When we think about archaeology, the discipline as much as the practice brings up images of time out of mind as well as the more proximate question of recorded history. Geology, palaeontology, history: each of these is associated with the idea of the past, and of what is over. However, recent developments including the development of industrial and urban archaeology suggest a method of dealing with material remains rather a relation to questions of time alone. We are reminded that the discipline has a deep relation to the contemporary and to our understanding of the present as much as to the philosophical questions of History and Memory.

Moreover, despite claims to scientific method and the rigors of objective enquiry, the fact remains that archaeology is located within political projects of nationhood, narratives of conquest, and claims to antiquity and classicism (“we have been around longer than you”).

A striking example of this came up in 2001 when a young American scholar Nadia Abu El Haj published Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. Using the discipline of Israeli archaeology as the subject of her study, she argued that the facts generated by archaeological practice influence “cultural understandings, political possibilities and ‘common-sense’ assumptions”.

In the case of Israel, she argued that archaeological practice worked in the service of the “formation and enactment of its colonial nation historical imagination and ... the substantiation of its territorial claims”. This led to an academic controversy and attempts to deny her tenure in her job, even as the book went on to win awards for scholarship.

Archaeology sits at the heart of the Indian nation’s imagination of itself as the inheritor of an ancient civilisation. This statement is objectively true. It also addresses the subjective need of an independent nation to have a narrative that was not about the civilising mission of an imperial power alone. Colonialism everywhere damaged the self-perception of subjugated peoples. As the world came to conceived in terms of the political categories of the modern and modernity, nations and peoples were characterised as being on one or the other side of the divide. Modernity was presented as characterised by reason, secularism, individualism and each of these was given a short and special history of origins within the European space dating back to the Enlightenment.

One of the first conflicts that arose in the colonial encounter was over conceptions of time within societies like India and China in contrast to European Christian notions of the origin of the universe and the time of history. In classical Hindu systems of knowledge, the universe had gone through four yugas or ages. These four ages were named after four possible throws of a dice (the Indian dice was of an oblong shape with four sides), and the notion of time was both cyclical and degenerationist; from a golden age to the degraded present. The Kritayuga was believed to have lasted 1,728,000 years and the present age was that of Kali which would run for 432,000 years.

These philosophical conceptions made of time an eternity, as opposed to the then Biblical culture of human time, which was short, to say the least. St Augustine in his Civitas Dei (c. 5th c CE) believed that “not 6000 years have passed” since the creation of the world. Moreover, this notion of time in addition to its brevity was directional, teleological and progressive in contrast to ancient Indian notions. This contrast between too-much time and measured time seemed to sit at the heart of the primitiveness of Indian thought in the eyes of the British colonisers.

This “eastern obsession” with vast swathes of time drew the condescension as much as the ire of European scholars. James Mill in History of British India (1817) wrote that, “Rude nations seem to derive a peculiar gratification from pretensions to a remote antiquity. As a boastful and turgid vanity distinguishes remarkably the Oriental nations, they have in most instances, carried their claims extravagantly high”.

Karl Marx wrote, not without a tinge of regret, that, “Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history. What we call its history is but the history of successive intruders who founded their empires on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society”. He went on to add that, “England has to fulfil a double mission in India: one, destructive, the other, regenerative – the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundation of Western society in Asia.”

Within Europe, the struggle between Biblical time and historical time came to a head in the 18th century. Ideas of “deep time” were being articulated in the 1780s and the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) had estimated the age of the world to be about 75,000 years in 1774. He jettisoned the Christian calendar for a new, secular chronology.

James Hutton, in his Theory of the Earth (1788) went a step further beyond this imagination of a definite beginning (and thus of Creation), when he wrote that, “from the top of the mountains to the shore of the sea…everything is in a state of change…a succession of worlds…we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end”.

