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How Context Informs Archaeological Research in South Asia

Written by Sophie Manfredi

It is well established that archaeology, as a field, is all about context. Analysis of any find has to take into account where in the stratigraphy it was found, the other finds that were near it, and where in the trench the find was located, among other things. Context is always referred to in terms of the excavated material, but rarely is it discussed in terms of the circumstances surrounding the excavation itself. When looking at previous archaeological research and analysis, being critical of other people’s work requires taking into account the political and social context of the research. Despite assumptions that modern archaeology is more empirical and thus less susceptible to forces outside of modern scientific methods than early archaeological work, this is not necessarily the case. By looking at Alexander Cunningham’s late 1800 archaeological surveys under British colonialism in India, and more modern excavations at Ayodhya, I will explore how sociopolitical context has shaped the presentation and analysis of archaeological data in South Asia.

The main focus of Cunningham’s surveys were Early Historic Period Buddhist sites, while the Ayodhya excavations focused on the 11th century to the building of the mosque in the 16th century. In my analysis of these two cases, I will be primarily consulting Chakrabarti’s (1988a; 1988b; 2003) works on archaeological theory in India, Cunningham’s (1943; 1971) archaeological publications, Lal’s (1980) brief report on his excavation at Ayodhya, Mandal’s (1993) analysis of archaeological evidence at Ayodhya, and Varma & Menon’s (2010) discussion of the Archaeological Survey of India’s 2003 excavation of Ayodhya.

I will approach each case by analyzing the political and social contexts of the archaeological research completed as well as other scholarly work pertinent to each case. I will also analyze how the archaeological projects are described in terms of their results and data and how these results relate to the political context as well as other scholarly work. By looking at the way archaeology is practiced in two very different sociopolitical contexts, I hope to demonstrate how archaeology can be shaped by these contexts and how they can cause misrepresentation of archaeological data.

Cunningham and British Colonialism

Alexander Cunningham was a British archaeologist who worked primarily in India during the course of his career. The importance of his South Asian surveys relies, in part, on the quantity and scale of geographic data he collected. His book, The Ancient Geography of India (1871), contains a wealth of geographic information on the numerous sites he encountered as he followed various foreign literary sources. Cunningham’s main research interest was in Early Historic Buddhism and in matching Buddhist ruins with the travel accounts found in his literary sources. As Cunningham worked with, and was compensated by, the British colonial state for his archaeological work, it is important to examine the political context of his research, the primary sources available to him prior to his surveys, as well as the possible reasons underlying his interest in Buddhism.

The impact of British colonialism on India is integral to any discussion of academic work completed during this period, especially in archaeology where many early theories that arose out of colonial scholarship are still discussed in contemporary literature. Of primary importance to this discussion is the theory of Aryan invasion which is strongly linked to to the legitimization of British colonialism, which in turn would have influenced the kind of scholarship that the British empire was willing to fund in South Asia. One of Cunningham’s early survey proposals mentions his aims to discover new data that would support the Aryan invasion theory. He states: “To the first body it would show that India had generally been divided into numerous petty chiefships, which had invariably been the case upon every successful invasion” (Cunningham, 1843: 246). As his surveys were funded by the colonial government, it would have been in his interest to appeal to colonial interests in order to secure funding.

The Aryan Invasion theory has its roots in the domain of philology, where the study of Sanskrit showed evidence for an Indo-European language family (Trautmann, 1997: 2). The discovery of a possible link between Europe and South Asia was used as a tool by Orientalists in order to claim an affection between the ruler and the ruled, or between colonial Britain and the ruled South Asia (Trautmann, 1997:15). Though certain British scholars still denied any relationship between Britain and India (Trautmann, 1997:18), the Aryan Invasion theory would have been attractive to the British government in legitimizing their rule.

