by Diptarka Datta

In 1956, the newly established National Museum of Pakistan in Karachi, under the auspices of the Pakistan’s Department of Archaeology and the UNESCO, organized a permanent exhibition of Gandharan Buddhist artifacts, commemorating the 2500th birth anniversary of the Buddha. The Gandhara School of Art, which flourished in large parts of present-day northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan from around the second century BCE to second century CE, marked an important phase in the history of Buddhist art and iconography. However, it was primarily the Greco-Roman component of this art style and its provenance being outside the geographical limits of the new nation-state of India that provided a major incentive to many archaeologists and historians in Pakistan to claim the Gandharan legacy as their very own. In order to ensure the success of this exhibition, the National Museum loaned specimens of Gandharan sculptures from museums in other parts of Pakistan such as Peshawar, Taxila and Lahore which already had a significant number of Gandharan artifacts in their collection. The idea was to use Gandharan Buddhist sculptures to project an image of Pakistan as being a sacred Buddhist landscape in the ancient past, and therefore establish linkages with the modern-day Islamic constitution of the nation. In other words, a connected history of the new nation-state was being created and the archaeological remains associated with ancient Gandhara played a central role in such constructions, providing ideological support to the cause of the new Islamic state.

The centrality of archaeology in articulating and espousing the politics of nation states as also erstwhile empires is today undeniable. The history of archaeological research and practice is replete with cases where material culture has been used to produce origin myths, shared imaginaries of communities simultaneous with consolidating an image of the ‘other’. In eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, newly emerging nations like Germany and Italy sought the help of material cultural evidence to highlight aspects of national unity and ethnic continuity which could provide a strong foundation to their national image. On the other hand, for several ethno-linguistic communities in the erstwhile Austro-Hungarian Empire, questions of national identity and ethnic roots were key to self-determination and assertion of autonomy. Even beyond Europe, other countries engaged in similar uses of archaeology. In the erstwhile Soviet Union, for example, the concept of  “ethnos,” denoting ethnic group identity was developed much akin to the notion of archaeological cultures, identifying ethnic groups as immutable entities whose histories could be traced back seamlessly from the ancient to the contemporary period. Indeed, the use of archaeology in this context of projecting the national identity back to the past has been dubbed as “one of the main cultural successes of Archaeology”.  

This essay studies how sections of early post-colonial archaeological scholarship in India and Pakistan (1947-2000) echoed several of these tendencies. In fact, the task of creating a national identity and tracing a continuous history of the nation had already started during the anti-colonial movement in British India, with active efforts of Indian archaeologists like Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay (1885-1930), more famously identified with the discovery of Mohenjodaro, and historians like Akshay Kumar Maitreya (1861-1930). For these individuals, it was important to weave together a narrative of the nation and its people using archaeological objects and combining “scientific truths” about these objects with elements of fiction.

The creation of the two new nation states of India and Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of the Partition of 1947 provided an immediate impetus to these concerns of narrativization. The irony of the situation was of course the fact that both the nation states were creations of the politics of 1947, with their newly drawn geographical boundaries. Yet, there were interesting ways in which this irony was worked around. Even more interesting were the ways in which archaeology came to be employed in such constructions.

A section of the archaeological scholarship attempted to project an image of cultural continuity between the present and the past of the new nations. In the case of Pakistan, the need was felt to throw more light on the material culture of Pakistan which, as several authors quite rightly pointed out, had existed in the land for centuries before the political delineation of the state. In his 1950 book titled, 5,000 Years of Pakistan: An Archaeological Outline, one of the most celebrated British archaeologists of all times, Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1890-1976), wrote: “Although the presence of mankind in what is now Pakistan cannot yet be traced backwards continuously for much more than 5,000 years, it would have been in a sense excusable to entitle the handbook ‘500,000 years of Pakistan.’”

