Mandi (Inde): Archaeological plundering

Archaeological plundering in India getting worrisome, say experts

Atul Sethi

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(Discovery of buried gold in India has almost always led to chaos and plundering. (TOI illustration by Neelabh))

A few days back, when workers digging at the site of a 2500-year-old city at Tarighat in Chhattisgarh found a stack of gold and copper coins, the news soon spread like wildfire as a gaggle of villagers assembled at the site in the hope of striking gold.

Although archaeologists deny local reports which claimed the discovery led to a gold rush causing pandemonium and attempts at pilfering, the fact remains that discovery of buried gold in India has almost always led to chaos and plundering. 

The biggest - and perhaps the most shocking - incident of archaeological plundering in the country happened in the year 2000 in the village of Mandi, near Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. Three women labourers, while scraping the topsoil from a field, uncovered what was perhaps the largest haul of ancient bullion ever found collectively in India. 

The treasure trove of Mandi contained anastounding 500kg of gold and ornaments dating back to the Harappan era. Within a few minutes of the news breaking out, almost the entire population of the village was on the site looting whatever they could find. And it was not just the villagers. There were rumours that the local administration and the police too, between them, took away almost 350 pieces of gold and ornaments.

Finally, what was salvaged, of the estimated 500kg, was a paltry 10kg.

"Archaeological plundering remains a matter of great shame for us," says Alok Tripathi, director, Centre for Archaeology and Museology of Assam University. "In an accidental find, like that of Mandi, pilfering always happens, but even in excavations, labourers carry away coins and other artefacts. Since archaeologists don't do the actual digging themselves, they are dependent on the labourers' claims on what has been found." 

India's Treasure Trove Act stipulates reporting the find of any treasure, exceeding Rs 10 in value, to the government which can then acquire it from the finder. 'The Act provides for a generous reimbursement to the finder," says Tripathi. "For instance, those who bring in gold coins are to be paid 20% more than the market value. But due to its provisions not being advertised properly and lackadaisical implementation, it has become toothless." 

The prevalence of a highly active antique smuggling mafia has further aided archaeological plundering. "Many such gangs - which often operate under political and police protection - are quite active in UP, Bihar and parts of MP," says KK Muhammad, former regional director of the Archaeological Survey of India. "In sites of ancient cities like Hastinapur and Ahichatra, their agents often plunder objects that come up on the ground during the rainy season." 

Although estimates are difficult to come by, experts say that every year, thousands of such objects - which are picked off ancient sites and may include some invaluable archaeological pieces - are shipped out of the country without anybody being the wiser. "Only when those responsible for preserving heritage passionately fight this menace through proactive means, can there be a change in the situation," says Tripathi. 

Till that happens, the country's history will continue to be surreptitiously lifted off the ground and slipped outside, piece by piece. 

(Inputs by Rashmi Drolia in Raipur)