Unearthing historical vestiges
Credited with path-breaking excavations of the Harappan port of Lothal and the submerged city of Dwaraka and the `decipherment' of the Indus script, the renowned archaeologist and scholar Prof. S.R. Rao continues to work on the Indus script and marine archaeology with indomitable spirit and energy.
DWARAKA ON LAND: The Dwarkadeesh Temple and other buildings.
PROF. S.R. Rao is a renowned archaeologist and scholar who has two path-breaking excavations to his credit (both in Gujarat) namely the Harappan port of Lothal and the submerged city of Dwaraka which have fetched him laurels. One of the first, to work on the decipherment of the Indus script, he has several books to his credit besides numerous articles. S.R. Rao shows enormous enthusiasm to unearth more submerged cities (considering he is in his Seventies). . Excerpts from an interview when he visited the city recently:
What drew you into marine archaeology?
Actually we had no idea of what it meant. It was in London that Ms Taylor, a librarian at the Institute of Archaeology who was also a diver asked me to take up some work on the Indian coast in the Seventies. She pointed to some shipwrecks of which I had no idea. When I was repairing the temple of Dwarkadeesh at Dwaraka (on land) I had to demolish a modern building in front of it and I found the 9th Century temple of Vishnu. I got curious and dug further deeper (30 ft) in 1979-80 on land. We found two earlier temples, a whole wall and figures of Vishnu. We dug further and actually found eroded material of a township lying at the bottom. Then arose the question of dating the remains of the township destroyed by the sea. Thermo-luminescence dating revealed a date of 1520 B.C. The Mahabharata refers to Dwaraka and this was how we thought of marine archaeology.
How did you begin the excavations?
We had no experience in marine archaeology. It was a new discipline to India. The Indian National Science Academy (INSA) gave us some money and we went to the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), Goa, as there were some divers there and started work in 1981. Real work started in 1982. We hired boats. First we found some evidence in Beth Dwaraka island because local tradition points to the antiquity of this compared to Dwaraka.
What were the remains found at Beth Dwaraka?
According to the Mahabharata Krishna built Dwaraka at Kushasthali - a fortress in the sea which is in ruins. Then he built another at the mouth of the Gomti river. AtKushasthali (Beth Dwaraka spelt Dvaraka) we found a wall (560 metres long) visible on the shore itself. Dating of pottery found here gave a date of 1528 B.C. So we were satisfied we were on the right spot. We unearthed an important find - a seal (mudra). The Mahabharata refers to how Krishna wanted every citizen to carry some sort of identity - a mudra.
Did the mudra in a way confirm it was Krishna's Dwaraka?
ANCIENT FORTIFICATION: The long wall visible on the shore at Beth Dwaraka.
Yes. Besides plenty of pottery, we found an inscribed sherd with the following maha kacha shahapa (sea, king or protector). This is dated around 1600 B.C. while the mudra is dated to 1700 B.C. We found a 580 metre long wall.
Did you face problems getting hold of manpower and machinery?
One could not take a big ship because of shallow waters - we had to hire small boats. Another problem was divers. No archaeologist could dive. There were no underwater cameras or underwater television cameras (which had to be imported) and the NIO had the side scan sonar by which they did the survey. ). Once we even had to face a shark. The personnel had to be trained in India. We had to modify some boats to suit our needs. The position fixing is important. You may find something the previous day and the next day you should know where to go. Have the structures you found deteriorated over a period of time?
Not much since they are made of stone. Some may have fallen because of currents and cyclone. We were worried about the effect of the earthquake. Fortunately the main temple standing on the shore at Dwaraka has not been affected. So the underground remains will not be affected. In Beth Dwaraka cracks have appeared in the Dwarkadeesh temple.
How did you feel when you found Krishna's Dwaraka?
The excitement came when we found the mudra and the inscription. That was the confirming factor as by mere date one could not say it is Dwaraka. The Mahabharata mentions the city having 50 openings. We found about 25 or 30 bastions. There must be more because they must have protected the wall against currents. On the bastion invariably there are window openings. So that may be the reference.
