Folk Archaeological Traditions in India

In July 2, 2005, I flew overnight from Los Angeles to London’s Gatwick airport. I took a Thameslink train from Gat-wick to the Thameslink Kings Cross railway station. From there I walked a short ways up Pentonville Road to Din­widdy House, where I stayed while attending a meeting of the European Association of South Asian Archaeologists. The meeting, at which I presented a paper, was held in the British Museum, from July 4 – 8.

On the morning of July 7, shortly before nine o’clock, I walked out of Dinwiddy House. I thought about taking the Underground from the Kings Cross station to Russel Square, the stop nearest the British Museum. But I decided it would be better to walk, so that I could chant the Hare Krishna mantra on my meditation beads. A young Indian ar­chaeologist attending the conference and also staying in Dinwiddy House actually did go down into the King’s Cross underground station and was on the train that was bombed shortly after nine o’clock. She later told how she and the other survivors had to climb out of the damaged car over dead bodies and then walk through the tunnel to get back to safety.

At the conference, I heard only a very brief and low key announcement about the attacks. The archaeologists kept giving their papers, while outside the city was coming to a halt. It was only after the conference, when I tried to walk home and found my route blocked with police, that I learned the true extent of what had happened.

The next day, it was my turn to read my paper, the title of which was “Excavating the Eternal: Folk Archaeologi­cal Traditions in Ancient, Medieval, and Modern India.” Histories of Indian archaeology typically begin with observa­tions by sixteenth-century European travelers, such as Pier de Vale. In the introduction to his History of Indian Ar­chaeology from the Beginning to 1947, D. Chakrabarti says, “Without doubt these records constitute the first group of archaeological writings on India.” But Indian sacred writings reveal a parallel indigenous archaeological tradition, involving the excavation of lost artifacts, deities, temples, and sacred sites. I will give one example each from ancient, medieval, and modern India.

According to the Mahabharata, in ancient times King Marta desired to perform a sacrifice, which required gold vessels. The king’s priest, Samaria, instructed him to go to the Munjaban mountain in the Himalayas and take gold from the mines there. Marta obeyed, and his artisans turned the gold into sacrificial vessels. After the sacrifice, Marta buried some of the gold vessels. According to the Ramadan, Marta lived millions of years ago in the age called the Sabra Yoga. After the Mahabharata war, about five thousand years ago according to traditional accounts, the sage Vyasa ordered King Yudhisthira to perform a sacrifice. Much wealth was required for the sacrifice, so Vyasa told Yud­histhira about the gold vessels left by Marutta in the Himalayas. Yudhisthira excavated the gold objects and took them to his capital. We do have other evidence of ancient people collecting artifacts. For example, archaeologist C. L. Woolley, in his book Ur of the Chaldees (1950, pp. 152-154), informs us that in the sixth century B.C. the daughter of King Nebonidus put together a collection of much earlier Babylonian artifacts.

And now an example of Indian folk archaeology from medieval times. About five thousand years ago, King Vajra­nabha installed an worshipable stone deity of Krishna in a temple on Govardhan Hill in the town of Vrindavan. In the 11th century, temple priests removed the deity from the temple and buried it, to protect it from attack. It remained lost until the 15th century, at which time Madhavendra Puri, a devotee of Krishna, came to Vrindavan. Once Madha­vendra Puri was fasting and meditating beneath a tree at Govinda Kunda, a pond near the village of Aniyor, at the foot of Govardhana Hill. At night Krishna appeared to him in a dream, revealed the location of the deity, and asked that it be excavated. Awakening from the dream, Madhavendra went into the nearby village and gathered some people. To­gether, they excavated the deity. Under Madhavendra Puri’s direction the villagers took the deity to the top of Govard­hana Hill and eventually installed it in a new temple. In the 17th century, under new threats of attack, the deity was taken to Nathdwar in Rajasthan, where it remains today. The story of how Madhavendra Puri excavated the deity can be found in Chaitanya-charitamrta, a Bengali work completed by Krsnadasa Kaviraja in A.D. 1615.

Finally, an example of folk archaeology from more modern times. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, an avatar, or incarna­tion of God, appeared in the late 15th century in a town called Navadvipa, on the banks of the Ganges in what is now West Bengal. In the centuries after Chaitanya’s time (1486-1532), the place of his appearance was lost, because of the shifting river. In the late 19th century, Bhaktivinoda Thakura (1838-1915), relocated the site of Chaitanya Ma­haprabhu’s birth, beginning its development into a major pilgrimage place. Bhaktivinoda Thakura, educated in Eng­lish, served as a magistrate in the British administration of India. Eager to find the exact place of Chaitanya Maha­prabhu’s appearance, he sought and finally received a transfer to Krsnanagara, a town near Navadvipa. Each weekend, he would come to Navadvipa, but did not find what he wanted. One night in 1888, he was standing on the roof of a guesthouse. Looking across the Ganges River he saw ‘a large building flooded with light.’ The next morning, he looked out across the river at the place where he had seen the shining building in the night sky. He saw a tall palm tree. Asking some of the local people, he learned that the place was called Ballaldighi. The next Saturday he returned to Balladighi. That night, he again had a vision of a shining building there, and the next morning he went on foot to explore the area where it had appeared. Some of the elderly villagers told him this was the birthplace of Chaitanya. Bhaktivinoda Thakura confirmed this by carefully studying the geographical descriptions given in the early biographies of Chaitanya. He also studied old records and maps by Dutch and British cartographers. In 1895, a small tem­ple was opened on the site. Later, in 1934, a larger temple was opened, and it can still be visited today.

There are many more examples that I could give. Together they show that archaeology in India did not begin, as many scholars claim, with the arrival of European travelers in the 16th century. Long before that, there was a folk ar­chaeological tradition in India, a tradition that began thousands of years ago and continued through the arrival of the Europeans in the colonial era right up to the present day.

Chaitanya Charitamrita, a sixteenth-century Bengali biography of the Gaudiya Vaishnava saint Chaitanya Maha­prabhu, recounts his excavation of sites related to Krishna in the Mathura-Vrindavan region. In the early 20th centu­ry, the Gaudiya Vaishnava acharya Bhaktivinoda Thakura, using folk archaeological methods, relocated the site of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s birth near Mayapur, West Bengal, beginning its development into a major pilgrimage place. Many Shaivite and Vaishnava temple histories record the rediscovery of lost temple deities by folk archaeological methods. Awareness of this extensive folk archaelogical tradition adds to our understanding of the history of Indian archaeology, especially our appreciation for the variety of motives underlying the archaeological quest, in its sacred and secular aspects.

The paper was not on my usual topic, evidence for extreme human antiquity, but it does reflect my strong inter­est in the history of archaeology in India. The conference was attended by, I would guess, about two hundred archae­ologists and art historians from Europe, India, and other parts of the world. Among the archaeologists from India was one that I have been working with, trying to get permission from the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) to conduct some test excavations at the Shri Rangam temple in South India. I would like to show that the temple is at least five thousand years old. However, the ASI is not inclined to give permission for doing such work on the temple grounds proper. The archaeologist informed me that we probably could get permission to do such work outside the temple compound. That might work, if we could locate buried older foundations or other buried structures connected with the temple and surrounding settlement in ancient times.

At the conference, we learned about the London transit terror bombings during the sessions. In the session I was sitting in on, the convener made a very brief understated announcement, while in another session, the convener put one of the news web sites up on the digital projector, giving a more graphic picture.

Michael A. Cremo is author, with Richard Thompson, of the underground classic Forbidden Archaeology: The Hidden History of the Human Race. His latest book is Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin’s Theory (see


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