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Urns proof of ancient pot burial

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By M.R. VENKATESH in Chennai
  • Published 20.06.04

Chennai, June 20: Evidence of a prehistoric burial custom of interring dead people in pots has again surfaced in Tamil Nadu with the chance discovery of six “burial urns” in Tirunelveli district.

The urns, known in Tamil as “mudhumakkal thaazhi (large pots for the old)”, were found about a week ago in a farm near Kuvalakarai village when the “land was being dug”, official sources at Sankarankovil said.

The villagers were taken by surprise as one urn brought to the surface contained, among other things, some smaller earthen pots and “very fragile skeletal bone pieces”, a source said over telephone.

The urn is being examined, the sources said. “The local revenue authorities have sent a report on the discovery to the Tirunelveli district collector,” a source added.

Such Stone Age remnants were last found in the state about two months ago when archaeologists discovered a “big burial ground” at Adichanallur, near Tirunelveli, according to the state archaeology department here.

Kuvalakarai village is close to another archaeologically significant site, Girivalamvandha Nallur, in the same district where a “treasure trove” of Roman and Chinese coins and medallions was unearthed several years ago, the sources said.

Sources in the archaeology department said it was common for “burial urns” to contain smaller earthen pots of grain and food kept there when the dead were interred. The practice was linked to a strong belief in life after death because “neolithic man believed in the concept of the spirit surviving a man’s death”, they added.

According to archaeologist K.S. Ramachandran, who was with the Archaeological Survey of India for many years and is considered a specialist on the Iron Age, particularly of Tamil Nadu, the Stone Age was “essentially represented by a group of funerary monuments”.

In his book Archaeology of South India — Tamil Nadu, Ramachandran has said these monuments displaying the “mode of disposal of the dead and the furnishings within these burials are known to archaeologists as ‘Megaliths’, on account of the use of huge stones involved in the construction of these graves”.

“Megalithic graves” are scattered in peninsular India and there is a “heavy concentration” of these in Tamil Nadu, “urn burials” being one category of such monuments, Ramachandran said.

The latest find is noteworthy because it lends credence to archaeologists’ view that the main mode of prehistoric burial in Tirunelveli was urn burial.

The urn burials were not necessarily “delimited” by a ring of stones, but their distinguishing feature “is the interment of a big urn in a pit of size just enough to receive the big urn”, he said.

“These urns are huge, varying in size up to 172 cm in height and 272 cm circumference at the belly,” Ramachandran said. According to the archaeologist, “urn burial sites” in the district include Courtallam, Valiankottai hills and Korkai.