Salvaging history - Hindustan Times

Salvaging history

Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi
Sep 22, 2011 11:53 AM IST

India, with its 7,516 km long coastline, 117 islands, 1,55,889 sq km of territorial waters and rich maritime history, has wealth of great historical importance hidden undersea.

It was ancient… as fragile as a dream just ready to evaporate in a puff of white at a touch. For Alok Tripathi, former superintendent with the UAW (Underwater Archaeological Wing) of the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India), coming across a piece of cloth dating back roughly 2,000 years during one of his underwater dives in France, was a defining moment.

He had chanced upon the remains of a shipwreck and the piece of cloth he recovered suddenly seemed to tie him to a past where ancient seafarers and bold adventurers had sailed to explore new worlds, battled and lost their lives to the sea. There were innumerable stories waiting to be told, and he decided he would dedicate his life to discovering them.

Tripathi used all his ingenuity and skills to bring the delicate fabric to the surface, exposed it, and took it to the archaeological wing of the institute in France where he was training. “The director was so impressed he made me an offer to work under conract. I refused without giving it a thought because I wanted to come back to India and work here.”

And why not? Given the fact that India has an ancient maritime history, a 7,516 km long coastline, 117 islands, 1,55,889 sq km of territorial waters and a 20,13,410 sq km exclusive economic zone, there is a need now for people willing to take the plunge and discover the lost treasures.

Though knowlege of ancient as well as medieval history is necessary, it pays to have a background in science, says Vasant Kumar Swarnkar, deputy superintending archaeologist, UAW, who has done his masters in ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology from Ujjain after getting a BSc degree. “From using chemical solutions for preservation and cleaning material we collect from trenches during excavation, to supervising use of machines for digging, knowlege of science helps.”

Tripathi, who is now professor and head of the department of history at Assam University, is one of the pioneers of underwater archaeology in India and also a trained diver – something of a rarity in this country.

Underwater archaeology has developed slowly and the UAW was set up only in 2001. Tripathi, who did his BSc and masters in archaeology from Jiwaji University in Gwalior, “willingly” volunteered for advanced training in diving in France after joing the ASI. The first underwater exploration that was done in India was that of the Princess Royal, a British ship belonging to the 18th or 19th century which had sunk off the coast of Lakshadweep.

Says Tripathi, “It was lying 264 metres deep. The ministry of culture, under which the ASI comes, ordered its examination and I had to go down and collect samples and materials from the ship. We had to identify and date it and then we did the excavation in collaboration with the Indian Navy.” He adds, “Working under water is not easy. It is a slow process. What takes one year on land will mean 10 years under water.”

People can be drawn to this profession if better pay scales and service conditions are offered. “Promotions are on the basis of seniority and not according to the hard work one puts in. The salaries of those who work on land and under water are the same – some incentives should be given to those risking their lives diving,” he adds.

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What's it about?
The job of an underwater archaeologist is to locate, pinpoint, explore and excavate any submerged ancient site/wreck. Work in India is primarily related to documenting and searching for evidence or doing excavations of ports, ancient lighthouses, shipwrecks. Boat-building traditions (in ethno-archaeological studies) and rituals, customs and taboos of people lving near water bodies are also studied up

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Clock Work
9 am: Check report by Navy divers of possible shipwreck
12 am: Take boat to site
2 am: Prepare for dive and then take a couple of shallow dives to get acclimatised to the water conditions. Go deeper. Spot the hull of what looks like a ship. The wood has completely rotted away.
Collect samples. Go up

The Payoff
You join the Archaeological Survey of India as assistant archaeologist with pay of about Rs27,000 to Rs30,000, a month. An assistant superintendent gets about Rs35,000 to Rs40,000. A deputy superintendent gets about Rs43,000 to Rs44,000, which increases when you reach the rank of superintendent and above

. Sound knowledge of history
. Scientific bent of mind as you will be required to work on conservation and preservation of ancient artifacts and should have knowlege of chemicals etc
. Good swimming, diving skills,and ability to take risks

How do i get there?
Studying arts in classes 10 and 12 with history can help, but a science background is useful as archaeologists should know about Carbon-14 dating and chemicals for preservation of artifacts. Divers should know about sonar and master the use of equipment needed for explorations underwater. Do a masters in ancient/medieval Indian history with special focus on archaeology and then a PG diploma in archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology at Red Fort, Delhi.

Learn diving

Institutes & urls
. Institute of Archaeology, Archaeological Survey of India.
. Panjab University
. University of Madras
. University of Allahabad

Pros & cons


Exciting job. You hunt for priceless treasures, sunken ships under the sea


Your work could one day bring you name and fame


Element of risk involved underwater


Pay scales not so good in India

Treasures have to be discovered

The Underwater Archaeology Wing of the ASI plans to equip its people with diving skills to make exploration easier

How much wealth do you think India’s territorial waters conceal?
No exclusive surveys have so far been done on the number of shipwrecks, sunken ports or lighthouses, not even on sunken cities like Dwarka that dot our coastlines, though some locations have been pinpointed by the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO). We have through ancient literature and through the works of Ptolemy and Pliny realised that there is a lot of wealth to be uncovered. You must remember that India has been a maritime nation for centuries, trading silks, spices and cotton. Some evidence of it still exists under water.

What are the projects that the UAW is focusing on?
We have a number of interesting shipwrecks that need to be explored. One is the Indus, which sank with a precious cargo of masterpieces and sculptures and supposedly the railing of a rare stupa which the British had collected and planned to ship to Britain. But unfortunately, the wreck is in Sri Lankan waters and we plan to contact the government there to salvage it. There have been different kinds of boats used for trading. We intend to study the entire system and also find out more about how seafaring was conducted, what kinds of traditional and fishing boats were used. Then, there is the Dwarka project. I have also recently visited Kaveripattanam in Tamil Nadu. There are reports of a boat buried there supposedly carrying some gold.

You have to realise, searching for something under water is not like digging on ground. Everything is destroyed or is moved around by the currents. Wood, and other items disintegrate.

Try to pick something up and it turns to powder in your hands. You cannot dig under water and have to brush away everything with your hands. We use under water cameras and make trenches of two-metres-by-two-metres to work on. Sometimes dredges are used. Suction pumps are also used to remove dust and expose the wreck.

How much manpower do you require? Does infrastructure need to be put in place?
Yes, definitely. We have got government approval to train our archaeologists in diving at the NIO or through other agencies. We also have a backup plan to have centres/circle offices in every corner of the country for underwater archaeological projects. I plan to have people in these centres trained in diving.

We will of course select people below the age of 40 who show a keen interest in underwater archaeology. After the initial training, they are most likely to be sent for advanced/international diving licence in France. Here, at the moment, we are taking the help from amateur divers and from the NIO. We are also exploring a tie-up with the Indian Navy, and they have also helped us out in projects in the past, but the course they offer is very tough.

How can one apply for the PG diploma run by the ASI?
Announcement of the PG diploma is made in the Employment News. There is an entrance exam conducted by Institute of Archaeology (see box). If someone volunteers for underwater archaeology training then we offer the facilities for training.

Out of the courses offered, the one that is most in demand is the conservation and preservation of monuments. Not many as yet are ready to volunteer for underwater archaeology. Hopefully, things will change soon.

Vasant Kumar Swarnkar, deputy superintending archaeologist, UAW Interviewed by Ayesha Banerjee

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    Ayesha Banerjee is responsible for Hindustan Times’ weekly supplements, including HT Estates, HT Education and HT ShineJobs.

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