Underwater Archaeology in India – Ocean of Opportunities

Anuradha – Namaste! Today we have Dr. A S Gaur who is a marine archaeologist. I first discovered underwater archaeology when I visited Dwarka. I read a book by Dr. S R Rao who has done archaeology in Dwarka. Then I learned that this was done by the National Institute of Oceanography which is right next to my home in Goa and I requested Dr. Anirudh Singh Gaur Ji to tell us a little bit about underwater archaeology. Anirudh ji welcome to the detours.

Underwater Archaeology in India

A S Gaur – Thank you so much Anuradha ji. I am glad that you have an interest in maritime archeology. Let me explain what underwater archaeology is! At the National Institute of Oceanography, our mandate is to understand each and every aspect of oceanography that includes physics, chemistry, and biology. A small group is working on underwater archaeology.

What is Underwater Archaeology?

Sea level is never static, every time it goes up and down. It is said around 1,000 years ago the sea level was 100 meters lower. At that time a major population of the coastal area was staying in that particular area. Subsequently when sea levels started rising those heavily inhabited sites got submerged. Now that creates scope for underwater archaeology. In later periods the range of 1-2 meter sea level has changed. In the coastal areas like Gujarat or Tamil Nadu, the land formation is gentle and sloppy. So a rise of one meter also affects a large area. Ultimately some coastal habitation will be affected. In Gujarat, in the historical period, 1 meter has gone down, which means whatever site was close to the coast is no longer accessible within the coastal area. That is how that site will be abundant. Those remains are one of the major scopes of underwater archaeology.

The second aspect we study in the shipwrecks,  right from Indus civilization, even prior to that one shipping has been the major aspect of human society. That led to trade and commerce with the contemporary culture civilization and there is a famous reference that people of Indus Valley civilization traded with the people of Mesopotamia and Egyptian civilization through the sea route. Because of antiquity in Oman and the United Arab Emirates, this cannot go through a land route as it will be the longest one and the sea route will be the shortest one. The Indus Valley civilization had the longest coastline of its territory when you compare it with Mesopotamia and  Egypt. Therefore maritime activities of Indus valley civilization were much more advanced than we compare it to other contemporary civilizations. In the process of traveling many times human error, weather conditions all led to the drowning of the ship. We found a lot of shipwrecks along the Indian coastal area.

Underwater Archaeology Map of India
Underwater Archaeology Sites of India

The third major aspect we try to understand is trade and commerce because there are references. We get to say one foreign notice, like a peripheral of the agency which mentions that items from central India used to come to Varyakaja or Bharukachh. This virtually included the growth of any human society so far we know that this maritime activity has played a very crucial role because without that any growth exchange of ideas was one of the major aspects of growth. This maritime activity or trade route has played a vital role to understand. Otherwise, if society lives in isolation it will be very difficult to grow as big as industrialization.

We see whatever foundation of civilization was laid during Indus civilization continued until Newtonian science started in the world and it was perfect. There was no need to alter those particular things in terms of town planning, metallurgy, or agricultural system.

Underwater Archaeology in Gujarat

We have started from Gujarat where we have sites from all the periods including Indus civilization, historical period, and medieval period. Gujarat had over 2000 kilometers of coastline. We counted the number of ports and among them, we started the first-ever investigation at Dwarka and Bet Dwarka. That is one place that is detached from the rest of the Saurashtra by a Rann that is called Okha Rann, and a particular area is called Okhamandal or earlier it was called Usha Mandal. Usha was associated with Aniruddha, one character in Mahabharata.

Stone Anchors from Bet Dwarka
Stone Anchors from Bet Dwarka

There are a number of sites in Okhamandal like Dwaraka, Bet Dwarka, Nageshwar and there are nearly a dozen sites that are for historical and medieval periods. All these sites are associated with some or another religious system. Among them, the oldest is Nageshwar which is an Indus civilization site. Dwarka, or Bet Dwarka, and other sites which are of the early medieval period. That is what we have seen and investigated underwater. In Dwarka, we have found a number of structures in water depths of 3 to 10 meters water depth. Those stone structures, there were walls, sub coral and semicircular stones among them. Interestingly we have found a large number of stone anchors. Anchors are required in boats, this indicates the harbor part of it. If that harbor is one of the oldest harbors then we can find those remains and land excavations carried out by Dr. Rao and Deccan College. They clearly indicated that whatever evidence they had found indicates that five to six times Dwarka was submerged in the sea beaches.

In recent times like 2004, the tsunami has destroyed a major part of the eastern coast and in similar kinds of cyclones which really affect coastal sites.  This kind of phenomenon might have come to Dwarka also but that is recorded in different forms. In reference to Mahabharata, Dwarka was submerged in the sea though that region is given differently but this is true that the major part of this city was destroyed by the sea.

