Indian Americans Spearhead $15M Indus Valley Museum
By KETAKI GOKHALE
India-West Staff Reporter
The idea of a lavish museum in Baroda that showcases treasures from the ancient Indus Valley Civilization dating back to 2600 B.C., and documents the dazzling cultural and mercantile accomplishments of its people, is gaining traction among San Francisco Bay Area Indian Americans, who have already pitched in an estimated $2 million for the $10 to $15 million project.
The 100,000-square-foot museum will be part of the Indus Saraswati Heritage Center, which will include outdoor recreations of Indus city features including wells, baths, and gateways, a theater, and 15 galleries where artifacts, interactive kiosks and a learning center for children will narrate the rise and fall of the Indus Civilization. At the heart of the center will be a “world-class” research institute, backers say, where scholars can research, collaborate and continue archaeological conservation efforts.
The Indus Heritage Center was conceived in 2005 by Jeff Morgan, executive director of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Global Heritage Fund, and Mark Kenoyer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and one of the world’s eminent authorities on the Indus Civilization.
“When GHF contacted me, asking which project to focus on, and where in India to set up a facility,” Kenoyer told India-West, “I said ‘Indus,’ and in Gujarat because they have the most sites.”
“Baroda is the center of the universe,” he joked. For Indus scholars and enthusiasts, it may well be. The city’s famed Maharaja Sayajirao University, which will support GHF in the design and construction of the museum, is home to the second largest collection of Indus Valley artifacts in India. It is surpassed only by the Archaeological Survey of India, a government agency, Kenoyer noted.
MSU’s archaeology department is the finest in India, he said. Over the past 30 years, it has excavated dozens of sites, including major ones, like Dholavira, situated on a small island off the northern coast of Kutch, and smaller settlements like Gola Dhoro and Jaidak, in northern Saurashtra, near the Gulf of Kutch.
The biggest problem the university faces is that it has no facility to display its extensive collection. Most of the objects, Kenoyer said, are languishing in storage. Eventually, they will take up residence in the new museum, but for the time being, the Global Heritage Fund is funding a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institute and the University of Baroda, in which a local team is trained in artifact handling and preservation.
“The idea of sharing knowledge in this way is just beginning to surface,” Kalpana Desai, director of India Programs at the Global Heritage Fund, told India-West. “The university will help us get a land grant and share its artifacts. And we bring the support of our sponsors. Computers, laptops, cameras and equipment for the university. Trainings and conservation workshops…technology conferences, and we can help them in setting up collections management systems. For the first time, artifacts are being catalogued.”
Much of this initial knowledge-exchange has been made possible by seed funding given by Silicon Valley Indian Americans, Desai said. “There is exciting, groundbreaking research going on, except, in the case of the Indus Civilization, there hasn’t been enough attention to the subject nationally or even in the subcontinent. Unlike Ancient Egypt, there is a paucity of material on Indus for the common man. This idea aroused the passion and sparked the interest of our founding sponsors.”
The time is ripe, Desai believes, for a museum such as the one planned. “The Indus Civilization had an innovative, entrepreneurial, international character,” she pointed out. “There are many unique features to marvel at in the culture, and with the help of today’s technology, it will be brought into the limelight.” Extensive media coverage of India in recent years has also heightened public interest in the subcontinent and its history, she added. “There’s a lot of curiosity right now — it’s time to capture that momentum.”
The Global Heritage Fund estimates several hundred thousands visitors will come to the museum annually, starting in 2012, the year it’s expected to be launched. “You can look at it through the lens of building tourism,” founding sponsor Amit Shah, a Bay Area venture capitalist, told India-West. “The way to do charity is to make sure it’s economically viable, and this museum is going to be economically self-sustaining and will benefit the city. I keep going back to economics because this is going to make a huge difference in the way people live.”
As a native of Baroda and a graduate of MSU, Shah has a deep personal interest in the project as well. “Indian parents bring up their children with an understanding of Hinduism, but we can’t name one place in India where we’ve made the effort to preserve Vedic culture,” he explained.
“In this country, if a building is 500 years old, it’s automatically made into a historical site. In India, you have structures that are many thousands of years old that are left on the wayside.”
Shah recalled a recent trip to the MSU campus when the chair of the archaeology department gave him a tour of the collections. “Just to give you perspective, he showed me a strand of Buddha’s hair,” Shah said, still in awe at the recollection. “It is incredible the amount of history that is lying just scattered out there, of such great value. It needs to be preserved, learned from, passed to the next generation.”
The question of just who is interpreting the meaning of Indus cultural artifacts is one that has played on everybody’s minds. Kenoyer said that naming the complex the “Indus Saraswati” Center was a hard decision in and of itself. “Do you call it ‘Indus’ or ‘Indus Saraswati’?” he mused. “How do you give a balanced perspective on the value of the Saraswati River. And there are three Saraswatis in the subcontinent — which is Vedic one?”
“The fact is, archaeology is always changing,” Kenoyer told India-West. “There is no final answer. The field is just coming of age in India, and people are realizing its potential. Archaeology actually started in India during the colonial period, when the British studied ancient monuments to show the dominance of western culture. Later, the Congress Party used it to show the ancientness of Indian culture.”
“It’s been there for a long time, but the common people haven’t had access to it.”
Desai added that the hot archaeological debates of the day, and questions to which answers haven’t yet been found will be “documented” as such in the museum. “We want to bring to light myths of the past, and bring up new questions for the future,” she explained.
Construction on the Indus Saraswati Heritage Center is slated to begin late 2008 or early 2009. Before then, the Global Heritage Fund is hoping to raise $4 to $5 million in the U.S. and another $6 to $8 million in India from corporate and individual donors.
For more information on the project, visit globalheritagefund.org.