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Digging Deep: Ongoing excavation at Purana Qila reveals new chapter in history of Delhi

An ongoing excavation at the Purana Qila in Delhi has revealed remains of a pre-Mauryan era settlement from the 6th-4th century BCE. But archaeologists still haven’t found any evidence of Indraprastha, the fabled city of the Mahabharata, here.

india Updated: Mar 19, 2018 12:46 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
1/7

Where Delhi is often described as a city going back to the Mahabharata, the remains seen in the shape of architectural evidence are mostly from the medieval era onwards. The citadel of Purana Qila or Old Fort attributed to Sher Shah is one site in the city where archaeologists observe a continuous history of 2500 years. Fresh finds here now push the history of Delhi back another 300 years. (Arvind Yadav / HT Photo)

The story goes that there was once a bitter feud over property and power in a large joint family. The family was wealthy, with extensive land holdings and political powers. Finally, an elderly member of the family offered a solution. The property was divided, and while one section of the family continued to hold on to the family seat in Hastinapur, the other found a new seat of power – Indraprastha – a city popularly believed to have been situated in what is present-day Delhi. Of course, the peace so brokered was not permanent, and soon the two would fight it out in the battle of Kurukshetra, but those are details we need not concern ourselves with now.

Enthusiasts of Indian mythology will know the story to be that of the epic Mahabharata. But did the events mentioned in it really take place? Opinion is divided.

“In the 1950s, archaeologist BB Lal had carried out excavations at all the sites mentioned in the Mahabharata. At almost all the places, one being Hastinapur (in modern-day Uttar Pradesh), he had found a kind of pottery, identified as painted grey ware (PGW), in the lowest level of the soil,” says Vasant Kumar Swarnkar, superintending archaeologist, Chandigarh Circle, Archaeological Survey Of India (ASI).

Carbon dating of the findings showed that the PGW culture dated back to 1200-800 BCE. As Lal admits, however, simply finding a PGW culture at the sites mentioned in the epic, does not automatically prove the historicity of the story. It simply shows these sites were culturally interconnected. What then made him identify PGW with the Mahabharata?

The excavation at Hastinapur, says Lal, provided evidence of a flood that destroyed the settlement there in 800 BCE. The PGW found at Kaushambi dates back to about this time. “According to the Puranas, the descendents of the Pandavas moved the capital from Hastinapur to Kaushambi because of a flood,” says Lal. This then, according to him, is what ties the PGW culture with the Mahabharata.

Not everyone is convinced, however, with this interpretation. As historian Upinder Singh writes in her book Ancient Delhi, “While the mass of archaeological data marshalled in the Hastinapur report remains an important addition to archaeological knowledge, the specific connection that Lal tried to establish between the site and the epic-Puranic legends remains highly speculative.”

In any case, no PGW layer could be found at Purana Qila when Lal carried out his excavation here in 1955, says Swarnkar . Subsequent excavations at the site, in the 1970s and in 2013-14 also failed to find clear evidence of the PGW culture at Purana Qila, he adds, though odd pieces of the pottery have been found here from time to time. This was the reason, or at least one of them, that pushed him to undertake a fresh excavation at Purana Qila this year. “I had got permission to carry out an excavation here in 2013 to check the antiquity of the site, but unfortunately, at the time we couldn’t go beyond the Mauryan era – 4th to 2nd century BCE, the evidence of which had already been found in earlier excavations. So this year, I took up the work again,” explains Swarnkar.

The ruins of a Mauryan-era ring well found at the Purana Qila in Delhi. The design is typical of the Mauryan era and an indicator of the presence of that culture at any site. The other identifying factor of Mauryan culture is the Northern Black Polished Ware pottery. (Arvind Yadav/HT PHOTO)

Excavation started in the beginning of this year, and is expected to continue at least till the end of this month. But the group, led by Swarnkar, claims to have already made some serious headway. “Before this, the earliest proof of settlement that we have been able to get at this site is from the Mauryan era. Each era or period in history is identified by its pottery and other associated ware or structural forms and the Mauryan era is identified by a kind of pottery known as the Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) and the typical Mauryan-era ring wells,” explains Swarnkar. “But this time we have found a layer of simple grey ware and simple red ware, below the layer of artefacts from the Mauryan era, which shows the presence of a pre-Mauryan era settlement here. Though we haven’t done a carbon dating of the pottery yet, our estimate is that it dates back to about 6th to 4th century BCE, which pushes back the history of Delhi by another 300 years,” he explains.

What this means is that there were human settlements in Delhi at the time of the 16 Mahajanapadas or kingdoms that rose in Indian between the 6th and 4th century BCE. One of the Mahajanapadas was Magadh, which went on to become a powerful empire under the Mauryas.

Dating Delhi

While one often hears the Indian capital being described as an old or historical city, the evidence of it that one sees around – in the shape of ruins of old forts, stepwells, and other architectural remains – is mostly from the medieval era onwards. This lack of visible history is also attributed by Singh, in her book, as “a reason why the earliest history of this area has generated less interest than its medieval and modern past.” The capital and its vicinity have in fact, been the site of human settlement from prehistoric times. “Prehistoric stone tools, made and used by stone age people, have been found at many places, especially in the rocky stretches of the Delhi ridge, including near the University of Delhi and on the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus . Thousands of prehistoric tools were found from Anangpur in Faridabad,” says Singh.

