It happened just like Mount Vesuvius. A little after mid-day on August 24, 2016 AD disaster struck. Mount Simla on the northern fringes of New Delhi erupted and literally buried the city in a layer of ash. First to be buried were small towns like Panipat and Karnal - towns whose loss could easily be sustained by the national budget; then the suburbs of Model town and Punjabi Bagh, then ancient Old Delhi and finally ancient New Delhi. At last, when the dust settled - in places at heights of forty feet - hardly anyone could escape. For us the results of the Mount Simla eruptions are both tragic and fortunate. Tragic because of the apocalyptic destruction of entire cities like New Delhi and Panipat, yet fortunate because the victims of these disasters have been preserved almost intact along with their handiwork - a silent but eloquent testimony to a special culture.
As the deep cover of ash was removed, a particularly unique urban structure was revealed to archaeologists and to posterity. A site discovered in the southern region of the excavations in an area called Greater Kailash reveals a culture that defies all the accepted precepts of archaeology. Layer upon layer, strata upon strata of awkward buildings and apparently useless items are now being catalogued to provide us a close-up of the domestic lives of the inhabitants.
Dr. B.B. Pande of the Archaeological Survey of Modern India (ASMI) supervising the dig has hit upon the remains of an ancient commercial centre in an area which he believes was once called `The Greater Kailash Market’ an extensive arcade of shops selling useless trinkets. It has been carbon dated to 1985. It is obvious from the stratification that a primitive and acquisitive modern culture was sharply imposed upon a more advanced traditional one. “Culturally, these people were very backward,” says Pande. “Their whole life revolved around collection and accumulation.” Items totally unnecessary for day-to-day living were bought and hoarded in large castle-like buildings believed to be houses. Many of these houses, he maintains, belong to the Middle Halwai Period - a particularly grotesque period in architectural history, where the burgeoning affluence of its owners had to be reflected in the architecture. One particular example, from the Greater Kailash excavations is of a house unlike any other in history. A series of broken pediments and Doric cornices in the top layer of the stratification showed a facade that was stylistically Greek; a second layer revealed a structure that was essentially Mongolian; finally, archaeologists digging the remaining streets found a ground floor that could easily be classified as Punjabi. Obviously, the early inhabitants of Greater Kailash had a pragmatic view of architecture, noted Dr. Pande. He believed that the function of a building was to enclose a maximum of space with a minimum of material. “That area of the house exposed to public view”, said Dr. Pande, “ had to be decorated with a minimum of expense. And then,” he added, “people would get so engrossed in the surface treatment of the façade that they would forgot to include any content behind it.”
According to a report published by the ASMI the Halwaian invasion has been dated to the early 1950s when one of the lost tribes of Asia Minor invaded India and established the first sweet shop. Despite their mean conquering nature, the Early Halwais were a happy lot. They knew how to live life and they lived it in style. Many of the faded photographs that have been carefully preserved in the National Archives show the Halwai family as being larger than the ordinary family, both in size and number. The Halwai male, clad in undergarments two sizes too small, was always pictured in the position that came most naturally to him: sitting. The Halwai female, herself two sizes too large, was clad in overgarments two sizes too small. She too was shown in her most natural state: sitting and eating. Noted anthropologist, Herman Lardner, who has carefully pieced together the life of Early Halwais in his new book Myths and Realities of Halwai Life talks of how “the Halwai child was a unique specimen of humanity: from a distance it didn’t look like a child; but close-up it had an endearing physical presence. His face puffed, body swollen into a mass of rippling flesh, and thighs enlarged beyond recognition but fitting snugly into a pair of Wrangler jeans - this was the young adolescent. Altogether, the Halwai family portrait was a fitting testimony to a grand tradition in obesity, studied intemperance and irregular flatulence.”
Yet not all families led such balanced private lives. One of the smaller houses in the Greater Kailash area has revealed, in a small room, a metal container in the outstretched hands of an elderly couple, suggesting an act in which a newly married woman is doused with an inflammable fluid.
Although little remains of the woman, except for a few charred bits of nylon, sociologists believe that this was a revival of the ancient ritual of Sati, welcoming the bride into her new home. Ancients claimed that the act of immolation often brought good luck to the new family, mostly in the form of cars, self-defrosting fridges and colour TVs.
