“Archaeology Should Be Taken Out of the Corridors of the Government”: Historian Nayanjot Lahiri On the ASI and Preserving Indian Heritage

14 August 2017

Nayanjot Lahiri is a professor of history at Ashoka University, and the author of books such as Marshalling the Past: Ancient India and its Modern Histories (2012) and Ashoka in Ancient India (2015). In her latest book, Monuments Matter: India’s Archeological Heritage Since Independence, Lahiri conducts a broad survey of the archaeological work that has taken place in India since 1947. She discusses the impact that Partition had on Indian monuments and the nature of archaeological research, as well as its evolution since then. She further examines roles played by prime ministers, statesmen, legislations and judicial interventions in preserving Indian heritage. Lahiri looks closely at the Archaeological Survey of India, and how it is intertwined with these subjects. First constituted in undivided India in 1861, the ASI—presently under the ministry of culture—is the apex body for preservation of monuments and archaeological artefacts today. An excerpt from Lahiri’s book can be read here.

Surabhi Kanga, an assistant editor at The Caravan, met the historian to discuss the book. Their conversation continued later over email. In the interview, Lahiri discussed her view of the ASI’s work in the 70 years since Partition; the effect of changing governments on preservation; the intervention of the courts in excavating the Babri Masjid site; and issues concerning the preservation of the heritage of minority communities in India.

Surabhi Kanga: You note in the book that the role of the ASI and the nature of its work changed significantly after Independence.

Nayanjot Lahiri: As an institution, the structure of the ASI did not change significantly [after 1947,] but the one big difference is that it became larger over time. The ASI in post-independence India has much more money than the ASI of British India.

The second thing that changed post-independence was in the nature of its research. I think that is a major shift in terms of research— historical India, which was so important to them earlier, becomes far less important. One of the major achievements of the Archaeological Survey of undivided India was the discovery of the Indus Civilisation, or the Harappan Civilisation [in 1924]. But most of the major city-sites that were discovered and excavated prior to 1947 happened to fall within the borders of Pakistan. A sense of loss can be a major trigger to archaeological work—the ASI, post 1947, has the sense that we have to discover and excavate our own sites within [newly formed] India.

Surabhi Kanga is the web editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: architecture Archaeological Survey of India Partition heritage archaeology