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A task not finished in 150,or 140,years

The Archaeological Survey of India has a rich history. But it has atrophied over time,and is now not even sure of the date it was founded.

Written by Nayanjot Lahiri | Published: March 31, 2011 3:29:32 am

Is 2011 a milestone in the history of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)? The ASI certainly thinks so since,at the end of this year,it sees itself turning 150.

As early as 2009,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke of the ASI completing 150 years in 2011,and the urgency of pooling “our wisdom and experience to revitalise this great organisation.” At the beginning of 2011,the director-general of the ASI said much the same.

But is the ASI celebrating a wrong date? The ASI has no doubt about its founding year. It celebrated its centenary in 1961,which was marked by a special postage stamp. The supposition is that in the winter of 1861,an archaeological investigation of “upper India” was sanctioned by the viceroy Lord Canning,which the ASI considers the birth of the Archaeological Survey of India. But this was a one-man survey,with an initial limit of two years,to be done by Alexander Cunningham,who had just retired from the army. During the course of his operations as archaeological surveyor from 1861 till 1865,Cunningham documented some 165 sites in north and central India,providing descriptions of Bodh Gaya,Basarh,Sarnath and Delhi,and identifying important places mentioned in our ancient literature,including Taxila,Kushinagara and Nalanda.

Despite the importance of what Cunningham dug out,his survey lapsed in 1865,and in 1866 he went back to England. No organisation had to be wound down — because no Archaeological Survey of India existed in 1861. It was only in 1871 that a Central department was set up with an annual budget of 5,000 pounds. It was also in 1871 that,simultaneous with the creation of this archaeological department,the survey suspended in 1865 was revived.

It may well be,then,that the ASI is 10 years younger than it imagines. Of course,140 is as good a moment as 150 for reviewing the work of the principal keeper of India’s archaeological heritage. So I shall use this occasion to spell out how I see the state of the ASI and its role. Given its rich history,I see it as a national asset that should not be allowed to atrophy.

First,with regard to its responsibility for expanding knowledge about the archaeology of India — the ASI has not published reports on the bulk of excavations that it has conducted since Independence. Major discoveries ranging from the Harappan city of Dholavira in Gujarat to the stupa site of Kanganahalli in Karanataka,which yielded a labelled sculpture of Ashoka,lie partially reported. Publishing these reports should be a priority.

So should the creation of a state-of-the-art research wing. The ASI is the largest government organisation doing archaeology anywhere in the world,yet it does so without a laboratory for dating archaeological samples! This is absurd,tantamount to the Indian state making a deliberate mockery of archaeology as science. A national institute of archaeological science attached to the ASI is absolutely necessary.

The other duty of the ASI is to preserve India’s monuments and archaeological remains. By no stretch of the imagination has it been doing this. Scores of monuments that the ASI is supposed to protect have been destroyed. Even where the ASI has been vigilant,it has generally been unable to prevent unlawful encroachments because FIRs filed against violations have not been acted upon. The physical and chemical conservation of monuments has been compromised. In contravention to the long-cherished conservation policy that “reconstruction” will be done only when it is necessary for the preservation of old structures,the ASI has taken to “reconstructing” monumental elements — from stupas in central India to decorative plaster in Humayun’s tomb (which covers almost 50 per cent of its exterior). The mix of corruption and shoddiness manifest in virtually everything handled by organs of the Indian state seems well in evidence within the ASI.

Finally,the ASI needs to give us a comprehensive documentation of India’s archaeological heritage. If it traces its beginning to 1861,it should complete what Cunningham began. Regrettably,in spite of Cunningham’s work and that of many committed researchers,there is still no detailed database of India’s sites,monuments,and antiquities. On August 15,2003,a national mission for this task was announced. It took four years,till March 19,2007,for the National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities,under the umbrella of the ASI,to be launched; so far,no publication or regional catalogue has emanated from that mission.

Rather than applaud ritual celebration,it would be more fitting to honour the ASI by appointing an independent assessor to provide us with a ruthless scrutiny of the problems and challenges faced by it. What the ASI needs is less celebration and more introspection. It needs a route map to rejuvenate and carry forward the legacy it seems largely to have abandoned.

The writer is a professor of history,University of Delhi. Her book ‘Finding Forgotten Cities’ is dedicated to the Archaeological Survey of India

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