“I am a Delhi girl,” archaeologist Disha Ahluwalia humbly declares. Disha dreamt of becoming an archaeologist, at a time when there were misconceptions and little knowledge about pursuing this profession. Even from her faculty members, she faced this disparity, while completing her Bachelor’s.
“I remember telling a professor in college that I want to pursue archaeology, she turned around and said that I should then marry a rich man,” recalls Disha, since Archaeology is not considered a lucrative profession by many.
She felt dismayed but did not let that comment change her mind. “It was hurtful. But I endured it and decided to find my path,” she says. She shared her ambition only with her mother, who was always encouraging. “She would watch these shows where they would show archaeologists digging up the pyramids in Egypt or doing some exploration and she would just call me and tell me that is what you will be doing one day,” she reminisced.
She did not need to marry a rich person as it turned out, but she did become an archaeologist for sure. Disha was pursuing her Bachelor’s in B.A.History Honours from Delhi University when she realised this was what she wanted to do.
“The first class in college, I remember, was on human evolution. Learning about the Homo Erectus, Homo Sapiens, going back to Australopithecus. I remember sitting in that class so fascinated that I went back and did my google research!” she fondly remembers. She also ended up making charts and helping her batchmates catch up on the lessons. Slowly but surely the archaeologist in her was born.
Disha was aware that to fulfil her dream she would have to be much more than just another city-bred girl. She decided to move to Mysore and pursue her Master’s in Archaeology from the University of Mysore. The move had their own pleasant and unpleasant experiences.
“The city, the people and the culture was a beautiful experience. But from the perspective of studying archaeology, it was a bummer because of the language barrier,” she shares. It did not dissuade her from trying harder. “I tried to make the best of it, which is what one has to do, in such circumstances,” she recommends.
From Mysore, she joined the Institute of Archaeology where she spent another two years, getting trained in possibly every aspect of archaeology. “In those 2 years, we excavated sites. I also started working as a research assistant with the then director of the Institute till the excavation of Sunauli in 2019.” she points out.
Her first excavation is special to her for many reasons. From the topography of the area to its geographical location, it was a remarkable experience on the whole. “It was when I joined the Institute of Archaeology. We were excavating in a small village Sri Ganganagar, which was very close to the Pakistan and Rajasthan border.
The site was a part of the Harappan Civilisation and was just 3 km away from the international border of the two countries,” she informs. Sri Ganganagar is famous for the Ganga Canal which was commissioned by Maharaja Ganga Singh, to irrigate the water into the barren lands. Thanks to this, today Sri Ganganagar is also known as the food basket of Rajasthan.
But for Disha the experience of working there was transformational. It made her more sensitive towards the lifestyle of rural India as she mingled with the local community. “You get to understand so much by getting out of your shell and exploring. You have to stop being arrogant just because you can speak in English and are a city dweller. That’s what I learnt when I was working at that excavation,” says Disha.
A sight she misses every day, from those excavation days is the sunrise she saw every day while walking around 700m to reach the site. Disha worked here for 3 years and transformed into a serious archaeologist, who hoped to bring some change in the accessibility of her profession to the younger generation.
Being a woman of the field
It is not easy being an archaeologist, working out in the field all day, sometimes in the harshest of weather. There is still a prevailing notion that it is a man’s job, considering the harsh conditions they have to work in.
This attitude from outsiders is expected but women like Disha face discrimination at times from their colleagues as well. There are condescending comments from male colleagues who believe that their fellow archaeologists do not belong in the field.
“There was a time when the men in my team would say things like, ‘Oh let her do it, she’ll get married and be restricted to her kitchen later’. I would be walking with that man to the site wondering, I have my periods and still walking without showing any signs of weaknesses,” Disha says, throwing light on the mentality of her colleagues.
Another issue dealt with as an in-charge of an excavation site, is that not everyone feels comfortable taking orders or permissions from a woman. This attitude changes from place to place she feels. Like in Rajasthan, where there were both men and women in the team helping with the excavations, the channel of communication was more open.
But in Uttar Pradesh, it was not the same. Communication was restricted, people did not expect a woman to be in charge. “It’s very difficult. They wouldn’t directly come and talk to you, because they didn’t like a woman bossing them. So they would go to my subordinate who is a male and then he would come and tell me what has happened,” she recalls.
Disha believes that these are challenges that cannot be overturned in a day as there are years of conditioning that will need to be undone. Her bigger cause is archaeology, to which she devotes her undivided attention, despite the unnecessary distractions.
There are some issues in this field that come as a part of working in the remotest areas. “As a woman, you do face issues like there are no toilet facilities, so you have to bear in mind that you have to adjust to the scenario,” the 30-year-old archaeologist advises.
Archaeology and Mythology
One of the most essential aspects of archaeology is doing field research for gathering samples and evidence. When there is tangible evidence at hand, it leaves very little room for propagating unrealistic interpretations.
