Vadnagar Excavations: Revealing A Distant Past, Layer by Layer

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    Excavations at Vadnagar in Gujarat, the hometown of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are revealing a treasure that has archaeological circles abuzz. As experts continue to dig for clues to the region’s past, they have uncovered some exciting finds such as a possible living burial, the earliest evidence of an earthquake in mainland Gujarat, and the ruins of Buddhist structures that link Vadnagar to ancient Buddhist sites elsewhere in India.

    In fact, excavations conducted here from 2006 show that this town may have been continuously occupied for 2,500 years. Here’s a look at why Vadnagar, in Mehsana district of Gujarat, is historically significant.

    A Town With An Ancient Past

    Long before archaeologists started digging, there were literary references to Vadnagar’s ancient past. We know, for example, that in the later ancient and early medieval period, Vadnagar was associated with names like ‘Anartapura’ and ‘Anandapur’. Interestingly, one of the earliest records of the name ‘Anarta’ is mentioned in the Junagadh inscription of the Western Kshatrapa king, Rudradaman I, dated 150 CE, which scholars associate with Vadnagar. Several mentions of ‘Anandapura’ can be seen in the grants given by the Maitraka rulers of Valabhi.

    In ancient and medieval times, Vadnagar was an important town as it was located at a site where two important trade routes intersected - one which linked port towns on the Gujarat coastlike Hathab and Dwarka to Rajasthan and Northern India, and the other that connected Central India to Sindh. Its importance can be gauged from the fact that 7th century CE Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang mentions the town in his travelogue. He writes:

    “This country is about 2000 li (333 miles) in circuit, the capital about 20 li (3.3 miles). The population is dense; the establishments rich. There is no chief ruler but it is an apanage (grant given to maintain a dependent member of a royal family) of Malava (Malwa). The produce, climate and literature and language are the same as those of Malava. There are some ten Sangharamas (monasteries) with less than 1,000 priest; … There are several tens of Deva temples….”

    But, over time, the town declined and gradually lost its importance. The great buildings from the past were buried and new settlements built on top of them. It was in 1952 that the presence of Red Polished Ware (RPW), found abundantly in Gujarat and dated to the 1st BCE to 4th-5th CE, was reported at Vadnagar by archaeologist S R Rao,who famously discovered the site of Lothal in Gujarat.

    The next year, the Department of Archaeology of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Gujarat conducted small-scale excavations in the eastern end of the town, outside the fortification, to determine the cultural sequence of the area. Although three cultural periods were revealed, little came of the excavation and the site was largely forgotten.

    First Large-Scale Excavations (2006-2012)

    It was only in 2006-2012 that the first systematic large-scale excavations were conducted at Vadnagar, by the State Archaeology Department of Gujarat. They made a stunning discovery when they uncovered the ruins of a monastery dated to the 1st-7th century CE. The monastery was a contemporary of the ones at the historic sites of Devni Mori near the town of Shyamlaji in Northern Gujarat and Valabhi near Bhavnagar, Gujarat. Archaeologists made other fascinating finds as well, such as coins of different dynasties and other artefacts likeseals and sealings, terracotta objects, shell and glass bangles among others belonging to different periods of occupation.

    The aim was to understand the cultural sequence of the ancient town over time and its historical character along with the study of Buddhist remains and ancient trade at Vadnagar.

    Interestingly, the present town of Vadnagar stands on the mound of ancient settlements that evolved from the continuous, uninterrupted occupation of around 2,500 years. In fact, Vadnagar is among the very few cities in India such as Ujjain and Varanasi to be continuously occupied.

    Since the town left little open spaces, excavations were carried out at seven locations - three within the fortified town and four outside. During these excavations, five cultural periods were uncovered, shedding light on the gradual development of the site from pre-3rd century BCE to present town planning, from the 18th century till today.

    One of the most important discoveries was a monastery in the Ghaskol locality of the town. It had 12 residential cells and was probably used between the 1st-2nd CE and 6th-7th century CE. Apart from this, several artefacts were discovered, such as coins, seals and sealings, inscriptions and terracotta objects. This shed new light on the Buddhist past of the region. The stage was now set for the next phase of excavations.

    Second Phase of Excavations (2014-2019)

    The next series of excavations at Vadnagar was conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India’s branch at Vadodara, from 2014-2019. The site was classified into seven periods of settlement, unlike the previous five, and archaeologists made some interesting discoveries regarding Buddhism in the region.

    These excavations were mainly within the fortified city along with the eastern part of Sharmishtha Lake. The site was categorised into seven cultural periods, giving a further glimpse into the development of the town over a period of 2,500 years.

