The Gulf of Khambat debate

Published : Mar 30, 2002 00:00 IST

On January 16, 2002, Union Minister for Human Resource Development, and Science and Technology, Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, who holds additional charge of the Department of Ocean Development, made a sensational announcement at a press conference in New Delhi. He claimed that an underwater urban settlement that pre-dated the Harappan civilisation had been discovered in the Gulf of Khambat, off the coast of Gujarat.

The spin and interpretation given by Dr. Joshi to the Gulf of Khambat findings by scientists of the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) generated criticism by, and objections from, Indian and foreign archaeologists, scientists and historians (Frontline, March 15, 2002). Most experts agreed that the claims were made by Dr. Joshi with a view to politicising the issue and that more exploratory work needed to be undertaken before any meaningful analysis of the findings, leave alone interpretations, could be made. Experts felt that internationally reputed marine archaeologists, scientists and archaeologists working on India and on the Neolithic Age needed to be consulted on the methodology of further exploration, dating and analyses. Well-known experts on South Asian archaeology, like Richard H. Meadow of Harvard University, even offered to help in such an effort.

Experts raised several objections to Dr. Joshi's claim that NIOT had discovered the remains of a 9,500-year-old urban settlement and civilisation. First, no marine archaeologist has seen the site and no mapping or underwater photography of the site has been undertaken. Secondly, the dating of the site was attempted on the basis of the age of a piece of wood found there. Thirdly, there was no conclusive proof that the perforations found in the artefacts were man-made. And, fourthly, there were deviations from the standard, accepted procedures of archaeology prior to going public with the findings.

A few of the artefacts retrieved from the Gulf of Khambat.

Many experts in the field of Indian archaeology, history and ancient Indian scripts have, in the past two months, examined the artefacts recovered from the Gulf of Khambat. Among those who examined the artefacts and held discussions with the NIOT scientists at Chennai were the world-renowned scholars, Iravatham Mahadevan and Dr. Asko Parpola.

One of the world's leading experts on the Indus Valley script, Iravatham Mahadevan proved to international acclaim that it was written right to left. His scholarly computer-aided study, The Indus Valley Script: Texts, Concordances and Tables (Memoirs of the Archeological Survey of India, New Delhi, 1977), is a recognised source-book for research on the Indus script. A leading expert on the Tamil-Brahmi script, this former officer of the Indian Administrative Service and former Editor of a Tamil daily has developed a method to read the earliest Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions and published the Corpus of the Tamil-Brahmi Inscriptions (1966). Another major work, a definitive study of the Tamil-Brahmi script, has just gone to press.

One of the world's leading authorities on the Indus civilisation and the Indus script and religion, Dr. Asko Parpola is Professor of Indology at the Department of Asian and African Studies, University of Helsinki, Finland. A specialist in Vedic philosophy, Dr. Parpola has over a period of three decades made outstanding contributions to the still unsuccessful task of deciphering the Indus script. Though associated with the Dravidian school of decipherment, his contribution to the theory and documentation of the Indus script transcends linguistic boundaries. Dr. Parpola is the author of Deciphering the Indus Script (Cambridge University Press, 1994). His monumental Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions was published in two volumes in 1987 and 1991 and a third volume will be out soon. Dr. Parpola is also an expert on Jaiminiya Samaveda texts and rituals. His other areas of dedicated scholarship include the prehistory of Indian languages and the prehistoric archaeology of South and Central Asia.

Soon after the two experts had examined the artefacts from the Gulf of Khambat at the NIOT's office on the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras and had a discussion with the scientists, they spoke to Asha Krishnakumar of Frontline. They shared their impressions and views on the significance of the findings, the reliability of the dating methods used, the importance of the sonar images, the possible future course of action, and the claims made by the Ministry. Asko Parpola responded first to Frontline's questions. This was followed by detailed responses and observations by Iravatham Mahadevan, with Parpola offering additional insights.

Excerpts from the interviews:Interview with Asko Parpola.

What artefacts dredged out from the Gulf of Khambat did you examine? What are your first impressions? Are there indications that they were man-made? Do they support the Indian Government's claim of it being a "pre-Harappan urban civilisation"?

I am not a specialist in this particular field. I have studied the Indus script and the Harappan civilisation and followed Indian archaeology over time. I am not a professional archaeologist, and least of all a specialist in marine archaeology or of the Neolithic period. I was interested in seeing the methods used and the materials found in Khambat.

