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Why is saving history so difficult in India?

Heritage theft, vandalism and lack of state-of-the-art research laboratories stand in the way of archaeological conservation in the country

Deccan College's team at work in Rakhigarhi, Haryana. Courtesy: Nilesh Jadhav/Deccan College
Deccan College's team at work in Rakhigarhi, Haryana. Courtesy: Nilesh Jadhav/Deccan College (Deccan College)

In India, archaeological conservation comes with a host of challenges, the main ones being theft and vandalism. But these are certainly not the only ones. One big challenge can be the location of a prospective dig on private land. Last year, evidence of the Ochre Coloured Pottery (OCP) culture (about 2100-1900 BCE) was found in Chandayan, near Bharwana, Uttar Pradesh, but with the land still under cultivation, the Archaeological Survey of India team has not been able to begin excavation. 

However, the Ratnagiri survey by the directorate of archaeology and museums, Maharashtra, sets an example of how locals can be made stakeholders in heritage conservation. Many of the 1,200 petroglyphs [rock art created by chiselling or carving, which bridge a huge gap in Konkan history—acting as a link between the Stone Age and the advanced use of fused iron] have been found on privately-owned land. The proposal is to declare the landholder the guardian of the monument under a monument adoption scheme. 

It has been seen that natural elements, water-flow and human vandalism pose great threat to such archaeological sites. So, the directorate team has been visiting gram panchayat offices and educational institutions to help build a public trust. In Ukshi village in Ratnagiri, local people and the authorities came together to protect a huge carving of an elephant before it was declared a protected monument.

Also read: How digging up the past helps us understand the present

Then there is the paucity of research facilities. In India, labs don’t have the latest research techniques, such as ceramic residue lipid analysis. Archaeologists either have to send their samples to labs abroad or collaborate with international universities. And that is why reports and analysis of excavations take time. “With labs located outside the country, one might get results 20 years later for an excavation that has happened today,” says Kurush Dalal, director, INSTUCEN School of Archaeology, Mumbai. Also, in Indian conditions, it is often next to impossible to extract markers like DNA, which deteriorate over time. “Hence it is amazing that Prof. Vasant Shinde and his team were able to recover Harappan DNA in a place like Rakhigarhi,” adds Dalal.

A possibly unanticipated challenge comes from political factions. As soon as analysis starts revealing data that doesn’t suit a particular narrative, controversy blooms around it, or an attempt to appropriate aspects of history begins. As Dilip Menon, who is Mellon Chair of Indian Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, wrote in his November 2020 article for Scroll, “In independent India, the politics of the religious reinvention of sites has always contended with the idea of the archaeological jurisdiction of the government. Was a site or object religious, therefore belonging to the “people” or was it “heritage” in which case the government had first rights?…. However, it would require a fine filter indeed to separate archaeology from the politics of the world.”

Also read: Amitav Ghosh explores the hidden history of climate change

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