Archaeology is no more the handmaiden of history

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Dr. A.P. Jamkhedkar is today one of the most respected names in Indian archaeology for the wide range of field experiences in various sub-branches of archaeology, such as temple architecture, rock-cut caves, excavation and exploration, art history and Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions. Having studied and taught Sanskrit and Ardhamagadhi, and having done a Ph.D on the topic of ‘Vasudavahandi: A cultural tradition’ he acquired the proficiency to handle with equal ease both literary and archaeological sources for the reconstruction of history.
From 1977 to 1997 he was the Director of Archaeology and Museums in the state of Maharashtra. He has been associated in senior consultative roles with prestigious institutions and has over 12 books and 60 odd academic articles to his credit. At present he is the Chancellor of Deccan College, Pune, and the Chairman of Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), New Delhi. Raamesh Gowri Raghavan in conversation with Dr. Jamkhedkar.

You are the first archaeologist appointed to head the ICHR. What perspectives and approaches are you bringing to ICHR?

Archaeology is no more the handmaiden of history. When we take into consideration the various evolutionary stages of archaeological studies, we can understand the role played by classical archaeology, new archaeology, contextual archaeology, and cognitive archaeology. If you see India in the light of these developments, persons like John Marshall and the generation of scholars trained by him and Mortimer Wheeler, have added a lot to our understanding of ancient India — protohistoric and early historic, through excavations.

You said, “Archaeology is no more the ‘handmaiden of history’’. So what role does archaeology play in Indian History?

Prof. H.D. Sankalia (of the Deccan College) and his colleagues are a different generation, and indicate a different approach to the study of the past. Prof. Sankalia had been initiated in archaeology in the University of London by Prof. F. J. Richards, who was famous for his studies that tried to evaluate the role of geographical factors in India’s historic past. When Sankali came back from England after completing his thesis on the archaeology of Gujarat, he introduced a new method: of understanding the history of a region from the archaeological point of view.

He was very much perplexed to see that in Indian prehistory, we don’t have any prehistoric man or his remains, as were identified in Africa, Europe, or coming to the nearer regions, in Indonesia (Java Man), or for that matter even in China (Peking Man). Though researchers in the Himalayas as also in peninsular India clearly showed that man had inhabited, if not all the parts of India, at least the peninsular and sub-Himalayan regions.

Recognising this lacuna in the understanding of prehistoric man in India, he assigned different regions of India to all those students who came to him and aspired to work in prehistoric archaeology: The Tungabhadra-Malaprabha valleys (Karnataka), Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Assam. With this collaborative effort, in his seminal work Prehistory and Protohistory of India & Pakistan, he gave a fairly good picture by the 1960s of prehistoric India right from the early palaeolithic, mesolithic, neolithic, and even megalithic period. Like the picture of India drawn by Sankalia on the basis of archaeology for prehistoric India, he initiated studies of historic India through a systematic study of the epigraphs of a given region. After his archaeology of Gujarat, he delivered the Bhagwanlal Indraji Lectures in the University of Mumbai that were published later on as Historical, Geography and Cultural Ethnography of Gujarat. In his study of Gujarat, Prof. Sankalia put to scrutiny all the names of villages, cities, geographical units and administrative units referred to in the inscriptions. This not only helped to understand initially the naming patterns current in different sections of society, but the professions held by these respective persons, shedding light on the social history of the times, right from the times of Ashoka.

Because of the initiative taken by Prof. Sankalia up till now, studies in the inscriptions of the following regions have been completed: The Deccan (Dr. Sumati Mule), Rajasthan (Dr. Lele), Madhya Pradesh (Dr. Shobhana Gokhale), Uttar Pradesh (Dr. M. M. Mathur), Tamil Nadu (Pallava inscriptions by Dr. T. K. Seshadri and Chola inscriptions by Dr. B. Suresh Pillai), and the Konkan (inscriptions of the Shilaharas) by Dr. Binda Paranjpe. This type of study of inscriptions and the study of actual sites and mounds is going to help not only to understand the revenue system of a given time in a better way, but also to choose individual key sites for historical archaeology.

What other areas is the ICHR planning to focus on?

There are some other areas which seem to have been, if not neglected, only sparsely touched upon by individual studies of historians. One such is the environmental history of India. The ICHR has envisaged that it will publish this history of India in six volumes. The first volume of this series is now ready and soon will go to the press. There is another area which has remained not completely understood, and that is the economic conditions of the pre-modern states, or princely states of colonial India. the economic conditions of the pre-modern states, or princely states of colonial India.

A history of the sciences in India by Dr. M. D. Shrinivas is under preparation, and the first volume will be released soon. Many aspects of cultural history, like sports and games, also need to be looked into, as history is often taken to be political history.

What are the lacunae in Indian history and archaeology that you see?

An area which has been totally neglected is that of the history of the so-called ‘tribals’ or tribal states of India. To give an example, as per the belief of the members of the Gond community of the Deccan and Central India and certain amateur historians, the antiquity of the Gond Kings can go back to 800 AD. Whatever little we know of their history is in the form of oral tradition, bakhars and archival records scattered in historical records of the Mughals, state archives and private collectors, as well as a number of monuments. All this material for the reconstruction of their history, with the help of tangible and intangible heritage left by them will have to be pieced together by linguists, ethnographers and archaeologists together. Similar can be said to be the case of the Ahoms and Dimasas of Assam. The histories of these tribes deserve to be mainstreamed.

Like the history of tribal communities, there are many small dynasties which rarely figure in the volumes like the series of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. The ICHR would like to encourage scholars taking up detailed histories of small dynasties in all periods, underlining their contribution to the political and cultural history of India. For example, from my personal experience, the Traikutakas of Western India, the Konkan Mauryas, the Vilivayakuras of southern Maharashtra, Chhatrasal and the Bundelas of Bundelkhand, the Holkars of Indore, the Gaekwads of Baroda, the Bhonslas of Nagpur etc., do not feature in a big way in nationwide history. Similarly, there are some historical personages like Yashovarman, Harishena, Rana Kumbha, Bajirao I, Sayana and Madhava, whose significant contribution have to be underlined. The cultural and social significance of religious figures like Chakradhar Swami (Mahanubhava movement), Ramanuja, Adishankara, Swami Narayan and the movements they started, have to be studied.

These and similar types of studies based on oral traditions, such as the ballads of Rajasthan, deserve to receive a systematic treatment at the hands of serious scholars. Similarly, regional sources of history, such as bakhars, need to be brought into mainstream by translation into other languages. For example, V.K. Rajwade, the eminent Marathi historian, has published 26 books on the sources of Maratha history.


Raamesh Gowri Raghavan

Raamesh Gowri Raghavan is a freelance digital marketing and content professional with 11 years of experience. His interests include the history of tea and coffee, board games and ancient scripts. He also teaches archaeology and epigraphy at the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies, University of Mumbai.

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