The materials were shown to us by the geologist Dr. S. Badrinarayan and the scientist Dr. S. Kathiroli of the NIOT. My impression is that the two scientists know what they are talking about. Dr. Badrinarayan has been surveying the seabed all along the Indian coast. He should know when he comes across materials that seem non-natural. Tectonic activity does take place in that region. He was suggesting that on grounds of tectonic activity and rise of sea level, it seems impossible to date the articles or the site later than about 5000 B.C. They must have been under water since then. This seemed a very reasonable conclusion, going by his expertise. But the claims are too much.

Dating in this case hinges on one piece of wood. First, can the age of the wood found under the sea be correlated to the antiquity of the site? Secondly, is this one piece of evidence enough to conclude the antiquity of the site? Thirdly, is the underwater site a secure context to gauge the antiquity of the site? What are credible dating methods? How are they normally done in the case of underwater sites? Can radio carbon dating (that is used in this case) and thermoluminescence (that is to be used for pottery found at the site) give reliable dating for ancient periods?

I was very suspicious about the dating of the site from a piece of wood. For one, it could have come from anywhere. But Dr. Badrinarayan says it actually comes from under the seabed. Thus, it is from a stratified context. So, if the site went under water about 5000 B.C., dating this a little bit earlier does not seem unreasonable.

But I object to the use of the words "Cambay civilisation" as it implies literacy and city life. On the basis of the evidence I have seen, it seems to me that it is possible that this could be a Neolithic site of 5000 B.C. Of course, I have not seen any incontrovertible evidence for this. I am only saying that it is possible. That is all.

I have seen some interesting materials that seem to occur only in this place; not in the surrounding areas. But the problem with this site is that there is very heavy tidal influence and the sands are shifting all the time. So when we find flat objects here it seems to me perfectly possible that this flattening is done by sand activity - erosion by the sand. Even the holes that we found in the stones got from this area may not be due to human drilling. A flat object could have been stuck on a stone and started rolling around because of water activity (currents). So, these holes may have occurred naturally. Thus, I want to have a sceptical attitude about these findings until we get incontrovertible proof.

What would you term "incontrovertible proof"?

For instance, very hard stones clearly drilled by human activity. Or, if we are speaking of stone tools - flints, usually chipped. The material found so far are smooth; they could have been smoothened by sand. That is what is expected to happen if they remain under water for thousands of years and the sand is shifting heavily all the time.

But they have found hard stones. They have also found what to a layperson looks like pottery. All these things can be analysed, no doubt. My impression is that the NIOT is quite open and willing to let experts help it analyse these materials. It also appears that it is doing its best to study the material scientifically.

What artefacts did you see? Do they give any clues that they are man-made? What is their significance?

The most interesting things were animal remains, fossilised vertebrae, different kinds of stones and so on. They could have been man-made. But I am not fully convinced (that they are man-made) as I see the possibility of natural activity. But, as I said, there are semi-precious stones. It seems quite likely that the Tapti river flowed to the Saurashtra side and this habitation, if it was such, would have been on it. So, on the basis of what I have seen, I would expect that this might be a Neolithic site of about 5000 B.C., similar to that in Saurashtra and mainland Gujarat. They hypothesise that there could have been a dam. On the basis of what has been discovered in pre-Harappan cultures in Pakistan, we know that such dams were built.

With what certainty can sonar images be used to conclude the existence of such structures as dams, granary and pillars? Have sonar images been used to decipher such underwater sites?

I am not an expert on sonar images to make a pronouncement on this. But Dr. Badrinarayan says that because they seem to continue under the seabed these projections seem to have some foundation. I asked them: 'Is it not possible that the stone formation here is of different hardness and while the soft parts are wiped away the hard parts remain.' They want to do more research to find out if they are man-made by taking more samples from there.

What are the standard, accepted procedures of excavating such underwater marine sites? Is mechanical dredging the common procedure? Would it not disturb the evidence?

Mechanical dredging is probably the only way to excavate such sites because of the depth, the strong tide, the turbid water and the strong currents. It is an extremely dangerous site for divers. So, mechanical dredging is probably the only way of excavation here. But I think they would like to get advice from marine archaeologists working elsewhere, as the scientists who are involved in this are basically ocean technologists and geologists who are not experienced in marine archaeology.

Iravatham Mahadevan has suggested to them to organise an international experts' colloquium to get opinions and advice.

Are there similar underwater marine sites that have been found earlier? What are the methods used there?

There are some. But this site is one of its kind as it has very strong tides. Marine archaeology is developed in several places. In Finland we have a very strong tradition of marine archaeology. There have been many shipwrecks in Finland which have been studied well. But the situation is completely different there as the waters do not have such strong tides.

Interview with Iravatham Mahadevan.

What are your views on the recent findings at the Gulf of Khambat? What is their significance? Do they suggest they are man-made?

At the outset I would like to say that we should maintain a sceptical attitude but not a negative one. These are Indian scientists who are not archaeologists and who did not go there looking for any civilisation. As Professor Asko Parpola emphasises, Dr. S. Badrinarayan is a respected, senior scientist. My first impression (after seeing the findings) is that the claims are honest. If they are mistaken we can always find out.

Second, there are two types of exhibits. One, those found on the floor of the ocean. Because of tidal action and ocean currents there, you cannot just like that make any judgment (about the artefacts found there).

Exception are the semi-precious stones, some of which are perforated. I do not believe this can happen by any kind of nature's action there. I have seen them and they (the stones) are very hard.

But they could have been washed into the sea from somewhere else...

Yes. You cannot also rule out the possibility that they were somewhere inland and washed into the sea, coming into the palaeo channel.

How reliable are the sonar images? Have they been used in similar underwater sites earlier? What is your assessment of NIOT's interpretations of the sonar images?

The sonar photographs are very interesting. First, there are a series of squares which they interpret as a settlement in a grid pattern. I am not an archaeologist, much less an underwater archaeologist. So, I am not really competent to judge, except as an educated layperson with a considerable interest in Indian archaeology. It is very difficult to imagine series of square plinth areas, with grid-like structures, running for several kilometres, occurring in nature.

Again, there is a long rectangular structure with something similar to steps leading downward, which is clearly man-made.

How significant are the artefacts found at the Gulf of Khambat site? What are your first impressions on examining them? Is there any method by which the structures there can be examined?

To begin with, let us keep the Indus or the Harappan civilisation completely out of this. First, they (the NIOT scientists) are not claiming it to be the Indus civilisation. No Indus script or metal has been found there. No piece of pottery has been found there that can be identified; except some very minute pieces.

There are a few stone-like implements. But, as Prof. Parpola emphasises, due to tidal action it is very difficult to say for sure whether they are paleolithic which have been smoothened to look like neolithic or just natural stones that can acquire any kind of shape.

One point Dr. Badrinarayan is insistent about is that the square plinth areas have foundations. Dr. Parpola asked some probing questions such as whether there could not be some rock formations underneath? To this Dr. Badrinarayan says, "no". To prove this, I have suggested that one of the plinth areas be opened up by bucket excavators. It is a crude method. But one cannot do better than that. We do not expect brick structures. They could be random rubble structures.

This is only a beginning. They should do this (excavation) for a few more seasons. And they should associate well-known international experts in underwater archaeology and neolithic age. I am told that Dr. S.R. Rao, India's best expert in underwater archaeology, looked at the findings and was quoted as saying that he is "baffled". He is not able to come to any conclusion, as Dr. Parpola has also said.

I would like to maintain a cautious optimism. If the criticism is destructive, you would discourage the scientists who are honest and going about their jobs. Let us take their claims at face value. When an expert says he has been doing underwater exploration for long and has never found anything like this before, the claim has to be taken at face value.

NIOT scientists stumbled on the site. They have made known their findings. Should it still remain with them or be given to experts in the area of marine archaeology and Indian archaeology?

I do not think it should remain with them. They should publicise them in scientific journals and through academic debates. Second, they should get in touch with international underwater archaeologists and experts in neolithic and paleolithic civilisations.

Marine archaeologists should have been involved at some stage...

Exactly. They (the NIOT scientists) surely should not have used words like "civilisation" and "acropolis". It is not their discipline. Somebody puts such words into their mouth and they just repeat them. 'Civilisation' is certainly not the word they should be using.

But that there is evidence of man-made activity there is not unlikely. First, it is an area which probably was above land for sometime, with palaeo channels, and there could be human settlements that could be palaeolithic or neolithic. I can say for sure that it is certainly not Harappan. If at all it is a culture, it is pre-Harappan. Nothing found there suggests Harappan. There are one or two pieces of slate-like blocks, highly eroded but suggesting something artistic. They could be man-made or natural. It is very difficult to make any firm pronouncement on that. It is difficult to interpret them. Such things are available even from palaeolithic times, like the so called Venuses found in the West, which are thousands of years old.

Are the claims made by the Ministry about it being a "pre-Harappan urban civilisation" justified?

Parpola: That is too much.

Mahadevan: Absolutely not. That is politics. But I would not say that the finding should be discounted. We should ask questions and take a helpful attitude. If all experts say that there is nothing there which is man-made then scientists like Dr. Badrinarayan and Kathiroli will accept it. But the arguments and approach should be scientific, and the debate academic - keeping out politics.

In archaeology, any culture is a period of human activity. You can talk about palaeolithic culture and so on. Whereas civilisation would involve urban settlement. The comparisons with Jericho are all very far-fetched. Any link with the Harappan civilisation is unwarranted. There is no Indus script, no writing, no metal, no seal and not even pottery. In fact, even if pottery is found it is very significant because pottery is a human activity. But then again they are embedded in clay. They could have been washed in by the palaeo channel. All that is not conclusive.

One point is that it has been found in an area known to be Harappan in the later period. In that area there are probably a hundred Harappan sites. I have myself joined in one of the excavations, at Rojdi, by an American team led by Possehl. But these are all on land. Take Dholavira, in the Rann of Kutch, above land, but only barely so. With or without the claim of Carbon-14, even the look of it suggests that it is pre-Harappan.

So, let us not talk about the Harappan civilisation or the Indus Valley culture. It is far earlier than that. But the question is whether there is a culture there at all or we are imagining something. My position would be that we should not jump to conclusions nor should we straight away pooh-pooh it. We should take a helpful attitude.

How reliable are the dating methods used - carbon-14, for example? Also, can the age of the wood piece found under water be correlated to the antiquity of the site?

Mahadevan: I do not attach much importance to the carbon-14 dating method (to gauge the antiquity of the site). That piece of wood could have floated in from anywhere.

Parpola: Unless, of course, the wood piece has come from a stratified layer under the seabed.

Mahadevan: But even then it might not have belonged to that place. The stratification could have come later, by layers of silt settling over it.

Can dating of a piece of wood be used to decide on the antiquity of the site? The piece of wood could have come from anywhere. How can a piece of wood found there be proof for any "civilisation"?

It is common practice to use carbon-14 on pieces of wood or charcoal showing human activity. Otherwise, it could be a tree there which is 7,000 years old. But it may not have anything to do with human activity. Supposing there had been a big tree in that area which has been covered by sea. You do the carbon-14 dating and it will yield the date. The one I saw today is 8,000 years old - about 6000 B.C. or thereabouts. This more or less would agree with the geological dating as well. But the wood could have come from anywhere or it could be a big tree there, without any human activity. So, I have told them that they should not lay any emphasis on the carbon-14 dating method. Apart from that there is no method of dating.

Then how do you go about dating the findings?

Mahadevan: There are two points in this. They have some figurines. Prof. Parpola is rather sceptical - (he feels that) they could have been formed naturally. But some of them have perforations and some look like two pieces of clay fused together. It is difficult to find out if these had occurred naturally or not. This is again for experts to say.

But semi-precious stones clearly show human activity. They are very small and could have been washed into the sea but some are perforated. They are not exactly beads. They are rough pieces. Nevertheless perforated. Semi-precious stones are all hard. They do not get perforated naturally.

Parpola: I am sceptical about the significance of the perforation. More material needs to be excavated to get a clear evidence of human activity on those stones.

Are the methods of dating followed in this case credible and reliable?

Mahadevan: The only method of dating used is carbon-14.

Parpola: The other most important dating method used (in this case) is geological - submerging. They made it clear that it could not have been above water after 5000 B.C. So, the sea-levels and geological reasons given for dating this as being 5000 B.C. or earlier and not after 5000 B.C. is an important method of dating.

How credible are their arguments, even geologically, to say that this site has been underwater since at least 5000 B.C.?

Parpola: I am not a specialist in this. But they showed maps of different periods - of what parts were under- and above-water in different periods. This Gulf of Cambay was above sea level until about that time. But not after that. Whether this holds good or not, it is one way of dating.

On the other hand, land has also been rising. This is one way we date in our country as the ice has been pressing land down. After ice age, land has been coming up slowly. To find out where the shoreline has gone and so on, this is an important way of dating in our country. So, I imagine that it is possible to date something on these lines.

I see this as a layperson. But, basically, I see no reason to suspect that this is wrong. It is left to experts to make precise judgment on this. But the NIOT scientists should be experts in precisely these sort of things. So, I have no reason to doubt them.

What is your overall assessment of the Khambat findings?

Overall, an interesting discovery has been made by scientists who have the right credentials and whose bona fide is hardly suspect. So I repeat, be sceptical, which is a good scientific attitude, but not negative and destructive. It could be a major discovery. We do not know. Several more seasons of work would be required. And clearly international cooperation is called for.

