What lies beneath

Sibi Arasu | Updated on August 27, 2014

Layered history: ASI plans to leave the dig exposed, thus creating an on-site museum. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Layered history: A 12th century Vishnu idol. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Treasure trove: A Terracotta figurine from the Rajput period. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Treasure trove: A Terracotta figurine from the Rajput period. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Treasure trove: An artefact from the Sultanate period discovered during excavations. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

An excavation by ASI at Purana Qila reveals the many dynasties that have ruled over Delhi

The 16th century Purana Qila is one of the Capital’s most iconic monuments with its stone ramparts and moat. While it is most often visited by the curious tourist and curiouser lover, it has now caught the attention, after 40 years, of the Archaeological Survey of India.

In a quiet corner inside this fort, built by Afghan king Sher Shah Suri, and away from ambling tourists and cosying couples, archaeological excavations are underway. Over the last month, the ASI has been slowly digging through a sloping surface behind the Sher Mandal, located at the right extremity of the Qila. With every metre they dig, they are finding treasures from cultural habitations that have called the city that is Delhi today, their home.

Work here is at a snail’s pace. A group of around 20 sit hunched over what looks like mud to the lay viewer. But to this team of labourers, volunteers and archaeologists, every innocuous piece of stone or tile could be a key to the past. After a hard day’s work, if they are lucky, the archaeologists manage to sift through not more than 50-100 cm of soil. “We can’t dig fast. This excavation is really valuable because with almost every metre we dig, we discover artefacts from different civilisations,” says Vishnu Kant Kulshrestha, assistant superintending archaeologist at the site. “This is probably the only site, which displays a continuous cultural habitation. Right from the Kushans (1st century AD) to the Guptas (4th-5th century AD), to the Rajputs (10th-12th century AD), the Delhi Sultanate (13th century AD) and the Mughals (16th to 19th AD), we have found evidence of all of them here.”

While excited about the discovery of artefacts from various civilisations, this team is on the lookout for Painted Grey Wares (PGW), a specific kind of pottery that is said to date back to the Mahabharata. If these PGWs are found here, they would confirm the existence of the city of Indraprastha — the erstwhile capital of the Pandavas. BB Lal, former director-general of ASI had led two previous excavations here in 1954-55 and 1969-73. During those digs, they could locate traces of PGWs, which were similar to those found in other Mahabharata sites but definitive evidence is still absconding.

“In earlier excavations, there were indications that the site was related to the period when the Mahabharata was said to have played out,” said Vasant Swarnkar superintending archaeologist, ASI, Delhi circle. He adds, “And in excavations at other Mahabharata related sites such as Hastinapur, PGWs have been found. To make a connection with the Mahabharata or the city of Indraprastha, stratified deposits of PGWs should be found here too and only further excavation will reveal this.” The archaeologists are confident that they will find PGWs because among other reasons, it has even been discovered that there was a village called Indrapat inside the fort walls, which existed till the early 20th century. The discovery of these PGWs would also mean that civilisation in this region can be dated back to at least 1100 BC.

While PGWs (if they exist) are still many metres under, the team has located artefacts from different ages, which they plan to display at the site itself. Among the artefacts found is a Vishnu idol, which is said to date back to 12th century, precious stones, seal imprints of ancient coins from the Gupta period as well as glasses and burnt bricks which are considered to be from the Kushan period. “Every day we find something exciting and it takes great patience and effort to make sure they are excavated properly without being broken,” Kulshrestha says.

The ASI also plans to make this site India’s first open-site museum, which will be on display for the public. “You notice that we are digging at a slope. This is because each layer of history can be seen by people, just the way we found it. Also we want to leave behind the artefacts we find here and create an on-site museum of sorts, so that those interested can come take a look,” says Swarnkar.

The excavations which began after a hiatus of more than 40 years is slated to continue till the end of May. “We can’t excavate for longer than that since the monsoon might begin. We hope to make exciting discoveries, since only the success of this excavation can determine whether we can begin work here again next year,” says Swarnkar. While Unnao might have not yielded any gold for the ASI, digging deep at Purana Qila is throwing up many exciting finds for them and the curious visitor.

Published on March 21, 2014

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