Vishnukant Kulsheshtra ,working with Archaeological Survey of India interviewed by Aakansha Malia (2016)
About the intern: Aakansha Malia is pursuing a major’s degree in history and minors in political science from Miranda house college, Delhi University. Along with having a strong appetite for novels, she is a history & travel buff (would love to backpack through New York one day)and a food enthusiast.
INTRODUCTION AND HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE OLD FORT
Delhi’s history is often spoken of in terms of its seven cities. These were fortified settlements, established by various rulers between the 11th and 17th centuries, now swallowed by the sprawling city of today. The Purana Qila, a 16th century fort near the south eastern edge of the city. There are monuments in Delhi older than this Qila which are certainly more impressive in terms of their architecture. But it’s unlikely there exists another place where history runs as deep as it runs here. Excavations by archaeological survey of India and Indian archaeological society reveal that this fort area was inhabited not only by the Mughals but in a five preceding time frame, starting from the Mauryan Dynasty till the British. Also after collating the archaeological as well as the literary data found, archaeologists and researchers believe that somewhere under the Qila lies the remains of a legendary city of Indraprastha which is civilizational of sorts, founded by the glorious Pandava brothers. The aura of this city has enticed kings and governments from the starting of urbanization as we start to trace back its history.
A Mughal chronicler from the time mentions that Humayun’s fort was built on the hallowed site of Indraprastha, a story that sits in the shimmering realm between myth and history. The city Indraprasth appears in one of the India’s foundational Sankrit epic poems of the Mahabharata as the capital city established by its heroes known as Pandava Brothers. What better way for a ruler to claim legitimacy than to rule from this proto-capital? Remains of fortification that pre-dated Humayun’s rule have been found here probably credited by other kings, perhaps struck by the same idea. Myth or reality, the idea of Indraprastha is now embodied in the Purana Qila and together they have borne witness to some of the most significant moments in the history of India’s capital.
The purana Qila was constructed by Humayun and Sher Shah. The old fort complex covers an area of about a mile with its walls having three gates, surrounded by a moat fed by Yamuna river. During its construction the strategical location was kept in mind. The double storied gates of the Purana Qila are said to be built by Humayun while the buildings inside the complex are attributed to Sher Shah Suri. The fort was supposedly unlucky for these rulers. Akbar did not rule from here and Shah Jahan built a new fort in delhi called Lal Qila.
When Edwin Lutyens designed the new capital of British India, New Delhi in the 1920s, he aligned the central vista, now Rajpath, with Purana Qila. The Qila was forgotten for a while after the Humayun’s rule, and then remembered by the British. During the Second World War there was a camp of thousands of Japanese civilians from across British-ruled Asia. During partition of India and Pakistan, This fort along with the neighboring Humayun’s tomb became the site for refugee camps for Muslims migrating to newly founded Pakistan. The camp remained functional till early 1948, as the trains to Pakistan waited till October 1947 to start.
The walls of the Fort rise a height of several meters and have three arched gateways the Bara Darwaza (Big Gate) facing west, which is still in use today; the south gate, also popularly known as The Humayun Gate (probably because constructed by Humayun or perhaps because Humayun’s tomb is visible from there) and lastly the Talaqi Gate often known as the forbidden Gate. All the the gates are double storied, sandstone structures surrounded by two huge semi circular bastions towers, decorated with white and coloured marbles inlays the blue tiles of the mosque. They are replete with detailing, including ornate Jharokas topped by pillared pavilions, all features that are reminiscent of the fusion of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture. Despite the grandeur of the exterior, few of interior structures have survived including the Qila-Kuhna mosque and Sher Shah Mandal, both credited to Sher Shah.
The Qila now stands in a landscape and is surrounded by a Zoo, and the moat is a stop for boating beside from history enthusiasts and couples seeking privacy from the crowded city, few enter the red sandstone gate between the fort stout bastions.
IN CONVERSATION WITH VISHNUKANT KULSHESHTRA, WORKING WITH ARCHAEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF INDIA:
Q1 From which college have you completed your graduation from, what were your favorite subjects?
(Laughs and says that now he’s retiring in the coming month and I am reminding him of his college days by asking this question). I have completed my graduation from Agra University in 1971.
Q2 What was your subject in graduation?
I was from a science background since plus 2 and completed by bachelors in science from the university listed above. But after that I completed my masters in Ancient Indian history and Culture. After this I went for a post graduation diploma in archaeology from institute of Archaeology at Archaeological survey of India’s Headquarters.
