In India, it is often hard to differentiate between fact and myth. History and legend are often intertwined so tightly, especially in issues related to communities, that it is worth a retelling. One of the most interesting of these, is the story often told, about an ancient mystical city on the banks of the great river, Saraswati and how India’s hardy business community, the Agarwals, are linked to it.
In this case, the legend actually resulted in the archaeologist’s finding the lost city.
The Agarwals, dominate Indian business - from the small neighbourhood grocery store, to industrialists like the Bajajs and Mittals and also new age entrepreneurs like Bhavesh Agarwal from Ola… the list is long. However the community has a common ‘origins’ legend which traces it back to a ruler named Raja Agrasen, who they believe, ruled a ‘Kingdom of Traders’ during the time of the great epic, Mahabharata.
According to this old oral legend, 5000 years ago there was a benevolent king Raja Agrasen, who ruled over a Janapada (Republic) named Agreya, with its capital at Agrodaka. He was savvy. He gave every person who wished to settle down in his kingdom bricks to build a house and capital to start a business. Soon, Agroha grew into a prosperous city-state of successful traders. People also believe that it was Raja Agrasen who established the city of Agra, then called Agravati as well as a stepwell called ‘Agrasen ki Baoli’ near present-day Connaught place, in New Delhi.
According to legend, Raja Agrasen had 18 sons and each of them went on to start a sub clan, what we know as gotras, of the Agarwals today. These include the Mittals, Jindals, Bansals, Goyals and Gargs. It is believed that Agrasen’s kingdom thrived for centuries and then went into decline, due to invasions, forcing the Agarwals to migrate across India.
While this was just an oral story passed down generations, it received widespread fame and acceptance, when Bharatendu Harishchandra (1850-1885), one of Hindi literature’s greatest writers and an Agarwal himself, published his essay ‘Agarwalon ki Utpatti’ or ‘The Origin of the Agrawals’ in 1871. This work also spurred interest in the early history of the community and a search for archaeological evidence, to back the stories around their origins.
Initially, there was no consensus on where the city of Agroha could possibly be located. Some claimed it was in Rajasthan or Punjab, while others claimed it was in the vicinity of Agra. In 1888-89, the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) discovered a series of mounds spanning 650 acres in a village called Agroha, in Hissar district, around 190 kms from Delhi. It was located on the banks of the dried out Ghaggar river. The excavation took place in 3 stages, in 1888-89, in 1938-39 and the last one between 1979-85.
What archaeologists found, was truly astounding. It was, as if with each excavation, the mounds revealed a fresh wave of evidence. It was from the wealth of artefacts discovered , that archaeologists and historians pieced together the story of what must have been the great trading city called Agrodaka . Excavations revealed the existence of a well-planned city, with a moat, high walls and wide roads. Signs of habitation went back all the way from the 4-5th century BCE till the 15th century CE. For centuries, this had been a great trading town, on the banks of river Saraswati, located on an important trade route between Taxashila and Mathura.
In fact, excavations proved an even earlier antiquity. It seemed that Agrodaka thrived since pre-Harappan times. There was the tell tale, grey pottery and the much later remains of a Buddhist stupa as well as numerous Mauryan and Shunga sculptures. The continuous occupation of the site revealed its importance during those times. Following the fall of the Mauryan empire, the city came under the rule of the Agras or Aggraca tribe. Numerous coins have been found at Agroha, with the inscriptions 'Agodake Agaca Janapadasa' or 'Coins of Agaca Janapada in the Agodaka’. It reveals a thriving janapada of Agras, just as the Agarwal legend states.
The region fell into Kushana hands and this was followed by Gupta rule. During this time, Hinduism, Buddhism as well as Jainism thrived here. It was probably the drying of the waters of Saraswati river and the resultant collapse of trade, that led to the decline of this region and not the Islamic invasions that the legend suggests.
The last known reference to the city is from the Tughlaq reign in the 14th century. Moroccan traveller Ibn-Batuta in his travelogue repeats a story told him by students of Khorasan how during a famine in the reign of Muhammad Tughlaq, they found the town of Agroha abandoned. They forced their way into a house where they saw a man devouring a human foot which he had roasted over a fire. Ziauddin Barani in ‘Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi’ mentioned that Firuz Shah Tughlaq demolished the buildings and temples at abandoned Agroha and used the material to build the new city of Hissar.
Could it be that the Agarwals were the original inhabitants of this lost city and they carry on its memory, hundreds of years are the city was lost? Today, Agroha is regaining prosperity thanks to the efforts of the community. There are temples dedicated to Raja Agrasen, Goddess Mahalaxmi as well as schools and colleges endowed by the Agarwals.
Perhaps a future archeological discovery will reveal the mystery of Raja Agrasen. We must wait.
DID YOU KNOW?
A terracotta tablet bearing the 'seven musical notes' (ni, dha, pa, ma, ga re, sa) was unearthed during the excavations of Agroha in 1978. This tablet, dating to 9th century CE, is one of the earliest archaeological evidences for the history of Indian music
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