The compelling flow of this book's effortless narrative conceals the meticulous archival research it's based on, making it accessible to academics and general readers alike. The book is, among other things, about people. There is Curzon, for instance, the viceroy with an imperial vision and a passion for conserving monuments. Rescuing the Archaeological Survey of India from a deep institutional crisis, he brought in John Marshall, a man with the youth, knowledge, and above all, the energy necessary to head it.
The new ASI director-general arrived in India in 1902, a mere 25-year-old, fresh from the study of classics at Cambridge and some archaeological training in Greece. Initially Curzon's right-hand man, Marshall soon strode his own independent path, placing archaeological excavations in India on a more systematic, scientific base and giving ASI strong, committed leadership for 25 years. It was Marshall who was to announce to the world the discovery of the Indus civilisation in The Illustrated London News. Lahiri imaginatively reconstructs the likely trajectory of Marshall's thought between the time he first held Harappan seals in the British Museum in 1901 till he finally unravelled their riddle in 1924.
These were the decades when Indians started playing an important role in the ASI. Daya Ram Sahni began excavating Harappa in '21. Like others before him, he was not enthusiastic about the results at first. The brilliant and impetuous Rakhaldas Banerji excavated Mohenjo Daro in '22. He was more excited about the Buddhist stupa on the mound than what lay underneath. Madho Sarup Vats was the first to recognise the many parallels between the finds at Mohenjo Daro and Harappa.
Lahiri also introduces us to lesser-known men. Among these was the Italian Luigi Pio Tessitori, bitten by the India bug from childhood. Circumstances turned his survey of Rajasthan's bardic lore into an archaeological survey of Bikaner, in the course of which he stumbled on the important Indus site of Kalibangan. But Tessitori never told anybody about what he had found and the knowledge of this important discovery was buried with him.
This book is also about institutions, most importantly the ASI. It is a very real, human story of how the Survey actually functioned, replete with the problems posed by the resource crunch, transfers, jobs in jeopardy, personal ambitions, professional jealousies and financial indiscretions. It also tells us about pioneering research societies like the Varendra Research Society in Bengal and about the philanthropist Ratan Tata, whose financing of the Pataliputra excavations led to the discovery of a grand Mauryan pillared hall.
There are many heroes in this story, but Marshall stands the tallest. Lahiri presents him as a sort of mastermind, slowly but surely keeping the investigations at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro going, keenly aware of their importance throughout. Perhaps she is too generous. With all his experience and "uncommon intuition", Marshall missed many clues. And he never even visited either Harappa or Mohenjo Daro till '25. Lahiri explains this away by citing the pressure of office files and telling us he wasn't the sort of archaeologist who thought it necessary to go rushing about to see things for himself.
There is another possible explanation. Marshall seems to have inherited the hangover of 19th century archaeologists—their text-based moorings, their interest in historical cities, their fascination for things Buddhist and Greek. He had been plucked out of Greece as a young man and planted in India. Taxila, with its Greek connections, was for him a slice of Greece in the Punjab. From 1913 onwards, for 22 years, Marshall went back there almost every spring and autumn. Taxila was his obsession, one from which he couldn't tear himself away, not even for Harappa or Mohenjo Daro. Also, till the moment he finally pieced together the Indus puzzle, like others of his time, he couldn't visualise Indian civilisation going so far back. But the fact remains that Marshall left India 3,000 years older than he had found her.
(Upinder Singh is a Reader in History at the Delhi University.)
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT