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Buried over time

The history of archaeology is full of examples of scholars whose works have been forgotten or ignored by their contemporaries, writes Nayanjot Lahiri

india Updated: Jun 18, 2012 21:20 IST
Nayanjot Lahiri

There is no doubt that for every scholar whose talent and work gets recognised, there are many more who have either been forgotten or ignored — not only by posterity but also by their own contemporaries.

In the arena of archaeological scholarship, this is something that I am constantly reminded of when reading Alexander Cunningham’s reports. As the first director general of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) he, more than any other scholar of his day succeeded in imparting a grass-root reality to the literary image of Ancient India by identifying and mapping out archaeological sites on a grand scale. Yet, he remained inexplicably silent about the path breaking discoveries of others who were simultaneously seeking out India’s prehistoric roots. Robert Bruce Foote was among the many scholars who searched out the presence of prehistoric artefacts, although if you read the Cunningham reports, you wouldn’t even know that he existed.

One reason for this is that Foote was a geologist with the Geological Survey of India, and his interest in prehistory was not a serious concern of the ASI which then, as now, was the institutional guardian of archaeology in India. Fortunately for us, Foote had a strong sense of his own worth and consequently, his various publications have ensured that his work received the acclaim it deserved, even if the ASI ignored it.

There are other instances, though, where individual achievement was compromised by untimely death. The Italian explorer Luigi Pio Tessitori is an example of this. Tessitori’s discovery of Harappan seals at Kalibangan remained practically unknown in part because, before he could publish his findings, he died in his early 30s. That his pioneering trail was eventually recognised owes much to the motivation of a Kanpur businessman, Hazarimal Banthia, who brought back copies of his correspondence from Italy. Haranandan Panday was another promising ASI archaeologist whose work extended from Belwa in Bihar to Sanchi in central India, much of which remains unknown because he too died young. His obituary — written by no less than the famous barrister-historian KP Jayaswal — mentioned that Panday had prepared a Devanagari edition of the Buddhist text Mahaparinibbana Sutta and an archaeological map of Bihar. These remained unpublished and are now untraceable. One can only hope that his grandson Nirmalendu Choubey who has made it his mission to recover whatever is available on the life and work of this forgotten archaeologist, eventually discovers them.

A third kind of sidelined scholarship is introduced to us by Virchand Dharamsey’s book Bhagwanlal Indraji —The First Indian Archaeologist (2012). This connects up with mainstream scholarship that is largely English-speaking and which is usually uncomfortable with the Indian languages in which people from small towns and places publish. The subject of the book, Bhagwanlal Indraji, was born in Junagadh in a family of Ayurvedic practitioners. As a 15-year-old, he became seriously interested in ancient inscriptions when the newly-opened Sanskrit pathshala there was presented a chart of characters of the Brahmi script which James Prinsep had deciphered and published. Using a tracing of that chart, he began to study the inscribed rock of Girnar and some years later, he became a masterful decipherer of epigraphs. Initially, Bhagwanlal acted as an assistant to the doctor-cum-Indologist Bhau Daji who extensively used his findings. It was after his benefactor’s death that he came into his own, received credit for his work and a honorary doctorate from Leiden University. This is well-known.

What this book has now revealed is that sometimes, Bhagwanlal’s discoveries were ahead of his European contemporaries but remained sidelined because they were written in Gujarati. The handwritten notebooks of Bhagwanlal in the library of the Forbes Gujarati Sabha in Mumbai highlight this as do the letters which Bhagwanlal wrote to his patron, the Nawab of Junagadh, about the progress of his archaeological explorations. These, unlike the diaries, were published in Saurashtra Darpan, a Gujarati weekly from Junagadh, but, like the diaries, are in Gujarati.

In a letter written in 1872, he reported his discovery of an Ashokan edict at Bairat in Rajasthan: “On the southern side of Virat is a hillock with ancient Buddhist ruins. Near the ruins once stood an engraved stone inscription of Ashoka, which at present lies in the Asiatic Society Museum in Calcutta. While I was on the northern side of Virat, I discovered a new inscription at the foothill.” Since his letter was published in Saurashtra Darpan and in Gujarati, he never got the credit for it and instead, an assistant of Cunningham who arrived there soon after, came to be considered as its discoverer.

Thanks to Dharamsey’s archival digging, many vignettes about the remarkable life of this pioneering Indian archaeologist have come to light. And it all started for Dharamsey when he browsed through the manuscripts catalogue of the library of the Forbes Gujarati Sabha. One can only hope that the newly-launched National Mission on Libraries will pay attention to the holdings of such institutions so that there is an integration of those outside the academy with those within it. Hopefully, this will make it easier for many more individuals like Bhagwanlal’s biographer to find such forgotten scholarship.

Nayanjot Lahiri is the author of Finding Forgotten Cities — How the Indus Civilisation was Discovered (2005)

The views expressed by the author are personal