Monumental victory

A RECENT ruling by the Kerala High Court (HC) directed concerned authorities to protect the prehistoric remains in the Maraiyurvalley in Idukki district from granite quarrying by declaring them as national monuments. It was ruled last November, that quarrying would not be permitted at the site. The, prehistoric tombs - popularly known, as muniyaras (caves of sages) -, as ancient monuments, would come under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958, the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 1904, and the Kerala Ancient Monuments-and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act'of 1969, following the court order.

The ruling was the result of a public interest writ petition filed by the Kochi-based voluntary group - Niyamavedi. The group feared that quarrying in the valley would lead to the destruction of Maraiyur's prehistoric tombs, says A X Verghese of Niyamavedi. Following the petition, a division bench of the Hc quashed an earlier directive of a single bench to grant a 107year long quarrying permission to a company in the Maraiyur valley.

Three years back, the company began largescale granite quarrying in the Maraiyur --valley disregarding protests raised by some local inhabitants. There , were apprehensions because the valley is adjacent to the Eravikulam national park - home to the Nilgiri tahr, an endangered species. And blasts during granite quarrying would be detrimental to the tomb structures, it was felt.

Says S P Thampi, superintending archaeologist of the Kerala state, "These tombs are the remains of a period ranging from 100 BC to AD 200." After Thampi's research on the Maraiyur muniyaras in 1973, the popular notion that Kerala lacks a stone-age history was belied. The research helped historians to date the.history of the state back to about 1,500 years. Consequently, the site in the valley where cave paintings were found, was declared by the state department of archaeology in 1976 as protected monument.

Unfortunately, unaware of their historical value of the structures, local farmers who settled in Maraiyur from the late '50s onwards, destroyed several such dolmens. But recent studies have now helped in enlightening the local inhabitants about the heritage of their state.

Therefore, when Niyamavedi decided to take the case to the HC, it was widely welcomed. Says Verghese, "As the petition was before the single bench of the High Court, for the first time in the history of the court, the judge himself directly inspected the site." But, the bench', permitted the company to continue mining operation 50 in away from the tombs. "Then we decided to move to the division beach," informed Verghese.

The division bench, comprising acting; chief justice K T Thomas and justice P Shanmugam, asked the director general of the Archaeological Survey of India (Asi), to submit a report specifically stating whether the blasting operation would endanger the existence of the muniyaras, and the steps to be taken to prevent such activity.

Following this, the deputy superintending archaeologist, ASi (Madras circle), inspected the site and its surroundings and recommended that blasting be discontinued as it would endanger the ancient dolmens.

While environmentalists allege that the callous inaction of the state departmerit of archaeology was responsible fbr this kind of destructive activity department officials argue that granting of permits for granite quarrying was entirely in the hand of the revenue department. "If the revenue department hands over this land to the archaeology department, we may be able to protect these monuments," says S P Thampi ruefully.