Archaeology

Tracing rice domestication in India

Print edition : May 01, 2015

Rakesh Tewari, Director General, ASI. Photo: S. Subramanium

Rock paintings discovered near Mau in Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A general view of the excavation at Lahuradeva in the middle-Ganga plains in Uttar Pradesh, which, along with other sites such as Thusi, Hetapatti, Malhar and Tokwa, established that rice was cultivated in India as early as seventh millennium BCE. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Rakesh Tewari (who is rowing) completing his 2,400-km-long rowing expedition in a dinghy from Delhi to Kolkata in 1976. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Interview with Rakesh Tewari, Director General, Archaeological Survey of India.

IN his chosen field of archaeology and in sports, Dr Rakesh Tewari, Director General, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is a man of many parts. He is a specialist who brought to light evidence regarding many archaeological discoveries and insights: the origin of rice cultivation in India; the interaction between the middle-Ganga plains and the Harappan zone; the antiquity of iron in the middle-Ganga plains; rock art; ancient trade routes; Stone Age sites; and temple architecture in Uttaranchal. He has also done village-to-village surveys of archaeological sites and antiquarian remains besides doing a comparative study of the settlement patterns during the Kushan and the Gupta periods.

Before taking over as the Director General of the ASI in May 2014, Tewari was Director, Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) State Archaeology Department, for 24 years from 1989. He was the founder-editor of Pragdhara, the annual journal of the U.P. State Archaeology Department. The objective of Pragdhara, which means an “ancient stream”, is to provide a forum to present the results of archaeological investigation projects carried out by not only the U.P. State Archaeology Department but other similar institutions. As the editor of Pragdhara, he brought out 22 annual volumes (23rd in press) in as many years. He earned his PhD in Ancient History on the topic “Mirzapur ke Chitrit Sailasraya” (in Hindi) from Avadh University.

Tewari has 35 years of experience in field archaeology. He made a name for himself when he excavated a site in Lahuradeva village in Sant Kabir Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh. The results provided evidence for the appearance of cultivated rice, datable to the mid-seventh millennium BCE, wheat and barley (circa 2700 BCE) and the interaction of the middle-Ganga plains with western India, datable to the third millennium BCE. His excavation at Malhar, in Chandauli district of Uttar Pradesh, to assess the antiquity of iron in the light of the discovery of early iron at a site called Raja Nala-ka-tila, yielded iron-bearing deposits, which gave radio-carbon dates as early as 1800-1600 BCE to 1400-1300 BCE. Numerous iron artefacts, slags, tuyeres and furnaces were found in these deposits. He is a specialist in rock art sites, and his monograph “Rock Paintings of Mirzapur” was well received. He set up site museums at Chunar, Halia, Mau, Shivdwar, Mahoba and Lalitpur, all in Uttar Pradesh. He was awarded the Wallace India Fellowship in Ancient Indian History at the Ancient India and Iran Trust, Cambridge, as Visiting Scholar, Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom in 2003.

The 61-year-old Tewari was a keen sportsman in his college days and was the athletics champion of his college. He rowed single-handedly about 2,400 kilometres from Delhi to Kolkata in a dinghy on the Chambal, Yamuna Ganga rivers in 1976. He took part in a Lucknow-Kathmandu-Lucknow cycling expedition in 1974.

Frontline met Tewari for an interview in his office in New Delhi on February 26, 2015. Excerpts:

Tell us about your findings, with the help of radio-carbon dating, about how rice cultivation began first in the middle-Ganga valley in Uttar Pradesh. It looks as if your excavations in the middle-Ganga plains reversed the earlier findings that rice cultivation began in China.

We were actually investigating the status of the middle-Ganga plains when the Harappan civilisation was flourishing in the western part of the subcontinent. That was exactly third millennium BCE. So we focussed on a site called Lahuradeva, which is in the middle-Ganga plains. On the basis of surface finds, we thought that this ancient site may provide us evidence of life in the third millennium BCE. When we did the excavation there from 2001 to 2004 and for two more field seasons, we found that our early observations were quite correct. The evidence proved that an agricultural community was living there and they were cultivating not only rice but wheat and barley also. Apart from that, some artefacts indicated that they had some sort of contact with the western part of the country. The evidence included bones of capra (goat /sheep), wheat and barley, dish-on-stand pottery and beads made of steatite and faience. So we concluded that these artefacts provided evidence regarding the interaction between the middle-Ganga plains and western India.

