Till not so long ago, our rich and varied past lay buried, quite literally, beneath our feet. It was only in the last 200 years or so that evidence of long-forgotten dynasties, edicts etched by powerful emperors and even entire civilisations that we never knew existed came to light.
As archaeologists began to peel back the layers of time at digs across the length and breadth of this great land, the mind-boggling story of the Indian subcontinent began to emerge. The late 19th and early 20th centuries marked an era of significant archaeological discoveries, a period during which many ancient sites were uncovered and inscriptions and manuscripts translated.
Many of India’s great discoveries were made by the British in India . Among these were British archaeologists, historians and Indologists like Alexander Cunningham, who founded the Archaeological Survey of India; John Marshall, who is credited with discovering the Indus Valley Civilisation; Mortimer Wheeler, one of the most significant 20th century archaeologists; James Prinsep, who deciphered the Kharosthi and Brahmi scripts; and William Jones, who first observed the relationship between the Indo-European languages.
Armed with obvious advantages, these Europeans were indeed pioneers in the early years of discovery. Sadly, we don’t remember the contribution of some of the subcontinent’s great Indian archaeologists, who did the ground work on these sites. These archaeologists and scholars continued where their predecessors left off and are still writing chapters of India’s glorious history. Let’s revisit our trailblazers and their ground-breaking work.
Bhagwan Lal Indraji was born in Junagadh in 1839, in a family of Nagar Brahmins. He was a scholar, Indologist and one of the earliest Indian archaeologists.
His fascination with ancient history and archaeology started at an early age. In fact, Virchand Dharmsey, who has published Indraji’s biography, narrates a fascinating tale. Indraji had apparently run away from home on being punished for neglecting his studies and slept on a rock on the outskirts of his hometown of Junagadh. On waking up, he realised that he was sleeping on a somewhat familiar yet incomprehensible inscription – the Ashoka’s Girnar inscription(going back to the 3rd century BC)– which sparked his fascination with epigraphy, history and archaeology.
Having been taught Sanskrit by his father, a Prashnora Nagar Brahmin, Indraji soon mastered the Brahmi script as well as the Pali language. Over time, he came up with a new transcription of the Ashokan inscription along with transcriptions of the Rudraman and Skandagupta inscriptions in Girnar, two other inscriptions on the rock by rulers of the Kshatrapas and the Gupta rulers.
Indraji was invited to Bombay in 1861 by Dr Bhau Daji Lad, whom he worked with for the next 12 years. He was a close collaborator of Lad, although he has been credited only as an assistant. While working together, Indraji worked extensively on transcribing inscriptions from sites across the region – Ajanta, Nashik, Karli, Bhaja, Bhayandar, Junnar, Pitalkhora and Naneghat.
During his lifetime, he travelled extensively throughout the country, transcribing and studying inscriptions and manuscripts first as an employee of Dr Lad and later for the Nawab of Junagadh.
Indraji deciphered the Hathigumpa inscription in Odisha, translated much of the Kama Sutra, excavated the Mathura Lion Capital, discovered Ashokan sites at Bairat and Sopara, and even excavated the site of the famous Stupa of Sopara – becoming the first Indian to excavate and publish reports. The list of his contributions to Indian archaeology, epigraphy and history is endless and his work has greatly advanced our understanding of our past.
Unfortunately, Indraji wasn’t well-versed in English and the little that he published was in Gujarati. Due to this, his work never received much attention and most of his finds were credited to his collaborators or those who came after him. These were mainly Englishmen, and it relegated Indraji to just a footnote in the story of our discoveries. Despite these impediments, he was the first Indian to receive an honorary doctorate from a foreign university, namely Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay or R D Banerji was born in Murshidabad district in Bengal in 1885. He received a Bachelor’s degree as well as a Master’s in History from Calcutta University and joined the Archaeological Survey of India in 1911. He played a key role in the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization – he was the first to excavate the Mohenjo Daro site. It was he who did the ground archaeology, which expanded our understanding of Indian history by over 1,500 years.
Banerji was the first to find similarities between the sites and artefacts found at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, and to suggest that the site was of ‘remote antiquity’. It has been postulated by P K Mishra, former Director of the Eastern Circle of the ASI, that the credit for finding the civilisation was denied to Banerji and his reports suppressed by John Marshall.
Interestingly, Banerji excavated Mohenjo Daro for five seasons, whereas Marshall, who has been credited with discovering the civilization and who also wrote the official report and publicised the discovery personally, led only one season’s excavation at Mohenjo Daro in 1925-1926 (after the find had been announced) and none at Harappa or any other sites.