Q3 Why did you choose archaeology as your career?
During those days we did not have career counselors and knowledgeable people who could guide us about our career paths. We had to take decisions on our own. During those times there was a trend and also a kind of charm associated with working in the government sector, so after completing my masters in ancient history and culture, despite from belonging to a science background I applied for the master’s course in archaeology. Also later I realized that a mixture of knowledge and understanding I gained from both history as well as chemistry helped build up and improve my analyzing skills required in this demanding profession.
Q4 Initially have you worked as an apprentice with other senior archaeologists?
YES, of course yes, after I completed my PG diploma in archaeology, students were given various assignments for field work which enabled them to gain practical exposure and applying the techniques and knowledge which they learned in class rooms. So during this time we worked as apprentice archaeologists under our professors and other senior archaeologists and engaged in all kind of labor work which helped us learn and gather experience.
Q5 Have you had a mentor or any kind of inspiration which has helped you come to this position?
I have worked under B.B. Lal several times because of the projects given to me by the government. I am so glad that I have been given the chance to work with one of the greatest archaeologists and pioneer which India has had. He has been my inspiration and I have always looked up to him. He became the director general just at the age of 27, so what can be more inspiring than this. Also, he has done several discoveries of the Indus valley civilization which is now being published in school textbooks.
Q6 How does the site formation take place, why do you select a particular area for your excavation?
This process is very difficult as it involves a lot of research which cannot happen overnight, it goes on for 2 3 years and then the government passes proposals which comes to us, asking us to dig that particular place. It’s a long process. Moreover this site which may have had a history of settlements or maybe agricultural fields are usually located near rivers and springs which was a primary requirement for the human beings. After several decades when the humans started acquiring sedentary lifestyle and started settling down at one place it was essential for them to find appropriate fertile land for cultivation. That’s how settlements thrive. But after a period of time, say 100-200 years due to various reasons such as climatological fluctuations, flood, drought, overutilization of resources or clan revolts and tensions the settlement was left abandoned and people either dies or migrated. The objects that are left behind, like the wattle daub houses, their utensils etc. take the shape of a mound after they get perished over a lot of period of time. These are the various antecedents which enables us to choose a particular place to start our excavation. Apart from this it also involves research and collaboration of both literary works of the time frame involved with the architectural artefacts found.
Q7 You have done diggings at various places. What were your findings?
The exploration wing sought to undertake an excavation at Purana qila both under B.B.Lal and B.R.mani. Trial trenches at 3 points in the lower level of the mound had been excavated which indicated that the earliest settlements here might have begun around 1000BC. Our objective was to obtain the complete sequel of occupation at the sight backwards from the period of Humayun. During this field season the excavation without reaching the natural soil progressed to a depth of about 9m from the surface, where Mauryan levels were encountered. From the Mauryan levels upwards the sequence of occupation was found to run through Sunga, Kushana, Gupta, Post Gupta, Rajput and Delhi Sultanate periods to the Mughal.
The Mauryan period was characterized by the occurrence of 1) Mud floor 2) Northern Black Pottery Ware 3) Grey terracotta Figurines both human and animal 4) Unsubscribed caste copper coins 5) a clay ceiling bearing such motifs arched hill, tree and a hollow cross
The Sunga Period was marked by the presence of 1) The remains of rubble structure belonging to 2 distinct phases 2) typical miniature bowl with incurved ends. 3) Terracotta plaques depicting Mithuna standing female deity identified as lakshmi with a few moulds representing female figures. 4) Various types of beads 5) two terracotta ceilings reading Dhamma and Katakara. Sherds of the NBPW were also found.
The Saka Kushana period was distinguished by the structural remains of bricks in opne of the houses, remains of a flight of steps. The pottery which mainly consisted of a red ware of medium fabric showed some interesting decorative designs consisting of spirals, Srivatsa, swastika and fish symbols. Among the forms Kushana Bowls and sprinklers were present throughout the deposit. Other important finds of the period comprised 1) copper coins of the muthara kings Kushana and Yaudhayas. 2) Bone dice of various types 3) terracotta plaques and figurines showing deity and animals, a small Yaksha figure prepared out of a double mould turban head bearing a mark of urn on forehead.
