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The Tomb Raiders

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Finding Forgotten Cities: How the Indus Civilization was discovered — is a historian's excavation of an archeological quest. The writer Nayanjot Lahiri painstakingly reconstructs the rather tortuous, sometimes accidental and occasionally fumbling efforts of officers of the Archeology Survey of India in the late 19 and early 20 centuries, through which the civilization came to light, literally. It emerges in the twists and turns of this 436 page book, more by accident than design, how ASI's British and Indian officials excavated the various sites.

Lahiri's language also reflects the work of the times, maybe to better immerse the reader in the period experience. "Was Tessitori surveying the mounds of Bikaner because he believed that they too partook of the funeral character of the province's memorial monuments?" is one example. It does not detract from the narrative, rather adds to the effect of living at the time of the digs.

The book takes us through a century of digging, from the first hypothesis that the ruins date from Alexander's conquest of the region, propounded by a duo of soldiers of fortune, Masson and Burnes in the early 19th century, to the publication of an account of the city's seals in the early 20th century. These two adventurers deserted the army of the East India Company and traveled west to Afghanistan, chancing upon Harrapa. They plundered the remains taking away coins and seals.

A few decades later, the book takes us to another hypothesis, that Harappa was a Buddhist settlement, as propounded by one Alexander Cunningham, a second lieutenant in the Bengal Engineers. Cunningham thought so as there were the ruins of numerous stupas on the mounds that marked the remains of the cities. He was alarmed to see the destruction of the sites by contractors employed to build the line linking Lahore and Multan for ballast. Cunningham followed the trail of the ancient Chinese traveler Hsuan Tsang who in AD 645 journeyed all over India, leaving a wealth of documents on his travels.

We are first introduced to the ASI in 1871, when it was set up under Cunningham to map India's monuments. The intrepid engineer traveled, documented and excavated sites across India, often on foot or bullock cart, over 20 years. These early encounters whet the appetite for later events that led to the civilization's unearthing.

During his time, three Harappan seals reached the British Museum through three routes, were studies and filed in its 'cabinets of curiosities'. We get a brief glimpse of the founding of that venerable institution that has an enviable collection of antiquities taken from around the world by officers of the empire on which the sun never set.

The book leaves these early hypotheses behind and moves into the era of John Marshall, another director-general of ASI. It takes us through the roller-coaster ride of ASI's existence, budget cuts and increases and changing priorities. We learn Marshall hard-sold ASI to his government to keep it alive as part of the 'winning the hearts of the natives' strategy, that Britain was keen to do after the 1957 uprising. We read of the Indian officers of ASI whose passion was matched only by their lack of skill in the field, but who nevertheless put little pieces of the Indus civilization in place, decade by decade.

We are taken to the denouement of the great discovery when Marshall wrote a richly illustrated story for the Illustrated London News on the Harappa and Mohenjodaro excavations. This piece showed the world India has an ancient and rich civilization but offered little by way of its age. It vaguely stated the cities flourished before the Mauryan empire. This was a departure from the accepted wisdom of the time, which stated that the 'stimulus of all high culture in ancient India (emanated) from the West'.

His article set off another chain of events. A linguist Archibal Henry Sayce said the Harappan seals were akin to those found in the ancient Iranian city of Susa, dating from 3000 BC. This pushed Indian civilization back 2500 years, to Marshall's joy. It made Marshall surmise that the Indus civilisation probably gave rise to the Sumerian civilization.

It's hard not to share the archeologists' enthusiasm for their work in difficult circumstances about a century ago, as a result of which we now know our culture to be 5000 years old. Nayanjot does a beautiful job of weaving a story from manuscripts. She pulls together facts, conjectures what they must have meant to a person then, and draws a conclusion. Through book, this makes for interesting reading. There are a few digressions, as in the history of the British Museum, but you can forgive those for the narrative as a whole is quite engrossing, even for those not easily excited by history.


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 31-10-2011)