There are also the late Harappan sites of Bhorgarh (near Narela in north Delhi) and Mandoli (near Nand Nagri in east Delhi).

The easy access to water, in the form of the Yamuna, and the city’s strategic location on the old trade route helped settlements flourish.

“Histories of Delhi,” writes Singh in her book, “narrate a history of cities seven or more in number. Starting with Indraprastha of the Mahabharata legend, they usually take a gigantic leap of almost two thousand years into the eighth century AD when the Tomara Rajputs moved into the hills south of Delhi to found the settlement of Anangpur and later, the citadel of Lal Kot,” in the middle of the 11th century. Other cities followed – Tughlaqabad, Feroz Shah Kotla, Dinpanah and Shergarh and Shahjahanabad. But as Singh points out, “we have to distinguish between legends, settlements in the Delhi area and cities located here.” Even when there were no political capitals, there is evidence of human settlements, often rural in nature. Also “unlike many other historic cities, such as Rome,” says historian Swapna Liddle, “where successive eras built on the same site, in Delhi a series of cities were built at different sites at different times.”

The Site

One of the sites, Purana Qila or Old Fort in the heart of Delhi – Sher Shah is believed to have razed to the ground the old city of Dinpanah built here by Humayun and built the existing citadel – is an interesting one, says Swarnkar. “This is the only site in Delhi where you get a continuous history of 2500 years,” he explains.

Swarnkar is keen for the common people to be able to visit the digs and experience how history is extracted from below the soil. “There are a few single-culture sites where the digs have been preserved and are open to tourists, but here we can offer tourists an experience of seeing the remains of different cultural eras,” he explains. With this objective, he has uncovered the trenches that were made during the excavation at Purana Qila between 1969-73, to conserve and prepare them for public viewing. “The remains of each culture are preserved as a layer in the soil, one below the other. Each culture has different stratified layers,” he explains.

The remains of each culture are preserved as a layer in the soil, one below the other. Each culture has different stratified layers, says Vasant Swarnkar, who is currently excavating at Delhi’s Purana Qila. As the archaeologists dig, each layer is carefully marked. (Arvind Yadav/HT PHOTO)

To the layman, the digs, at first sight, may seem disappointingly similar to a construction site. Labourers carry mud removed from the trenches. One man sweeps the floor of the trench with a small brush to expose any writing or embeds in the soil. In one corner, another man sits washing each broken piece of pottery, before they can be checked, dated and preserved. Swarnkar points to pieces of bones in one trench. “We found the skull of a horse here. According to our estimate it should be from the Mauryan period. The soil around the skull was burnt,” he says, pointing to a blackened patch. “This indicates that this was either a sacrificial pit or used for some rituals.” In another trench he points to the remains of a Mauryan-era ring well.

As in previous excavations at Purana Qila, Swarnkar too has found sherds of PGW this time. “But these, and the associated ware from the PGW era, were found in layers of other eras. We have not been able to find a stratified PGW era layer,” he says. What this means is that there must have been a PGW settlement here, but not at the spot in which the trench has been dug. “May be there was some flood or soil erosion and some remains got mixed in the soil. We will have to make other test trenches to find the exact spot,” he adds.

The Return To Epic

While the possibility of finding another, and older, layer of history in the heart of Delhi is exciting for most history buffs, historians are not willing to jump to the conclusion that a layer of PGW in Purana Qila, even if found, will mean that this was the site of Mahabharata’s Indraprastha. “Excavations at the Purana Qila and other sites connected with the Mahabharata story…” writes Singh, “where PGW has also been found – neither prove nor disprove the historicity of the Mahabharata events. What they do show is that these sites were inhabited from ancient times” and that “the people living here shared a broadly similar sort of material culture.”

The historian feels that the desire to find a ‘Mahabharata level’ at this or any other site, is not the best way of approaching archaeology. “The Purana Qila is an important site, whether or not it represents Indraprastha. The Mahabharata is a very important text, whether or not it is based on some actual historical incident. In this day and age, it is odd that archaeological research should be dictated by literal readings of ancient texts in which the imagination had a great role to play.”

She rues that a detailed report of the Purana Qila excavations was never published. “Archaeology does not usually give us details about specific individuals or events. It tells us about the textures of the everyday lives of ordinary people - the kinds of houses they lived in, the things they made, the food they ate, and the pots they used,” she says, adding, so it is not surprising that nobody has found anything resembling Yudhishthira’s grand palace at the Purana Qila. Historian Narayani Gupta agrees, “So far, there is no historical evidence of the Mahabharata. I wish they (ASI) would look after what they have instead of hunting for Indraprastha.”

What the future will reveal about the past of the city, whether the remains of the fabled city of Indraprastha or at least the confirmed presence of a PGW-era settlement will be found in Purana Qila, remains to be seen. But the present finding by Swarnkar and his team, adding another chapter to Delhi’s ancient history –and taking it back by another 300 years – is cause enough for excitement.