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A History of Indian Archaeology Since 1947

Review: Archaeology in the Third world – A History of Indian Archaeology Since 1947. Dilip K. Chakrabarti. 2003. D. K. Printworld (P) Ltd. New Delhi. Pp.279, Rs. 800/-.
by D.P. Agrawal

Posted 6/10/03

Dilip K. Chakrabarti has to be thanked for writing this thought provoking book, Archaeology in the Third World – A History of Indian Archaeology Since 1947. He teaches South Asian archaeology at Cambridge University for several years now. In this book the author offers an authoritative historical frame of archaeological research in post-independence India, highlighting the major mileposts in its story of development. This is accompanied by an incisive analysis of different aspects of Indian Heritage management, including the impact of religious fundamentalism. As an appendix he also gives a detailed discussion of the scope of ‘nationalist archaeology’ in India. Chakrabarti has always been very meticulous about his data and research. He is also very versatile and a prolific writer. He publishes a new book – if not two – every year. Despite his settling in UK, he manages to do some fieldwork in India practically every year. An incisive mind and an abrasive tongue mark his writings! Though he is settled in UK now, he is very critical of imperialist attitude of even those archaeologists who are working in South Asia. The reviewer happens to be an old friend and colleague of Chakrabarti, which makes it a bit embarrassing for him to critically review this valuable work, though in this book he has not spared his friend even.

The book raises some basic issues in the last chapter. He admits that both the concepts of ‘the archaeology of the past’ and also research were imports from the colonial masters. He also thinks that the nationalists in India were quite happy with the text-based reconstruction of the past, where there was no room for archaeology. He laments that archaeology had hardly any place in the education system. He feels sorry that things have not changed much even after Independence. In fact, government regulations controlling archaeological research have only increased. Archaeology is tagged to history departments even today. Chakrabarti complains, “There is hardly any emotive quest for the past in the modern Third World.” He also notices that in the Third World there is no concept of rescue archaeology.

Chakrabarti admits, “These may not make pleasant reading, but in the context with which I am personally familiar, I am not likely to take back a single sentence…” This sort of arrogance has become a hallmark of Chakrabarti’s writings. As if he has some special access to revealed knowledge. There are no absolute truths in the pursuit of knowledge. Everything is subject to change.

His diagnosis about what ails Indian archaeology seems to be a bit superficial. I have had a long experience of interacting both with archaeologists and scientists as I was running the national radiocarbon dating program. I tried my best to bridge the yawning gulf between archaeologists and scientists, but failed, mainly because the archaeologists never bothered to get acquainted with scientific techniques. I have had no problems in getting full cooperation of archaeobotanists, geologists, physicists and others in my multidisciplinary projects in Rajasthan and Kashmir. If the Radiocarbon Lab at Ahmedabad is no more interested in doing archaeological samples, the fault lies squarely with archaeologists. We had even offered to build radiocarbon labs at Deccan College, Pune and Institute of Archaeology, Delhi, but there were no takers. Following the same ignorant attitude to scientific analyses, Chakrabarti condemns genetic evidence.

Chakrabarti may be partially right in condemning the condescending attitude of foreign archaeologists working in South Asia. But the fault lies equally with the Indian scholars. Very few of them have the aptitude or inclination to learn new techniques. Most of the archaeological excavation reports are in arrears, and I am sure they would never see the light of the day. Its such a colossal waste in a poor country. The Union Minister of Culture now plans to excavate 1500 more sites of ‘lost cities’ and thus again they will be buried in the godowns of the Archaeological Survey. We don’t need new excavations; we need full publications of scores of pending excavation reports – both scientific and popular. If our excavators sit down to report they will at least study to interpret their data. Take the Harappan sites alone, Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi, Ropar, Banawali, Alamgirpur, Dholavira etc are all pending. From whose writings we learn about the sub-continent’s archaeology? The Americans publish annual reports of the Harappa Excavations. Kenoyer has published a synthesis of the Harappan material. Gregory Possehl has been writing voluminous books on Indus Civilisation. What has happened to Indian scholars? It is this sloth and ignorance that makes Indian and Pakistani archaeologists feel inferior against foreign scholars. I am not denying that the Western nations and scholars perhaps suffer a bit of superiority complex. Its not that that they have any extra grey cells; its only because they can spend more money on excavations and in granting favours to aspiring Indian/Pakistani archaeologists. Today USA got away scot-free after invading poor Iraq, against global opposition, only because its super-rich and powerful. To fight such arrogance the Third World countries have also to become powerful, publish better books and papers, improve quality of their work and publications. Then the West will be forced to recognize their worth.

