In studying Annigeri skulls, a collision of histories

The sensational discovery, which has engendered great interest among historians and archaeologists, has profound implications for Karnataka, if not India. As exciting as the Annigeri find may be, it has pitted scholars in a rich debate. Their studies have collided even as each archaeologist and historian has tried to reach bedrock conclusions.

Whether consciously or not, archaeologists conceptualise artifacts dug up in excavations, at least for the purpose of presenting an archaeological narrative, as ‘events.’ To that end, Karnataka’s many scholars discovered in the Annigeri skulls that time is something other than intellectual wallpaper. For them it became a package of their fundamental assumptions, each trying to bracket their narratives without unwrapping the package and looking for other individual bits and pieces, not just inside the package but outside it.

Once the skulls were carbon dated and their age fixed at 638 years (with an error margin of 10 per cent), scholars attached to the state department of archaeology and museums immediately concluded that people were massacred during the Adil Shahi dynasty and then their heads were buried deep under the earth.

On the other hand, two different examinations and analysis of the skulls, one undertaken by Prof R M Shadaksharaiah and the other by Prof M M Kalburgi and Associate Prof J M Nagaiah (all of the Karnataka University, Dharwad) appear to support a more grisly interpretation — human sacrifices associated with prevailing tantric practices and cultic killings as a perverse religious ritual in the period the between 11th and 15th centuries.

All these interpretations conform to a savagery-barbarism-civilisation social evolution model. What is, however, undeniable is that the buried skulls had not been treated very well. They were neatly laid down in rows and in a few cases some fibula, femur and tibia and radius bones were found in two eight-feet-deep pits.

According to Shadaksharaiah, who conducted a stratigrahical study of the soil, the skulls are ‘unique’ in that they form a ‘pavilion’ which, in his analysis, was the work of a secret society of tantrics who used the surface of the pits to perform black magic and other grisly rituals.

“If there was a localised massacre in Annigeri around the 12th century AD, it would have found mention in the many inscriptions that have been found in and around Annigeri,” Shadaksharaiah said. Brushing aside the theory that Veera Maaheshwara cultists destroyed Jaina temples in the region and then committed suicide, Prof Shadaksharaiah said: “Since there is no mention of the destruction of Jaina, or even Shaiva temples by the Veera Maaheshwara cult in inscriptions, we have to go by circumstantial evidence.”

Circumstantial evidence

During physical examination of the skulls, he found on top of the main layer four to five skulls with their mouths open and faced skyward. This finding led him to ask a question: why were the majority of the skulls not found with their mouths open and faced skyward? “It could be that the tantrics of the day used a few skulls to perform their rituals on top of the pit covered with a layer of soil,” Shadaksharaiah said, adding that complete lack of any pottery or other cultural artifacts in the pits reveal that it was not a burial site. “Hindus at that time normally used to put earthenware and other cultural materials along with the buried body. But in the Annigeri pits no essential change of culture has been encountered as excavation proceeded downward,” he said.

While Prof Shadaksharaiah doesn’t question the Carbon-14 dating of the skulls, his colleague at Karnataka University, Nagaiah is convinced that the skulls belong to the early 11th century AD when people of Annigeri were put to the sword by a huge army of the Chola emperor Rajaraja I during 1007-08 AD. Nagaiah has relied on a Hottur inscription in Shiggon village of Haveri district, which is about 40 km from Annigeri.

According to the inscription Rajaraja Chola I ravaged the whole countryside, murdering women, children and brahmins and “overthrew the order of the caste.” Among others who doubt the veracity of the radiocarbon dating is KUD’s archaeology Professor Ravi Korisettar who, for the want of specific and more precise scientific testing of the bones does not attach any historical or archaeological context to the skulls.

Clearly, the Annigeri find has created dissonance among Karnataka’s scholars of history and archaeology as explanation for the 601 pieces of skulls has ranged from warfare to ritual killing to tantric practices to mass massacre. As there is no consensus, forensics science skills could be applied to arrive at the probable cause of death in Annigeri approximately 638 years ago. Another means to unravel the mystery of the splendorous skulls is to carbon-date the residual skeletal remains that have been found in nearby pits.

The skulls will provide a window of opportunity to historians and archaeologists for a glimpse into a specific, and undoubtedly, crucial period in Karnataka’s history. To achieve that, scholars could employ the services of their physical anthropology colleagues who could help analyse the remains. Instead of colliding, the state’s scholars should collude with single-minded effort to tell a story of what might have happened six centuries ago. Otherwise, the skulls of Annigeri will remain just trophy heads.

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