Archaeology and Identity in Colonial India

By Lahiri, Nayanjot | Antiquity, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Archaeology and Identity in Colonial India


Lahiri, Nayanjot, Antiquity


Introduction

`How is it that your countrymen steal our gods?' asked a Brahmin of the Baptist missionary, John Chamberlain who noted the details of this conversation in his diary on 20 November 1817 (Davis 1997: 164):

`Sir, a gentleman whose name I do not remember, came to me to let him take the image of Lukshmee away, which stood on the point where the river and rivulet meet; and he said he would give me a sum of money if I could consent to it. I told him that I could not take any money for it; that she was worshipped by all the people around, and that several times a year the people assembled from the country at a distance to see the goddess, and to bathe: at which time much was offered to her'. The gentleman persisted. He returned four or five times, offered ample remuneration and even took the brahmin by boat to see the assemblage of gods in his Calcutta house, but still the brahmin refused to sell. Finally, the gentleman `got his people together, and took away the goddess by night. There the tree stands, Sir, but the goddess is gone!'

This story, about an Indian priest and a British military officer and antiquarian Charles Stuart (1757-1828), is a useful starting point for a discourse on the theme of archaeology and identity in colonial India on two counts (Fisch 1985). Firstly, it is illustrative of processes that were an integral part of the colonization of India -- the acquisition, control and attempt to alter existing structures -- either through peaceful means, when `ample remuneration' was offered, or by force or deception, when `the gentleman got his people together, and took away the goddess by night'. Secondly, it reminds us that modern interest in the material paraphernalia of India's past coincided with and, in many cases, manifested itself in situations of domination and conquest. This requires emphasis since much of the literature on the history of the discipline has treated its evolution in terms of the development of a neutral, scientific enterprise, detached from the imperial process and its politics. In sharp contrast, this essay assumes that the evolution of Indian archaeology cannot be discussed without referring to the circumstances in which this process unfolded, those of the creation and expansion of the British colonial state. Its central argument hinges on the radically different positions occupied by the `colonizers' and the `colonized' and the impact of this on the manner in which archaeology was used by each group to construct the `other' and their own identities. To put it another way, while Charles Stuart, the subject of the above-quoted incident, has been seen by many as the most influential antiquarian of his time in the `age of discovery' of India's material past, from the perspective of the devout worshippers, whose goddess was taken away, antiquarians and things archaeological could only have been the signifiers of an `epoch of loss'.

Connecting archaeology to Empire

The affiliations of archaeology with the British administration of India were close and influenced, at various levels, the ways in which different groups of people perceived it, in relation to themselves and others. I shall highlight some of them, conceding in advance that selectivity has to be exercised in a paper of this length. The first is that self-conscious, systematic surveys of sites and antiquities for the purpose of reconstructing India's historical past were intimately connected with the British need to gather and order information about their subjects in newly acquired territories. These surveys became part of the East India Company's system of governance and resource mapping under Wellesley (1798-1805), gaining in momentum after the capture of Sri Rangapattana in AD 1799, which practically completed the British conquest of India south of the Vindhya mountains. It was this political context, an unequal relationship of force, that allowed all kinds of British officials, to treat subcontinental sites as an easy hunting ground for antiquities.

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