Dr HD Sankalia: The Power of One



This is the story of a man who single-handedly opened up forgotten chapters in Indian history and shaped the field of archaeology in India. Rejected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) when he first applied for a job there in 1939, Dr HD Sankalia went on to rise above any government organisation, to become a pioneer, an institution-maker and an inspiration to thousands of students who followed in his footsteps. Few have left such a mark on Indian archaeology as he has. This is the story of Hasmukh Dhirajlal Sankalia – Indian archaeology’s brightest star.

Early Influences

Hasmukh Dhirajlal Sankalia was born in Mumbai on 10th December 1908. His father was an eminent lawyer from Gujarat. He was a frail and sickly child, and was not expected to survive long. But his tenacity was evident even at this tender age as it helped him overcome his frailty.

<i>The Arctic Home in the Vedas</i> by Lokmanya Tilak
The Arctic Home in the Vedas by Lokmanya Tilak|Wikimedia Commons

Sankalia was a voracious reader and, at 15, he had had an epiphany while reading Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s book, The Arctic Home in the Vedas. The Aryan conundrum intrigued him greatly and he decided that it was one he was going to try to solve. He spent his college years pursuing Sanskrit and Mathematics, and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Sanskrit.

For his Master’s degree, Sankalia decided to study ancient Indian history at the then newly opened Indian Historical Research Institute (now the Heras Institute, St Xavier’s College, Mumbai). Here, he came under the gaze and supervision of noted historian Rev Fr Henry Heras himself. Fr Heras played a pivotal role in shaping the rest of Sankalia’s life and channelling him into the fields of ancient and medieval Indian history. Sankalia’s MA dissertation was on the ancient and medieval university at Nalanda in Bihar.

On the prompting of his family, Sankalia took a brief sabbatical from history, to pursue a law degree. His father and uncle both expected him to follow the family law business but Sankalia had decided otherwise. He wanted to pursue a PhD in London.

The Making of an Archaeologist

Sankalia joined the Institute of Archaeology at the University of London to pursue a PhD on the archaeology of Gujarat. Here, he came under the influence of REM Wheeler, who taught him not just field archaeological methods but also trained him at the excavations at Maiden Castle, an Iron Age hill fort in Dorset.

Aerial photograph of Maiden Castle ,1937, where Sankalia learnt his excavation techniques
Aerial photograph of Maiden Castle ,1937, where Sankalia learnt his excavation techniques|Wikimedia Commons

Sankalia was there for a month, for hands-on training, and like a sponge absorbed everything Wheeler taught him. This month-long training became the foundation of Sankalia’s future excavations. He also benefited greatly from Wheeler’s no-nonsense approach and the fact that an archaeologist had to be extremely vigilant, patient, tenacious and responsible.

Wheeler was also a great champion of what is today called ‘Public Archaeology’. He regularly lectured to non-academic audiences, organised tours to archaeological sites and spoke to school children about them. This was one of the greatest takeaways for Sankalia. Throughout his career, he followed this path, of sharing his discoveries with the villagers and surrounding schools at the sites he worked at, and with the press.

Major Discoveries

After he returned to India, Sankalia applied for work at the Archaeological Survey of India but was rejected! The ASI has never been able to live down the ridicule it attracted for this move.

The ASI’s loss was Deccan College, Pune’s gain. Dr Sankalia joined the college in 1939 as a Lecturer of Proto- and Ancient Indian History. Sankalia immediately began work by undertaking systematic surveys of the monuments in and around Pune with his students. The immediate dividend was a slew of academic papers on the megaliths of Bhavsari and the Yadava-era temple at Pur, both in Maharashtra and not far from Pune.

On the request of K N Dikshit, Director-General of the ASI, Sankalia undertook explorations in Gujarat to test Robert Bruce Foote's hypothesis of a hiatus between the Lower Palaeolithic and Neolithic phases. Sankalia’s discovery and subsequent excavations at the Mesolithic site of Langhnaj in the Mehsana district not only proved Foote’s hypothesis wrong but also catapulted Sankalia to becoming the nation's foremost prehistorian. His crowning achievement was the discovery of the first-ever ‘Stone Age Skeleton’ at Langhnaj.

