Young World

Unearthing the past

It may be beyond belief, but plans were indeed made to demolish and sell the Taj Mahal for its marble. Fortunately, this bizarre idea, proposed by Lord Bentinck during the 1820's, was dropped and the priceless heritage was saved. At that time, there were no legislations to deter such moves or a dedicated institution to protect important monuments in the country.

It was only in 1904, after the arrival of Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India and a heritage enthusiast, that an Act was passed to protect monuments. Alongside, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), an organisation dedicated to the conservation of monuments was put on a firm footing. Since then, the ASI has been successfully conducting excavations, rediscovering the past and safeguarding important heritage structures. Currently, there is an ASI office — almost one in every state, and together they protect approximately 3675 heritage sites of national importance.

The formation of the ASI is a culmination of two centuries of effort and passionate commitment to understand India's history. It began in 1764, when antiquarians such as William Jones, started the Asiatic Society of Bengal to research and publish accounts on Indian antiquities. New finds and breakthroughs kept up the interest and the enthusiasm grew among scholars and public alike.

For instance, James Prinsep, the Secretary of the Society in the 1830's, deciphered the Brahmi script and unravelled the Asokan edicts. It was a significant and critical moment. Research on Buddhist sites such as Sanchi Stupa, Bharhut and Mahabodi followed and a methodical study of inscriptions was taken up.

The need for a formal organisation to professionally pursue these interests was strongly felt. In February 1871, the ASI — as we now know it — was created as a government department. The credit for this goes to Alexander Cunningham, who was then working with the Bengal Engineers. He was appointed as its first Director General — exactly 140 years ago.

Survey of monuments, preservation of old sites and excavations were extensively undertaken. Site museums were setup and annual reports announcing new finds were regularly published.

The formal announcement of the discovery of Indus Valley civilisation in 1924, by John Marshall, the then Director General of ASI, was momentous and “in a single bound” pushed the antiquity of the Indian civilisation “some three thousand years earlier”.

Between 1944 and 1948 under the stewardship of Mortimer Wheeler, a lot of attention was paid to training archaeological personnel and the implementation of scientific methods in excavations. After Independence, the responsibility of protecting monuments was shared between the Central and State governments. The ASI takes care of monuments that are considered nationally important, while each State, through it's respective archaeological departments protects state level monuments.

It is estimated that there are more than 50,000 important monuments in India. Unfortunately, so far, both the ASI and the

state governments together have managed to protect only 7000. Apart from the existing structures, there are many new sites that await excavation. Much of the precious past remains unearthed.

People who made a difference

There are many renowned Indian archaeologists and some even served as Director Generals of the ASI during the colonial period. John Marshall might have made the discovery of Indus valley sites famous through his article in The Illustrated London News in 1924, but there were two Indian archaeologists who conducted important excavations and supported his conclusions. Between 1921 and 1922, R.D. Banerjee explored Mohenjodaro and Daya Ram Sahni excavated Harappa. Both the archaeologists found remarkable resemblance between the two sites, and realised that they were part of a common civilisation. M. S. Vats, another noted archaeologist, joined the excavations after 1924. In 1937, K.N. Dikshit became the Director General of the ASI and conducted important excavations in Ahichchhatra. After Independence, N.P. Chakravarti succeeded Sir Mortimer Wheeler as the head of the ASI.

Preserving the past

The concept of conservation and protecting old structures is not new to India. Jeernodhara or renovating existing structures was practised for a long time. Even today, repair and restoration of temples which are in use continues. But there is a difference between conservation as it is practised by the ASI and in other places.

In 1902, John Marshal outlined the policy for conservation and his manual is still considered important by archaeologists. The key principles are that reconstruction of missing parts of the monument based on conjectures should be discouraged, original parts of a monument must be preserved in tact and only when skilled artisans are available should restoration of carved work be taken up. And finally, no mythological or other scenes should be reworked in a monument



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Printable version | May 4, 2021 10:26:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/kids/Unearthing-the-past/article12060944.ece

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