Last March, Mumbai-based archaeologist Kurush Dalal got a call from a villager in Chandhore, Raigad, about 150 km from Mumbai. The villager said she had found some old structures nearby and asked if Dalal would like to visit and take a look.
His curiosity piqued, Dalal drove there with Abhijit Dandekar, archaeologist and lecturer at Deccan College, Pune, to find a group of stone temple plinths, a water tank cut into laterite rock and fragments of several stone sculptures, most of it covered in weeds and bramble.
Back in Mumbai, Dalal, who has 23 years in the field and has previously worked on heritage sites such as the Harappan Dholavira in Gujarat, decided he had to investigate further and applied for a licence from the Archaeological Survey of India. He then returned to Chandore in February and again last month, spending a total of four weeks excavating the ruins with the help of 24 students from his archaeology class at University of Mumbai.
These students of the year-long weekend certificate course conducted by the university’s Centre for Extra-Mural Studies (see box) included bankers, engineers, history students and journalists aged 16 to 74.
The artefacts and ruins they unearthed have now acquired a greater significance than Dalal expected.
Not only is this the first time that a department of the 155-year-old Mumbai university has conducted an independent archaeological excavation, experts say it is also the first time that a rural temple complex site dating back to the 11th and 12th century has been found in north Konkan.
"The style of the sculptures and carvings are a clear indication that they belong to the Shilahara period," says archaeologist Suraj Pandit, a lecturer at Sathaye College. "This site also lies on a trade route of the Shilahara period, indicating the vibrancy of the culture of that region in the past."
Dalal's research paper on the excavation and its findings will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai.
Idols, a temple,a water tank
Among the first artefacts that Dalal and his students excavated in Chandhore was a small basalt idol of the Hindu deities Hara-Gauri, ensconced in a square niche along a flight of stone stairs leading to a water tank.
A few feet away, a damaged sculpture of the Nandi bull lay buried at the base of a tree, along with some broken stone tablets depicting stories of mythical heroes and the sati practice. They also found a small Shiva temple, broken bits of a Shiva lingam and a tablet carved with the image of Vishnu reclining on a serpent.
For Dalal's students, the two field trips were an unexpected bonus and a serious challenge. Attending the excavation in batches, they spent several days each serving as trench supervisors, overseeing the digging work conducted by local villagers and studying each find.
"Excavation is a tedious process and you cannot expect to find something in every spot," says Dnyaneshwari Kamath, 46, an architect from Vile Parle who signed up for the course with her 16-year-old daughter Gargi, a Class 12 student. "But it was exciting too. Every time we found fragments of pots or coins, we would celebrate."
The students have catalogued, cleaned and brought back to Mumbai several fragments of glazed and coarse pottery and two silver coins bearing the image of a Shilahara king, which are now being studied by archaeologists.
Dalal plans to continue excavations at Chandhore for at least five years, where he anticipates unearthing more temples and perhaps a group of Shilahara-era village homes.
"In rural Maharashtra, people's understanding of history is usually limited to Shivaji and the mythical Pandavas," says Dalal. "These villagers had also assumed that the relics belonged to the Pandava era. Now they are understanding their history and even planning to set up a village museum to house these artefacts."