A paper trail to India's ancient splendour

Finding Forgotten Cities

March 3, 2006

Stuart Piggott, when outlining how the Indus civilisation was discovered in his Prehistoric India to 1000 BC (1950), enlivened the narrative by quoting John Brunton, the British engineer who built the Multan-Lahore railway in 1856 and ruthlessly quarried for ballast the biggest ruin mound of the Punjab, Harappa. Michael Jansen's book of 1986 concentrated on the rediscovery of the Indus civilisation. Gregory Possehl in his massive Indus Age: The Beginnings (1999) likewise dug deep into the discovery history.

Frankly, I did not expect Nayanjot Lahiri (who does not mention Brunton or cite Jansen in her bibliography) to add much to this line of inquiry in Finding Forgotten Cities . She is a professor of history at Delhi University, and her previous books (1992-2000) deal with inscriptions of Assam, early Indian trade routes, copper and its alloys in ancient India, and the decline and fall of the Indus civilisation.

As it turned out, I could hardly put her book down. It is an enticingly well-written history of the beginnings of Indian archaeology and the first biography of its kind of the leading figure Sir John Marshall (1876-1958), director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) from 1902-28.

The closing date for Lahiri's narrative is 1924, when Marshall announced the discovery of the Indus civilisation. Lahiri does occasionally refer to later events, but she does not follow Marshall's life to its end.

Lahiri has assembled interesting but forgotten data from the British Library in London, the National Archives and the ASI in New Delhi, and the Rajasthan State Archives in Bikaner, Rajasthan.

These highlight, for example, the crucial role played in the revival of Indian archaeology by Lord Curzon, viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905. In 1890, Curzon had advocated the return of the Elgin marbles to Athens.

Greatly concerned with the fate of Indian monuments, he re-established the post of director-general of the ASI, which had been abolished in 1889 to spare expenditure.

The candidate first suggested by the Secretary of State for India had long administrative experience and publications on Indian history, but he was rejected by Curzon: "From careful enquiries we are clear that Vincent Smith is not suitable. He is a mere amateur in archaeology, and has neither the expert knowledge nor energy we require."

Marshall, who was then only 25 but had an excellent university record, was appointed and also coached by Curzon in many ways. Wanting the latest discoveries of the ASI published annually to whet the public interest, Curzon commented on Marshall's draft for the inaugural issue: "It is too long, it contains unimportant details, there is too much of the first person singular and the information communicated is given in a strictly official style, which will excite little or no interest."

While developing her main theme with a wealth of such archival details, Lahiri provides the reader with background information along the way. She tells the history of the British Museum, which in 1884 and 1886 received the first known Indus seals. Such details, far from being inconsequential, include significant new data. For instance, three Indus seals discovered by the Italian scholar L. P. Tessitori at Kalibangan in 1917-18 are published for the first time, taken from a photograph kept at the Ganga Golden Jubilee Museum in Bikaner.

One can easily forgive the odd omissions and slips (epigraphist Eugen Hultzsch is confused with A. F. Rudolf Hoernle and called A. F. Rudolf Hultzsch) when all this adds up to such a fascinating story.

Asko Parpola is emeritus professor of Indology, University of Helsinki, Finland, and chief editor, Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions .

Finding Forgotten Cities: How the Indus Civilisation Was Discovered

Author - Nayanjot Lahiri
Publisher - Seagull Books/Berg
Pages - 354
Price - £29.99
ISBN - 1 905422 18 0

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