New museums to look forward to in India
On February 1, 2020, the Union Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, while presenting the Centre's Budget, announced the setting of new museums and the development of iconic tourist sites to attract tourists from different countries.
The word "museum" can ignite passions among passionate Tamil enthusiasts, especially when it comes to the urn-burial site of Adichanallur and the Sangam age site of Keezhadi, in Tamil Nadu. On February 1, 2020, the Union Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, while presenting the Centre's Budget, announced the setting of new museums and the development of iconic tourist sites to attract tourists from different countries. She said that site museums would be set up in five important locations: Rakhigarhi in Haryana, Dholavira in Gujarat, Adichanallur in Tamil Nadu, Hastinapur in Uttar Pradesh, and Shivsagar in Assam. The Centre would support the Jharkhand State Government in setting up a tribal museum at Ranchi, the State capital. She also added that a maritime museum would come up at Lothal, about 80 km from Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and underscored the Centre's commitment to curating the Indian Museum at Kolkata - the country's oldest museum.
Although the Union Finance Minister did not announce it, an on-site, "experiential" museum is to be established at Vadnagar, where the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has been conducting a major excavation for the past six field seasons from 2014. The tireless Abhijit Ambekar (repeat Ambekar) of the ASI is leading a young team of archaeologists in excavating Vadnagar. Earlier, the Gujarat State Department of Archaeology conducted excavations in different parts of Vadnagar town between 2005 and 2014. Vadnagar happens to be the hometown of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is in Mehsana district, 85 km from Ahmedabad.
What is clear from these announcements is that PM Modi has a yen for museums. That came to light when he backed a demand made more than three years ago for setting up a site museum at Keezhadi, a Tamil Sangam age site that can be dated to circa 300 BCE and had yielded a spectacular bonanza of more than 6,000 artefacts. PM Modi responded to the elderly V. Balasubramaniam, who had retired as the Headmaster of the Government High school at Keezhadi and taught history there. In fact, the credit for discovering a big mound at Keezhadi, where the excavation has taken place, goes to the 78-year old Balasubramaniam. He wrote to the Prime Minister on September 19, 2016, requesting him "to urge the Government of Tamil Nadu to allot two acres of land to construct a site museum" at Keezhadi. He told PM Modi that "this archaeological mound is a rare phenomenon in the early history/Sangam period of Tamil Nadu." PM Modi responded speedily on September 23, 2016, directing the State Chief Secretary to "take action as appropriate." The somnolent Tamil Nadu administration woke up.
Balasubramanian wrote to PM Modi after the former received no response for his letter dated June 16, 2016, to the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, and to his letters to IAS officers T.K. Ramachandran and S. Malarvizhi for setting up a site museum at Keezhadi to display the artefacts excavated by the ASI at Keezhadi. Why no Tamil enthusiast is giving credit to PM Modi on the museum issue is a moot topic.
These 6,000 artefacts including beads, brick structures, terracotta ring wells, drainage systems, dyeing wats, furnaces etc. came to light when the ASI excavated the site during the two field seasons in 2015-2016 and 2016-2017. The young Amarnath Ramakrishna of the ASI led the excavations during those two field seasons. The ASI conducted the third season of excavation under the leadership of P.S. Sriraman. The Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology did the fourth and fifth seasons of excavations and is now engaged in the sixth at Keezhadi. The State Government has allotted some land close to the nearby urn burial site at Konthagai village for the site museum.
In her Budget speech, Nirmala Sitharaman said that the Centre "proposes to establish an Institute of Heritage and Conservation under the Ministry of Culture. It shall have the status of a deemed [to-be] university to start with. Acquisition of knowledge in disciplines such as museology and archaeology are essential for collecting and analysing scientific evidence of such findings and for [their] dissemination through high-quality museums." There was a lack of trained manpower in both museology and archaeology, she added.
Out of seven sites (in fact seven, not five) where museums will come up, three are Harappan sites. They are Rakhigarhi, Dholavira, and Lothal. The upshot is that Dholavira and Lothal already have museums. However, the existing museum at Dholavira is an apology for a museum. Two top-ranking Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officials reportedly came together to convert an Information Centre at Dholavira into a so-called museum so that the Parliament could be told that a museum had been built there as per the demand of the Members of the Parliament (MPs).
So it is welcome that a truly modern museum will replace the existing one at Dholavira, which was a great Harappan commercial centre, a manufacturing hub, and a seat of puissant political power, to which many smaller, satellite Harappan sites in Gujarat were attached. About 4,500 years ago, at the acme of its glory, Dholavira was one of the five biggest Harappan sites among several hundred. The other four were Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa, and Ganweriwala (all the three in Pakistan now after the 1947 Partition), and Rakhigarhi in Haryana, India.
Although Dholavira is situated on an island called Khadir in the featureless, arid expanse of the Great Rann of Kutch, Bachau taluq, Kutch district, Gujarat, it is a spectacular sight, which reveals the grandeur of the Harappan civilisation from its genesis to death. Among the 2,000 Harappan sites in India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, Dholavira is one among the handful of sites where one can see how the entire course of the Harappan civilisation ran. In other words, you can see at Dholavira, among its stratified debris, the genesis of the Harappan civilisation, its childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age, decline, and death. It lasted 1,500 years from circa 3000 BCE to circa 1500 BCE, spanning the Early Harappan phase, the Mature Harappan phase, and the late Harappan phase.
In the words of the widely respected Dr R.S. Bisht, who led a battalion of archaeologists of the ASI in excavating Dholavira, "The site adds an important dimension to the personality of the Indus civilisation." Dr Bisht led the massive excavation of Dholavira for 13 years or field seasons from 1990 to 2005. He is known as the "Bhishma Pitamaha" of the very challenging excavation at Dholavira. He retired as the Additional Director General of the ASI. He is in his 70s now.
The 13 field seasons of excavation done meticulously at Dholavira by Dr Bisht and his army of archaeologists have uncovered the remains of the Harappan town's massive fortification walls, the citadel with its spacious houses where the ruling elite lived, the Middle Town where the businessmen and traders had their homes, the Lower Town where the craftsmen lived, and the annexe for servants. You can see at the excavated site its rock-cut reservoirs, stepped wells, underground water ferrying system with filtration chambers, a superb network of drainage systems with manholes, bathrooms at homes, and streets that cut at right angles. All these were built with sandstone rock blocks. The Harappan Dholavira had two stadia with big grounds where royal processions, sports tournaments, and perhaps, shandies were organised. Dholavira housed about 10,000 people. This Harappan site will never cease to overawe you with its grandeur.
According to Dr Bisht, Dholavira's fame rested on several counts. They included its monumental architecture, meticulous town planning with mathematical precision, its incredible water harvesting and management system, its engineered drainage system to take away the sewage from homes and workshops, its two grand stadia with galleries for spectators, its burial architecture in the form of spoked wheels, and a sandstone quarry found nine km away.
What is amazing is the garland of reservoirs that the Harappans had built on the eastern, western, and southern sides of the fortified town to harvest every drop of rainwater, as well as water from the seasonal channels of Manhar and Mansar which flowed on the southern and the northern sides of the town. Check dams were built on these nullahs and every drop of water from them flowed into the string of reservoirs. Some of the reservoirs were cut out of hard rock like ventricular sheets over a distance of more than 80 metres. It is beyond comprehension how the Harappans cut the rocks like bread slices when they had not discovered iron or explosives to blast the rocks. The Harappan civilisation belonged to the Bronze Age. There was no Iron Age in North India. Some of the reservoirs were interconnected to let the surplus water flow from one reservoir to another.
"The efficient system the Harappans of Dholavira developed for conservation, harvesting, and storage of water speaks of their advanced hydraulic engineering, given the state of technology in the third millennium BCE," Dr Bisht said.
Dholavira is also noted for the discovery of the largest Harappan inscription. It has ten large-sized Harappan letters/signs, riveted on a three-metre long wooden board. The wood had withered away. Each of these ten characters was 37 cm tall. They were made of gypsum. The board, with these signs, was erected over the northern gate of the fortified town. Since the letters were made of gypsum, they shone with a flash of brilliance at night. We are in the dark about what this text says because the Harappan script has been defying decipherment for the past several decades, despite the best efforts of scholars.
About 55,000 Harappan antiquities such as naked male figurines, big Shiv Lings sculpted out of stone, polished architectural members, seals, beads, and items made out of gold, silver, copper, ivory, shell, faience, steatite, clay, and stones and mutilated human figurines - all excavated from Dholavira - have been stored in Purana Quila in Delhi. Tablets, terracotta bangles, weights, shell-bangles, and stone-ware have been stored at Purana Quila. Besides this, truck-loads of wonderful Harappan pottery, many painted, have been stored at Purana Quila. They need to be safely transported to Dholavira, systematically curated, and displayed imaginatively in the museum that is to come up at Dholavira.