At Bet Dwarka, we investigated near to Jetty where we found remains of a shipwreck. If our interpretation is correct then it is the oldest shipwreck dating back to the Indo-Roman period. May be around 1800-2000 years old. This one is the oldest shipwreck in that particular area we have found so far. In Bet Dwarka, we have found beautiful fish from the land part of it and that dates to late Indus Valley civilization say around 4000 years old and technology that was introduced in that fish is virtually similar to what we are getting today.  There was no change in the length of the fish. When we inquired local people, they suggested that one can catch fish of 10-15 kilo and to catch that big fish one has to go a little deeper side, so to go that deeper one has to float on some kind of raft to go inside.

Investigation in Bet Dwarka has been suggested that a variety of fishes are found here regularly. We got many corals such as sacred shells which represent Lord Vishnu. When we moved from the Okhamandal region to the south then we came to the place called Mul Dwarka. In Porbandar, we have found lots of evidence of the medieval period as well as the British period. Further to the east, we are having Navibandar where the fort is just on the coast. Fort was protecting these mariners from pirates. We have plenty of evidence in that area that suggest that these were continuing their overseas trade and commerce in Gujarat. Prabhasa is itself a Harappan site and there is even pre – Harappan evidence.  An excavation done by Deccan college says there was one warehouse just on the riverside. We have investigated that area and that site might have served as a port in the past. We have clear evidence from Harappan time till continuous overseas trade and commerce. For maritime activity hardcore evidence, one can get is the stone anchor.

Stone Anchors

Anuradha – How do you know the age of these stone anchors?

A S Gaur – These are based on the manufacturing typology. The earliest one is a different one, the latest one is a different one. Nowadays iron is used; earlier they used local stone and basalt. Based upon material as well as the technology we can come to know the age of stone anchors.

Anuradha – Which are the oldest stone anchors that we have found in the Gujarat area?

A S Gaur – From Somnath, we have to go to Kodinar, there is again a Mul Dwarka site. Similar kind of Harappan site just on the coast. There are half a dozen early historic sites in that area. There is one circular structure in Mul Dwarka just standing up to 4 -5 meters long. Local people called it Diwa Dandi, which means lighthouse. It was used until the 1980s when one cyclone hit and the top portion was damaged. If our interpretation and local people’s belief is correct then this is the oldest surviving lighthouse in India dating back to the medieval period, maybe the 12-13th century. This is one of the most interesting aspects of that area.

Underwater Archaeology excavations at Dwarka
Diver at marine site of Dwarka

There is evidence that Gujarati traders visited Socotra island that is south of Yemen. There is one cave called Haque cave where investigation has revealed around 200 inscriptions. Out of 200 inscriptions, nearly 180 inscriptions are in Brahmi, dating back to the first to the third century. We have found seals in Haque cave similar to the ones in Bharuch. The names of the people were similar to what we are getting in Bajracharya, in the Saputara cave. One more important aspect is that there are a number of coastal temples in Gujarat named Shikotra Mata. The Shikorta Mata term might have originated from Shikotra because people were going there continuously from Gujarat. When they are coming back after a safe journey, they worship Mata. We have seen in India that anything that protects, people simply worship.

Anuradha- It is like Shakti which tries to protect, it is ensuring the safety of travelers.

A S  Gaur –  Similar things come in the story of Satyanarayana. All these stories are related to the trader community. Lothal, a famous Harappan site that was supposed to be portside. Now the government of India is making this maritime heritage center, one of the biggest projects. Gujarat has witnessed one of the most important and crucial parts of maritime trade and commerce. Trading is the inheritance of Gujarati people from the beginning of civilization. Towards south in Maharashtra, Sopara is an important place, like Elephanta trading center and many more.

Marine Archaeology in Maharashtra

Anuradha – Elephanta is a rare cave system that is dedicated solely to the Hindu deity Shiva. It literally has Shiva Purana written on its wall. What was it like an island which was used by traders to stay or a port?

A S Gaur – This was actually known as Dharapuri. It has served as a port during Indo-Roman trade when during early historic times sea level was lower; perhaps other ports like Kalyan or Sopara might not be serving as a port. This was serving as a port. Evidence like Roman coins and so many other things are there.

Coming to the south down to this Dabhol, there is one interesting temple called Loyaleshwar temple on the jetty. Loyali in Marathi means anchor, and they were worshiping one anchor in that temple as a Devi or Goddess. Dabhol is about 200 km south of Mumbai. Further south there is a Vijaydurga fort and one dockyard from the Maratha period. There is a place further in the south called Sindhudurg. This is a fort within one small island and we have found stone anchors from there.

Anchors from Goa Excavations
Anchors from Goa Excavations

In Goa, we have discovered 4-5 shipwrecks. There is a port site called GopakaPattanam near the Pilar area. We have found evidence of port and trade relations with distant places. In Kerala, we have dived at Kollam. A lot of Chinese coins are found. It appears that there was one shipwreck in that area so when they were dredging the port they found a huge number of coins and pottery.

Anuradha – It still continues to use Chinese nets in that region and in the fishing industry.

