ASI Is Again Digging Up The Site Of ‘Indraprastha’ In Delhi And The Findings Are Exciting

by Swati Goel Sharma - Mar 25, 2018 06:40 PM +05:30 IST
ASI Is Again Digging Up The Site Of ‘Indraprastha’ In Delhi And The Findings Are ExcitingExcavation work has been going on at Purana Qila for several months now.
  • Archaeologists are carrying out excavation to seek answers to the age-old question: just how old the capital city really is?

For several months now, the ruins of New Delhi's Purana Qila have been hosting a bunch of special guests on a mission to unearth the city's ancient past. Officials from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) are carrying out excavation here to seek answers to the age-old question: just how old the capital city really is? More importantly, is this citadel, said to be built during Sher Shah Suri’s rule, really the famed Indraprastha, the abode of Pandavas mentioned in the Mahabharata?

So, apart from the usual amorous couples dotting the premises, visitors are noticing unusual, and puzzling, activity in a barricaded stretch near the Sher Mandal monument these days.

A view of the Purana Qila said to have been built by Sher Shah Suri.
A view of the Purana Qila said to have been built by Sher Shah Suri.

Workers can be seen climbing up and down makeshift ladders placed in deep trenches and sweeping off loose soil on the floor, others cleaning clay-like objects with water and meticulously placing them on cotton beds. Supervising the work, a young team led by Vasant Kumar Swarnkar, superintending archaeologist (Chandigarh Circle) with ASI, is both gushing and expressing some disappointment at their findings so far.

There is much to be excited about. They have found an extensive fortification stonewall from the Sunga period, a horse skull that hints at ritual burning, a toy ram figurine with stamp impressions, a terracotta figurine of decorated elephants, painted beads and bone points dating to various periods back to the Mauryan era. Swarnkar points to a deep trench and shows seven biscuit-sized terracotta discs neatly placed together. "Those are pitthus, that children were probably playing with but left as they were in the event of a calamity," he said.

Artifact of a decorated elephant.
Artifact of a decorated elephant.

Though awe-inspiring, these precious artifacts only further establish what is already known: that settlement in Delhi dates back to at least 2,500 years with sequences through the Maurya, Sunga, Kushan, Gupta, post-Gupta, Rajput and the Delhi Sultanate periods, all the way until the Mughals. Earlier excavations at the site in 1954-55 and 1969-72 by then ASI director and renowned archaelogist B B Lal have thrown up similar antiquities and more.

Now, what has increased the excitement of Swarnkar and his team is the discovery of signs of a flood at the Purana Qila site. "Earlier excavations here have not recorded evidence of a pre-Mauryan flood," says Swarnkar as he points to a deep trench wall that shows a layer of soil abruptly changing colour from reddish brown to brownish yellow, with a soft clay-like texture. The mixture of sand and silt from the layer has been sent for dating.

Here's why this fresh discovery is important: The most prominent of Lal's findings at Purana Qila was the traces of painted grey ware (PGW) that suggests the historicity of the Mahabharata. Lal had dug up Purana Qila as part of his mission to excavate various sites mentioned in the Mahabharata. At all the other sites such as Hastinapura, Mathura, Ahichatra, Kampilya, Barnava and Kurukshetra, he had found PGW (a style of fine, grey pottery painted with geometric patterns in black) to be a common feature. The PGW was found to archaeologically belong to the 6th-12th century BC and thus, Lal associated PGW with the Mahabharata period, estimating 900 BCE as the period of the epic war.

"Each era or period in history is identified by its pottery along with associated ware or structural forms," said Swarnkar.

But it was the evidence of a flood at Hastinapur site that really cemented Lal's belief in the veracity of the ancient text. The dating showed that the flood happened around 800 BCE, which corroborates the text. Mahabharata mentions that a flood in the time of Nichakshu (the sixth ruler of Hastinapur starting from Yudhishthira) destroyed the city and forced its residents to flee, prompting the ruler to shift his capital to Kaushambi near Allahabad.

Artifact of a woman, left, and ring well of Mauryan era discovered in 2014, right.
Artifact of a woman, left, and ring well of Mauryan era discovered in 2014, right.

About the signs of flood now discovered in Purana Qila, Swarnkar says, "If it turns out that the deposit dates between 1100 BC and 600 BC, it would be the same time when Mahabharata mentions the floods. Since this is a different belt than Ganga, maybe the floods happened in Ganga-Yamuna-Doab belt.”

But again, the evidence of a flood is not good enough to establish that Purana Qila is the site of Indraprastha. The conclusion would be more convincing if the team finds PGW in a stratified layer besides the stray sherds they are unearthing.

"Archaeologists establish the presence of an ancient settlement from the soil layers. Each culture had a stratified layer. Though we have found sherds of PGW in various layers, we haven't found them in a stratified layer yet," said Swarnkar.

Critics would use this failure to discredit the Indraprastha theory, but Swarnkar cautions. "It's possible that we have dug up a wrong patch. Discovery of sherds means there must be a PGW settlement nearby, but not at the patch where we have dug,"

"We have to find the exact spot. It could be just hundred metres away,” he said.

Excavations were also carried out in 2014-2015.
Excavations were also carried out in 2014-2015.

In any case, excavations to find Indraprastha has never found favour with a section of historians and scholars, who smell a Hindutva project at work. Swarnkar insists that his work is not a dogged pursuit of a PGW layer to prove that Indraprastha existed. His aim, he says, is to find out how old human settlement in Delhi really is.

In a short excavation round in 2014-15 disrupted by untimely rains, Swarnkar had found a layer of simple grey ware and simple red ware underneath artifacts from the Mauryan era. He is guessing that it means a pre-Mauryan settlement existed at the site which further pushes the history of Delhi by 300 years. So it just keeps getting more intriguing.

Two views of the excavation work being carried out.
Two views of the excavation work being carried out.

As he awaits the final say on the dating of the silt deposit, Swarnkar is working to throw open the excavation site to tourists. "This mound is the only site that shows the cultural continuity of Delhi for well up to 2,500 years. We want public to see remains of different cultural eras," he said.

Residents who know their city's history only till the Sultanate, would surely be delighted. Except for the amorous couples, of course.

Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.

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