Finding Forgotten Cities by Nayanjot Lahiri
Historian Nayanjot Lahiri traces the history of the discovery of Indus Valley Civilization. Most of us only know in one sentence that John Marshall discovered or excavated the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. And that leads to the discovery of Indus Valley Civilization. And this announcement came in Sep 1924. The story cannot be as simple obviously. And there have to be trails of events and travails of many more men that would have led to that momentous announcement in 1924. This book Finding Forgotten Cities takes you through the stories of men who were behind this great discovery.
They encountered Harappa during their travels and excavations over many decades. Cities hidden in the mounds gave them clues, intrigued them through antiquities like seals and beads. While the folklore around them diverted them. Till the Archeological Survey of India decided to do trial excavations at both the sites simultaneously. After the announcement, of course, there was no one stopping them from going on a full-fledged excavation.
It is a story of Charles Masson, Alexander Cunningham, Lord Curzon, Luigi Pio Tessitori, Daya Ram Sahni, Rakhaldas Banerji & Madho Sarup Vats. Each of these men, driven by a combination of curiosity, fate, and opportunity played their part in discovering this ancient heritage. And in the process pushed back India’s history by few thousand years. The author takes you through the lives of each of them. And how they finally got associated with this historic dig. As she also takes you through the sociopolitical environment in which these men worked. And the economic constraints that were thrust upon them due to events like World War.
In the process, you get a glimpse of the development of archaeology in India. And at certain points, I was amazed at the number of parallel excavations that were going around the country. I wonder if even a fraction of similar activity is being carried on now. Some of the issues have not changed for archeology like land acquisition and the paucity of funds.
While Masson tried to survey the area from the travel accounts of Alexander. His successors followed the travels of Chinese traveler Huan Tsang. I wonder if Huan Tsang would have ever realized that his work would become such a great landmark in the history of the land where he came to gain knowledge and wisdom. Since Buddhist stupas were being discovered and restored across the country, most archaeologists saw the Indus Valley cities also from the Buddhist prism. And hence initially assumed it to belong to the same period.
Along with Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, the author also looks at Tessitori’s work at Kalibangan in Rajasthan, who came with the intent to study the Rajasthan’s Bardic literature. But ended up discovering an important site. And died before he could take credit for it. And still lies somewhere around his discovery. Each of the men involved in this site had their own blinkers; based on what hypothesis they had of the site. As the multiple sites were being excavated independently, it took Vats’s synthesis to relate the two sites and take the timeline back by 2000+ years.
Interestingly, most initial excavations were not done with an archeological intent. But with an intent to dig out antiquities. And add to private or museum collections. It was the Harappan seals in British Museum that have caught Marshall’s attention even before to headed for India. I was also surprised to read that though Marshall was the one to announce the discovery, until the time of the announcement, he had never been to either of the sites as he continued to focus on Taxila. I was also delighted to read the journeys of Daya Ram Sahni who excavated Harappa. And Rakhaldas Banerji who excavated Mohenjo-Daro.
The story of Banerji takes quite some space in the book. And he comes across as a brilliant archeologist who was prone to corruption and needed a constant watch. Now we do not know if his wackiness did well for Mohenjo-Daro or not. But his contribution cannot be ignored. It was a revelation that as early as 100 years back, Tatas were funding the excavations at Patna – as a business proposition or as philanthropy. While there are systems, government rules, plans and execution of the plan, somewhere the destiny plays its own role. How and when would something gets discovered, who gets the credit and who puts in the real work is a matter of time and luck. And there is only so much you can do to control it.
The author being a trained archeologist and historian brings out the stories from the archive files very effectively. And does not let it become too technical at any point in time. She surfs through the correspondence between these men to recreate what must have happened. It does get dry at times, but I guess that is the nature of the subject.
Read Finding Forgotten Cities to know the archaeology as it happened first in India.