Extensive studies into the archaeological heritage of Kerala commenced during the Colonial Era. The first of the same were conducted by Babington on stone monuments in Malabar. In 1881 Robert Sewell was appointed to prepare a list of antiquarian remains in the Madras Province. He did exhaustive surveys in Chirakkal, Kottaya, Wayanadu, Kurumbranadu, Kozhikode, Eranadu, Valuvanadu, Ponnani, Palakkadu (Malabar), Kochi and Travancore. In 1882, he published a list of the Antiquarian Remains in the Presidency of Madras.
The contributions of William Logan, who was the Collector and Magistrate of Malabar from 1875, are also noteworthy. His Malabar Manual contains detailed accounts of the socio-political history and statistics of each district. The first volume of the Malabar Manual was published in 1887.
One of the milestones in Kerala’s archaeological history was the discovery of the ancient inscriptions on Edakkal Caves by Fred Fawcett in 1894. The inferences of E. Hulsh, who studied the documents and inscriptions during the reign of Chera Peruman Bhaskara Ravi Varman, also threw light on the study of epigraphy in Kerala. By the fag end of 19th century, archaeology in Kerala had its direction set by the initiatives taken by Western experts and excavators. It was in this background that the Archaeological Departments were formed in Travancore and Cochin.
It was an article originally written by Sree Visakham Tirunal in Indian Antiquary on the Sanskrit inscriptions observed on the bell metal installed by the Venad King Sarvanganath Aditya Varma at Tirukurunkudi Temple in Tamil Nadu, together with records maintained at the Suchindram Temple, that led to the beginning of studies of epigraphy in Travancore.
The genesis of the Department of Archaeology in the erstwhile Travancore State may be traced back to December 1891. The then ruling sovereign, Sri Mulam Thirunnal Rama Varma (1885 to 1924), sanctioned a monthly grant of Rs.50/- for a year to Sri.P. Sundaram Pillai, Professor of Philosophy, H.H. Maharajas (present University College and author of ‘Early Sovereigns of Travancore'), for the maintenance of an establishment engaged in the study and interpretation of inscriptions. However, no permanent arrangement was made until 1071 ME (1895-96 C.E) for its continuance. In the same year, a committee was constituted to advise the Government on the methods of maintenance and preservation of historical sites and monuments in Travancore. In the official records of the Travancore State, there was information of only 35 rulers from 1335. There were no details available on the rulers in the previous two centuries. Sundaram Pillai’s efforts were to fill this gap.
The Committee prepared a list of monuments and the Division Peshkar was asked to advise on their proper preservation. In 1910 (1085 ME) an attempt was made to publish the results of archaeological studies in the ‘Travancore Archaeological Series'.
Following Prof. Sundaran Pillai, K.V. Subramaniam Iyer and A.S. Ramanatha Iyer were appointed as Superintendent of the Department of Archaeology. In 1937, The Archaeology Protection Law came into effect in Travancore.
Prof. Sundaram Pillai, assisted by Sri. Ganesa Pillai were the pioneers in Archaeological Research and Sri. Thurayur Gopinatha Rao was the first Superintendent of The Archaeological Department.
Protection and preservation of Padmanabha Palace at Thakkala in Kanyakumari district was a noteworthy activity of the Archaeology Department.
Archaeology Department in Kochi
In the erstwhile Cochin State, the Archaeology Department had its beginning in 1925 in the Sanskrit College, located in Thripunithura, with Principal K.Rama Pisharadi in the additional charge.
Once Anujan Achan, who had trained under Sir Mortimer Wheeler at the Indian Institute of Field Archaeology, took charge, the department was shifted from Thrippunithura to Thrissur Museum. As a result of Anujan Achan’s effort, The Ancient Monument Preservation Regulation of 1110’ came into effect in 1935. It was during Anujan Achan’s excavations that a large collection of Roman coins was discovered. Achan’s diggings in 1945 at Charaman Parambu in Kodungalloor taluk discovered thousands of archaeological items including many earthen vessels. Archaeology Museum in Kochi was started in 1948.
In 1946, V.D. Krishnaswamy, who was Assistant Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India, conducted an extensive survey to take stock of the Stone Age monuments and remains. The Archaeology Department also took steps to discover and preserve the Stone Age remains on hilly areas in the eastern region of Thrissur.
Rama Varma Research Institute, which had been officially recognised as the Kochi branch of the Archaeological Society of India in 1945, was known abroad as India’s Cultural Institution. It was Anujan Achan who was in charge of the esteemed institution.
While the department in Travancore focused on inscriptions, Kochi gave importance to field archaeology. The excavations carried in Cheraman sites and porkalam, surveys on Stone Age remains and preservation of historical monuments were important contributions to archaeological research in Kerala.
During the same time, there were a few archaeological studies in the Malabar region. The excavations in the rock-cut tombs in Feroke by A. Ayyappan should also be noted.
In 1949, Kochi and Travancore Archaeological Departments merged to become one department. Anujan Achan was in charge of this consolidated Archaeology Department.
In 1956, the State Archaeological Department came into effect following the formation of the State of Kerala.
Kerala State Department of Archaeology
While the three different geographical regions - Travancore, Kochi and Malabar - explored the archaeological and anthropological history of each place after they became one region under a statehood, they began to study the common history of the place. The beginning of interactions among people, lifestyle, methods, production and exchange of products, tools, power hierarchy, cultural exchanges, etc., had to be studied in their chronological as well as temporal order. At the same, the socio-cultural remains had to be preserved for the coming generations. These were major activities the Archaeology Department had to take in the newly formed State.
The State Archaeology Department had chalked up a plan of action with exploration, excavation and preservation as its main agenda. To that end, the prevailing laws in Kochi and Travancore were modified. In 1968, Kerala Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act and Kerala Treasure Trove Act came into effect.
The State Department was expanded to meet the needs and demands of the research and study in the field, taking into consideration its own findings, the growth and importance of the field in the changing world order, and to keep its focus on working towards its own vision.
The main sections active under the department now are exploration, excavation, chemical preservation, protection of structures, the study of inscriptions, numismatics, folklore, publications, awareness, documentation, and setting up and preservation of museums.
With the help of the new law, the department could make rapid strides in excavations and research, bringing to light many details from prehistoric remains like cave engravings to the findings during the colonisation period, making them available for further studies and probe.
Setting up of Folklore and Arts Study Wing, Epigraphy Wing and Regional Conversation Lab in 1979 was a milestone in the history of the department.
The department works hard and is committed to preserving the many prehistoric remains in Kerala. There are more than 180 protected monuments like Padmanabhapuram Palace in Kanyakumari and Ananthapuram Temple in Kasargod under the department, apart from the wall engravings from the Stone Age, cave temples, palaces, forts, churches and mosques, wall paintings, inscriptions, etc.