The concept that religions in India were susceptible to change, and therefore susceptible to changing into Christianity was a notion that would have benefited the British government. According to Chakrabarti (1988a:51), Cunningham’s assertion that the research on Buddhism would “be an undertaking of vast importance [...] to the British public religiously (Cunningham, 1943:246)” was in reference to the idea that if religions within India were subject to change, then they were also able to change into Christianity. Cunningham had also argued for Buddhism’s relationship to Druidism, drawing even more links between South Asia and Britain (Chakrabarti, 1988a:55). While the data Cunningham collected via archaeological work was generally strong, the conclusions he came to by using this data directly legitimized British rule by emphasizing a possible past relationship between Britain and India.

During the colonial period, textual sources were considered to be superior to material culture (Trautmann & Sinopoli, 2002:495), so it is no surprise that the basis for Cunningham’s archaeological surveys was primarily textual. In the preface to The Ancient Geography of India (1871:vii), Cunningham names his main sources as the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the travels of Xuanzang (Hwen Thsang), and the travels of Faxian (Fa-Hian). Despite Cunningham’s (1871:vi) praise of translated Sanskrit texts, he derided the Puranas, another semi-historical text, for being “rubbish” based on their lack of information about Buddhism (Chakrabarti, 1988a:52).

Buddhism began to emerge in the Early Historic Period. The two textual sources on this period central to this discussion are the RG Veda and the Puranas. Neither text originated as a written source, but as oral histories (Sankalia, 1969:29). The Vedas contain information pertaining to the pre-history of South Asia, whereas the Puranas contains a mix of both historic and mythic elements that make them more difficult to use (Fogelin, 2015:12). Neither of these texts would have been particularly useful for Cunningham’s focus of research in archaeology, but his praise for the Vedic texts and contrasting derision towards the Puranas is still important to examine.

The conception of the RG Veda and Puranas is different among British colonial scholars for various reasons. The Vedic texts are of particular interest due to their use as evidence for the Aryan invasion theory (Fogelin, 2015:12). This would have made the text attractive to study for many scholars, as doing research pertaining to British interests would make it easier to attract funding. The Puranas, on the other hand, were not as highly regarded for epistemological and religious reasons. The Puranas is not a work that is written chronologically, like Western historical texts, and the same events are often retold from different points of view (Fogelin, 2015:13). Additionally, Sanskrit literature generally spanned a large timeframe that extended beyond the timeframe dictated by the bible, and as a result it had to be recontextualized in order to fit into that shorter timespan (Trautmann, 1997:193). Due to the chronological issues with the Puranas and the long period which it spans, it may have made it difficult for the British to recontextualize the text due to this religious epistemology, adding to the view of this literary source as not particularly dependable as a basis for further research.

According to Imam (1963:196), during Cunningham’s era, the study of Buddhism would have been one of the best reasons for studying archaeology. Further study of Buddhism would have resulted in more data that may have been useful in showing evidence for similarities between Buddhism and Druidism, further supporting Aryan invasion theory and helping to establish Britain as a legitimate ruler of India by arguing for a previous British occupation. Buddhism could also be used to establish Christianity in India by showing that religions in India could change over time. This made Buddhism an ideal field to fund research in. New translations of Faxian and Xuanzang’s travel accounts were also released in the mid 1800s (Imam, 1963:198). This material would have been considered to be more reliable as it dealt with specific geographic locations of various cities and buildings. One criticism of Cunningham is that he put too much faith in the Chinese texts. Chakrabarti (1988b:47) notes that some of the distances between sites that Cunningham identified did not correlate to the distances mentioned by any of the sources that he consulted.

Through this examination of the political and scholarly context of Cunningham’s work, we can see how his research contributes to the colonial powers who funded him. The colonial government needed to legitimize their rule which made studies that contributed to that goal more attractive for funding. In turn, scholarship would have leaned more towards these subjects that would guarantee funding, but also would have pressured researchers to present data that fit these preconceived notions. Cunningham’s work regarding Buddhism was extremely helpful in his exploration of geography, but his work overemphasizes what theories he could confirm using material culture and archaeology.