The late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe teemed with ideas of illimitable time, strata, lost species and catastrophism. George Cuvier, in his Discourse on the Revolutionary Upheavals on the Surface of the Earth and on the Changes Which They Have Produced in the Animal Kingdom (1812), argued that “numberless living things were victims of…catastrophes: some, inhabitants of the dry land , were engulfed in deluges; others, living in the heart of the seas, were left stranded when the ocean floor was suddenly raised up again; and whole races were destroyed forever; leaving only a few relics which the naturalist can hardly recognise”.

By the late 19th century Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had almost displaced the Christian view based on the Biblical chronology that the Earth was about 6,000 years old. However, the views of prominent churchmen like Bishop James Ussher, Primate of All Ireland, with a dating of the origin of the universe to 6 pm on October 22, 4004 BC, were a long time dying!

Arguably archaeology could only arise as a discipline once Europe moved beyond its inherited Christian temporality. Moreover, the emergence of geology and the Darwinian idea of evolution meant that Indian conceptions of time began to seem less outlandish, as the age of the earth and the human was pushed way beyond the Biblical chronology.

After the savage wars of peace in India between 1757 and 1830 when most of India came under the control of the East India Company and laws and revenue settlements were in place, scholars and administrators began to come to terms with Indian civilisation. Much of the knowledge of India’s civilisational past was gained during strategic campaigns and route marches as military men and doctors, influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment, began to think about comparative civilisations.

James Ferguson, itinerating intellectual, decided to put together his travel diaries of 1837-’39, and published Picturesque Illustrations of Ancient Architecture in Hindoostan (1848). His record of what he termed “ancient architecture”-mostly temples and ruins dating to what we would now call the early medieval period- was based on the diary, draftsman’s pad, and the camerq lucida.

The very idea of the picturesque provided a civilised standpoint from which to view the wilderness that was India, it was a viewing of the past in the present. British rule was India’s present and future, what India had to offer and what she had achieved could only be represented as past and “ancient” glory.

Ferguson’s representation of India was of a land of ruins without people; a metaphorical depiction of a tabula rasa on which the history of empire could be written. This vision was not an empirical vision of what lay before the eye; it was the presentation of the idea of India-an inherited vision of classical civilisation.

It is interesting that Ferguson sought out monuments that had already been made familiar to the English imagination through literature. One of his famous illustrations was of the Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram in southern India, made famous in Britain through Robert Southey’s overwrought bestselling poem, The Curse of Kehama (1810), familiar even to an Englishman who may have never travelled beyond his borough. Ferguson’s representation seemed to evoke the famous lines, “Their golden summits in the noon-day light/Shone o’er the dark green deep that roll’d between/For domes and pinnacles and spires were seen/Peering above the sea…a mournful sight”.

The account of architecture in India in the picturesque mode was pushed to another time, that of the ancient, and presented with pathos as a set of ruins. Hence the story of architecture became one of decline from ancient times: the story of decay. There was another intention that lay behind Ferguson’s venture. It was to move an account of India away from what he saw as myth, fable and legend (ironic considering his admiration for Southey) and what Mill had termed the “ungoverned imaginings” of Indians to fact.

His 1866 manifesto posited architecture as a more reliable index of the past than literarure. The “great stone book” would prove a better guide than the late 18th century recovery of India’s classical literature which had swayed even the German imagination and had sparked off Indophilia among figures like Schlegel, Schopenhauer and Goethe.

The Shore Temple Mahabalipuram.

It is an interesting, and less explored story, that most of the pioneers of the recovery of the Indian past came from the Celtic fringe in Britain and were influenced by the scholarship of the Scottish Enlightenment from Adam Smith to Adam Ferguson, philosopher and historian. Alexander Cunningham, followed in Ferguson’s trail bringing together the study of architecture, material remains and archaeology.

In 1834, he opened up the Dhamek stupa at Sarnath, and in 1843 excavated the ruins of the Buddhist site of Sankisa, bringing to light a long-forgotten Buddhist chapter in the history of India. We can sight here the beginnings of an archaeological method of some complexity. Cunningham integrated ground surveys of height and extent with a study of the layout of structural features and architecture.

