Vadnagar’s wall of fame

Print edition : October 13, 2017

At the ASI's excavation site at Vadnagar, said to be the only town in India that has been in existence continuously for 2,500 years, in Gujarat. The picture shows the depth of the fortification wall built by various dynasties in different periods.

A view of structures showing the various phases of construction in locality A of the area under excavation. Photo: ASI

The fortification wall of kiln-fired bricks first built possibly in the 3rd century BCE. It also shows the structural phases of the wall when it was strengthened by various dynasties.

Excavation in progress in locality B.

Terracotta head of the Buddha with the 'Ushnisha', or flame of knowledge, and the 'Urna' mark on the forehead, between the eyebrows.

Terracotta head of the Buddha with the 'Ushnisha', or flame of knowledge, and the 'Urna' mark on the forehead, between the eyebrows.

Terracotta head of the Buddha, as pendant, with the tri-ratna symbol on the top.

Terracotta head of the Buddha, as pendant, with the tri-ratna symbol on the top.

A classic human face made from grey schist stone.

A Buddha head with the 'Ushnisha' but without the smile.

Coin of lead. This one shows three arches, a river, a trident and dots in a line.

Coin of lead depicting a Garuda with outstretched wings.

Terracotta sealing deciphered as Rudradevasya.

A sealing. Most had Brahmi inscriptions on them.

Terracotta sealing of Ishwarvarmana.

Terracotta sealing.

A terracotta sealing with scripts.

A terracotta sealing.

A bullae, or round tablet, of the 5th century, engraved with a human head of striking charm.

On the reverse of the bullae is an inscription that is faded and not decipherable.

A hoard of lead coins found in one of the trenches.

Small sculpture hewn out of schist stone, of Ganesha, of the medieval period.

Small sculture hewn out of schist stone, of Mahishasuramardini, of the medieval period.

The excavation at locality B, at a depth of 14 metres, shows a massive wall built of 113 rows of bricks in the ancient residential quarters. Digging had to be stopped after this depth because of water intrusion.

An artefact depicting the Buddha accepting honey from a monkey, which is a story in the Jataka tales.

Remains of the Buddhist monastery dating back to the Mauryan period (4th century BCE to 3rd century BCE). Vadnagar is said to have had at least 10 Buddhist monasteries and about 100 monks were staying in them. Photo: Y.S. RAWAT

Remains of the circular Buddhist stupa excavated by the State archaeology department between 2005 and 2012. Photo: Y.S. RAWAT

Excavation to the south of the Buddhist monastery at Ghaskol locality. At left in the picture are two cells for monks.

A water tank adjacent to the wall built in the Solanki period (12th century).

The ASI team from Vadodara which was involved in the excavation at Vadnagar. Abhijit Suresh Ambekar, Director of the excavation, is the one with the hat on his knee.

Vadnagar is a fortified town with a population of about 25,000 people in Mehsana district of Gujarat, about 85 kilometres from Ahmedabad. Within its fortification, signs of prosperity are plenty, but outside it poverty is everywhere. Uniquely, the town has been in existence continuously from the 6th century BCE, but its more recent claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The town’s antiquity has been established in excavations conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), from 2014 to 2017, and the Gujarat State Archaeology Department between 2005 and 2012.

According to archaeologists who took part in the excavation, the town witnessed structural activity continuously from the 6th century BCE and grew within a fortification that was first built perhaps during the Mauryan period (4th century BCE to 3rd century BCE) as an earthen rampart. Later dynasties built and rebuilt a massive fortification wall made of kiln-fired bricks until the period of the Gaikwads of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is generally assumed that the Mauryans, the Indo-Greeks (2nd century BCE to 1st century BCE), the Saka-Kshatrapas (1st to 4th century C.E.), the Guptas (4th to 5th century), and the Solankis (10th to 13th century) ruled the region one after another. The Maitrak dynasty ruled it from 470 C.E. to 788 C.E.

Importantly, the excavations have brought to light that Vadnagar was a Buddhist centre, with monasteries/viharas, a stupa and cells that housed monks. Artefacts in terracotta from the excavations depict scenes from the Jataka tales, which are episodes from the Buddha’s life; Buddha heads; sealings, mostly with Brahmi inscriptions, datable from the 1st century BCE to the 4th century C.E.; and bullae. The digs also yielded a hoard of coins and stone images.

Vadnagar was a big manufacturing centre, too, noted for its bangles and columnella from conch shells. Shell bangles of remarkable artistic beauty were made especially during the rule of the Solankis. Ceramics unearthed from the trenches establish that Vadnagar’s prosperity began in the 2nd or 3rd century C.E. and continued until the 19th century. The discovery of fine pottery during every phase of Vadnagar’s cultural history, archaeologists say, revealed its foreign contacts and its internal trade, which was extant for centuries without interruption.