Ayodhya and Rising Nationalism

Ayodhya is the center of a dispute between Hindi nationalist groups and muslims in India on the possibility of the existence of a destroyed Ram Temple on the site of the Babri Masjid mosque. There has been little archaeological research on this subject, with one excavation by B. B. Lal, of which the results have not yet been published in full, and another excavation in 2003 by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Before discussion of this topic, it’s important to note that I have only been able to gain access to one of the B.B. Lal’s reports and any further discussion of archaeological data beyond that is based on second hand analysis of the data from the B. B. Lal excavation by Mandal (1993) and witness accounts by Varma & Menon (2010) of the 2003 ASI excavation.

In Chakrabarti’s (2003:193) book, Archaeology in the Third World: A History of Indian Archaeology Since 1947, he states that, “The overall impact of nationalism on Indian archaeology has been very limited in the past, and it is limited even now.” In a post-Ayodhya India, where archaeological data has been continuously misrepresented to the public, I believe that nationalism has a larger impact on archaeology as nationalists strive to find proof of specific historical narratives. The overall fixation on ancient India through popular media genres (Chakrabarti, 2003) shows how nationalist narratives attempt to equate the ancient past with identity, especially national identity. Bernbeck & Pollock (1996) argue that this is the case with Ayodhya, where there is an overwhelming identification with the past among Hindus in India and, as a result, contemporary Muslims become the scapegoat for past injuries.

Despite the 1992 destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya being the result of riots, political leaders have fanned the flames of Hindu nationalism. Ayodhya has been a central issue, carefully built up by Hindu nationalists to appeal to contemporary politics (Udayakumar, 1997). During the initial campaign to liberate Ayodhya in 1984, members of the then ruling political party were involved in the attempt to liberate the Babri Masjid mosque and white papers. One released by the Government of India and the other released by the Bharatiya Janata Party (known for their Hindu nationalist policies), both parties misrepresent the historical and archaeological facts of Ayodhya in order to claim the presence, without any uncertainty, of a past Hindu temple at the site (Srivastava, 1994).

There is no one historical “truth” to Ayodhya, and the narrative of the destroyed Hindu temple that commemorated the birthplace of Ram, lived initially as a metaphorical myth before its transformation into a westernized historical narrative (Pandey, 1994). Srivastava’s (1994) breakdown of the white papers on Ayodhya show how tenuous the historical data is. The assertion that Ayodhya had always been an important site for pilgrimage since the beginning of the millennium has no basis, as it is never mentioned in this context in any Brahminical treatise or any of the epic or puranic literature (Srivastava, 1994). Ayodhya was not given any great importance until the 17th century, when it’s association with Rama increased its religious significance (Srivastava, 1994). Since the mosque had been built in the 16th century, by the time the site was considered to be of religious importance, the Hindu temple would have already been demolished. Another line of historical evidence put forth by the white papers is the presence of an inscription at Ayodhya stating the date of construction of the mosque (Srivastava, 1944:41). This inscription is said to be evidence of the order to destroy the Hindu temple in order to build the mosque, however it bears no reference to the figure, Mir Baqi, who allegedly built the mosque (Srivastava, 1944:41). The style of this inscription also differed from another inscription inside the mosque. This contradiction calls into question the validity of both inscriptions (Srivastava, 1944:41).

Though archaeological data regarding Ayodhya is limited, this has not stopped the press and political parties from commenting on how various archaeological finds have proven the existence of the Ram temple at the site. This is both a misrepresentation of the ability of material culture to confirm such an idea and of the archaeological data available on Ayodhya in general. B. B. Lal’s excavations are described in brief in the 1980 publication Indian Archaeology, 1976-1977: A Review. The earliest finds at the site, Northern Black Polished ware, date the earliest occupations to around 700 BCE. The occupations seem to have been continuous until around 200 CE, after which there was a break in occupation from the Early Historic Period to the 11th century. The break in occupation is significant, as noted by B. B. Lal, since there is a lack of material culture from the Gupta period. Allegedly, it was during the Gupta period that the site of Ayodhya symbolically took on its origin as the birthplace of Rama (Bernbeck & Pollock, 1996:140).

