New Delhi: History may not be the subject many like to explore. But 18-year-old Arsh Ali loves to dig deep into it. He is India’s youngest archaeologist, despite not yet having acquired a formal degree in archaeology.
For the past few years, the Allahabad-born teen has been spending most of his time researching ancient history, visiting digs, attending seminars and delivering lectures in ancient and modern history and archaeology to postgraduate students at several universities in the country.
Ali says: “The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) invites me to their programmes and I feel honoured to have been allowed to participate in seven excavations and explorations — a privilege, often restricted to postgraduate students of archaeology.”
How it began
His tryst with archaeology began in 2015, when, along with ASI officials, Ali visited the Harappan excavation site named Binjore near the India-Pakistan border in Rajasthan. He revealed, “Until then, I had studied (about excavations) only in books. But the experience of being on the field was very challenging and delightful. I came across a whole city buried under the ground since the time of the Harappans. It turned out to be an important nucleated industrial site, especially the copper industries, of the Harappan civilisation.”
Subsequently, he visited Rakhigarhi, the largest known Harappan site in Haryana’s Hissar district. Spread over 350 hectares, this protected locale was presumed to be a graveyard, as many graves were unearthed in the area. Experts of Deccan College in Pune had supervised the excavation. On his return, Ali carried numerous specimens from the sites for further study. These included, terracotta bangles, shells, Neolithic tools, wheat grains and pot shards. He recounts, “The Harappans were outstanding craftsmen. Even 5,000 years ago, they manufactured numerous items.”
Thereafter, Ali became part of archaeological excavations and explorations in several places such as Purana Qila in New Delhi, Barnawa and Sinauli in Uttar Pradesh and Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh.
His adventures with art and archaeology began at the age of four, when Ali made sketches of monuments and temples he visited. Amazed at their child’s talent, his parents, Fatima and Faisal Ali, decided to hold a solo exhibition of their son’s illustrations that were sketched without once using an eraser. When he was six, the family visited the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu Nepal. As they sat at a restaurant, Ali sketched the temple, including domes and flags, on a paper napkin in one go.
He said, “It seems, by then, my parents were convinced of my unusual interests. Instead of playing with toys like other children, I was hooked to books and my parents bought me whichever book I wanted. Imagine, not yet well versed with reading and writing, I went through an encyclopaedia on Ancient Egypt and was fascinated by an image of Anubis, half human, half-jackal, known as the deity of mummification.”
Later, as a student of Grade 8, when Ali visited Bara Imambara monument in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, accompanied by his parents, the site conservator was aghast with his knowledge, which sprang from inscriptions to history, and from sciences to methodologies in archaeology.
Ali is now in Grade 12, studying through the National Institute of Open Schooling. He justifies, “This allows me to pursue my other interests. Were I to attend a regular school, this would not have been possible. Few months ago, I visited Saqqara, the location of the famous step pyramid of Djoser in Egypt, to unravel a mystery engraved on a particular tombstone. It proved to be of immense significance in an entirely new research.”
Unravelling Buddhist connections
Along with this, Ali is working to establish the evidence of the existence of Buddhism in Egypt. He is tracing the route of the Buddhist emissaries of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka in Ptolemaic Egypt. The Egyptian tombstone revealed an engraving of Dharma-chakra, an important Buddhist symbol, dating to the time of the Ptolemies in the 3rd century BC. In connection with this, the young archaeologist also visited Sanchi, one of the most important Buddhist sites in India’s Madhya Pradesh state.
He explains, “The presence of the Dharma-chakra had piqued my interest. The historical fact that Ashoka sent emissaries to Egypt to spread Buddhism became quite clear. Even as I expected to find few connections, I discovered over 100 links. This quest had actually begun when I saw an Ashokan inscription in a book in which Ashoka named Egyptian Pharaohs and Greek kings and sending ‘dharma’ to their kingdoms. Also, during my visit to Egypt, I had found Brahmi inscriptions on pots and evidence of Indian pepper.”
Few months ago, Ali delivered a lecture on the subject at the National Museum in Delhi. His research paper on the topic will be published soon in Purattatva, one of India’s prestigious archaeological journals. His study into natural sciences continues to impact his approach and perspective towards his work.
Crediting his parents for the extraordinary works he has undertaken, Ali remarks, “Both my parents have been extremely supportive. My mother has especially encouraged by interest in history. When I was 14, she advised me to take the Advanced Placement (AP) college-level examinations through World and European History. American universities conduct the test and I am the youngest Indian to have passed it.”
Master of languages
Currently, he is translating the Vedas into hieroglyphs, the ancient Egyptian writing system, which will be the first work of its kind. Never has an ancient text been translated from one ancient language into another, though one sees a lot of translations into modern languages. Asked how he learnt hieroglyphs, Ali coolly described, “I started studying these symbols, which are in lakhs, and the grammar that goes with it, when I was barely 7-8 years of age.” In fact, he has mastered writing and reading hieroglyphs and is perhaps the only Indian to do so. Only 200 people across the world hold a degree in the subject.
Incidentally, Ali knows more than 15 languages, including Arabic, Ugaritic, Hebrew, Brahmi, Greek, Nabataean, Phoenician and Kharosthi. “It is all due to my interest in books on history, mythology and languages. There is so much to learn and discover,” he states.
Arsh Ali was born on August 18, 2000, in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.
After his early education from Allahabad, he studied till Grade 10 in City Montessori School, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh — 2012-17.
He was allowed access to antiquities at the national museums in Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt.