Battle for history

Interview: Can the Mahabharata actually be treated as literal history?

Supriya Varma, professor of archeology at JNU, speaks on when religious texts can be used in service of history – and when they can’t.

The Enlightenment in Europe during the 18th century meant that faith and what was now seen to be “reality” were separated from each other. Across the 19th and 20th century, this process of secularisation, it was believed, was irreversible and could only grow as European ideals spread around the globe.

However, we in the 21st century now know this not be to be true. “The resurgence of religion,” wrote the philosopher John Gray, “is a worldwide development”. Evangelical Christianity is growing in the United States, Islamists believe in divine law and the Russian Orthodox Church is stronger than ever in the very home of godless Communism.

Faith and reality, separated by Enlightenment, are now merging again. This is visible in India too where archaeologists will now, in all seriousness, try to find evidence for events that took place in the Mahabharata. Last week news broke of an excavation planned at the site of what people believe to be the house of lac, an important incident in the Mahabharata.

This is not the first time something like this is happening in India. Haryana is actually diverting water from a canal to revive the mythical Saraswati river of Vedic scripture. And, of course, the most famous example is the literal belief in the birthplace of Lord Ram at the place where the Babri Masjid once stood in Ayodhya.

To understand how the discipline of archaeology is shaping these trends, Scroll.in spoke to Supriya Varma who teaches archaeology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Recently, the Archaeological Survey of India approved an excavation of site that local legends believe is the “house of wax” from the Mahabharata. Do you think treating the Mahabharata as history and then spending resources on it is a good idea?
According to the historians of Early India, the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, can certainly be used as a source of history provided one can identify its internal chronology. Broadly speaking, the composition of the Mahabharata has been dated between c. 400 BCE and c. 400 CE – although some historians ascribe a much shorter period of just 150 years, from the mid-second century BCE to the year zero, while others believe that it could have even been written over a thousand year period. Undoubtedly a critical study of the Mahabharata can inform us about political ideas and social institutions during this long period, spanning from c. 500 BCE till about 500 CE. What is, however, far more difficult is the exercise of tracing material evidence for specific incidents or buildings described in the epic, for instance, the “house of wax”. The discipline of archaeology remains marginalised in most universities and it may be more fruitful if money was instead utilised for creating some “world class” departments of archaeology in a few of our universities.

This is not the first time the ASI has indulged in “Mahabharata archaeology”. What do BB Lal’s excavation of Hastinapur in UP or SR Rao’s in Dwarka tell us?
Nearly 65 years ago, between 1950 and 1952, BB Lal of the ASI had excavated the site of Hastinapura, about 18 km from Meerut. These excavations revealed objects of everyday use – like pots for cooking, eating and storing, terracotta toys, glass bangles, iron nails and mud houses of ordinary people. There have been several excavations at Dwarka, beginning from 1963 when ZD Ansari and MS Mate of Deccan College, Pune, found archaeological remains that were dated between c. first century BCE till c. 10th century CE. In this case too, everyday objects like pots, shell and glass bangles were recovered. In 1979-80, SR Rao of the ASI conducted excavations in the forecourt of the Dwarkadhish temple and found remains of a ninth century CE Vishnu temple. Alok Tripathi, a marine archaeologist, earlier with the ASI and now at Assam University, Silchar, has come to the conclusion that there is no evidence to identify Dwarka with the ancient Dvaraka or Dvaravati of the Mahabharata or to date this site to the mid-second millennium BCE. Some offshore excavations were also carried out by the Marine Archaeology Centre of the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa between 1983-1994 and 1997-2002 which led to the discovery of a large number of stone anchors dated to the period from c. seventh to 17th centuries CE.

In Europe, Heinrich Schliemann and Sir Arthur Evans carried out archaeological work around Greek epics like the Iliad in the late 1800s. Did they find anything that confirmed these are historical and if so can it be replicated in India with epics like the Mahabharata?
Heinrich Schliemann was excavating in 1871, much before archaeology had developed as a professional field. Moreover, Schliemann’s digging methods at the site of Hisarlik, which he identified as Troy, were severely criticised by later archaeologists who felt that he had actually destroyed the site. In the case of Sir Arthur Evans, too, who excavated at Knossos on the Greek island of Crete between 1900 and 1930, there were objections to his methods as well as his identifications of certain buildings based on ancient Greek mythology. Nonetheless, he played a major role in the history of the British as well as Ashmolean Museums. Not only that, he was a pioneer in the study of Bronze Age Aegean civilisation. His archaeological work at Knossos was one of archaeology’s major achievements that led to an understanding of the deep past of the eastern Mediterranean region, which was hitherto unknown. He was also the first to define the Cretan scripts Linear A and Linear B as well as an earlier pictographic writing.

Are there any parallels to Biblical archaeology in West Asia carried out both by Europeans as well as post-1948 Israeli archaeologists?
Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1956 had this to say about Palestine: “Where more sins have probably been committed in the name of archaeology than on any commensurate portion of the earth’s surface”. For many decades, archaeological research in Palestine along with the adjoining regions has been referred to as “Biblical Archaeology”. More recently, however, some scholars have argued for the usage of either “Near Eastern Archaeology” or better still “Syro-Palestinian Archaeology” as they feel that the term “Biblical Archaeology” is an American phenomenon attributed to Protestant professors of religion. During the first half of the 20th century, many of the European archaeologists who were digging in Palestine were hopeful that the archaeological findings had validated the historical claims of the Bible. Post 1948, many of the Israeli archaeologists, too, held a similar perspective. However in recent years such a view is largely absent except among the most conservative archaeologists and Biblical historians. In fact, John Laughlin, Professor Emeritus of Religion, Averett University writes in his book (2000) Archaeology and the Bible that the “contemporary view of most archaeologists is that the purpose of archaeology, however defined, is not to prove the Bible true in any sense, historically or otherwise”.

Is the Mahabharata dig a sign of the politicisation of the ASI? Is it different globally? Is archaeology across the globe as politicised as in India? Is there an ASI equivalent?
In most countries, the management of historical monuments, archaeological sites, and heritage places is left to state institutions, or private and at times community based bodies. As far as archaeological research is concerned in a large number of countries, this is solely undertaken by archaeology departments of universities. However in some of the countries that were colonised, such as India, field surveys and excavations are undertaken both by a government institution like the ASI as well as the Archaeology Departments of different universities. Moreover it is the Central Advisory Board of Archaeology set up by the ASI which is solely responsible for grating permits to carry out archaeological research in India.

Was the ASI as political during the British Raj when it was set up? What were its politics then?
One does notice that in the colonial period there were attempts by the ASI officials to ascribe religious labels to monuments, terracotta human figurines as well as a range of artefacts including bricks.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.