Mandal’s (1993) analysis of the stratigraphy of B. B. Lal’s trench is of particular interest, as it puts Lal’s conclusion that the pillars that he excavated were part of a structure built in the 11th century—hypothesized to be the destroyed Hindu temple—into question. Mandal’s analysis of the stratigraphy shows that the pillars were not contemporaneous with each other, but rather each was associated with a specific floor seen in the stratigraphic record. Mandal (1993) also discusses some of the other new “discoveries” which consist of Hindu artifacts found after the riot that have no context and therefore little archaeological value, but nevertheless have been used by others to prove the existence of the Hindu temple at Ayodhya.

Varma & Menon’s (2010) paper on the ASI’s 2003 excavation at Ayodhya is extremely critical of their methods and the published results of the excavation. The ASI followed Lal’s argument of the pillar bases being evidence for a pillared Hindu temple, with the ASI report claiming to have found further evidence of 50 pillar bases. Varma & Menon (2010: 65) critique this analysis, as the pillar bases in the northern part of the excavation were inconsistent with the other bases, and they propose that these other bases were not pillar bases at all, but part of the base on which the floors were laid.. The methods of the ASI archaeological team are criticized for creating these pillar bases by selectively removing brickbats during excavation, about which a complaint was filed (Varma & Menon, 2010: 65). Another critique of the methods used during excavation concerns the documentation of finds, where descriptions of artifacts having been changed in order to be more in line with the initial hypothesis, despite the fact that any further study of artifacts was not recorded (Varma & Menon, 2010:65).

The 2003 ASI excavation was deeply flawed in both methods and reporting and, as Varma & Menon (2010:71) note, it was done with the purpose of confirming the historical record of Ayodhya. The strong faith given to this historical narrative of Ayodhya has resulted in contradictions and lack of evidence being ignored.

Regardless of whether or not there was a Hindu temple at Ayodhya, the controversy has resulted in a gross misrepresentation of archaeological data and the conclusions that can be derived from it. The fabrication of history from myth has created a situation where archaeological data is being used to support previously established conclusions with no solid scientific or historical basis. Going back to Chakrabarti’s (2003:193) assertion that, “The overall impact of nationalism on Indian archaeology has been very limited in the past, and it is limited even now,” it is hard to reconcile his words with how Hindu nationalists have used archaeology to support their agenda in Ayodhya. As long as political and social groups look to the past to strengthen power and identity, archaeology is always at risk of of being used to reinforce nationalistic agendas.


While on the surface, Cunningham’s archaeological work during Britain’s colonial rule of India and the misrepresentation of archaeological data on Ayodhya have little in common, both are steeped in the political and social context of their time and both—to an extent—misrepresent the ability of archaeological data to prove certain facts. Cunningham’s argument that Buddhism and Druidism were related based on the form of the stupas is not dissimilar to the use of out of context Hindu artifacts at Ayodhya to prove the existence of a Hindu temple. In both cases the data is being used to reach conclusions that the material remains being studied cannot absolutely confirm. Cunningham’s use of scholarly work on India, such as work on Aryan invasion theory, meant that his archaeological research strived to confirm “historical facts” rather than create his own line of inquiry into the issue. Similarly, archaeologists at Ayodhya have been so dedicated in confirming the existence of a Hindu temple that they have never questioned its existence in the first place. The political use of archaeology is present in both cases as well; while the British colonial government used archaeology to support their rule of India, modern political groups are still using archaeology to support nationalist agendas at Ayodhya.

Context is everything in archaeology, and through the exploration of these two cases I hope that I have shown that this does not necessarily only apply to physical artifacts. The context of research, both social and political, and the context and validity of historical sources in use are just as important when critically looking at archaeological research, publications, and interpretations. It is impossible for archaeology to be completely removed from the context of the archaeologists themselves,, but it is possible to be more aware of potential contextual biases, and to keep these in mind when conducting research. Of course, this does nothing to stop the misrepresentation of archaeological data in order to further political gains, but this recognition may at least foster a more critical view of how archaeology is practiced in various political contexts.


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