    The first period was pre-2nd century BCE. No evidence of fortifications were found. This period was contemporary with the Mauryan period but no direct evidence linking it to this great dynasty was found at the site.

    Next, there is evidence of the first defence structure in the city, which was an earthen rampart (2nd BCE-1st CE). Over the years, as the city prospered, a fortified wall made of bricks was constructed in the next period of settlement, known as the Kshatrapa period (1st CE- 4th CE ). The city witnessed its zenith during the post-Kshatrapa period (5th CE- 9th/10th CE) and the Solanki period (10th/11th CE- 13th CE), based on the discovery of shell bangles, beads and pottery. Then came the Sultanate-Mughal period (14th CE- 17th CE) followed by the ‘Gaekwad period’ from the 18th-19th CE to the present day.

    Some interesting finds were discovered during the excavation in 2017-2019 at Taranga Hills, around 30 km from Vadnagar. According to the Archaeological Survey of India, Excavation Branch V, Vadodara, after the decline of Buddhism at Vadnagar in the 7th century CE, a new centre was established at Taranga Hills, where around 40 votive stupas along with around 60 rock shelters modified into dwellings, were discovered.

    Along with the Taranga hills, the site of Vadnagar offers a glimpse into 1,400 years of Buddhism. The earliest Buddhist structures at Vadnagar date to around the 1st century CE and the presence of Buddhist artefacts continued up to the 7th century. During the same period, evidence of the continuation of Buddhist traditions was found at the Taranga Hills, where they continued in some form till the 13th-14th century CE. Interestingly, there is a belief that the name ‘Taranga’ is derived from the Buddhist goddess Tara, who is associated with Tantrism. This leads experts to suspect that Tantric Buddhism may have been practised in this region.

    Third Phase of Excavations (2019-till date)

    The current excavations at Vadnagar by the ASI, which began in 2019, has revealed some fascinating finds. Not only was a structure similar to the one at Rajgir found, but there was also evidence of an earthquake, believed to be the earliest evidence of an earthquake in mainland Gujarat.

    According to ASI, the elliptical (capsule-shaped) structure found here is dated to the 1st CE to 6th-7th CE. Similar structures have been found at only four other places - Rajgir (Bihar), Shravasti (Uttar Pradesh), Nagarjunikonda (Andhra Pradesh) and Besnagar (Madhya Pradesh). These structures were probably used to accommodate a congregation or to house a shrine. Experts believe that Vadnagar was contemporary to these four other sites.

    In fact, three sealings found at the site bear the same first letters as those on a casket found at Devni Mori. All this evidence has connected the site of Vadnagar with the Buddhist heritage of India.

    One of the most interesting finds at Vadnagar was the discovery of skeletal remains. A set of skeletons was found including a skeleton in a seated posture, the head and torso of a woman and some relics from Taranga Hills. The skeleton in the seated posture, dated to the 10th-11th century CE onwards, is probably that of a yogi, indicating a living burial. Probably the most interesting among these is the skeleton of the woman, dated to around the 2nd century CE.The DNA analysis of this skeleton matched perfectly with the current Gujarati population, with no change genetically, indicating a continuity in population in some form for around 2,000 years.

    During the excavations, evidence of an earthquake too has been found. However, according to ASI, Excavation Branch V, Vadodara, the settlement was never abandoned after the earthquake and the people learnt to live with the disaster and rebuilt the structures. Interestingly, evidence of shock-absorbing structures has been found at the site. These structures used wooden shafts within the walls, probably to minimise the severity of the damage caused by an earthquake. While the study of the earthquake is still underway, it has been placed in the pre-Solanki period.

    Apart from the cultural index, another important objective of the excavation was to study the climate changes that occurred at the site. For this, molluscan shells found at the site are being studied to observe the change in the amount of rainfall at the site across 2,500 years. A detailed study of this is underway.

    Excavations at Vadnagar also reveal artefacts, which suggest that the ancient town was trading with places across India and probably even overseas. In fact, the artefacts, including different shell objects, mostly bangles along with several other molluscan shell remains, indicate strong evidence of shell activities at Vadnagar. Interestingly, some of the coins found here have an image of a trishul and a nandi, indicating a co-existence of Hinduism and Buddhism. A few pieces of temple remains have also been discovered in later periods at the settlement.

    The ongoing excavation at Vadnagar since 2019 is also focused on an interesting project. With the Ministry of Culture investing in the project, the plan is to build an ‘experiential museum’ at the site, where people can visit the site and view all the finds from the excavation. For this, a new building will be constructed on site, which would house all these artefacts from the 2nd BCE to recent years.

    Cover Image: Archaeological Survey of India, Excavation Branch V Vadodara

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