History and Indian archaeology

August 11, 2019

Indian Archaeology and Heritage Education: Historiographical and Sociological Dimensions argues for public utility and societal relevance of history and archaeology in contemporary contexts

History and Indian archaeology

When thinking of archaeology, most of us tend to conjure up images of exotic excavation digs; where the past meets the here and now to have the last word in virtual time-travelling. Yet physical exploration can only complete the picture when coupled with revisiting the history of archaeology itself.

Of course, scholars continue to adopt both positivist (scientific quantitative methods) and interpretative (humanistic qualitative methods) approaches; either within polemical or complementary frameworks. Some academics prefer to focus on synthetic (encompassing two perspectives) and historiographical (the study of the writing of history as well as the study of written histories) while others opt for archival research. The aforementioned structures are crucial to understanding this discipline.

One man who embodies all of this and more is India’s Katragadda Paddayya. His stature as an eminent academic and one of South Asia’s most renowned archaeologists has long been cemented. This is, in large part, due to contributions across the board in terms of fieldwork, theory and methods as well as historiography. And his latest book bears testimony to this.

Indian Archaeology and Heritage Education: Historiographical and Sociological Dimensions is divided into two parts: comprising 10 essays each, a preface and introduction. Section one offers an in-depth historiographical analysis of the distinct fragments that constitute Indian archaeology. By contrast, the next portion delves even deeper; advocating the importance of public ownership as well as the social relevance of history and archaeology within contemporary contexts. To describe this as a labour of love would be an understatement. For the book is the result of some 15 years of hard work. Admittedly, some of the articles have been published previously. But many are presented here for the first time.

The opening four essays outline the initial phases and subsequent trajectories in cartography research, prehistoric archaeology and Iron Age sites. And, here, Dr Paddayya carefully reviews the work of colonial scholars, all of whom had links to India, such as: James Runnel (1742-1830), William Lambton (1756-1823), Colin Mackenzie (1753-1821), Hugh Falconer (1808-1865) and Robert Bruce Foote (1834-1912).

The author lauds the scientific spirit of these men, including their accurate study and description of Indian antiquities; while also making good use of hitherto unpublished material. Interestingly, Paddayya claims that though a friend of Charles Darwin - Falconer was not unduly influenced by evolutionary theory. Instead, Indian schools of thought impacted his ideas and were reflected in his works accordingly. Thus Foote has been hailed as "the Father of Indian prehistory" and, perhaps more significantly, "the Father of writing prehistory". As a result, the author pays tribute to the latter’s ethno-archaeological observations and prompt recording of findings; over-interpretation of data notwithstanding. In addition, those who took up Foote’s mantle also receive plaudits.

In a nod to how archaeology has linkages to the humanities, Chapter Five explores Vere Gordon Childe’s (1892-1957, the Australian-born British historian and archaeologist specialising in the study of European prehistory) views on knowledge from the dual lenses of philosophy and sociology. There are also references to Hegel and Marx. For his part, Childe subscribes to objectivity and the accurate reconstruction of ancient societies. He is also an active proponent of the power of true knowledge as a means to action. And it is the analysis of these epistemological variants that leads Paddayya to term Childe a forerunner of both processual and post-processual archaeologies. Developing this theme somewhat, the following chapter examines certain historiographical dimensions within the sphere of Indology. Warning against adopting - without critique - Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism in the Indian context, Paddayya notes: "There were true friends of India even among the colonial administrators. It would be both unhistorical and unjust to erase their memory from the record." Naturally, there were some harsh critics of India. Most notably, the British historians James Mill and Thomas Babington Macaulay who firmly believed in the ‘civilising’ mission of the Empire. Yet, by the same token, many were censorious of colonial maladministration. This leads us to a review of three academic schools: the Asiatic Society, the Madras School of Orientalism and the Western India School of Orientalism. Significantly, contributions by both local and foreign scholars (until the present day) are contemplated. Elsewhere, Chapter Seven studies the transition of hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian-based ones; paying close attention to distinct technological, economic and socio-religious parameters. A breakdown of agro-pastoral cultures dating back to 2nd - 1st millennium BC offers vital means of shedding light on what British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler had, in the 1940s, denounced as the Dark Age of India’s archaeological history. Excavation sites at Mehrgarh (lying on Pakistan’s Kacchi Plain, Balochistan) as well as those in Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and North Gujarat on the Indian side have proved wholly informative towards this end. Though much more work needs to be done when it comes to understanding complex adaptive systems (CAS); something that Paddayya believes can benefit from ethno-archaeological input.

