As the dust that lay buried for 5000 years flew in the breeze against a setting sun at Rakhigarhi. My impressions from a visit to the site
“Archeology is scientific destruction” is what Dr S. K Manjul told me when I asked him about rules and protocols observed during an ongoing excavation. This is probably the most humbling and telling notion I carried with me after my visit to Rakhigarhi last month. Dr Manjul, Joint Director General ASI, is heading the current excavations at Rakhigarhi; it is also under his leadership that the Chariot at Sinauli was excavated.
At school, we learn history. Opinions of our past, our material culture, religious practices, ordering of society, food habits, and what we held sacred and venerated are informed and, alas often limited to textbooks. Yes, we are all stardust and we all have a common ancestor in Lucy; we are all progeny of our ancestors that once walked out of Africa, and there is value in universality, but settlements and civilisation have given each region of our planet specificity, richness in detail, pointed development, advancements in technology, sophistication, progress in domestication and breeding of animals, and the knowledge of this identify defines who we are today. What good digging up the past, you say? I say, if you tell me I carry in my cells the building blocks of a rare continuously extant civilisation mighty in material and spiritual tradition, constantly interacting with assimilating and disseminating elements of greatness and progress, I know the ideal blueprint of my personal growth and that of my nation.
On the other hand, if you tell me that I am a construct of an invasion by a cultured race that civilised me, that brought with them the most sacred texts of revealed knowledge that forms the basis of the spiritual nation we are today, I would think lesser of me and my outlook towards preserving my identity would be diluted. And as a result, the direction I would take as an individual and India as a nation would hurtle her to annihilate her national identity, her spiritual and material roots and homogenise her into a uniform unimpressive staid alien state.
The importance of history, therefore, can never be undermined. And unfortunately, the domain has been bogged down by vested interests pushing narratives, distortions, omissions, and fiction trying very hard to hack at a collective heritage that should bring us pride, admiration, confidence, and direction. But far from this ugly tussle of academics, there works a tribe of passionate scientists, trained to remove as far as possible the shadow and influence of narratives, who camp in tents in the bitter cold and blazing heat to dig out past with a very conscious deliberate notion that once dug the destruction of evidence is irreversible. There is no story in an artifact without its context. There is no value is a bone without its exact location. There is no simple correlation between strata and era. Here different sciences collaborate to corroborate or dismiss a hypothesis.
Interestingly, when you speak to an archaeologist, there is seldom an assertion. Everything is subject to verification; all conclusions come with a careful caveat of “at this point of time”, they are in no hurry to give you answers that suit your sense of comfort. They tell the story their pit reveals. Strangely it is the nuance of the archaeologist that is a hundred times more reassuring than the assertion of some historians. Therefore, you judge the calibre of historians by the nature of primary and secondary sources she/he references.
When the news of a dig reaches you the first reaction you get is “what have they found” but when you reach an archeological site you are taken aback not only by the purity but the sanctity of the words Dr. Manjul told me “Archeologists are not treasure hunters, just like in music silence is as important as melody so also in life and civilisation”. This is what overwhelmed me at Rakhigarhi. The sun was setting; photographs were being taken of the status of the pits at the end of the day. Disha Ahluwalia, who has worked under Dr Manjul for nearly a decade, was in charge of the mound, and for the next few hours, I realised this was not a team hoping to find the next big find; this was a brood of dedicated specialists driven by an insane passion to understand our past – correctly, meticulously, humbly and scientifically. Nothing quite prepares you to stand on the mound overlooking the trenches observing young students deeply engrossed in their work. I asked each of them why they did what they did, and the answers were such a far cry from the usual discourse of their peers in the city. One of them said, “my family thinks I’m preparing for UPSC, but here I am!”
Who knew my most cherished moment as a teacher trying to teach history would probably unfold at that sunset overlooking the trenches? I was to interview Prof Vijay Sathe, a most distinguished archaeo – zoologist, the next day. Where are you from? When I mentioned the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, he asked me to recall a student of his from my school with the kindest words. What was his name? – Guruprasad. I have been teaching for just over a decade, and I never expected such a moment so soon! Dear Guru, that serious, soft-spoken, unassuming boy had written his master’s dissertation under Prof Sathe.
The next day, under his tent in 42-degree heat, at the camping site near mound no. 1, Prof Sathe spoke to me for about an hour, explaining man’s relationship with the animal. That blazing morning, speaking to him after he’d just finished tagging bones from the excavation, and watching others oblivious of the conditions, I realised not only in the pursuit of unadulterated knowledge but also in its sheer stark trying physical isolation the travesty of insincere historians and journalists who distort narratives from the painstaking finds of such band of dedicated explorers of our past.