For the Tatas, nation-building meant not only leading the way forward as an industrial force; it meant breaking new ground in almost every aspect of life, from higher and technical education, to scholarship, philanthropy, sports and aviation.
Apart from carrying forward the tradition of his father, Tata patriarch Jamsetji Tata, Sir Ratan Tata (1871 to 1918) was also a connoisseur of art and very keen to leave an imprint on India’s cultural legacy. So when he said he wanted to support archaeological excavations in India, Pataliputra was selected as the site that he could fund.
The story of Sir Ratan Tata and his tryst with the great Mauryan capital is one of many short but inspiring stories in a new book, #TataStories: 40 Timeless Tales To Inspire You (2021), by Harish Bhat. The author has curated an engaging collection of stories about the Tata Group, whose history has often intersected with that of India.
In an excerpt from his book, Bhat takes us back to the morning of 7th February 1913, when one of India’s most famous archaeological discoveries was made, all because Sir Ratan Tata made it possible. Read on:
Sir Ratan Tata, the younger son of Jamsetji Tata, founder of the Tata Group, lived more than a century ago. He played a remarkable role in excavating the ancient city of Pataliputra. The excavations that he championed and sponsored brought to life this great capital of the legendary Mauryan dynasty of India. Walk into history with me for a glimpse of this beautiful tale.
Patna is one of the most ancient cities of India. Its glories have been celebrated in arts and letters by poets and kings. As early as the 1780s, historians had tried to establish a connection between modern Patna and ancient Pataliputra. Were these two cities really the same? Indologists had suggested different sites for the modern location of the ancient city, and as early as 1895, some trial digs had also been conducted in the vicinity of Patna.
This was a dream project, not least because it held a piece of India’s soul. The Mauryan dynasty, which ruled at Pataliputra, included the great emperor Ashoka, whose memory is sacred to our country. Indeed, the Ashoka Pillar, created by him, with its four lions and Ashoka Chakra, is today our official national emblem. Would these excavations unearth some more glories of Ashoka’s kingdom?
Unfortunately, the site proved too large and complex, and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was terribly underfunded and could not undertake such a task on its own. By 1903, the British Government of India was in no mood to sanction further expenses for deep digging. This is where Sir Ratan Tata stepped in.
Sir Ratan Tata was, by then, a wealthy man of commerce and industry. He was a connoisseur of art, an aesthete, a philanthropist and nationalist. He had donated liberally to the Non-cooperation Movement in South Africa led by Gandhi and had also extended financial support to Gopal Krishna Gokhale to set up the Servants of India Society. He was also keen on restoring and preserving his nation’s rich heritage.
– In 1912, Sir Ratan Tata indicated his keenness to support archaeological excavations in India and to rediscover for the country some of its precious history.
After some initial discussions, Pataliputra was chosen as the site that he could support. He agreed to provide funds of Rs 20,000 a year—a large sum in those days—for an unlimited period of time. This would allow the ASI to undertake these excavations on a scale that it could simply not have imagined with its own resources.
The excavations were led by the archaeologist D B Spooner after various terms were agreed upon between Tata and the government in 1913. Interestingly, Spooner was the first American scholar to work in the Archaeological Department of British India. He had been trained at Stanford University, worked in Japan, and had also attended the Sanskrit College in Benares (Varanasi).
Work began in right earnest at the carefully chosen site of Kumrahar in Patna with a large team. The ASI’s report for 1913 says: ‘The maximum number of labourers at any one time was something over thirteen hundred. It goes without saying that without Mr Tata’s generosity, it would have been out of the question for the Department to have conducted the work on anything like this scale.’
For Spooner and his team, there was excitement, and some apprehension too. He could potentially unearth glories of one of the high points of Indian civilization, but he also had to deal with practical issues such as the high subsoil water level at the chosen site. At 10 feet below ground level, the team came across a series of old brick walls, but these were not as ancient as Pataliputra. So the digging continued, even deeper, in the search for Mauryan remains.
Finally, Spooner came across several fragments of pillars which bore evidence of Mauryan craftsmanship. He continued his efforts unabated. Then, on the morning of 7 February 1913, he was able to eventually piece together the plan of the grand ruins, with positions of several columns and pillars. This was a historic breakthrough. In his report, he happily concluded that ‘the northern half of the Kumrahar site marked the position of a mighty pillared hall of Mauryan date, and thus the first structural building of the Mauryan period to be located in India . . .’
This was the start of the exciting discoveries at Patna, now established as the site of the ancient Pataliputra. Over the next four years, the excavation yielded significant quantities of coins, plaques and terracotta statuettes.
– The most important discovery was the location of Emperor Ashoka’s 100-column throne room.
Imagine for a moment, the legendary emperor and his court in council in this mighty, historic hall. This was the glory of ancient India coming to life all over again.
Sir Ratan Tata continued to support these excavations at Pataliputra, and his total contributions to the project amounted to Rs 75,000. He also took an active interest in their progress and continued to remain in touch with Spooner on a range of issues of historical interest. Unfortunately, in 1918, Sir Ratan Tata passed away at the relatively young age of forty-seven. The antiquities excavated at Pataliputra were bequeathed to the nation and are now housed in the Patna Museum as the Sir Ratan Tata collection. At this museum, these beautiful finds continue to speak to us every day about the incredible heritage of this ancient city.
Sir Ratan Tata also owned a renowned collection of jade and European art, which he generously donated to the city of Mumbai. This beautiful collection is now exhibited at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (Prince of Wales Museum), where it shines as a feast for the senses.
The voyage of restoring and nurturing India’s art and heritage has been an ongoing journey for the Tata Trusts until today. Interestingly, in 2013, exactly a century after the Pataliputra excavations began, the Tata Trusts joined hands with the Aga Khan Foundation and the ASI to restore and rehabilitate Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. The exact shades of the five colours used in the original tomb—green, lapis blue, turquoise blue, yellow and white—were developed by conservation architects, alongside other techniques, to establish new standards in Indian conservation.
Our nation’s rich cultural heritage is a part of its collective wealth. From the stately architecture of ancient cities and throne rooms to the bright colours of emperors’ tombs to the vibrant art, craft and literature of our regions, we need to nurture and preserve our culture and history for our future generations.
By visiting a nearby museum, or ensuring that our children read our epics, or learning much more about our beautiful native traditions, crafts and festivals, we can carry out our own small and interesting excavations too. There is a Pataliputra in each of our homes.
Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India. You can buy the book here.