Monuments, Sites and Artefacts

The last episode had showcased a glimpse of some of the archaeological sources of Indian History. The study of the coins called Numismatics, the study of seals and sealings called Sigilliography; and the study of inscriptions called Epigraphy, equip the historian with a unique binocular with which he can see the distant past.

Monuments, Sites and Artefacts

Namaskar and welcome once again to the story of our fabulous land - India.

When in the 1770s, a British Army Officer named William Chambers visited Mahabalipuram and out of curiosity tried to find out about the monuments from the local pundits, all he got were fabulous and mythical stories about the place which had not the slightest semblance of reality. No one seemed to have heard of the Pallavas, the dynasty which had built the monuments. It was much later that the historicity of the place was established.

The same story can be repeated for many other historical monuments and archaeological sites spread throughout the country. In fact this sense of apathy and absolute lack of curiosity towards historical monuments seems surprising and there seems to be no satisfactory explanation for this. This phenomenon is noticeable even now and many historical sites present pitiable sight of neglect. One wonders how many important monuments and historical sites we have thus lost.

Archaeology is a science of systematic study of material remains of the past. The task of an archaeologist is two-pronged. One he has to discover these materials, through exploration and excavation; and two subject his discoveries to analytical enquiry and infer historical evidences about the life in the bygone times.

Archaeology has grown out of antiquarianism, which was primarily confined to the study of the available vestiges of the past. Archaeology, on the other hand went further to literally unearth history, and thus what archaeology has achieved is nothing short of a revolution.

Archaeology in the service of history: Indian Perspective

It is remarkable that many of the important archaeological sites of ancient India, including those of the Indus Valley Civilization, were only chance discoveries. Even the temples of Khajuraho and Konark, the cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora, the stupa of Sarnath and the temple of Bodhgaya, all fall in this category. A systematical survey of historical monuments in India started only in 1861 with the foundation of the Archaeological Survey of India.

The early humans did not build their dwellings. They took shelter in the natural habitats such as the caves and river banks. With the development of civilisation, man started building and construction activities. Most of these early structures are now lost with no trace left.

The systematic excavation of the ancient sites is comparatively of recent origin in India. Beginning in the early 20th century a series of archaeological excavations were conducted at the ancient sites. These excavations have revealed myriad aspects of the life of our ancestors. A plethora of relics of the past are discovered during archaeological excavations. At micro level these discoveries range from small objects of daily use, such as tools and implements, pottery and utensils, terracotta objects, jewellery, coins, seals and sculptures. At macro level the excavations reveal the remains of a fully-grown urban settlements. The excavations at Harappa and Mohen-jo-daro, for example, have unearthed complete cities. These cities were provided with houses, roads and pathways, community bath, drainage, granaries and other urban structures dating back to more than 2,500 before Christ. These buildings portray the life of the builders. They also tell us about their building skills; the construction material they used; the plans they executed and the techniques they adopted.

However, not all archaeological excavations produce such a rich harvest of historical material. While many reference to the fully developed cities and towns are found in the literary sources such as the Vedic literature, the sites that have been identified and excavated have often defied the descriptions.

As we travel along the time line, we learn, again from the literary sources, that during 8th century BC, India was divided into sixteen Mahajanpadas, or the Great Republics. Very few sites ascribed to these Mahajanpadas have come under the shovel of an archaeologist. One such site that has been excavated is Pataliputra, the modern Patna, which was the seat of the Magadhan empire. The great-pillared hall discovered at nearby Kumrahar, with its exquisite stone finish, is said to be a part of the palace of the Magadhan king.

Along with the archaeological sites, the importance of monuments in the construction of history is also significant. A number of these monuments have withstood the vagaries of change. These majestic structures tell us the story of their times. Alone and forlorn they had been mute witness to the course of history.

The monuments that have survived down to our own times can broadly be divided into two broad categories:
• Religious, and
• Non-Religious or Secular.

The religious monuments predominantly comprise of the places of worship – be it the temples of the Hindus, the stupas or the chaityas of the Buddhists, temples or Viharas of the Jains, or the mosques of the Muslims. There were also some associated institutions that were built along with these places of worship. Thus we find a pathshala or a school attached to a temple, a monastry along with a stupa, or a madarasa standing besides a mosque.

Another group of monuments appeared on Indian horizon with the coming of the Muslims. Since Muslims buried their dead, the burial places of the kings, nobles and saints were often converted to an imposing edifice. Thus a series of buildings, including the Humayun’s tomb at Delhi and the world famous Taj Mahal at Agra, were added to the built heritage of India.


If monuments and archaeological sites represent history in its larger aspect, artefacts represent it in its smaller one.

With all these various sources available to the historian, it has been possible to reconstruct the early history of India to a large extent. Still, many gaps remain and many facts are still open to question. In this context, we may quote the famous historian, A.L. Basham, who puts the issue in its proper perspective. He says:
“The early history of India resembles a jigsaw puzzle with many missing pieces; some parts of the picture are fairly clear; others may be reconstructed with the aid of a controlled imagination; but many gaps remain, and may never be filled.”

The stage is now set. The geography of the land, as well as its impact on the course of history has been narrated. The sources, both literary and archaeological, available to us for the reconstruction of the past have been described. Its time to move on to the story of the people of this land.

With our next episode, we shall charter the early human settlements in India. The life and times of our pre-historic ancestors.

Do join us then. Jai Hind.

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