B.B. Lal, as a young archaeologist, wanted to examine whether places mentioned in the Mahabharata had an existence that went back to the times of the epic. A tribute to the man who has just been honoured with Padma Vibhushan.
When you are in Delhi, drive east down Rajpath from Rashtrapati Bhavan, make a right and continue on India Gate circle. When you merge onto Sher Shah Road, you will come on to Mathura Road. On the other side of the road is the Old Fort, also known as Purana Qila. This is the site of the oldest of the seven cities of this region (the seven being Lal Kot/Qila Rai Pithora, Siri, Tughlakabad, Jahanpanah, Feroze Shah Kotla, Purana Qila, and Shahjahanabad). Local tradition, however, insists that long before there existed a city named Indrapat—or Indraprastha, of the Mahabharata era.
Over the past several decades, archaeologists, geologists, and scientists have shown that the Ramayana and Mahabharata have a historical core. For instance, the late S.R. Rao, Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), conducted India’s first marine excavations and found remains of the submerged city of Dwarka that corresponded very closely with what had been described in the Mahabharata. A lost, submerged city that had been thought of as folklore and fiction became a factual, historical reality. Similarly, M. Amrithalingam and P. Sudhakar, two botanists with the CPR Environmental Education Centre, studied all 182 plants, flowers, trees, and fruits mentioned in the Valmiki Ramayana and found that all existed along the route mentioned by Valmiki. Their conclusion, therefore, was that it was not possible for a person to just write something out of his imagination and fit it into local folklore for greater credibility.
After Independence in 1947, the two most famous sites associated with the Indus Valley civilisation, Harappa and Mohenjodaro, became part of Pakistan. Indian archaeologists began a hectic campaign of excavations to discover more Harappan sites in India. One such excavation was at Lothal by S.R. Rao in 1954-55. In the coming years more than a thousand sites would be excavated, many along the route of the long dried-up Saraswati river. It is a matter of lament from archaeologists, including B.B. Lal that many of these sites have been subject to abject neglect and apathy and are in danger of being lost forever.
B.B. Lal, as a young archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India, wanted to examine whether places mentioned in the Mahabharata had an existence that went back to the times of the epic. It helped that the names of many of these places had remained unchanged from the times of the Mahabharata. The first excavations at Indraprastha were conducted in 1954-55, resumed after a gap of fifteen years, in 1969-70, and which continued till 1971-72. There was another round of excavations that was performed in 2014. A total of ten periods identified based on the excavations and the stratification were observed. These periods started with the Painted Gray Ware period, dated to the 10th century BCE; the Northern Black Polished Ware, dated to circa 600BCE; and all the way to the British period, dated to the 19th to mid-19th century CE.
Is modern day Indraprastha the same as the Indraprastha mentioned in the Mahabharata? That question is answered by the Naraina Stone inscription from 1327 CE (1384 Samvat), which makes the statement, ‘there is a province named Hariyana in which lies the city of Dilli’, and ‘in the western direction of Indraprastha there is a village called Nadayana (modern day Naraina)’. So Indraprastha existed seven hundred years ago. What about two thousand years ago? Was Indraprastha a well-populated settlement then, as the Mahabharata tell us? For that we turn to the Ashokan rock edict of Bahapur, in south-east Delhi. The edict, like other Ashokan edicts, were meant to be read by people living nearby, and the only known settlement in that area was Indraprastha.
Then there are the copious references to Indraprastha that can be found in the Mahabharata (Adi Parva, Sabha Parva primarily) that details the construction of the assembly hall for the Pandavas, which took fourteen months to complete. The Jatakas, specifically story number 515, talks of a city named Indrapatta in the Kuru kingdom and ruled by Dhananjaya. All these give a reasonable amount of evidence to support the assertion that the city Indraprastha mentioned in the Mahabharata is the same as modern day Indraprastha.
