The Lost City of Cambay. ((Frontline).(India)

By Charan, Anubha | History Today, November 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Lost City of Cambay. ((Frontline).(India)

Charan, Anubha, History Today

AN INNOCUOUS PIECE OF WOOD and a slew of other artefacts might just be set to push back Indian antiquity to 7500Bc, if material picked up from the seabed of the Gulf of Cambay gets scientific verification. The findings follow the accidental unearthing of what may be a 40-metre deep ancient underwater settlement off the Western Coast of India, discovered by the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) during a routine assessment of water pollution levels.

Acoustic imaging has revealed well-defined geometric formations, spread irregularly across a nine-kilometer stretch, resembling known characteristics of the Harappan civilisation of 2500 BC, up till now, the earliest known civilisation of the subcontinent. One of the structures, the size of an Olympic swimming pool, has a series of sunken steps that look like the Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro. Another rectangular platform, 200m long and 45m wide, is as big as the Acropolis in Harappa.

Dredging has brought up over 2,000 objects from the site, which include hand-chiselled and polished stone tools, perforated stone pieces, ornaments and figurines, semi-precious stones, weathered potsherds, ivory, fossilised remains of a human vertebra, a jaw bone and a human tooth. The pottery pieces seem to belong to the early centuries of the Common Era, suggesting there was a settlement here that was engaged in the Roman trade. Carbon-dating of pieces of wood carried out by the Birbal Sahani Institute of Palaeobotony and the National Geophysical Research Institute revealed them to be from 5500 BC and 7500 BC respectively.

Rounded pebbles suggest that one or many rivers had run their course through the now-submerged region. It is a well known that virtually every ancient civilization flourished on riverbanks. Murli Manohar Joshi, India's Minister for HRD, Science, Technology and Ocean Development, has declared that the sunken river `could be the mythical Saraswati', which is believed to have flowed into the `sagara in the Gulf of Khambat (Cambay)'.

The region falls in the high seismic risk zone, and geologists believe that a series of massive earthquakes may have caused the entire Cambay area to sink, including the then existing part of the river and the ancient settlement. The area was exposed to continental processes for some time, as indicated by the partial cementation by ground water carbonate of the upper part of the sea bed and by the presence of calcified root casts.

Geological studies have shown that ancient coastal terraces can be found at a depth of 100m, suggesting that around 7500 BC the coast was well inside the present sea area.

According to currently accepted scholarship, civilization began around 3500 BC in Mesopotamia and around 2500 BC in the Indus Valley. If findings from either laboratory were to be believed, Cambay would be the oldest known city in India, if not the world.

Many archaeologists, however, find such claims a little premature. Dr Dilip Rajgor, who specializes in the ancient culture and archaeology of Gujarat and has participated in many Harappan excavations, believes it more likely that the city is Harappan, dating back to around 3000-2500 BC. `The present dating has been done on a wooden piece,' he explains, `which could have been swept there by tidal waves. Secondly, two pieces from the same sample have been dated with a difference of 2,000 years. Which one should be believed?'

US historians Dr Gregory Possehl of the University of Pennsylvania and Dr Richard Meadow from Harvard, both of whom have excavated many Harappan sites in India, believe that it is premature to rank the site as the find of the century. `The sonar images alone are not enough to show a "city" since undersea formations can exhibit regular features,' says Possehl, while both experts concur that what is urgently needed is a proper underwater investigation involving underwater archaeologists and marine explorers.

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