Archaeology is as much about the thrill of discoveries as it is about the exploits of discoverers. Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey who made our ancestors older by several million years, the geologist, Arun Sonakia, who uncovered a hominid skull cap in the Narmada valley, the archaeologist John Marshall who unearthed the splendour of Taxila — these names evoke the harvest of riches to be had in pursuing a study of the past. Such explorers and excavators certainly deserve the credit that is accorded to them. But their claim to fame is frequently anchored by people who remain unknown to most of us.
One such story revolves around India’s successful recovery of her Indus past in the first five years of independence. Inevitably, it is a story that reminds us of Amalananda Ghosh. An officer of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) who went on to become its director-general, it was Ghosh who in 1950 began a systematic exploration of Bikaner, along the dried up bed of the ancient Sarasvati. Within two months, he found 70 sites, 15 of these yielded the same types of antiquities found at Harappa and Mohenjodaro.
But how did Ghosh’s survey take place? How did the ASI — an organisation hardly known for speedy implementation — have the foresight in this instance to so swiftly undertake this work? And this, at a time when it was grappling with the problems of partition — when all kinds of material, from precious antiquities to mundane stock and issue registers about admission tickets, had to be transferred; when the changing options of officers and staff from Pakistan to India and India to Pakistan was still being decided; when the organisation was even being prevented from undertaking the conservation of protected monuments that housed thousands of refugees. In truth, along with Ghosh’s contribution, there is another claim to be staked, to the uncovering of the Indus civilisation in Rajasthan. That claim belongs not to an archaeologist but to a scholar administrator: Sardar K.M. Panikkar.
Kavalam Madhava Panikkar can hardly be described as a backroom hero. Born in Kerala in 1894, his remarkable career is well known, mainly as a resident of north India — from the time when he became a professor of history at Aligarh in 1919 to the years when he served many princely states like Bhopal and Patiala in different capacities. A prolific historian, Panikkar also wrote Malayalam plays and poems. At the time of Partition, Panikkar was the Dewan of Bikaner, and soon after, he became India’s ambassador to China, a role that was to earn him some notoriety in the years ahead.
That Panikkar is being remembered on the editorial page of the Hindustan Times is only fitting because he was its founder editor. This was in 1924. The first issue of HT was released by Mahatma Gandhi, and contained articles by Motilal Nehru, Maulana Muhammad Ali and Jawaharlal Nehru. It was in 1924 again when the discovery of the Indus civilisation was announced to the world. Panikkar’s autobiography does not tell us whether this made any impression on him. What we do know is that many decades later he would be instrumental in pushing for the discovery of Indus sites in the desert states of Rajasthan.
In his autobiography, Panikkar describes his life and work in Bikaner in vivid detail. For instance, he expresses as much pride in his role in expanding the number of schools and colleges there, as in the fact that, like him, the Dewans of all the major Rajput States were South Indians. But, curiously enough, he did not consider his proactive interest in pushing Indus research as worth mentioning. What we know about it comes from a few forgotten letters and notes in government files.
It was in March 1948, less than a month before he took over as ambassador to China, that Panikkar wrote to Prime Minister Nehru about the necessity of a survey in the desert area of Bikaner and Jaisalmer. Panikkar had just finished serving Bikaner, as its Prime Minister. Incidentally, it is strange that he had no knowledge about the archaeological exploits of the late Lugi Pio Tessitori there. He had, however, met the famous archaeological explorer, Aurel Stein, who himself had undertaken field work in Rajasthan. Stein had mentioned to Panikkar that if his work was carried forward, it would show that the Indus civilisation originated in that tract. This was something that Panikkar himself wanted to undertake but owing to various difficulties had not found it possible to do so. He was, therefore, writing to Nehru to try and take this scheme forward.
Panikkar urged India’s Pm to direct the ASI to explore the possibilities of such research. As he put it, “With the separation of the Pakistan Provinces, the main sites of what was known as the Indus Valley Civilisation has gone to Pakistan. It is clearly of the utmost importance that archaeological work in connection with this early period of Indian history must be continued in India. A preliminary examination has shown that the centre of the early civilisation was not Sind or the Indus Valley but the desert area in Bikaner and Jaisalmer through which the ancient river Saraswati flowed into the gulf of Kutch at one time”.
Nehru, as we shall see, was enthusiastic about the proposal. Quite apart from his own sense of history, Panikkar’s suggestions were usually taken seriously by the PM. In 1947, it was he who had urged Nehru to consider the proclamation of Indian Independence at a midnight session of the Constituent Assembly. In a hilarious aside, Panikkar tells us that when Nehru read his note, he said that while he liked his suggestion, the problem was that two of his cabinet colleagues went to bed promptly at 9 pm. Nehru was referring to Patel and Azad. Panikkar promptly answered in the same vein: “I will take care of that and provide two beds for them at Parliament House.” The suggestion got cabinet approval within a day, Panikkar was, in fact, invited to the Cabinet committee to finalise the details.
Now, in March 1948, Nehru acted with the same promptness on Panikkar’s Indus note. The next day, a letter from his principal private secretary, H.V.R. Iengar, enclosed a copy of the note to the Ministry of Education. The letter strongly underlined that “the PM entirely agrees with the suggestion contained in the note and hopes that the Archaeological Department will undertake the explorations suggested, in Jaisalmer and Bikaner.”
The proposal was sent to the ASI which suggested that roughly Rs 10,000 be allocated for it. However, the Finance Ministry, as it so often still does, decided to play spoiler, raising questions about why a central department should spend in a ‘native’ state, especially when there was a general directive from the PM which had urged that avoidable expenditure should be postponed till normalcy returned. It required many missives to make the reluctant mandarins eventually loosen their purse strings. This would have been unlikely if this had not been Panikkar’s proposal, supported by Nehru himself.
Finding forgotten Indus sites in India is seen as one of the major achievements of Indian archaeology since 1947, a quest that continues.
It is an accomplishment, though, that owes as much to scholars and statesmen who had the vision to push for such research, as it does to the discerning archaeologists who made the actual discoveries.
Nayanjot Lahiri is the author of Finding Forgotten Cities: How the Indus Civilization was discovered (Permanent Black)