When this writer met Dr Bisht in Chennai in the forenoon of March 5, 2020, the former ASI Additional Director General made it clear that he was "not happy" with the selection of the site for the new museum at Dholavira. "I have already expressed my unhappiness to the DG", that is, the Director-General, ASI, and in the earlier meetings as well, he said. Dr Bisht said he had earlier selected a piece of land for the new museum to be built at Dholavira. This land was situated on much higher ground, to the east of the Lower Town of the Harappan site. He said, "It is a wonderful place. If a museum is built there, the Lower Town will come into view. The Middle Town will be there. The Citadel and the Bailey can be viewed. You can see the hill ranges behind. You can see the Rann of Kutch in front of you." The two stadia can be seen. The garland of reservoirs around the Harappan town would leap into view. In other words, if you were to stand on this piece of land situated at a level much higher than the Lower Town, you can have a panoramic view of the entire excavated Harappan site at Dholavira. "This is the most ideal site" for the new museum to come up, Dr Bisht said.
But the Gujarat State administration was in a hurry, alleged some informed quarters, to please Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is from Gujarat. The administration, including the district officials, have already selected a piece of land for the museum and it has been transferred to ASI's name.
Dr Bisht had opposed the selection of this land and he had expressed his opposition in writing. "Let us see what happens", he said. The only redeeming feature of this piece of land was that it was vacant and it belonged to the State Government.
However, the piece of land recommended by Dr Bisht had one tribal family living there. The State Government could negotiate with the family members, pay them compensation, and provide them with an alternative piece of land, he said. But the bureaucrats wanted to face the least amount of problem during land acquisition, he said. It was not difficult to find a good place to resettle that family because Kutch was sparsely populated and the Khadir island, in the Rann of Kutch, where Dholavira is located, was even more sparsely populated. "There is no dearth of land", he asserted.
Dr Bisht narrated how bureaucrats converted an Information Centre at Dholavira into an "improvised museum", which exists now, to please the MPs. After Dholavira became world-famous as a great Harappan site, a cafeteria and an Information Centre were set up there. When MPs demanded in the Parliament that a museum should be established in Dholavira some years ago, the Information Centre was promptly converted into a so-called museum. The then Union Culture Secretary invited his batchmate, who was the then Gujarat Chief Secretary, to go with him to Dholavira and they declared open a "museum" there, just to assure the MPs that a museum had been built there. "It is not a museum as such", Dr Bisht said. It displayed only surface materials, not the excavated artefacts.
When this writer, who has visited Dholavira, asked Dr Bisht on March 5 whether all the Dholavira antiquities kept in Purana Quila would be displayed in the new museum to be established at Dholavira he replied, "To begin with, the material will go to the new building in the Institute of Archaeology." (The Institute of Archaeology, run by the ASI, has been shifted from the Red Fort in New Delhi to its new campus at Noida. It is a prestigious educational institution, which runs a tough two-year multi-disciplinary course in archaeology to students who have passed a post-graduate course in history or archaeology.) About 55,000 artefacts excavated from Dholavira were in Purana Quila. Besides, truckloads of Harappan pottery were there now.
Rakhigarhi is a different kettle of fish from Dholavira. Rakhigarhi is situated about 160 km from New Delhi or 25 km from Jind town in Hisar district, Haryana. Rakhigarhi presents big challenges to excavator-archaeologists because much of the ancient Harappan site there sits under the present-day village of Rakhigarhi. In other words, about a thousand pucca houses, made of bricks, have been built over the Harappan site. If archaeologists want to excavate the site, they have to demolish these houses. Hundreds of buffaloes roam the streets of Rakhigarhi. There is buffalo dung everywhere. The smell of buffalo dung and urine burns into your nostrils. Dairying is a big industry here. Besides, dung is converted into dry circular cakes to be used as cooking fuel.
Outside of Rakhigarhi village, there are healthy-looking wheat fields as far the eye can see. There is an air of farm prosperity everywhere. The village is situated on the banks of the Ghaggar-Drishadvati rivers and an endless supply of water is available for irrigation at a depth of just 10 to 15 feet.
Seven big mounds designated RGR 1 to RGR 7, are available for excavation at Rakhigarhi. Although these seven mounds have been properly fenced and declared "protected sites" by the ASI under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act, 2010, the villagers have encroached on them. There are pyramids of dung cakes on all mounds. On top of RGR-3 sits a dargah built some years ago. On top of RGR-4 is a cattle shed built of cement concrete.
