Revisiting The Ancient Kingdom of Samatata
It would be six years since I had visited Mainamati, Comilla and I was brimming with excitement to be revisiting the ancient kingdom of Samatata. The archaeological museum of Mainamati displays a number of sculptures of Buddhist deities, artifacts, stunning terracotta plaques, coins, utensils and ancient manuscripts from 6th to 13th century A.D. In addition are the 23 great archaeological spots of the region including those of Salban Vihara, Ananda Vihara, Mainamati mounds and Rupban Kanya's Palace. In the museum, I find the Assistant Custodian Sadequzzaman, who became a guide to me six years ago in visiting all the sites of this archaeological ancient place. I had visited this area on a winter day in 2003 and this year it would be the middle of summer. I was already exhausted by the time I reached my destination. The sun was blazing against the extravaganza of red krishnachura all the way to the archaeological sites.
The museum has 42 show cases displaying royal copper plate grants, 350 coins including three hoards of 227 coins, votive mounds and ceilings, bronze sculptures, stone sculptures, terracotta plaques and other terracotta objects, stone and metal objects, pottery.
However, the greatest delights are the terracotta plaques! Representation of men and women in action, warrior with sword and shield and archer with bow and arrow are noteworthy amongst the human representations. Besides these, flying female figures, amorous couples and acrobats are fairly common. Among birds, peacocks and swans are represented in different plaques. Terracotta plaques depicting animals include lions, horses, monkeys, wild boars, crocodiles and kirti-mukhas or two crouching lions. There are also fossilized woods, glass, shell-objects and large-sized bricks at premises of the museum. The six largest sculptures in the museum are the black stone image of Heruka (one tantrik Buddhist God), a sandstone image of goddess Tara, bronze head of a Buddhist image Lokanatha, the image of Manjuvara in blackstone, the eight-handed black-stone image of Marichi or the female counterpart of meditative Budhdha and image of Ganesha the Hindu God of wealth.
Out of the museum we follow the trail of red Krishnachura petals on red clay of Lalmai hills for we would now search for 23 archaeological sites of Mainamat! If we cannot finish visit to all the 23 spots in a day, why not try at least four or five of the most important ones?
Salban Vihara (Arch. Site no. 12): Excavations since 1955 onwards at the Salbanpur mound have revealed remains of a 550 feet square Buddhist monastery which was remade as Salban Vihara due to its proximity to the Sal forest in the west. The big monastery, consisting of 115 monastic cells, was built around a spacious courtyard with a cruciform shrine in the centre.
Kutila Mura (Arch. Site no. 4): Perched on a hillock, Kutila Mura site is located about three miles north of Salban Vihara. On top of the hillock, within the enclosure, three stupas (representing three jewels of Buddhism) are found side by side on a common plinth. The whole campus measures about 280 feet from north to south and about 225 feet from east to west.
Charpatra Mura (Arch. Site no. 19): Excavation on this mound has completely exposed the remains of a fairly large temple complex. Here four royal copper plate grants were salvaged and hence it was renamed Charpatra Mura (hillock of four leaves or pages meaning 4 inscribed copper plates) belonging to the ancient Chandra kings. The ground plan of a large temple complex, measuring 105 feet east-west and 55 feet north-south, could be ascertained here.
Rupban Kanya's Palace (Arch. Site no. 6): Adjacent to the western side of the Cantonment Road, the traces of the central structure and enclosing walls can be made out from the remains of the debris. The edifice is a square structure measuring 250X 250 feet and seems apparently to be a monastery.
Ananada Raja's Palace (Arch. Site no. 5): This big mound is situated about a mile north of the BARD complex at Kotbari, Comilla. It is more than 650 square feet in size and about 15 feet higher than the plain cultivated land. Though it was popularly known to the local people as Ananda Rajar Bari (King's palace), the ruins reveal a square monastery enclosing a central shrine of multi-angular form.
Despite the antiquity and beauty of the Mainamati museum and other archaeological spots, the overall scenario of lack of proper care and maintenance cannot be ignored.
“Problems are many. We are hugely suffering from manpower crisis,'' said Sadequzzaman, the Assistant Custodian of the Mainamati museum who has been serving here since 1999.
"Although we (the museum authority) earn around Tk. 1,50,000-2,10,000 per month from selling of tickets, this is not enough to maintain, renovate and excavate the archaeological sites and the museum. The Department of Archaeology and Ministry of Culture helps us. Still, we need more financial support to excavate further and renovate in a more modernised way,” he observed.
