Saturday, December 09, 2006

India's "Pompeii" to be further excavated

The first construction boom began about 2,000 years ago, when Ashoka the Great was founding the first Indian empire, when Julius Caesar reigned over Rome, when traders from the Mediterranean found their way to what is now an obscure Maharastra village in India.

Now, state archeologists, backed by a Ministry of Culture grant that will fund 13 restoration projects across Maharashtra, are preparing to finally uncover and preserve the mysteries of the white mounds of Ter, 450 kms southeast of Mumbai, in Osmanabad.

Ter was first "discovered" in 1901 and minor excavations ranged through the 1960s and 1970s. A dusty village museum houses a treasure-trove of 23,852 pieces of stone and terracotta sculptures, replicas of Roman coins and lamps, miniature inkpots, jewellery and household vessels and ivory.

There are uncounted thousands more in Ter's sands of time, civilizations layered over one another. A highly skilled people lived here: bricks excavated from the site are light enough to float on water.

Former state archeological director A Jamkhedkar calls Ter "one of the most exceptional historical sites" in India. He said: "With evidence ranging from the 2nd century BC to the 15th ? 16th centuries AD ?it is an archaeologist's dream!"

Ter's link to ancient Rome and Greece ran through Nalasopara, now the second-last stop on Mumbai's western commuter line and then a port that linked middle India to the Mediterranean.

"There are several ancient mounds in and around Ter awaiting excavation," said Director (Art & Archaeology) Dr Ramakrishna Hegde. "A stroll in the village, and one stumbles upon historically valuable objects."

Ter's ascent came after trade with the Roman Empire under the Satavahana dynasty that ruled Dakshinapatha or the Deccan. A 1st century Greek navigation document The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea is history's earliest reference to Tagara or Ter. It calls it a great emporium where merchants brought goods like muslin and carnelian, which were traded with the Romans.

Ter then acquired a religious aura as successive Southern dynasties ? from the Vatakatas, Chalukyas and Yadavas ? came and went. We know that from its range of Buddhist caves, stupas, and Hindu and Jain temples in brick, stone, or hewn out of rock, built from donations and royal patronage. Maharashtra's 13th century saint-poet Gora Kumbhar lived here, with the town playing host to saint conventions. Experts call Ter a 'citadel city'. Limited excavations have revealed remains of a wooden rampart.

Jamkhedkar points to ivory figures "comparable to those from Pompeii". Later, terra cottas are cast in double moulds, suggesting craftsmen were influenced by Western techniques.