Most of these cists have a porthole, a circular or rectangular hole on the top lid or the side stone slabs. Nair, too, had found a hole in one of the slabs that his digging hoe had once struck upon. “Perhaps this could be an opening for the spirit to easily flow into the afterlife,” Rajendran said.

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