M.N. Deshpande: Archaeologist as miracle worker

M.N. Deshpande, affectionately called Kaka, belonged to that rare breed of archaeologists who carried out path-breaking excavations and restorations in the subcontinent before Independence and for four decades after it.

Published : Dec 24, 2020 06:00 IST

M.N. Deshpande (third from left) with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at the Ajanta Caves.

M.N. Deshpande (third from left) with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at the Ajanta Caves.

DR C. SIVARAMAMURTI, musicologist, administrator and linguist, remarked once that those who opted for a career in the esoteric field of archaeology certainly had an aptitude for it, otherwise they would not have survived in this grinding field for long. Born into a family of eminent Sanskrit scholars and philosophers, this quintessential archaeologist ploughed every bit of that hard and lonely way. One day in his office he was presented a recently excavated idol of Siva and Parvati. He held the exquisite idol in his palms and seemed to go into a trance. That evening, while delivering a lecture on a rare Nataraja icon he passed away.

The person who narrated this incident, M.N. Deshpande (1920-2008), affectionately called Kaka, belonged to that rare breed of archaeologists who carried out path-breaking excavations and restorations in the subcontinent before Independence and for four decades after it. He was an unassuming person and hardly gave the impression of having done such remarkable work and motivated a whole generation of committed archaeologists.

One listened to him patiently and attentively, and without interrupting, when he narrated incidents from his vast repertoire of experiences. And in all this, there was never ever a hint at what kind of contribution he had made.

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Sometime after the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna, his disciples took his consort, Sharada Devi, on a pilgrimage to Varanasi and Gaya. At Sarnath, she saw a group of French tourists examining the stupa at the North Gate with its exquisite carvings on episodes from the Jataka tales. A couple of these visitors were so moved that they started sobbing, uttering repeatedly the word “magnifique”. When she enquired about these people, one of the disciples told her that they were French explorers and that they were overwhelmed by the beauty of the monument. She reflected for a moment and commented that they were overcome with emotions because they were the people who had built those monuments and now all those old memories were coming back in full force. The committed group of archaeologists who worked with Deshpande certainly must have been like that: they were completely involved in what they did as they worked under extreme weather conditions in inaccessible places.

The Bihar Sharief fakir

While working on a site at Bihar Sharief, Deshpande wanted to meet a fakir who was, reputedly, a “highly evolved” person. He went to the fakir’s place in the morning and found he was not there in his hut. He waited, and soon enough the fakir, a tall Pathan, came back. When he prostrated before the fakir and sought his blessings, the fakir told Deshpande that he had already found his guru and there was no need for seeking anybody else. This fakir used to go round the town’s hotels every morning, collect their excess food, and distribute it among the poor of the surrounding villages. Kaka used to say there were such “evolved people” everywhere and that he ran into such persons wherever he went on excavation work.

There seems to exist a strange connection between historic sites and fakirs staying in the vicinity − almost like guardian angels. In the amazing Ellora caves, located in an extremely arid region, there was a water supply system that seemed to defy every hydrological rule book. This gravity-fed water system was baffling to modern engineers. Here, too, there was a fakir guarding over it, along with poor villagers of the surrounding region.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the then United States Ambassador to India, once visited the Ajanta caves. He was shocked at the way the monument was maintained, with stray dogs and cattle roaming all over the place and the paintings in a state of utter neglect. When he met Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the envoy mentioned this to her and offered to send restoration experts from the Smithsonian Institute to restore Ajanta’s glory and teach the staff how to maintain such monuments.

Indira Gandhi called Deshpande, who was then the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), soon after. She wanted him to oversee the restoration work by the U.S. experts. When the experts landed in Mumbai, they predictably ran into trouble with Customs officers who would not allow them to take in the chemicals they had brought along. When Deshpande found out what these chemicals were, he said these and some more were available at the ASI site laboratory in Aurangabad.

