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Time capsules: What they contain, how they are installed, and why

Amid claims and denials about plans for a time capsule at Ram temple site in Ayodhya, a look at previous such exercises in India and the world.

Written by Somya Lakhani | New Delhi |
Updated: August 6, 2020 10:04:12 am
time capsule, historical documents, historical data, ram temple, ayodhya ground breaking ceremony, indian express Time capsule at IIT Kanpur, before installation in 2010. (Photo: IIT Kanpur)

Ahead of the laying of the foundation stone for the Ram temple in Ayodhya, claims and denials have emerged about plans by the Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust to put in a time capsule, or ‘kaal patra’. While Trust member Kameshwar Chaupal said the “capsule would carry a message about Ayodhya, Lord Ram and his birthplace and it will be preserved so as to last thousands of years”, the Trust’s general secretary Champat Rai has dismissed reports of a time capsule being installed on August 5.

What is a time capsule?

It is a container of any size or shape, which accommodates documents, photos and artefacts typical of the current era and is buried underground, for future generations to unearth. The time capsule requires special engineering so that the contents don’t decay, even if pulled out after a century. Material such as aluminium and stainless steel are used for the encasing, and documents are often reproduced on acid-free paper.

While the term “time capsule” was coined in the 20th century, among the earliest examples of one dates back to 1777, found by historians inside the statue of Jesus Christ in a church in Spain during restoration work in December 2017.

The International Time Capsule Society (ITCS), based in the US and formed in 1990, is now defunct but continues estimating the number of time capsules in the world. As per its database, there are “10,000-15,000 times capsules worldwide”.

Are there any time capsules in India?

There have been a number of prominent examples. One time capsule, outside the Red Fort and placed underground in 1972 by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was dug out by the subsequent government. Other time capsules are at a school in Mumbai, IIT-Kanpur, Lovely Professional University in Jalandhar, and Mahatma Mandir in Gandhinagar.

The Red Fort time capsule was supposed to be dug out after 1,000 years. Professor Salil Misra, a historian who currently teaches at Delhi’s Ambedkar University, said, “In 1972, Mrs Gandhi decided to create a repository. These were huge, cylindrical shaped cases made of metal which could endure the test of time. Inside, there were written records, data and artefacts. In 1977, when the Janata Party came in to power, they dug out the time capsule.”

JD(U) national spokesperson K C Tyagi, who was 22 at the time the capsule was installed, told The Indian Express that the Opposition of the time, including Hiren Mukherjee, Jyotirmoy Basu and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, protested against the move. “The apprehension was that only those aspects of India’s history which are related to her or her family were being preserved in the time capsule. There was a lot of opposition to this inside Parliament and outside it too. She was accused of only preserving the contribution of her family in the Freedom Movement, in post-Independence India, and in nation building,” said Tyagi.

He said that the contents were not made public after the time capsule was dug out.

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What have the other time capsules preserved?

On March 6, 2010, President Pratibha Patil buried the time capsule on the IIT Kanpur campus. An aerial map of the institute, annual reports of 1961, 1984 and 2008, menu of the hostel mess, the blazer crest, a DVD of a film on IIT Kanpur, some photographs, and oral records of the interviews conducted by Sunil Shanbag are inside the time capsule.

IIT Kanpur deputy director Manindra Agarwal told The Indian Express, “All the documents were printed on acid-free paper… A lot of information was put on pen-drives and external hard-drives, put in the capsule, and then oxygen was taken out so that no decay happens. It is made of brass and the encasing is an inch thick, so no oxygen goes in. We suggested that when the institute completes a centenary, the capsule may be taken out but it all really depends on the set of people then because none of us will be around!”

On March 31, 2014, a time capsule of stainless steel was installed at The Alexandra Girls’ English Institution in Mumbai, which was set up in the 19th century. Apart from the school uniform, first annual report, USBs containing photos and videos of events at the school, the time capsule also has precious letters written by students and principal Freny Mehta — addressed to future students, and principals, and emphasising the importance of a library in the life of students. The time capsule is to be unearthed on September 1, 2062.

In January 2019, a square time capsule, which contains 100 items that represent modern-day technology in India, was installed at Jalandhar’s Lovely Professional University. Buried 10 feet by Nobel laureates Avram Hershko (biochemist), F Duncan M Haldane (physicist) and Thomas Christian Sudhov (biochemist), it is supposed to be unearthed after 100 years. As per an LPU spokesperson, “items such as landline telephone, a smartphone, weighing machine, water pump, stop-watch, headphones, a handy cam, and pen drive are inside the capsule”.

How significant are time capsules?

Historians often criticise the idea as being motivated. Professor Misra said, “This exercise is inevitably a subjective exercise, geared towards glorification not to construct the real picture. All historians look at this time capsule exercise with suspicion. It’s not a valid historical method — who decides what matter, what artefacts, written documents are going in to it?”

Historian Aditya Mukherjee said, “When kings and queens of the past had their whole stories written by courtiers, historians don’t take that to be the fact. You use other sources to verify it.” He said it would be “far more sensible to form a committee for people with different opinions to make the time capsule if at all.”

Political scientist Zoya Hasan, Professor Emerita, JNU, said historical research is based on critical inquiry and evidence. “No historian worth his or her name will rely on a capsule to write history. But who cares for evidence and facts when political message becomes the function of history and so-called academic research”, she said.

Misra also said that historians of future generations are going to find all kinds of data and records in order to reconstruct our current time, “so if historians a century from now want to write about the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement, there will be enough data in newspapers and other written records… No one needs to artificially create a preserved record about it”.

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