The recent excavations in Sanauli in Uttar Pradesh have been speculated to be from the Mahabharata Era. “It takes you a lot of time to justify. Like in Sanauli if we had not found remains of chariots, we wouldn’t have proved that there were chariots, but we found physical evidence of full chariots.
These theories that are made after excavation are open to an academic debate and interaction and that’s the reason why you find different schools of thoughts running,” she elucidates.
Disha talks of an instance when archaeological discoveries made it to the public domain, but what was projected to the public was far away from the facts. This is the case of the excavations done by the National Institute of Oceanography in the Gulf of Cambay, Gujarat.
The samples from that excavation were tested and according to the results published by the institute, they were dated to 7500 BCE. When the results from these excavations were revealed, people immediately connected them to the mythological city of Dwarka, Lord Krishna’s home, without understanding the complexities of an archaeological excavation.
“The Dwarka where the temple of Dwarkadheesh is located is in the Gulf of Kutch. If you just look at the map of Gujarat, you see they are very far away. There is a whole lot of Gujarat between the Gulf of Kutch and the Gulf of Cambay. How are you correlating it?” Disha questions the claims made in the public domain by laymen who are trying to merge mythology with archaeology.
“As an archaeologist myself, I would also have thousands of questions to ask the team who excavated that side of the Gulf of Cambay. Because we need to dig more, excavate more, sample more and date more. But coming to this conclusion in the public domain is where the problem lies and it is dangerous.” Disha warns.
Stories about the diversity of the Indian subcontinent is something that has been repeated so many times, that now we all just take it for granted. But from the eye of an archaeologist, it still stands relevant, with so much more still waiting to be discovered from our collective past.
“If you talk to any archaeologist, they will tell you that the whole Indian subcontinent was so diverse with so much connectivity and continuity. Many amazing archaeologists in this country don’t get a platform, even for the younger generation of archaeologists, it’s difficult to come forward,” she points out.
She also admits that it is the archaeologists themselves who don’t present their work out in the public enough. It is with this intention to bring out the most authentic side of archaeology and archaeologists that she started her Instagram page.
Archaeology on Instagram
Confessions Of An Archaeologist was started by Disha in 2017 on Instagram with the hopes to fill the gaps in understanding archaeology. “There are two things. There is a difference between reading archaeology and understanding archaeology. When you read an archaeological report, you have to understand that it is a multilayered subject,” she says.
When one reads such papers, they get an understanding of the subject from the exterior and not in-depth knowledge. “Because when you are reading, you are just reading the upper layer. Interpreting the findings based on just reading is wrong,” she explains.
I often come across so many things daily that is not correct archaeologically. India has seen many great findings in the field of archaeology, which still have not reached the public domain,” comments Disha, hoping that when these findings do reach the public, they are perceived without any biases.
She took a lot of time and invested a lot of thought before starting the page. She makes sure she gets the best content from the right sources. During the lockdown, she did a special series called Archaeologists in Quarantine where she introduced 10 archaeologists who were from different fields of archaeology.
“Starting from prehistoric archaeology, we had a PhD holder who was working on stone tools; Acheulean technology of Deccan. We have an environmental archaeologist, which is a new concept in archaeology,” she shares. There were more interesting entries in this series like people who were working with evolutionary sciences, a Kashmiri archaeologist who was working on temples of Kashmir.
“It was a very interesting topic since we hardly get to read about the Kashmiri and its archaeology. So we have this example of archaeologists not being restricted by religion. We also had an archaeologist from Afghanistan,” she mentions further.
Running a page on social media which does not throw random content at people is a tough job. This also means she has her fair share of dealing with enthusiasts who fail to share correct facts on their pages. Recently she came across someone who had shared a post that connected Hastinapur with the Harappan Civilization.
“The thing is people know what Harappan is and then it becomes believable. It’s not their fault. It’s the duty of people who are in this field to answer these doubts. The only reason that person mentioned Harappan is that it would grab more attention. No one will know what Dholavira and Klibangan are but they will know what Harappa and Mohenjo Daro are.” Disha laments.
Disha is currently pursuing her PhD specialising in Painted Grey Ware from the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda. Before the pandemic hit the world, she was out there on the Ghaggar basin, the hotspot of the Harappan civilisation, looking for the remains of the PGW culture. “It is a very interesting topic, not only in terms of ceramics. It is a mysterious culture as well because we know a lot, yet we don’t know a lot,” she says.
Having worked in Harappan sites mainly, her personal favourite is the site at Dholavira in Gujarat, and she considers Hampi to be her favourite monumental site. Considering the irony that it is easier for an Indian archaeologist to visit the archaeological sites of Egypt, she hopes to see Mohenjo Daro and Harappa one day which lay across the border.