Sun, 06 Mar 2005


Tsunami unearths mysteries of ancient India

Anindita Ramaswamy, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, New Delhi

When last December's killer tsunamis receded, they unearthed several submerged sculptures in southeastern India which archaeologists say date to the 7th century -- and could be linked to a mysterious underwater port city.

The sculptures and other structures were first spotted by fishermen in the temple town of Mahabalipuram, about 60 kilometers south of Madras, capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

According to one myth, Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram was so beautiful that it made even the gods jealous, and they unleashed a massive flood that swallowed the town in a single day.

"After the tsunami, locals reported many small structures and idols buried deep in the sand. The fishermen immediately converted them into shrines and started praying there," said Sudesh Kumar of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) office in Mahabalipuram.

"They saw the sculptures as some sign from God," Kumar told Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA). The stone sculptures were found about 30 metres from the famous Shore Temple, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

Archaeologists said the ancient relics were "gifts" of the tsunamis. They include what appears to be walls of a temple, a structure to store water, an elephant, a seated lion, another lion ready to attack almost leaping forward with its forepaws stretched out and its mouth wide open, a horse and armed warriors.

"It is an incredible find because this is a part of Indian history that was thought to be lost forever," T. Sathya Murthy, ASI's superintending archaeologist, told DPA.

"Classified into three major reliefs, they were first recorded by the British but disappeared under the sand because of nature's movements along the coast.

"When the sea water receded after the tsunami, these structures emerged through a process of de-silting and erosion. We believe extensive structures are still buried."

These findings collaborate with the results of ASI's offshore exploration in 2004 "which revealed a temple-like structure and some oblique structures on the sea bed," Murthy said.

In mid-March, a team of ASI's marine archaeologists will dive deep to discover what other secrets are hidden in the sea. Murthy said only further investigations will reveal the link between these sculptures and a submerged port or temple.

Mahabalipuram was an important port between the 5th-8th century, when the rulers of the Pallava dynasty traded with modern-day Malaysia, Cambodia, Sumatra and Java. The area is now world famous for its rock temples, built between 630-728 A.D., UNESCO said.

In April 2002, a team of 25 Indian and British divers found ruins in five locations, at a depth of about 5-8 meters, about 500-700 meters off the Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram.

The team included scientists from the Scientific Exploration Society in the U.K. and the Indian government's National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), following a theory first proposed by controversial and best-selling author Graham Hancock in his book Underworld.

NIO official Kamlesh Vora said their discoveries "established first-ever proof of the popular belief that the Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram is the remnant of a series of total seven such temples built that have been submerged in succession".

Mahabalipuram's myths were first written about by British traveler J. Goldingham in 1798, when the area was known to sailors as the "seven pagodas" because of the belief that six temples lay underwater and a seventh stood on the shore.

An NIO report said the ruins were between 1,500 and 2,000 years old and included square and rectangular stone blocks, lion sculptures in what appeared to be a temple, large walls, and similar constructions in 100 metre by 50 metre patterns.

"I have argued for many years that the world's flood myths deserve to be taken seriously -- a view that most western academics reject. But here in Mahabalipuram we have proved the myths right," said Hancock in 2002, and described the discovery as "as important and as spectacular as the ruined cities submerged off Alexandria in Egypt".

Next month, what ASI divers discover could rewrite some of ancient India's history.