He took the experts to the caves. It was a hot day, and they were tired and exhausted. After getting some rest, when they went to Cave 12 and beyond, they found that it had suddenly begun to get dark, and soon it started raining with thunder and lightning. All of a sudden there was a hailstorm, and they found the water lashing against the murals and washing them clean. The murals seemed to sparkle, and one mural, of the Buddha preaching a sermon to a wide-eyed deer, stood out. Then a rainbow appeared across the skyline, peacocks appeared as if from nowhere, hailstones lashed against the entrance, and a stream of sparkling water flowed by.

The jet-lagged visitors, who had done a lot of pioneering excavation work in their own country and across the world, had never seen such a spectacle. They were struck by this display of nature, which to them was even more amazing than the murals in the caves. Dutch landscape painters working in the flat and bare landscape of their lowlands were also quite often witness to similar spectacles of nature, with rainbows and hail. This had been the inspiration for the great landscape painters of that country, Van Gogh, Paul Gaugin and Vermeer.

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On another occasion, Deshpande recounted the story of his escorting Union Home Minister Gobind Ballabh Pant to the Ellora caves. The Minister said he had only half an hour to spare. At the Kailasa cave, he was shown the throne where the king held his audience and close to it was a seat for the rajarishi , the court saint. It was on a higher pedestal. From there they could see the shrine outside, an ethereal structure that shimmered in the light reflected from the surrounding caves. Pant stood there, transfixed, for nearly two hours and forgot all about his other engagements. That was the kind of magic these monuments evoked even in hardened politicians.

The Polish poet Zbigiew Herbert talks about medieval Italian architects’ “skill in building according to plans, but their knowledge also incorporated thousands of kitchen secrets, the distinction in various kinds of stones, production of different mortars. The obligation to guard these secrets bound not only architects but also stone masons, stone-layers, plasterers and those who mixed limestone, mortar and dwelt at the lowest levels of the hierarchy.” He recalls that an American archaeologist, Summer Crosby, “discovered the module constantly employed for the monument Saint Denis was .325 metres, approximately the length of the ‘Paris foot’. It was not a principle of construction but an aesthetic one. It was widely understood that the simple rules of geometry gave harmony of proportions.”

Though Deshpande had studied and worked on Chinese Buddhist art and tradition, he got an opportunity to see these at first hand only after he retired. This was in 1991, when a month-long exhibition on the “Cave Art of India and China” was held in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA); he participated as an honorary consultant. He had worked on the Kanheri grottoes near Mumbai, in its 100 caves, the biggest Buddhist cave art in the country. This event gave him an opportunity to visit China to witness the fascinating wall paintings of the Mogao grottoes and also the Dunhuang cave art—45,000 square metres of wall paintings and 2,400 stucco statues of the Buddhas and Boddhisatvas spread over 490 caves. Prof. Tan Chung, the archaeologist in charge, showed him around. He said later that it was like having a darshan of the cosmic form (Vishwa Roopa) of God. He established a great rapport with the Chinese scholars Prof. Duan Wenji and Prof. Shi Weixiang, who came for the Delhi exhibition and stayed on for a month.

The Dunhuang experience made him reflect on how Buddhist thought, philosophy and art had been received in China, which already had Confucius and Laozi’s equally important teachings of “wu wei” and “dao”. When the Buddhist Bikkhus went there to preach the Buddha’s teaching of compassion for the happiness and welfare of humans, it was received without hesitation by the rulers and the people in general. When Buddhist monks came visiting from China, they carried back hundreds of manuscripts, which were translated into Chinese. Dedicated Bikkhus like Kumarajiva and Bodhidharma and Paramartha went from India to propagate the new faith. The glowing accounts of Xuangzang, who stayed in Nalanda, also contributed to this fruitful exchange of ideas. Deshpande was firmly convinced of the need to train Indian scholars well-groomed in Pali and Buddhism to learn Chinese and spend years in Chinese universities to study their sculpture and paintings. While there is great interest in the West for Chinese and Buddhist studies, this seems to be lacking in India.

On one occasion, Deshpande spoke of the restoration work India undertook in Bamiyan in Afghanistan in the 1970s and at Angkor Vat in Cambodia. Both were in inhospitable and inaccessible places where it was dangerous to move even in daytime. In Bamiyan, the restoration work done required the archaeologists, working in extreme climatic conditions, to climb the 65-metre-tall statues. It was stupendous, he said. They had to carve steps from the rear of the statues and haul the material all the way up. When those statues were blasted to pieces by the Taliban in 2001, the Indian archaeologists who had worked on the restoration were totally shattered, he said.

At Angkor Vat, he recalled, there were problems of a different sort. The stragglers of the deposed Pol Pot regime had holed up in the dense vegetation surrounding the temple cluster, and it was risky to go there. But even with such obstacles, some marvellous restoration work was done.

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International experts did not always have the skill to adapt to local conditions. The restoration work on the gopuram at the Madurai Meenakshi temple is a case in point. They plastered and painted the entire spire with modern garish material, spoiling the archaeological as well as aesthetic import of the monument, which is also a living place of worship.

Deshpande took particular care to involve the local people in the work because it was their ancestors who had built these places. The artisans who built the Taj Mahal might have had their thumbs chopped off so that they did not execute similar work, but their successors all had thumbs. This is what the Italian artists followed. That kind of a perception can come only to those who are in tune with the monument’s ethos. These are not mechanical devices needing engineering solutions. This was what Sivaramamurti hinted at when he spoke of the aptitude for this kind of work.

When Deshpande was involved in the restoration work at the Gol Gombaz at Bijapur, which is famous for its acoustic qualities, he scoured the surrounding areas for descendants of the masons who had worked on it. It was from their tips that he got the right ingredients for this structure’s restoration. This was one of the suggestions that Mortimer Wheeler had given to his acolytes—to co-opt the people of the surrounding areas. Deshpande, in fact, used to live with them, sharing their meagre food and homes.

Dr Christian: A legend

One of Deshpande’s stories of people living close to archaeological monuments was about Dr Christian, a doctor in Aurangabad. A native of Tamil Nadu, he was a legend in that town for his empathetic treatment of the village folk of that place. When he sang the sonorous songs of the Tamil Bhakti poets, the Alwars, tears would flow down his cheeks. Dr Christian also invariably took care of the monks and mendicants who passed that way.

Once, a young American couple came to visit the Ajanta caves. The doctor got an urgent call one evening from the hotel they were staying at. When he went there, he found the two of them in deep distress. They were running a fever, and the hotel wanted them to be shifted immediately to Bombay to get admitted at Breach Candy Hospital. They said they had saved for four years for this visit.

Dr Christian examined them and said they need not go to Bombay. He advised them to rest for a couple of days, set out for the caves early in the morning and return by 11 am. In the evening they could visit the other caves. He assured them that it was just a sunstroke. He had his car sent to pick them up and made all arrangements for showing them around. They were so overwhelmed by the doctor’s gesture that they did not know how to thank him. When they went to his clinic, they found him sitting on the verandah and talking to the villagers, telling an elderly woman not to eat too many unripe mangoes.

The doctor advised the couple to also visit the Ellora caves. He made all the arrangements and spoke to them about the significance of those exotic temples off the Bombay coast. After returning to the U.S., the couple talked about this extraordinary doctor and those iconic caves, and the word spread. Soon, X-ray and other medical equipment began to arrive in Aurangabad for the doctor’s clinic. He donated them to hospitals nearby.

When Dr Christian passed away, his body was taken out in a procession through the town. He had donated his body for research, but no one in the government hospital would venture to touch it. So, instead, he was buried with deep reverence, and the town bid a tearful farewell.

What the Bihar Sharief fakir said was true. Deshpande had a guru—Dr R.D. Ranade, a professor who went on to become Vice Chancellor of Allahabad University. After retiring, he set up an ashram at nearby Nimbal. Deshpande used to speak highly about “Gurudev Ranade”. A scholar in Sanskrit, English and Marathi, he was one of an early generation of polymaths that Pune produced. Theirs was not just arid scholarship but one imbued with spirituality. No wonder Deshpande was attracted to him and became his disciple.

