What took place on November 2011 was neither a debate nor a discord. The venue was Thiruvananthapuram, at the joint annual conference of Indian Archaeological Society, Indian Society for Prehistoric and Quaternary Studies, and Indian History and Culture Society. A strong criticism of the archaeological excavations at Pattanam site in Kerala and the rambling hotchpotch of cultural remains without periodisation especially pottery came from veteran archaeologist and former director of Archaeology and Museums, Karnataka Professor A Sundara. In response to a paper presented by the Kerala Council for Historical Research (henceforth KCHR) director on Pattanam excavations, Professor Sundara, known for his objective outlooks and unbiased conclusions, surprised many by his criticism methodology and intent of Pattanam excavations as he was also one of the well wishers of the excavations. But this is not an isolated incident. Much more censorious on Pattanam was Professor MGS Narayanan, eminent historian and former director of ICHR. In an earlier occasions, Dr. R Nagaswamy, former Director of Archaeology, Tamil Nadu and Dr. T Satyamurthy, former Director, ASI, also criticized Pattanam excavations. These excavations form part of the Muziris Heritage Project launched by the KCHR and headed by Chairman Dr K N Panikkar, former Professor of JNU, and Director Dr P J Cherian, a modern historian who heads archaeological excavations. In a write up in a Malayalam journal Mathrubhumi in 2014, Professor P M Rajan Gurukkal, historian and one of the members of the Muziris Heritage Project arguing for Pattanam, also admitted that the site was unfit for any archaeological excavation as the soil has been virtually tampered for various construction purposes and digging of wells leaving no space for strati-graphical analysis of the cultural remains which have agglomerated. Surprisingly until now, no historian or archaeologist or any professional body such as the ASI has come forward in defense of the KCHR or Pattanam. The members of the Muziris Heritage Project, who are well known left historians, have kept away from countering the criticisms. Even Professor Romila Thapar, one of the patrons of the Muziris Heritage Project is virtually silent. Pattanam has landed at the threshold of a larger contention.
The site of Pattanam, located near Parur in Ernakulam district of Kerala, is important location in the Muziris Heritage Project. As declared by the KCHR chairman and director, the aim of the Project was to excavate and discover the lost settlement of Muziris, the ancient Chera capital on the Periyar river basin, and hence named as Muziris Heritage Project. Earlier excavations in and around Kodungallur were carried out by eminent archaeologists such as P Anujan Achan in 1947, KV Raman and KV Soundara Rajan in 1969-70 which have hardly raised controversies. The geomorphology of Kodungallur, considered ancient Muziris, was examined by geologists KK Nair and CS Subrahmanyam in 1993 in the archaeological context, which revealed that the area has been completely disturbed and the habitation material deeply buried due to tectonic changes. The Malabar Coast has both submergent and emergent characteristics. The Periyar River which drains the region has a long history of frequent floods due to heavy monsoons. Hence, Vimala Begely rightly pointed out in 1996 that ancient Muziris has yet to be archaeologically identified which is indeed a hazardous task due to backwaters and constantly shifting coastline of Malabar.
In the beginning, the excavations at Pattanam sailed smoothly. But controversies started after the excavators claimed that an ancient township at the cusp of first century BC and first century AD was unearthed at Pattanam archaeological site. The excavator also claimed that the “urban, multi cultural and maritime features are principal attributes” of Pattanam site in various published papers, and reports, such as The Living Dead and the Lost Knowledge – 2007 and 2008 published by Department of Culture, Government of Kerala, Journal of Indian Ocean Archaeology 2009-2010, and in the paper presented at Annual Conference of Indian Archaeological Society on November, 2011 at Thiruvanantha-puram. It was declared by the KCHR director who is also the excavator, that Pattanam revealed interesting “early historic urban architectural features”. The cultural remains from the site have not been classified as Early, Mature and Late or Transitional Periods. In the Journal of Indian Ocean Archaeology 2009-2010, the excavator claimed the presence of ancient civilisation at Pattanam. He also claimed Pattanam as an advanced metal working and stone cutting site with metal objects and lapidaries. Recently, the botanical remains claimed to have been unearthed from Pattanam were handed over to Spices Board in Kerala, a marketing and research institute for spices, for palaeobotanical studies. The KCHR should have given it to premier centres for palaeobotanical studies such as Birbal Sahani Institute of Palaeobotany or Deccan College. Dating of remains Carbon 14 from Pattanam is coordinated by foreign universities like Georgia University and the ASI has been kept away. Later, the KCHR director admitted in The Hindu dated 12-06-2011, Thiruvananthapuram edition, that ‘curiously, while large collections of artifacts were found, no remnants of major structures were discovered at the site’. In the KCHR Annual Report 2009-2010 there is neither reference to such urban architectural remains or photographs of trenches. Inability to see any urban architectural remains by visitors were responded by the KCHR director that they have been demolished and carried away by local people for which he is not responsible. He has not retained photographs of these urban remains nor published them in reports. The KCHR jactitations have now been proved a canard. The ASI however remains a mute spectator.
