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 focus.
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