Did this motivate you to study the epic deeply?
Not just that but other texts like the Puranas - Bhagavata, Skanda, Matsya and Vishnu which refer to Dwaraka.
Literary traditions attest to submergence of Poompuhar (Kaveripoompattinam or Kaveripattinam, the ancient Chola capital) also. How far have excavations progressed at this place?
Poompuhar is generally dated to about 2nd century A.D. But at Kaveripattinam we found a brick wharf with a wooden post dated to 3rd Century B.C. which indicates that it was a big port by then. We surveyed several kms along the shore. At 23-24 metres depth we found some stone structures along with some pottery. So there must have been a township about 4 kms inside the sea. The side scan sonar survey also showed some structures. Further work has to be done as it was only partly done.
Is some work going on at Poompuhar or anywhere else?
Nothing except at Mahabalipuram.
Do you think marine archaeology will corroborate the literary evidence like it has in the case at Dwaraka?
Yes. Further work is likely to yield very favourable evidence of the existence of Poompuhar.
How difficult is it to excavate on the east coast because it is so prone to cyclones unlike the Arabian Sea which is relatively peaceful?
Much more difficult. The sea is rough. We have limited time and the visibility is far better in the Arabian Sea. In the Bay of Bengal unless you go down to a depth of 8-10 metres depth one can't even see one's own hands.
Why is it so?
Because of suspended sand and sediments.
Why was minimal work done at Poompuhar?
The only problem was lack of funds.
What about shipwrecks and other areas being explored?
We got one shipwreck near Poompuhar, two near Lakshadweep. Nothing has been done except photographing the shipwrecks.
How old would the ships be?
What we have seen are late ones - 18th or 19th century. But for much earlier ones we have to go the West coast. How do you think funds can be channelised into archaeology? Is it purely a government initiative?
Yes it is a government initiative.
Can one get foreign funding?
We work in a sensitive area. Much of the data we collect cannot be published. Dwaraka is sensitive because it is close to Pakistan. Once one takes money from the foreigners they would be interested in seeing all the data collected.
Has marine archaeology been introduced as a course in universities?
No. The Goa University had asked me to send a proposal for the introduction of such a course. But no action was taken.
Is there a chair for marine studies in Andhra Pradesh?
Prof Gangadharan has been appointed as honorary professor. Recently a chair was sanctioned for marine archaeology. Nothing much has happened.
What can be done to improve matters in marine archaeology?
UNFLAGGING ENTHUSIAM : Prof S. R. Rao
What is urgently needed is NIO or NIOT (National Institute of Ocean Technology)
Chennai, should train some archaeologists in diving or ask the navy to do it, establish a few more divers and three four centres in such a vast area - one in Chennai or Visakhapatnam, one in Mumbai and one in Gujarat area or even in Kochi. If you have three-four centres with trained divers each one will survey their own area and some excellent results will materialise.
If this is the state of affairs what is the future of marine archaeology?
There is nobody from India on the international committee which regulates excavations. The Navy is anxious to do something but they need archaeologists. The course has to be introduced in some university (coastal universities) and people should be imparted training. With such a rich maritime heritage something should be done. We have the double advantage of having both submerged cities and shipwrecks which others do not have.
You had finished working on the Indus script before you took up Dwaraka. What do you think of all the recent attempts on the script?
I kept quiet all these years because I let people talk what they want. Even today I am still working on the script. Recently we have confirmed that it is definitely an Indo-Aryan language and deciphered. Prof. W.W.Grummond of Florida State University has written in his article that I have already deciphered it.
It is normally believed that the world's ancient scripts are deciphered through bi-lingual inscriptions?
What are you working on now?
An alphabet museum is being established most likely at Tirupati. I have worked out the whole concept. I have got copy of the seals of Lothal and a copy of the Rosetta stone from Egypt. We have decided to exhibit about 600 inscriptions in Semitic, Cuneiform, Hieroglyphics, Brahmi and Kharoshthi. The Epigraphical Society is also involved.
The Indus script keeps me busy. I am the president of Keladi (in Shimoga district) museum We are setting up an art gallery there.
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