Although it was done in a limited area, it was “a good excavation, with excellent results”, said Jitendra Nath, Director (Excavations), ASI. “Our excavation in what we call locality C revealed the various stages of the town’s cultural history. They include its pre-rampart stagewhen Vadnagar was still a village, said Abhijit Suresh Ambekar, Deputy Superintending Archaeologist, ASI’s Excavation Branch-V, Vadodara. “An earthen rampart was built in the second century BCE as protection for the village. The Kshatrapas, whose rule began in the 1st century C.E., built a fortification wall on the earthen rampart.” The wall grew in size with successive dynasties building over it and strengthening it. There are as many as 140 courses (a row of bricks is called a course) of baked bricks on the wall, as revealed in the excavations.

Ambekar, who was the director of excavation in the 2016-17 field season, said: “Most importantly, the prosperity of Vadnagar never degenerated. It faced no economic problems. Our excavation has thrown up evidence that during both the post-Kshatrapa period and the Solanki rule Vadnagar had extensive trade contacts with other countries.”

In one of the trenches, at a depth of 525 cm, pertaining to the post-Kshatrapa period, a hoard of 270 coins was found. The motifs seen on the obverse of these coins are a trident, three arches, a river and dotted lines. There is an engraving of Garuda on the reverse. “At this juncture, these coins can be placed in the period of 5th to 6th century C.E.,” he said.

The excavations in locality C also yielded two stone balls, identified as catapult balls. They belonged to the Kshatrapa period and weighed 5.84 kg and 3.12 kg each. A wooden mechanism was used to propel these stone balls from the fortification wall to target enemy positions. There is evidence in Jaina texts that Ajatashatru, a Magadha king, used these stone balls against the Lichchavis, Ambekar said.

Excavation in locality C, one of the three main areas where excavations were carried out, brought to light a section ofthe fortification wall that had 140 courses of bricks. Here, the wall rested directly on the earthen rampart, which was in the shape of an inverted vase, and extended further northwards. So the ASI team dug to a depth of 12 metres in order to expose the earthen rampart fully and study its pre-earthen rampart phase. Ambekar said: “Here, we could expose the different stages of the cultural history of Vadnagar. The findings reveal that there was a pre-rampart stage, prior to the 2nd century BCE.”

Buddhist past

On the basis of archaeological remains, the earliest date for the establishment of the settlement could be around the 6th century BCE, says Y.S. Rawat, who led the excavation between 2005 and 2012 as Director of the Gujarat State Archaeology Department. The main aim of the excavations in this period was to find out the Buddhist remains of Vadnagar. “We firmly established that the site had many Buddhist remains,” he told Frontline. The excavations, a major part of which was in the locality called Ghaskol, revealed a Buddhist monastery, a stupa and artefacts relating to episodes from the Buddha’s life. “So many Buddhist remains in the form of minor antiquities were found. We established the sequence of the growth of the town during the rule of successive dynasties and its various structural phases, how the town came into existence, how it prospered and so on,” Rawat said. In the ancient days, Vadnagar was known by several names—Arkasthali, Anantapur, Anandapura, Chamatkarpura, Nagra, Nagaraka, Skandapura and Vrddhanagara. The first reference to the town in a historical document is found in a rock-cut inscription at Junagadh, belonging to Mahakshtrapa Rudradaman. The inscription, datable to 150 C.E., records Vadnagar’s name as Anarat.

The famous Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang visited Vadnagar around 640 C.E. and referred to it as Anandpur. “He recorded the existence of ten Buddhist sanghas (monasteries/viharas ) there and said about a hundred Buddhist monks were staying in those monasteries,” said Rawat.

The late S.R. Rao of the ASI (who discovered the Harappan settlement of Lothal in Gujarat) reported in the 1960s the presence of Early Historical period at Vadnagar. The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda conducted an excavation here later. Ambekar said the university’s excavation identified Vadnagar’s three cultural phases: the phase prior to the Christian era; the red-polished ware culture from the 1st century to the 4th century; and post red-polished ware period.

The ASI’s Excavation Branch-V, Vadodara, first took up excavation in different areas of the town in 2014-15. “The Union Ministry of Culture and the ASI were keen to bring out the hidden features of the Buddhist history and its development in Gujarat,” said M. Nambirajan, Regional Director (West), ASI. Union Minister of State for Culture Mahesh Sharma, along with Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, inaugurated the excavation for the third field season, in 2016-17. Nambirajan said: “This excavation brought to light parts of the Buddhist monastery adjacent to the site excavated earlier by the Gujarat State Archaeology Department. In another locality, we exposed brick structures. Another interesting find was the fortification wall built in different phases and the mud rampart which is its earliest remains.”

