It is undoubtedly the Great Indian Civilisation. Today’s Indians are justifiably proud of the country’s rich heritage and glorious past. We never tire of showcasing our past to visitors and tourists who come to India and marvel at the ancient history of the “oldest civilisation in the world”. It is an incredible tale of riches of its mind and its wealth, indeed the ‘Wonder that was India’.

Our official travelogues proudly proclaim an Incredible India ~ like no other nation ~ ‘once upon a time’. The excavations at Mohenjodaro and Harappa, the Ashoka pillars, the breathtaking frescoes of Ajanta and Ellora caves, to name just three, and behold an ‘incredible land’. And it happened when the rest of the world was just emerging from the bush. These represent even today the acme of human skill, built or crafted at the dawn of world history, thousands of years ago. They represent too an inheritance of magnificence that would be the envy of any ‘developed’ nation.

Having said that, it needs to be acknowledged that these marvels were for ages lying buried beneath the ground, hidden in our forests or lost sight of because of indifference or neglect over the centuries. Bharat was as good as not there, as countless generations just walked past our ‘past’, absorbed in their mundane daily chores. The Ashoka pillars and rock edicts with detailed inscriptions stood testimony for more than 2,000 years to good governance in ancient Bharat.

These are spread all over the Indian subcontinent, from Taxila to Karnataka, forged in metal that has the sheen of polished granite. These dotted the open countryside for all to read and marvel at the first Welfare State in world history, save those who would not see. Most of us do not.

Mohenjodaro and Harappa, the first ‘smart cities’ in the world, to use contemporary jargon, lay buried just at the subsurface, hidden from the eye. But the racial memory of these cities that once housed a great civilization has survived to this day, in the form of robust folklore in the surrounding villages. These ancient cities thrived around 5,000 years ago. The very name of the present-day settlement ~ Mohenjodaro, ‘the mound of the dead’ ~ provided a clue, though none bothered to explore further for 5,000 years! What the mind does not query, the eye does not see.

The cave paintings of Ajanta and Ellora have similarly existed for more than 2000 years, away from public view in the forest of Aurangabad district in Maharashtra. Even today, they take the viewer’s breath away. A great Buddhist civilization once flourished here, with a highly aesthetic sensitivity and a finely evolved culture. It must have been rooted in the soil, settled and peaceful. Their arts and skills must have been very well honed, as the paintings depict a highly cultured and learned people. But again, the countless intervening generations did not venture into the forest. Therefore, nothing was gained.

Skipping several centuries, we enter the middle of the 19th century. A fortuitous development had taken place. “The Great Indian Civilisation” had been placed under the direct charge of an alien “master” ~ the British Government, to be administered directly from London. For the first time in our history, a proper ‘Government’ was in place, and Bharat was now divided into administrative units, each under the charge of a trained British officer. These officers were trained to survey and map the entire land, travel to all corners of the country, observe, explore and document everything. A nation was thus born, our very own India.

Administration as we know today, is a purely British invention. Bharat was undoubtedly ruled by countless emperors and kings since time immemorial. But it was first administered by the British. They were amazed to discover that this ancient land is dotted all over with priceless remains of several magnificent civilisations, dead and gone. Unhonoured and unsung, and, most tragically, undocumented. None of the ‘natives’ knew, or cared to notice and document when it all began, and where. Indian history again is a purely British invention, and transplanted into Bharat. The study of history was compulsory for the British administrators. After centuries of apathy, began the true discovery of the ancient land of Bharat.

Lord Curzon ruled India in the early 20th century, and he took the first concrete step to preserve and protect our ‘civilisational heritage’. He promulgated the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1903 to protect and safeguard our past. Prior to the promulgation of the landmark legislation, no one in particular was in charge of the priceless, and countless art treasures of Bharat. It was common unclaimed property, and belonged to whoever could expropriate the same. The ‘native’ rulers, by and large had little or no use for history, the more enlightened ones being ‘schooled’, to use a pun, mostly in martial arts, religion and philosophy. The sword was always considered mightier than the pen.

It has rightly been said that as the past is mostly buried, archaeology is in a sense the beginning of history. The British then took the next logical step by setting up the Archaeological Survey of India in 1837 to survey, record and preserve our precious heritage.

The priceless treasures and antiquities were brought under the care and protection of the Administration, and mindless vandalism was to be penalized. Ages of neglect or, more appropriately, indifference were over at long last, figuratively and literally. Simultaneously, symbols of our cultural heritage were ‘packaged’ and documented to enlighten and educate the common Indian and to make him aware of the marvellous heritage. The first-ever Ancient Geography of India was published.

Mohenjodaro and Harappa were fortuitously discovered by chance, noticed meticulously by an alert mind. A new railway line was being constructed between the settlement and Abbotabad. It was personally supervised by a young British engineer on horseback. He noticed something that was amazingly strange ~ those who were digging the earth uncovered stones and pebbles that were regularly shaped, and there were hundreds of them. These were broken parts of perfectly shaped bricks, which originally must have been exactly rectangular. The corners were at perfect right angles.

Intrigued beyond belief, he found out that no ‘modern’ construction had ever taken place anywhere nearby. He summoned a meeting of village elders and was stunned at what they told him. The place was, once upon a time home to a great civilization, which had suddenly vanished in the mists of time. No one could say when and how, beyond elaborating that its residents inhabited great well-planned cities and were big builders. It was a very settled, orderly and peaceful civilization.On being further asked about the source of their information, the village elders explained that it was a persistent, timeless folklore in the entire area. They had been told as much by their great grandmothers, who in turn had been told by their great grandmothers.

The elders confirmed that the folklore had been transmitted by their forefathers for generations. The cities spread over acres and acres, but turned into a massive graveyard where thousands lay scattered and buried. Indeed, the present name of the settlement itself was indicative of its history, since time immemorial.

The writer is a retired IAS officer

(To be concluded)