Is any international help forthcoming?

I believe many have offered help. Experts like (Richard) Meadow (of the Harvard University) are on record saying if they are called to help they would be most willing. UNESCO could be called in and it could be a major project, getting underwater equipment like the kind we do not have. As far as I can judge, the scientists are not against international cooperation. They are to organise later this year, in August or September, an international colloquium of experts.

Can you name some experts who can help?

In India, we have S.R.Rao, who has done underwater archaeology from Poompuhar to Dwaraka. He knows what he is talking about. We have in Deccan College (Pune) and at Baroda, experts in Deccan neolithic and palaeolithic age - the pre-Harappan age. They are all very hard-nosed archaeologists. They are not the ones to romanticise the past. There are also experts such as Dhavlikar, V.N. Mishra and so on in India. And outside India, Meadow, Kenoyer and so on can help. We should call in international experts for two reasons: We require an objective and independent opinion. And, some international funding would not be unwelcome. We have to get such scholars and then look at this (the findings). If, ultimately, it turns out to be not as imagined, it is all right. But it should be kept in mind that it all began with an accidental discovery by scientists who are puzzled and are talking about it. Take them at their face value.

But why did scientists with such credentials lend themselves to this kind of projections and interpretations in the company of Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi? Would this not affect the credibility of their scientific pursuit?

The answer to that is very simple. This is India and scientists are under political control. They are not free. NIOT is a Government of India organisation. And Murli Manohar Joshi happens to be their Minister. And if he wants to make political capital out of this, they are helpless. But, then, I would not judge what is happening in NIOT by what Murli Manohar Joshi is saying.

Are there any similar underwater sites? What methods of archaeology, dating and so on have been used there?

Mahadevan: Outside Cambay, one has been found by S.R. Rao at Bet Dwaraka, where there were cyclopean walls and huge structures. A Harappan seal was also found. These findings have been published. That was a regular underwater archaeology from Goa done with divers using diving bells and so on.

S.R. Rao has also done a smaller one, off Cauvery valley, in Poompuhar, but not as extensive as in Dwaraka. As far as I know, no diving bells were used in this case. But they did find some brick structures about 5-6 km off the coast of Kaveripoompatinam. It has not been published fully. But it has got some notice.

Dwaraka is a good example of huge structures found underwater. But this was to be expected. The high tide rises several metres up and down. And Rann of Kutch area is virtually above water for six months and under water for the next six months. In that area because of tectonic activity the land level keeps rising and falling. That coastal towns should go under water in such areas is no surprise. But this is not as deep as in the case of Cambay. And that makes all the difference.

Parpola: Cambay is very deep. And also, as the underwater currents are strong, it is extremely difficult and risky for any marine archaeologist to go there. As for other sites, there was recently news about parts of ancient Alexandria being discovered underwater. They have found houses, statues and some structures belonging to the Roman period. Underwater sites are being found. But Cambay is one of its kind - it is very deep, the currents are strong and the sand is constantly shifting. I do not know of any other site as difficult as this one.

What is interesting (in the Gulf of Khambat site) is the macro picture of several kilometre area of square plinths, something which look like tanks, one that looks like a check-wall for break-water, another like a fortress and so on. These are all sonar images and not direct photographs as the water there is very murky to be directly photographed.

Is there any way of overcoming the problem of murkiness of water and taking direct photographs?

The sonar images could be computer-analysed. I am not an expert in sonar pictures but surely there must be methods of doing it - maybe by putting very bright lights or maybe by waiting for some season when the water is less murky and so on. I do not know exactly.

And, even if it is very crude, some method of bringing out massive material from there (would help). Excavation, the way it is done on the ground, is obviously impossible in this case. And the scientists say that it is very dangerous to work there where they went as it is very deep and dark, and the currents are very strong, and the water murky. Even sending a person down and keeping him there for more than a few minutes is out of the question. These are the limitations and one has to keep these things in mind.

What should be the future course of action?

Now the scientists must be allowed, without any political influence, to publish the findings as they found them, in clear scientific language in scientific periodicals. They can also publish their own monographs. Above all, call in experts from within and outside India keeping the politicians and Ministers out of this.

But it has already been politicised and Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi has come into the picture...

A distinction must be made between what people in Delhi are saying and what people at NIOT are doing. The NIOT scientists should be acknowledged for their findings during the course of their normal work and they should be allowed to proceed without any political interference.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment