From the Bara culture: R.S. Bisht

Print edition : September 28, 2018

Ravindra Singh Bisht (right), former Additional Director General of the ASI, studying a burial during one of his visits to the excavation site between March and May. Along with him are Sanjay Manjul and Disha Ahluwalia, research scholar in the ASI. Photo: ASI

THE discovery of wooden coffin burials “with ideologically driven motifs” at Sanauli in Uttar Pradesh was a “strong indication” of the then people’s faith “in a belief system”, and so it was a “significant discovery”, said Ravindra Singh Bisht (74), former Additional Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

“The eight beautifully crafted motifs, which are stylistic bull heads, form a new chapter in the history of art in India,” he said. If the string of motifs provided an insight into the then people’s “belief system”, the discovery of three full-sized chariots, copper helmets, copper antenna swords, big terracotta pots and red vases with flaring rims threw light on the burial customs prevalent then. Bisht, who visited the Sanauli excavation three times between March and May this year, praised the “scientific temperament”, the “artistic skill” and the “patience” of Sanjay Manjul and Arvin Manjul, both of the ASI, in uncovering the wooden coffin burials. He congratulated the Manjuls and their team for their discoveries.

Wooden coffins were first discovered at Harappa, now in Pakistan, by Mortimer Wheeler, then ASI Director General, when he was directing an excavation there in 1944. Later, the American archaeologists Richard H. Meadow and Mark J. Kenoyer also found wooden coffins at Harappa.

At Dholavira, a Harappan site in Kutch district in Gujarat, where Bisht led the ASI excavation for 13 field seasons from 1990 to 2005, he found imitiations of the coffins there. They were found inside a cist in the Harappan cemetery at Dholavira. They were symbolic/memorial burials because there were no skeletons inside the imitation-coffins. “Thus the discovery of the wooden coffin burials at Sanuali is not new,” he said.

However, Bisht argued: “The importance of the wooden coffin burials at Sanauli is that the burials have been done in a very elaborate manner and the coffins are crafted with ideologically directed motifs on wood and then covered with copper sheets. The wood has disintegrated and the copper remains. Near the head of the skeleton was a different motif which cannot be figured out properly because of the disturbed condition of the burial now. All the motifs are strong indicators of their belief system.”

The discovery of three chariots in two of the coffin burials was important because it would help in providing a date to the burials, he said. The chariots formed part of the entire burial. He was confident that a lot of organic material, including charcoal, which had been found during the excavation, would help in dating the burials.

In Bisht’s assessment: “Culturally, the coffin burials excavated at Sanauli do not belong to the Harappan civilisation. They belong to the Bara culture, which was prevalent in Haryana, Punjab and the Ganga-Yamuna Doab.” The Bara culture was basically contemporaneous with the Harappan culture of the late phase. Since the Bara culture lasted for a longer time, it was after the Late Harappan phase. “The phase you see in Sanauli is post-Harappan. Whatever you see at Sanauli is posterior to Harappa,” Bisht said.

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