Till the 1960s, the farmlands around Inamgaon, a small village in the Pune district of Maharashtra, had huge mysterious mounds which had flummoxed locals for generations. When archaeologists, finally began their work here what they found, made history. In Inamgaon, is the unique burial of a 35-year-old male who lived in 1000 BCE. What makes this a stand-out is the fact that this man was buried sitting down in an urn. There are no parallels to this in India.
Over a period of 13 seasons from 1968 to 1983, one of India’s most respected archaeologists Dr MK Dhavalikar conducted a series of excavations that brought to light a lot of new facets to life in Chalcolithic India. Inamgaon was a mid-sized Chacolithic (Bronze age) era settlement that thrived between 1600 BCE -700 BCE. The people who lived here were mostly farmers who had knowledge of making copper implements. A large stash of pottery was also found here. While all this made Inamgaon an important site, what made it a stand-out was the fact that of the 243 burials found here, there were many that could not be explained.
As excavations began, one of the mounds revealed the burial of a 35-year-old man who was inserted into an urn. The skeletal remains were dated back to 1000 BCE. The urn, shaped like a stout human body with a bulging belly, had four legs and was buried in the courtyard of a five-room house.
The identity of the person buried has not been confirmed. Considering the unique nature of the burial, with no parallels within the country, archaeologist Dr Dhavalikar presented two differing views. First, after taking into consideration the big house with a courtyard, he suggested that the person could be a chief and, hence, had been given an elaborate farewell. But after conducting ethnographic research around the area of Inamgaon and finding out that a cattle-keeping community around the area did in fact bury their dead in a seated position (in a pit and not in an urn) he suggested that the burial might have been of a common person belonging to a different clan, whose traditions survive in a small community even today. The urn excavated at Inamgaon also had a painting of a boat. Dhavalikar, once again found echoes of that today - he believed the motif represented the commonly held belief that dead crossed a river in a ferry to reach the next world.
This discovery created quite a stir in the archaeological circles and the famed and unique Inamgaon skeletal remains and grave goods are today on display at the Museum of the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, Pune.
In the course of his excavations, Dhavalikar also found a plethora of twin-urn burials, mostly belonging to children below the age group of six. The head and shoulder of the dead were inserted into one urn while the legs were inserted into the other and the urns were sealed mouth to mouth.
Another notable burial, are the ones where the feet below the ankles of the dead are deliberately cut. In this case, the dead were buried into pits. The pits had vessels which were kept for the dead. According to Dr Dhavalikar, the practice of cutting off the feet is suggestive of the fear of the dead turning into ghosts. There was also a tradition of burying the dead with their head towards the north and legs towards the south.
The burials at Inamgaon give us some great insights into the life and beliefs of the people who lived in this area over 3000 years ago. The grains found in the vessels along with the burials also give us a sense of what they ate. The diet included barley, wheat, lentil, grass pea and even a few grains of rice.
Urn burials were common across South-East Asian areas like Indonesia during this period. But in most cases, it was the remains of a person, mostly bones, that were inserted into urns. The Inamgaon burial is unique in the context that this is a primary burial, where the complete body of the 35-year old person was buried in an urn.
The Inamgaon find continues to be a talking point in history circles and iterates just how much we still need to learn, about India’s prehistoric past.