Separately, B.B. Lal also conducted the first excavation in 1951-52 at the Mahabharata site of Hastinapura, in the district of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh. Similar excavations were done at Kurukshetra, Panipat, Sonepat, Baghpat, Barnawa, Kampil, Ahichchhatra, and other places. What he found, from an archaeological point of view, was that all these sites shared the Painted Grey Ware culture as the lowest common feature. Apart from pottery shards, the excavations also found copper and iron in use that were used to manufacture axes, nails, hooks, tongs, arrowheads and daggers, and oblong dice.
What is this Painted Grew Ware (PGW) that has been found at all sites associated with the Mahabharata? It is painted grey pottery that has been found at over one-thousand sites excavated across northern India and has been dated to between 3,500 to 3,220 years before present. PGW was succeeded by Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW). It thus became possible for archaeologists to date such PGW sites to a defined range of dates, versus, say NBPW.
Returning to Hastinapura, these PGW deposits were found in the western part of the mound at Hastinapura, but not on the eastern part which faces the Ganga river. Further studies showed that the river had indeed destroyed a large part of the eastern settlement. Four bore holes dug in the river-bed showed small portions of the material of the settlement washed away by the river, at a depth of fifty feet below the surface. Was there any mention of this destruction in the texts?
Yes, the Matsya and Vayu Puranas provide us with accounts of the impact this destruction wrought. They also give us a genealogical list of the Paurava dynasty. Specifically, starting with Abhimanyu’s son Parikshit, we find this is what the text says about Nichakshu, fifth in the list: ‘when the city of nagasahvya (another name for Hastinapura) is carried away by the Ganga, Nichakshu will abandon it and dwell in Kausambi.’ The excavations at Kausambi revealed that the uppermost levels of Hastinapura corresponded with the beginnings of Kausambi.
Finally, we get to what BB Lal has to say about the dating of the Mahabharata. For that, he relies on the Puranas again and their copious information on dynasties and lineages. Nichakshu was the fifth ruler from Parikshit, while Udayana was 19th from Nichakshu. We also know that Udayana was a contemporary of Buddha who passed away in 487 BCE. This gives us a firm date for Udayana’s reign. Going back 24 generations, BB Lal analyzed the Maurya, Sunga, Satavahana, and other dynasties and arrived at an average span of rule of thirteen and a half years per ruler. Rounding it up to fifteen years, and going back 24 rulers, he arrived at a putative date of 860 BCE for the Kurukshetra war. This is different from others, including S.R. Rao, who posited a date of 1500 BCE for the war, while some have put forward different dates. Perhaps the most famous of those dates is 3102 BCE, which is from the inscription at Aihole.
Reasonably speaking, three conclusions can be drawn. First, that the Mahabharata has a historical and verifiable core, which was added to and embellished over millennia. Evidence of its historicity has been established through excavations done at dozens of sites. Second, one may or may not accept BB Lal’s date and choose instead a date that is a few hundred years earlier, 1500 BCE for example, as some others have argued for. There may also be incompleteness in genealogical records provided. But to argue for a date going back to 3000 BCE is untenable based on what we know today. Least of all the problems with that date is the fact that there is not a single site associated with the Mahabharata that has been excavated and can be dated to that time period. That long a discontinuity cannot just be wished away. Perhaps more studies and advances may push these dates back, but till then, we have to go by the evidence available.
The word ‘legend’ does not begin to describe Shri B.B. Lal. Born in 1921, the same year when extensive excavations at Harappa pushed back India’s civilization to at least the third millennium BCE, he joined the Archaeological Survey of India in 1946 and retired as its Director General in 1972. India honoured its living legend with a Padma Vibhushan in 2021. There is another book that BB Lal wrote, equally lavishly illustrated and printed on thick, glossy paper, and also published by Aryan Books, where the arguments in favour of the historicity of the Mahabharata are covered in greater detail – “Historicity of the Mahabharata: Evidence of Literature, Art and Archaeology.”
Now in his 100th year, B.B. Lal continues to write regularly. This, ‘Indraprashtha’, is his latest book. This short, hardcover book is printed on glossy paper, has more than sixty illustrations and photographs, and takes you on a journey through time, history, and the Indic civilization.
Views expressed are writer’s personal.