The deeper they went into trench Q14, the more the clues it threw up. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) team at Purana Qila first uncovered signs of what was possibly a work site, a compact mud platform with three hollows. Beads and bone points were unearthed from around it, which the ASI dates to the Mauryan era in 3 BCE. The spot cleaned and demarcated, the workers dug deeper to discover a change in the soil texture and colour. From a narrow pathway between trenches, one can notice the soil abruptly changing hue from reddish brown to more brownish yellow. That, says Vasant Kumar Swarnkar, superintending archaeologist, are signs of flood. The sample — a mix of sand and silt — has been sent for dating. Swarnkar is surprised by the extent of the flood layer, which is throwing up potsherds, charcoal bits and roots. Previous excavations at Purana Qila, he says, have not recorded signs of a flood in the pre-Mauryan period.


Below surface: The digs at Purana Qila have always centred around a search for Painted Grey Ware deposits, believed to date back to the time of Mahabharata



In a city as ancient as Delhi, showing traces of human life dating back to the Stone Age, Purana Qila (or Old Fort) is relatively new. Raised and fortified by Sher Shah Suri in the 16th century, it was the scene of power struggles between Suri and the Mughal emperor Humayun. The Qila, the ASI website mentions, was possibly built after razing to ground Humayun’s city Dinpannah. Humayun returned to the Qila after Suri’s death and is believed to have died within its ramparts after an accidental fall. Present-day Purana Qila is a decrepit reminder of its medieval might. A sanctuary for amorous couples, it has a far busier neighbour in the zoo.

The lacklustre present in no way discounts the monument’s historicity. Archaeologists have returned to it four times since Independence, driven by the belief that beneath the rubble of medieval and ancient kingdoms lie clues to Indraprastha — the mythical city of Pandavas. The large mound within the Qila has so far provided evidence of unbroken occupation of the site since 3-4 BCE century.

“This is the only site where one can establish the history of Delhi with continuous archaeological deposits of the past 2,500 years,” Swarnkar reminds us. Posted at the ASI’s Chandigarh circle, he is spearheading a second season of excavations at the Qila since November 2017. The first excavation in 2013-14 exposed an intriguing terracotta well dating back to 3-4 BCE century. His team also found structural and cultural evidences from the periods that followed the Mauryan age in sequence, right up to the Mughals.

However, the excavations at Purana Qila were always about a dogged search for Painted Grey Ware (PGW) deposits, which some believe date back to the Mahabharata period. In fact, the ASI website describes the Purana Qila as “perhaps the site of Indraprasth, believed to be the capital of the Pandavas”, and archaeologist BB Lal and his team had embarked on a trial excavation in 1954-55 in pursuit of this idea.


Long and winding past: Purana Qila is considered a relatively young monument in a city as ancient as Delhi, and was the scene of power struggles



The 1954-55 edition of Indian Archaeology — A Review ( IAR ) mentions the excavations were undertaken“with a view to ascertaining the antiquity of the site and finding out if it was identifiable with Indraprasth of old.” Though it “revealed” the Purana Qila site was under occupation since 1000 BCE, when the inhabitants used bowls and dishes of PGW, and “excellently-moulded terracotta figurines in the Sunga style” had been unearthed, the dig had not been completed. “It is not possible to say how much later than the Kushan period the site continued under occupation,” the IAR report concluded.

While the first round established the habitation of the Purana Qila site till about AD 1, Lal and team undertook a second excavation spanning four years, 14 years later. Indraprastha, though, got only cursory mention this time around, as the focus was more on tracing the sequence of occupation at the site, backwards from Humayun. The ASI found archaeological evidences from the Mauryan era and established sequences through the Sunga, Kushan, Gupta, post-Gupta, Rajput, and Delhi Sultanate periods, all the way till the Mughals.

The annual IAR issues report the failure to unearth the cultural zone of PGWs, though sherds were often cited. Search for the “earliest cultural horizon” often ended at around 3-4 BCE century.

