2014

Rajghat: Varanasi through the Millennia

Archaeological Survey of India

The archaeological mounds at Rajghat represent the ancient settlement of Varanasi on the northern outskirts of the city, near the confluence of Ganga and Varana.

This settlement had attained socio-economic prosperity during pre-Mauryan times, and was a great centre of art, culture and religion. In its vicinity lay Sarnath, where Lord Buddha gave his first Teachings, an event known in Buddhist texts as Dharmachakra-Pravarttana i.e. ‘Turning of the Wheel of Law’.

This exhibit is about some aspects of Rajghat's excavation.

The credit of the discovery of Rajghat goes to Krishna Deva, who took up trial excavation of the site on behalf of ASI in October-November 1940. The work began after a railway contractor reported ancient remains while digging for spoil earth in connection with extension and remodelling of the Kasi Railway Station. Excavations at three mounds at Rajghat were later carried out by Prof. A.K. Narain and his colleagues from Banaras Hindu University in 1957-58, 1960-61 and from 1962-63 to 1960-69 without any break, and substantial archaeological remains were noticed.

Benaras, a general view

The Ganga takes a northerly course in Varanasi and therefore it is called Uttaravahini there. The city’s location on the confluence of Varana and Assi rivers made the city a sacred area, and the semi-circular shape to the left bank of the river made it suitable for anchoring the large sailing boats which were used for trade down the river upto the Bay of Bengal.

Such a location of the city made it a great trading centre which emerged in the middle of the first millennium BC as an urban metropolis with localization and specialization of industries and crafts. The proliferation of the city is elaborately mentioned in the Tripitaka and Jataka tales. There are mentions of a well-developed ship-building industry, craft communities specializing in sandalwood, ivory and cloth, whose work was praised far and wide for its value and beauty.

The elevated landscapes with three higher areas were conceived to be three sectors of the city, namely Onkara-khanda in the north, Visvesvara-Khanda in the middle and Kedara-Khanda in the south. The ancient city settlement of Rajghat falls under the Onkara-Khanda with its highest plateau among the three, sloping gradually to the low inland ox-bow lakes of Mandakini (modern Maidagin) and Matsyodari (modern Machhodari). 

Varanasi also became famous with other names, such as Ananda-Kanana, Avimukta, Mahasmasana etc. The earliest settlement located at Rajghat was definitely extended upto Lat Bhairava and Bakaria Kund areas from where significant early historic remains, sculptures and architectural fragments have been found.

Kasi-Khanda and Linga-Purana also mention about a pillar at Kotisvara and called Mahasmasana-stambha which has been identified with Lat-Bhairava which was probably an Asokan pillar, described to be of 32 to 34 feet in height by the French traveler Tavernier and which suffered damage in 1805.

Although natural soil could not be reached in the excavations conducted at Rajghat in 1940, five strata were identified suggesting five successive cultural periods ranging from Sunga, Kushan, early Gupta, main Gupta, late Gupta and Gahadavala age covering a deposit approximately of 7m in total.

During excavation, the first stratum yielded medieval Brahmanical sculptures and a large number of architectural fragments suggesting remains of a Gahadavala period (1086-1200 A.D.) temple there. Two copper plate inscriptions of Govindachandradeva were also found. Village Bhadapa is mentioned in one of them which can be identified with the modern Bhadaun, a locality near the site.

The second and third strata happened to have been badly damaged by the Railway digging.

The Rajghat excavation site's fourth stratum contained the largest number of structures, including eight brick-built buildings laid out in blocks which were separated by lanes and alleys. A large rectangular structure (19m by 16.5m) with a quadrangle open to sky and a pillared hall in the middle with apartments enclosing it on the sides was exposed. This may have been a temple. Other structures include a curious hall sunk with five masonry wells in its floor, a house containing a lime-plastered rectangular bathing tank, a house with an extensive paved court on which were found a pot with relief designs of flora and fauna, beside hundreds of clay sealings of which particularly important are the sealings of kings Dhanadeva and those bearing the representations of Greek gods and goddesses. 

On the basis of paleography of the sealings, this stratum has been assigned to the first to third centuries AD. Besides hundreds of seals and sealings, the site revealed the find of several thousands of terracotta human and animal figurines, majority of which were found in the course of Railway digging.

Credits: All media
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