The Gupta period was represented principally by the remains of brick structures showing 3 to 4 structural phases. A noteworthy structural feature of the pd. was the change in the orientation of the houses which were constructed out of the reused bricks of the earlier period. Amongst the notyable finds mentioned are 1) moulded pottery including a lid bearing the representation of klnnara 2) damaged terracotta female figurine 3) 3 Terracota seals bearing the outline of a conch above and a legend Gopasya below and on the remaining Jetam Bhagvata and Shri Traividya respectively. The legend in each case was in gupta brahmi character.
The post Gupta was marked by the presence of a few structures with sagging walls made of reused bricks. The associated pottery was mainly a Red ware in which the knife edged bowl was a distinctive type.
The Rajput period was characterized by structure built of reused bricks as also of mud bricks. One of the house walls showed alternate courses of baked and mud bricks. Mud floors with hearths were also encountered in some houses. The most impressive structure of the period however was a fortification wall belonging perhaps to the time of the Tomars, built of rubble with a basal width of 1.5m. other significant finds of the period included 1) copper coins of the bull and horsemen type 2) crude terracotta figurines 3) terracotta beads 4) assured with damaged Nagari inscription and 5) ornate moulded bricks, the associated pottery was mainly of red and balck ware Occasionly decoratedstamps and incised designs. The Nuckle design being a common feature on the rims of the vases.
The Sultanate was represented with houses of reused bricks built over the debris of earlier structures. Some of the houses were found to be built of partly dressed rubble. A significant feature of the period was the use of glazed ware both of sandy friable as also of normal texture. Coins of Balban and Feroz shah Tughlaq were also obtained from the associated stata.
The Mughal period was represented principally by a huge pit cut into the deposit of the sultanate and earlier periods and a few structures of dressed rubble built in different alignment. The distinctive ceramics of the period included 1) glazed ware 2) a deluxe egg shell thin ware with elaborately decorated exterior 3) Chinese celadon ware 4) Chinese Porcelain some of the bowls of the last mentioned ware bore painted inscriptions made under the great Ming Dynasty in the Cheng Hua Era. Of the other finds mention may be made of 1) coins of Adil Shah Sur and Shah Alam 2) glass wine bottle with omphalos basis 3) a gold ear ornament studded with emerald and pearls 4) shell and glass bangles 5) beads of semi-precious stones 6) another household objects of daily use.
Q8 What has been your one of the exciting discoveries?
Excavations at Puruna qila and Muhammadgarh (near Gurgaon) have revealed objects in a full sequence from mauryan till British in the shape of mounds. Being a part of such diggings has been a very enriching experience for me and years of patience and hardwork dedicated to one site has helped me grow as a person. I was blessed with what is called an archaeologist’s luck.the thrill of finding something, turning it over and knowing that you are the first person to see that surface after x-thousand years is one of the things which make all my discoveries exciting.
Q9 How do we get to know about the time frame of the period?
Belonging from a science background I have knowledge of the scientific as well as other methods involved in this sphere. C14 dating is one method which we regularly use. Others are:
• Pottasium argon dating - for dating fossilized hominid remains
• Radio carbon dating - for dating organic materials (Maximum 50,000 to 60,000 years old)
• Rehydroxylation dating - for dating ceramic materials.
• Thermoluminescence dating - for dating inorganic material including ceramics
The objects excavated are then sent to various laboratories at the same time and the then evidences received by these labs are corroborated to produce accurate and definite results.
Prior research works have been conducted on the dating techniques which have now reduced the level of difficulty in gathering data about it. Like the Ocre coloured pottery was a contemporary and successor to indus valley civilization, 2nd century BC.(during kushana period)
Black and red ware- was an iron age archaeological culture of north India between 12th-9th century BCE.
Painted grey ware- fine grey pottery painted with geometric patterns in black between 1200-600BCE (during Mauryan period)
Northern black pottery ware found between 700-200bce, luxury style of burnished pottery
Glazed pottery- 12th Century , white background with blue green patterns found during sultanate Mughal period.
All of this has some specific feature which automatically tells us that from which region
(based on the material used and its availability in an area) it belongs.
Q10 Can you describe what is included in an archaeological research design?
