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Hinduism: from text to context

Many eminent archaeologists have attempted, even wanted, to find the lost worlds of Indian legends in their excavations. Such links have, however, seldom been established, writes Nayanjot Lahiri.

india Updated: Sep 17, 2007, 23:59 IST
Nayanjot Lahiri
Nayanjot Lahiri

India is a land of legends and traditions. Every Indian, Hindu or non-Hindu, educated or illiterate, rich or poor, wants to know when the epic heroes Rama and Krishna lived. In his imagination, he associates certain places and objects with these heroes. When these people meet an archaeologist they naturally ask him about the antiquity of these heroes and the places like Nasik and Dwarka associated with them. Frankly, to such queries no answer can be given, unless we have proved the antiquity of these places and found some objects or writings of the times of Rama and Krishna.”

These are the words of Hansmukh Dhirajlal Sankalia, the ‘father’, if there was one, of post-Independence Indian archaeology. Sankalia is remembered as a teacher and an institution builder of formidable repute in relation to the Deccan College in Pune. However, as his words emphasise, he was very much part of an academic tradition that saw archaeology as a means of testing the veracity of Hindu religious texts.

This is not surprising since post-Independence India, especially the 1960s, saw many field archaeologists and historians use this approach in their writings. D.D. Kosambi, for instance, was one of them. This icon of Marxist scholarship on ancient India, in 1964, offered an interpretation of ‘Aryanisation’ that he believed received archaeological support from what had emerged from the diggings at Hastinapura. For him, the pottery in the lowest stratum (‘ochre-coloured pottery culture’) represented the original inhabitants mentioned in the Mahabharata, while that epic’s allusions to Kuru land clearing and occupation could be correlated with the succeeding culture, marked by Painted Grey Ware.

But the reason why Sankalia — at a time when Indian archaeology’s ‘failure’ to provide proof to support the believer’s perspective about the Rama katha, once more, is grabbing national headlines — is worth remembering is because his work reveals how a scholar with such a strong sympathy and desire to ‘prove’ the existence of traditional accounts, was unable to do so through his own field investigations.

In his autobiography, Born for Archaeology, Sankalia provides us with a background that helps in explaining his fascination with this line of research. Having studied for an undergraduate degree in Sanskrit (and ‘Voluntary English’), he developed an early interest in co-relating Indian literature with archaeology. In his own words: “Long before I joined the Deccan College, I had planned to reconstruct the history of India by a study of the Puranas and also of Sanskrit literature testing my conclusions in the light of archaeology.”

In 1962, Sankalia began excavations outside the compound wall of the Dvarkadhisha temple in Gujarat, based on the idea of archaeologically testing out Puranic legends. What he found, though, was that while the tradition about the submergence of Dwarka in the sea was well-founded, the association of the site with Krishna and the Yadavas remained unproved. This must no doubt have disappointed his local patron, Jayantilal Jamnadas Thakar who was intensely interested in the Dwarka of Mahabharata fame. Thakar was a doctor by profession and an amateur explorer by choice. He had collected coins and pottery from Dwarka, Bet Dwarka and many other places and surely this was the reason he persuaded Sankalia to search out the antiquity of Dwarka. It is another matter that Sankalia’s work did not provide the kind of ‘proof’ that Thakar was looking for.

Sankalia undertook other excavations which were textually driven but his reports are remembered as studies in archaeology and not as examples of archaeology-literature correlations.

Nevasa, for instance, is a classic site of the Old Stone Age, as Sankalia’s report shows. However, the reason why it came to be excavated is because Sant Jnanesvara, the Marathi saint poet, is supposed to have stayed there for some time. The first chief minister of Bombay, B.G. Kher, apparently felt that if an archaeologist dug at Nevasa, he might find some objects belonging to the time of Jnanesvara. The excavation, of course, revealed that the mound of Nevasa was much older than the saint poet. In fact, nothing specific which would clarify the association of Nevasa with Jnanesvara was found at all.

Again, in the case of Maheshwar-Navdatoli, the Puranic legends figured in Sankalia’s fascination for it. Apparently, he “had read, while young, that here ruled King Sahasrarjuna of the Haihayas who alone among all other kings defeated Ravana.” In the field, though, Sankalia was a thorough professional. Therefore, once excavations began, it was what emerged out of the ground that took precedence over any preconceived notions that he may have had. The three seasons of work that he directed there ensured that their character as places with a long history of occupation rather than the connection with a Puranic cause celebre, became the focus of his published work. The Deccan College has been singularly ‘unsuccessful’ in providing proof of the kind that the faithful look for.

The past may be big business and an arena to score political points, but it is time that we recognised that archaeology, as a discipline which investigates the past, is not a theological but a scientific one. It has rarely succeeded in furnishing proof to the faithful about haloed events and personages valorised in traditional accounts.

Nayanjot Lahiri teaches archaeology at the Department of History, Delhi University.

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