ASI Prepares for New Excavations at Purana Qila to Unravel Its Ancient Past
ASI Prepares for New Excavations at Purana Qila to Unravel Its Ancient Past

New Delhi: In the coming months, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) will initiate another round of excavations at Purana Qila, a 16th-century fort built by Mughal Emperor Humayun. This new excavation aims to resolve a long-standing debate among scholars and historians: Is Purana Qila the ancient city of Indraprastha, the capital of the Pandava brothers from the Mahabharata?

The Purana Qila site has been a focal point of speculation and investigation. On March 31, during a ceremony marking the transfer of Purana Qila to the Dalmia Group’s Sabhyata Foundation under the Ministry of Tourism’s ‘Adopt a Heritage’ scheme, an hour-long depiction of the Mahabharata was showcased. Findings from previous ASI excavations, including pottery sherds, coins, and terracotta figurines, were also displayed.

Ajay Verma, CEO of Heritage and Events at the Sabhyata Foundation, emphasized Purana Qila’s connection to Indraprastha and the Mahabharata. “All our tourist events, museums, interpretation centres, and heritage walks at the site will be centred around the Mahabharata. We need to build the right narrative of the Purana Qila,” Verma said. Despite Humayun’s role in building the fort, Verma highlighted the significant influence of the Pandavas, suggesting that scientific and archaeological evidence supports this narrative.

This upcoming excavation will be the seventh conducted by the ASI at Purana Qila, making it the most extensive in the Delhi-National Capital Region. The primary goal is to find evidence linking the fort to the Mahabharata.

A significant breakthrough occurred in 2014 when ASI archaeologists discovered Painted Grey Ware (PGW), characterized by fine, smooth grey pottery with geometric patterns, dating from approximately 1100 BCE to 500/400 BCE. This timeframe aligns with some estimates of when the Mahabharata was composed. ASI director of the excavation, Vasant Swarnkar, described the find as a critical piece of evidence. “For us, this is a most valuable finding,” Swarnkar remarked, displaying small bits of the pottery.

Assistant Archaeologist Satarupa Bal recalled the moment of discovery, explaining that it came during a last-ditch effort at the end of the 2014 excavation season. “Right before closing down for the season, we decided to make one last attempt in a small trench… just in case. And we got lucky! It was like finding gold,” Bal exclaimed.

The significance of PGW in Mahabharata-related sites, such as Hastinapur, Tilpat, and Kurukshetra, suggests its presence at Purana Qila confirms its connection to the epic. Swarnkar asserts that the PGW findings allow for the history of Delhi to be traced back to 1200 BCE, reinforcing the idea of continuous habitation from that period to the present day.

However, not all scholars agree on the direct connection between PGW and the Mahabharata. R.S. Bisht, a retired Joint Director General of the ASI, and current ASI Director General Y.S. Rawat disagree about this link. Rawat points out the difficulty in dating the events of the Mahabharata and notes that older cultural levels than PGW have been found at some sites excavated by B.B. Lal.

Historian Upinder Singh also urges caution, pointing out that while PGW’s presence indicates habitation from around 1000 BCE onwards, it does not necessarily imply a direct link to the Mahabharata. Nevertheless, the quest to link Purana Qila to Indraprastha is not new, dating back to Abul Fazl’s writings in the 16th century.

B.B. Lal’s pioneering excavations in the 1950s revealed PGW sherds at Purana Qila, providing tantalising clues but leaving questions unanswered due to the unstratified context of the findings. Subsequent excavations in 2017 and 2022 have delved deeper into the site’s historical layers, offering further insights.

PGW has been found at many sites not associated with the Mahabharata, such as Salimgarh, Majnu-ka-Tila, and several locations in and around Delhi.

The quest to link Purana Qila to Indraprastha dates back to at least the 16th century, as evidenced by Abul Fazl’s writings. The Indrapat village was located within Purana Qila’s walls until the late 19th century. B.B. Lal was the first to undertake a scientific inquiry into this connection in the 1950s. His excavations revealed some PGW sherds, which he suggested as evidence of settlement since 1000 BCE. However, the sherds came from an unstratified context, leaving their significance uncertain.

Despite the challenges, the ASI’s Swarnkar remains hopeful. Following the discovery of PGW in 2014, subsequent excavations in 2017 and 2022 have provided more layers of historical context. The upcoming dig will focus on a site near the Kunti Temple in the centre of Purana Qila, where the team has already reached the period between the Maurya and Kushana dynasties.

Purana Qila, or the “Old Fort,” is a historic fortress in Delhi, India. Built by the Mughal Emperor Humayun in the 16th century, Purana Qila stands as a significant architectural marvel, reflecting the grandeur of Mughal-era construction. However, its historical importance extends far beyond its Mughal origins, as it is believed to have ancient roots dating back to the time of the Mahabharata, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India.

The Mahabharata is an epic narrative that spans generations. It chronicles the dynastic struggles between two groups of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, for control over the kingdom of Hastinapur. The narrative encompasses many themes, including duty, morality, and the consequences of one’s actions, making it a cornerstone of Indian mythology and culture.

The connection between Purana Qila and the Mahabharata lies in the belief that the fortress stands on the site of the ancient city of Indraprastha, the capital of the Pandava brothers during the Mahabharata. According to legend, the Pandavas founded Indraprastha and ruled over their kingdom there.

This association between Purana Qila and Indraprastha is mentioned in historical texts and accounts dating back several centuries. For instance, the 16th-century work “Ain-i-Akbari” by Abul Fazl, a vizier in the Mughal Empire, describes Delhi as originally called Indrapat, suggesting a connection between the city and the ancient Pandava capital.

Earlier, the ASI had revealed evidence suggesting that Delhi’s iconic Purana Qila, or Old Fort, may have been bustling with activity during the Mahabharata period, approximately 1100-1200 BC.

According to ASI Director Vasant Swarnkar, ongoing excavations at the Old Fort have yielded Painted Grey Ware (PGW) sherds and pieces of pottery utensils associated with the Mahabharata era. Swarnkar explained that different pottery styles denote distinct historical periods, with PGW characterized by its unique grey colour and designs featuring black spots and strokes.

Swarnkar highlighted the pioneering work of renowned archaeologist BB Lal, who, in the 1970s, conducted excavations at sites mentioned in the Mahabharata. Lal’s findings, associating PGW culture with the epic, have since been widely accepted among contemporary historians.

The discovery of PGW sherds beneath a Mauryan-era stepwell at Purana Qila suggests that the site may have witnessed activities during the Mahabharata era. However, Swarnkar cautioned that declaring the site as the ancient capital of Indraprastha, the kingdom of the Pandavas, is premature.

The ongoing excavation efforts at Purana Qila align with the Ministry of Culture’s statement, which anticipates locating ancient Indraprastha, the legendary capital of the Pandavas, through these endeavours.

With the new excavation set to commence later this year, the ASI aims to reach the PGW layer conclusively, potentially confirming Purana Qila as the historic site of Indraprastha. This would provide a tangible link to the Mahabharata and offer a deeper understanding of Delhi’s ancient history.

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