Moving forward, the next two chapters provide a comprehensive analysis of Peninsular India. Under the spotlight are archaeological developments in the region, right from the pre-historic times to the medieval period. Here, the author reiterates the importance of problem-oriented and planned research while outlining the critical role of village-to-village surveys and landscape/settlement archaeology. All of which is imperative to helping us understand variability and adaptive behaviour. Moreover, Paddayya argues that the field of South Asian archaeology has much to gain from Peninsular India. For it is here that "[b]oth ancient and modern geography bear ample testimony to its identity as a distinct territorial unit".

By the time we come to the final chapter (of Section One), the conversation has turned towards the urgent issue of heritage management.  And while the author’s primary focus rests on the sites of Lower Deccan - it remains relevant to archaeological landscapes throughout South Asia. As do the concerns surrounding threats to heritage management; including population growth, reclamation of land for agriculture, new irrigation systems as well as other development initiatives and, last but not least, treasure-hunting. Paddayya prescribes a collective response which places universities, museums and civil society at the fore. Similarly, it is imperative that archaeologists, historians and environmental activists join hands for heritage protection. All of which must include a rethinking of public education, as envisaged by the late Indian archaeologist Hasmukh Dhirajlal Sankalia, who lobbied for school teachers and lawmakers to be included in the journey towards result-oriented cultural resource management strategies.

India takes centre-state in the second part of the book as attention switches to important questions regarding the social use and relevance of historical and archaeological knowledge. It must be noted that some themes and ideas may well be repeated from time to time. But this is forgivable considering that the essays were written at different times for different audiences. Especially considering that Paddayya juxtaposes vibrant ancient Indian thought with the present socio-political situation. Ever mindful of how the past is manipulated by some groups for vested interests, the author emphasises the composite and synthetic nature of Indian culture. He writes: "in recent times certain trends have been set in motion which tend to alienate us from our moorings in the past. Further, our composite past has been made a bone of contention and a source of tension at local and national levels. It is therefore not surprising that many have started wondering whether we deserve our historical appendage and a feeling has been generated that our past, instead of serving as a source of enlightenment, has become a matter of anguish." To underscore this point, regular references are made to how heritage protection inevitably loses out whenever the politics of exclusion are favoured; as evidenced by the demolition of the Babri mosque in India and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan. The solution therefore lies in incorporating heritage education into the liberal arts syllabus. This, Paddayya believes, ought to be a natural transition given the dynamics at play. For unlike Egypt or Mesopotamia, say, India is home to a past that refuses to live anywhere but the present. The author therefore insists that an unbiased scientific study of the country’s past holds the key to securing the peace and freedom that his compatriot, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, has spent his entire professional life defending. Though none of this is to overlook the necessary distinction between viewing the past through the dual heritage-inheritance lens and that of history. Or, as Paddayya puts it, when we see the past as heritage we cannot help but surrender to feelings of association. Whereas when we contemplate the past as history, we experience detachment. Such conceptualising is required to help us understand that we all have a stake in heritage as a shared human resource. Scholars and students of the collective past share the burden of responsibility towards this end.

Chapter Fourteen pays tributes to unsung heroes. That is, local communities not trained in this discipline but who nevertheless have contributed to its advancement. Paddayya affectionately calls them ‘the other archaeologists’. He is right to do so. Such notions of community derive from the author’s own experience of interacting with the indigenous population of Shorapur Doab in Lower Deccan. There, his intensive work, spanning decades, brought him into regular contact with peasants, school teachers and civil servants; enriching the cause of heritage and archaeology itself. In fact, this essay is a posthumous eulogy to three particular individuals from Hunsgi: Basappa Amarannawar (a middle-school teacher), Doddappa Baichbal and Basappa Kadimani (both daily wage workers).

In conclusion, it must be noted that while Paddayya’s approach is predominantly positivistic he does not close the door on interpretative and post-modernist insights. This is due in large part to a commitment to what he identifies as the prevalence of the sociological tilt in historical and archaeological research. Thus the author believes that competing theories have a part to play in producing a consolidated knowledge base regarding Indian culture and the past. That being said, however, the concept of the aforementioned is not one-dimensional. And when we forget this we actively render invisible multiple societies along with diverse cultures that exist within a single geographic unit. Thus Paddayya’s talk of ‘composite/synthetic culture’ - as a means of understanding adaptive behaviour - is recognition of the above. It is unfortunate that he does not go further and link it to the problematic concept of culture itself or offer a nuanced take on the politics of history. Though this may explain the frequent references to the religious treatises proffered by Mauryan emperor Ashoka Maurya and Mughal emperor Akbar (the policy of Dhamma and Religion of God, respectively). It is hoped that the author’s clear and dedicated engagement in such matters will effectively counterpoise political propaganda masquerading as literature. And this is why Dr Paddayya’s book is indispensable reading not only for scholars and students of history but for policymakers and political leaders as well.

Indian Archaeology and Heritage Education
Historiographical and Sociological Dimensions
Author: K. Paddayya
Publisher: Aryan Books International, 2018
Price: From $58.11

History and Indian archaeology