“We are hopeful that the number of visitors will increase. In summer (April 1 to September 30), the museum remains open from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm with a half hour lunch break and weekly holiday on Sunday. During winter (October to March), the museum remains open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. However, the government, civil society and media can be more pro-active to make it an attractive tourism spot for both the local and global visitors,” he added.
Tourists from home and abroad, please do pay a visit to Mainamati, the ancient kingdom of Samatata!
A Brief History of Mainamati
The very name “Mainamati'' was coined after the name of Queen Mainamati, an extremely popular character of Bengali folklores and ballads compiled in 17th-18th centuries A.D. including the ballads of Gopichandra er gaan, Manikchandra er gaan, Gorakshya Vitraya punthi and others. But, actual history of this place goes back to the remote past and is inseparably connected with the history of the surrounding land.
The trans-Meghna region to the south-east of Bangladesh, corresponding approximately to the greater Comilla and Dhaka districts, constituted the ancient kingdom of `Samatata'- a significant name indicating a landmass on the littoral of the sea. The great Chinese traveller Hiuen-Tsang, visiting this area in 637-639 A.D., noticed it as a low moist country on the seaboard. The name Samatata first appeared in the Allahabad Pillar Inscription of North Indian King Samudra Gupta dated 4th century A.D. and was later found in the copperplate of King Vainya Gupta issued in 506-7 A.D. This copperplate was discovered from Gunaighar, a village 18 miles north-west of the Comilla town. Hiuen-Tsang, during his visit to Samatata or today's Comilla, found Buddhism a flourishing religion in the area and discovered 2,000 monks in 30 monasteries. A number of archaeological records refer to the existence of the Bhadra royal dynasty who ruled Samatata or Comilla during the first half of the 7th century. Later, the Buddhist Khadaga rulers ruled the region for nearly 70 years in 7th century A.D., as known from two copper-plates found at Ashrafpur in Dhaka and confirmed by the later discovery of an inscribed Sarvani image from Delubari, a village 22 miles south of Comilla town. After Hiuen-Tsang, another Chinese pilgrim Seng-Chi visited the region at the close of the 7th century A.D. and described the king Rajarajabhatta of the Khadaga dynasty as a devout worshipper of 'three jewels'- Budhdha, Dhamma (Law) and Sangha (Order). The Khadaga kings were reputed for their religious tolerance and benevolent activities. The next important royal family of Samatata was the Devas of Devaparvata. By the beginning for the 10th century, when Pala power declined during the reign of Narayan Pala (855-908 A.D.), Samatata regained its glory under the Chandras of Rohitagiri. The Varmans came to power in Samatata after the fall of the Chandras and the reputed king Jatavarman of this dynasty was placed in Samatata during 1050-1075 A.D. The supremacy of Sena dynasty was short lived. By the beginning of the 13th century, the Senas ceased to rule in Samatata due to the rise of Ranavankamalla Harikeldeva in 1204 A.D., which is testified by the discovery of Ranavankamalla's copperplate from Mainamati, issued in his 17th regal year dated 1220 A.D.
Although the accidental discovery of a copper plate grant of ancient king Ranavankamalla Harikeladeva in 1803 A.D. on the Mainamati hill indicated for the first time its ancient character, real interest in the sites was created about one and a half century later. In 1943-44, the headquarters of the 14th Division of the British Army was stationed in Comilla and for their use a number of buildings were constructed at various points of the Mainamati-Lalmai ridge. During the construction of new buildings, the contractors discovered accidentally the remains of a number of ancient buildings. Actual spade works at the ancient sites on the slopes of the Mainamati-Lalmai hill range could not, however, be undertaken before 1955. From 1955 to 1963 regular seasonal excavations were conduced every year at three sites, viz., Salbanpur mound, Kutila Mura and Charpatra Mura which revealed remains of a large Buddisht monastery at Salbanpura (renamed Salban Vihara), the unique 'Triranta Stupas' (Three Jewels Mound) at Kutila Mura and a partially disturbed rectangular shrine at Charpatra Mura. A large number of antiquities including eleven Copper Plate Grants were recovered from three excavated sites which have enriched our knowledge about the history of south-eastern Bengal from 8th to 13th centuries. Hard endeavors of renowned archaeologists like H.T.Colebrook, T.N.Ramachandran, Nalinikanta Bhattashali, A.H.Dani, Dr. Shamsul Alam, Nazimuddin Ahmed and others helped the nation to have some glimpse of the ancient civilization of this particular region.