Sanjan: Digging Deep into History



On a dark and stormy night, a ship full of Zoroastrian refugees from Persia was lashed by the wind, rain and waves off the west coast of India. The refugees in the ship, fearful for their lives, prayed to Ahura Mazda and Behram Yazad (the Zoroastrian Angel of Victory) and promised to build a fire temple dedicated to him if they made landfall safely. They did, at the town of Sanjan, and were granted asylum by the local ruler, Jadi Rana. The descendants of these refugees are the Parsis of India.

The events referred to above are enshrined in a quasi-historical (Persian) Zoroastrian poem called the Kisseh-i-Sanjan (The Story of Sanjan) written in 1600 CE, roughly 800 years after their arrival. The Kisseh tells us that they stayed in Sanjan for 600 years and prospered till Sanjan was sacked by the forces of Sultan Mahmud (whom we think was Md Allauddin Khilji in 12298-99 AD) under his general Alf Khan.

The Parsis scattered to villages and towns where their kin had migrated from Sanjan but not before their sacred fire, the Iranshah, lit in memory of their travails and their motherland, was spirited away by priests first to the hills of Bahrot and then via Bansda and Navsari to Udwada, where its rests to this day. Thus the Parsi-Zoroastrians of India have two main places of pilgrimage– Bahrot and Udwada.

Medieval India sites on the western coast of South Asia
Medieval India sites on the western coast of South Asia|LHI

Embarking On A Mission

In 2002, Dr Homi Dhalla of the World Zarathushti Cultural Foundation, a Mumbai-based trust dedicated to documenting and preserving Parsi-Zoroastrian culture, requested the help of historian Prof Mani Kamerkar to help get the caves a protected status. Prof Kamerkar told Dr Dhalla that unless there was archaeological proof of the existence of the ancient town of Sanjan and its Parsi antecedents, there was no way to establish that a set of bare, rock-cut caves on a windswept hillock in nearby Bahrot were used by the Parsis to hide the Iranshah.

Prof Kamerkar roped in her friend, Dr Swaraj Prakash Gupta of the Indian Archaeological Society and they then applied to the Indian Council of Historical Research for a project, and to the Archaeological Survey of India for a licence.

I was selected as the Field Director (later Co-Director) of the excavations under the Directorship of Dr Gupta.

The excavations at Sanjan lasted three seasons – 2002-2003-2004 – at a site just 2km from the modern town. They revealed a large urban settlement on the banks of the Varoli Creek, roughly 2km x 1km in size and occupied from the very late 8th century CE to the first decade of the 14th century CE. The settlement included brick-built houses with ring wells for drainage and stone foundations. Many of the houses had square brick wells.

It was a revelation that contradicted what many Indian historians had believed was a period of urban decay and decline. Instead, they were looking at a very prosperous and flourishing city. The results exceeded anything the excavators had dreamt of!

From its very inception, Sanjan was a port. Excavations were first carried out near the bandaror port, then at the Koli Khadi, a creek that marks the site’s northern border, and finally at the bandar again. The bandar area revealed a domestic locality with large brick houses that had wells and ring wells alongside them. Glass bangles; beads of glass, terracotta and semi-precious stones; glass vessels, iron implements; and large quantities of ceramics, both local and foreign, were discovered.

Agate beads collected at Sanjan
Agate beads collected at Sanjan|Author

The Koli Khadi locus on the other side of the site revealed an industrial area with large, sunken terracotta troughs, burning activity and fragments of melted clay. Interestingly, it also revealed a large number of black and white agate beads. The final activity at the Koli Khadi locality was its use as a burial ground, from where the excavators exposed six human burials – two female, three male and one undetermined.

Sassanian Islamic Turquoise Glazed Ware
Sassanian Islamic Turquoise Glazed Ware|Author

Ceramics: Evidence of Trade

The occupation yielded a wide variety of West Asian ceramics and Chinese ceramics. Sassanian Islamic Turquoise Glazed Ware (TGW), sGraffito Ware, Tin Glazed Ware, Kashan Lustre Glazed Ware and Syrian Blue Glazed Ware – all from West Asian kilns – were found at Sanjan. Alongside the West Asian ceramics were Chinese Stoneware and Porcelains of the Yeuh and Qingbai type.

sGraffito Ware
sGraffito Ware|Author

The Sassanian Islamic Turquoise Glazed Ware dates to between the 7th and 10th centuries CE; the Lustre Glazed Ware is dateable to the 9th century CE; the sGraffito Ware is a more precise ceramic marker, dateable to the period between 950 and 1050 CE; the Kashan Lustre Ware is even more precisely dateable, to between 1170 and 1220 CE;and the Syrian Blue Glazed Pottery is dated to between 1150 and 1250 CE. The Chinese ceramics too sate from the 10th to the 11th centuries CE.

Chinese Porcelains
Chinese Porcelains|Author

These ceramics were obvious markers of large-scale trade between West Asia and China, and the presence of West Asian and Chinese ceramics proved that West Asian merchants stopped by enroute to South East Asia and China, and also on the way back. This made Sanjan an important port and trading station during the Early Medieval Period.

There was also much local red and grey ware meant for everyday use. The bandar area also surprised the team by revealing a large quantity of imported glass vessel fragments and identifiable glassware from West Asia. Very little glassware had been encountered at any excavation prior to Sanjan.

