When a dig discovers a sacred place,it is imperative to keep it sacred
and restore puja's there -- this is the best way to preserve an
ancient monument and make it relevant in the lives of the people as
they remember their ancestors and recollect the social memories of
their identity. I hope ASI brass -- and the diggers -- will ensure
that this happens. Diggers should not invade the sacred but just
report on their findings realising that the aadhyaatmaa governing
Hindu traditions is not constrained by any -ism (which is an
indologists' mythical relic).
June 18, 2008 Nayanjot Lahiri (Hindustan Times, 19 June 2008)
I once read a silly fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip...
as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by
accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.
Horace Walpole, 1754
Archaeology has a long tradition of celebrating a select number of men
and a few women as discoverers who, unlike the three princes of
Serendip, found what they were in quest of — a tradition it shares
with many other academic fields. This probably explains why in popular
imagination as well, such individuals — from real life ones like
Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy, to fictional heroines and
heroes like Lara Croft and the adventurer of the Indiana Jones series
— are seen to be the celebrated protagonists of discovery sagas.
There is, of course, drama and intellectual excitement in the lives
and work of these determined individuals who went about unearthing
treasure about whose significance they were convinced even before they
actually found them. Is archaeological knowledge, though, a simple
byproduct of such deliberate discoveries? Does it result largely from
field projects designed to answer specific questions? Great
expectations do sometimes lead to great results. However, as the tiny
gold combined toothpick and ear wax spoon discovered during the
search for a shipwrecked Spanish galleon off Florida shows, far more
compelling are the other more 'naturalistic' ways in which knowledge
is acquired in archaeology, where unexpected discoveries take place
without conscious design.
The archaeology of Hinduism in India underlines this elementary point
rather well. It is true, of course, that intentional excavations of
sites of Hindu worship and ritual take place all the time. The Hindu
temple has been a major area of such interest. Among other elements,
temples have been deliberately investigated in order to understand the
antiquity of worship there. Pandharpur, the most venerated religious
centre of Maharashtra, was excavated in 1968 with the goal of reaching
back to its earliest occupation. What was discovered, though, only
dated back to the 13th century AD, and may have disappointed the
devotees of Vitthal.
On the other hand, I.K. Sharma of the Archaeological Survey of India
(ASI) was luckier. He undertook to probe inside the garbagriha of the
Parusramesvar temple at Gudimallam in Andhra Pradesh. Unlike the
Pandharpur shrine, this excavation revealed that the Gudimallam linga
— a very early and celebrated Siva linga — stood in a kind of
demarcated area marked by railing as early as the late centuries BC.
At the same time, along with such focused excavators and excavations,
a great deal of what we today recognise as having contributed to our
understanding of the archaeological dimensions of Indian religions was
done in a more mundane way. Alexander Cunningham, the ASI's first
Director-General, went about the Indian countryside discovering
Buddhist monasteries and stupas, Hindu pilgrimage sites and temples,
and so much else.
Yet, the dazzling array of what he located and described should not
make us inattentive to what he saw as his main task. Cunningham's
ambition was to impart topographical bearings to the places and sites
of ancient India mentioned in the accounts of Chinese pilgrims,
classical writers, and in Indian epic literature. Several of these
happened to be religious in nature. Thus, a grand exercise in
topographical archaeology also became a voyage involving the recovery
of long-forgotten religious landscapes.
Ritual structures have also emerged out of more in-depth studies of
cities and towns. Kausambi, capital of the ancient Vatsa kingdom, is
an example of this. The primary aim of G.R. Sharma of Allahabad
University, who directed the excavation was to study the defences that
surrounded Kausambi. What was more surprising was the discovery of a
massive brick altar in the shape of a flying bird. This seemed, to the
excavator, to be a site of human sacrifice (the Purusamedha) whose
features he thought closely tallied with what was known about such
rituals in Vedic literature. The excavator, though, did not dig
Kausambi to elicit information about this altar. It's most likely that
it attracted the attention of Sharma because it was located at the
foot of the outer edge of the fortifications that formed his primary
In some instances, it is the prospective disappearance of ancient
landscapes that has resulted in a relatively detailed knowledge of
their archaeology. Such salvage archaeology involves a quick
documentation of ancient sites threatened by modern development work.
The Nagarjunasagar dam across the Krishna river, we know, has
submerged the valley of Nagarjunakonda which was known to be littered
with archaeological relics. In the 50s, when the plan to convert this
valley into a reservoir was made, a project was simultaneously
undertaken by the ASI to document and, in a few cases, exhume such
ruins for transplanting them. Religious structures of all kinds were
found including Buddhist monasteries and Hindu temples.
Telkupi was not as fortunate as Nagarjunakonda. The ASI could only
begin work after the waters of the Damodar river had already submerged
some temples — as a result of dam construction in 1957. Debala Mitra,
who went on to become the first woman Director-General of the ASI,
provided a largely 'posthumous' description based on previous
documentation and whatever she could access at the site. She succeeded
in demonstrating the cosmopolitan character of medieval Telkupi, the
royal seat of Sikhara chieftains and adorned with Saiva, Vaishnava,
Surya and Shakti shrines.
Such salvage work was conducted for reasons very different from the
ideas that gird either the Cunningham surveys or the excavation at
Kausambi. But surely, what is common is that they succeeded in
documenting sacred landscapes. The most worthwhile outcome of such
work has been that religion is integrated into the larger sum total of
ancient lives and societies. Kausambi's altar appears to be part of a
larger urban milieu marked also by the monastic cells and stupa of a
thriving Buddhist community.
The tendency to gild a few lilies certainly makes for compelling
mythology. The available paths through which knowledge is acquired,
however, are not just far more but also far more serendipitous than
such embellished versions would have us believe.
Nayanjot Lahiri teaches archaeology at the University of Delhi