Excavation is a challenge in this small and thickly populated town. “We are laying trenches wherever open spaces are available and the residents are cooperating with us. Since only limited space is available for excavation, we are using modern technology such as ground penetrating radars [to find out where the remains are],” Nambirajan said.

Radar survey

Scientists from the National Institute of Rock Mechanics (NIMR), Kolar/Bengaluru, visited the site in May 2017 along with ASI officials and a scientist from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. They identified a site (a school complex) near the Vadnagar overhead water tank for using geophysical methods to explore archaeological remains of old settlements below the present-day built-up town. The NIMR planned to carry out a ground-penetrating radar tomography survey with three 30-metre-deep boreholes, Nambirajan said.

Three objectives decided the areas of excavation in 2016-17. First, Buddhist monasteries in major sites were always found to have been built in a single complex. “So we decided to excavate close to the monastery that had been excavated in Ghaskol locality, and we named it locality A”, said Ambekar. Secondly, to expose the plan of the residential houses, the ASI decided to excavate about 70 metres to the east of the Ghaskol monastery and named the area locality B. Thirdly, to study the complete cultural sequence of Vadnagar from its pre-rampart era and the defence arrangement for the town, the ASI laid trenches across the fortification wall in an area about 60 metres to the west of the monastery at Ghaskol, which it called locality C.

In addition to these three localities, the ASI excavated an area south of the monastery. Ambekar said: “This became crucial to prove our hypothesis that Buddhist monasteries were built as a single complex. The trenches turned out to be promising. The remains we got from this area show that they were a part of a Buddhist vihara. We exposed two cells that could be part of the vihara . A vihara has four sides—east, west, south and north. In the middle is an open court-yard/hall. We found the two cells on the southern side. We exposed them within the available area.” The vihara’s structural remains showed that it had been built in the 2nd century C.E. A copper coin belonging to the 1st century C.E. found below the remains confirmed the date when the vihara was built.

It was tough excavating in locality A because it was packed with residential structures and there were hardly any open spaces. The ASI archaeologists found an open area north of Ghaskol measuring 20 metres by 20 metres where Rabari families had erected a cattle shed in which they were dumping manure. Of the 11 quadrants they laid there, six revealed four cell-like structures built of bricks, with two square cells and two rectangular cells. Locality A revealed structures of a residential nature. “We could identify here three structural phases belonging to the Kshatrapa period. Besides, we could get evidence of structural activity from the 1st century C.E. to the Solanki period [10th century to 13th century]. Most importantly, we could collect 61 terracotta sealings here,” said Ambekar.

The earliest of the terracotta sealings, found at a depth of 1,160 cm to 1,175 cm, show a swastika with Nandipada attached to its arms in the centre. It has Brahmi letters that can be paleographically dated to the 1st century C.E. Since the sealing is broken, the script cannot be read fully. In the sealings recovered from deposits at the lower level and dated to the 4th century, archaeologists found the names Ishwarsenasya and Ishwarvarmana inscribedin Brahmi script; the language is Sanskrit. Those found in the upper deposit, of the 2nd century to the 3rd century, had the name Rudradevasya inscribed on them in Brahmi script. The language is Sanskrit. The Epigraphy Division of the ASI in Mysuru studied the sealings and found that one of them had the legend “Anandpur Rajo” written in Brahmi script. This confirmed that Vadnagar was called “Anandpur” in the 2nd century.

“A noteworthy finding here is that the sealings with the name Ishwarvarman are found in all the three structural phases of the Kshatrapa period, suggesting that the same issuing authority continued through the three phases,” said Ambekar. “There is an inscription in cave number 10 at Nashik which mentions an Abhira king called Ishwarsena. Whether Ishwaradatta, Ishwarvarma, Ishwarsena and Ishwarsenasya are the names of the same king, we do not know yet,” he added. There were four rulers in the Kardamaka family of the Kshatrapa dynasty who had similar names: Rudrasen I (regnal years 199 to 200), Rudrasen (regnal years 255 to 277), Swami Rudrasen III (333 to 348) and Swami Rudrasena IV. It was difficult to hazard a guess to whom the sealings belonged.

A metal piece with Brahmi letters was found at a depth of more than four metres. The Brahmi script could be read as “Sri Drashil” and it could be dated on paleographic grounds to the 4th century. A few terracotta sealings with the Brahmi script datable to the 5th century were found as well. The script on one sealing can be read as “Sharbalasya”.

Bangle-making centre

A striking discovery made in all levels of locality A was shell bangles, heaps of them, both decorative and plain. The decorative pieces of shell bangles had floral, creeper and perforation motifs carved on them, and these bangles could be be dated from the 5th century onwards. Other patterns on the shell bangles included zig zags, incised linear lines and “badi chudi”. Some bangles had leaves, fish and human couples carved on them. An interesting find was a fragment of a shell bangle with the carving of a peacock.

Equally arresting was the unearthing of large quantities of columnella, which are artefacts made out of debitage of conch shells after bangles are made from them. Each columnella weighed between 250 grams and 1 kg. Dice made of ivory were also found. “The discovery of shell bangles and columnella in large quantities shows that Vadnagar was an important manufacturing centre of shell bangles. The artisans at Vadnagar could have sourced the shells from Kutch. The shell bangle industry flourished up to the Solanki period when bangles of great artistic quality were made,” said Ambekar.

Terracotta heads

Locality A also yielded two beautiful terracotta pendants, each carved with a human face. They are noteworthy because their facial outline and hairstyle have a close resemblance to that of the Buddha, and an urna is visible between the eyebrows. (An urna is a mark made on the forehead between the eyebrows on Buddha sculptures and is considered an auspicious sign.)

A head, made of terracotta, closely resembled the face of the Buddha. The head features an ushnisha (in Buddhist iconography, ushnisha signifies flame of knowledge). The head has elongated earlobes reaching up to the jaw. The eyebrows merge with the sharp ridge of the pointed nose. The eyebrows are carved in elongated round curves which is a common feature in Buddha images, Ambekar said.

A notable artefact that has echoes of Buddhism is a terracotta pendant engraved with a human face with a tri-ratna motif carved on the hair knot. (In Buddhism, the tri-ratna motif indicates that a person depicted with it is a super human being.) The face has round eyes and fully closed eyebrows that merge at the top of a broad nose. The ends of the lips are turned up slightly to produce a pleasant mirth. The cheeks are fleshy and the ears are delicately carved in such a way that the face has a pleasant mirth about it. Another terracotta pendant depicting a human face has a tri-ratna motif on the hair knot.

An artefact that stands out for its craftmanship is a bullae made of terracotta. Basically, a bullae is a small, circular tablet carved with geometric, floral or animal designs. A bullae is moulded in clay and has a hook or perforation for a thread to pass through. Bullaes are light in weight and are regarded as pendants if they have human motifs. Some bullaes do not have holes. This bullae too does not have a hole for a thread to pass through. On the obverse of this bullae is carved the bust of a king. He has a sharp nose and his flowing hair is knotted at the neck. He looks serene. On the reverse of the bullae is a faded inscription. The artefact could be dated to the 5th century, said the deputy superintending archaeologist.

Another interesting artefact is a human face made of terracotta, carved with precision and artistically made. “This form of human face is artistically different from other human faces found in the excavation and this face indicates Gandhar art influence,” said Ambekar, who was so mesmerised by this face that he called it “the face of Vadnagar”.

The quest for the complete cultural sequence led the archaeologists to excavate to a depth of more than 19 metres in two quadrants from the top of the mound in locality B. A wall with 113 courses of bricks of a residential structure came into view, and a closer observation revealed that three different kinds of masonry had been used in building this wall with bricks of different sizes. However, the team could not reach the natural soil because water gushed out, and the last four courses of the wall were found to be below the water table. The team tried to retrieve the cultural deposits from the waterlogged trench, but had to stop when the deposits started collapsing.

Ambekar said: “The wall with 113 brick courses belonged to the different phases of the cultural history of Vadnagar. Here we found a lead coin that belonged to the period of the king Bhumaka. This find is important because it reveals that the brick fortification wall was built over the earthen rampart during the Bhumaka period, datable to early 2nd century C.E. Bhumaka was the second ruler of the Kshatrapa family. He ruled around 125 C.E. The coin has a depiction of a thunderbolt on the obverse and the engraving of a lion and a wheel with what looks like a circular Brahmi script inscription on the reverse.” It was in these quadrants that shell bangles and a large quantity of columnella were found. The building of the wall continued until the Solanki period of the 11th century, he added.

prosperous town

Today, Vadnagar is a prosperous town where several communities live. Their occupations are cattle-keeping, running dairies, agriculture, business and making handicrafts. The town has an arts and science college, a polytechnic and an Industrial Training Institute. A medical college has just been set up and it is slated for inauguration on October 2, Gandhi Jayanti. The town is ringed by scores of ponds and lakes. In a few places, the ancient fortification wall is still intact to a height of about eight metres. Five gates of the fortification wall can still be seen. There are historically important places such as a stepped well, a big tank, a keerti toran and so on, which were all built during the Solanki period. There are 25 old houses, called havelis, besides architecturally attractive houses that are about 150 years old.

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