The finding of PGW sherds, although not the home of those deposits, has kept alive the myth of Indraprastha through the decades, luring archaeologists to the site time and again. Swarnkar’s team was looking for it, too, when they first excavated the site four years ago. “Though the mound is known as Indraprastha, the site of Mahabharata, it was not confirmed after the earlier excavations,” he says. In early February, heading another season of digs, he again concedes, “Till date we don’t know.”


What lies beneath: Antiquities unearthed include a terracotta dog from the Sunga period, a ram (Mauryan era),and beads and sealing heads from different time periods




Sher Mandal, the red stone monument also known as Humayun’s library, stands at the edge of the Purana Qila mound; the ASI has focused on its slopes since the 1950s. One has to pass through ancient ruins and sites of past excavations, to reach the spot where work is currently in progress.

Swarnkar has narrowed down his search to sections of the mound that were presumably closer to the Yamuna (the river has moved course over the centuries). “I chose this area since past research shows the early settlers must be the PGW culture. Earlier, the Yamuna flowed abutting the fort,” he says. River civilisations being the norm in ancient times, the ASI team is hoping it has hit the right spot. “I may be wrong. The settlement could have been away from the present site. The PGW findings are there, but, for us, the layers are important,” he says.

Archaeologists establish the story of an ancient settlement from the soil layers. And that is where they have stumbled at Purana Qila. “Every settlement leaves its impressions in the soil,” points out Swarnkar. “Till date we have not established PGW deposits from the stratified layer.” Nevertheless, the team is hinging its hopes on the signs of PGW. “It means the site of that period must be nearby.”

Meanwhile, the current excavations have yielded other surprises. Taking off from where they left in 2013-14, the team found in trench P15 an extensive fortification stonewall from Sunga period (1BCE-AD1). And close by was found the skull of a horse.

A worker climbs down a makeshift ladder into the trench and gently brushes away mud to expose an intact horse skull. The skull and a few bones were discovered along with signs of burning, hinting at the possible involvement of a ritual. A veterinary team from Mathura confirmed it was a horse skull and identified other bones as belonging to the ox family. “We have found a pattern. All the bones are together and there are signs of burning. We have also found terracotta figurines — two horses, one of which is decorated, and two elephants. This appears to be ritual burning,” says Swarnkar.

In trench Q14, where the signs of flood have been found, the team continues to dig deep. Swarnkar says they have found a small deposit of pre-Mauryan era, dating to 4-6 BC. “They are coarse, simple grey ware and red ware pottery. Pottery in the Mauryan era is finer,” he adds. Having dug about 7.5 m deep, and into a flood deposit, the team is hoping for vestiges of human activity underneath.


Supriya Varma, associate professor at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, has visited the new excavation site twice. Signs of flood do not surprise her, since the site was close to the river. “Clearly there is silt deposit in one of the excavated trenches, which could be because of flood. The flood, to me, appeared in the Mauryan level, around circathird-second centuries BCE,” she says.

Past excavations have not found evidence of inhabitation dating before the Mauryan period, she points out. The PGW sherds, generally dated between 1000 and 600 BCE, have thus far only been reported as surface finds. “That PGW sherds have been reported from the surface could indicate the existence of a small rural PGW settlement somewhere in the close vicinity of the excavated area,” she reasons. Sherds found in the flood deposit appear to be the same as the red and grey wares found in the Mauryan level, she further adds.

She, too, agrees that the finds of horse skull and cattle bones could point to a ritual. “I could see the bones still embedded in the deposit, so too ash.” She is, however, wary of the excavations turning into a dogged quest to establish a mythical past. At a time when the lines between politics, history and myth are increasingly blurring, the framing of Delhi as Indraprastha is intended to diminish its present identity as a medieval city once ruled by the Turks and the Mughals, she argues.


