Curating Asian Art

In Conversation with Dr. Rakesh Tiwari

The Vintage Cart teams catches up with Dr Rakesh Tewari, Director General, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Dr Tiwari has excavated numerous notable archaeological sites, which provide a fresh perspective to ancient India. Unlike historical narratives and writings that are often coloured by the author’s personal view and ideological leanings, archaeological evidence provides an unbiased view of history. One of the many significant excavations led by Dr Tiwari is the discovery of iron in the Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh in 1995. The archaeological evidence unearthed by Dr Tiwari proves that India was using iron long before the arrival of the Aryans, thereby effectively shattering the Aryan myth. In an email conversation, Dr Tiwari shares with us the importance of archaeology and his most exciting discoveries.

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What got you into Archaeology? Were you always interested in the subject or was it a happy coincidence?

The main reason for me to get into archaeology was that I’d get to travel and see new places.

Having moved from field archaeology to heading a branch of government, do you miss the travel?

Yes. Totally. The fun of going in the field is very different from sitting in an office and working. But whatever work I have done in the last 36 years, my experience has been very useful in guiding others especially in field archaeology and making decisions while I am working in an official capacity.

What are some of the best parts of your job?

The best part, as I have already mentioned earlier, is being able to travel, to see new places, make new discoveries, writing about these discoveries and meeting new people – all of these things make up the better part of my job.

What are your thoughts on the state of archaeology as a field in India? Do you think it’s adequate, is there any room for improvement and if so where?

The need for improvement is always there in every field, especially in archaeology – if you talk about adopting scientific technology and analysis then it can really be stepped up.

Field archaeology has probably fallen back in certain respects. Whatever work is happening isn’t very well structured, and is less problem – oriented. However some very interesting work is happening and there have been some great achievements in this field here.

You are well known for your research of tracing the use of iron in the Ganga plains back to 1500 BC as well the origin of rice cultivation in India. Could you share the significance of these discoveries?

Around 1995-96 when our team was working in the Ganga Plain, the dating for iron in that area was supposed to be around 800-900 B.C. but when excavations were carried out at Raja Nal-ka Tila (district Sonbhadra, U.P.) it was found that the dates were going back to 1300-1400 B.C. We were curious about the fact as to why is it only in one place that the dating is going back to such an early period, so we did a follow up and carried out excavations at Malhar (in district Chandauli, U.P.) where the dates for charcoal samples were pushed back before 1500 B.C. Further our excavations at Dadupur and Hulaskhera (in Lucknow), Sonik (district Unnao), Lahuradeva (district Sant Kabirnagar) also provided early radiocarbon dates corroborated early antiquity of iron.

Apart from this, work done by other scholars such as Prof. Vidula Jaiswal who worked in Varanasi and Prof. Vibha Tripathi who worked in Sonbhadra also established iron dating back to an early period. In West Bengal, Prof. R.K. Chattopadhyay conducted excavation at Bahiri and he got similar results as well.

This was a big breakthrough as earlier it was believed that iron is dated back to 800-900 B.C. and those who moved into the Ganga Plains from Western India had carried this technique with them. But now there is a possibility that areas in which iron ore had been found in large quantity – Vindhyas, Jharkhand and Chota Nagpur – there’s a possibility that the tribal people in these areas might have found this technique and it’s their discovery.

Similarly, around 1975 Prof. G.R. Sharma claimed through his work that rice production started in 6000-7000 B.C. especially in the southern part of Allahabad. But it wasn’t accepted by people at that time. But when we started working in Lahuradeva, we also came across the evidence of early domesticated rice dating back to 7th Millennium B.C. It shows that the middle Ganga Plain and adjoining area may be marked as one of the earliest rice producing areas in India.

Do you think there is a need to change the way archaeology is taught in India? Is ASI developing a more formal career structure to encourage budding archaeologist?

Archaeology is being taught quite well in India. The role of field based work is most important and should be enhanced in the teaching.

Yes, there is a formal structure in place and in the Institute of Archaeology has trainings spread over 2 years and whenever there are excavations and explorations, students from various institutions are involved in those projects so they may understand the practical archaeology in field.

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