A Living Legacy: Rao Bahadur Kashinath Narayan Dikshit by Dr. Veena Mandrekar
Rao Bahadur Kashinath Narayan Dikshit (1889-1946) was at the helm of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as Director-General during a pivotal time in history, just as tremendous changes taking place across the globe and in his homeland. His tenure as Director-General (1937-1944) corresponded with the years preceding the war, through the war years and just prior to Independence. This was a period of considerable politics in the Science of Archaeology, keenly felt at the personal level. His wife, Yashodabai, was aware of the emotional effects of the politics on her husband about which she wrote in her diary without going into much detail.
K. N. Dikshit touched the history of India at various points in time as he moved regularly between the Eastern and Western Archaeology Circles and participated at excavations at the sites of Taxila, Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Sirkap, Sakar in (now) Pakistan with Pataliputra, Kumrahar, Lucknow, Sanchi, Ahichchhatra in India and Paharpur in (now) Bangladesh. Many of these are now designated as World Heritage Sites which tourists visit from across the globe.
Rao Bahadur K. N. Dikshit is best known for his work in Mohenjo Daro. In the words of the renowned archaeologist Jonathan Mark Kenoyer: "Rao Bahadur K. N. Dikshit made numerous contributions to the archaeology of South Asia throughout his long career. He is most highly regarded for the careful excavation of a very large area at Mohenjodaro that has a designation of DK (after his name). The area called DK-G is an area west of a large north-south street, that included multi-roomed buildings with courtyards, wells, drains and smaller side streets that provide a unique perspective of urban planning and architecture of the Indus Civilization. Excavations of this and other parts of DK area produced a large number of artifacts including pottery, terracotta figurines, inscribed steatite seals and other inscribed objects that continue to be studied by scholars today. In his report on this part of the Mohenjo Daro excavations, Dikshit provided very concise documentation and interpretations of the artifacts. In a 1939 lecture he is one of the first to emphasize that although there are some burials found at Harappa, most of the people of the Indus were probably cremated (Dikshit 1939). He also states very clearly that the Indus script was indigenous and not from outside the region. These points have now been confirmed through many subsequent excavations and research.”
K. N. Dikshit’s ascent from his middle class roots to the top most post in South Asian Archaeology tells a tale of talent and effort. His ancestors came from Budalmukh, a region close to Kolhapur in Maharashtra. The region was given as a land-grant (inam) to Vishnu Krishna Nakhare, a highly respected person, who earned the title ‘Dikshit.’ He came from a long line of people knowing Sanskrit as can be surmised from the description of the first person as an ‘Agnihotri.’ This term has a precise meaning as the role and actions of such persons are defined and complex. Suffice it to say that it is used for one who officiates at the ceremonial fire worship (yadnya) for which knowledge of Sanskrit is necessary.
Over time a branch of this family moved as priests to the ancient pilgrimage town of Pandharpur, famous for the temple of Vithoba and Rakhumai. His father Narayan Hari Dikshit had deviated from traditional education which emphasized skills appropriate for a bygone era and had matriculated in the new colonial educational system which provided more lucrative opportunities in the Empire. This education and the fact that he presented managerial ability gave him the opportunity to become a Mamlatdar, a position of considerable responsibility as he was entrusted to oversee tax collection, settle disputes, and manage the overall welfare of Shirhatti, a region in Pandharpur. There were several plague epidemics in the region at the turn of the 19th century. These descended from the north and were arrested in Maharashtra. One such epidemic claimed his father who was on the front lines trying to fight the contagion. He left behind his wife Lakshmibai and four children. The oldest was K. N. Dikshit who was all of nine years old; the youngest was an infant less than a year old.
Lakshmibai moved her family to Sangli, a princely state in Maharashtra ruled by the Patwardhans. This ruler was known for his patronage of the arts. K. N. Dikshit benefitted from this move. All his early education was free and his interest in the world around him and his ability to absorb what was being provided enhanced his opportunities to broaden his horizons. Patwardhans as patrons of the arts provided the perfect setting for the youth to explore what was available to him. In fact, the doyen of the ‘Kirana Gharana,’ Ustad Abdul Karim Khan served at this court. The earliest theatrical experiments that preceded the movie industry of Bollywood can also be traced to this town. K. N. Dikshit had a natural interest in learning the arts and he put them to good use in his later years when, for example, requested to present ‘Kirtans’ at formal social gatherings in Delhi. This form of presentation involves music and storytelling around a theme. His presentations were popular as he had knowledge of archaic literary references and could himself sing.