Coins Help Date The Site

Alongside the ceramics of foreign origin, excavators found a wide variety of coins in silver and copper. Sadly, most of the copper coins were too weathered to decipher. The silver coins had fared much better and the excavators were able to identify many of them. These include the first-ever (cut fraction) of an Abbasid Dinar (of Caliph Haroun al Rashid 786-809 CE) found in an excavation in India; the first coins of Rashtrakuta Emperor Amoghavarsha (814-878 CE); coins of the Amir of Sindh dating to between 870 and 1030 CE; local Gadhayia coins (9th to 11th centuries CE); and coins of the Yadavas of Deogiri (12th and 13th centuries CE). Alongside these coins were also seen some well-worn coins of the Guptas (4th and 5th centuries CE) which were essentially continuations in currency way past their times.

Copper coins included surface finds of Maratha Shivrai (17th to 18th century CE), and in the uppermost layer at Koli Khadi, a coin of Allauddin Khilji (1296-1316 CE). This vast array of coins not only helps us date the site but also tells us about the mercantile influences and trading partners of the people who lived here as well as the long duration that this site reigned as an important trading entrepot.

The Glassware is all 10th-12th century CE and mainly from West Asia. Collectively, the dates sync firmly with those offered by the Kisseh – late 8th century CE to the end of the 13th century CE. We know that Allauddin Khilji, whose first name was Mahmud, sent his army under his General Alf Khan between 1297 and 1299 AD to capture Deogiri, the Yadava capital, and we know that he took the coastal route.

Proof of Parsi Occupation

In season three, in 2004, the team excavated a Parsi mortuary structure called a dokhma by the Parsis and a bhastu by the locals. This structure, known in English as a ‘Tower of Silence’, is a circular, walled structure open to the sky, with a platform within it for placing the bodies of the dead, and a dry well at the centre for leftover osseous remains. This structure was absolute proof of Parsi occupation at the site. Human bones from its last use were still found in situ. DNA recovered from these bones confirmed the Parsi presence. This was the first Early Medieval DNA from a clan endogamous group studied in India. The West Asian coin, glassware and ceramics were further comparative/conjectural evidence of the existence and residence of the Parsis here.

Plan of the Dokhma at Sanjan
Plan of the Dokhma at Sanjan|Author

The finds at Sanjan date from the 8th century CE to the 13th century CE and point to a period of thriving commerce between the 10th and 12th centuries CE. The site is also littered with remnants of one or more Shilahara/Rashtrakuta temples, and structural and sculptural members are found all over the site and in nearby modern shrines.

Shilahara Yadava Temple Fragment (Gajathara)
Shilahara Yadava Temple Fragment (Gajathara)|Author

Sanjan is mentioned in the Chinchani Copper Plates of the Rashtrakutas (telling us that this was an important urban settlement), the Shilaharas and the Modhas, who ruled a small principality with Sanjan as its most probable capital. It is also mentioned as ‘Sindan’ in the writings of Arab writers al Biladuri, Ibn Haukal, al Ishtakari and al Masudi. They date between the 9th and 12th centuries CE and deal mostly with political organisation, transit times, and the goods sold and bought at various west coast ports in India. They regularly mention Sanjan and the materials shipped from this port to the Persian Gulf.

Shilahara Yadava Sculpture
Shilahara Yadava Sculpture|Author

There is also a Persian account by Buzurg ibn Shahriar al Ram Hurmuzi who, in his short story collection Kitab Ajiab al-Hind, refers to the wondrous goods coming from Sanjan and Chaul (on the coast of modern-day Raigad in Maharashtra) in 919 CE. According to these texts, wood and bamboo (from the nearby Bansda forests) were among the main exports from Sanjan, and this was true till as recently as 50 years ago, according to living memory.

Comparative Dating via the coins
Comparative Dating via the coins|Author

Sanjan was thus no small rural settlement, home to a tiny band of refugees, but a flourishing commercial centre that did brisk trade as a part of the West Asian Trade route to China and back. It had ships loading wood and bamboo and unloading all kinds of exotic foreign wares. The people were of multiple denominations, and Hindus, Muslims and Parsis all flourished here. In fact, the Rashtrakutas even appointed a ‘tajik’ governor called Mohammed (so says one of the Chinchani Copper Plates)! This flourishing settlement saw its heyday between the 10th and 12th centuries CE and continued in a less lively manner to be a part of Western Indian trade with West Asia till much later.

Comparative dating via the Ceramics
Comparative dating via the Ceramics|Author

Fate of Medieval Sanjan

According to the Kisseh, “600 years after the establishment of Sanjan, Islam came once again.” And Sanjan was besieged. The Kisseh says that Sanjan was destroyed by the invading armies of Sultan Mahmud under his General Alf/Ulugh Khan. While there are many contenders for the name ‘Sultan Mahmud’ and many had a general called ‘Alf Khan’ (a title meaning ‘First Among Khans’), Md Allauddin Khilji and his general Alf Khan were the first such combination to reach Gujarat and perhaps this is why the Kisseh has no other identifying nomenclature.

Sanjan was sacked after a brief two-day battle, which saw a spirited defence on the first day, giving the Parsi priests enough time to escape to the Bahrot Hills with the Iranshah. On day two, the Islamic army was victorious and Sanjan was sacked.

Thus ended the story of Sanjan, and the epicentre of Parsiana moved to Navsari, but that is another story for another day.

West Asian glass bottles
West Asian glass bottles|Author

However, there’s much more. After the publication of the excavated data (from 2004-2018), a host of hitherto unknown Early Medieval sites has been identified on the west coast of South Asia. These sites were thus most definitely coterminous and were a part of the trading network along with Sanjan. Their identification has been possible due to the corpus created by the team at Sanjan i.e. the ceramic and numismatic sequences and the West Asian Glassware. Where we once knew only of Banbhore in Sindh and Mantai in Sri Lanka, we now have a list of more than 18 confirmed sites (of the early medieval period on the west coast of South Asia), and every year, archaeologists are adding more. This then is the true contribution of the Sanjan excavations.

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