To the bone: A horse skull and a few bones were found along with signs of burning in the Sunga layer (1BCE-AD1) hinting at the possible involvement of a ritual




Upinder Singh, professor of history at Delhi University, contends that epic archaeology was quite the fashion in the decades after Independence. Singh, who has edited Delhi: Ancient History and authored A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India , draws a parallel between the pursuit of Indraprastha at Purana Qila and the Hastinapur excavations by BB Lal in 1950-52 aimed at finding evidence relating to the Mahabharata. Lal’s report, which appeared in the Ancient India journal, documented the stratigraphic levels and artefacts such as pottery. “Lal also pointed to a flood line at the site which, he said, corroborated a reference in the Vishnu Purana to the capital being shifted from Hastinapur to Kaushambi during the reign of king Nichakshu. He saw this as proof of the flood mentioned in Puranic tradition. Whether or not one accepts this particular conclusion, and one can definitely question whether the flood was the one mentioned in the Vishnu Purana, the Hastinapur excavations did provide a range of valuable archaeological data that is useful to archaeologists and historians,” Singh observes.

She further points out that excavations at various sites such as Hastinapur, Kurukshetra and Barnawa mentioned in the Mahabharata had yielded PGWs, which showed they were old settlements where people shared similar material culture. “Although these investigations did not prove that the Mahabharata events happened, they yielded other sorts of significant archaeological results.”

She, however, believes that the hunt for archaeological ‘proof’ of events mentioned in the epic was not in the interest of best archaeological practices. “The epic may or may not have been based on some sort of historical events. But the trend of reading ancient texts literally and trying to find archaeological proof for these literal readings is, in my view, flawed and problematic.”

Delhi: Ancient History examines closely the archaeological excavations for Indraprastha at Purana Qila, and historian BD Chattopadhyaya makes a compelling case in his essay ‘Indian archaeology and epic traditions.’ “And what kind of material remains have Hastinapur and Indraprastha revealed to provide point of comparison with the epic evidence? Admittedly, here archaeology can serve as a corrective to the exaggerated accounts of the epics...” he argues.

For Singh, what’s fascinating about the digs at Purana Qila is the possibility of unravelling a local, ancient culture. Any evidence of a pre-Mauryan layer piques her curiosity. “I have heard, but do not know for sure, that they have found a grey ware level below the Maurya levels. If so, this is the most significant aspect of this season’s excavations.” Earlier excavations have, crucially, sequenced the cultural inhabitation at this site. “They showed an occupation from the northern black polished ware (NBPW) phase, which at this site was placed in the 4-3 BCE. Archaeologists found remains of houses of mud-brick and burnt brick, some with drains and hearths ( chulhas ) for cooking. Terracotta ring wells, perhaps used as soak pits for waste water, and terracotta figurines of animals and humans were found. There were also punch-marked coin and two inscribed seals. As this was the earliest occupational level that was found, we do not know about the people who lived here before 4-3 BCE,” says Singh. She, too, has visited the site and finds the discovery of the horse skull, particularly in a ritualistic context, interesting. Floods, she adds, are not surprising at a site that was close to the Yamuna.

Acknowledging the role of past excavations in establishing the early settlement history of Delhi, Singh emphasises they can aid further research only if full-fledged archaeological reports are published promptly. “In recent decades, ASI’s track record, as far as publication of reports is concerned, leaves much to be desired. Very often we have snippets of information published in places such as IAR .” She rues the time taken to publish reports, citing the large-scale excavations at Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh in 1954-60, as an example. While the preliminary report was published in 1975, the one on its historical remains came out in 2006. “Excavations must be followed by a swift publication of detailed reports. Otherwise, it is a huge waste of resources and taxpayers’ money,” she adds. Moreover, there is a lack of consensus among scholars when dating pottery from excavation sites. “The traditional dating of PGW was about 1000 BCE or so, and NBPW about 700 BCE. However, some archaeologists argue for much earlier dates for both phases. One must have an open mind about these things, but there is, so far, no consensus,” Singh points out.


Meanwhile, at the Purana Qila, excavations continue into the fifth month. Antiquities such as terracotta figurines of a woman, a ram, a dog with a collar, sealing heads and beads are being unearthed; so too structural evidences of a Mauryan-era drain, and a kuchcha well. Between assumption and evidence, myth and reality, Indraprastha and Dinpannah, the gains are the clues to the ways of life 2,500 years ago that are unravelled in the bargain.