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Remnants of a republic

Author: Santosh Singh
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: June 3, 2012
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/remnants-of-a-republic/957108/0

Introduction:  Excavation in Bihar have unearthed significan discoveries that point to a democratic set up in Vaishali when it was the power centre of the lichchhavi republic

About a kilometre and a half from the historical village of Vaishali in Bihar, archaeologists and a team of local villagers are digging deep into its past.

Raja Vishal ka Garh, spread over 81 acres and which has a mound near Vaishali village that is believed to be the remains of an ancient parliament house, has thrown up some more remarkable secrets recently: a 50-metre-long and 21-metre-high mud rampart built in the late phase of the Mauryan period (321-185 BC) and Shunga period (185-73 BC) and a brick fortification that runs above the rampart.

S K Manjul, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) Patna Circle director and in-charge of the excavation, says the findings are significant. “This is one of the biggest findings in recent Bihar excavations,” says Manjul.

According to Manjul, the discovery of ‘secular structures’ (structures that hold no idols of gods and goddesses) point towards a democratic set-up. Though it would be too early to claim that this was one of the power centres of the Lichchhavi clan, signs of a fortified city with settlements around it point to a well-laid out plan that housed both the ruling class and its subjects.

Bijay Choudhary, director of the Patna-based KP Jaiswal Research Institute agrees. “The findings at Vaishali are very significant. The excavations have the potential to reveal findings till the Chalcolithic age. It is a happy sign that the ASI has found traces of a fortified city at Raja Vishal ka Garh and signs of a democratic set-up.”

Sachin Kumar Tiwari, camp in-charge and assistant archaeologist, explains: “Mud rampart and brick fortification show the presence of a fort here. A depression near the fortification shows the presence of a moat to protect it from invaders. The signs of a settlement show it must have belonged to the ruling class.”

The findings hold great importance because they found that the settlement within the moat that probably housed the ruling class, and the one beyond the moat—presumably for the commoners—were within a radius of four kilometres.

Tiwari says while the excavation has revealed clear traces of human settlement till the Shunga period (185-73 BC), ASI has found terracotta figurines, shiny pottery shards and punched copper coins, which could date back to 600 BC when Vaishali used to be a power centre of the Lichchhavi Republic. He, however, makes clear that no traces of human settlements beyond 185 BC have been found yet. “We are close to establishing the links of all that has been excavated at the Vaishali site. The wall rampart and the brick fortification are big findings. As we go to the last layer at the site, we will get carbon dating done to know how close we are to Lichchhavi,” says Manjul.

Vaishali is not new to history. Historians say one of the world’s first democratic republics flourished here in the 6th century BC during the time of the Vajjis and the Lichchhavis. The Ramayana talks of King Vishal who ruled here before the Lichchhavis. Vaishali was once also the centre for trade and industry.

Excavations at the site have unearthed evidence of a drainage system and a small ring well from the Kushan period, which may have been used to dispose garbage. “Once we excavate horizontally, we can get a complete look at the drainage system. The key trench will be excavated till there are no signs of human habitation,” says Tiwari.

The excavation has also yielded terracotta figurines of snakes, elephants and dogs, of deer horns belonging to the Gupta, Kushan and Shunga periods. A cylindrical gold bead from the Kushan period has also been discovered.

The excavations will continue till the end of June, before the rains arrive. Excavations were carried out last year in neighbouring Kolhua and before that, there were two excavations in the 1960s that unearthed Buddha relics and pre-Kushan period structures.

The 2010-11 excavation at Kolhua showed a habitation dating back to 1,200 BC (established with carbon dating), which encouraged the ongoing excavation at Raja Vishal ka Garh to find further consonance with details in ancient literature and material evidences.

At 9 a.m., villagers, their faces wrapped in towels, go about their work as the sun beats down relentlessly. Some of them head off to join the excavations. “Itihas nikal raha hai,” says an elderly villager, pointing to the mound.

A group of 25 history and archaeology students from Nalanda Mahavihar University works at the excavation site, cleaning the trench walls meticulously with a brush. Richa Kumari, a post-graduate student in ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology from Nalanda Mahavihar University, says, “We have learnt a lot about ancient history with material details and scientific findings. It is amazing to see high-quality shiny pottery being used in the pre-Mauryan period. Here, you can also see one of the first parliaments of ancient India.”

Meanwhile, a wooden cot is the open-air laboratory of India’s leading palaeo-botanist Mukund D Kajale. Kajale, a former professor at the Deccan College and Postgraduate Institute, drops soil collected from the excavation site into a tub of water and stirs it well. This “floatation method” lets light things like grains and chaff to float and heavier items like antiquities and small bones to settle down at the bottom. He sieves out the floating material and points towards grains of paddy. “Rice was the common food item from Mauryan to Kushan to Gupta periods, wheat and barley in Shunga period. Among fruits, we have so far found traces of plum beads here,” says Kajale, adding that birds, fish and animals and also some lentils made up the diet of the people.

THE TEAM

ASI Patna Circle director Dr SK Manjul, camp in-charge Bhagirathi Gartiya, Shankar Sharma and Sachin Kumar Tiwari, photographers Rajnish Raj and Rajiv Kumar, draftsmen Baleshwar Prasad and Joy Bandhopadhyay. Assistant superintending archaeologist and in-charge of Vaishali Museum Dr NK Singh is the guide for the excavation and leading palaeo-botanist Dr Mukund D Kajale too is part of the team

PREVIOUS ASI EXCAVATIONS

2011-12: Raja Vishal ka Garh, western gate of fort exposed

2011-12: Kolhua, Vaishali, 1200 BC settlement found

1960s: Near Raja Vishal ka Garh,

Buddha relic found

Ashok Pushkarni, pre-Kushan

structures found
 
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