Dharwad's puzzle

Published : Jul 29, 2011 00:00 IST

The chance finding of some 600 skulls at Annigeri in Dharwad district of Karnataka puzzles historians.

in Annigeri

SOME of the most significant archaeological discoveries have been made by sheer accident. The Dead Sea scrolls were discovered by Bedouin shepherds when they went in search of a missing goat in some abandoned caves in the Bethlehem area. Archaeology thrives on such moments of serendipity. Also, such casual finds have had great implications for the history of humanity.

Annigeri, a town in Dharwad district in north Karnataka, was the venue of one such accidental discovery. On August 28, 2010, a burial site with more than 600 skulls was discovered there. Although the implications of this find are yet to be evaluated as archaeologists and historians continue to debate its relevance, experts agree that nowhere in India has such a burial site been discovered before.

Located in Navalgund taluk, the small, vibrant town of Annigeri is a short drive away from Hubli and has a population of around 30,000. The burial site was discovered when municipal workers began digging the area to build a drain. At first a few skulls were exposed.

The workers thought they had stumbled upon an old cemetery and went ahead with their work. But soon more skulls came out. The surprised workmen left the site. A JCB (a mechanical excavator which derives its name from its eponymous manufacturer) was brought to the site. As the machine removed more soil, damaging some skulls in the process, many more skulls became visible.

The Deputy Commissioner of Dharwad, Darpan Jain, and the local office of the State Archaeology Department were alerted. The discovery began to attract attention locally, and theories began to circulate about the strange find. And a few more surprises were in store. It rained heavily a few months later and the loosened soil got washed away with the runoff, revealing hundreds of skulls.

In all 600 skulls were found and they were arranged neatly in six or seven rows. From a distance, they looked like prehistoric eggs in their dirty white colour; at close quarters they looked macabre with their empty eye sockets and open-mouthed toothy smile.

The State Archaeology Department excavated the area around the site but found no clues to unravel the mystery. The site, which began to attract curious onlookers, was declared out of bounds and a temporary structure was built with bamboo and tarpaulin to cover it.

Historians and archaeologists discussing the gruesome find, suggested that the skulls could be the vestiges of some medieval massacre, during the time of Adil Shah (founder of the Bijapur Sultanate who ruled between 1490 and 1510). The massacre theory extended to genocide, and even a terrible famine was not ruled out. With such theories abounding, the district administration and the Archaeological Department thought it prudent to try and date the skulls using the method of radiocarbon dating. A few of the skulls were sent to the Indian Institute of Physics, Bhubaneswar, whose examination showed that they were 638 years old, with an error probability of plus or minus 50 years.

The hot and dusty town of Annigeri has a rich history, which is not immediately evident. It was an important political and cultural centre. It is believed that one of the earliest poets of Kannada, Pampa, was born here in the 10th century. It was an important town in the kingdoms of the Chalukyas, the Hoysalas and the Yadavas during a period spanning almost 800 years from the sixth to the 14th century. It was briefly even the capital of the Chalukya kings. While its role and importance diminished in later history, it was certainly an important centre. The relevance that the town had for a significant period makes matters more complicated for historians who are trying to wade through the morass of information available about events that occurred in the region.

A few hundred metres away from the site of the mysterious skulls is the temple of Purada Virappa. Situated alongside the local administrative office complex, the ancient temple is being renovated but an inscribed slab sits prominently outside the temple dating to A.D. 1184, the reign of Somesvara IV (the last Chalukyan ruler).

Epigraphists have translated the ornate and cursive old Kannada script found on the slab as a record of a land offering made to Veera Goggideva (a name to remember in this tale of the mysterious skulls). The Purada Virappa temple is dwarfed by the larger Amruteshwara temple situated about a kilometre from the site, near densely inhabited streets. A lone security guard protects this Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) monument which is supposed to have been built in A.D. 1050, in distinctly Chalukyan style. The grand monument's outer walls are extensively detailed and the spacious compound has an ancient well.

Annigeri must have definitely been an important town during the time this temple was built. An ancient basadi (a Jain shrine) is also located close by and its architecture clearly harks back to an earlier era. There are other temples in Annigeri as well, showing that the little town was clearly an important centre.

Ritual suicide theory

M.M. Kalburgi, a Sahitya Akademi Award winner and one of the foremost scholars of Karnataka's cultural history, put forward the theory of ritual suicide after the results of the carbon dating were made available. Kalburgi's thesis is that Veera Goggideva was a local chieftain in the late 14th century (a time to which the skulls have been carbon dated) and a member of a violent, aggressive and zealous sect of Saivites who believed in ritual suicide. He supports this claim with the help of several separate pieces of evidence, which he presented to Frontline.

According to him, the Bhramaramba Mallikarjunaswamy temple (of Siva) in Srisailam town in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh has a frieze which shows a form of ritual suicide wherein a devotee severs his head and offers it to the idol, and the heads are placed in neat rows. Kalburgi also quotes from the well-known Hoysala era poet Harihara, who has written about the ritual suicide of some 300 men. Kalburgi is convinced that his theory is correct but other historians and archaeologists disagree. The main objection to this theory stems from the fact that there are skulls of women as well in the Annigeri pile.

Dr R. Gopal, Director of the Department of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Karnataka, who has been supervising the excavation at the site, believes that the deaths must be the result of a famine. There must have been a famine in the area and the local population was wiped out. Only the skulls and large bones like the femur must have survived while all other bones must have been devoured or disintegrated over time. Later, these skulls must have been gathered in a single spot, he averred.

Dr S.K. Aruni, an archaeologist and Assistant Director of the Indian Council of Historical Research's southern regional centre, Bangalore, said: The fact that all the skulls are missing their lower jaws means that they were not gathered at that spot [where they were found] immediately. The lower jaw tends to be separated from the rest of the skull a few years after a body is buried, which means that these skulls were gathered later.

Other scholars claim that the skulls cannot be more than 200 years old as the quality of the soil in that part of the State did not help preservation. There is also a general agreement that a second opinion on the radiocarbon dating needs to be taken as the method is not entirely reliable. The National Physical Laboratory, Ahmedabad, has been chosen for this purpose and the authorities are waiting for its opinion.

What is important now is to take a quick decision on whether the site should be preserved.

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