Please tell us about yourself

In the post-tsunami excitement of the discovery of ‘new’ ancient temples emerging around Tamil Nadu’s Mamallapuram coast, at least one person looked completely calm: Dr Alok Tripathi, who heads the ASI’s Underwater Archaeology Wing.”We began work in the area in ’01 and these findings were slowly unfolding,” he says.Otherwise, Tripathi is full of excitement about work.”I wanted to be an archaeologist since I was in Class IV,” he says.

Alok Tripathi is a man on a mission.

Today, Tripathi is a professional diver with a passion for working on shipwrecks. He has directed excavations on the Princess Royal shipwreck off Bangaram Island in Lakshadweep, and dreams of working on a Bronze Age ship some day. India’s seawaters are rich with archaeological remains and Tripathi believes there is much to be unearthed. His work with other archaeologists and the Indian navy in TN’s Mamallapuram and Arikamedu, Gujarat’s Dwaraka, Maharashtra’s Elephanta and several other sites provide exciting insights into ancient sea-based commerce, sea-faring activities in our seas and changes over time in these coastal regions. Still, Tripathi believes many studies hinge too much on science, while “people are losing the magic of language, history, culture and the ancient arts”.

Last year, the marine archaeologist submitted a proposal to the Indian Council of Historical Research, a funding body for academic research in history, in which he offered to investigate Ram Setu and settle the matter of its genesis for good. Hindutva groups believe that a 35-odd km stretch of limestone shoals between India and Sri Lanka, also known as Adam’s bridge, was built by the vanar sena – an army of monkeys of the Hindu deity Ram. The word setu means bridge in Sanskrit.

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Though Tripathi, 52, a professor at the Department of History in Assam University, Silchar, is still awaiting written approval for his project, the council announced in March that it was being commissioned .

If Tripathi is lucky, he will find wood or pottery preserved in the chain of shoals. He believes that finding wood there will lend credence to the theory that the rocks are remnants of a man-made bridge, while the discovery of pottery will prove that humans used it.

“I am 100% sure we will find archaeological remains” or evidence of human activity in the area, said Tripathi. “I would not have submitted this proposal if I was not.”

What did you study? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

Tripathi joined the Archaeological Survey of India in 1987, a year after completing a master’s degree in ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology from Jiwaji University, Gwalior. Before that he did his (B.Sc.) in hemistry, Physics, Biology from Govt Science College.

Over 1988-’90, he trained in underwater archaeology at the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa. The Archaeological Survey of India was looking for young archaeologists to train and Tripathi, already displaying an affinity for water, was the only one to sign up.

“The reason [for no one else signing up] is that there is no incentive for joining even though the risks are far greater,” he said. “You are working in an environment not meant for humans.”

Tell us about your career path

Over the next decade, he worked at terrestrial sites – and underwater projects abroad – till 2001, when a separate wing for underwater projects was established and Tripathi was put in charge.

In 2005, when the Ram Setu controversy began, Tripathi was looking for evidence of a submerged city and temples near Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu. He found “some architectural remains”. In 2007, when the court cases related to the Sethusamudram Project started, he was in Dwarka, Gujarat. He said that his presence in Dwarka had “nothing to do with Krishna”. According to Hindu scripture, Krishna, the human avatar of the deity Vishnu ruled over Dwarka.

What were the challenges you faced?

But his first underwater project was most challenging. In 2002, in collaboration with the Indian Navy, his team explored the wreck of the Princes Royal – a sailing ship commissioned in 1792 – in the Lakshadweep Islands. The wreck was at a depth of 54 metres. “You can spend just 12 minutes in 24 hours at that depth,” he said.

At such depths, the slightest mistake can prove fatal as even the process of resurfacing must be slow. High pressure causes gases to dissolve in the blood. A sudden change in pressure due to a diver’s rapid rise to the surface could lead to the gases being released within the body just like carbon dioxide escapes when a fizzy drink is opened for the first time. This damages blood vessels and nerves, and can even lead to death.

But Tripathi says there is little danger of that at the Ram Setu. “It is between six metres and nine metres underwater,” he said. “We can easily do that.”

He insisted that the politics surrounding the Ram Setu does not interest him and rejected the contention that this project is a Hindutva enterprise. “If you have a problem with the name ‘Ram’, no one can do anything,” he said. However, he admitted that the present government would be more amenable to his research plans.

A major car accident in 2015 put him out of commission for months. “Now I am 99% fit,” he said, explaining his decision to wait till 2016 to send across his proposal. “I will feel a 100% when I dive at Ram Setu.”

Tell us about your underwater adventures

It was ancient… as fragile as a dream just ready to evaporate in a puff of white at a touch. For Alok Tripathi, former superintendent with the UAW (Underwater Archaeological Wing) of the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India), coming across a piece of cloth dating back roughly 2,000 years during one of his underwater dives in France, was a defining moment.

He had chanced upon the remains of a shipwreck and the piece of cloth he recovered suddenly seemed to tie him to a past where ancient seafarers and bold adventurers had sailed to explore new worlds, battled and lost their lives to the sea. There were innumerable stories waiting to be told, and he decided he would dedicate his life to discovering them.

Tripathi used all his ingenuity and skills to bring the delicate fabric to the surface, exposed it, and took it to the archaeological wing of the institute in France where he was training. “The director was so impressed he made me an offer to work under conract. I refused without giving it a thought because I wanted to come back to India and work here.”

And why not? Given the fact that India has an ancient maritime history, a 7,516 km long coastline, 117 islands, 1,55,889 sq km of territorial waters and a 20,13,410 sq km exclusive economic zone, there is a need now for people willing to take the plunge and discover the lost treasures.

Though knowlege of ancient as well as medieval history is necessary, it pays to have a background in science, says Vasant Kumar Swarnkar, deputy superintending archaeologist, UAW, who has done his masters in ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology from Ujjain after getting a BSc degree. “From using chemical solutions for preservation and cleaning material we collect from trenches during excavation, to supervising use of machines for digging, knowlege of science helps.”

Tripathi, who is now professor and head of the department of history at Assam University, is one of the pioneers of underwater archaeology in India and also a trained diver – something of a rarity in this country.

Underwater archaeology has developed slowly and the UAW was set up only in 2001. Tripathi, who did his BSc and masters in archaeology from Jiwaji University in Gwalior, “willingly” volunteered for advanced training in diving in France after joing the ASI. The first underwater exploration that was done in India was that of the Princess Royal, a British ship belonging to the 18th or 19th century which had sunk off the coast of Lakshadweep.

Says Tripathi, “It was lying 264 metres deep. The ministry of culture, under which the ASI comes, ordered its examination and I had to go down and collect samples and materials from the ship. We had to identify and date it and then we did the excavation in collaboration with the Indian Navy.” He adds, “Working under water is not easy. It is a slow process. What takes one year on land will mean 10 years under water.”

People can be drawn to this profession if better pay scales and service conditions are offered. “Promotions are on the basis of seniority and not according to the hard work one puts in. The salaries of those who work on land and under water are the same – some incentives should be given to those risking their lives diving,” he adds.