“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.

The third is that in the long-run, the quality of people that it appointed has just not been up to the mark. There should’ve been many more lateral entries into the ASI, which often used to happen during British times. This is not the story of the ASI alone; it’s the story of ministries and other government-funded institutions all over India—there is no accountability and people pretty much do what they want to do. You would imagine that the ASI would try to, at least, follow some of the best practices that are there in other practices in the world. You would think they would have had, by now, a scientific laboratory, a whole scientific setup. This is what was suggested by their own ex-director general—Mortimer Wheeler—when he did a survey, in 1965. It still hasn’t happened.

SK: Do you think that political will—such as a push from a government or a statesman—determines what we investigate and study with respect to our archaeological and historical heritage?

NL: There’s no getting away from the government when you do archaeology in India. In some ways, it’s necessary because a lot of funding comes from the government. Take the discovery of the Indus Civilisation—this was September 1924, they had just finished excavating some months before, with a few thousand rupees. At the time, Rs 12,000 is what the ASI could afford for spending on archaeological field work—a real pauper’s purse.They had just enough money for one month of excavation in Mohenjo-daro. [The discovery] was announced in Indian newspapers in November, and I think it was very deliberately done by the director general of the ASI, [John] Marshall, to build public pressure. Gandhi, non-cooperation—that was all very much in the air. The idea that you had such antiquity, that archaeological proof was found that India was a very old civilisation, led to a huge hue and cry. As a result of that, a large special grant was given, and within two years, about two-and-a-half lakh rupees were given. Archaeology can’t be done without that kind of money. You have to be realistic in a country like India.

A 2014 photo of an excavation site in Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh. COURTESY NAYANJOT LAHIRI

SK: How would you categorise the effect that the various governments of India have had on the preservation of heritage in the subcontinent?

NL: In India, traditionally, governments and rulers—whether it is the princely rulers of states such as the Rajputana states and the Junagadh darbar, or the Mughal state—have actually had systems in place for preserving things they considered important in terms of the larger identity of the state. You won’t find mounds being preserved, but on the other hand, you will find forts, temples and dargahs being preserved.

If you look at what is preserved by the ASI, actually, it does very clearly try to preserve monuments and sites of different time periods—from prehistoric sites, right up to monuments of the British period. The ASI has tried to preserve what is important to people across India—it has always had a subcontinental footprint and even beyond. That’s why one is wary about things like cultural nationalism, because who defines what is culture? Frankly, we Indians take great pride in our heritage but do very little to preserve it. I regard this whole talk of “Incredible India” as being mere rhetoric.

SK: The question of preserving Islamic heritage is one of particular importance and concern right now. Do you think the heritage is facing a threat under the current regime?

NL: I would say that in terms of conservation of Islamic heritage, that’s the easy narrative, that’s the story that people want to hear, but it’s not true. It was Jagmohan—who was a BJP minister in the time of Vajpayee—who got all the illegal occupation in and around Humayun’s Tomb removed. And what you see today is something that we owe Jagmohan. Similarly, the Red Fort today not having the army anymore inside the structures… it’s different governments who have played a role. In a living mosque such as Jama Masjid, a lot of the conservation is done by the ASI, even though it is not an ASI site.

The greatest chunk of money that the ASI spent is on Islamic monuments. The Agra monuments, the Delhi monuments—a lot of the money goes there, and these are Islamic.

One needs hard facts. I want to see it on paper, that, “Look, earlier the Taj Mahal got this much in terms of revenue, resources from the government, and now it’s this much.” In any case, in places such as the Taj, it’s monitored by [a committee appointed by] the Supreme Court because of the failure of the government to protect it from environmental pollution.

In fact the trend that you see vis-à-vis Islamic heritage—from the time of [Indira] Gandhi—is a very self-conscious attempt to take over monuments by waqf boards, by a lot of MPs and other organisations. The real shift is really this attempt to get those monuments back, by the Muslim communities. After all, they’re not equipped to be conserving; that’s not their job.

SK: The cause for such concern is perhaps rooted in other events. For instance, the revision of history textbooks in the states of Rajasthan and Maharashtra to remove or change the accounts of Indian history.

NL: This is the crude use of state power. Because you control textbooks, there are ways in which you can just wish away history. And eventually it’s a great pity that it is happening. However, it’s something that has a long history. It’s just that it’s being done in a much more crude way today than it was before.

SK: In the book, you allude to the fact that, after Independence, there existed a gap in the research on the “sequence of cultures” for a millennium after the decline of the Harappan civilisation. There have been discussions lately regarding DNA evidence from the Rakhigarhi site in Haryana. Do you think this evidence may hold the key to revealing the origins of the Vedic people?