Unlike Ferguson, he was not dismissive of literary evidence and moved towards a creative reading of references from literary texts, identifying many structures from allusions in travel accounts of Chinese pilgrims to northern India. He made notice of coins, inscriptions and other forms of material remains which could be “read” as historical evidence. This hard-headed synthesis came to underlie the archeological imagination of the 19th century.

The Dhamek stupa at Sarnath. Credit: snikrapCamera location25° 22′ 52″ N, 83° 01′ 31″ E View this and other nearby images on: OpenStreetMap 25.381111; 83.025278, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

By 1861, the outlines of Indian history were far clearer than when the East India Company won its first major war in Bengal in 1757. In 1857, the Great Indian Rebellion had shaken the foundations of East India Company power in India and India passed under the control of the Queen in 1858. India was politically united under pax Britannica and the Archaeological Survey was established as part of the commencement of another historical era: from the rule of commerce to the rule of law. The age of the first “closet or scholastic Archeologists” working with literary sources (like William Jones and HW Colebrooke) had given way in the early 19th century to the “travelling antiquarians” and “field archaeologists” as the art historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta has put it.

The reaction against an Indophilia fueled by textual evidence had given way to a more rugged approach in which archaeology was the new method. It was felt that, “the discovery and publication of all the existing remains of architecture and sculpture, withi coins and inscriptions, would throw more light on the ancient history of India…than the printing of all the rubbish contained in the 18 Puranas”.

Cunningham’s Buddhist focus led to what might be termed as the English “discovery of Buddhism” in the 19th century and an obsession with Buddhist remains. Allied with this was the establishment through literary and material evidence of the first firm date in India’s history – 326 BCE and Alexander the Great’s invasion of north west India. The discovery of the Gandhara school of sculpture with its exquisite statues of the Buddha with elegant drapery and calm refined features, allowed for an alignment of India’s classical past with that of Greece.

Underlying this was the preference of the English for what Buddhism entailed: a spare, rational religion; the first unified empire under the Mauryan Buddhist king Ashoka; and a classic style in statuary that was far from the decorative excess and gargoyles of Hindu art. The Protestant rulers of India distanced themselves from the Catholic excess of Hinduism- with its priesthood, temples and “smells and bells”- and gravitated towards the leaner, meaner religion of Buddhism. Here too, archaeology was influenced by a paradigm that lay outside it.

A Gandhara Buddha. Credit: Ethan Doyle White at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Even before the assumption of India by the Crown, indigenous intellectuals, the “natives’ had begun to participate in the enterprise of the discovery of India’s past. Given their knowledge of languages these individuals maintained the dialectic between text and monument. Ram Raz, in his Essay on the Architecture of the Hindus (1834) identified treatises on architecture, in particular the Manasara on temple building in southern India.

Influenced by the dominant mood of fact over fancy, Ram Raz’s text dwelt on heights, proportions and ornamental styles. Rajendralala Mitra began a detailed cataloguing of Sanskrit manuscripts, preparing bibliographies and publishing lists of museum holdings as in the Descriptive Catalogue of Curiosities in the Museum of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1849). By 1879, he had located and purchased over 1500 manuscripts and prepared over 5000 lists and notices.

Ram Raz’s catalogue of styles.

With the work of these Hindu intellectuals we begin to see a distinct shift emerging from the earlier paradigm of affection for Buddhism. The British account of an ancient past, sullied by a Muslim medieval period, which colonialism had triumphed over found its resonances in the new works. Mitra’s The Antiquities of Orissa dwelt on Hindu architectural remains that had survived Muslim onslaughts. This “classicist nostalgia” of the Hindu intellectual was a parallel to the picturesque imagination of the English scholar that had dwelt upon the ruin as a site for reflection.

