Digging Into The Past
By Aditya Kiran Nag
Please! could you keep these samples near the anchor? Mind you, there are some Chinese pottery samples there which need to be catalogued too.” Nearby a young student takes the small shards of pottery in her hands and starts writing the find date. Dear readers we caught up with Dr. Anam Behera a lecturer at the Department of Ancient History, Culture & Archaeology(AIHCA) Utkal University and his team. They have been in news recently for finding a rare 1400 year old Naga Buddha statue at Banapur in Khurdha district. Leading the charge Dr.Anam Behera and his team are piecing Odisha’s cultural history one archaeological find at a time. We bring to you a brief report about how he, his department and students are working to record the human history of Odisha and a few tips about how to be an archaeologist if you care about it. As we entered the room we could feel as if we had reached a place where history is alive. All around us were artifacts, shards of pottery, ancient ship anchors and tools which have forged the history of Odisha. Dr.Anam Behera is a history crusader, who along with this team of young students from the department of AIHCA has scoured the state and literally has left no stone unturned to put across the human history of Odisha.
“Human history is at least2.5 million years old. History of human beings in the Indian subcontinent has been recorded at being as old as 1.8 million years old. Evidence of this has been found near the Narmada river’’ Says, the bright eyed lecturer as he shows us some of his findings of a site near Bhubaneswar. As a historian one has to understand that before we start searching for ancient human activity we have to understand the place, time and geographical location. Odisha is home to 62 tribes and each of these tribes has preserved their way of life in certain unique ways. This helps the AIHCA team to identify whether there was any previous ancient human activity or intervention in that area. The team reads through their folklore and observes the present areas where they are located and starts by searchingfor what we call ‘surface findings.’
Two of the pioneers in the field of recording human history in Odisha are Mr. D.Sen and Mr.Paramananda Acharya from the Calcutta University who found evidence of a Paleolithic culture also known as the stone-age existing in what is now Mayurbhanj district. Soon after independence, Odisha’s biggest find was Sisupalgarh, discovered in 1948. It was a major find which further strengthened the evidence of human activity in Odisha and proved how old Odisha is in terms of human civilization. “Sisupalgarh had been continuously inhabited for a period of 1000 years from 400 B.C to 400 A.D. Human activity has been accurately reported to have been as old as 600,000 years in Odisha. Since independence many sites have yielded evidence of constant human activity right from the Stone age till the present day”, Says Dr.Anam Behera.
To fully understand human history and the making of what is today our culture one has to cut through the fabric and colours of what we call today as the Jagannath Culture, the Buddhist culture or the Islamic period to truly understand the human aspect of history. The team’s work is not just limited to finding ancient sites or monuments but also to understand as to why they were built, for whom they were built, with whom were we trading via these great centres like Sisupalgarh and many ancient ports found on the coastline of Odisha.
Dr.Anam shared some insights and facts about Odisha’s history in his impromptu interaction with our team. Here’s a little bit of information that our dear readers would love to know about Bhubaneswar. “The earliest activity of human beings recorded in Bhubaneswar goes back to the Dhauli hill Ashokan inscription of 3rd Century B.C., which was basically around the time when Buddhism became popular in Odisha” Says Dr.Anam Behera. This, dear readers ascertains the fact that humans have existed near the Daya river area and Bhubaneswar since that time. The next major find which shows humans existed in the Bhubaneswar area are the Jaina inscriptions of Khandagiri caves which were made during King Kharvela’s time around 1st Century B.C. The oldest temple in Bhubaneswar is Shatrughaneswar temple which was made in 600 A.D. But one worrying factor he cites is the dark age of Odisha’s history. From 1st Century B.C. to 600 AD (when the Shatrughaneswar temple was built) a period of 700years has no documented evidence or archaeological evidence. The missing link for this 700 year period of the so called dark-age is something which Dr.Anam and his team are trying to piece together.