However, the challenge was perhaps to weave together these elements of material culture of the near and the distant past and connect them with the cultures of present-day communities. The challenge was also perhaps to justify the co-existence of two geographically disparate regions (erstwhile East and West Pakistan) as containing elements of the history and culture of the same country. Once again, looking at Mortimer Wheeler’s observations regarding this: “Where every condition of geography, physiography, climate and race combines to stress the separateness of West and East Pakistan, one transcendental character unites them: a common ideology, a common way of life.” Some of the most prominent of Pakistan’s archaeologists and historians, such as I.H. Qureshi, also propounded similar views in their book, A Short History of Pakistan (1967), where in fact the history of ancient Buddhism in the land was used as an unifying element to weave together the histories of the eastern and western parts of the nation.

Perhaps, it was the search for a common ideology and way of life connecting the past and the present cultures of the land that also concerned the English archaeologist-duo Frank Raymond Allchin (1923-2010) and Bridget Allchin (1927-2017), working on the archaeology of the “Indian subcontinent” as a whole. They tried addressing both these concerns (writing a connected history using material culture and looking for a unifying cultural element) in their book The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan (1982), where, according to them, archaeological cultures showed distinct traces of “typically Indian” elements. For instance, consider the following section from this book:

Both biologically and culturally the Mesolithic population, which may have been of no mean proportions, must have contributed some of the most deep-seated and—one might also say—the most Indian elements of the culture of later times. Certain attitudes and assumptions which are now regarded as typically Indian must have their origin in the culture of these people.

Moreover, archaeological cultures were compared with one another based on ideological components, as evident in the comparison drawn between the “innate conservatism” of the Mesolithic cultures of the south and the “advanced industries” of Mesolithic western and central India.

Assuming cultural continuity and drawing linkages between past archaeological cultures and present communities can often be faulty and problematic. It reduces the understanding of archaeological cultures to static and crystallized entities that have remained unchanged over time. It also fails to recognize changes taking place within communities over time. In other words, comparing present-day communities in India with Mesolithic populations in South Asia that are separated from one another by several thousands of years fails to recognize the unique and different characteristics of each cultural group. Another relevant example would be the case of the movement for Dravidian Nationalism in South India, spearheaded by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which propounded continuities between the inhabitants of Harappa and Mohenjodaro and the present-day Dravidian communities, united by a common anti-Aryan and anti-Brahmanical stance.

While archaeologists were making genuine efforts in compiling information on the material culture on both sides of the border and trying to highlight the lesser-known aspects of each region’s archaeology, the legacies of at least some of these early writings could turn out to be problematic. For instance, a relatively recent set of writings in Pakistan on the ancient history and archaeology of the country, while referring to the older works of Sir Mortimer Wheeler, rejects the view of archaeologists and historians treating the history of the Indian subcontinent as a single geo-cultural entity. Once again, while it is important to understand the geo-cultural specificities of each region and community, it is also pertinent to have a macro-perspective while assessing archaeological evidence at hand. This is owing to the dispersed nature of archaeological record in most cases and the need to gauge those channels of interactions that might have been at the root of such material achievements of the past. Therefore, the earliest evidence of stone-tool making in the Riwat region of present-day Pakistan is as significant for understanding the history of human evolution in Pakistan as it is for India. 

Moving beyond the stone ages, the issue of cultural continuity was more widely discussed and debated in the context of the Bronze Age Harappan Civilization. Spread over a wide geographical area stretching from present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan to large parts of western and northern India, and chronologically pertaining to the time period between 3300 BCE and 1300 BCE, the Harappan Civilization formed one of the largest Old-World civilizations. Archaeological sites there demonstrate a wide range of settlement units such as cities, towns, rural areas, administrative centers and others.

Two of the oldest and largest Harappan archaeological sites known till 1947, namely Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, lay within the geographical limits of the nation state of Pakistan. Given the near world-wide fame that these two sites had gained since the official announcement of their discovery in 1924 by Sir Mortimer Wheeler himself and the parallels they offered to the hallowed Old World civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia in terms of socio-cultural complexity and sophistication, it would seem equally lucrative for both Pakistan and India to claim the Harappan culture sites as part of their patrimony. And so, they did!

In the case of Pakistan, the claims to Harappan heritage were made easier owing to geographical convenience and would thus often be expressed in more direct and explicit terms. For instance, as noted by the Pakistani archaeologist A.H. Dani, “West Pakistan is the child of the Indus.” At the same time, for Indian archaeologists also, it was important to discuss the Harappan culture sites of Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and the other adjoining regions in the northwest as integral components of “Indian heritage” despite their being located outside the political boundaries of “India.” Indeed, as Dilip K. Chakrabarti, one of the most prominent Indian archaeologists writing on Indian Archaeology, noted in the introduction to his book India, An Archaeological History: “The ‘India’ of this book is the Sanskrit Bharatvarsha, the subcontinent as a whole” (2009).

Indeed, almost the entirety of archaeological scholarship on India discussed the Harappan culture which offered its own set of attractions: the earliest known evidence of advanced sanitation and urban planning, the earliest traceable evidence of a literate culture or even the earliest traces of an Indian religion or Indian art. This also perhaps fueled an urge among at least a section of Indian archaeologists as well as state officials to explore new sites pertaining to the Harappan culture that fell within the geographical limits of India, and at the same time could compare with Harappa or Mohenjo-Daro in terms of size and cultural complexity. Thus, archaeological explorations in this case would be guided by scientific principles and established practices and yet, be driven by the ideological benefits of discovering a new Harappan site of “India’s own”! Therefore, the discovery of the Harappan sites of Rakhigarhi, Dholavira and Lothal came to be (and are still) much celebrated archaeological discoveries in the Indian archaeological as well as public circles. Politics also underwrote the claims by certain Indian archaeologists to rename the Harappan civilization as the “Sindhu-Sarasvati civilization,” a name that was believed to represent better the crucial role of the lost “Sarasvati” river (mostly referring to the older stream of the Ghaggar-Hakra) in nurturing the Harappans. This was often in disregard of the archaeological convention of naming archaeological cultures after the “holotype site” or “region” where the first vestiges of that culture had been discovered. Moving a step ahead from here, the argument would be to identify the Harappan cultures of the “Sarasvati River Valley” as different from the inhabitants of the “Sindhu River Valley” (Sindhu meaning Indus) and then identify the former groups with the “Rigvedic Aryans.”

It was only in the last three decades of the twentieth century that archaeologists became more critical and aware of the close relationships between their disciplinary practices and the politics of the time. The development of critical theoretical approaches within archaeological thought paved the way for further self-reflection with the shaping up of interpretive and critical archaeological approaches. A large section of the archaeologists in this period became interested in exploring the social and political implications of archaeological research, leading to newer research themes such as protests in archaeological sites and monuments, gender archaeologies, archaeologies of race, colour and religion and the archaeologies of nationalism. The idea of archaeology as an objective and positivist science, based on material remains of the past that claimed to provide definitive information about the subject of inquiry, is now being increasingly questioned. As Michael Shanks observed, “No archaeologist in the 1990s remains unaware of the connection their work may have with political interests, though many wish to deny it and maintain ideas of academic neutrality.” Thus, while the relationships between archaeology and nationalism could be observed since the beginning of the nineteenth century, a critical engagement with such themes within the archaeological scholarship gains a more emphatic and sustained thrust from the latter half of the twentieth century. While twenty-first century archaeological scholarship has moved beyond these initial assumptions and practices of the post-colony that were discussed in this essay, some of the texts cited here continue to serve as essential readings in university courses on archaeology and ancient Indian history across India. Similarly, the use (or abuse) of archaeology for political motives continues to be a reality in present-day India. Popular culture is replete with examples where archaeology and archaeologists are projected in a way to prove or disprove certain existing myths and legends related to specific communities and political groups. Our reading has to be conscious and perceptive of the ‘when’ and ‘how’ such politicization, and therefore realize the temporality of archaeology produced therein.

Diptarka Datta is a Graduate Consultant Archaeologist at WSP India, Noida. He completed his Masters in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology from Deccan College Post-graduate and Research Institute, India, in 2022. His research interests include digital archaeology, geospatial analyses of archaeological data, and heritage management issues facing monuments in India. Beyond his professional engagements, Diptarka is also a practising vocalist and an avid reader.

Edited by Rajosmita Roy

Featured image: Display of the art of Gandhara in the Linden Museum, Wikimedia Commons.