Krishna Archeology

Nanditha Krishna

Last week, at the C P Art Centre in Chennai, T K V Rajan, archaeologist turned television producer, presented an exhibition titled "In Search of Krishna", a well-documented collection of material about the excavations conducted at the various sites connected with the life of Krishna and the events of the Mahabharata. In view of the ongoing excavations at Ayodhya, it is worthwhile to see what the Mahabharata excavations revealed.

Over 35 sites of the Mahabharata have been identified in the North, all of which have yielded material culture - painted grey ware (PGW) pottery painted over with designs in black pigment, and antiquities in uniform and identical levels. This pottery is made of a superior quality of paste formed of well levigated clay and fine, well-burnt fabric achieved by distributing heat in the kiln evenly. This civilisation is also characterised by the use of iron, unknown to the earlier Harappans.

Hastinapur, between Meerut and Mawana in Uttar Pradesh, is now a forgotten village, but excavations in 1952 revealed the existence of Vidur-ka-tilla (Vidura's palace), Draupadi-ki-rasoi (Draupadi's kitchen) and Draupadi Ghat (for bathing), besides copper utensils, iron seals, ornaments made of gold and silver, terracotta discs and several oblong-shaped ivory dice used in the game of chauper.

Iron objects numbering 135, and which included arrow and spearheads, shafts, tongs, hooks, axes and knives indicate the existence of a vigorous industry. There are indications of brick-lined roads and drainage systems, and an agro-livestock based economy. The PGW of Hastinapura has been assigned to 1100-800 BC. The events of the Mahabharata probably occurred around 1000-900 BC.

Later, according to the Matsya and Vayu Puranas, a heavy flood on the River Ganga destroyed Hastinapura, and Nichakshu, the fifth king after Parikshit (Arjuna's grandson) who ascended the throne after the Kurukshetra war, shifted his capital to Kausambi, 50 kilometres from Allahabad. There is definite archaeological evidence of a massive flood level. The devastation by the Ganga is still visible in the thick clay soil.

After their exile, the Pandavas asked for three villages: Paniprastha, Sonaprastha and Indiraprastha, generally identified with modern Panipat, Sonepat and Puranaqila in New Delhi. These sites have also yielded the same pottery and antiquities. Building structures with drainage systems and PGW were excavated at Purana Qila.

Kurukshetra, now in Haryana, was the site of the Kuru war. Excavations here have yielded iron arrow and spearheads, dated by Thermoluminence (TM) to 2800 BC. Today it is a town of bathing pools. At the Brahma Sarovar, a large lake 3,600 feet by 1,500 feet, Krishna, Balarama and Subhadra are said to have bathed after a solar eclipse. Bhishma lay on his bed of arrows at Bhishma Kund. Arjuna shot an arrow into the earth and a cool fountain of water flowed out directly into Bhishma's mouth, creating the Ban Ganga pond. Eight kilometres away is the village of Thanesar, the capital of Harsha Vardhana in the sixth century.

Yet, the excavations were stopped soon after these finds were revealed, and were never resumed. Why?

The submergence of Dwaraka is described vividly in the epic. Arjuna asked the residents to vacate the city immediately as it was going to be submerged by the sea. Dvaravati, according to the Sabhaparva of the Mahabharata, was heavily fortified. Dr S R Rao started excavating the Dwarkadish temple till he hit the remains of 15th, 12th and 9th century AD temples. He dug on, passing two earlier temples, until, at a depth of 9.5 metres, they came to the remains of two towns destroyed by the sea. From the earlier of the two they recovered the characteristic lustrous red pottery of the period and region. Encouraged by his findings, he decided to search for Dwaraka.

Underwater exploration yielded two gateways, fort walls, bastions and a jetty at a depth of 10 metres off Dwaraka, in the Arabian Sea. Apart from corresponding to the Mahabharata's description of the architectural features of the city and the mode of its submergence, it has directly fixed a date by TM for the pottery of Dwaraka at 3520 years BP (Before Present).

