Excavating Sanghol
by B M Pande on 19 Sep 2010 2 Comments

Sanghol and the Archeology of Punjab, ed. Himanshu Prabha Ray is a remarkable work, and besides editing the book, Ray has contributed substantially by writing as many as six out of eleven chapters in the book. It is well-illustrated with photographs and designs, including some hitherto unpublished material. The discoveries at Sanghol were first published in a catalogue, Kushana sculptures from Sanghol, ed. by S.P. Gupta to coincide with an exhibition mounted by National Museum, Delhi. There are brief reports on the excavation at Sanghol (and other sites in Punjab) published in Indian Archeologya Review, besides articles by excavators in different journals. The present book is an important contribution to the literature on archaeology. It seeks to understand Sanghol from a different and wider perspective.


Sanghol has been excavated for nearly too decades between 1968 and 1987 by various excavators, including S.S. Talwar, R.S. Bisht, G.B. Sharma, K.K. Rishi and Kuldip Singh Siddhu on behalf of the Punjab Government; and by C. Margabandhu of the Archaeological Survey of India. It is with the discovery of a cache of 117 architraves and other architectural members of Mathura sandstone carved with beautiful sculpture reminiscent of similar ones from Mathura, that the site immediately attracted attention. Not that the other remains at the site, such as the stupa and monastic complex, citadel, moat, coins, seals and sealings are less important.


Equally significant is the evidence of occupation there from late Harappan or Bara right up to Early Medieval (600-1000) and subsequently Late Medieval and even modern times. What makes this book particularly important is the manner in which the material and evidence has been harnessed to present a comprehensive picture of Sanghol and the archeology of Punjab. Due to its location, Sanghol must have served as an important link in the process of trade and exchange of ideas. 


The volume deals at length with the history of archaeological investigations and discoveries in Punjab; study of excavated material comprising coins, seals and sealings, architectural/ sculptural and other remains, and, quite importantly, changes in the landscape as a result of digging of canals and leveling of land for agricultural operations. Ray has raised questions about research strategy being followed vis-à-vis Sanghol in particular and early historical sites in general.


While discussing archaeology of the Kushan period, she questions the credit given to the Kushans for proliferation of the Mathura school of art at Mathura, which was already the seat of a fully developed school of art from the second century BCE onwards. In the context of Sanghol she suggests the need to redefine what are termed as Kushan levels. In fact, in most sites in north India containing early historic remains, the sobriquet ‘Kushan period’ has been used rather loosely. The paper ‘Defining Kushan Pottery’ authored jointly by Himanshu Ray and Hema Achyuthan, highlights ‘the significance of coarse wares and cooking pots rather then a continued emphasis on fine diagnostic wares.’ In their view, ‘emphasis should be to study ceramic in terms of entire assemblages.’ Based on the occurrence of stamped pottery found at Sanghol and some other sites in Punjab and Haryana and its distribution over an extensive area from Taxila to Chandrakatugarh, they suggest that ‘the wide distribution of stamped wares… provides valuable indication for extensive networks across the Ganga valley.’ This obviously calls for rigorous analysis of ceramic from a range of archaeological sites and of course the comprehensive corpus of ceramics from Sanghol itself. This paper includes the result of examination of sections of pottery from Sanghol and Ropar.


Two papers in the volume deal with the history of research on the archaeology of Punjab. Daniel Michon in ‘Searching for Alexander and Buddha: a History of exploration and archaeology of the early period in Punjab to 1900’ traces its roots in colonial antiquarians. This led early amateur antiquarians to not only collect coins and antiquities but also look for Greek civilization in India. Several names emerge in this context, notably Alexander Burnes, Mountstuart Elphinstone, Sayyed Karamat Ali, Geogre Trabeck and the French officers in the service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh like Jean-Francois Allard and Jean-Baptist Ventura.


In the process of tracing Alexander’s route, several ancient sites containing Buddhist stupas were excavated with the primary objective of collecting antiquities. The shift from a dedicated but still amateur antiquarian to a professional archaeology emerged slowly, and James Prinsep was certainly one of the key figures; he relied heavily on collaboration with Alexander Cunningham. Cunningham’s work is well-known: apart from the archeological survey reports, his intense interest in communities expanded the knowledge of early historic Punjab in important ways. Not only did he clarify the chronology of Indo-Roman contact in the north west of the subcontinent and add to the knowledge of the Graeco-Bactrian realm, he bought a new focus to the history of non-Western empires and trade routes through his study of what he called the ‘Indo-Scythian’ coins which for him included the Saka, Kushan and white Huns. He was also the first to understand that the ‘indigenous coins’ of Punjab were better attributed as’ tribal coins.’ Cunningham also carried out excavations at Taxila, Manikyala Jamalgarhi, Sahri Bahlol and Shahbazgarhi, besides many other small excavations. Michon has compiled a very interesting list of sites which were excavated/ explored between 1850 and 1898 by ‘triangulating a number of sources.’


