By Monidipa Dey,
Secrets of Sinauli: The recent 2018 excavations at the Sinauli burial site, which is located 67 km from Delhi in Baghpat- Uttar Pradesh, had led to a lot of excitement in both the archeological world and among the history enthusiasts owing to the discovery of 3 chariots that were more than 4,000 years old (2500 -1900 BCE). Why was the discovery of chariots so important in the context of Indian history? First: it was the first time that India was seeing chariots that were contemporary to the Mesopotamian and Sumerian culture. Second: it put a big question mark on the theory that horses were introduced to India from western and central Asia by the ‘invaders’ / immigrants.
Besides the discovery of the 3 chariots, the Sinauli burial site is extremely important (not only in the Indian context but also in the SE Asian context) for few other discoveries. When the site was first excavated in 2005-2006, it had yielded 116 burials; making it the biggest burial site in entire Asia, but the excavation was discontinued for “reasons unknown”. In 2018 when the site was reopened, it yielded some rather interesting artifacts, such as copper engraved shields and antenna swords with copper wired wooden hilts. Findings weapons from burials that held skeletal remains of women also raised the possibility that we were seeing for the first time archaeological evidences of women warriors from ancient India.
The recent 55 minute documentary on Discovery plus titled “Secrets of Sinauli” by Neeraj Pandey examines these archeological findings closely in-situ, recorded when the excavation was going on. Compèred by Manoj Bajpayee who in his unique and rather incomparable style makes it simple for the general viewers, while various stalwarts from the ASI and other bodies (Dr. RS Bisht, Dr. BB Lal, Dr. DV Sharma, Dr. VN Prabhakar- IIT Gandhinagar, Dr. BR Mani –National Museum, Prof Vijay Sathe – Deccan college) explain and put forward theories with evidences, countering the different western hegemonic narratives on pre, proto, and ancient Indian history. Backed by wonderful animations and graphics that help viewers visualize how these ancient Sinauli people would have looked, makes the experience even more worthwhile.
The documentary is presented in a manner where the viewer can easily divide it into various segments for easy remembering; the two most important segments being a) discovery of the shields along with antenna swords with their hilt intact, and b) discovery of the chariots. It starts with basics of excavations supported with suitable graphics, which touches on the horizontal and vertical techniques of digging; primarily because a change in decision by Dr. Sanjay K. Manjul (ASI Institute of Archaeology director, heading the excavation) at the right moment to switch from horizontal to vertical digging helped make the important discoveries that changed the narratives on early Indian history. Dr. Manjul and his team take the viewers through the excavation live on site, where he explains the findings of the various sacred chambers of the burial site in situ. The most important thing that stands out from his talks is the fact that it was the extensive use of copper as sheaths, wires, inlays, etc on the wooden artifacts, which saved them from being decomposing, thus preserving them for us for more than 4000 years.
The Ganga-Yamuna doab archaeological sites, where the Sinauli burial site is located, is characterised by ochre coloured pottery (OCP), copper hoards, anthropomorphic figures, harpoons, rings, and antenna swords. The importance of Sinauli stems from the fact that it presented before us some artifacts in their intact form that were not found before in India, much to the bafflement of the archaeologists, while at the same time helping create the western hegemonic narratives of things being introduced to India from foreign lands. One such is the antenna sword, found in all ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia, and known as a lethal weapon used in warfare. Antenna swords have been regularly found in India, but always without the hilt, which led to speculations that these swords were mere symbolic in the Indian context. The Sinauli site puts to rest these speculations by yielding antenna swords with their hilts intact, as these had copper mesh ornamentation around them, which protected the wood from rotting. Another important discovery was the presence of shields. Never before had India witnessed the physical presence of a shield, even though our literatures abound in their descriptions of it. These shields had beautiful cross designs with flowers at regular intervals. Interestingly, while shields found with male skeletons had copper designs, the women burials yielded shields with steatite inlay work. This brings us to another important discovery: the evidence of the presence of women warriors in ancient India. There were found 3 burials for women (out of the 10 burials) that held weapons such as swords, shields, and bow and arrows. The weapons, which showed high quality and advanced technology as compared to the artefacts from Harappa and other sites, make it quite obvious that they were used in warfare. One of the male skeletons even had an antenna sword placed in an upright position by his coffin side, depicting a sign of valour. So, as the archeologists in the documentary tell us, India is looking at a 4000 year old burial site of an elite warrior clan (some of the burial site remains point at obvious signs of wealth and power) that lived in ancient India.
The most important discovery of the site is however the chariots (2100-1900 BCE) found well preserved; and Dr. Manjul shows in the documentary how they were found in-situ. The wheels show beautiful radiating patterns in copper in 3 layers, like the rays of the sun. The documentary puts forth evidences (such as, size of the wheel, space in the chariot, chassis, pole, etc.) that show these were advanced and sophisticated light-weight chariots, with a D shaped chassis built for warfare, to be pulled forth by horses: again saved because of the extensive use of copper on them. Dr. BB Lal and Prof. Vijay Sathe mention DNA tested ancient horse bones found in India (Surkotada site), thus refuting the theory that horses were introduced in India from outside.
This almost hour long documentary, brilliantly conceptualized with evidences and well placed arguments, along with wonderful commentary by Manoj Bajpayee is a delight to watch and learn from. While the main discoveries have been summarized and presented here in this article, the documentary is a must watch, as it presents every little detail of the excavation work and the artefacts found from this revolutionary site, that are well backed with arguments by the archeological stalwarts. It is essential and high time too that we Indians take a relook at our ancient history, probe it further, and move away from the western hegemonic distortions.
(The author is a well-known travel and heritage writer. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)