Other finds include pottery, bronze and iron implements, three-holed triangular stone anchors at Dwaraka, a late Harappan type of seal made of conch of a composite animal - a bull, unicorn and goat - and lustrous red ware pottery at Bet Dwaraka, linking the site to the Harappan culture, and thereby establishing its continuity.

Bet Dwaraka was an island frequented by Krishna who is said to have visited its Shankhodara Temple. It also contains the only ancient temple for Matsya, the epic saviour of the world at the time of the Great Flood. The materials discovered at Dwaraka corroborate history and myth, and fix a date for the inundation of the city - between 1500 and 1300 BC.

The most remarkable aspect of both epics is their geography. The Mahabharata mentions many small villages, tanks and hills, which are still identifiable.

What is the historicity of the Mahabharata? Our doubting historians will never accept any of these finds unless they are supported by inscriptions, which will never be forthcoming as the earliest Indian inscriptions belong to 300 BC. So, do we treat the epic as myth till they are satisfied?

Western scholars tried to establish a connection between Krishna and Christ, claiming that the former was derived from St Thomas' teachings about the latter, but literature and archaeology have proved otherwise. The Chandogya Upanishad mentions that Krishna Devakiputra was a student of Ghora Angirasa and the author of the Upanishad, which repeats the teachings of the Bhagavat Gita word by word.

In the 4th century BC, Chanakya refers to the story of Krishna's birth, while Megasthenes mentions that the Sourasenoi (Surasenas or Yadavas) worshipped Herakles (Krishna). Their two great cities were Methora (Mathura) and Kleisobora (Krishnapura?) on the navigable river Yobares (Yamuna). He also mentions that Herakles (Krishna) sent his daughter Pandaia to rule over the kingdom of Mathura (Madura) on the southern sea. Was she a descendant of the Pandavas, and did the latter re-emerge as the Pandyas, whose southern capital was named after Krishna's capital, Mathura?

Panini, Patanjali and the Buddhist and Jain works also mention Krishna and the events of the Kurukshetra war, while the Chinese traveller Yuan Chang records that a great war was fought at Kurukshetra and the bones of dead warriors lay buried under the soil.

In 180-165 BC, the Greek ruler Agathocles issued coins with images of Vasudeva holding a chakra. Several inscriptions are available in the first century BC: the Greek ambassador Bhagavata Heliodorus erected a Garuda column to Vasudeva at Besnagar; the Mora Well inscription near Mathura mentions the worship of the five Vrishni heroes, including Vasudeva; stone enclosures (Narayana vatika) were built for Vasudeva and his brother Shankarshana (Balarama) at Ghosundi and Hathivada.

The most controversial site is, of course, the temple at Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna. I am not aware if any excavation has been done here, but tradition and even eminent historians associate the site with the birth of Krishna, which is why Aurangazeb consciously chose to build a mosque over it.

Apart from knowing that vyuhas were army formations, I never really understood their formation or penetration. Rajan has computerised them to work out how the various Kaurava warriors were placed and how the Pandavas entered and destroyed these vyuhas, increasing the sophistication of what was always believed to be a primitive tribal war.

Krishna's divinity is a matter of faith, established by his identification with Lord Vishnu. But archaeology has conclusively established the veracity of the Mahabharata and the existence of the cult of Vasudeva-Krishna at a very early period. The epics form the soul of India, and Rajan has done well to document and bring alive ancient history.

Nanditha Krishna is Director, C P Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation and can be reached at

Although the given dates have pretty big range and the author considers the Mahabharata events happening circa 2000 years after the sastric date, the date '2800 BC' for Kuruksetra artifacts probably scared the establishment scientists - it could support the sastras and thus the whole Vedic civilization. That's why the excavations were stopped, imho.

Further references to Dwaraka archeology: