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Purana Qila is being dug up again. ASI wants to reach all the way to the Mahabharata era

Most tourists who visit Delhi are drawn to the Red Fort and the Qutub Minar.  ASI hopes to have the new Purana Qila excavations ready by G20.

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New Delhi: The history of Delhi is older than what the layers of soil have revealed so far, and the deepest mysteries lie under the Purana Qila complex. Archaeological excavation has resumed at the site, and this time, the goal is to reach the level of what is called the ‘Mahabharat period’, estimated to be around 900 BCE.

Archaeologist Vasant Swarnkar is leading the latest dig. He also led the last two excavations, in 2013-14 and 2017-18, which found cultural deposits from Maurya to Shunga, Kushana, Gupta, Rajput, Sultanate and Mughal periods.

An added goal is to display the site for G20 delegates this September. “The excavation is not specifically for G20. But the findings will be showcased to all incoming delegates,” says Swarnkar, who is also the spokesperson for the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

It was the late Padma Vibhushan-winning archaeologist B.B. Lal who first linked the site to the Mahabharat period, during the pioneering and elaborate excavation work he conducted inside Purana Qila grounds in 1954 and then from 1969-73.

“The antiquity of this place goes back to the Mahabharat period. The reference to Inderpath [an ancient city that existed within the fort walls] finds mention not just in ancient Indian literature but even Persian literature. It is one of the five places the Pandavas wanted,” archaeologist K.K. Muhammaed said in a 2015 Doordarshan series about the forts of India.

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No official links

Lal claimed that Purana Qila is the “Pandava kingdom of Indraprastha.” While there is no direct or conclusive evidence to tie the fort to the text, the discovery of painted grey pottery at sites mentioned in the legend, including Purana Quila, points to the existence of a thriving culture that could well date back to 600-1200 BCE. This discovery led to the period being officially termed the Painted Grey Ware (PGW) culture.

The connection between the fort and the Pandava kingdom is endorsed by the Indian government as well. “Apart from archaeology, textual sources such as Ain-i-Akbari of Abul Fazal (16th century) mention that Humayun had built the fort at the site of Indraprastha, the ancient capital of the Pandavas,” states the government’s ‘Indian culture’ portal. It goes on to explain that up until 1913, there was a village called Inderpath within the fort walls. But the hamlet was relocated when the British started building the modern capital of Delhi.

“Today, Delhi has a Mughal and colonial layer, but the history of Delhi is older than that. It is believed that Delhi was built and destroyed seven times, but all of these accounts are only from the medieval period,” says Swarnkar.

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The work ahead 

Purana Qila, or rather, the ground beneath it, is believed to hold the answers that can unlock Delhi’s rich but forgotten history. The last dig, conducted in 2017-18 by Swarnkar, did not go down to the lowest level. ASI hopes to find more painted grey ware dating back to the Mahabharat period.

“The oldest settlement will be known when we reach natural soil,” says Swarnkar.

Every day at 8 am, six archaeologists, including two interns, come armed with their trowels and brushes to dig up the trenches excavated in 2013-14 and 2017-18.

The ongoing dig at Purana Qila | Twitter @ASIGoI
The ongoing dig at Purana Qila | Twitter @ASIGoI

The dig, which began on 13 January, has generated curiosity not just among tourists but also among residents eager to know more about the city they call home. On any given day, groups of bystanders can be found milling around the excavation site, watching Swarnkar’s team at work.

Tracing the past

Work on two of the four trenches has already begun. Each trench is 10 ft wide by 10 ft long and divided into four quadrants. These are further divided into sections.

“The trenches that are being reopened now. They will be preserved and be open for citizens to see,” says a senior archaeologist as she carefully removes the polythene-like black sheets that were used to close the trenches during the last dig. Home complexes dating back to the Kushan Empire (30-375AD) and ring wells from the Mauryan period (321 BCE –185 BCE) were found in that attempt.

Some of the artefacts Swarnkar found in the last excavation, such as sickles, parers, terracotta toys, kiln-burnt bricks, beads, terracotta figurines, and seals, are on display at the Archaeological Museum inside the Purana Qila Fort Complex.

One of the objectives of the current excavation is to preserve and safely expose the trenches that had been dug up previously. More importantly, they hope to find traces of even older painted grey ware.

The pottery found during the 2013-14 excavations was in a stratified layer and traced its origins to the pre-Mauryan period. “We had found PGW shards, but they were found in the flood area,” says Swarnkar. By flood area, he refers to an area covered with silt found during the last dig, which on further examination, was found to be part of a flood in the past.

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The history of the fort

The Purana Qila itself is relatively ‘new’ compared with the site’s history. Mughal emperor Humayun built the 16th-century fort as part of his new city, Dinpanah, in 1538. Surid Sultan Sher Shah Suri modified the fort after defeating him in 1539.

“There was no dearth of forts in Delhi when Humayun arrived. Every king wanted glory. The Purana Qila was also used by Akbar in the early years of his reign,” according to historian Refaqat Ali Khan. The area had a lot of social status as it’s in the same neighbourhood as the mausoleum of the venerated Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin. While it retained its social position, it lost its political status after Akbar moved his capital to Fatehpur Sikri near Agra.

But Khan agrees that the historical significance of the Purana Qila complex predates the Mughals. “Even when Feroz Shah Tughlaq was building Feroz Shah Kotla in 1354, one of the villages was named Indrapath, which is mentioned in the Mahabharat, he said.

The area is geographically significant as well. On one side was the Yamuna River, and on the other was what historians say was a bustling trade route. Today, it is Mathura Road, a part of Shershah Suri’s Grand Trunk Road.

“This is the old trade route, which was a better place for business. In the excavation of 2013-14, 135 coins of different reigns and 36 seals were found here, which proves that there was a lot of commercial activity here. That’s why people kept living here,” says Swarnkar.

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Challenges to the dig

When Lal undertook the first excavation work at the Purana Qila complex in 1954, and then in 1969-73, he did not dig beyond the Mauryan level, as per ASI’s official reports.

During the 2017-18 excavation, Swarnkar’s team found silt at the lower levels. As a result, water started seeping into the excavation site, and work was stopped.

“This time, water will be pumped out, but there is also a slight fear that the section [in the trench] may break. Last time we went eight metres below the surface of the trench,” says Swarnkar.

The archaeologist says that he and his team found traces of industrial activity at the spot— especially cultivation—which were not found during B.B. Lal’s time. “We have also found flood deposits here. This is a multi-cultural site, where there are facilities of resources for life,” he adds.

Swarnkar and his team hope that this ancient history of Purana Qila will be as much of a tourist attraction as the Red Fort and the Qutub Minar.

“Tourists in Delhi see the Mughal and colonial layers. But Delhi is very old, and no one is able to see that. Everyone thinks that Delhi started being settled in by the 11th century, but our research goes back to before 800 BCE. Purana Qila is the only place where you can see the history of 2,500 years of Delhi.”

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

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