Daniel Michon’s rigorous methodology is well reflected in his long paper ‘The Excavations at Sanghol in Context.’ He has meticulously examined the archival records, including site notebooks, antiquity registers, and other unpublished material, in order to understand the nature of the site and the structural remains there. He rightly points out the paucity of archeological investigation in Punjab, a region rich in Early Historic sites during the first two decades after independence. While Punjab was the primary site for the study of Early Historic India, only four excavations were carried out at Ropar, Bara and Salawa Bhatinda Fort and Singh during this period. In the next phase covering the years from 1968 to 2000 nine sites were excavated including Sanghol which of course received most attention.


Ray’s paper ‘Of cities and Trade Networks: The archaeology of Punjab in the first half of the twentieth century’ follows Michon’s earlier paper and is a critical examination of Sir John Marshall’s work at Taxila and other sites in the region, which resulted in ‘several stereotypes,’ such as ‘the association of planned fortified cites with the Greeks and the Kushans; the crediting of constriction of stupas to the Mauryan ruler Asoka; and the Greek aesthetics of the art of Punjab.’ She briefly mentions Sir Aural Stein who, like other European archaeologists, ‘continued their quest for the Greek connection.’ Mortimer Wheeler ‘shifted the focus to the early centuries AD and the Kushans and their contemporaries to the West, the Roman Empire.’ In this process control of the luxury trade developed. Discovery of the Indus civilization in the 1920s led to the excavation at Harappa followed by exploration and discovery of sites like Chak Purhane Syal and Kotla Nihang Khan and Dher Majra. In the 1950s Y.D. Sharma excavated Ropar, Bara and Kotla Nihang Khan and defined Bara culture as a rural phenomenon which at Sanghol has been dated between 1900 and 1300 BCE. At Sanghol has been found evidence of potter’s workshop, hearths, circular pits and mud walls.


C. Margabandhu excavated Sanghol from 1985-90; his paper ‘Planning and development of the Kushan settlements at Sanghol’ focuses on the Hathiwara mound (SGL-1) where the Kushans laid the foundation of a new town. These are marked by a citadel and buildings within the defences, twin buildings which Margabandhu calls ‘of “palatial” nature’ and a structure for religious-cum-ritual use. Apart from the usual repertoire of objects found in early historic town-sites, particularly significant are decorated ivory objects.


Mention may be made about the flat terracotta tablets with incised lines, usually three in number, found at Sanghol in the Kushan levels, which is also the case at several other early historic sites, I found these in later levels in Thanesar and could be placed around 7th -8th century.


Sandrine Gill in her paper ‘Celestial women in a ring around the Buddhist Stupa: The case of Sanghol’ suggests the Sanghol stupa is ‘a unique landmark which enables one to visualize the appearance of a decorated railing around a stupa in Kushan times. It also gives us another image of the place of women in Buddhism and in the society of a particular period. Finally, as an import from Mathura, it shows the renown of the school of sculpture and the economic means of a centre such as Sanghol, which may be connected to its strategic position on important trade routes.’


Sanghol has provided an abundance of coins including coin-moulds. These consist of copper coins of Kunindas, Indo-Parthian ruler Gondophares, Kushan gold and copper coins (Wima Kadphises), Soter Megas, Vasudeva II, coins of Hunas, Shahi rulers including those of Balham Kota coins, seals and sealings. Ray rightly suggests that an integrated catalogue of coins be prepared and a rigorous analysis of the archeological context of coin finds be made.


Devendra Handa in ‘Sanghol: coinage system and trade networks’ says Sanghol was an important town on an ancient trade route which reserved as a meeting place for traders, pilgrims, artists and other people from Madhyadesa and Gandhara during the Kushan period.  It lost much of its importance after the Hunas.


In conclusion, the book is an important contribution to archeological literature. The location of Sanghol, the rich finds of structures and objects, system of water management, plant economy, evidence of using the resources of a large hinterland, make it one of the most important sites not only in Punjab but in the sub-continent. It is a valuable contribution of the archaeological discourse in the country.


The author is Director (retd), Archaeological Survey of India


Sanghol and the Archeology of Punjab

Ed. Himanshu Prabha Ray

Aryan Books International, 2010

Price: 2950; Pages: 260

ISBN: 978-81-7305-393-1

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