NL: In the case of the Harappan civilisation, the script is not deciphered. What we know about it is what you would know about any other culture archaeologically. In the case of the Vedic people, we have texts, and no archaeological culture. I don’t think the Vedic texts are of a kind that can easily be married to what is there in the case of the Harappan civilisation. The key really is the decipherment of the Indus script. If it is deciphered, and you find that it is a Dravidian or an Indo-European language system, then that’s evidence. But as of the moment, it’s just something that is impossible to say. All I can say is that if you look at the earliest text, which is the Rig Veda, it is completely a product of the soil of India—it doesn’t have any memories of this long migration from anywhere. By the time the Rig Veda is written, even if the Aryans came from outside, they’re completely indigenised. The whole issue of whether they came from outside doesn’t matter.

We don’t realise it but there are many things that bind the right-wing history waalas and the left-wing history waalas. Why are the Aryans so important to both of them? You can write the history of India without the Aryans figuring in it, because ultimately, there’s so much in terms of the evolution of societies we have today from archaeology. It’s one of the major achievements of archaeology—to show a pattern where no community can actually take the credit for having introduced a particular change, or introduced a particular kind of civilisation. I feel so thrilled about that. Why is it that certain types of origins matter? How does it matter where the Aryans came from? If they were indigenous or if they came from outside? Isn’t it a fact that we all came out of Africa? How is it that the story of how we came out of Africa doesn’t interest people, but that does? It’s because we’re deeply racist. In our minds, Africa is associated with certain sorts of things, but the Aryans, because you’re talking about a particular type of culture—a sort of macho, martial race—that you’d love to identify with. But otherwise, why isn’t that story of interest to the left and right historians?

SK: So then what do you think has accorded this “Aryan invasion” theory the kind of controversial attention it garners?

NL: We were ruled by the British. They used the whole idea of the Aryan invasion as a legitimising narrative. The justification was that, many millennia ago, it was Indo-Europeans—the Aryans—who came and introduced this morally pure religion—the Vedic religion. Over time, this culture became decadent, and now a new wave of conquerors, also of European descent, with the morally pure religion of Christianity, are coming to rescue India.

Why did we buy it? If you think of the upper castes and if you think of the Brahmins, it’s a wonderful way of identifying with your conquerors and saying, “We’re actually first cousins.” Colonised people would feel like they gained a certain self-respect by being seen as part of the same lineage, even if this were many millennia ago. That’s one reason. The other reason was in terms of hard archaeological evidence—for that time period, there was very little. Once the Indus Civilisation was discovered, if this intellectual inertia of being stuck with the idea of Aryans wasn’t there, you would’ve said, “Look, there’s nothing Aryan about this; these are culturally deep roots.” There’s just so much archaeological evidence after that point. From the third millennium BCE onwards, you won’t meet Aryans anymore. So the lack of evidence also makes stories seem more plausible, but even when there was evidence, we’re still stuck with that theory, because of other reasons.

SK: You write in the book that there have been many archaeological investigations in north India, in the north-west, and in south India. However, this academic rigour is lacking when it comes to the north-east. Why is that?

NL: One of the reasons may well be that eventually, when you deal with the area where the written tradition is much later than, let’s say in north India, you’ll have to pull it then somewhat differently. But nothing prevents the ASI from excavating half-a-dozen sites there and getting scientific dates, and a sense of early culture.

SK: In the north-east and across the country, India has a large community of tribal peoples and cultures. What is the condition of the preservation of archaeological artefacts belonging to these?

NL: Some of them are preserved, and I would say that there are many more Islamic period monuments as compared to these. I really think there should be a very serious attempt to work out which are the monuments that are important in, let’s say, the heartland of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, and north-east India. For instance, there is a pillar in the Bastar district—a memorial post which is often erected by the Gond and Madiya tribes in the region—which is protected by the ASI. There should be many more.

SK: In the final chapter of the book, you discuss the significance of law and the role that the courts have played in the preservation—or lack thereof—of monuments. In this context, you mention the Babri Masjid demolition, and the Allahabad High Court’s directions to the ASI to excavate the site at Ayodhya. You term this intervention “significant.”

NL: It’s quite unusual to have the court direct the ASI to excavate to find whether there was a temple there or not. I think this was eventually a property dispute—and for the courts to be asking for an excavation! I don’t think the ASI had a choice in the matter. I would say the ASI at that point produced a report very efficiently, but it’s not a complete report. There are no scientific [findings]—we don’t know which animal bones were found there; we don’t know anything from the soil analysis. In a normal excavation, these are the sorts of things that are done. If you’re finding metal artefacts, there should be an analysis of these metal artefacts; there should be identification of the food remains that are found there; you should have drawings of pottery; and so on and so forth. It’s a very incomplete excavation. Why? I have no idea.