Prof. Ranade once spoke of a celebrated poem of Tulisdas, Vinay Patrika , and quoted the line “ Keshava kahi na jaye ka kahiye ”, to say that it is impossible to understand fully the architectonic skill of the Creator. “The way in which you have constructed the world, O Creator,” says the poet, “passes beyond our comprehension.” Ranade then connected this with the famous utterance of Plato in Book VII of The Republic : “An archer and no archer, aiming and not aiming, at a bird and no bird, killed it and did not kill with an arrow and no arrow.” So does the artist in Tulsidas, painting without colours on a wall which does not exist, in an exact analogue.

Once, during excavation near Fathepur Sikri an idol of a goddess with four hands was discovered. When a photograph was shown to Deshpande, he spotted the cymbal and flower in the hands and said this was a Jain sculpture of circa 300 B.C. He knew all these artefacts like the palm of his hand.

He once spoke of how he got caught inside the Mahakal temple in Ujjain because of a downpour or some turbulence in the town. This enabled him to witness the celebrated pre-dawn worship at the temple, an extraordinary experience.

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The National Museum in New Delhi went through a remarkable transformation during his tenure as chief. Earlier, it was like a government department where idols and ancient relics were scattered all over the place with a noisy canteen on the side. In the mid 1990s, it was a totally transformed place. There were smartly turned out security personnel of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), and there were directions to the various galleries. The one housing the Mohenjodaro relics was totally transformed with neat inscriptions and explanations in Hindi and English. There was a neat, elegant canteen on the first floor, where you could rest for a while.

Around this time, the King of Thailand donated a golden statue of the Buddha to the museum. It was placed on a pedestal in a separate enclosure, which became a temple of sorts for visitors from South Asian countries.

Long ago, around 1944, Mortimer Wheeler trained a group of young Indian students of archaeology in the Taxila region. Among them were H.D. Sankhalia, a brilliant scholar who was called the Ekalavya, Deshpande, Bal Kishan Thapar and Ahmad Hasan Dani. Each had the credentials for the exacting task, which under Wheeler’s rigorous training methods was almost akin to military exercises. They all flourished.

With Independence, some of the key archaeological sites went to Pakistan. Thapar, who was from Lahore, opted to be in India. Dani, who was born in Raipur to parents who had come from Kashmir, decided to go to East Pakistan to work in the sites there. He eventually shifted to Lahore and became the head of the Archaeology Department of Pakistan. He was instrumental in discovering some of the landmark sites at Taxila and Harappa. Dani’s career and life story is another amazing instance of brilliance, chance and luck in equal measure. He had wanted to study Sanskrit along with friends of his age. But the teacher would not have him because he was not a Brahmin. At that time, teaching the sacred language to non-Hindus was considered a taboo. But Dani persisted and learned from his friends. Soon the teacher noticed the earnestness of this boy and took him under his wings. Dani went on to join the Banaras Hindu University and took his doctorate in Sanskrit, earning the distinction of being the first Muslin student to achieve this landmark from BHU.

Another archaeologist, V.S. Wankankar, discovered the Bhimbetka caves in Madhya Pradesh in 1958, one of the oldest palaeolithic sites with rock carvings. This had been covered with beehives and was off the track of the excavators for a long time.

Sharada Devi was right: these are the people who had built these temples and they are back to set them right and show to the new generation their earlier as well as present achievements. A musicologist, a fakir, a doctor, a Sanskrit professor and an archaeologist all come together in this cave town. Just like the magic the American conservationists saw when the downpour happened and in the flash of lightning they saw the paintings all glistening, as if to give us a glimpse of the past.

S. Sivadas is a retired journalist. He worked for The Hindu in Delhi for 14 years. He teaches at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, New Delhi.

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