Book Review: Artefacts of History

In Sudeshna Guha’s account of archaeology, Western experts relied on foreigners’ accounts to construct India’s history, notes Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

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Book: Artefacts of History
Author: Sudeshna Guha
Publisher: Sage
Pages: 273
Rs: 995

Sunday, 30 August 2015 – 7:35am IST
DNA
Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Sudeshna Guha traverses a dense terrain of how British and other antiquarians in India and in the Near East (West Asia) discovered their penchant for excavating ancient sites and their remains, which transformed in the first half of the 20th century into the discipline of archaelogy.

The archaeological turn in India, Guha shows, is actually a consequence of the 1836 French translation of Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Faxian, who was in India between 399 CE and 414 CE. H.H. Wilson, one of the early Indologists then conceived the project of tracing the “historical geography of ‘Buddhist India”. She says that the British and Western antiquarians relied upon “foreign accounts”, of the Romans (Pliny and Strabo) and the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims and relegated the indigenous epigraphic evidence to construct the history of ancient India.

Guha notes that archeology is a national project, which is used to establish the glorious national pasts. She illustrates the nationalist appropriation with the responses in India to the excavations at Mohenjodaro and Harrappa, which brought to light the pre-Vedic Indus Valley civlisation, before and after Independence.

She notes that the discoveries at Mohenjodaro and Harrapa came at the time of the Khilafat Movement and the rising tide of nationalist sentiment. She cites the Amrita Bazar Patrika writing in its edition of 1 January 1925 as an example of this sense of pride: “Formerly, archaeologists and historians asserted that the civilisation of India did not go much beyond 1200 B.C., but now these explorations have furnished us with monumental evidence which shows that it is as ancient as any in Asia.”

But the Indus Valley story takes a different turn after Independence when the most important sites of Mohenjadaro and Harappa fell into the new state of Pakistan, and India is left looking for signs of the Indus Valley civilisation on this side of the border. Guha notes: “In 1950, H.D. Sankalia presented a proposal for the archaeological explorations of the Narmada Valley to the Archaeological Survey specifically for rectifying the historical loss of Sind and Punjab where the earliest traces of city-civilisations were unearthed.”

Here is a scrupulously argued book about the state of archaeological scholarship, its underlying presumptions and politics. Guha exemplifies the true spirit of scholarship.

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