It is indeed a rare benefit and honour to engage in a meaningful conversation with a centenarian. That too if he is one of the most eminent, decorated, and learnt men in the land. I had such a rare privilege when I called on Dr. B.B. Lal at his residence in New Delhi on 9 February 2021.
Dr. Lal was recognised with India’s second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, announced on 26 January, India’s Republic Day. He was also one of the longest serving Directors of Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. It was my good fortune, as its current director, to present him the traditional Himachali topi (cap) and shawl as a token of our respect.
Born on 2 May 1921, Dr. Lal will soon complete 100 years, a distinguished century of planetary existence. A brilliant student and scholarship holder, he read at the University of Allahabad as an undergraduate. Shortage of money, however, forced him to undertake strenuous tuitions in addition to his studies and sports activities. As a result his health broke down.
This mischance made him pursue and MA in Sanskrit, the subject in which he had scored higher marks than English and Math which made up his undergrad “tripos.” Sanskrit not only earned him a more generous scholarship but also fortuitously became the basis of his career as an archaeologist.
As he often puts it, failures become the unexpected stepping stones to success. Lal helps us understand the ancient history of this subcontinent going back at least five millennia before the current era. He also sheds light on our more recent colonial past under whose aegis, India’s understanding of this period and much of its later history came to be shaped.
But expertly guiding us beyond colonial suppositions and paradigms, Lal has left an impressive body of world-recognised work and innovative methodologies to give us a more accurate idea of who we were. Lal is thus, one of the last living links, in more senses than one, between times past, present, and future. For he is unquestionably India’s greatest living archaeologist.
For India, an ancient civilisation where any major dig is sure to throw up glimpses of the ancient past, archaeologists have a very special role to play. It is they who can, with some measure of scientific expertise and objectivity, remove the dust from the hidden pages of a bygone and blurred history.
In Dr. Lal’s case, his contributions to the field have been nothing short of epoch-making. He has changed, through his meticulous research and documentation, our idea of at least two overwhelmingly important aspects of the past. First, the historical reality of the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
Secondly, perhaps more controversially, he has refuted the Aryan Invasion theory (AIT). He also made notable contributions to excavations in Nubia, Egypt.
Lal was a very young officer in the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Working directly under the legendary Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the British Director General (DG) of ASI, he dared, on occasion, to disagree with the latter. It is an entirely different matter that unbeknown to either of them, Lal would himself become the DG-ASI, in a short span of twenty years.
But during those early days, at the Harappa dig, perhaps the most exciting find of that period in world archaeology, Lal differed with his British over both the date and meaning of what came to be known the world over as the Indus Valley civilisation.
Wheeler believed, after discovering a fort over 4000 years old, that invading “Aryans” had destroyed it as well as the civilisation that it represented.
But over the next several decades of further excavation and textual evidence, Lal repeatedly demonstrated that there are no traces of razed forts, destroyed cities, wars between invaders and settlers, or skeletal remains of warriors killed in battle.
On the contrary the ancient civilisation ought to be better labelled as the Indus- Sarasvati civilisation, which went extinct when the latter river dried up and ran aground.
Lal also showed westward migration out of India all the way to modern Anatolia in Turkey with evidence both archaeological and linguistic.
Digging trenches and excavating in the regions mentioned in the great ancient epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, Lal established their historicity dating back between 9th century and 3rd century before the Common Era.
He did this by showing a common society and culture which used a distinct and identifiable type of pottery. Painted greyware, characteristic of the Mahabharata world and more delicately wrought northern black polished pottery, embellished with different colours like blue, gold and silver, associated with the civilisation of the Ramayana.
Some of Lal’s findings are controversial and continue to be contested. However, he is not deterred. He told me that he believes in keeping an “open mind,” completely free from prejudice and presuppositions of any sort. “Only then, can you discover the truth,” he added.
About his own stupendous achievements, Lal is most modest. He quotes from the Epilogue to his autobiography Piecing Together: Memoirs of an Archaeologist (2011): “Through the grace of Sadhguru [spiritual master], I have come to realise that I am only a typist, the dictation-giver is Someone Else.”
We wish Dr Lal happy 100th birthday in advance and many more productive years to continue his important contributions to global knowledge.