Dikshit knew many languages and could lecture in half a dozen of them. He had studied Latin which was not a subject taught in school at the time, but possibly he learned it from missionaries that were in the region. A newspaper cutting from the time of his becoming the Director-General, reported that he appeared for matriculation from the Bombay Presidency and stood second overall and first in Sanskrit. He was also recipient of many prizes, which helped augment the family’s tight budget at the time. He was the first recipient of the Jagannath Shankar Sheth Scholarship followed by prizes at the collegiate level for BA and MA from Deccan College. Some of the other prizes he received were the Varajivandas Madhavdas Sanskrit Scholarship, the Bhaudaji Prize, the Dakshin Fellowship and Sir Lawrence Jenkins Scholarship, amongst others. P. K. Gode who was the curator at the Bhandarkar Institute and knew him personally wrote in the obituary notice of the Poona Orientalist (Vol XI, 1946) that K. N. Dikshit was master of many subjects related to archaeology including epigraphy, iconography, art and architecture, numismatics and conservation. From renowned contemporaries such as Dr. D. R. Bhandarkar (1875-1950), we get a picture of a person who was a consummate academician, an affable gentleman and a person who was an inspiration to the young who sought his advice and freely received valuable guidance.
Dikshit’s contribution to the excavations at Mohenjo Dara in 1924 are particularly noteworthy. Mohenjodaro was an important Indus Valley city and one the largest. The team worked eighteen hour days at the site. It was during the Mohenjo Daro excavations that the so-called ‘Priest King,’ an icon of the Indus civilization was discovered. From his wife Yashodabai Dikshit’s diary, it is evident that the long days that went on for six months took a toll on the team, including Dikshit.
In 1934, K. N.Dikshit traveled for six months to visit major archaeological institutes and sites across the Middle East and Europe. One can venture a guess as to his itinerary between Mumbai and Surrey, England where he met with Sir John Marshall. He traveled extensively. From a collection of photos and blank postcards that he sent to his children, we can definitively place him at Ctesiphon, Iraq on the 23rd of March in 1934. The cards are not dated but provide a map of the places that he visited. We know for instance that he was at the ‘Lions Gate’ Mycenae in Greece, also at the wailing wall in Jerusalem, at Topkapi palace looking at the skyline of Istanbul, Turkey, and also at the Kirkuk bridge, Iraq and on through Europe. This elaborate study tour gave him an edge over the other applicants for the position of Director-General of ASI. We know that he wrote a 30 page article on his experiences at the institutes across the Middle East and Europe. K.N.Dikshit was appointed Director General in 1937.
Apart from his role in the Mohenjo Daro excavations, Dikshit has several other achievements to his credit. Dr. Kenoyer says that he was "the second Indian scholar who was tasked with developing and leading the Archaeological Survey of India. In this capacity he established scholarships from the central government to support students who were interested in studying archaeology and also encouraged the provinces to do the same. He made sure that artifacts from sites such as Mohenjodaro and Harappa were distributed to all the major museums in India so that everyone in the country would benefit from the discoveries in these major sites." In a publication on his retirement, he was lauded for his efforts to stimulate research in areas of South India and Gujarat, and to make sure that everyone had access to the discoveries from different regions of India (Science, 1944). One of his enduring contributions was to decentralize the teaching of future generations of archaeologists. He shifted this activity to the Calcutta College and today the training is done at colleges and universities across India.
Dikshit’s life story is one where successful application of talent and effort lead to success and is sure to provide a source of inspiration to current younger generations. The Secretary in Charge of Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), Mr R. N. Dandekar wrote in the Annals (Vol.VIII) that “the career of the late Rao Bahadur was a living example of what devoted and intelligent application of any particular subject can achieve," and continued that "there have been in India few men who could claim to possess the same expert knowledge of all branches of Archaeology . . . as Rao Bahadur.”
After retirement in 1944, Dikshit moved to Pune and remained active in various academic bodies but his interest had always been in Museology. He started his career working at the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay and had visited most museums across the continents by the end of it. His last wish had been to modernize them so that they would reach a larger audience.
K. N. Dikshit is credited with carrying out many reforms as the Director General and after retirement he dedicated himself to the work of the Museum Association of India which was founded by him (The Poona Orientalist, Vol.XI). He also started the Journal of Museums (The Adyar Library Bulletin, Vol X, Part 4 December, 1946). He lived half a mile from the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute which he had been involved with from its very inception, including at its inaugural. During his official tenure, his visits to Pune always included presentations at BORI, including the ‘Lantern Lectures.’ He was also the editor of the Annals of BORI for a short time until his untimely death in 1946, two years after his retirement.
As Dr. Kenoyer puts it, “the contributions of K. N. Dikshit are still highly regarded by scholars of the Indus and later historic periods, and he is always included in any discussion of the early archaeology of India during both the British Colonial period and after the Independence of India and Pakistan. Scholars from both Pakistan and India continue to honor his legacy.”
The author, Dr. Veena Mandrekar is K.N. Dikshit's grand-daughter. Ms. Sarita Alurkar, a marketing professional based in Singapore and great grand-daughter of K. N. Diskhit also edited the article. The full-text of K. N Dikshit's still valuable text Prehistoric Civilization of the Indus Valley (1939) is available. We are also working on the K. N. Dikshit Archive, a number of photographs made available by Dr. Mandrekar and her father Dr. P. K. Dixit from K. N. Dikshit's personal collection. Some of the other archaeologists and people in those images have been identified, others not; any help from visitors to this site in making identifications would be most appreciated, just use our Contact Us form.