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HD (Hasmukh Dhirajlal) Sankalia – some notes #2

Here's another perspective on HD Sankalia's work:

Hasmukh D. Sankalia (1908-1989)

By K. Paddayya, Anthropos, Bd. 85, H. 1./3. (1990), pp. 161-165

Hasmukh D. Sankalia, Professor Emeritus at Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute, Poona (India) since his retirement from active service in 1973 and who had practically become a by-name for its Archaeology Department, died of old age on January 28, 1989. Born in a middle-class family in Bombay in 1908, Sankalia derived his inspiration to know about past peoples from childhood tales drawn from ancient Indian texts and lives of famous personalities in history, including Napoleon, and from a chance encounter with literature on the Aryan origins. He opted for Sanskrit as the main subject for his B. A. examination of Bombay University. As advised by the famous Indologist Father Heras, in whose memory the Heras Institute of Indian History and Culture was established in 1926 as part of Bombay University, he switched over to ancient Indian history and culture for his M. A. degree and completed in 1932 a thesis on the ancient Buddhist educational establishment at Nalanda. This work entailed visits to ancient sites in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

At the behest of Father Heras again Sankalia proceeded to London and prepared a doctoral dissertation in 1936 on the dynastic history of ancient monuments of Gujarat. He also made use of this opportunity to attend courses in Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations and, more important, to participate in Sir Mortimer Wheeler's excavation at Maiden Castle and thus acquire the fundamentals of field archaeology. Both these aspects not only proved to be a decisive factor in his selection for the post of Professor of Proto-Indian and Ancient Indian History at Deccan College in 1939 but formed his only assets in chartering new directions in Indian archaeology and served as a passport to his rise as its unrivalled spokesman for half a century. At Deccan College Sankalia chaired the Department of Archaeology till his retirement in 1973 and, additionally, served as Joint Director and later as Director of the Institute for several years.

One must recall here that Deccan College, which was founded in 1821 as a Sanskrit School and had been undertaking teaching at the undergraduate level since the 60s of the last century, was given a new dimension in 1939 when it was asked by the Government of Bombay to exclusively devote itself to postgraduate teaching and research. The pioneering research schemes formulated and accomplished by S. M. Katre (Linguistics and Sanskrit), Sankalia himself in Ancient History and Archaeology, the late Irawati Karve (Anthropology and Sociology), C. R. Sankaran (Experimental Phonetics) and their associates soon enabled the Institute to carve for itself a secure place among the foremost institutions of higher learning and research both within and outside the country.

Sankalia's discovery of a megalithic site in the vicinity of Poona in 1939 itself and the publication of a research article about it the very next year (Sankalia 1940) initiated a long and unbroken series of field investigations by him and his colleagues/students. These encompassed different parts of the country and covered every branch of ancient history and archaeology. This wide geographical coverage and broad-based research, coupled with Sankalia's willing acceptance of students and faculty members alike irrespective of regional or linguistic considerations, soon won for the Department the coveted status of an all-India centre for archaeological research.

In collaboration with his colleagues Sankalia undertook excavations at about 20 major sites, among which special mention should be made of Langhnaj, Dwaraka, Somnath, Kolhapur, Nasik, Ne vasa, Inamgaon, Ahar, Maheshwar-Navdatoli, Tekkalakota, and Sanganakallu. He maintained till the end a holistic attitude towards the discipline and made original contributions to various branches of ancient Indian history, culture, and archaeology. Particularly noteworthy among his contributions to historical archaeology are the use of data on ancient placeand personal names for reconstructing historical and cultural geography and ethnography and the employment of archaeological evidence as a tool for ascertaining the location of places and historicity of events depicted in ancient Indian texts, particularly the Ramayana.

It was however to his work in the twin branches of prehistory and protohistory that Sankalia attached the greatest significance and rightly won world acclaim for it. Indeed he played the role of a true pioneer, the importance of which gains additional weight considering the fact that his initial background was in ancient Indian culture and history and that his grounding in archaeology was restricted to the courses he had taken in ancient civilizations in London and the short periods of training in excavation methods he received at Maiden Castle and later at the Harappan site of Chanhudaro in Sind. It will but be proper to expatiate on his major path-breaking projects in these two branches of Indian Archaeology.

In response to a suggestion made by Rao Bahadur K. N. Dikshit, the then Director General of Archaeological Survey of India, Sankalia led the famous First Gujarat Prehistoric Expedition in 1941-42 to investigate the problem of hiatus which Robert Bruce Foote (the Father of Indian Prehistory) had raised earlier between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic phases. Having only rudimentary background in Stone Age archaeology, he had to literally start from the scratch and initiated himself into the job exceedingly well by reading the books of Bruce Foote, George McCurdy, and others and by consulting geological reports. The seriousness of purpose and success of this expedition could be gauged from the 335-page-long report which Sankalia published later (1946). He undertook four additional seasons of fieldwork in the area; the work was continued by others in the 50s and 60s. The chief task before Sankalia was the investigation of Stone Age sites along the Sabarmati and other rivers and also those occurring in the dune-covered tracts of northern and central Gujarat. Langhnaj was the most celebrated one among these sites. The major outcome of these prolonged studies was the bringing to light of a wealth of data arguing for a distinct Mesolithic phase (its stratigraphical position, its material culture and food economy, and even human burials) that erased once and for all the cultural hiatus postulated by Foote.

While investigating the hiatus issue in Gujarat, Sankalia simultaneously grappled with another major negative conclusion of Foote, i.e. , the absence of cultural remains of Early Man on the basalt plateau of Maharashtra on account of the non-availability of quartzite for tool-making purposes. Taking cues from the earlier discovery of fossil fauna by geologists in alluvial deposits, he took up a stretch of the Godavari near Paithan for investigation in 1943 and 1944 and found flake-tool assemblages of siliceous rocks together with fossilized hippo and rhino bones in a pebble conglomerate level at Nandur-Madhmeshwar and a few other places (Sankalia 1943, 1944). Then, in 1951 and 1952,' he recovered from the same river but at a different place, Gangapur near Nasik, a well-defined dolerite assemblage of Acheulian character from a gravel deposit forming part of an elaborate stratigraphical sequence exposed in the course of dam-construction work.

From these initial but promising studies in the Godavari basin it was a short step to Nevasa on the Pravara (a tributary of the Godavari) where in 1955, while conducting a large-scale Chalcolithic excavation, Sankalia and his colleagues explored river sections and detected three cycles of gravel deposit separated by silt deposits. What was more significant, he found a Lower Palaeolithic assemblage in the bottom gravel, a flake-tool assemblage of Nandur-Madhmeshwar type in the middle gravel and microlithic artifacts in the top levels of sections. Here was the much-needed breakthrough in the form of stratigraphie evidence for establishing a time-table of Stone Age cultures a Series I (Lower Palaeolithic) industry followed by a Series II industry and the latter in turn succeeded by a Mesolithic industry. As the later studies amply proved, the Series II assemblage turned out to be part of a new and full-fledged culture called the Middle Palaeolithic which Sankalia promptly reported in Science (1964).

Sankalia added an environmental dimension to this stratigraphical-cum-cultural sequence by associating the gravel deposits with wet climate and silt deposits with dry climate. At the end of his classic article in Ancient India (Sankalia 1956), giving the results of his work at Nevasa, he prophetically wrote that the stratigraphical-climatic-cultural sequence paradigm established here had opened up "a promising field for further research" in other areas. This was precisely the job which his colleagues and students in Poona and also workers elsewhere in the country took up during the next two decades, so that many regions in western, central, eastern, and southern parts of the country revealed comparable culture-sequences, sometimes with additions like those necessitated by the recognition of Upper Palaeolithic blade-and-burin assemblages. This was indeed the foundation for scientific prehistory in India, and Lewis Binford was only echoing the opinion of scores of other workers when he, in the course of a personal conversation a few years ago, likened Sankalia's role to that of the Abbé Breuil in European prehistory.

Two other notable pieces of Sankalia's Stone Age research are the identification of three pre-Neolithic industries at Sanganakallu in South India (a Middle Palaeolithic industry of dolerite, a flake-cum-blade industry of quartz with Upper Palaeolithic affiliations, and a Mesolithic industry of quartz) and putting Kashmir valley on the Palaeolithic map of India by the recovery of lithic material from a boulder conglomerate of Second Glacial Age at Pahlgam on the river Liddar (Sankalia 1969a, 1971a). In 1983 he startled residents of Poona by announcing the discovery of what he considered to be an Acheulian camp site in the premises of his own residence on the Institute's campus.

Sankalia played no less a pioneering role in the development of protohistoric studies in the country. The following up of small clues such as those provided by the finding of strange-looking pottery by rural folk and the excavations since the early 50s which he and his colleagues had conducted at Nasik, Jorwe, Nevasa, Maheshwar-Navdatoli, Ahar, Kayatha, and Inamgaon brought to light an entirely new set of Chalcolithic cultures, which all served to fill up the gap formed by the so-called Dark Age that was said to have interposed in Indian history between the end of the Indus Valley Civilization and the early historical period. This work soon gained world-wide recognition and Sankalia was one of the top seventeen archaeologists in the world who were invited to prepare syntheses of archaeological materials of their respective areas for the famous symposium entitled "Courses Toward Urban Life" which Robert Braidwood and Gordon Willey organized at Burg Wartenstein in 1960 (Sankalia 1962a). This article of Sankalia was an elaborate and updated version of his first attempt at synthesis of preand protohistoric materials of the subcontinent (Sankalia 1951). Subsequently he prepared booklength accounts from time to time (Sankalia 1962b, 1963 [1974], 1977c).

All this new knowledge notwithstanding, the anthropologist in Sankalia simultaneously began to realize that it was not the sites and their yields but the contextual relationships among materials which were more germane for reconstructing human life-ways. This realization made him, among other things, to interpret both Palaeolithic assemblages and distributional data relating to blade tools found in Navdatoli excavations in functional terms (Sankalia 1967; 1977a). It was this intellectual orientation towards the archaeological record which not only made him evince keen interest in the just-emerging New Archaeology movement and even choose it as the theme of his famous D. N. Majumdar Memorial Lectures in 1973 (Sankalia 1977b) but apply it with a great measure öf success in his prolonged excavations at the wellknown Chalcolithic site of Inamgaon in western India. Add to this the facts that he was the first archaeologist in the country to emphasize that the living hunting-gathering and agricultural ways of life must be used as research avenues for clothing the mute archaeological remains in flesh and blood, and that he even made a formal provision for ethnoarchaeology on the faculty of the Department.

Another notable first that must be credited to Sankalia was the enlisting of earth and biological sciences for archaeological reconstruction. For this purpose he did not hesitate to use the services of foreign workers. At the instance of Sir Mortimer Wheeler, F. E. Zeuner from the Institute of Archaeology in London was invited to India in 1949 for offering guidance on geochronological matters. "Stone Age and Pleistocene Chronology in Gujarat," published by Deccan College in 1950, gives an excellent account of Zeuner's investigation of alluvial deposits of the Sabarmati, Mahi, lower Narmada, and Godavari basins.

Then the famous Indian anthropologist, the late Mrs. Irawati Karve, and, a little later, Sophie Ehrhardt (Tübingen University) and Kenneth A. R. Kennedy (Cornell University) were entrusted with the study of Mesolithic human skeletal remains from Gujarat, Juliet Clutton-Brock (British Museum) with that of faunal material, and I. W. Cornwall (Institute of Archaeology, London) with chemical examination of bones. These research experiences of the 40s and 50s made Sankalia realize the need for and, in fact, start recruiting scientific personnel on the staff of the Department. It was this foresight of Sankalia and the efforts of his successors that led to the creation of a string of laboratories (geomorphology and sedimentology, archaeological chemistry, palaeontology, palaeoanthropology, palaeobotany, archaeozoology, and now even computer archaeology) in the Department; these are the envy of the best archaeological establishments anywhere in the world.

Unlike most of his colleagues in the country who are weighted down by factors like suspicion, chauvinism, and inferiority complex, Sankalia always encouraged the participation of foreign scholars in Indian archaeological research. In the early 60s the late T. D. McCown of the University of California at Berkeley and later Jerome Jacobson, also from the U. S., and the Venezuelan scholar Jorge Armand were entrusted with the study of Stone Age sites in central India. Archaeologists from Melbourne University were involved in his excavations at Ahar in Rajasthan. Under his guidance Gudrun Corvinus from Tübingen University made an intensive study of the Acheulian site at Chirki near Nevasa and Gregory Possehl from the University of Pennsylvania investigated the Harappan sites of Gujarat. Dr. A. T. Clason from Groningen University in Holland studied the faunal materials from protohistoric and early historic sites in the country.

Sankalia was prompt in publishing the results of his research and never concealed his displeasure at those who failed to do so. There are over two dozen major publications to his credit, and these include excavation reports in collaboration with his colleagues, works of synthesis at regional or national level, and books on specific themes. In addition, he published over 200 research articles in Indian and reputed foreign journals such as Antiquity, Man, World Archaeology, American Anthropologist, and Southwestern Journal of Anthropology.

Sankalia will also be remembered for his untiring efforts to spread knowledge of the past to the society at large. Towards this end he held exhibitions at excavation sites, established an elaborate museum at the Institute, and published extensively in Indian languages. No less important, he never hesitated to use his knowledge of the past human experience to take a bold and rational stand on public issues, be it his opposition to prohibition and the ban on cow-slaughter or about border and language disputes.

Sankalia considered teaching a sacred duty and supervised about 50 Ph. D. dissertations. Many among the three generations of students trained by him rose later to positions of eminence in the universities and government departments of archaeology. They recall with gratitude how eager he always was to share new knowledge with them and how his personal qualities (humility, simple living habits, inability to brook wasteful use of time and materials, task-master attitude but magnanimous enough to apologize for a wrong action or utterance, romantic interest in learning about nature, and, above all, till-last-breath dedication to the cause of a discipline close to his heart) have shaped their own Weltanschauung.

Sankalia was an honorary fellow or member of many research bodies and institutions including the British Academy and the Explorers Club of America. In recognition of his outstanding services to the cause of Indian archaeology he was bestowed numerous prizes, fellowships, and public honours, including the title of Padma Bhushan by the Government of India. The Robert Bruce Foote Plaque which he received in 1974 was one award he particularly cherished, because it was presented by the Department of Anthropology of Calcutta University which at one time had considered Deccan College as its rival in prehistoric studies.

He published his autobiography entitled "Born for Archaeology" in 1978 and is survived by his wife, Sarladevi.


Sanjeev Sabhlok

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