Mongolia > India #worldinterview #5

Mongolia > India

Interviewee: Nadika Nadja

What is the relationship between politics and archaeology in India generally?

This is a complex question to unpack. On the one hand, archaeology is not a part of daily/public life till something drastic or remarkable happens to one of the few “recognized” archaeological sites. The central government had passed the Archaeological Sites and Ancient Monuments and Remains Act in 1958, which governs and protects a whole lot of archaeology in the country. The Archaeological Survey of India operates within the act, and does its best to conserve monuments, while also undertaking research, exploration, excavations, and public outreach. But it is limited by budget, and what is available has to be very carefully optimised for various projects.

There has been push from various political parties and various flavours of the government to use archaeology to feed a certain narrative, and that has become enhanced currently with a Right-Wing Hindutva party in power at the centre.

Accusations of influencing findings (to present a Hindu Brahmanical past, or a less diverse population…) have attached itself to various excavations in India over the years, and this will probably get worse.

The central government also proposed an amendment to the ASAMR act which would allow “development projects” near protected monuments, often within the “buffer” zone of highly vulnerable archaeological sites. And a large number of historians and archaeologists believe this will be used mainly for Islamic monuments in Delhi and North India.

The state government of Tamil Nadu – where I live – also has a TN State Department of Archaeology that works independent of the ASI, and is funded out of the state government’s budget. The department also excavates, conserves, and manages the state and city museums, and on the whole, is less influenced by religious fundamentalism but that could be mainly due to its overall lowkey presence (meaning no big political aims to be achieved).

How does archaeological administration contribute to academic archaeology, and vice versa?

The ASI has a series of publications that are both prescribed texts and updates on current research and knowledge banks. Similarly, Museums – at least the Government Egmore Museum in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, has publications and journals on its collections which help in academic archaeological research, with the museums and the State Dept. of Archaeology in Tamil Nadu absorbing some studies/findings into their work.

However, I am not aware of a larger push from academia into public archaeology, or vice-versa. The Universities and colleges that do provide courses – Bachelors or Masters – in Archaeology will likely operate/be governed by some of the ASAMR/ASI rules and regulations that govern excavations in India, with graduates going on to be employed by ASI. However, this is something I am not fully conversant with, given that my interest in archaeology is outside of the mainstream.

What about gender and archaeology in India? Are there many women archaeologists in India?

Yes, there are women archaeologists in India, and in fact, the former Circle Head (Superintending Archaeologist) of the Chennai Circle of the ASI was a woman, who now has a charge of a larger south Indian region. Similarly with the TN State Dept. of Archaeology, which one time was headed by a woman. There are also a lot of independent women archaeologists and researchers – both who actively excavate/research, and those that teach at the universities.

One of the most important recent findings in south Indian/Tamil archaeology – that of the discovery of stone tools belonging to an Acheulian industry, and which pushed the date of human colonisations of the Peninsula/east coast of south India – was by a team of archaeologist led by a woman – Shanti Pappu.

( Pappu, Shanti, Yanni Gunnell,Kumar Akhilesh, Régis Braucher, Maurice Taieb, François Demory, Nicolas Thouveny, 2011, Early Pleistocene Presence of Acheulian Hominins in South India, Science,  March 25th, 331(6024):1596-1599.)

But the larger question of Gender is – as always – slightly difficult to impact. On the whole, archaeology seems to be the story of men – kings, royalties, soldiers, etc. It is still (around the world) dominated by men, and the specific research is painting a very masculine story – at least in India.

And yes, the number of men archaeologists outnumber the women. There are also workplace issues and questions of gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment of women archaeologist that will need to be addressed.

How do local communities relate to archaeological sites and archaeological investigations conducted at their land and findings found from their land? Do they have any power or right to control archaeological investigation at their land and to own artefacts found from their land?

This is something I am not sure what happens, at all. For one, unlike say in the UK, there isn’t an active exploration/survey of archaeology that happens consistently. Most excavations happen in “known” sites. Sometimes, accidentally people may find archaeology in their land, and depending on where this happens, the State Dept or ASI may be notified and then the government will probably attempt to acquire the land (if the findings are deemed important enough) or a preliminary research is done and then it’s closed.  Sometimes universities/colleges may be invited to help identify accidental discoveries by civilians.

Under the ASI rule and ASAMR, all archaeological discoveries, artefacts, will need to be “owned” by the ASI or the State Dept of Archaeology where applicable. So individual people may not own/display artefacts found in their property.

About Nadika:

I am Nadika, and I am a writer and researcher. I am currently part of a research that’s looking at ideas and expressions of culture in religious sites across India, and one on caste, culture, and caste based discriminations, in temples of Tamil Nadu.

I also write about cinema, media, history (mainly urban history)

Twitter: @nadjanadika


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