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Prof. B. B. Lal: My reminiscences

Prof. B. B. Lal, Eminent archaeologist who rediscovered India’s ancient civilization buried under colonial barrage

Subhash Walimbe

Formal faculty, Deccan College PGRI, Pune 411 006

Braj Basi Lal, usually addressed as B.B. Lal, a doyen in the field of Archaeology, passed away recently, on 10th September 2022, at the age of 101. Born on 2nd May 1921 in village Baidora, District Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, Prof. B.B. Lal grew up with a passion for ancient Indian history and Hindu epics. He graduated with a master’s degree in Sanskrit from Allahabad University and trained under then-ASI head Sir Mortimer Wheeler. At the outset of his archaeological journey that started in 1944, he explored sites at Taxila, Punjab, followed by Harappan remains. Later, he joined the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and excelled to become its Director General, from 1968 to 1972. He also served as Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla. Prof Lal’s contribution to various UNESCO committees is commendable. An e-book titled “Prof. B. B. Lal -India rediscovered” was released by the Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India in 2020 to mark the centenary year of this indomitable researcher who always remined young in zeal and spirit.

In a career spanning over five decades Prof. Lal made immense contributions to the field of archaeology. He chose the threads of Indian history he wanted to pluck — the Indus Valley and the excavation of sites associated with the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Under his leadership excavation work at several places associated with the Epic Ramayana was carried out (like Ayodhya, Nandigram, Shringverpur, Bharadwaj, Chitrakoot, etc.), bringing the archaeological evidence of the ancient and glorious heritage of India to the forefront.

Historic verdict delivered by the Honourable Supreme Court of India on Ayodhya dispute on 9th November 2019 introduced the name of B.B. Lal to every household in India. In 1975 he headed a team of nine archaeologists that excavated the site for five years and discovered significant evidence to show the presence of a temple below the Babri Masjid. The team gave proof of a temple pillar in the southern portion of the Babri mosque. During the Shriram Janmabhoomi case, the finding of a temple pillar under the mosque was presented as the main evidence in the Court. The Honourable Court accepted this as ‘physical evidence’ and agreed about the existence of a temple at the disputed site. This resulted in the verdict of the Court going in favour of the Shriram Mandir. His contributions in this regard are invaluable.

He also carried out excavations related to the Mahabharat. His excavations at the sites of Hastinapur, Sisupalgarh, Purana Quila, Kalibangan presented irrefutable evidence of the geography of Mahabharata. Prof. Lal believed that since the river Yamuna changed its course, the Pandavas changed their capital. He carried out excavations and proved that there were great floods during the Mahabharat period, and the river Yamuna changed its course. His confidence in exploring linkages between Hindu epics, archaeology and Indian history emanated from his in-depth understanding of classic ancient texts. In recognition of his exceptional contributions, he was awarded D. Lit. by St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, Russia, and the Deccan College, Pune. He published more than 20 books and 150 research papers in both national and International Journals in his distinguished career.

Several distinctions were bestowed on him in his enriched life. These include the title of Vidya Varidhi by Nalanda University and the award of Mahamahopadhyay by Mithila Vishwavidyalaya, to name just a few. He also served as the Honorary Fellow of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Complimenting his academic stature and contributions, in the year 2000, he was given the third highest civilian honour Padma Bhushan and the second highest award in India – the Padma Vibhushan in 2021.

Personally, I did not get a chance to work with him or for him. There was an age difference and we worked on different aspects. But in a way he contributed immensely to shaping my career and I owe immeasurable gratitude to him for encouraging me to follow my research passion of working on palaeopathology. I take the liberty of sharing a couple of instances while remembering him.

In 1983, we, at the Deccan College, organised a joint conference of Indian Society for Prehistoric and Quaternary Studies (ISPQS), Indian Archaeological Society (IAS), Indian History and Culture Society (IHCS). It was indeed a mega event. Those of you familiar with the palaeoanthropological evidence of human evolution from India would recollect that the Narmada Man -Hathnora find - was discussed for the first time in this conference. There were more than 200 eminent and young researchers attending this important event. My career in archaeology and particularly in paleopathology was in its infancy, beginning only in 1980. As a young researcher, I was ‘generously’ given a full 5-minute slot at the end of the session (!) to present my paper. Hall was full, but the delegates were not sitting for my lecture! They were in full attendance to listen to the lecture of the country’s top and high-profile historian that was to follow immediately after the conclusion of the day’s presentations. I started talking with full enthusiasm of a neophyte. The research findings that I presented were about the early childhood morbidity stress during the protohistoric era. But to my utter dismay, within a couple of minutes, I was interrupted by the then senior most archaeologist with a blunt poser : “tell us to what race the population belongs. We are not interested in other things. And if you cannot … what’s the use of having you with us”? This was catastrophic and hit me with the intensity of a bullet. Intense debate ensued and lasted for 10-12 minutes. In these moments of distress, solace came from two eminent scholars, Prof. B.B. Lal, and Prof. M.K. Dhavalikar. B.B. Lal realized the significance of palaeopathological angle, saying “we must give him some more space to work on this angle”. Prof. Dhavalikar -excavator of the Inamgaon Chalcolithic site, added in support of my research saying, “to me more important is to know how these people lived rather than knowing who were these people”.

Today it would be a bit difficult to realise the gravity of the situation. But imagine, I am talking about the era, when human bones were not a priority area in archaeology and working on sub-adult bones was just ‘waste of time’. It was the epoch when ‘anthropology’ meant ‘मानव वंश शास्त्र’ in vernacular. Probably that was the only area we were expected to talk about. Later, throughout my career, I tried to free my subject from the taxonomical clutches, and I thank Prof. Lal and all others who encouraged me to do so.

Now I am again deeply concerned about the same threat that emanates from new research tools available to us. We cannot and should not stop the development of science, but we must realize its potential impact on society and our subject.

Yet another patting by B.B. Lal came when I first lectured in 1984 on physical anthropological aspects of the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT). The seminar was organised by the Mythic Society, Bangalore. The change from dolichocephaly (long-headedness) to brachycephaly (broad-headedness) in the later phases of Harappa was taken as indicative of foreign (Aryan) genetic flow. I offered a new perspective to look at the scenario by interpreting the changes in skull shape as a non-genetic influence, a consequence of decreased mechanical stress and increased nutrition stress. B.B. Lal was an admirer of my hypothesis. He visited my lab in 2006, and to my surprise, he vividly remembered the 1984 lecture and iterated his appreciation of my long-standing position on the Aryan Invasion theory. Deccan College Poona later honoured him with a D.Litt. degree in 2014.

As I read somewhere recently, the legacy of Prof. B.B. Lal is torn between those glorifying him as a ‘great intellectual’ who connected India with its rich past and others criticising him for the ‘abuse of archaeology’ for his ideological beliefs. No wonder his name will continue to excite, rouse, inspire - and even anger – some people.

Prof. B. B. Lal was indeed an archaeologist who rediscovered India’s ancient civilization buried under the colonial barrage. I pay my respect to this great personality.

Excavated archaeological remains from the Ramjanambhomi site at Ayodhya
Excavated archaeological remains from the Ramjanambhomi site at Ayodhya


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