In the KCHR brochure published in February 2008 on Muziris Heritage Project and Pattanam excavations, KCHR Chairman, Professor KN Panikkar stated in his editorial note that archaeological and historical research are not solely meant for experts and professionals in the field. Everyone with thinking power should handle it. Later, in an interview given to Frontline dated April 2010 (vol. 27), KN Panikkar elaborated further. He suggested public participation in archaeological excavations at Pattanam – which he termed “democratic archaeology” – in which the local people would be part of the excavation. Keeping archaeologists at bay was a necessity for KCHR since expertise observations and remarks can lead to serious implications for Pattanam. Beyond all such serious lapses and incredible turnovers at Pattanam, what has raised eyebrows is the interference of JNU historians who were hastily propagating for Pattanam excavations to obtain it credibility in the academic world. Professor Kumkum Roy of JNU, in her Historical Dictionary of Ancient India published in 2009 has highlighted Pattanam stating that it has now been identified with ancient Muziris. An archaeological site excavated by a university or ASI, if provides evidence can be certainly referred in published works. Roman amphorae from Pattanam are exhibited as evidence of Mediterranean trade. But it is not a new discovery. There are a number of other sites in India which have provided remains of Roman amphorae. The later events raised suspicions about the very intent of this project.
What has now snowballed into a major controversy is now an open declaration. Pattanam has been identified as ancient Muziris, where Apostle Thomas landed in India 2000 years back, for propagating Christianity, which has been vindicated by the excavations claimed KCHR director, Dr PJ Cherian in the official bulletin of the Assyrian Church of the East on March 2011. Dr Pius Malekandathil presented his paper organized by the Liturgical Research Centre of the Syro-Malabar church on the tradition of Apostle Thomas. In 2006, Professor Kumkum Roy was advisor to NCERT Textbook Development Committee along with chief advisor, Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya both from JNU. In the history textbook on Social Science for class VI, they have included Muziris in the map of important trade routes without mentioning Pattanam and linking it with arrival of first Christian preachers in India 2000 years back. Though they have not named Apostle Thomas, the message is clear. Assertive claims by KCHR authorities in establishing historicity of Apostle Thomas have been supported by Utio Rai Chaudhary and Furley Richmond, academic directors of Georgia University in December 2011. They stated that researches are being conducted by the Georgia University on links between St’ Thomas tradition and Pattanam. Interestingly this university has undertaken carbon 14 dating of the Pattanam site. Historian Istvan Perczel from Central European University, Hungary, was invited on February 2008, for delivering a lecture by KCHR Chairman Professor K N Panikkar — History of Kerala Christianity: Documents, monuments and methodological challenges’ at the council venue. In the KCHR brochure published in 2008 on Muziris Heritage Project and Pattanam excavations, Professor Perczel commented:
“The excavations at Pattanam have unearthed the remnants of a first-century AD naval port; the findings clearly indicate that the port was in intense trade contact not only with other Indian coastal regions but also with West-Asia, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean. Archeologist think that perhaps the site can be identified with ancient Muziris, well known from Antique sources (Strabo, Pliny, the Periplus Maris Erythraei, Kosmas Indikopleustes). According to tradition Muziris was also the port where the Apostle Saint Thomas landed and the epics of indigenous South-Indian Christianity started. This discovery opens immense new perspectives for scholarship, so I wish all success for the continuation!”
With the Pattanam excavations taking a serious turn, Delhi based Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) which had earlier attacked former ICHR Chairman, Professor MGS Narayanan in 2001 for raising serious allegations against the KCHR, has virtually gone underground. Organizations which have currently come open against the KCHR and its Muziris Project have alleged that “these same historians who have earlier rebuffed Ramayana and Rama as fictitious and fabricated are now digging for the bones of Apostle Thomas”.
BS Hari Shankar (The writer is a Senior Archaeological Researcher)