With many thousand kilometres of coastline, an ocean named after it, and maritime activity dating back to the Harappan era, there’s no question that a lot of India’s history lies underwater.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has had its eye on underwater explorations since the mid-1970s, with an Underwater Archaeology Wing (UAW) officially in existence since 2001. But the significant findings, such as the discovery of man-made structures off the coast of Dwarka, have tended to originate from autonomous bodies like the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), where a handful of explorers have always borne a disproportionate workload.
In 1990, S.R. Rao, named the father of marine archaeology in India, who supervised the Dwarka dives, observed that ‘five diving archaeologists is too small a number for a country of the size of India.’ Almost 30 years later, even after the UAW sensibly shifted operations from land-locked Delhi to Goa about a year ago, that number is down to a paltry three.
Meanwhile, our hyper-politicised approach to history continues to weigh down what ought to be one of the most exciting professions around.
Kishore Raghubans is in charge of the UAW at its new address in Goa. He runs the Archaeological Museum, housed in the now-defunct Convent of Saint Francis of Assisi, just across the road from the Basilica of Bom Jesus. The double-role is ironic, for it relegates the UAW’s fresh start to a dungeon-like office in the bowels of a literal museum. In these all-too-roomy and deserted environs, I meet Raghubans, who has no illusions about the state of affairs. “I have been given additional charge of the UAW,” he explains, “but as of now I am the only member. We need new members and we need to train them. I myself am not trained in underwater archaeology. Recently, I was supposed to go to China for training, but at the last moment the permissions didn’t come through. I don’t know why.”
So, it isn’t surprising that when I ask him if the UAW has any upcoming projects, perhaps in Goa, where the shipping history dates back to the Kadamba dynasty in the 10th century, he would rather not commit himself.
“Dives follow archival references. For example, one book which has helped me is Radha Kumud Mukherjee’s Indian Shipping: A History of Seaborne Trade and Maritime Activity of the Indians from the Earliest Times . There is a lack in contemporary writing; not enough research is published. So, the UAW now needs to compile a database of all the work done so far. We should organise a conference where scientists and institutions from around the country can present their work. After that, we can pinpoint locations for more exploration.”
“We also lack in interpretation,” he continues, “Our way of looking has not changed since colonial times. In the West, for example, archaeology is seen as a tool, or a technique, to be used in history and anthropology — to tell the story of human society.”
But when history itself is made a tool for the consolidation of power — that is, for politics — then it must drive a conscientious researcher to despair. When I mention the Ram Setu case as being the last time the public was made excited about underwater archaeology, Raghubans is distressed. “You can’t first decide your conclusions and then look to use science to support it.”
Before I leave, I ask him how he plans to get his training, now that the China visit is off. “It’ll have to be on-the-job training. I hope to visit some sites in Odisha, Goa and Gujarat, accompanying the NIO scientists.”
In the fashionable Dona Paula suburb of Panjim, the NIO presents a study in contrast. Landscaped lawns, gleaming floors and rows of well-appointed cabins stand bathed in sunshine and sea-breeze. In one corridor of this complex are the offices of A.S. Gaur, Sundaresh, and Sila Tripathi, the country’s three notable underwater archaeologists.
Freedom to achieve
I meet Gaur. “Marine archaeology is only one aspect of what the NIO does,” he says. “But the Institute has given us a lot of freedom. Sometimes people are surprised. Can three people do so much work, they wonder. But you have to do something to justify your job!”
Among the trio’s many publications is one that details the exploration of two shipwrecks off the Goan coast. The finds from a 17th century wreckage in the Sunchi Reef throws light on the Indo-Portuguese trade of the time: Martaban pottery, used to transport water, oil and food grains, the bases of glass bottles likely used for wine or olive oil, hippopotamus teeth and elephant ivory from Mozambique, intended for carving and sculpting.
Another, newer wreck in St. George’s Reef yielded various artefacts used in house construction: bricks, tiles, drainage pipes. All these appear to have been manufactured in the 19th century by the Basel Mission Company, a missionary outfit that set up factories in Mangalore and further down the coast, and clearly played a key role in transferring modern techniques to indigenous industries.
For a marine archaeologist, explains Gaur, shipwrecks and settlements are the richest source of material. But only a tiny fraction of ships that sink will survive as explorable wrecks, which must then be located, typically with the help of local fishermen. Therefore, he stresses the importance of employing marine archaeology in fields other than history, such as geography and ecology, to test the stability of coasts and the rise and fall of sea levels. Such inquiries may not make sensational news, but they tell us real truths about the behaviour of the sea, and about human adaptation.
There appear to be no imminent plans to study more wrecks along the Goan coast, although undoubtedly many lie undiscovered, in areas of submerged reefs and shoals (in 2010, a British steamship wreck was explored in one such). “At present I am looking at the Rann of Kutch,” says Gaur, “to learn more about the Harappan sites there, and the relationship of the Rann with human settlements. If we decipher the Indus Valley script, that will open up many more avenues too. Mahabalipuram needs more work as well. We had uncovered some structures with linear alignments, which appear man-made, but what was their purpose, we need to see.”
In fact, there is much to be studied all along our coasts. “India needs at least a hundred marine archaeologists. It would help to have more of a diving culture, which we lack. We could also,” he suggests, “open up underwater sites for tourism. But I hope the UAW attracts more members now.” He also suggests an internship programme to get young people involved. “At first, underwater archaeology feels dangerous. But once you get used to it, it becomes natural and peaceful. I would even say, there are more dangers on land,” he adds. When I ask him why, he smiles and says, “There are human beings on land.”
The writer has authored three novels, but would be quick to admit that truth is stranger than fiction.