Living History in the Balance

A medieval Indian temple site becomes a monument to what can go wrong with modern archaeology.

The great tower gate of Vijayanagara, India. Photo: Gethin Chamberlain

Let’s admit it – archaeology was messy business for a lot of years – and not just because of the dirt. Today the word “archaeology” elicits images of lines of string tied tightly between surveying posts, dividing a scientist’s attention into one-foot squares, below which someone with tiny towel and brush painstakingly removes a millimeter of soil at a time, searching for the most minuscule relic of people past.

Heinrich Schliemann’s trench, dug at the site of Troy in the 1870’s has been described as “disastrous” to the archeological record. -pb-archaeology.blogspot.com

The truth is that the early methods of exploration, discovery, and excavation were sometimes disastrous and didn’t look much like the archaeology we have today. Until the early-20th century archaeology was little more than a leisure time pursuit for wealthy and curious aristocrats. There wasn’t much of a scientific approach to the endeavor. Many of the excavation methods of the time destroyed or mixed up artifacts and information we could use to accurately date and explain ancient sites. And the assumptions drawn from myths and legends about their origin and use could be just as mystifying. Unfortunately the days of shortsighted archaeology are not exactly over.

In an open letter to Indian antiquities authorities, two scientists John M. Fritz and George Michell, who have worked at the site of Vijayanagara in southern India, describe how a thriving pilgrimage and tourist attraction has been decimated by modern (yet somewhat barbaric) management practices.

The “City of Victory” was founded in the 14th century CE by its namesake the Vijayanagara empire and thrived “as the capital of one of the greatest and wealthiest Hindu empires, which, at its height, ruled almost all of southern India”  for two centuries. It was sacked by a neighboring kingdom in January, 1565 and left to ruin. Though mostly overgrown until it was rediscovered in the mid-19th century, the temple site still hosted pilgrims, an annual festival, and a small bazaar on the avenue leading up to the temple’s 160-foot-tall gateway.

Local residents gather to protest the demolition of Hampi Bazaar.

In 1980 Fritz and Michell began their project surveying and mapping the site in partnership with Indian authorities. “… we examined the planning of the city, the extensive military fortifications, a complex hydraulic system, and even traces of the lives of common people.”

As historians and archaeologists they recognized the appropriateness of the modern-day market occupying the ancient main avenue, the site of the city’s original market. Traders of the middle ages said that the market had been “stocked with food of all kinds, birds and other animals, and even precious stones, including diamonds.” As Indian authorities uncovered select parts of the monuments and temples in the 20th century, tourism and pilgrimage grew and so did the local population who would support and profit from it. The village of Hampi grew up, sprouting shops, small hotels, and restaurants.

Heavy machinery demolishing shops and residences at Hampi bazar outside the Vijayanagara complex.

By 2002 Hampi had become a world-famous site and thrived until 2010 when shortsighted Indian authorities, citing archaeological purity, evicted residents and started bulldozing the houses and shops. Unlike many European sites that honor the original intent of a living, working village at important sites, certain departments within the Indian government still misinterpret site purity only as a sanitized version of the past. Turns out this de-humanized version just might prove to be a better platform for more expensive “5-star tourism” to develop.

In the words of Fritz and Michell: “Hampi Bazaar could have been such a site, under an alternative paradigm, that of ‘living heritage’ … To ignore the full scope of Hampi’s history risks turning a unique relic of medieval commerce and religious faith into a lifeless ruin.”

While we get used to seeing ancient sites as monoliths that exist in their own time and space, it’s easy to forget that people made the monument and the presence of people made it come alive. To believe that there’s no place for people among or around these monuments is to miss the original point of their existence.

Now, here’s the cheese on this Brain Burger.

3 other reasons Indian authorities bulldozed the Hampi marketplace:

  1. Last-ditch attempt to get their 30-year-old son out of the basement
  2. Misread instructions to bulldoze the treasured medieval monument next door
  3. Two words: Super Walmart
Chris Everheart is author of the thriller
THE LEAGUE OF DELPHI

Available Now
Learn more about what makes this writer tick. Read my author interview at PaperBackSwap.com!
Categories: Ancient India, History, The Ancient World, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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