In addition to that, in the lower levels, we got evidence of charred rice grains, which have been dated to the seventh millennium BCE on the basis of radio-carbon dating from three laboratories. One laboratory was the Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleobotany (BSIP), Lucknow; the second was the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad; and the third was the Erlangen-Nuremberg University, Germany. We had two sets of dates from the BSIP and the PRL from the associated charcoal, and another set of two dates which were directly from the grains, from the German university.

So we were sure that at least from the seventh millennium BCE, the settlers at that site were exploiting rice. Our palaeo-botanist collaborator, Dr K.S. Saraswat, has examined the rice grains and he is of the opinion that they belong to the domesticated variety as well as the wild variety.

Along with these grains, we found pottery which contained rice husk in profuse quantity. The husk had been used for tempering clay. Besides, available evidence indicates that some huts must have existed there because some post-holes were found at the lower levels. Some other radio-carbon datings indicate that hunter-gatherers were also probably active in the area from about 10,000 BCE. So these are two important aspects. One is the rice cultivation/domestication and the second is the contact between the middle-Ganga plains and western India in the third millennium BCE.

Regarding the domestication of rice, it may be underlined here that Professor G.R. Sharma of Allahabad University had earlier claimed that he had found evidence of domestication of rice in the northern Vindhyas in Allahabad district and he also claimed the same antiquity for the rice cultivation/domestication.

Apart from that, a few other sites such as Jhusi and Hetapatti in Allahabad district, Malhar in Chandauli district and Tokwa in Mirzapur district have provided evidence of rice cultivation or early domestication of rice in that part of the country. Collectively, it appears that the whole of the middle-Ganga plains and the northern Vindhyas would have been one of the earliest areas where rice cultivation would have evolved. On the basis of these dates, we may opine that the domestication of rice in the middle-Ganga plains would have evolved independently almost at the same time as in China.

So this is what we, as archaeologists, could gather from our excavations. …This is a process of research that provides evidence and whatever it proves, we submit it for the perusal of the scholars.

Dr K. Rajan, Professor of History, Pondicherry University, told me that you are a specialist in the northern black-polished ware (NBPW). Dr Rajan was delighted when he found an NBPW sherd in his excavation at Kodumanal in Tamil Nadu two years ago and he consulted you on the find. It was a beautiful sherd with a silvery glint. I saw it at Kodumanal. Rajan said the NBPW was used by the elite people as tableware. It seems that the NBPW also has a golden slip [coat]. How did they achieve that kind of silvery or golden finish more than 2,000 years ago?

Some research work has been done on the NBPW, but the final conclusions have not been drawn yet.

How did people achieve that kind of technological expertise many hundreds of years ago?

We cannot talk about it unless we know the process of making that kind of pottery. The presence of this pottery in south India is significant. Yes, it has been found at Kodumanal and several other sites such as Korkai and Azhagankulam in Tamil Nadu, and in Sri Lanka. I believe that contacts between south India and north India go back to a much earlier period than what has been assumed generally. So this evidence gives us a good example of cultural interaction between the north and the south and it should go back at least to the seventh century BCE, if not earlier. This is what I understand.

You are a specialist in [iron] steel.

I am not an expert in iron and steel. I excavated a site in 1995-96 in Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh, which is in the northern Vindhyas. During the excavation, we found iron deposits which were considered to be of the chalcolithic period. But when we considered the evidence in totality, we understood that iron belonged to a much earlier date at that site.

