IN THE MAHABHARATA, it is where two great dynasties battle for the throne. It is the site of the ultimate 18-day dharmayudh between warring cousins. It is the capital where Yudhishthira lost the game of dice that sparked the worst in every man and the heroic in Draupadi. It is also, now, a major site of pilgrimage for the Jains, and believed to be the birthplace of three Jain tirthankaras.
And Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s decision to allocate funds to build a museum around the excavation in Hastinapur, part of its mandate to create a ‘caring society’, may not have come a moment too soon. The current condition of the ancient capital of the Kauravas is a leading example of how little we value our heritage. As noted historian Nayanjot Lahiri has written and as she reiterated to Open, a number of encroachments have come up with complete impunity on the mounds that make up the site, ranging from a temple to the statue of a former legislator.
Little has so far come out of the Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) excavations to match the brilliance of the poet’s description in the Mahabharata, but Hastinapur’s place in mythology ensured that one of the country’s leading archaeologists BB Lal, whose work on Ram Janmabhoomi was critical in establishing its antiquity, made it one of his pet projects. Beginning with excavations in 1951-52 in Meerut district, Lal established the date of the Great Battle of Kurukshetra around 860-900 BCE. He also established that the city was washed away by a flood in the Ganga and the then ruler, Nichaksu, abandoned it to dwell in Kaushambi.
For many, the establishment of a museum at Hastinapur is a great start to finding the historicity of the Mahabharata. Writer Anand Neelakantan says Mahabharata is known as ithihasa, meaning ‘it happened thus’. “Without some kernel of truth, such a grand epic will not be etched so deeply in the collective memory of a nation for many millennia,” he adds. There is also the argument that before such understanding, it is important to preserve what has been found. The mounds need better security for that, says Lahiri. “Not only that, attempts have to be made to stop illegal constructions around it—within the prohibited and regulated areas. I wish the Government had paid attention to this fact. In my book Monuments Matter: India’s Archaeological Heritage Since Independence, I published photographs which show this sad state of affairs.”
Much of that is because of the under-staffing of the ASI and the enormity of India’s built heritage. The ASI and state departments of archaeology conserve 10,000 monuments, though the national mission of monuments and antiquities has assessed there are no less than 500,000 monuments in the country. The ASI’s current staff strength doesn’t permit deployment of even a single person on full-time basis in more than two-thirds of the monuments. This means that of the 3,676 monuments said to be directly under the ASI, 75 per cent are unguarded. The ASI needs to create additional posts of 10,000 monument attendants.
In Bibek Debroy’s translation of the Mahabharata, Hastinapur is described as the ‘great city’, which is like the ocean. ‘It is full of hundreds of palaces, with gates, arches and turrets that looked like masses of clouds. It looked like Indra’s great capital. The people happily enjoyed themselves in rivers, wooded groves, lakes, ponds, hills and beautiful woods.’ The Kurus, it goes on to say, ‘increased the loveliness of the city manifold. They built wells, resting palaces, assemblies, tanks and residence for the Brahmanas.’ Fact or flight of poetic fancy?
In The Palace of Illusions, the recreation of Mahabharata by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Hastinapur is described to Draupadi by Kunti as ‘very grand’, ‘probably grander than anything you’re used to’ with its ‘bulging gold domes, curlicued mouldings, doors embossed with beaten metal, statues of dancing women frozen in tortuous poses, its rooms with gaudy draperies, oversized bolsters, too-soft carpets, and intricate artefacts. When she can, Draupadi has Maya build a palace of illusions in Indraprastha, the Pandavas’ capital, which causes Duryodhana much angst—it is also where he slips, falls, hears Draupadi’s mocking laughter, and the rest is history.
Will the Hastinapur museum be an ill-researched part of the project to promote India’s past, an ideal Bharatvarsh with smart cities and smarter citizens, or will it be an occasion to showcase the best storytelling contemporary India has to offer with the aid of technology?
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The Hastinapur of popular culture is just as spectacular as we remember it from Amar Chitra Katha and BR Chopra’s televised Mahabharat (1988-1990). But art historian BN Goswamy cautions that it will be difficult to locate any graphic renderings of Hastinapur. “All that one can do is to speculate on how these places might have looked like. Some verbal, possibly greatly romanticised, help could be picked up from old texts or in the shilpa-shastras, which speak of city plans and palace structures in general, but, yet again, I would be very surprised if an image, a graphic, turns up anywhere,” he adds. The museum, such as is planned, will have to rely, for its success, upon how displays in it are envisioned and organised, he says. Among the five museums planned at excavation sites for which funds have been allocated in Union Budget 2020-21 are Rakhigarhi, Dholavira, Shivsagar and Adichanallur.
But even those in the ASI say there hasn’t been much progress on the excavation around Hastinapur since BB Lal’s early work. KN Diskhit of the ASI told Open their organisation is still awaiting details of the Budget proposal and will resume work only then. Hastinapur may well become, like Ayodhya, another contested site with historians of the left and right-wing arguing about its authenticity. When the Ministry of Culture first allocated Rs 100 crore for excavations around Kurushetra in 2015, DN Jha, the doyen of ancient India historians, had said: “Mythology cannot be supported by excavating sites. It is a wild goose chase by the BJP, RSS and the Sangh Parivar.” Romila Thapar has also written at length on the difficulty in identifying a particular archaeological site as the archaeological equivalent of a location in the epic. Excavations have been conducted at locations that are called Hastinapur and Indraprastha in the Mahabharata, she says, but argues that place names also travel especially with migrant populations. Equating a site with a text, she adds, can raise problems of reconciling material culture with evocations of poetic licence. As she writes in The Past As Present: Forging Contemporary Identities through History (2014): ‘Will we ever find the fantasy palace of the Pandavas built by the magic of Maya even if we believe it existed and dig up the whole of Indraprastha? Homer’s epic met with similar problems after the extensive excavations at Troy and other sites.’ The reference is to controversial German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations around Hisarlik, in modern day Turkey, presumed to be the site of Troy. Schliemann, like BB Lal, was an advocate of the historicity of places mentioned in epics, in his case Homer’s Iliad.
Will the Hastinapur museum be an ill-researched part of the project to promote India’s past, an ideal Bharatvarsh with smart cities and smarter citizens, or will it be an occasion to showcase the best storytelling contemporary India has to offer with the aid of technology? All one can say is our collective memory should not come in the way of history.
About The Author
Kaveree Bamzai is an author and a contributing writer with Open
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