Who was Rakhal Das Banerji and why is he important for Indian history?

If you are interested in ancient civilizations, you may have heard of Mohenjo-Daro, one of the oldest and best-preserved urban settlements of the Indus Valley Civilization. But do you know who discovered this remarkable site and realized its significance? The answer is Rakhal Das Banerji, an Indian archaeologist and historian who worked for the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in the early 20th century.

Rakhal Das Banerji was born on 12 April 1885 in a zamindar family in Berhampore, Murshidabad, West Bengal. He graduated from Presidency College, Kolkata with Honours in History in 1907 and obtained his M.A. in history from the Calcutta University in 1911. He joined the Indian Museum in Calcutta as an Assistant to the Archaeological Section in 1910 and then the ASI as Assistant Superintendent in 1911. He was promoted to the rank of Superintending Archaeologist of the Western Circle in 1917.

In 1920, he was surveying the lower part of the Indus River valley (now part of Pakistan), when he heard reports of a buried site surmounted by a stupa, a small hemispherical structure used by Buddhist monks for meditation. He examined the area, made trial trenches, discovered seals and artifacts, and became convinced that a much older settlement lay buried under the mound. He wrote a letter to his boss, Sir John Marshall, the director-general of the ASI, in 1923, proposing the remote antiquity of the site and in effect of the Harappan culture.

He returned to the site in 1922-23 season and continued his excavations. He uncovered a city made entirely of fired brick, with paved streets and a sewer system, and a large pool at town center. He also found an abundance of seals with pictographic script and wonderful art objects such as a bust of a priest/king and the now-famous Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro. He published his findings in various journals and books, such as The Prehistoric Civilisation of Mohenjo-Daro (1924) and The Age of Buddha (1926).

Banerji’s discovery was a major breakthrough in Indian archaeology and history. He pushed back the date of Indus Valley civilization by a full 2000 years, to around 2700 BCE. He also challenged the colonial narrative that India had no civilization before the arrival of the Aryans. He showed that India had a rich and sophisticated culture that rivaled those of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Unfortunately, Banerji did not receive the credit he deserved for his monumental work. He was transferred to the Eastern Circle in 1924 and took part in the excavations at Paharpur. He took voluntary retirement in 1926 and taught at the University of Calcutta and then at the Banaras Hindu University from 1928 until his premature death on 23 May 1930. He was only 45 years old.

Sir John Marshall, who took over the excavations at Mohenjo-Daro after Banerji’s departure, acknowledged his contribution in his introduction to Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilization (1931), but did not give him enough recognition or support during his lifetime. Many modern Indian scholars have tried to restore Banerji’s legacy and highlight his role as the discoverer of Mohenjo-Daro and one of the pioneers of Indian archaeology.

Three other scholars whose names I cannot pass over in silence, are the late Mr. R. D. Banerji, to whom belongs the credit of having discovered, if not Mohenjo-daro itself, at any rate its high antiquity, and his immediate successors in the task of excavation, Messrs. M.S. Vats and K.N. Dikshit. … no one probably except myself can fully appreciate the difficulties and hardships which they had to face in the three first seasons at Mohenjo-daro.

Sir John Marshall, Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilization, London: Arthur Probsthain, 1931

He was the first to study the proto-Bangla script, the original form of Bangla script. He wrote the classic historical works on medieval Indian coins, and the standard works on the iconography of Indian art, in particular Gupta sculpture and architecture. His best-known work was Eastern Indian Medieval School of Sculpture, published posthumously in 1933.

His standard two-volume Bangalar Itihas (History of Bengal), in Bengali (1914 and 1917), was one of the first attempts at writing a scientific history of Bengal. He also wrote two volumes on the history of Orissa, titled History of Orissa from the Earliest Times to the British Period (1930 and 1931). His other significant non-fiction works include, Prachin Mudra (1915), The Palas of Bengal (1915), The Temple of Siva at Bhumara (1924), The Paleography of Hati Gumpha and Nanaghat Inscriptions (1924), Bas Reliefs of Badami (1928) and The Haihayas of Tripuri and their Monuments (1931).

Having published three novels, Pakshantar (1924), Byatikram (1924) and Anukram (1931), his other literary works in Bengali language were historical fictions. The setting of his Pashaner Katha (1914) is Kushana period. His three other novels, namely, Dhruba, Karuna (1917) and Shashanka (1914) are set in the different phases of the Gupta period. His Dharmapala (1915) narrates the story of the Pala emperor Dharmapala. Mayukh (1916) describes the Portuguese atrocities in Bengal during the reign of Shahjahan. Asim (1924) narrates the condition of Bengal during the reign of Farrukhsiyar. His last novel, Lutf-Ulla, is set in Delhi at the time of the invasion by Nadir Shah. Another work, Hemkana (uncompleted), was published in Prabasi (magazine) from 1911 to 1912.

Rakhal Das Banerji was a remarkable scholar who made a lasting impact on our understanding of India’s ancient past. His discovery of Mohenjo-Daro was one of the greatest achievements of Indian archaeology and history. He deserves to be remembered and celebrated as one of India’s finest sons.

10 thoughts on “Who was Rakhal Das Banerji and why is he important for Indian history?

  1. They are the real heroes of our country… Forgotten by design.
    Hope, sooner than later, chapters on them are included in the text book of Modern History.
    Thanks for writing this story and enlightening us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Indus River has been an integral part of India’s historical, cultural, and religious landscape. The river played a crucial role in the rise and fall of many ancient civilizations in the region, including the Indus Valley Civilization, which was one of the earliest urban civilizations in the world. The Indus Valley Civilization flourished between 2600 BCE and 1900 BCE, and it was primarily located in the Indus River Basin. The river also played a critical role in the spread of Buddhism in India. The famous Buddhist site of Taxila is located on the banks of the Indus River, and it was an important center of Buddhist learning in ancient times.


  3. Pingback: Chandraketugarh: A Lost Civilization – Indrosphere

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