Excavating the Eternal: An Indigenous Archaeological Tradition in India

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Histories of archaeology by Western scholars routinely say that archaeology began in India with the reports of European travellers of the sixteenth century. Trigger (1989: 181) says, 'Archaeological research in India began in a colonial setting.... European travellers began to note ancient monuments as early as the sixteenth century.' Even Indian scholars have accepted this perception of the history of archaeology in India. About the writings of the early European travellers, Chakrabarti (1988: 1) says, 'Without doubt these records constitute the first group of archaeological writings on India.' But Indian historical texts and oral traditions reveal a parallel indigenous archaeological tradition, involving the excavation of lost sacred images and the recognition of sacred landscape features.

Excavation of sacred images and sites in the Braj Mandal region

The Braj Mandal region of northern India (Figure 1) provides a striking example of indigenous archaeological activity. The Braj Mandal is famous for its associations with the Hindu god Krishna, a form of Vishnu. Followers of Vishnu, called 'Vaishnavas', regard Vishnu or any of his selfsame forms, such as Krishna, as the supreme god. In the term Braj Mandal, braj means a pasturing place for cows, animals dear to Krishna, and mandal means a circular region. The Braj Mandal is about 80km in diameter. Its largest town is Mathura, on the west bank of the Yamuna River between New Delhi and Agra. The Bhagavata Purana identifies Mathura as the place where Krishna appeared in ancient times. At various locales in the Braj Mandal, such as Vrindavan (a name often used to refer to the whole of the Braj Mandal), youthful Krishna engaged in pastimes of divine friendship and love with his cowherd relatives and friends, as depicted in countless works of Hindu art and literature. After Krishna left this world, one of his descendants, Vajranabha, was appointed king of the Braj Mandal. According to the Skanda Purana, the area was overgrown with forest, and the pastime places of Krishna were lost. The sage Shandilya showed Vajranabha the locations of Krishna's pastimes, and to commemorate them Vajranabha established shrines housing images of Krishna. Over the course of time, many of the locales, shrines and images were lost again and later rediscovered.


Whether or not one accepts the account of Vajranabha in the Skanda Purana's Bhagavata-mahatmya section (according to modern scholarly opinion it is a fairly late interpolation), the identification of the Braj Mandal with Vajranabha and Krishna is recorded in other documents. According to Entwistle (1987: 60), the core of the Vajranabha story is found in the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic that modern scholars say reached its final form between 500 BC and AD 200. As for Krishna, Megasthenes, a Greek ambassador to the court of the Indian king Chandragupta Maurya in the late fourth century BC, wrote in his Indika: 'Herakles was worshiped by the inhabitants of the plains--especially the Sourasenoi, an Indian tribe possessed of two large cities, Methora and Kleisobara and who had a navigable river, the Jobares, flowing through its territories.' Bryant (2003: xvii-iii) notes, 'There seems little reasonable doubt (and almost all scholars agree) that the Sourasenoi refers to the Surasenas, a branch of the Yadu dynasty to which Krsna belonged; Herakles refers to Krsna, or Hari-Krsna; Methora to Mathura, Krsna's birthplace;... and the Jobares to the Yamuna river, where Krsna sported.'

What form the worship of Krishna (Hari-Krishna, or Heraldes) took is not specified, but there could have been temples housing images of Krishna. Megasthenes tells us in his descriptions of government officers in India that one of their duties was to maintain temples. And Quintus Curtius (Bryant 2003: xviii) says that the front ranks of the Indian army that confronted Alexander the Great's invading forces carried an image of Heraldes (Hari-Krishna). …