Banerji himself sought retirement from the ASI in 1926 before going on to teach at Calcutta University and Banaras Hindu University. He was barely 45 years old when he died.
Dayaram Sahni, who was born in Bhera district of Punjab, in 1879, was the first Indian Director General of the ASI. He excavated extensively in eastern and northern India, in sites like Sarnath, Rampurva and Rajgir, finding significant remains from the post-Vedic era of Indian history.
At Sarnath, he catalogued the archaeological remains of the famous site. He even conducted excavations at the Indus Valley site of Harappa. He went on to become the Deputy Director General of the ASI in 1926 and the Director General in 1931.
In 1920, Sahni was awarded the Rai Bahadur medal by the governor of Punjab and was made a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire in 1935, soon after retiring from the ASI. With these titles and positions, he became one of the few Indian archaeologists to be recognised during the colonial period.
Hasmukh Dhirajlal Sankhalia, born in 1908, is known as the ‘founding father of modern Indian archaeology’. After attending college in Mumbai, he did his early training in archaeology with Sir Mortimer Wheeler in England while working on his PhD at London University before returning to India.
On his return to the country, Sankhalia joined Deccan College in 1939, where he came into his own. He turned the college into a significant institute of higher learning and research in the field of archaeology in the early years of an independent India. He established a museum to house finds from excavations, expanded the staff, and conducted regular excavations and published reports and monographs along with training three generations of archaeologists.
As a practising archaeologist, Sankhalia dug extensively in Kashmir, Gujarat and the Deccan. Some of his notable digs were at the Chalcolithic sites of Jorwe, Navdatoli and Ahar, exploring more recent prehistory. In fact, noted British archaeologist F R Allchin says that the culmination of his work can be seen in the dig at the Chalcolithic site of Daimabad in Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra, which he planned. This was ultimately executed by his students and the findings published shortly before his death in 1989.
Dr Vishnu Shridhar Wakankar, born in Madhya Pradesh in 1919, is known for discovering the prehistoric rock-art caves of Bhimbetka and has been called the ‘father of rock art in India’.
Wakankar studied early rock art extensively in Europe, the United States and Egypt. His most significant find came in 1956, when he identified more than 200 cave paintings south of Bhopal. The site, on the northern end of the Vindhya mountain range, was locally known as the ‘seat of Bhim’ or Bhimbetka. Since then, the known painted rock shelters at Bhimbetka have expanded to over a 1,000 and have also found a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Dr Wakankar and his team identified five stages in the development of rock art, starting with the depiction of rhinoceroses, bisons, tigers and elephants, using green and red pigments, and ending with the depiction of horsemen armed with swords and spears, using white or yellow pigments. The art has been dated to the Mesolithic period (10,000 to 8,000 BCE) to the historical period, according to the UNESCO inscription.
Wakankar discovered and studied more than 4,000 rock art shelters during his lifetime, in India, Europe and North America. Besides rock art, he also conducted excavations in Maheshwar, Navada Toli, Manoti, Indragadh and Dangawada. He was also an expert in epigraphy and numismatics, having collected and studied 5,500 coins.
Braj Basi Lal, better known as ‘BB Lal’ was born in 1921, in Jhansi in the United Provinces in British India, and is one of independent India’s most prolific archaeologists. He trained under legendary archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler in 1950-52, on sites like Taxila, Harappa and Sisupalgarh.
Lal worked on the archaeology of sites associated with the epic Mahabharata, including Hastinapura, believed to be the capital city of the Kuru clan. He made discoveries of many Painted Grey Ware (PGW) sites in the Indo-Gangetic plains and the Upper Yamuna-Ganga Doab, and also excavated the Indus Valley site of Kalibangan. With the ASI, he has also worked on the excavations and conservation of sites in Afghanistan and Egypt like Bamiyan, Balkh and Nubia.
Lal was Director General of the ASI from 1968 to 1972 and belongs to the group of post-Independence archaeologists who were active in what is called the Golden Age of Indian Archaeology. He was also a part of many UNESCO committees apart from serving as the Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla. Based in Delhi, the noted archaeologist also received one of India’s highest civilian honours, the Padma Bhushan, in 2000.
The contribution of these Indians to the understanding of Indian history is immense, often playing a pivotal role in enlightening us about our collective legacy. Unfortunately, few of these greats are known outside history circles but they set high benchmarks and continue to inspire archaeologists and historians across the country today.