Dr.Anam Behera also stated the fact that the oldest temple in Odisha is the Kunti temple located near Boudh on a hill called Mahendragiri. How does one ascertain this? “Well, it’s pretty simple.” He goes on to explain. “Since the oldest temple in India was made in the 4th Century A.D. during the Gupta era, the Kunti temple at Boudh can be ascertained to be around that period or later but sadly we are yet to find any written evidence to fill up this missing link. Written evidence in any form, may it be in stone edicts or through folklore or even doodles inside temple columns provide archaeologists and researchers a marker. This further allows us to date and deduce the time when the structure was built. Apart from that we use modern techniques of carbon dating too.”
Present is the key to the past. Odisha in the ancient times was also a major trade and commerce hub. Greek & Roman evidence has been found in Odisha too. His team has found evidence of Greek pottery and amphoras in Sisupalgarh. Even pottery shards are found on the coasts of Puri and in the waters off the coast of Puri which was linked to Greece. One of the students Atul Pradhan during his PHD study has found this evidence. So an ancient link between Odisha and Greece existed and flourished during this period. Even Odisha finds mention in the Greek historian Ptolemy’s writings in the 1st Century B.C. where he clearly points out a place called Palur which is a major city and a trading post which corresponds to modern-day Palur junction area of Ganjam district near the Chilka lake. In the 7th Century Hiuen Tsang mentions about ‘Chelitala’ port which is likely to be a port in the Chilika lake. It is here that Hiuen Tsang landed and travelled into the Kangoda region a major hub of Buddhism now in Odisha. Their team has found evidence of Buddhism from that time and discovered a Buddhist idol which roughly corresponds to a site near Banapur to that time when Hiuen Tsang had come. “You know the one with the seven-headed snake.”Says Dr.Anam. He later told us that the site is now inside a government college and that during the building of this college the largest number of bronze statues of Buddha ever found in Asia was discovered here at this site.
Through their research Dr.Anam and his team have found strong linkages with other civilizations of South Asia, dotted along the ancient sea routes. “We have found many sites like ‘Kankiakuda’ near Khalikote which we estimate is an ancient port. ‘Manikpatna’ port near Dahikhia-Brahmagiri has been found near Chilika lake , ‘Khalkatapatna’ on the Puri-Konark marine drive. Our hypothesis is that the land called ‘Kangoda’ is the Salia dam- Kankadagada area where already a huge structure from that era exists. You could go down there to view it. It’s not very far.” quips Dr.Anam.
He also gave some more insight about his ongoing research in that area. He suspects that there is an older site between Kankiakuda and Kankagada.
There is also another darkage of Odisha which is known as the Chalcolithic or Copper Age. Between Sisupalgarh & Copper Age we have near to no information on the Iron Age. Just to give you an idea Iron Age is sometime around the appearance of Aryan’s in the subcontinent; around the time when Sisupalgarh was built.
So in all Dr.Anam Behera and his team are trying to find evidence of missing links in Odissan history: one from Chalcolithic era to Sisupalgarh (a period of one thousand years) and another period from the 1st Century BC to 600AD He stresses the fact that in their search for Odisha’s history, amateur archaeologists are needed to piece together the history of Odisha. It is not necessary that one has to study archaeology rather one should be curious enough to find something on his own. In his team are Dakhineshwar Jena, Minaketan Sundaray, Ramakanta Pradhan, Kaibalya Pati and many others who are tirelessly sifting through the shifting sands of time, going down into rivulets, farmlands, deep inside forests, mountains and hills. Fearing neither cloud’s nor winters chilling breeze, collating, documenting pieces of artifacts, anchors, amphoras, rock art and many other objects, slowly, yet steadily piecing together the historical odyssey of Odisha.
If you have the interest to learn more and help document the past or if you have something which you think is of major historical value, we suggest, you head down to Utkal University and meet Dr.Anam Behera and his team. After all you know Troy was found by an amateur archaeologist called Heinrich Schliemann so why can’t you?