Further, for the court to treat the ASI as if it’s the fountainhead of knowledge, and that it cannot be questioned—whereas you can question other experts and agencies—is completely ridiculous. The ASI is using certain methods, and as the archaeologists of the ASI themselves tell you: frequently, when you start off doing some work with a certain set of questions, your excavation may not provide answers for that. It may provide a whole lot of other material which is very interesting and important. In one of the chapters I say people like [the archaeologist] HD Sankalia were interested in looking for archaeological evidence for Puranic myths. When they excavated, they didn’t find that, but they found a whole lot of evidence of Chalcolithic cultures, and Sankalia is remembered because he documented that so well. The Allahabad court did not have a sense of this at all—that the ASI is not above being questioned for something to be academically viable. Archaeological work the world over often does not provide the kind of answers that the Allahabad court was looking for.

SK: You note that an important motivating factor for certain excavations was “providing an archaeological basis for India’s religious texts.” For instance, BB Lal, the director general of the ASI from 1962 to 1978 was juxtaposing his work with the text of the Mahabharata. What is your view on this approach?

NL: BB Lal himself pointed out in his writings that what archaeology could do was to provide a broad dating. But he was also the first to point out that the sorts of images that were found in the Mahabharata, that you have of say, Hastinapura [are not real]. In the case of the epics, the issue is very clearly that you’re looking at an amalgam of different types of things—you can put in details from a later period into an earlier text; there are interpolations that took places; the text expands. I don’t think that any archaeologist—certainly not BB Lal—would say that, “I’m trying to say that this actually happened.” And this has been done since the nineteenth century in different parts of the world. [The pioneering German archaeologist] Henrich Schliemann really believed in the historicity of the Iliad and the Odyssey. He actually found a Troy—he thought he’d found the Troy of Homer, but it actually turned out to be much older. But the point is, if he didn’t believe in it, he wouldn’t have found it. So it’s a tricky thing to say one shouldn’t do this kind of work.

I would say that if this is the only kind of archaeological that is being done in India, then it’s pathetic. But it’s not. I don’t think archaeologists should be working thinking of being politically correct or incorrect. If you’re deeply curious about something, the curiosity is enough. You shouldn’t allow your work to be politically used. And it shouldn’t be that the government gives money to only this kind of approach—that’s wrong.

SK: How should we perceive the work of the ASI, as well as its current position under the ministry of culture?

NL: They’ve made a fairly successful effort to preserve sites across time periods and that people in different types of cultural groups identify with, but I think the problem is that they haven’t conserved enough. If you take the ASI and all the state departments of archaeology, you’re looking at 10,000 monuments [that are conserved]. Within the ASI’s own records—they did a national mission of monuments and antiquities—they themselves mention something like five lakh monuments. Now I can understand their limitations, which is why I say [in the book] that the law needs to be looked at. The ASI needs to reach out to municipal councils in towns, village panchayats, elsewhere, to get them involved in preserving some of this. And you have to think of education—there isn’t a school anywhere where you don’t have monuments in the surrounding area. If you can actually integrate those localities and their histories into what you teach in schools, there will be a greater sense of that, well, this is something that needs to be preserved; it belongs to us. I think the state has failed there.

On the ground level, there are also Khera Devtas and folk shrines that people preserve. There is no place at all within the laws for the average person in the village who looks after all this, to be given some money or some recognition or to be made a part of [preservation efforts]. Suppose you discover something and you put it on your Khera Devta shrine, and a government official comes and sees it—you shouldn’t be treated as a thief; this is as much your heritage as it is anybody else’s. Many of these things get preserved because people valorise them. It’s when you identify with something, that the chances of preservation are much better. A very interesting example of this is the first neoliths—the sort of advanced stone-age implements—which are characteristic of very early agricultural communities. You know how they were recognised? They were not found in sites. There were people who found them—these are British reports [of this]—in Shiva shrines. They were worshipped as Mahadev because many of these are shaped like a triangle or a celt—it can be a phallic emblem. They were put on the Khera shrines and worshipped. And then the Brits, who had knowledge of neoliths from Great Britain, saw them and then realised that these have survived.

It is unfortunate that the ASI is not autonomous. As a department of the ministry of culture, it has to go by the political priorities of the government in power. And that is never a healthy trend.

A sculpture representing the diety Bhutanatha at the Devrani temple in Tala, Chattisgarh. The temple was declared protected in 1983. COURTESY NAYANJOT LAHIRI

SK: What do you think are the approaches the government should adopt towards archaeology in the present day?

NL: If it has one priority vis-à-vis archaeology, it should be to build it up as a science-based discipline in institutions of higher education. I think archaeology should be taken out of the corridors of the government and be given a much bigger place. From the corridors of political power to academic institutions and academic corridors, that’s where archaeology will flourish.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

In a previous version of this interview, the caption for the third image incorrectly identified the sculpture as representing the deity Naigamesha. The sculpture represents the diety Bhutanatha. The Caravan regrets the error.