Striking discovery

Striking discovery

Finding forgotten cities: how the indus
civilisation was discovered
Nayanjot Lahiri
2011, pp 356

The author, a professor of archaeology at the University of Delhi, set out to write a book that would appeal to not just fellow archaeologists, but also to lay persons with an interest in history.

The book is an account of the people, the bureaucratic processes, politics and circumstances that led to the discovery of the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Her digs are not the mounds of Mohenjodaro and Harappa, but the archives of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at Delhi, the India Office Library in London, and the Rajasthan State Archives in Bikaner.

To these dusty piles, she brings her skills as an archaeologist — laboriously excavating inch by inch the letters and accounts of British explorers and adventurers, clearing with trowel and fine brush to reveal layer upon layer of — not the secrets of a 5,000-year-old civilisation, but of bureaucratic processes, the search for funding, the transfers of officials, the trajectory of commonplace events that slowly led to the uncovering of the Indus Valley Civilisation. A discovery that pushed back the frontiers of India’s known history by some 3,000 years.

Finding Forgotten Cities is a discovery of that discovery. It is written in a style that is, appropriately enough, reminiscent of the State Gazetteers compiled by meticulous and intent bureaucrats in the districts of British India. The narrative that unfolds in the manner of a mystery novel with Indus Valley seals that keep turning up like clues, does succeed in holding the attention of the lay reader.

The book offers interesting insights into colonial attitudes: Many of the excavations were undertaken by adventurers and army officers and were little more than treasure hunting exercises. Coins and sculptures and art treasures were ‘removed’ to private collections or to the British Museum.

When they did at all bother to justify such plunder, the “destructiveness of the natives” was cited as a reason for the “acquiring” of archaeological artifacts and the “migration” of these objects to England. British military adventures across the world swelled their museums with artifacts collected as “war booty” from Egypt, Athens, and from African and Asian colonies.

The term ‘Elginism’ became a general metaphor for the plunder of cultural treasures — a reference to Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin who pulled down a whole sculptural frieze from the Parthenon and “removed” it to England.

Indian monuments were routinely co-opted as offices or residences with the Diwan-e-Am in Lahore serving as a dormitory for British soldiers; the Moti Masjid was a treasury, and Anarkali’s tomb became the civil secretariat record room.

In Delhi, the Red Fort housed an army garrison as it continues to do so to this day. But, when Lord Curzon became Viceroy in 1898, he brought with him a new vision of conservation, terming the despoliation a reminder of “a century of British vandalism and crime”. He was determined to make the British administration of India appear just and enlightened.

He believed that India was central to the survival of the British Empire and said, “As long as we rule India, we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it we shall drop straightaway to a third-rate power.” It was Curzon who brought to India in 1902, the man who is the hero of Lahiri’s book — John Marshall, the 25-year-old director of the ASI whom she credits as being the one who joined the dots that led to his announcing in 1924, the antiquity of the cities of the Indus Valley.

Nineteenth century European archaeologists brought to their study of Indian sites a dependence on texts — leaning on the accounts of the 7th century Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang, on Vedic Sanskrit texts, and on accounts of Alexander the Great’s march across the subcontinent.

There was a propensity for referencing local history through these prisms. In its scope, this book also mirrors that dependency on a few established sources. Surely, it must be possible and pertinent to dig wider, dig elsewhere…

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