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RSS to honour man who discovered Bhimbetka caves

Author: Vasudha Venugopal
Publication: The Economic Times
Date: October 29, 2019
URL:      https://m.economictimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/rss-to-honour-man-who-discovered-bhimbetka-caves/articleshow/71798687.cms

The cultural wing of the RSS, Sanskar Bharati, plans 100 heritage walks in honour of Wakankar. Government-run cultural institutions like Lalit Kala Akademi have scheduled year-long programmes in his honour.

In its bid to rewrite the colonial history from an Indian perspective, the Sangh Parivar has turned to archaeologists like Vishnu Shridhar Wakankar, who had discovered the Bhimbetka caves.

The Bhimbetka caves are known as the earliest evidence of human settlements in this part of the world. Wakankar is also famous for his work on tracing the river Saraswati, which finds mention in the Vedas, but is considered a myth by historians.

The cultural wing of the RSS, Sanskar Bharati, plans 100 heritage walks in honour of Wakankar. Government-run cultural institutions like Lalit Kala Akademi have scheduled year-long programmes in his honour. A special gallery will also come up at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), sources told ET.

Wakankar had discovered 700-odd rock shelters, spread over a 10-km area in Bhimbetka. The caves have paintings which, according to scientists, were created approximately 30,000 years ago, in to the Palaeolithic age. UNESCO had declared Bhimbetka a World Heritage Site in 1970.

“The Bhimbetka caves discovered by Wakankar are important to know how human civilisation developed,” Amirchand, national general secretary of Sanskar Bharati, said. “Our puranas have different stories of avatars. Similarly, the Bhimbetka paintings have boars, elephants, deer, cattle and snake. In a way, the discovery validates our stories and ways of worship.”

Historians have hailed the move to honour Wakankar, though some pointed to his association with RSS. He was the founder general secretary of Sanskar Bharati.

Reputed historian Nayanjot Lahiri said Wakankar’s contribution to archaeology and the study of rock art are immense, and his political connections do not reduce his scholarship. “He was an inveterate archaeologist who discovered sites while travelling in trains and on the road. In 1974, he spotted a prehistoric site at Agar while riding a bicycle to Narwar. It turned out to be one of the richest deposits of tools made on pebbles in Malwa,” he said.

Lahiri added that former ASI directors such as MN Deshpande ensured that Wakankar was always kept associated with the Bhimbetka research because of his scholarship and commitment. He was awarded Padmashri by the Indira Gandhi government in January 1975.

Wakankar collaborated with RSS veteran Moropant Pingale in 1983 at Kurukshetra and launched the Saraswati Shodh Abhiyan with a team of 18 others. They travelled to Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat, and concluded that the Saraswati was a Naditama, much bigger than any other river. He had suggested that the Indus Valley civilisation be rechristened ‘Sara-swat civilisation’.

Sangh Parivar activists believe that it was his findings that had driven the Vajpayee - led NDA government to revive the Saraswati Heritage Project in 2003.

It was shelved by the Congress in 2004, but revived by the Modi government. The Haryana Saraswati Heritage Development Board (HSHDB) was formed in 2015.

Some historians have cautioned against popularising Wakankar’s work to prove the existence of the river that hasn’t been corroborated yet by archaeological evidence.

Author Tony Joseph took reference of many studies to point out in his book Early Indians that while many of the findings have become outdated, “there is no sanctity to the date of 2000 BCE for when the river Sarasvati was ‘enfeebled’.”

“There is no certainty that the Sarasvati described as ‘mighty’ and ‘powerful enough to break mountaintops’ in the Rigveda is the one in India and not the Harahvaiti river in Afghanistan... It is also possible that the name of the river in Afghanistan that the ‘Aryans’ came across first was later transferred to a more feeble, rain-fed river now known as Ghaggar–Hakra lying between the Sutlej and the Yamuna, and the descriptions of the later Sarasvati in the Rigveda are written from a composite memory…” he wrote.

According to archaeologist GB Deglurkar, former president of Deccan College, Wakankar’s work on the Saraswati was more important for Indian history than the discovery of Bhimbetka caves, as it was not merely a search for a lost river, but a “search for the roots of its civilisation”.

“There are nearly 1,400 sites mentioned in our puranas along with the river Saraswati and it has always been a part of our prayers to rivers, uttered in the same line as Ganga and Yamuna. If it were not for Wakankar’s efforts, there would have been no attempts to trace the river,” he said.

Some experts, who believe the job of art institutions is to “promote contemporary art, not talk about past”, have questioned the tribute to Wakankar.

“While Wakankar’s work in the field of archaeology and rock art was important, he did not have much of a name in contemporary art,” said Ashok Vajpeyi, former chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi India. “Also, his family connections with the RSS are well known. This delving into the past is also problematic, and it could be because the RSS doesn’t have many modern-day artists supporting it.”

Uttam Pacharne, chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi, however, said programmes and knowledge camps on Wakankar will be organised in different units of the Akademi. “Sometimes, knowledge of the past is important to correct the mistakes we are making in the present,” he said.


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