B B Lal: A Life In Search Of Truth
Dr B B Lal, recently conferred with the Padma Vibhushan, never let ideological persuasions drive academic and professional decisions.
In May, Braj Basi Lal shall be a centenarian. Popularly known as B B Lal, he has been awarded Padma Vibhushan by the Government of India.
His is a life dedicated to archaeology. With the announcement of the honour, many have pointed out to his role in unearthing the Ayodhya temple ruins.
His archaeological work on the Ramayana sites did play a crucial role in providing clinching evidence for the existence of the Sri Rama janma bhoomi temple at Ayodhya.
This was an important achievement, but just one of the many impressive feats B B Lal accomplished as one of the world’s finest archeologists.
He has contributed decisively to many arguments and puzzles in archaeology and is veritably a Sherlock Holmes of Indian archaeology.
After his first-class MA degree in Sanskrit from the Allahabad University, Lal got trained in archaeology at a camp at Taxila under Mortimer Wheeler in 1944-45.
There is also a Tamil Nadu connection as Lal also worked at Arikamedu, here too under Wheeler.
Wheeler was a towering figure and a forceful proponent of the Aryan Invasion Theory.
Notorious for his statement that “Indra stands accused of massacre at Mohenjo-Daro”, Wheeler was a classical invasion advocate in the field of archaeology. Lal thus from the early days developed an interest in the Aryan question and Harappan archaeology.
In 1959, he became the first director of the School of Archaeology where students came from all over Asia — Thailand, Nepal and Afghanistan.
In 1962, he worked in Nubia and Egypt where he could get data indicating the possibility of cotton domestication in Sudan.
In 1971, as Alexander White Visiting Professor, he taught at the University of Chicago. From 1968 to 1972, he was the director general of the Archaeological Survey of India.
He did extensive archaeological work at the Harappan site of Kalibangan, where he made major discoveries which forever changed the way we look at the Harappan civilisation.
For a long time, debates had raged regarding the direction of writing in Harappan seals. It was the keen observation of Dr Lal which provided a decisive answer to this debate.
In an impressive argument, Dr Lal pointed out, in his paper published in Antiquity in 1966, that the direction was from right to left and not left to right as many Sanskrit enthusiasts at that time desired it to be.
Here, among the inscribed potsherds, he found specimens showing overlaps of signs.
He noticed that in such cases the sign on the extreme left was overriding the one next to it on the right which in turn was overriding the one further to the right.
So this indicated that the sign on the extreme right was inscribed first and then came the others successively to the left, establishing conclusively the direction of writing in the Harappan script was from right to left.
At the same time, he was also skeptical of the attempts of Dravidian scholars like Asko Porpola who ascribed phonetic values derived from Dravidian languages to the signs.
When Asko Parpola assigned, on the principle of homophony, a V-shaped sign in Harappan seals, ‘a comitative suffix in Tamil’, otu (from 'ota' for boat), claiming that the sign was a stylised form of a boat, Lal rejected it.
Pointing out that “a study of the graffiti occurring on the potsherds at Kalibangan shows that the V-like symbol is a conventionalized form derivable most probably from the shape of a tall vase with a slightly concavo-convex profile and narrow base" than a stylised boat, he wrote that, "if the principle of ‘shape leading to sound’, followed by that of homophony, must be applied, any suggested phonetic value for this sign has to be nearer the sound for the word for a vase or pot than anything else.”
One of the convincing proofs that the Vedic and Harappan civilisations were synonymous was the fire ritual which was initially considered as being absent in Harappa and was thought to have been brought by the ‘Aryans’.
Dr B B Lal reported the discovery of fire-altars in Kalibangan. Here is what he reported in his original 1979 report:
... atop one of the platforms there lay a series of seven ‘fire-altars’ in a row. Behind these fire-altars ran a wall in a north-south direction, which shows that people had to face the east while performing rituals at these altars. The altars were oblong on plan, sunk into the ground and lined with clay. They contained ash and charcoal, besides a cylindrical and faceted clay (burnt or unburnt) stele standing up near the centre. Though in the series under discussion only fragments of what are called ‘terracotta cakes’ were obtained, elsewhere these were found in sufficient numbers showing that they formed some kind of an offering. To the west of these fire-altars lay embedded the lower half of a jar. It contained ash and charcoal and was evidently connected with the use of fire-altars. Within a few metres of these altars were a well and a few bath-pavements suggesting ablutions before the performance of a ritual - a tradition still in vogue in India amongst the Hindus.
One should remember that at the time of this discovery, Dr Lal was very much a believer in the Aryan hypothesis.
Although, from the beginning, Lal was in favour of the hypothesis that there was a gradual decline of the Harappan systems of civilisation rather than an abrupt end as Aryan Invasion scenarios suggested, despite his belief in the Aryan hypothesis.
He had started getting archaeological evidence for such sustained presence of Harappan elements in latter period discoveries.
Eventually, he became fully convinced of the Harappan-Vedic unity.
But not all are as open-minded and scientific-tempered as Lal.
Despite repeated discoveries of fire-altars, there have been Western Indologists and their Indian devotees, mostly Marxist theoreticians in history, that have questioned the discovery in an abject and pathetic display of denial.
Apart from Harappan archaeology, Lal's other passion was archaeology related to Ramayana and Mahabharata.
After leaving the ASI, he worked in Jiwali University of Gwalior and soon joined the Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, to work on his Ramayana project.
During the period 1951-52, he had carried out excavations at Hastinapura.
At the lower levels, he discovered a settlement using 'painted greyware' also called 'PGW' culture.
And there was also evidence that this PGW cultural settlement had suffered from a flood. This corroborated the account of Vayu Purana that the city of Hastinapura was destroyed by a flood and that the capital was moved to Kausambi.
Subsequent excavations at Kausambi at the lowest levels revealed the kind of degenerate PGW as was obtained from Hastinapura – clearly establishing movement of people from Hastinapura to Kausambi.
Further, in all the places associated with Mahabharata, Lal was able to obtain the PGW culture settlements.
Now, Lal started working with the Ramayana sites. The excavations included Ayodhya, Bharadwaj Ashrama, Chitrakoot etc. The results of the work provided some surprising results:
… the excavated trenches consistently revealed that the earliest settlement at Ayodhya did not go back prior to the early stage of the Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW). In these early levels, a few stray shreds of the Painted Grey Ware (PGW) were also encountered, but sure enough there was no independent horizon of the PGW. … The foregoing evidence from the various sites associated with the Ramayana story suggests that the story may not have been a mere figment of the imagination, but may have a kernel of truth at its base magnified of course through the centuries followed. The date of the episode according to the archaeological evidence is unlikely to have been earlier than 700 B.C.
These discoveries with regard to both Mahabharata and Ramayana have implications for the believers.
Clearly, if they are happy about archaeology ‘proving’ the faith, then there is a problem of archaeology also ‘proving’ or at least suggesting that Ramayana was later than the Mahabharata.
B B Lal states that when the Pandas of Ayodhya came to know of this aspect of archaeological discovery they cautioned him with a ‘danda-munda-sammelana’ – that means the staff they carried would have a meeting with the head of B B Lal.
They also organised a public meeting in which Lal was made to address the gathering.
Thankfully there was no ‘danda-munda-sammelana’. Rather, he was asked questions after questions, which he answered.
The crowd was not pleased.
But Dr Lal showed how the archaeological discoveries corroborated the verses from the epic itself.
Lal mentioning himself in third person writes:
They accepted the argument, though not completely or without murmur. Anyway, the writer thanked his stars that there was no danda-munda-sammelana.
However, the leftists who controlled the establishments like ICHR were not half as open as the religious Pandas of Ayodhya.
My first paper on the subject appeared in 1981 in Antiquity, a renowned research journal published from Cambridge, England. In 1988 the ICHR organised an international seminar in New Delhi at which I presented a 60-page paper entitled “Historicity of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana: What has archaeology to say in the matter?” Finding in it something that went counter to their views, the then authorities of the ICHR withheld the publication of the paper.
So, on October 1990, with the Ayodhya controversy also raising it head, Dr B B Lal’s paper ‘Archaeology of the Ramayana Sites Projects: Its Genesis and a Summary of Results’ was published in Manthan – the research journal of Deendayal Research Institute which was the research initiative of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Marxists, as expected, attacked the veteran archaeologist for publishing the paper in a 'communal publication' and not in a professional journal.
Much water has flown down the Sarayu since then along with the blood of the karsevaks massacred by Mulayam Singh Yadav's administration.
Today B B Lal stands vindicated regarding his discovery of pillar bases below the disputed domed structure built over the janma sthaan.
It is paradox that a paper that challenged the belief of traditional chronology placing Mahabharata before Ramayana should become the tool to establish the presence of a Sri Rama templ,e and a magazine sympathetic to Hindutva published such a paper without censoring the content.
When one compares the behaviour of the Manthan editorial board, and the openness of the Pandas of Ayodhya, with the the behaviour of the Marxist historians, who every other day preach about scientific temper, the latter smacks of dishonesty and ideological vested interest.
Had the views of B B Lal been accepted for the facts they were, it could have prevented bloodshed, loss of life and property and the fissures that we see today between the communities would probably be absent.
B B Lal himself has shown tremendous intellectual honesty in rejecting some of his own conjectures.
For example, during his Mahabharata excavation, he came across Painted Grey Ware culture as we have seen earlier.
In his report, Lal associated this PGW as the archaeological data of 'early Aryans in India'.
In fact, in many textbooks PGW became associated with 'Aryans' settling in India and credit of this discovery was given to B B Lal.
But soon all this changed.
In his inaugural address at the International Conference on South Asian Archaeology, held at University of Bologna, the archaeologist explains how:
Excavations in the middle Ganga valley threw up in the pre-NBP strata a ceramic industry with the same shapes (viz. bowls and dishes) and painted designs as in the case of the PGW, the only difference being that in the former case the ware had a black or black-and-red surface-colour, which, however, was just the result of a particular method of firing. And even the associated cultural equipment was alike in the two cases. All this similarity opened my eyes and I could no longer sustain the theory of the PGW having been a representative of the early Aryans in India.
So, the Padma Vibhushan that this great archaeologist has been honoured with, shows us not only a great archaeologist who has contributed decisively to the emergence of Sri Rama temple but also a professional with ethics of science and love of truth, who could go beyond his own hypothesis and embrace the truth through facts and not deny it for ideological vested interest.
He sets an example for all students of science, whatever may be their domain.
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