Digging for the Past
Dr Shahnaj Husne Jahan
If you drive past Panchagarh and head north towards Tentulia, you could turn right at a place called Board Office, drive five kilometres further eastward, and arrive at a place called Bhitargarh. Here lies the largest fortified settlement in Bangladesh, extending over an area of about 24 square km. Bhitargarh, literally the 'inner fort,' was actually the heart of the settlement, where lie mounds named Maharajar Bhita, Maharajar Kacharigarh, and an extensive water-body known as Maharajar Dighi. Sitting on the site today is a tiny marketplace, around which cluster a few sleepy little hamlets, all on the eastern bank of the Talma River, in Amarkhana Union under Panchagarh Sadar police station. Interestingly, the site is actually transnational because portions of its outer ramparts in the northwest, north and the east lie in India.
In September 2008, I was on an archaeological survey mission in Panchagarh, the northernmost district of Bangladesh. There was a brief break from my hectic schedule at the University of Liberal Arts (ULAB) in Dhaka, where I teach Archaeology, Bangladesh Studies and World Civilizations. The mission was rough because I traveled alone, and had to depend entirely on rickety local buses and three-wheeler cycle-vans from my 'base camp' at a hotel in Panchagarh. Because I was born in Tentulia and brought up in Dinajpur where my parents and brothers still live, I consider Panchagarh a part of myself. Hence, when people wondered where this woman in jeans and shirt had arrived from, I would reply comfortably, from your stock, not a distant land!!
In one of the trips, half starved and exhausted by my journey, I arrived at Bhitargarh on a 'van' and was horrified to see ongoing pilferage by local residents. At one archaeological mound, which appeared to be a rampart, a woman was taking off bricks for her household use; another mound, which is locally known as Maharajar Kachari-ghar, was already taken over by a family to serve as its graveyard; a betel nut garden and a few homesteads were standing on top of another area known as Maharajar Bhita; workers were digging away at the western part of the rampart to fill tractor-driven trolleys, which were then setting off to raise the foundation for a poultry farm.
When I saw the on-going pilferage, as a student of archeology I refused to remain a silent by-stander. Clearly, there was enough evidence for my trained eyes to see that the site promised immense potentiality in terms of history and heritage of Bangladesh. As a conscientious citizen of Bangladesh and a dutiful archaeologist, I knew it was time to act immediately, if the site was to be saved. I didn't allow myself time for a second thought and immediately took up the responsibility of mobilising the local inhabitants and the administration to prevent destruction of the site. Since then, I have devoted all my free time as well as a substantial part of my teaching time for a systematic archaeological exploration and excavation at Bhitargarh. ULAB came up with wholehearted support by allocating funds for excavation and making it possible for the students to participate in it by offering a course on archaeology titled “Experiencing the Past”.
A total of 47 students of the ULAB, including 10 females, have already excavated at the site for three seasons since January 2009, under my direct supervision as the Director of the excavation team. The course titled “Experiencing the Past,” which aims to impart a tactile experience of behaviour and culture of the past, offers an opportunity to the students to learn various field survey methods, excavation techniques and documentation procedures, and also to develop a perception on cultural heritage management and tourism in Bangladesh. In addition, the students also contribute to collection of physiographical, geological, and environmental data of the region that the past societies have left behind.
Various strategies have been employed at Bhitargarh for creating consciousness in the local inhabitants regarding cultural resources, heritage preservation and conservation. Signboards displaying heritage awareness slogans were also put up at various strategic points of the villages including the structural remains to enhance public education. A number of local inhabitants, especially the landowners of the excavation sites, were trained in archaeological excavation techniques, so as to make it possible for them to be a part of the excavation team and thus stake a rightful claim to their own heritage. A number of seminar and discussion forums have been organised at the site, in which I offered my findings, shared my vision and engaged in a dialogue with the local academicians, journalists and villagers in order to stimulate public interest in heritage preservation as well as explore public memory, localised heritage, and commemorations of the past.
The systematic archaeological investigation that I have conducted from September 2008 to April 2010 has revealed that the site of Bhitargarh is enclosed within four concentric quadrangles created with ramparts. Structural remains of the ramparts, constructed with earth as well as brick, still stand in the site. All quadrangles are surrounded by moats except the innermost enclosure. Recently, foundations of a Buddhist stupa and a crucified temple roughly dated to the 6th or 7th century CE have been discovered inside the innermost enclosure. It is the most important archaeological discovery in the region, which is expected to shed significant light on the past cultural landscape of Panchagarh district in particular and Bangladesh in general. Pottery assemblages unearthed from the site are also interesting.
Students are excavating the stupa.
The annals of history of Bengal shed very little light on Bhitargarh. What is known is that in the 16th century, the settlement may have been a part of Kamta-Koch kingdom, a 'tribal' state that emerged when a Koch chieftain named Vishvasingha drove out the Muslim rulers. The latter had been ruling this territory as a part of the sultanate of Bengal after Husain Shah conquered the medieval kingdom of Kamrupa in 1498. In the first half of the 10th century, Bhitargarh may have witnessed the arrival of the Kambojas, a Tibeto-Burman branch of the Tibeto-Chinese race from across the Himalayas. Still further back, prior to the 4th century, the history of Bhitargarh must be sought in the history of Pragjyotishpur, which lay on the east of Karotoya.
In the light of this historical framework and archaeological explorations and excavations that I have conducted, it may be tentatively suggested that sometime between the 6th and the 10th centuries, Bhitargarh was an independent city-state governed by a sovereign administrative system, quite similar to that of the medieval city-states of the Kathmandu valley. If this is ascertained by further study, the site may be the first of its kind in the known history of Bengal. The importance of Bhitargarh lay primarily in trade because of its strategic location on the ancient over-land and riverine routes connecting Tibet, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, Assam, Koch Bihar and the regions of the middle and lower Ganga valleys. River Talma, a tributary of the river Karotoya and the river Teesta played an important role in the drainage network as well as the trade of the ancient city-state. Further details on the city-state must await archaeological excavations that are currently being conducted at the site.
Dr Shahnaj Husne Jahan is an Archaeologist and an Associate Professor at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010