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The Past at Every Corner

The Past at Every Corner Delhi: Ancient History edited by Upinder Singh; Social Science Press, New Delhi, Shonaleeka Kaul Delhi: Ancient History, as its introduc- tion tells you, is a

The Past at Every Corner

Delhi: Ancient History

edited by Upinder Singh; Social Science Press, New Delhi, pp 227, Rs 220.

SHONALEEKA KAUL

D
elhi: Ancient History, as its introduction tells you, is a “collection of readings”. It is not a comprehensive account of the city’s ancient past nor a history in continuous narrative form. The 20 essays by prominent archaeologists, historians and indologists are excerpted from writings some of which are separated by decades. These deal with what appear (in this book) to be isolated elements/episodes from the formative centuries of the Delhi region. Some elements are of general renown, such as the Mehrauli Pillar at the Qutb Minar and the Asokan Pillar at Ferozeshah Kotla, and the book serves to substantiate the historical background of these celebrated but little-understood landmarks. On the other hand, relatively obscure episodes, like the late Harappan phase at Bhorgarh and Mandoli on the fringes of the city, are introduced, as it were, to the general reader by Delhi: Ancient History.

Briefly, the seven chronologically ordered sections over which the readings are distributed relate to stone age sites (including studies on the palaeo-environment of the NCR), a couple of protohistoric (late Harappan) settlements, the identification of Delhi with legendary Indraprastha of the Mahabharata, the Asokan rock and pillar edicts (representing the early historic phase), the Mehrauli Iron Pillar (Gupta period), the early medieval (11th century) fortification and other remains at Lal Kot and Anangpur, and a last section on somewhat unconventional approaches to understanding ancient relics in a modern context.

Most of the profiles carried in Delhi: Ancient History are archaeological and epigraphic. Paradoxically, this is not because a great deal of or seminal exploration/excavation work has been done on Delhi. In fact the essays lament that the archaeological data available is in outline and paltry. But literary references to Delhi in the early period are absent. Even the ascribed correlation (apparently of medieval origin) with the Pandava capital Indraprastha is unverifiable. The book carries an extract from the epic on Indraprastha but it is a description of the royal assembly hall and not of the city. Therefore it hardly contributes towards the debate over identifying the literary city with Delhi or rather with its Purana Qila area. Nor are the archaeological findings at the Qila capable of being definitive on this question. And yet the belief that Indraprastha was the earliest avatar of the present national capital is unambiguously a part of popular and even governmental perception, what with a new university, a thermal power plant and a centrally located residential and official part of the modern city, among other things, being named after it.

In the event, section three that discusses the question makes for a fascinating contemplation of the intersections of archaeology, texts and local tradition. However, Delhi itself tends to drop from view as the two main articles are concerned with examining at great length (50 odd pages) questions of general import such as the nature of a text as vast and complex as the Mahabharata – whether it is “myth or reality”

– and whether archaeology and literature can or should be used comparatively as historical sources. These are enquiries into the fundamentals of the discipline – its method and practices – and instructive for a consideration of any historical site. But given that the book is on Delhi and that both the textual and archaeological testimony on the so-called Indraprastha is far from sizeable or significant, the discussion could have justifiably been pruned.

Superfluous Aspects

Much more so, section five on the Mehrauli Iron Pillar which contains not only repetitive descriptions of the size, weight and appearance of the column but a tortuously technical dissection of the chemical and “metallographic” composition and behaviour of the specimen in question. (There are actually to be found in the article as used here charts on the percentages of carbon, silicon, sulphur, manganese and so on and the specific gravity of structural parts of the pillar according to various estimates.) Paralle ling this is the abstruse account of traditional techniques for tempering iron cited from the Brhat Samhita, a sixth century text. It includes an esoteric rendition of multiple ‘lepas’ or applications/layers of materials that are, for the most part, as intelligible as “horns of a she-buffalo, secretion of a blue pigeon and sap of the deodaru tree” (pp 142-43).

Both the scientific and traditional analyses address the remarkable (near –) freedom from rust that characterises the Mehrauli pillar and as such appear relevant and insightful. But not only is it not clear what implications such a discussion can have for understanding what was going on in the Delhi of the time (especially because the pillar is not in situ and is believed to have originated outside Delhi), but a headlong leap into such specialist enunciations can render the subject matter quite inaccessible. Similarly, though another article on the same theme reproduces the Sanskrit inscription on the pillar and thereby provides a feel of the original source, its pedantic delineation of the linguistic and palaeographic peculiarities and/or errors in the engraving could well have been edited out.

Several articles, as for instance in sections one, two and six, are actually archaeological reports on excavations carried out at different sites in the region. Consequently these read like inventories of occupation levels, stone tools and pottery types, losing themselves in dry detail. Apart from making for uninspiring reading, these lists fail to flesh out the

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significance of the finds for ancient Delhi as a living settlement. Moreover, taken together, these give to the book the aspect of a patchwork of stratigraphic profiles, and no more. A macro picture does not emerge for the area either spatially or chronologically. This is a deficiency for we know that through its long history there have been not one but many Delhis over not just time but territory. Just a simple map plotting the shifting (or persisting) settlements from sector to sector (for instance Mehrauli, Najafgarh, Purana Qila, Kalkaji, Mehrauli again, then Fari dabad and so on) would have provided much needed coherence and a synthesising perspective.

One essay in the collection that does offer a neat overview, if in the passing, and deserves to be singled out for mention is B R Mani’s piece on excavations at early medieval Lal Kot that efficiently traces salient features of each phase for Delhi as a whole. Also Upinder Singh’s introduction to the book is a very useful and enthusiastic round-up of all the issues considered and more. It admits to most of the problems with the book and concedes that “the ancient history of Delhi is still very imperfectly understood and there is a great need for further exploration and study” (pp xxii).

That said, the achievements of this volume cannot be ignored: it brings together an array of writings on different moments in this sprawling city’s early career. It establishes the great antiquity (from lower palaeolothic times) and continuity of habitation in the area, underlining how a modernising metropolis can have an unrecognisably different past. It also offers nuggets like the legend behind the name ‘Dilli’ (apparently an early medieval reference to a loose ‘dhili’ pillar erected by a Tomar king). Most of all, it raises, howsoever implicitly, thoughtprovoking questions that could lead to creative historical and anthropological urban research, questions pertaining to how the ancient past remains with us at every nook and corner and coexists unassumingly with incongruous change, or why some one role (like that of political capital) sticks to an urban centre through the ages, or how a place acquires multiple images and identities not always founded on “fact” but on alternative realities, or whether a city like Delhi, with its shifting centres, expanding contours and cultural openness, can ever be captured by definitions and boundaries.

EPW

Email: Shenakaul@yahoo.co.in

Economic and Political Weekly September 1, 2007

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