The Langhnaj Mesolithic Human
The Langhnaj Mesolithic Human|Deccan College

In 1944, FE Zeuner, an authority on environmental archaeology, had been invited to India by REM Wheeler, who was then the Director-General of the ASI, and Sankalia was profoundly influenced by Zeuner’s methodology and acumen. From Zeuner, Sankalia learnt geochronology, geology and the decoding of stratigraphy.

Sankalia went on to excavate prehistoric sites in Kolhapur (1945-46) in Maharashtra, and also conducted very strenuous explorations on both banks of the Panchganga River, revealing a complex flake-tool industry. These discoveries were also found in a stratified context at locations like Gangapur (Nashik), where very early Middle Palaeolithic tools were discovered in large numbers. This research was further extended by Sankalia to the Pravara River Valley (at Nevasa in Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra), where these tools were found in conjunction with animal fossils.

In 1950, Sankalia decided to undertake excavations at the site of Nashik. Renowned as the capital of the Satavahana Dynasty (late 2nd century BCE to early 3rd century CE) and a very important town in Medieval Maharashtra, it was also very close to the Buddhist caves at Junnar, Shivneri and Naneghat.

Sankalia successfully took back the history of Maharashtra to the last two or three centuries BCE, with the discovery of Northern Black Polished Ware (a ceramic associated with the Mauryas and earlier centuries in the Ganga Valley). But his most important discovery here was the site of Jorwe and the discovery of a whole new chapter of Chalcolithic traditions in the Deccan. There is an interesting story about how he discovered this.

While at Nashik, Sankalia wrote about his excavations in the local newspapers, and a school teacher from the nearby village of Jorwe came to see him with some potsherds found in a field there. Sankalia was intrigued by what he saw. The ceramics were unlike any he had ever seen before and he undertook a small excavation at this site. These excavations revealed, for the first time in India, that there had been a Bronze Age culture in the Deccan, and that it was not Harappan. Sankalia had discovered the first Deccan Chalcolithic site in India!

Sankalia then proceeded to excavate the sites of Maheshwar and Navdatoli (1952-53), which are on opposite sides of the Narmada River in Madhya Pradesh. This was the famed Mahismati, the capital city of the Haihaiya Dynasty of the Mahajanapada Era (7th century BCE to 4th century BCE). The other reason for excavating these sites was to help set up a Department of Archaeology at MS University, Baroda, under B Subbarao, one of Sankalia’s brightest proteges. Subbarao went on to write The Personality of India, a seminal book on Indian archaeology and history.

Chalcolithic Goblet from Navdatoli (1300 BCE)
Chalcolithic Goblet from Navdatoli (1300 BCE)|Wikimedia Commons

This joint excavation revealed a very early historical settlement on the Navdatoli side, which had moved to the Maheshwar side, after catastrophic flooding. The Maheshwar side revealed the first and only glass seal of the Satavahanas, thereby dating the move.

Sankalia also discovered a massive brick-and-rubble stupa (Mound 3 at Navdatoli). But even more interesting was the discovery of over 2 metres of deposits below the historical (2nd century BCE deposits) that belonged to a brand new Chalcolithic culture. Sankalia went back and re-excavated Navdatoli in 1957-59, and revealed the settlement pattern and socio-economic life of what we call the Malwa Culture today. This was the first Chalcolithic culture discovered in Central India and it took back the history of Central India to the 2nd Millenium BCE.

Sankalia's next great excavation was at Nevasa, the place where Dnyaneshwar, the poet-saint of Maharashtra, was supposed to have hailed. Sankalia’s excavations far exceeded their original brief. From the Middle Palaeolithic tools at the base of the site, the Chalcolithic levels that followed, the early historical levels of multiple phases, and early and late medieval levels were found in a perfectly horizontal stratigraphy at Nevasa.

In the Early Historical levels, Sankalia was for the first time able to identify Indo-Roman levels with the discovery of Roman amphorae fragments. His subsequent excavation report, titled From History to Prehistory at Nevasa, is held up as an example in report writing. It changed forever the archaeology of the Deccan.