The first step in an archaeological project generally requires detailed historical research. This enables us to put forward a hypothesis about what we may be able to find in that particular site. The government of the India sends us a proposal and the budget in which we have to do the digging. This stage is followed by field investigations and trial digging followed by the actual digging of the site – where the archaeologist attempts to answer the research questions that have been formulated. When the field investigations have been completed, the data that have been recovered are analyzed and interpreted in the laboratory. Sometimes detailed scientific studies – like listed above are conducted during this phase of the work. Then, the data and conclusions of the project are all brought together in the form of a written report which is later published. Finally the objects obtained are put for display in museums.
Q11 When you find artifacts from your excavated areas, what happens to them? Where do they go?
The objects excavated are then sent to various laboratories at the same time and then evidences received by all these labs are corroborated to produce accurate and definite results. When these objects come back from chemical testing are then send for numbering and registration and then later after labeling are delivered to the site and state museums for people to see and there these artifactsare properly conserved also. The objects retrieved are the property of the state and cannot be auctioned.
Q12 How are the objects found preserved?
The main objective to preserve the artifacts is from human intervention, air pollutants which usually change the original colour of the object, pests, humidity. A proper arrangement is done in controlled settings for maintaining a certain light and temperature for them and protecting them from UV rays.
While incandescent and fluorescent lights do not give off UV, they can emit a significant amount of heat. Therefore, incandescent lights should not be placed inside or near exhibit cases. Usage of the lowest wattage possible and making sure areas surrounding the incandescent bulbs are well ventilated is important. A properly regulated museum environment will include controls for light, temperature, relative humidity, air pollutants and pests.
Q13 How does the archaeological survey of India publicizes their findings and create awareness through them?
the centralized system functions in a way in which after the excavations the assigned archaeologists have to produce reports of their methods, artifacts found and other discoveries whether small scale or big scale. These reports can be found in libraries as well as the Delhi circle office at INA. Moreover the findings are at display in most of the museums present which also helps to gain knowledge.
Q14 How has the new digital age helped your work?
Most of the work which takes place in India is mostly manually done and not a lot of machinery is used in the process. This includes meticulous work (layer by layer) which is mostly accurate and also ensures that while working not much of information is lost from the area being worked upon. That’s why digital age has not affected this organization much. Both because of the coming of computers, yes I would agree that paper work has become less and methods of communicating have become easy.Globalization of communication through the Internet is making it an exciting time for disseminating the results of archaeological practice at the very moment when it is being carried out.
Q15 What advice would you offer women and starters considering a career in archaeology?
I would advise women to ignore anyone who attempts to discourage them, not to listen to anyone who tells them they might be unsuited to a career in archaeology. Archaeology is a great field for women. Women, often very persistent and hard-working, tend to do well in long-term research. Women, often not integrated into traditional power structures, may be more independent than men. Training in a particular skill and becoming skillful at analyzing a particular material – faunal analysis, macrofloral analysis, micromorphology, lithic analysis, ceramic technology etc. – can help focus research and should be started as early as possible. It also helps gaining access to a field project and gets a job later on. It doesn’t mean that you have to stick with this throughout your career. At the same time your skill will be that much more “marketable” if you link it to interesting theoretical questions and a real set of data. But interesting theoretical ideas or in depth field experience alone are not going to enhance your archaeological career. Don’t create in yourself an image of authority; your authority will come from engaging personally with your ideas in a playful way. And while you’re at it, why not question the authority of “the experts.” One last thing: celebrate ambiguity!
Q16 What do you see as the major challenges facing archaeology at the millennium?
I have always been disappointed in the public media’s face of archaeology that consistently foregrounds the products of our research and attempts to make them interesting by placing them in a context of discovery and solving mysteries with true facts. Thus, systematic studies of human remains are being ignored. Less people want to take up this profession as they thing that in this age there’s less scope to find something new as everything has been already researched upon, which is wrong.
Q17 What can archaeology offer in the future?
I agree that the foremost importance of archaeology resides in the long-term perspective. I personally think that. Archaeology shows us that things are not this way. In spite of the best efforts, societies, empires, myths, and religious systems simply fade away (or crumble down) and are replaced by other societies, with other myths. So, archaeology enables us to regard ourselves (modern, technologically driven, smart people) inside the same processes that are responsible for the rise and fall of social and ideological structures. This could be summed up under a single word: humbleness. Archaeology teaches us humbleness, can make us see what we really are; can make us see beyond our own myths.
To finish, and paraphrasing Havelock Ellis: "What we call progress is the exchange of a nuisance for another nuisance". Archaeology teaches us exactly this.
(References to the text can be provided on request)