When the Indian government handed over the bone relics of the 16th century Georgian Queen Ketevan to the government of Georgia on July 9, it revived the story of Indian scientists’ and archaeologists’ 20 years of hard work to solve the 400-year-old murder mystery.
Her tragic death at the hands of a Persian King Shah Abbas 1 in 1624 remained shrouded in mystery till 2009. According to the historical text, when Shah Abbas 1 attacked Georgia, Queen Ketevan had surrendered to avoid the destruction of her kingdom. She was kept as a prisoner and tortured to death in 1624 when she refused to convert to the Islamic faith.
Two Augustinian priests, who were close to the queen and who had witnessed her public execution and burials, unearthed her skeleton remains and hid them for three years. But when their survival became difficult, they divided the skeleton bones into two parts to keep them safe and one of the two priests brought one part, an arm bone, to a church (Augustinian Mission) in Goa.
The Queen’s sacrifice gained the status of martyrdom and since 1989 the successive governments requested the Indian counterpart to look for the Queen’s relics where it was reported to be kept.
Seven archaeologists worked for 16 years on the site to excavate the queen’s relic yet two of them, Dr. Nizamuddin Taher and Dr. Abhijit Ambekar, along with his team, made an unbelievable discovery in 2005 while excavating 8 to 10 meters deep into the ground at the Church in Goa. They stumbled upon a long skeleton arm.
Then they took it to the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology (CCMB), a premier research organization of modern biology, in Hyderabad where a then Ph.D. student Niraj Rai decoded the DNA secrets and proved that the bone belonged to the Queen. Rai achieved this remarkable feat under the mentorship of molecular biologist K Thangaraj and with the help of genealogical analyst Gyaneshwer Chaubey.
Rai is now a professor in CCMB, Chaubey is currently working as a professor in the Dept. of Zoology, Banaras Hindu University (BHU). These archeologists and scientists are very happy to know that Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised their efforts in his recent radio talk 'Mann Ki Baat.'
Outlook interviewed the team of noted archaeologists Dr. KK Muhammed (who had worked earlier), Dr. Nizamuddin Taher, Dr. Abhijit Ambekar, and DNA expert Neeraj Rai and Gyaneshwer Chaubey who went down the memory lane and shared why the findings were so challenging and incredible. Excerpts-
Q: You worked for six years on the site but you couldn’t locate the queen’s relics. Why?
Dr. KK Muhammed: I was posted in Goa from 1991-1997 and excavated the Church of St. Augustine for six years. I was excavating the main Church hoping that the relics would be below the second window of the same. As I failed, I also excavated outside the second window which also did not yield the relics.
Also, excavations happen in a planned manner. We start from a particular point and then proceed towards other areas. We can’t dig randomly here and there. So, I began from the main Church but the relics were in the outer area, and by the time my term got over, I couldn’t reach up to that point.
Q: After KK Muhammed, you were posted as Deputy Superintendent Archaeologist in charge of Goa Circle, but you have written that you never thought that you would ever discover queen Ketevan’s relics. Why?
Dr. Nizamuddin Taher: When I was posted as Deputy Superintendent Archaeologist and in charge of Goa Circle of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 2003, I decided to study the ground plan and enlarge the area for visitors. I didn’t have any plan to search for the remains of the queen because I thought my esteemed predecessors couldn’t locate it, how would I be able to do it? Before me, five well-known archaeologists including KK Muhammed worked extensively but couldn’t find anything. Also, there were management issues with the Church Authorities which we settled first before undertaking a scientific clearance.
Q: But weren’t there well-documented literary sources that provided enough clue about the location of the Queen’s relics?
Dr. Nizamuddin Taher: The 16th-century church was in ruins due to neglect and lack of proper upkeep. The original structure of the monastery was ground plus two stories high. According to a literary text, the queen’s relics would have been placed somewhere around 1630 and there were categorical descriptions about its placement in the historical text.
However, due to the collapse of the overhead structures and lack of conservation, the entire premises was converted into a ruin with heaps of debris. It all resulted in the formation of a huge mound, at places 8 to 10 meters high. The Bollywood movie ‘Gumnam’ has captured the remains as it was picturized in 1965, based on the novel by Agatha Christie.
Q: So, what were the literary sources that helped you reach the black box that contained the queen’s arm skeleton?
Dr. Nizamuddin Taher: There were three main sources based on which the archaeological investigation was carried on. The first source was Robert Gulbenkian's book on the queen published in Portuguese in 1985, in which he analysed an early copy of the manuscripts of one of the two Augustinian priests.
The second and most important source was another book written by Silva Rego also in Portuguese in 1958. Rego has talked in detail about the chronicles of the two priests. Rego, on page 90, Volume 12, describes that all the seven tombstones located in the Chapter Chapel. One of them belonged to Queen Ketevan. The chapel is a small room outside the main church to worship and there were many chapels but the one where it was kept was known as Chapter Chapel.
Q: While Dr. Tahir was head of the project but you worked on the ground in clearing the debris and cleaning the site. As we know that the Church complex was completely ravaged, were these literacy sources of any help in locating the Queen’s arm bone?
