Chennai: Archaeology and the City

waiting in chennai

Chennai: this hot, humid city on the eastern coast of India is fit to bursting with historic and prehistoric archaeology. But the authorities are about to build a much-needed metro line right through it all. Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan tells us about archaeology and what it means to the city.

Until about 1996, my hometown of Chennai was known as Madras, and was the British East India Company’s first “factory” (read for that a fort and the settlement it dominated). It then became the principal city of the company, until Calcutta and Delhi’s emerged under the Raj.

Of course, the city is much older than that. It has four Pallava era temples (4th-9th century) and many more Chola era temples (9th-14th century). And there is a lot to show that the location was inhabited for thousands, even millions, of years before that.

At 13 degrees north of the Equator, and 80 degrees east, this puts the city squarely in the path of early human migration, as they went out of Africa, following the coast and populating the rest of the world as they went.

In fact, some of the oldest stone tools outside of Africa have been found just outside Chennai. Given that there is fascinating archaeology just outside metro limits, there is no reason to assume the inner city wouldn’t have it too.

It’s not all about the Indus civilisation. We’ve got some of the oldest stone tools outside of Africa

layer 5 tool

One of the stone tools from Attirampakkam

The stone tools were originally discovered by Robert Bruce Foote, who called the industry the Madrasian Culture. Some were Oldowan-like, but mainly Acheulean. The site – Attirampakkam – is about 30 kms north west of the old city, near a meandering tributary stream of the river Kortallaiyar.

Later excavations unearthed some great tools and artefacts. One unit – called the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education – run by archaeologists Shanti Pappu and Akilesh Kumar – have been pushing dates for occupation and tool technology here quite significantly – up to 1.5 million years ago.

This is significant especially for me because almost all discussions about India’s archaeology concentrate on the Indus civilisation. I am fascinated by the Indus culture too, and would love for a chance to work on that, but to think or assume that all of India’s prehistory (and, Indus had writing, so it is not really prehistory, is it?) is restricted to that is naive and misleading, even detrimental to studying the complex and complicated narrative of India’s past.

Secondly, this discovery adds so much to our understanding of early human migration. It shows that human populations took a long, circuitous route as they spread across the globe. It shows that India – south India – has been the cross-road for such migration for a really long time.

There is more history per square km of city here than in any other place I know

The city has been the centre of trade, commerce, religion and politics for a long time. In addition to the Pallava and Chola temples, there are sites associated with early Christianity. One of the apostles (St. Thomas, if you would like to believe the myth) supposedly came here, settled down, preached the word and built crosses. So there’s also a small hill called St. Thomas mount with a Nestorian-Portuguese chapel on it dating to the 1400s.

Goporam Chennai

View of the Goporam in Mylapore, Chennai. Photo by Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan.

Mylapore is one of the oldest localities in the city, predating the actual city itself by a period of about 1500 years. It was a river port, a site of learning/education and of course city. I could gush and fawn about Madras for ages, so perhaps just let it be said that there is more history per sq. km of city here than most places!

I’d love to do a foreshore survey, like the one London has on the Thames

There are two river systems that run through the city which are obvious sites to look for burials, for occupational zones and for ritual zones. One of the things I wanted to do a long time ago was a Cooum Foreshore Survey, kind of like the one you have on the Thames (the Cooum is one of the rivers here, sadly now extremely polluted). There are known megalithic and neolithic burial sites in and around the city.

I would also think that the city was a centre, or at least one of the principal sites, for early metallurgy in south India. The coast here is rich in lignite and coal deposits – great for smelting.

Then there are the discoveries of jewellery and pottery, metal tools and such like associated with iron age settlements. The problem is that there hasn’t been a policy, no official action, from the city or the ASI, on archaeology in the city and how to deal with found artefacts.

What’s really missing is communication about the significance of the archaeology that is here

The historical sites, at least the temples and churches and mosques, are very important to the people of Chennai. But archaeology isn’t such a well known, well understood subject publicly. There is a lot of official apathy and public ignorance. People would make an effort if the significance of archaeology is communicated to them, but that is sadly missing.

misty morning chennai

Chennai in the morning mist. Photo by Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan.

For instance, the discovery of stone tools by Dr. Shanti Pappu and others – barring a small piece in a newspaper (and that at the back page), hardly anything was done to communicate it to the people. Much more effort was put into getting it published in journals (which is absolutely needed, I agree). But what about the people who live 20 minutes away? Should they not be told they’re living on some really important piece of land?

The city faces many problems and it affects the archaeology deeply. But the biggest problem of course is that there isn’t a comprehensive, or even a starting-kit kind of policy on archaeology and public works. Whereas in the UK, developments like HS2 are expected to generate a lot of rescue archaeology work, it’s not like that here.

If it is out of sight, underground, the government does not care

In fact, archaeology in India isn’t like the UK at all. There is very little public interest, and from what I can see, even academic interest is pretty limited. On top of that, there is a lot of control and red-tape exercised by the Archaeology Society of India, creating very high entry barriers to interested amateurs and the public.

Although there is now a commission on heritage and a group of people who work on grading buildings, that’s just the start of it. Of course monuments need to be preserved, but so do potential sites.

At the moment, if it is out of sight, under ground, the government does not care. And unless we communicate what is here, and what could be here, neither will the public.

The city is about to start building a huge underground and overground rail network. Now, I am the first to say this system is needed – the city is way too congested. But what the people who build it fail to realise is that Chennai has some of the oldest settlements in this part of the world.

The rail lines also run through historically and archaeologically significant suburbs and localities. But no one thought it prudent to prospect for potential sites that might lie in its path. It’s a missed opportunity for archaeology, for the city and for all of us in it.

ChandraChandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan is a writer and photographer from Chennai. He is also an archaeologist, historian and city lover. He currently works for an advertising agency. You can follow him on twitter @Ravages

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