BANGALORE, India – The ruins of an ancient temple built by a long-vanished kingdom in southern India are being excavated by archaeologists who said Wednesday the Hindu sanctum may have been destroyed centuries ago by a tsunami.
The temple was found is in the region affected by the Dec. 26 Asian tsunami, and the "discovery now poses very interesting questions ... about the history of tsunamis," said the archaeologist leading the excavation, Thyagarajan Satyamurthy (search).
The temple appears to have been built between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D. It was excavated this month just north of Mahabalipuram (search), a port town 30 miles south of Madras in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, by a team from the government Archaeological Survey of India (search), Satyamurthy said.
"This is the earliest temple discovered in this region so far," Satyamurthy said.
The archaeologists are trying to determine the date of the tsunami which may have destroyed the temple from sand and seashells found at the brick structure, dedicated to Lord Muruga, a Hindu god, Satyamurthy told The Associated Press.
He said there was more damage on the side of the temple facing the sea, and that the sand and shells were not normally found so far inland.
Geophysicists at a government laboratory in the southern city of Trivandrum called them "palaeo-tsunami" deposits, he said.
The temple was found one layer below a granite temple excavated by the same team in July, leading archaeologists to theorize that the Pallava kings, who ruled the region between 580 A.D and 728 A.D., built the latter temple atop the remains of the older one.
The team also found stucco figurines, terra-cotta lamps, beads and roofing tiles. Similar articles and large bricks were typically used around the beginning of the first millennium, he said.
Mahabalipuram, the capital of an ancient kingdom, is already well known for its intricately carved shore temples, which have been declared part of a World Heritage site and are visited each year by thousands of Hindu pilgrims and tourists.
According to descriptions by early British travel writers, the area was also home to seven pagodas, six of which were submerged by the sea.
But just as an ancient tsunami may have ravaged the temple outside Mahabalipuram, last year's Indian Ocean tsunami revealed other temples and monuments that had been buried for centuries.
In February, archaeologists began underwater excavations of what is believed to be an ancient city and parts of a temple uncovered by the waves.
Three rocky structures with elaborate carvings of animals emerged near Mahabalipuram after the waves receded, washing away sand deposits that had covered the structures, which archaeologists have said appear to belong to a port city built in the seventh century.
The ruins of the temple north of Mahabalipuram that Satyamurthy discussed Wednesday were not uncovered by the recent tsunami, and excavation did not begin until after the waves struck.
But the finding of that temple and the structures uncovered by last year's tsunami has revived a debate over whether references in ancient literature to cities and towns being submerged by violent waves referred to a tsunami.
"We could never study an ancient tsunami without having some man-made materials surviving from that time," Satyamurthy said. "This temple is our link to that."
He said archaeologists have discovered similar deposits of sand and shells at excavations in the town of Poompuhar, another ancient port south of where the latest temple was found.
"We didn't know what [the deposits] meant, because we never studied the possibility of a tsunami," Satyamurthy said. "That angle never occurred to us."
"But after last year's tsunami, we have begun asking ourselves whether this could be evidence of a tsunami," he said.