Mandapa of the Visnu temple from early Pala period.
The news of two successfully conducted excavations by the archaeologists comprising of both students and teachers of the Department of Archaeology, Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka created quite a lot of excitement among the public. The major findings of the excavations include the first Hindu temple from the early Pala period in Bengal at Chandipur village in Birampur upazila, Dinajpur and remains and relics of three Buddhist monasteries of 10th-11th centuries A.D. at Nawabganj in Dinajpur.
The Star recently took an on-line interview of Swadhin Sen, Assistant Professor, Archaeology Department of Jahangirnagar University and director of the excavation work.
The Star: As a young archaeologist, why have you committed yourself to excavating at this particular region of Dinajpur? What have been your major findings in the recent excavations?
Swadhin Sen: I am a member of a group called Ecological Archaeology Group in the Department of Archaeology, JU. I am carrying out excavations in this region as the director of the excavation team from 2006 as part of my Ph.D. research under a codirected programme between my University and University of Lyon 2 in France. Prof. Syed Mohammad Kamrul Ahsan is the leader of the group.
In fact, the northwestern part of Bangladesh contains a huge proportion of archaeological records. The pioneering work of A. K. M. Zakaria in this region has been our inspiration. In spite of the reference of hundreds of archaeological records which were in this area in late 60s, very few of them exist these days owing to severe destruction. Besides, this area of Dinajpur-Joypurhat lies in the hinterland between two very important ancient cities - Mahasthangarh and Bangarh. In our archaeological tradition less emphasis has been given to the peripheral hinterland zones. We decided to transgress this boundary of the tradition of archaeological practice dominant in Bangladesh. This is the main reason for the selection of this region.
To fulfill our objectives, we started and completed a very systematic survey following recent methods in six thanas of Dinajpur district, three thanas of Joypurhat district. We have already conducted excavations in seven separate locations. However, the news of excavation at only two archaeological sites namely Chandipur village (a Hindu temple of Pala dynasty period), Birmapur and three Buddhist monastries at Domile in Nawabganj upazilla of Dinajpur so far have been published in newspapers. Hopefully, some more important discoveries would gradually be published after scholarly scrutiny. Let me focus on the findings at the two particular sites you have mentioned.
We have found a Hindu temple belonging tentatively to 8th century AD (Early Pala Period) comprising two brick-built cells side-by-side. The room on the east have four pillars and it served as the garvagriha (core interior of the temple). The cell of the west with a brick built platform inside acted as the mandapa in tune with the layout style of a Hindu temple. We think on the basis of terracotta plaques found from recent excavation that this temple was devoted to Visnu.
Our excavation at Domile of Nawabganj thana indicates that the architectural remains of three Buddhist monasteries found here belong to 10th-11th century AD. This is the first time in Bangladesh that three monasteries within the proximity of 500m have been excavated in the northwestern part of the country.
Students troweling on a floor.
What do you personally believe to be the salient characteristics of the excavation work?
We are trying to develop a chronological frame of the surveyed and excavated archaeological sites on the basis of stratigraphy, geomorphology and material culture. Additionally, we are closely focusing on geoarchaeological works on alluvial plains for interpreting past landscape, river system and ecology in relation to human settlements in the zone. We have already found and interpreted reliable evidence on the nature and temporal changes of the palaeo landscape, river, flood and human settlements in this zone. Public archaeological research (perception of past and its remains in public domain, the problems related to protecting heritage etc) is another essential component of our works. In addition, we have developed a digital catalogue of Dinajpur museum and it has been uploaded on the web.
Would you please tell us something about assemblages of pottery at three Buddhist monasteries in Nawabganj which helped you to get insight into the time period of the foundation and ultimate destruction of these monasteries?
To satisfy your curiosity, we are trying to construct a pottery index of the northwestern part of Bangladesh for the post-6th century period by comparing stratigraphically referenced pottery from Mahasthan and some of the sites in same hinterland and the West Bengal excavated by our colleagues from Visva Bharati University. Pottery is the most abundant archaeological material in Bangladesh; yet it is the most neglected because it does not have the representative value as do sculptures, plaques, inscriptions, etc.
How are the senior archaeologists and experts evaluating the excavation work and findings by you and your students?
Honestly speaking, a number of experts from India, France, England and Bangladesh from various fields including archaeology, geology and geomorphology are already collaborating with our team. Prof. S. N. Rajaguru, the most eminent geo archaeologist in South Asia has been one of the key figures of our work. Dr Arun Nag, reader of ancient Indian culture, history and archaeology of Visva Bharati University, Barbara Faticoni, an Italian archaeologist, Dr. Dominique Allios, an expert on pottery, Dr. Sheena Panja, reader from Visva Bharati University among others are few of the experts closely associated with our work since the last 10 years.
What particular problems do archaeologists face while conducting excavation in Bangladesh? Do we have sufficient archaeological legislation to preserve our heritage sites?
I must admit that we do face problems due to lack of funding. Perhaps, it is the most critical problem right now for us. Yes, we need money to rethink and rewrite history, we don't need a lot; yet, no one is ready to give that in a straightforward and honest way. At the same time, we are working with the Antiquity Act 1968 (amended in 1976). This act has become obsolete considering developments on extremely heterogeneous terrain of recent archaeology. It needs to be changed immediately by taking into account the various legislations and acts pertaining to property, land and criminal actions. Most of the archaeological sites in northwestern part of Bangladesh are being ransacked and robbed by the illegal and legal occupants of vested, debottara (land dedicated to a Hindu deity) and government khas land. They are being registered illegally or leased legally by the local administration to private ownership. We need to reform and change the Antiquity Act and build a National Heritage Policy.
As a man you are free to move anywhere in Bangladesh and start your excavation work. But, is the environment woman-friendly enough for female archaeologists to take up this field with challenge so that they can also contribute in the same way as their male counterparts?
I find this question very illuminating indeed. Many of our students are women. Archaeological work is a collective effort and I found my female coworkers much more sincere, committed and passionate in their work in the field. Nevertheless, they don't really have a woman-friendly environment in the field in a straightforward way. First and foremost, we need professionalism in the archaeological practice and provide good careers in this field which is completely absent at present in Bangladesh.
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