The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is an Government organization under the Department of Culture that undertakes the responsibilities of carrying archaeological studies and preserving cultural monuments. ASI functions to ‘explore, excavate, conserve, preserve and protect the monuments and the sites of national and international importance’. ASI is the successor of the Asiatic Society founded by Sir William Jones on 15th January, 1784. In the same year it published a journal The Asiatic Researches and built its first museum in Bengal in 1814.
There are at present 3,650 ancient and heritage sites of immense national importance distributed all over India belonging to periods ranging from the prehistoric to the colonial era. Some of these archaeological sites are temples, mosques, tombs, churches, cemeteries, forts, palaces including ancient mounds and remains of prehistoric settlements to name a few. The responsibility of ASI under the AMASR Act of 1958 is proper preservation which may even include chemical conservation of these monuments, further research into their history as well as rendering proper protection to these archaeological sites. ASI has subunits called Circles which carry out the conservation initiatives and other allied activities of archaeological sites distributed all over India. The chemical conservation part of the ancient heritage sites is the responsibility of the Science Branch of ASI in Dehradun. ASI also has a Horticultural Wing (headquarters Agra), that deals with the environmental issues.
Some of the recent excavations of ASI include:
- Excavation at the Barabati Fort in Cuttack district of Orissa in 2008-2009. The exploration carried out in the north eastern part of the Barabati Fort yielded some important results like the discovery of some ancient constructional remains, which may be the proof of an ancient settlement dating back to the period of fourteenth to seventeenth century AD. Some of the important artifacts unearthed include the statue of Gandharva, a seated Goddess, lion head, an axe and a stylus made of iron, miniature pots, dishes and some pieces of porcelain.
- Excavation carried out at the St. Augustine complex, Goa also produced some important archaeological findings like drain wells, boundary walls, platforms and pottery. The excavations in the refectory yielded a considerable quantity of ceramic shards, several of them are blue and white in colour. This excavation site is of particular importance as this site is believed to be the historical burial ground of the Queen Katherine of Georgia.
- A joint excavation carried out by the Agra Circle of ASI and IIT Kanpur at Ahichchatra led to the discovery of three mounds located southwest of the main mound of Ahichchatra. The excavation discovered structural remains of constructions belonging to the historical period of the Ahichchatra mound.
- The most recent and sensational excavations of ASI occurred between the months of February to June in 2013 that has rekindled the age old controversy of the exact location of Kapilavastu, where the Indian Prince Siddhartha, son of the Shakya King Suddhodana spent 29 years of his life before choosing the path to Buddhahood. The Nepal Government has long been staking the claim that the current location of Kapilvastu is in the modern day village of Tilaurakot in the Terai region, which lies about 30 kilometers inside the Indo-Nepal border on the Nepal side.However, Indian historians have been continuously contradicting this claim. According to them the actual location of Kapilavastu is in Piprahwa which is about 2 kilometers inside the Indo-Nepal border on the Indian side, based on the conclusions derived from the excavations in 1890 and 1970s.The exhaustive excavations carried out by ASI from January 18 till the first week of June has yielded some important artifacts like 85 terracotta seals and some soapstone urns. Radiocarbon dating places these artifacts as belonging to fifth century BCE, and undoubtedly of the Shakya period conducive with the first few years of Prince Siddhartha’s life. ASI has presently postponed further excavation due to the advent of monsoon and decisions regarding the further course of action are still pending.Nepal, on the other hand carried out recent excavations in Tilaurakut and one particular artifact, an inscribed terracotta seal bearing the legend ‘Sa-ka-na-sya’ (translated ‘belonging to the Sakyas’), is an important substantiation of their claim. According to the Nepal Government, Lumbini was the birthplace of Prince Siddhartha (which has earned the title of a World Heritage Site from UNESCO in 1997) and he spent the first 29 years of his life in Tilaurakot (the erstwhile Kapilavastu) before choosing the path of renunciation to finally attaining Buddhahood. This debate has crossed the line of simple academic interest long time ago and it’s now up to ASI and its excavation results to resolve, once and for all the issue, whether Buddhadev had his roots in India or in Nepal.
The completion of 150 years of ASI was celebrated with an exhibition, “Rediscovering India: 1961-2011” in Delhi which outlined the numerous achievements of ASI in the last fifty years. This included important discoveries like tracing the roots of Harappan culture in places like Rajasthan, successful excavations of numerous Buddhist sites and conservation of heritage sites like Hampi in Karnataka. However, ASI remains an extremely fund starved sector as evident from the fact that art and culture was allotted only a scanty 0.16 % of the total Central Plan of the Government as per the Eleventh Five-Year Plan. The poor funding is also evident from the fact that Ministry of Culture received only one third of the requested grant (Rs 2,916 crore) for 2012-2013 from the Government. ASI is a part of this Ministry and whatever funding ASI receives, less than 1% is allotted for excavations.
Some of the heritage sites under the responsibility of ASI are communally sensitive like the 11th century Bhojsala temple in the Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh. The monument has a Saraswati temple and a mosque. While the Hindus want to offer homage to the Goddess, the Muslims will also not budge from their right of Namaz in the adjoining mosque. The tension heightens during the Saraswati Puja. Though ASI arrange for heavy security during this time, incapability of ASI in handling such volatile situations will only add to its disrepute like the recent Forest Department accusation. Forest Department has accused ASI of being involved in the mowing down of 81 neem trees for creating an 18 hole golf course after extensive investigations in Naya Qila.
Other allegations are also piling up against ASI like casual and incomplete reports on excavations, inability to account for 56 pending reports and limited capacity of reporting new heritage sites.
Our country is one of the oldest civilizations in the world and ASI is an elite and the oldest institution which had done excellent work in the past in exploring the vast history of our country. But the current dismal condition of ASI due to lack of funds, negligence of the Government and its own laid back attitude is putting ASI in an answerable position. With proper leverage ASI, which was established for the sole purpose of adding pages to the Indian history, can still regain some of its old glory. Fact remains that there is no other institution in our country with a brilliant track record like that of ASI.