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Unearthing what lies beneath

The discovery of the Indus civilisation offers a positive dimension to the interplay of politics and scholarship, writes Nayanjot Lahiri.

ht view Updated: Oct 09, 2014 12:46 IST

'Not often has it been given to archaeologists, as it was given to Schliemann at Tiryns and Mycenae, or to Stein in the deserts of Turkestan, to light upon the remains of a long-forgotten civilisation. It looks, however, at this moment, as if we were on the threshold of such a discovery in the plains of the Indus.'

It was with these words that 90 years ago the discovery of the Indus civilisation was announced in the Illustrated London News by John Marshall, director general of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). This announcement is widely recognised as a seminal moment for a new kind of past for India, one more in tune with the ancientness traditionally ascribed to it. India's first cities came to be seen as a Bronze Age phenomenon birthed in the Indus Valley itself, and "just as distinctive of that region as the civilisation of the Pharaohs was distinctive of the Nile".

While in retrospect one savours the sense of occasion captured in this announcement of September 20, 1924, why did it take so long to discover this civilisation?

One reason was that while Harappa had attracted notice in the 19th century, its first explorers did not understand its significance. The antiquarian Charles Masson described its mounds in 1842. He was followed by the archaeologist Alexander Cunningham, who dug into its ancient ruins in 1872.

However, they worked within a framework in which Harappa's history was sought out of texts regarded as the foremost sources of Western and Eastern knowledge about India - classical accounts of Alexander's invasion of India and the travel narratives of Chinese pilgrims like Xuanzang. Harappa, as we now know, existed before that world of written history, and its antiquity was unlikely to be discovered by those who failed to look beyond textual traditions and boundaries.

A second reason was that even though Marshall was looking for clues about a literate 'Bronze Age' as early as 1903, he did not follow up such clues with any urgency. Harappa was excavated only in 1921 even though serious thinking about excavating it began much earlier. In early 1908, the deputy commissioner of Montgomery had written to say that the mounds at Harappa could be bought from the owners for less than Rs 5,000. Considering that the same sum of money was usually spent on excavations all over India, this must have seemed a large sum of money. So, before finalising the purchase, Marshall wanted an archaeological feasibility report prepared. In the next few years, he sent three archaeologists to check out Harappa, and the 1914 report on Harappa actually recommended excavations.

But again, excavations did not take place. For, in 1914, the Great War broke out and, among other things, this resulted in a moratorium on new excavations, which lasted for several years. In this centenary year of World War I, as one remembers the chain of widespread death and destruction it unleashed, it is also worth remembering that this conflagration was one of the main culprits in delaying the discovery of the antiquity of Harappa.

So how was the Indus civilisation discovered? Once the moratorium was lifted, Daya Ram Sahni at Harappa and Rakhaldas Banerji at Mohenjodaro, within a few years of each other, excavated relics of unsuspected antiquity. Alongside, a debutant archaeologist, Madho Sarup Vats, saw a cultural congruence between the two cities, which went beyond the enigmatic seals - identical bricks, clay bangles, even a kindred terracotta art. This pushed the slow-moving and academically inclined Marshall, who, once he got down to grappling with the puzzle of the Indus, put together the pieces with visionary insight even if, rather strangely, he announced the discovery of the civilisation without having once visited the cities from where they came.

To recall the words Marshall used to describe the discovery, he saw the birth and character of the civilisation as entirely indigenous - not imported from other lands or marked by outside influences. This conclusion is correct but what makes it exceptional is that it was articulated in an era when it was quite the fashion to see the stimulus of high culture in ancient India as emanating from the West. Among the famous proponents of this view was Vincent Smith, who remained convinced that "the best elements in the plastic, pictorial, numismatic and dramatic arts of ancient India" were of Graeco-Roman origin. In contrast, a colonial Sahib was now announcing that India's most ancient culture was a product of its own soil.

This was also likely to appeal hugely to national sentiment. It is, in fact, possible that this was one reason why Marshall wrote the way he did. Because the government had drastically reduced the ASI budget, Mohenjodaro and Harappa had been excavated at a pittance. Marshall knew that the scale of work that was now required would not be possible without an enhancement of the department's budget, which, in turn, was unlikely if pressure was not generated. Publicising the connection between the Indus discoveries and Indian sentiment was a useful weapon for creating such pressure. And he was not disappointed. In 1924-25, an extra disbursement of Rs 80,000 was ordered, and in the following year, a special grant of Rs 2.5 lakh would be made for exploration and excavation.

We live in an era marked by governments pushing research for political considerations. On the other hand, this little-known saga of how a scholar-bureaucrat pressured people in high political places to underwrite research on the Indus civilisation offers an entirely different and more positive dimension to the interplay of politics and scholarship in India.

(Nayanjot Lahiri teaches archaeology at the University of Delhi and is author of Finding Forgotten Cities - How the Indus Civilization was Discovered)

(The views expressed by the author are personal)