August 14, 2005
Decades before John Marshall announced the discovery of “the remains of a long forgotten civilization” on the plains of the Indus, Harappa — one of its premier sites — had been repeatedly visited by a disparate group of explorers. The site, in Punjab’s Montgomery district, was already seen to hold valuable relics in its mounds — elevations common in North India that gathered the debris of the past. In fact as the 19th century closed, Harappa’s remains were being picked at an alarming rate. Its bricks were being carted off for ballast for railway construction. Nayanjot Lahiri cites a note by Alexander Cunningham, whose grand and often cursory explorations gave Indian archaeology an accelerated sweep in its early years, that the line between Lahore and Multan had been laid with brick ballast from Harappa. Residents of Harappa were also, by many accounts, profitting by selling their finds to collectors.
But Harappa had yielded in the 19th century itself indications of its separateness. Seals displayed in London’s British Museum carried a script not found elsewhere in the subcontinent, a fact noted by Cunningham. Charles Masson, an East India Company deserter, had earlier left accounts of the majesty and uniqueness of Harappa’s constructions. Marshall, before leaving for India to take charge of the Archaeological Survey of India, had certainly viewed those seals.
Pieces of the Indus Civilization were, in other words, well on display, prominently proclaiming their dissimilarity from everything else, long before their antiquity was gauged. In a brilliantly narrated story of how the civilization was “discovered”, Lahiri shows that along with excavating northwest India’s “forgotten cities”, historians and archaeologists had to break free from received ways of imagining the past. Cunningham, for instance, based his investigation on Hsuan Tsang’s accounts, using them to identify monasteries and stupas in the course of his surveys. Masson made his way with Alexander the Great’s 326 BC route in mind. Harappa demanded a different grid.
It also required a more professional and exacting archaeology. On Marshall’s watch the ASI — with many hiccups, of course — asserted greater responsibility in its mission to conserve and to investigate. In the first quarter of the 20th century — from the time Marshall first saw Harappan seals in the British Museum in 1901 on the eve of his departure for India till he wrote an almost nationalist account of discovery in 1924 — that change in Indian archaeology was overlaid with repeated instances of the Indus civilization revealing tantalising aspects of itself. The overlay was less fortuitous than it was a necessary condition for the discovery of India’s past. In any case, it gives Lahiri’s narrative a compelling momentum.
Pio Tessitori, an Italian maverick in search of bardic fragments but who glimpsed Indus remains at Kalibangam in Rajasthan.
But it is the threshold of that change, when Marshall summons to Simla Sahni and Banerji and the artefacts from Lahore and Poona, that is most interesting. It is to Lahiri’s credit that in writing of that assembling of findings, impressions, hypotheses and antiquities she honours her dedication to the ASI by evoking the nobility of intellectual inquiry.
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