HISTORICAL PLUNDER - Two millennia-old link to ancient Rome being destroyed brick by brick
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- Published 9.04.07
It’s a typical modern Indian village, desperately seeking to be a small town. It’s greatest obstacle: lack of connectivity and resources.
Yet some 2,000 years ago, Ter connected India with Rome and was among the most thriving city states in the region.
The 20-km drive from district headquarters Osmanabad to this Maharashtra village is bumpy and slow. But the scale of construction surrounding it offers a contrast. Modern structures are replacing old mud huts everywhere.
It reflects in many ways Ter’s desperate attempt to cut its ties with its past.
The rush towards modernity, though, comes at the cost of a rich history in this cluster of low, rounded hills — a surprise in the otherwise flat land.
Beneath these white mounds, whose fine alluvium is so popular with local brick kiln owners, lies an ancient walled city dating to the first century AD when it emerged as a bustling trade centre under the Satvahana dynasty.
Mohan Tulzapurkar, owner of Terna brick kiln on the village’s outskirts, looks on nonchalantly as his trucks bring in soil dug up illegally from the ancient mounds.
“They (archaeologists) have been digging up this place for the last 100 years. Why haven’t they been able to take what they have to and leave? Who wants to live in the past? People here want jobs, prosperity,” Tulzapurkar says.
Osmanabad MLA Padamsinh Bajirao Patil of the Nationalist Congress Party can’t decide whose side he is on.
Married to party chief Sharad Pawar’s sister-in-law and belonging to an old local aristocratic family, Patil wields clout in Ter and also over the state government’s archaeological department.
“I am confused. There was a time I worked for conservation of Ter. But the excavation has been slow, as usual, and has taken place only in spurts because of budget constraints,” he says.
“Often, people have not been happy to let go of their fields and homes for excavation, especially since the compensation has been low. Everything is not in my hands.”
Experts say that a decade-long excavation across a 4-5 km area after relocating the village is the only way Ter’s ancient splendour can be unearthed.
“Local people now want a market complex and the panchayat has identified a site, which is yet to be excavated. I have requested them to think of an alternative site. But if they insist, how long can I hold them back? After all, the development of this area is also my job,” says Patil, mouthing an old argument.
Almost every household in this village of 20,000 people scattered over the mounds has found a relic or two in its backyard some time or the other.
But for most of them, the fine white earth matters more than what lies beneath. Farmers cart off the white alluvium to enrich their sugarcane fields, erasing some of history’s footprints every day.
“Yes, we find some broken statues and terracotta utensils here. But where is the time to think about protecting the past when there are no securities in the present and guarantees about the future?” asks Yunus Bashir, a farmer.
The state government has announced a Rs 12-crore grant for its art and archaeology department for the restoration of some 13 crucial archaeological sites across Maharashtra, but department director Ramakrishna Hegde feels it is too little too late.
“Every day, priceless artefacts revealing the deep connection between Ter and Rome are being destroyed. Many mounds in and around Ter are awaiting excavation. Take a stroll though the village and you will stumble on historical treasures. It’s an irreversible loss.”
Ter’s — or Tagara’s, as it was then known — link with ancient Rome and Greece ran through Nalasopara, now the second-last stop on Mumbai’s western commuter line and then a port that linked India with the Mediterranean.
“In the early centuries of the Christian era, there was an enormous expansion of inland trade networks in the Indian subcontinent, coupled with increased maritime activity between the west coast and the Red Sea ports of the Roman Empire. This led to the rise of urban centres at vantage points along the trade routes, among which Ter was one,” says Veerbhadra Rao, director of ASI’s Aurangabad circle.
Tagara is Maharashtra’s oldest city, referred to as an important trading town by the second-century AD Greek geographer and astronomer, Ptolemy. It finds mention in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea — a first-century AD account of contemporary trade and navigation — as one of the two famous trading centres on the Indian west coast, the other being Pratishthana, modern Paithan in Aurangabad district.
Traders from the Mediterranean collected merchandise from here and took them to Barygaza (Bharauch in Gujarat) for shipment. The historical accounts mention how fine linen, all kinds of muslins and other merchandise were carried by wagons to the ports from Ter, also connected by trade routes with northern India during Asoka’s era (third century BC).
“Today, in the absence of political will, Ter’s legacy is being ripped apart. A storehouse of artefacts from the second century BC to the 15th-16th centuries AD, it’s an archaeologist’s dream turning into his worst nightmare,” complains A. Jamkhedkar, former director of the state archaeological department.
The first excavation of Ter had begun in 1901 under the Raj. The remains of a stupa, a Roman-style temple and a wooden rampart that has a clear Roman influence have been the major finds so far.
“There were at least seven more excavations, the last one under my supervision in the 1990s, when we found a ceremonial tank bearing marks of Roman influence,” says Jamkhedkar.
The cultural give and take between Ter and Rome is clear from the 23,852 artefacts that line the shelves of a dusty local museum run by the state archaeological department that traces its contents to the jazzy residence of local trader Revan Siddhappa.
The museum is named after his late grandfather, Ramlingappa Lamture, a grocer who had a passion for the region’s history and tried to collect and preserve artefacts dug up by village children every now and then from their playgrounds.
“It was with Lamture’s assistance that the archaeological department was able to set up the museum. He not only donated his entire collection but also convinced his fellow villagers to give up priceless ancient coins and artefacts,” Jamkhedkar says.
His grandson is not as generous and refuses to part with a unique antique that may prove Ter exported handicraft to the ancient Italian city of Pompeii. It’s an ivory comb handle, an 8-cm sculpted figurine of a maiden similar to ivory carvings found in the ruins of Pompeii.
Siddhappa, 45, has a curious demand.
“They had promised my family that the Ter museum would have a grand inauguration by a VIP. Then some archaeological bigwig came and cut the ribbon. I want the Prime Minister or the President to inaugurate the museum. Till they do that, I will not surrender this piece. I will keep it safe in my custody.”
Meanwhile, other unaccounted treasures will be turning to dust every day.