It is dated to 1300-1400 BCE. Then, an obvious question that arose was: Why was iron being dated so early only at one site? So we started looking for more evidence. Later, we collected evidence from some more sites, namely from Malhar and Nai Dih in the Vindhyas and from Dadupur and Lahuradeva in the Ganga plains, datable between circa 1700 BCE and 1200 BCE. Later, scholars such as Vidula Jayaswal who excavated Aktha in Varanasi and Dr Vibha Tripathi and Dr P. Upadhyay who excavated Raipura also found early dates for iron-bearing deposits, which further confirmed our observations. So we can now say that iron was smelted in the northern Vindhyas from the early half of the second millennium BCE, most probably by the local settlers.

What policy decisions have you taken to accelerate archaeological work in the ASI? Excavation was done earlier by the Superintending Archaeologists (S.A.s.) of the ASI’s Circle offices. After you took over as the ASI Director General, you have asked the S.A.s of the Excavation Branches to do the excavation at various sites. What made you take this decision?

The main problem was the completion of the exploration and excavation reports. If the reports on excavation are not published, the whole purpose of the excavation becomes futile. Taking into account this problem, [Mortimer] Wheeler, therefore, had recommended long back in 1965 or so that considering the workload on the Circles, excavation projects should be given only to the Excavation branches. I just followed that recommendation. In my opinion also, we should focus on time-bound projects through our Excavation branches so that we can complete the projects and write the reports in a reasonable time frame. This has been included in the draft excavation policy.

So what work will the ASI’s Circle offices do now? Will they concentrate on conservation and restoration?

The usual work they were doing except excavation. They are being given village-to-village surveys [of antiquarian remains] and other such work which is not time-consuming or time-restrained.

How has the implementation of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act, 2010, been? How are you overcoming the opposition to it? For instance, there are many megalithic burial sites in Pallavaram, near Chennai, which are protected sites of the ASI under this Act. But hundreds of houses have been built in the prohibited areas [the first hundred metres from the site] and regulated areas [the next two hundred metres from where the prohibited area ends] of these megalithic burial sites in violation of the rules under this Act. The owners of these houses are opposing the implementation of this Act.

We are reconsidering the Act and a review is under process. We will certainly take care of the views of different stakeholders.

When you drive down the road from Vandalur to Kelambakkam, near Chennai, hundreds of megalithic burial sites, whether they are protected or not under the Act, have been destroyed by realtors. At Onampakkam near Cheyyur, on the way to Puducherry and about 100 km from Chennai, a wonderful megalithic burial site, which also has carvings of the Jaina tirthankaras and Jaina beds on the nearby hills, is being destroyed by granite quarries. Many people have built houses in the prohibited and regulated areas of protected monuments and sites, not knowing it is illegal to do so.

I think the problem should be looked at from both sides. There are three types of monuments and sites. The first are those protected by the Central government, the second are those protected by the State governments, and the third are those which are protected neither by the Centre nor by the State governments. The responsibility [of safeguarding these sites and monuments] is with the local authorities also.

That is the point I wanted to raise. The local authorities also have a responsibility to protect these sites and monuments.

If they are aware that there are certain monuments and sites in their areas, they should look after them because just one agency cannot look after everything. Such a rich heritage is available in our country. Whenever we get such information [that sites and monuments are being destroyed], we do our best to protect the sites, but local people, local authorities and other sections of society should take a call as well.

At the moment, we have 3,685 sites and monuments under our protection. You may understand what these numbers say. We may enhance these numbers to a limited extent. What I mean to say is that we may protect a few more sites. We may not take all the archaeological sites under our protection. So the local authorities and the State governments will have to come forward and take measures to protect them.

Will the ASI work with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and the Indus Research Centre of the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai to decipher the Indus script?

This is an area in which I don’t have any expertise. I just know that some attempts are being made to decipher the script. Since I am not an expert in this field, I cannot say anything.

You are personally interested in rock art sites. The ASI supported a rock art conference held recently at the University of Pondicherry. Many rock art sites have been discovered, especially in Madhya Pradesh. How do you plan to protect these rock art sites from being vandalised or destroyed?

I have done some work on rock art. To protect rock art sites, you have to consider the concept of national parks, because rock art shelters are located in reserved forests. Several hundreds of painted rock art shelters are situated in the Vindhyas, the Aravallis and other hilly areas. Collaboration with the Forest Department is needed to protect them and we are thinking in that direction.

Have you taken any steps to boost research in epigraphy at the ASI? You have a good Epigraphy branch in Mysore.

Yes, that is a real challenge because not many young persons come forward to take up epigraphy as a career. In our restructuring of the ASI, we are trying to create more posts and we are reviewing how we can encourage young scholars to opt for epigraphy.

The ASI Directors General, from the time of A. Ghosh, used to be the editors of “Indian Archaeology: A Review”, published by the ASI. You have farmed out that responsibility to your colleagues and they will be the editors of the various volumes. This has come in for praise from the ASI staff.

There is a backlog of 10 years. If the publication of the annual “Review” has been delayed by 10 years, then the whole objective of publishing the ”Review” is lost. So what I did was to distribute different volumes to various scholars and I hope they will achieve the objective of not only clearing the backlog but getting it updated.

You were the editor of Pragdhara when you were the Director of the Uttar Pradesh Archaeology Department for 24 years and you brought out 23 volumes in 23 consecutive years.

I must appreciate the work of the contributors and the administrative officers also because it could be done only with the IAS Secretaries supporting me fully.

They gave me a budget, provided me the autonomy and never interfered with what I did. So I must appreciate their contribution also. I did not make this effort alone. There was a team of my colleagues—it was not big—helping me. This is an achievement of that team. I must appreciate the contributions of other colleagues too who did not directly contribute to that journal.

I have never done anything for the sake of earning a name. I have more than 200 publications in my name. I also used to write travelogues in Hindi. My latest book is Ek Safar Dongi Mein Dagmag.

In which magazine did you write your travelogue? I have read your articles on archaeology in Puratattva and Man and Environment.

Those are my academic contributions published in Puratattva and Man and Environment. My travelogues were published earlier in Dharmayug and recently in Kadambini. Ek Safar Dongi Mein Dagmag is entirely different from my archaeological work. I did a rowing expedition in 1976 before taking up archaeology. I rowed from New Delhi to Kolkata in a small boat and this travelogue about it was written before 1980.

Did you row down the Yamuna and the Ganges?

From here [New Delhi] to Agra by the Agra Canal; from Agra I went to Dhaulpur in the Chambal, and from Chambal, I reached the Yamuna and the Ganga, and from Farakka in the Bhagirathi to Kolkata.

(Tewari shows the cover page of the book entitled Ek Safar Dongi Mein Dagmag, published by Rajkamal Prakashan in 2014. The page has a picture of Tewari rowing a dinghy and his friend is seated in it.)

The title means “A Travel in a Small Dinghy in a Manner known as Dagmag”, that is, nothing is certain. The dinghy was in such doldrums that I was not sure whether I will be able to complete the expedition, but I ultimately completed it.

So you and your friend rowed.

The rowing was done only by me. Two or three friends accompanied me from time to time, one after another.

At what age did you undertake this rowing expedition?

I was 23.

I visited Ajanta and Ellora and we published stories on them in Frontline. I found scores of casual staff employed by the ASI at both the sites. They are dedicated workers who keep the sites clean and neat. But the ASI has not confirmed their services for more than 35 years. Do you have plans to confirm them?

This is a very sensitive issue. They have my sympathies. But there are certain rules and regulations. We have to go by them. We are trying our best to accommodate as many workers as we can.

When we go to ASI museums, including the site museums, we are not allowed to take pictures. Even epigraphists and archaeologists are denied permission to take pictures. Can these restrictions be relaxed?

We are reviewing that aspect because the technology has changed. We are looking at how to relax these restrictions. We will delegate powers to the Regional Directors or Superintending Archaeologists, giving them clear-cut guidelines so that it [granting permission] will not take time.

Going forward, what focus would you like to give to the ASI?

I have been a field worker. I will continue to do that with full dedication and hard work. The officers and staff of the ASI are well-trained and educated. I hope they can join me in doing their work with full dedication, imagination and to the best of their capability. I don’t think one needs to give them directives because everyone knows what needs to be done.

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