FATEHPUR SIKRI: It was a jungle on December 7, 1999. That was a day before the surveyor from the Archaeological Surveyof India (ASI) identified the mound near the fort of Fatehpur Sikri and ordered the felling of trees.
And within a fortnight, the ASI team laid open the superstructure of an 11th century Jain temple, just half a km away from Mughal Emperor Akbar’s famous fort complex. “There was habitation and it was destroyed. The divine images were broken and scattered helter-skelter by the latter-day invaders,” is how ASI Director General Ajay Shankar briefly put it.
While digging out the trenches at the site, the ASI team came upon one of the richest archaeological caches found since the glorious days of Sir John Marshall. “Dumped one upon the other, it seemed the sculptures were just waiting for is to bring them out into the open,” said 26-year-old archaeologist from Orissa, Arakhita Pradhan. In fact, the Indian Express team which visited the site saw sculptures of Jain Tirthankaras and carved red-stone potteries, sill half-buried between the layers of earth.
Not one or two. But at least 34 exquisite sculptures, of various sizes small, medium and one big have already been retrieved by the ASI team from a 250-sq yard plot at Bir Chhabili-ka-Tilla in Sikri village. And these findings have pushed back the antiquity of Fatehpur Sikri to 2nd Century AD “We’ve found branded red-stone potteries, ornamented with mica dust, from the Gupta period. And the most remarkable thing about these sculptures is that they have inscriptions on them making their dates indisputable,” said R K Dikshit, assistant conservator, in charge of the Fatehpur Sikri.
Most breathtaking of the entire lot was, of course, the six-foot-high partly broken, tribhanga Saraswati from the Jain Pantheon. Of a rare beauty, it wasfound in a face-down position. “It was dug out on January 29. It’s changed the entire worth of the site,” said Dharamvir Sharma, ASI’s superintending archaeologist who is responsible for initiating the excavation. The
excavation, according to Sharma, shows that Fatehpur Sikri was a pre-Mughal city with temples around its periphery. “But we are yet to ascertain when they were demolished,” he said, clearly voicing the premise of his project but hedging on whether it was the Mughals or a Hindu invader of a previous period who was responsible for the wide-scale destruction.
Says historian Harbans Mukhia, who specialises on Medieval India and plans to take a trip to the site: “I’m not surprised by the findings. Medieval society worked in a different manner. Demolitions in that age were conducted as an act of conquest or as an act of re-building. One needs to see them in the right perspective.” The excavation at Bir Chhabili-ka-Tilla is ascinating for more reasons. It shows layers of civilizational deposits, beginning from 2nd Century A.D. (a medium-sized redstone figure of Ambika with an infant Ganesha on her lap and Kartikeya on right side) to 9-10th Century Jain sculptures (a Saraswati from the Gurjar Pratihara dynasty)
However, more than the unique Saraswati (incidentally, dressed only in ornaments) is the 60-cm redstone kund in which 23 of the other sculptures were found dumped, including a black marble Tirthankara. “We just picked them up one by one. Obviously, they were disposed of in a hurry,” a woman archaeologist from Manipur at the site pointed out, as she brushed away the fine dust accumulated on the structure.By Santwana Bhattacharya