Map of Ahar-Banas Culture sites
Map of Ahar-Banas Culture sites|Wikimedia Commons

Sankalia then went on to excavate the Banas culture site of Ahar (on the outskirts of Udaipur in Rajasthan), where he discovered the Chalcolithic Banas/Ahar culture with its distinctive White Painted Black and Red Ware. His colleagues, Z D Ansari and M K Dhavalikar, went on to discover yet another Central Indian Chalcolithic culture at Kayatha in Madhya Pradesh, thus completing the trinity of the Central Indian Chalcolithic Kayatha-Ahar-Navdatoli.

Sankalia’s swan song was his multi-disciplinary excavation of the Chalcolithic mounds at Inamgaon on the Bhima River in Pune district in Maharashtra. Sankalia wanted to understand the lives of the Chalcolithic people with a large-scale horizontal excavation like he had done at Navdatoli.

The site was excavated for 12 years and after Sankalia, the team was led by ZD Ansari and MK Dhavalikar. The Spatio-temporal analysis of the site was the first of its kind as was the understanding of the political structure and the reasons for the collapse of the Chalcolithic society.

Other Contributions

Sankalia led many excavations and the above list is just a small sample of the work he did. Besides this, his most important contribution was the creation of a full-fledged and independent Department of Archaeology at Deccan College. His stint in England had convinced him that he needed a competent core of specialised professionals. In the new institute he set up,  he created posts for areas that went beyond traditional archaeology – Geoarchaeology, Palaeobotany, Palaeoanthropology, Archaeozoology, Draftsmen, Photographers and Superintendent of Excavations as well as Professors, Readers and Lectures ably supported by Research Associates and a trained office staff.

The Deccan College of Archaeology, Pune
The Deccan College of Archaeology, Pune|Wikimedia Commons

His list of PhD students is a virtual who’s who of modern Indian archaeology. Sankalia was a prolific writer and he left virtually no research unpublished. He firmly believed that “all excavation is destruction, but excavation with publication is systematic destruction”. He also wrote copiously in the English and vernacular press. He wrote in Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. He was also a regular contributor to The Sunday Times.

Sankalia was a man of fearless conviction and never bothered to toe a correct political line. He regularly corresponded with the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, whom he addressed as ‘My Dear Indira’. She, in turn, always wrote back to him and addressed him as ‘Respected Prof Sankalia’.

He read hundreds of papers at conferences and in colleges, and was responsible for organising and conducting many conferences in Pune. His famous 1964 conference on Indian Prehistory, held at Deccan College, broke new ground in bringing together people working in the field all over the country. It is cited even today.

Sankalia never shied away from delegating work and sharing credit, both academic and non-academic. He regularly published with his colleagues and students as co-authors. This even-handedness was responsible for creating a cadre of fearless and madly loyal colleagues and students.

When Sankalia retired, it was after a job well done. His students were scattered all over India, conducting research from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, and Gujarat to Assam. The excavations at the Neolithic sites of Tekkalkota and Sangannakallu in Karnataka had been undertaken by his students as was the excavation of the first Upper Palaeolithic Cave site at M Chintamani Gavi, in the Kurnool region of Andhra Pradesh. He continued for a few more years as Professor Emeritus at Deccan College before his health restricted him.

The Final Years

Sankalia was honoured by many organisations over a long and productive life, and in 1974 he became the first archaeologist in India to be honoured with the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India. In 1974, he also published his magnum opus, a book covering the whole of the archaeology of the pre- and protohistoric periods in the Indian subcontinent.

The New Department of Archaeology building with a museum of archaeology
The New Department of Archaeology building with a museum of archaeology|Deccan College

Simply titled Prehistory and Protohistory of India and Pakistan, it is still one of the primers of Indian archaeology, and most students know it simply as ‘PPIP’. This was the first true gazetteer of these branches of archaeology in India. He published his autobiography, Born for Archaeology, in 1978.

Hasmukh Dhirajlal Sankalia passed away in Pune, shortly after his 80th birthday, on 28th January 1989. He left behind a great legacy. He opened up many chapters of India’s history, trained some of the country’s greatest archaeologists, instilled a passion and love for the subject among all the students with whom he interacted, and he also left behind a great institution The Deccan College of Archaeology remains a premier institute for archaeology among researchers and students all over India.

That’s a lot to cover in one lifetime, so it is not surprising that Sankalia lives on.

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