It was on this encroached RGR-4 mound that the Deccan College Post-graduate and Research Institute, a deemed to-be university in Pune, had dug five trenches in February 2013 when this writer and photographer D. Krishnan visited the excavation site and stayed in a farmhouse with the excavating team. Dr Vasant Shinde, Vice-Chancellor of the Deccan College and a specialist on the Harappan civilisation, was the director of the excavation. This writer and Dr V. Vedachalam, reputed epigraphist, visited Rakhigarhi during the subsequent years of excavation.
During the four field seasons of excavation from 2013-2014 to 2016-2017 done by the Deccan College, Maharshi Dayanand University, Rohtak, Haryana and the Haryana State Department of Archaeology on RGR-4 and RGR-6, the team led by Dr Shinde excavated a granary and found seals inscribed with the Harappan script but no animal motifs, a seal with the carving of a tiger potsherds with the Harappan script, painted pottery, hundreds of iddli-shaped terracotta cakes, beads made out of semi-precious stones such as carnelian, faience, agate, and lapis lazuli, weights made out of banded agate, terracotta beads, bangles, dogs and pigs, perforated jars, copper products and so on. Excavation on RGR-4 revealed a Harappan residential complex, built with mud bricks, and boasting of a hearth, a bathroom, and drainage. Ceramics painted with peepal leaves and with applique designs, elite slipped ware, chocolate ware, bichrome ware, copper fish hooks, copper bangles, steatite microbeads with a diameter of two mm and so on were found.
The Deccan College excavated a burial site with several skeletons. DNA was extracted from four skeletons by forensic scientists from the Seoul National University, South Korea. This writer and Dr Vedachalam were present when Dr Shinde and the South Korean forensic specialists were working on these Harappan skeletons in February/March 2015.
Based on the DNA extracted from these skeletons and other research, Dr Shinde and other researchers proposed in September 2019 that the inhabitants of the Harappan civilisation were a distinct indigenous people and they challenged the theory of a massive "Aryan invasion" that destroyed the Harappan culture.
Prior to Deccan College excavating Rakhigarhi, an ASI team led by Dr Amarendra Nath conducted excavations at the Harappan mounds and burial sites in 1998, 1999, and 2000. Besides the discovery of the usual Harappan artefacts and a granary, Dr Amarendra Nath and his team were able to trace in the Early Harappan structures "the beginning of the emergence of the town planning... wherein the structures are well laid out and there is evidence of a public drainage system."
According to Dr Amarendra Nath, although other sites yielded potsherds with graffiti marks, "Here we have graffiti arranged in a sequence, which suggests the beginning of the writing in the early Harappan level," he said.
About the museum to be established at Rakhigarhi, when contacted on March 3, 2020, Dr Shinde, who is now the Director-General at National Maritime Heritage Complex, Gandhi Nagar, Gujarat, said the museum would display not only the artefacts discovered by the Deccan College but also by the ASI. The Deccan College had kept the artefacts in the college for study and research. The ASI had kept them in Purana Quila, Delhi. During an earlier visit to Rakhigarhi, he had shown us the land where the museum would come up.
Dr Shinde said he wanted to present a plan about the proposed Rakhigarhi museum to the Union Ministry of Culture. The museum should have an interpretation centre. But some issues had to be resolved first. These included a full understanding of the development of the Harappan culture/civilisation at Rakhigarhi and the composition of the Harappan population that lived there. "We believe that there were different groups of people there. We want to know what these groups of people were. We need more DNA data."
Dr Shinde suggested that Rakhigarhi should be developed for tourism. It was just 160 km from New Delhi. "We have plans to excavate a part of the Harappan site there, declare it a protected site, preserve the trenches with their artefacts in situ, and develop the site as an open-air museum for the people to look at them. People would like to see the Harappan structures and artefacts as they are exposed in the trenches," he said. Many excavated archaeological sites in West Asia had been preserved like this and they had a dome above to protect them from the sun and the rain. A site museum could also be built to display the other artefacts at Rakhigarhi. There could be a data centre and an interpretation centre. There were many havelis - spacious houses which were a few hundred years old at Rakhigarhi - which could form part of the heritage complex. He was confident that a big museum, the smaller on-site museums, the restored havelis and so on would boost the economy of Rakhigarhi. "This is our plan. We want to present it to the Union Ministry of Culture," Dr Shinde said.
(To continue in the next instalment)