2500-yr-old ruins receive long awaited heritage tag


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Exactly 105 years after it was first “discovered”, Chandraketugarh is finally getting some attention. The Mamata Banerjee government has decided to turn Bengal’s richest archaeological treasure trove into a heritage village. 

The Chandraketugarh archaeological site [Credit: sankhabhattacharya]

The ruins dating back to 6th Century BC has been a pilferers’ paradise for decades, and people all over the world have minted money smuggling the exquisite antiques out of the ‘garh’ (fortified city) tucked away in Berachampa village in North 24-Parganas, about 34 km from Kolkata. To know that, you have to simply check out some of the relics soaked in Bengal’s rich yet unknown past at the Christie’s or the Sotheby’s websites. 

Countdown begins 

Is this the beginning of the end to the booming “trade”? Shuvaprasanna, chairman, West Bengal Heritage Commission, nodded. “We shall do everything to establish Chandraketugarh in its archaeological glory. We are also trying to make it a world heritage site,” said the painter. The commission, in collaboration with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), has embarked upon a major excavation attempt within the next year to unearth the myth and mystery of the historical township. Harvard professor and commission member Sugato Bose said: “This archaeological site can transform our understanding of the ancient history of Bengal.” Bose must return to Harvard shortly, but will be in Kolkata in February to formulate some important decisions on Chandraketugarh. 

Locals overjoyed 

“This is the best thing we have heard in a long time. I can’t remember since when we have been demanding that the area be excavated and if required, the entire land be acquired,” said local resident Asim Karmakar, who had formed a pressure group years ago so that the governments (both state and central) did something to stop the extensive looting of the relics. “The administration has been insensitive to conservation as well as to the crime related to Chandraketugarh,” he said. 

The heritage village will cover Berachampa to Haroa, including Singer Ati, Shanpukur, Hadipur, Jhikra, Ranakhola, Ghorapota, Dhanpota, Chuprijhara, Mathbari and Ghaziatala. The ASI might dig up Berachampa, Khana-Mihirer Dhipi, Ita Khola, Noongola and Hadipur all over again; these sites were excavated about half a century ago, but the job has been largely inadequate. 

Heritage village, fort and temple 

Calcutta University’s Ashutosh Museum did unearth remains of a temple in 1956-57. Constructed during the times of the legendary Mihir and Khana, the temple is two miles from King Chandraketu’s fort. “The temple and the fort comprised the prosperous urban settlement that flourished between 4th Century BC and 12th Century AD. It was a remarkable civilisation spanning at least six eras, starting from that of the pre-Mauryans and ending with the Pala period,” say ASI records. 

The temple, said to be built during the Pala era, is the most valuable archaeological find of the region. Almost nothing, however, is left of the polygonal structure connected to a square vestibule. The roof had collapsed long ago and all that remains are the walls and a flight of stairs. “The fort and the temple are immensely vulnerable to pilferage and decay. The heritage village complex will automatically protect the entire area. The excavation, on the other hand, will enhance Chandraketugarh’s archaeological stature,” said Amal Roy of the state archaeological department. 

Museum and research 

First things first. The heritage commission intends constructing a museum – like the one at Nalanda – in the middle of the ‘garh’, along with research facilities. Since there are currency like the gold coin belonging to Chandragupta-Kumaradevi, semi-precious stone beads, ivory and bone materials, terracotta plaques, figurines, pottery and wooden objects of remarkable sculpting that survived the test of time, Chandraketugarh has potential to be identified as the oldest early-history site in Bengal. 

“The idea is to develop a thematic museum that can reconstruct the history of Chandraketugarh,” said archaeologist and OSD, heritage commission, Basudeb Malik. The town planning of this prosperous urban set-up that existed 2,500 years ago will also be reconstructed. 

Port ‘reconstructed’ 

According to a school of thought, Chandraketugarh was actually a port city that had come up on the rich, alluvial Ganga-Vidyadhari delta, and had eventually merged into the mainland, thanks to the rivers’ changing courses. No wonder there is no hard fact about the period of Chandraketugarh. An artists’ impression of the port theory is, thus, being conceived along with a picture-story of the Hindu Chandraketu running into a conflict with the Muslim saint Syed Abbas Ali Gorachand. Finally, an illustrative tale of how the mound at Berachampa and Deuliya (later rechristened Debalaya) villages earned the name Chandraketugarh. 

Tapping tourism 

On the cards is a mega tourism centre of international standards. “Tourists will be awed by the sheer historical evidence lurking in and around the place. A thorough excavation will show off Chandraketugarh as the Mecca of Bengal’s heritage,” said Shuvaprasanna. He and Bose led a team of archaeologists to the ‘garh’ on January 7 to see for themselves. The thrust will be on protecting the invaluable heritage site – especially from the clasps of international smugglers and their local linkmen. 

The fort and the historians 

And about time, too. A hundred years have already been wasted. The archaeological implication of Chandraketugarh came under the spotlight early last century when a group of government contractors deployed to lay a road somewhere between Barasat and Basirhat came across some sleek brick structures beneath a cluster of mounds. Word got around, albeit slowly, until A H Longhurst visited the site, prodded by local resident Tarak Nath Ghosh, in 1907. He stumbled upon large volumes of bricks and pottery, but reported that the ruins were nothing much to write home about. 

Finally, Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay – already known for his tryst with Mahenjodaro – travelled to the site in 1909 and wrote: “The relics and terracotta figurines are archaeological wonders….” The stamp of authenticity had K N Dikshit, superintendent, ASI’s eastern circle, publish the first paper in 1922-23. But the site wasn’t excavated until 1956 – by CU’s Ashutosh Museum for an entire decade. A trial trenching by ASI in 2000 ended abruptly. 

UNESCO funds 

Given the enormity of the project, the state heritage commission has decided to rope in Unesco to pitch in for setting up the heritage village, the excavation of the site and rehabilitation of locals. “Getting UNESCO’s funds shouldn’t be difficult since Chandraketugarh has been famous for decades,” said Shuvaprasanna. He said the government would also seek help from the likes of British Museum to salvage some of the relics smuggled out of the country through the ministry of culture. A national register of the ‘garh’s artefacts would also be compiled. 

Author: Ajanta Chakraborty | Source: The Times of India [January 18, 2012]



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