AS Gaur – It appears that the Chinese were trading up to Kollam. From Kollam, they transported things to the other rafts. There is one Chinese colony in Kollam named Cheena Kottaram. One anchor was found in Gujarat near Hatha, which is something like Chinese.

In Lakshadweep, we have explored three to four shipwrecks on the southernmost island Minicoy.

Marine Sies on East Coast of India

On the east coast, there is a famous place called Poompuhar where we have explored. It was suggested that like Dwarka on the west coast, a similar kind of city existed at Poompuhar during the Sangam period. We get some evidence of pottery or some structures in from intertidal zones to five-six meters depth. Locals believe that the king forgot to celebrate Indra’s festival so the city was submerged. Now we know that this event happened.

Stone Anchors from Dwarka
Stone Anchors from Dwarka

Little north, in Mahabalipuram there are interesting traditions there were 7 temples out of which 6 got submerged. There is no record in the Indian books, these were recorded by the British traveler and then based on their information we have explored. We can’t definitely say those were temples but they are man-made structures and we have found 3 – 5 meter water depth there are some remains even at 9-meter water depth. Whatever tradition exists there is some real truth in those stories.

Anuradha – How true is it that people say that the tsunami came in 2004 and when the water retreated, these structures were visible?

A S Gaur – No photographs or satellite imagery is available of that. It happened suddenly, and during that time not everybody had cameras or other things so no photographs are there, so this was an issue. Many people have informed us they have seen temples when it was exposed. In archeology, we classify these as habitation sites. If we didn’t get any pottery sites or those things we suggest it may not be a habitational area, this may be something else. Till 19th CE there were remains like pillars, and photographs of the same have been published. 

Moving northwards, in Vishakeshwara temple some work was carried out by Andhra university where the medieval period temple was submerged in the sea, some similar kinds of things of natural events may have destroyed it.

Anuradha – It is said that Visakhapatnam is named after a Devi temple named Vishakha Devi. It would mean there is Vishakeswara temple as well. Folklore says that the temple was submerged again because of some reasons that the sea engulfed it. It will be very interesting to see if we actually find the remains of that temple.

A S Gaur – We have not yet taken up that site. Then further on we have Chilka lake that was a very active area of maritime activity. People used to go to southeastern Asian countries and many sites have been excavated in those areas which were having some kind of overseas connection. From further north Tamralipti Port which was famous during the early historic time which was just in the estuaries and Ganges. Trade used to happen from here to plains of Ganga like Varanasi and Kanpur. 

Anuradha- I have read some 15 -16th CE Bengali poems in which they mention this. Do you do Underwater Archaeology only in oceans or in rivers or lakes also?

A S Gaur – When we say Underwater Archaeology it will include everything. So far we have not gone in the freshwater as such, we have been concentrating in the coastal areas. There is a quote from Arthashastra that says water transport is easier, cheaper than land transport. He recognized it as early as his time. He ensured the transportation from Magadha through the Ganges was easy for trading. Riverbeds may not give too much evidence as rivers go on changing the course. Ghats on rivers also get renovated from time to time. 

Underwater Archaeology as profession

Anuradha – So for our listeners, I want to tell you that Anirudh ji is one of the three only marine archeologists we have in India today. Sir, tell us if somebody wants to take it up Underwater Archaeology as a profession what are the options they have, and what is the route they have to take?

A S Gaur – Qualified archeologists must have a master’s in archeology and ancient history. He has to learn diving. There is a lot of new scope emerging in India. This is a virgin frontier and sites can be developed as underwater tourism sites like in Dwarka, Mahabalipuram or Bet Dwarka where water is transparent. We can promote underwater heritage sites. Common people can not understand it. It is professional archeologists who can open this branch and take it forward. Just like the Taj Mahal, Qutub Minar, and other such monuments, we can also look for underwater sites. Even Indian domestic tourism can be developed to a greater extent and people will love it. 

Anuradha – What are the avenues? Who can employ me? What do you see is the scope of Marine or Underwater Archaeology?

A S Gaur – Actually there is one small thing in ASI  but it’s virtually non-functional and we are working on it. We have just advertised one or two posts. We are going to get a couple of people who will continue here. India has a big scope, each part of our coastal state has a big scope both in research and in commercialization. Direct revenue to the state is coming through tourism. People are coming to learn diving.

For scientific purposes, we are using Underwater Archaeology tools for understanding the paleo shoreline. Like oceanographers we will do some samples they will collect and they will try to analyze. If there is undisputed evidence that a site is existing here that no one will build underwater, no one will make two away from the coastline. This is the evidence that clearly indicates the movement of the shoreline with changing sea levels. We want to develop the coastal area through industry and this data can be used.

Anuradha – There are opportunities in research, tourism, cultural heritage, and underwater heritage in Underwater Archaeology. There are ample opportunities if people take it. Great sir!  Thank you for giving us an introduction to Underwater Archaeology.

Transcription by Pallavi Thakur as part of IndiTales Internship Program