Dr. Abhijit Ambekar: Yes, they were very much useful once we located the Tombstone of a prominent figure Manuel de Sequeira e Matos and his wife. Silva Rego has written that at the transverse entrance on the Epistle side is the Tombstone of Manuel de Sequeira e Matos and his wife. Just to make you understand, let’s presume that a room has an entrance and six windows, three each on the walls opposite to each other.
Rego explains the placement of the other six tombstones on the six windows (three left and three right sides) of the Chapter Chapel. He has written that the queen’s tombstone was on the second window of the Epistle side.
So, when we found the tombstone of Manuel de Sequeira e Matos and his wife, we were so excited that my team couldn’t sleep the whole night. We wanted to refer to Rego’s book but it was in the library, a few km away from the site and we waited the whole night to visit the library. The book was in Portuguese and we had a student who could read it.
The student finally told us that we have found the Chapter Chapel. The team was euphoric and in high spirits which is difficult to express in words.
Q: After locating the tombstone of Manuel de Sequeira e Matos, was it easy to locate the rest of the tombstone?
Dr. Nizamuddin Taher: No, due to collapse and destruction, the placement of tombstones was completely changed. Despite locating the Chapter Chapel, we couldn’t find the queen’s relics in the first session of excavation. At one point in time, we thought that Queen’s relic might have been taken away by the Church people before quitting the place as Goa had come under Portuguese accession.
During the 2nd season, which commenced in 2004-05, on the 2nd day after removing the covers while undertaking fine brushing before resuming the excavations, we located a long bone (QKT 1) between the 2nd window and the transverse entrance on the floor.
On further excavation outside the second window, we got the remains of a large fragment of the coping stone of the black box in which the queen’s bone was placed, as the literary sources say. We also found fragments of a small bone adjacent to it (QKT 2). Still further down, another fragment of a bone (QKT 3) was unearthed.
We discussed among each other that the long bone could be of Queen Ketevan and my team, especially Abhijit wanted me to announce the findings but I was reluctant and wanted to double-check and take up Genetic Analysis (Ancient DNA) before announcing the discovery. However, the ASI Directorate was informed and the same was taken up by the press.
Q: As the literary text says that one part of the queen’s skeleton came to India, where were the other skeleton parts?
Dr. Abhijit Ambekar: According to historical documents, one part of the queen’s relic was brought to Goa, the other remaining parts were taken to Georgia and they were buried in a place called the Alaverdi Monastery in the Kakheti region of Eastern Georgia.
But that place was under continuous attack, so the priests wanted to shift it to another region. It is said that during one of the raids while shifting the relics to a safer place the remaining bone relics of Queen Ketevan were lost, as the horse carrying them and other significant articles lost its footing and fell into the river Aragvi. Hence, the only recorded remains that could be traced of the Queen were in Goa.
Q: Since you had announced that the relics belonged to the Queen’s, did you have any apprehension that what if it would turn out to be something else after DNA testing?
Dr. Abhijit Ambekar: See, the main objective of an archaeologist while excavating, especially early historical site or any medieval site is co-relating archaeological findings with literary sources. Here in Augustine complex, we had a solid literary source mentioning every tomb placement of each window and on the floor of the transverse passage.
All archaeological findings were correctly matching with the literary sources, hence we were confident about finding the place where once Queen Ketevan relic was kept along with two other priests.
Q: But didn’t you discover two other bone fragments along with an arm bone? Wasn’t that a very confusing scenario?
Dr. Abhijit Ambekar: Archaeologists believe in the application of a multi-disciplinary approach. When the three relic samples were reported from the floor (close to the second-floor window) and behind the 2nd window of the right side at different levels, I was pretty sure that one of them would give us some optimistic results. The relic of Queen Ketevan was kept along with the two friars in the tomb box, only there was a need to identify which one belonged to the Queen.
Studies have revealed that the remaining two bones were of South Asian descent which indicates that all priests were not European.
Q: So, when the relics were brought to CCMB, what were the challenges that you faced initially and how did you prove that it was Queen's relics only?
Neeraj Rai: When the relics were brought to us, we realised that it was extremely fragile and the DNA yield was very much marginal. To overcome this challenge, I preferred cloning and sequencing of the degraded DNA instead of only sequencing. This work was challenging as DNA yield was minimal. Hence Cloning of the relic DNA was performed to retrieve all the possible DNA from a small piece of the bone relic.
First, we tried to match the relic DNA with 22,000 Indian databases but couldn't find a single match which is very much unlikely. Then we decided to bring the Georgian samples. We requested Georgian authorities and they sent 30 samples. We generated a DNA database of all the 30 samples and attempted the marching process with the relic DNA and we found two matches. We also proved that it was female DNA.
Q: Since there were two other bones found along with Queen’s bone, did it make the identification difficult?
Gyaneshwer Chaubey: It increased the work of DNA analysis. However, three things – (a) a female DNA, (b) genetically related with the person of Georgian origin, and (c) unmatched with over 20,000 Indian DNA – went on to prove that the relics belonged to Georgia’s queen Ketevan”s