Mitra’s narratives were undergirded by pride as much as a sense of loss. “These are some of the Relics of the Past weeping over a lost civilization and extinguished greatness”, he wrote, “where oblivion has gloriously triumphed over all ancient records, making puzzles of Cyclopean erections and turning old glories into dreams…”

Mitra, and those who followed him, sought to create a national Hindu imagination, undercutting Greek influence. An Indo-Aryan obsession was to be the basis of a new pedigree for Indian art and architecture.

The story of the first Indian archaeologist, Rakhaldas Bannerjee (1885-1930) is also a cautionary tale of sorts. His brief career, from early fame to an early death, reveals some of the structural constraints of Indian intellectual activity within a colonial framework. Rakhaldas had a training in languages, inscriptions, and art like those of an earlier generation, but with the added qualification of museology. The museum had become the standard repository of artefacts, both for display as well as research, and had emerged as a training ground for aspirants to the new profession.

In 1906 the Archaeological Survey of India was placed on a permanent footing under Lord Curzon, and one of the unintended consequences was the institutionalization of the imperial disdain for Muslim rule. A new breed of archaeological experts led excavations in southern, western, central and eastern India and began to construct a political chronology of Hindu kingdoms that had preexisted or ruled alongside the presence of Muslim rulers in India from the 11th c CE.

In 1921-’22, Rakhaldas, while digging around a Buddhist stupa in Larkana, Sind, in the northwest of India, stumbled upon the remains of the city of Mohenjodaro. This was the first sign of an urban civilisation dating back to 2500 BCE which dramatically pushed back the chronology of settled agriculture in India. Meanwhile Sir John Marshall and his assistant Daya Ram Sahni were excavating Harappa, another site in what would come to be known as the Indus Valley Civilisation.

These two cities placed the origins of civilization in India on par with those in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Though these two discoveries were made almost simultaneously, Rakhaldas published in Bengali journals while Sir John Marshall’s find was reported in the Illustrated London News. Moreover, Rakhaldas’s report on Mohenjodaro lay with Marshall for four years and did not see the light of day. Marshall was kind enough to return the report after four years with negative comments on the importance of Rakhaldas’s discoveries.

The Indian’s career went down hill thereafter; he was dismissed from employment for malpractice and alleged theft and removal of an idol (which was never proved). Embittered and alone, Rakhaldas turned to “historical romance” and attempted to “flesh the skeleton entity of Indian history” through literature and the imagination.

Underlying his work was the by now common strain of the theme of Muslim conquest and the ruins of Hindu civilisation. He died at the young age of 45 and was largely forgotten but the story of the Indus Valley Civilisation went on to fuel the nationalist imagination and its belief in the wonder that was India.

The Illustrated London News on the Indus Valley Civilisation.

By the 1930s the Indian nationalist movement under the leadership of the Indian National Congress and Gandhi had attained maturity and had embarked upon carefully calibrated agitations resulting in negotiations with the British government for political concessions. Jawaharlal Nehru, who was to become free India’s first prime minister, was to spend many stints in prison for his agitations, allowing him to complete the trilogy that could be regarded as foundational to the conception of independent India: Discovery of India, An Autobiography, and Glimpses of World History.

News of the archaeological discoveries filtered through into prison and helped shape the narrative of Indian civilisation laid waste by colonialism. On June 14, 1932, Nehru wrote to his daughter Indira from the District Jail at Dehra Dun saying that, “we find that in the Indus Valley we go back not only 5000 years but many more thousands, till we are lost in the dim mists of antiquity when man first settled down”.

This inflation of ancientness was to be a characteristic move of nationalist history. Much of the early interpretations of the Indus Valley Civilization tended to emphasise the Mesopotamian connection for dating and also concentrated on the urban settlements, in order to argue that India had had urbanity even before the coming of the Muslim and then British conquerors. The existence of street planning, great granaries, dockyards on the coast at Lothal, and an extensive water harvesting system have all been subsequently questioned by archaeologists.

However, excavations are ongoing, and the count of sites is now 1,022, of which 406 are in Pakistan and 616 in India. Only 97 sites have been fully excavated, which is not surprising given that the area covered by the Harappan culture (the new name for the Indus Valley Civilisation) is between 680,000 sq km to 800,000 sq km. Some of the sites show a continuation with excavations done in Baluchistan that are dated at 7000 BCE.

There is the existence of a script recorded on seals but it has yet to be deciphered conclusively. There have been doubts raised as to whether the characters on the seal amount to writing and scholars have argued that these are non-linguistic symbols. In the absence of a Rosetta Stone, we are left with a welter of speculation as to whether the characters are related to Aramaic, Brahmi, Sanskrit, Elamite and Mesopotamian.

The Great Bath at Mohenjodaro. Credit: Saqib Qayyum CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In independent India, the museum was to become the site for archaeological display as Nehru conceived of museums and art galleries as the means through which a largely illiterate population would discover India.

The story of the yaksi (celestial creatures) sculpture from Didarganj offers another cautionary tale. The statue, voluptuous and sensual, was recovered from a site of public worship and transferred to what was seen as its “proper” home in a museum. The past of the nation was appropriated from the people for the national museums and this disembedding for a higher cause became the leitmotif of archaeological endeavours.

More important was the creation of a canonical Indian art, which was by default, Hindu as well. Examples of Mauryan art, from the first centralized empire in India in the 3rd c BCE, were conceived as the exemplars: Indo-Aryan, free of Greek or Achaemenid influence and pre-Muslim. Statuary, however sensual in nature, as the Didarganj yaksi undoubtedly was, came to be absorbed into a spiritual understanding of Indian civilisation.

Art critics like Ananda Coomaraswamy among others created a tradition of stressing “inner significance” over “outward appearance”. A century of Victorian morality came together with an Indian fetish for the spiritual to render null a sensual, earthy popular tradition of statuary.

The Didarganj Yakshi statue. Credit: Shivam Setu, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As we have seen archaeology, even as it acquired scientific protocols and methods, remained the prisoner of the imaginations and aspirations of its practitioners and of the higher causes of empire and nation.

Rajendralala Mitra, very early on had emphasised that the government was the arbiter of history, as excavator and preserver. He stated unequivocally, “all such monuments belong to the government, and government has every right to see to their preservation”.

In independent India, the politics of the religious reinvention of sites has always contended with the idea of the archaeological jurisdiction of the government. Was a site or object religious, therefore belonging to the “people” or was it “heritage” in which case the government had first rights? The Babri Masjid, built in 1528 CE, and an archaeological “monument” in the dispensation of modern India, came to be caught up in this discourse in 1992.

With the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India in the 1990s, and the growing critique of a secular nationalist consensus, a movement arose around the idea of the Babri Masjid being built on the site of the birthplace of the legendary figure Lord Ram. The Hindu nationalist party and its cohorts tried to reclaim the structure both from its Muslim associations as much as its secular status as an archaeological monument. A national movement of the Hindu right mobilised people from all over India to demolish the Babri Masjid, an event which finally happened on December 6, 1992.

The Babri Masjid being demolished on December 6, 1992. Credit: Douglas E.Curran/AFP

Archaeologists, historians and academics argued against popular Hindu sentiment marshalling evidence and historical fact, to no avail. The lines were drawn between science and irrationality; history and myth; and evidence and belief. The only hard fact left standing at the end was the ruin of the 16th century mosque.

The words of India’s eminent historian Romila Thapar regarding the demolition and the movement to reclaim the mosque as the birthplace of a god reflect the ongoing tussle between archaeology and the field of politics, history and sentiment within which its practice is located. “What is at issue is the attempt to give historicity to what began as a belief…Archaeology is not a magic wand, which in a matter of moments conjures up the required evidence. Such ‘instant’ archaeology may be useful as a political gambit [alone].”

However, it would require a fine filter indeed to separate archaeology from the politics of the world.

Dilip Menon is Mellon Chair of Indian Studies, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and works on histories of the global south. He has recently edited Capitalisms: Towards a Global History (Oxford, 2020).