On the basis of excavated evidence we are also able to arrive at certain hypotheses about the racial preferences of the Halwais. A torn section of a Sunday newspaper reveals one query from “a 179 cms Aggarwal male who desires a 27 year old fair and homely female well-versed in household chores.” Advertising for matrimony seemed necessary in a culture where social alliances on a day-to-day basis were particularly difficult.
Sociologists are also able to infer from this and other advertisements, a preference for members of the fair races, and the fact that matrimony did not stem from the desire for love and companionship, but from the desire for a docile housekeeper.
Archaeologists digging near the foundations of the Greater Kailash house have also hit upon an extensive system of underground pipes believed to be part of the ancient Indian drainage system. As the team of archaeologists and experts broke through the concrete, an entirely new function was revealed. Lying within, in awkward circular positions, were whole families of malnourished labourers.
Many such families, Dr. Pande believes came to the city in search of a better life. And the city, in turn exploited their skill and manpower for gigantic building projects. But after the constructions were complete, the city fathers confined the labourers to the sewage system in the hope that someday, they too like garbage, could be dumped in the outlying areas.
Excavations north of Greater Kailash have revealed structures of enormous proportions. Tiny pigeons-holes piled on top of each other in stepped ziggurat formations suggest a collective type of settlement. Many of the rooms so far recovered are small and prison-like. “Members of the elite were kept in solitary but fairly pleasurable confinement, says anthropologist Lardner “These convicts were respected by the society they lived in. Although many had amassed personal fortunes through corruption, smuggling or business exploitation, they were nonetheless worshipped by the very people at whose expense they had risen”. Similar structures uncovered in other parts of the city suggest that these pleasure palaces functioned in chains and were often named after gluttonous emperors from history, men like Ashoka, Maurya and Oberoi.
After examining the artifacts unearthed in the Greater Kailash excavations, Dr. Pande wondered at the value of preserving such a culture. After looking again in the rubble of a house at the Greater Kailash site, and cataloguing the finely preserved replica of a Neo American Semi Palladian Graeco Roman entablature supported on a Corinthian colonnade, with door jambs of a hybrid Punjab ancestry, he commented that the architecture of the period lacked a spirit of irony. “Luxury,” he said “in the India of the late 20th century seemed to have no modest moments. Desperate to plunder all cultures but their own, the affluence of the few had come to define a common idea, where differences between people were more highly regarded than similarities”. Drawing from the rich archaeological evidence that there seemed little difference between modern India, colonial America, historical Europe, or Ancient Greece, Dr. Pande felt little need to preserve such a hybrid culture for posterity. He directed the workmen at the excavation to fill up the site. There was no need to dig anymore.
Some of the other objects and buildings of interest recovered from the excavations:
- Phone: Circa, 1990; Purpose unclear, small metal objects with display screens have been recovered from people’s palms. These are similar to an instrument invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1880 for long distance communication. It is unclear if the purpose here was the same.
- Automobile: Circa, 1900; Model design 1940; carbon dating 1980. Purpose unknown. Archaeologists supervising the digging operation were baffled by the dates. When the strange box-like scrap of metal was excavated, many believed it was some ancient vehicle, going perhaps as far back as the Mahabharata. But it was a strange paradox. Its obsolete technology told one story; its carbon dating entirely another. Nobody so far has been able to pinpoint the precise purpose of these tin boxes but it is believed that they were manufactured by the government for use by its functionaries. Little metal plates recovered from the side of the vehicle gave the job description of the rider: Premier, Lancer or Ambassador.
- Parliament: Circa 1990. Purpose unclear.
A huge circular arena has been unearthed in the centre of town near a series of monumental structures believed to be government buildings. Anthropologist Lardner holds that the circular building was a Parliament House, a place where decisions of national importance were made by men of national stature. But after the rubble was removed, the frozen antics of its inhabitants became apparent. Under portraits of famous personalities these men were gesticulating wildly, like frightened children, some even, sleeping. “These scenes,” says Lardner, “made one wonder whether these were really men capable of national decisions.”
Dec. 15, 2186:
By Our Digging up the Dirt Correspondent
With inputs from Disaster correspondent with bureau reports