We will now have a look at what the author discusses in his various chapters. Basically through critical, sometimes even sweeping, reviews of publications he surveys the progress of Indian archaeology during different periods – both before and after Independence. I don’t understand why he calls his book Archaeology in the Third World. In fact, he talks mostly of India only, not even of Pakistan. All told, it must be admitted that its an important work which critically evaluates the progress of Indian archaeology, especially after Independence.

The author has tried to review important publications on Indian archaeology (Ancient India, Indian Prehistory: 1964, Indian Archaeology a Review etc) in his first chapter, ‘The Quest for New Horizons., 1947-73’. Chakrabarti divides each chapter into various time periods for simplicity. He introduces many points with the help of various issues of Ancient India. He points out that Mortimer Wheeler emphasized the question of the hiatus between the end of the Indus civilization and the beginning of the early historic cities of the Ganga plains. We are also told that Niranjan Prasad Chakrabarti has dealt with the issue of archaeology in the Indian princely states. The changed circumstances of India becoming independent allowed drafting of the new constitution of India in which archaeology was kept as a central subject though it only mentioned ancient and historical monuments, sites and remains of ‘National importance’. V.D. Krishnaswami resolved the archaeological problems related to ‘Megaliths’ in his article. A number of major developments may be said to have taken place during 1954-65.

The author has discussed in detail the Indian Archaeology A Review (IAR), which was edited by A Ghosh. IAR is the most important window on archaeological field-activities in modern India and also on the diverse activities of the Archaeological Survey of India. Many sites were excavated during 1953-54 to 1972-73. The author gives a detailed list of these sites in this book.

Chakrabarti discusses some important publications, like B.Subbarao’s The Personality of India and D.H.Grodon’s Prehistoric Background of Indian Culture, Puratattva (Bulletin of the Indian Archaeological Society), etc. He also gives a short note in the first chapter on Radiocarbon Dating and a Neglected Blueprint of Archaeological Science. He tries to blame me for not recognizing that it was S.D. Chatterjee who was the pioneer of radiocarbin dating in India. I had a long correspondence with Chatterjee asking him the details of his techniques, as radiocarbon dating is not a simple technique (as it requires advanced ancillary facilities of electronics, workshop, computers, liquid nitrogen etc) to be installed in a University set-up. Chatterjee never replied to the queries raised by me. Years later I was informed by the director of the Copenhagen Lab that he had done the samples from Rajar-dhibi in his lab for which Chaterjee fraudulently took credit. Since Chakarabarti has put the blame at my door, I had to mention this sordid episode, which I had never mentioned before.

In the second chapter ‘New Issues and Perspectives, 1974 to the Present’ the author highlights some important contributions made by H.D.Sankalia. He gives detailed information about the publication of Prehistory and Protohistory of India and Pakistan. The author also throws light on the terms ‘Lower Paleolithic’ and ‘Middle Paleolithic’. The most important feature of the second chapter is the description about Radiocarbon Dating in India. Chakrabarti most graciously recognizes the role played by the Tata Institute and Physical Research Lab, Ahmedabad, as also of my colleague Sheela Kusumgar.

The author gives a detailed information about The Rise of civilization in India and Pakistan written by B. and F.R. Allchin and The Archaeology of India (1982) by D.P. Agrawal as two important general books on the subcontinent’s prehistory and protohistory. He also discusses some other publications edited by some well-known archaeologists. The excavated sites are listed in the second chapter from IAR 1973-74 to 1989-90. He decries the DNA study of both modern and ancient populations by Bamshad et al.

In the next chapter ‘Archaeological Heritage Management, Education and Nationalism’ Chakrabarti brings up various issues. In this chapter he tries to look at the general history of archaeology in post-Independence India. He says archaeology has failed to grow as an academic subject in India. The Ford Foundation gave the financial support in the second half of 1980’s to three archaeological programs in the country. When Man and Environment got a large amount of money from the Ford Foundation it shifted to the Deccan College, Pune. The responsibility for the conservation and preservation of the ‘protected’ monuments and sites were with the Archaeological Survey of India. But for the unprotected monuments the responsibility lies with the state departments or directorates of archaeology.

The author describes in detail the preservation of Archaeological Heritage. He says chemical treatment of both structures and antiquities plays a major role in the Survey’s schemes. Chakrabarti says that the Indian universities, museums and other institutions played a crucial role in the preservation of archaeological heritage. He describes the various kinds of museums, and different types of Acts related to The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites. The Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 1904 aimed

To provide for the preservation of ancient monuments, for the exercise of control over traffic in antiquities and excavation in certain places and for the protection and acquisition in certain cases of ancient monuments and of objects of archaeological, historical, or artistic interest.

The author discusses the role and contribution of non-governmental agencies also. One of them is the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) established in 1984. The consultants at INTACH prepare ‘heritage plans’ for different areas; the implementation of these plans is not possible without the governmental support. He also discusses the funding of the Survey. Archaeology has always played a major role in the formation of Indian national identity.

The author says that it is not easy to define the relationship between archaeology and nationalism in India. He says the nationalist image of the ‘glories of ancient India’ derived some support from the excavations of ancient sites. The relationship between archaeology and nationalism in post-independence India is still an open question.

The fourth chapter ‘Religious Fundamentalism, Archaeology and the problem of the preservation of Archaeological Heritage in Modern India’ briefly points out three specific situations, which may be linked prima facie to religious fundamentalism of one kind or other. This has posed serious challenges to the efficacy of archaeological heritage preservation in south Asia. Fundamentalism is not an exclusive feature of any particular religious group. He found that it was impossible to believe that the preservation of archaeological monuments remained completely immune to such a cataclysmic event as the Partition. The case of the Bamiyan Buddha in Afghanistan at the junction of West, Central, and south Asia and the demolition of a mosque built in the sixteenth century at Ayodhya in north India in December 1992 are major examples of religious fundamentalism affecting archaeological heritage in south Asia. He gives some important features about the Bamiyan site located in the Bamiyan valley of the Hindukush at an elevation of about 2600m.

India is identified as the Aryan homeland. Chakrabarti says that the historical controversy, which is being waged at present in India between the ‘progressives’ and the ‘reactionaries’, has shifted from Ayodhya to the Aryans. He also discusses the development of archaeological conservation in India. The Government of India had a conservation police in place in the early twentieth century. John Marshall the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India says that the deserted monuments or ‘dead’ monuments were taken over directly by the government and ‘protected’.

In the last chapter of this book ‘the Common Denominators of Third World Archaeology’ the author explains the term, ‘Third World’. In this chapter the author says that the archaeological literature has focused on diverse ramifications of the socio-politics of the past but there is no specific theoretical concern with archaeological research in the Third World. So, he points out that that the gap both in scale and research methods between the First and the Third World is increasing at an alarming speed.

Emphasizing the common denominators of Third World Archaeology with the help of colonial background he tells us that the Third World Archaeology in the colonial context was a small government-run affair, which hardly played any role in its educational system or in nationalist movements. He also gives a brief note on the situation after Independence. The author says that there are about eleven common denominators of the Third World Archaeology. He compares the Third World Archaeology to the First World Archaeology in the field of reconstruction of archaeological cultural history with emphasis on survey and excavation, oriented towards the establishment of stratigraphy, typology, distribution and dating.

In the end of the book the author has added a theme on the Nationalist Archaeology of India. He says that the fact that Nationalism can also act as great cultural force persuading people to undertake the study of not merely archaeology but also history has not been adequately emphasized.

The author refers to many multi-ethnic states. The Turkish situation has a similarity with the Indian case. Both are multi-ethnic states with deep roots in history, and the past acceptable to all sections of populace is important to both of them. The author recognizes that there is an increasing emphasis upon finding links between archaeology and nationalism since 1990. Chakrabarti also emphasizes that the Indian identity, built within the colonial Indological framework of race, language and culture and its Aryan-non-Aryan dichotomy, is unacceptable to modern India and Indians. He also discusses some important concepts about the race-language-culture framework in colonial India, the acceptance of the race-language-culture framework by Indian historians and archaeologists, and the need of a different concept of the past in modern India.

Two points are carefully emphasized throughout the volume by the author. First, there is a strong thread of continuity through the period covered by him. The discoveries of one period were linked with the discoveries of the next. Secondly, such discoveries did not take place in an intellectual vacuum. The present volume is based only on the published material and aimed at dealing with the overall and evolving frame of archaeological research in post-Independence India. Finally, it is important that we realize that there is an ever-widening gulf of difference between the archaeological research in the First World and in the third World.

To sum, Chakrabarti’s book does stimulate one to think about the serious issues he has raised. He calls the book, Archaeology in the Third World, but mostly its India he is talking about, so why claim the whole Third World? His book is published in 2003, but most of his references belong to the nineties. He has criticized my book Archaeology of India, which was published in 1982, but after 1982 the several books I and others have published on Indian archaeology he simply ignores them. This lapse makes his book a bit out of date and superficial. The author is no doubt very prolific but publishing too much too often leads to superficiality and lack of depth, which used to be the hallmark of Chakrabarti’s books. All the same, the book is a must for all those interested in the history of Indian Archaeology.