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Cover Story

Unfolding the Mysteries ofLost Civilisations

On March 2010, fresh discovery of a Lotus Buddhist temple of the 7th century AD at Kamrabo, Dhupirtek of the Narshingdi district reconfirmed the archaeological importance of the area. After excavation work was started in 2000 by the archaeological team of Jahangirnagar University, headed by Prof Sufi Mostafizur Rahman, discovery of a number of century old brick structures and artifacts were made. This proved the existence of an ancient, powerful nation; a well planned fortified city, where there was trade and commerce. It was however a schoolteacher of the village named Wari in Belabo, Narshingdi, who first realised the historical significance of the treasures hidden underground. The relentless effort of Mohammad Hanif Pathan and his son Habibullah Pathan in collection of these artifacts and persuading experts of the field for further research unravels yet another story.

Tamanna Khan

Remains of various artifacts.

It was like any other day for Mohammad Hanif Pathan, a teacher of Bengali, walking towards his home at Wari, a village in the Narshingdi district of Bangladesh. The year was 1933. He stopped, hearing the sounds of a commotion coming from a group of labourers who were digging the earth in a field nearby. They had found an earthen hoard underground and breaking it open brought out thousands of silver punch marked coins. The educated eyes of Pathan quickly realised the importance of the coins and he collected a few from the labourers. Returning home, he sent the news to “Shaptahik Mohammadi” a newspaper that was published from Kolkata at that time, under the heading “Prachin Mudra Prapti” (Discovery of historical coins).

It was the beginning of the Pathan family's relentless endeavour to unearth the history of ancient Bangladesh and bring it to the public's attention. Although copper plates with inscriptions had been found in the Narshingdi region at another village called Ashrafpur in1885, no further exploration or excavation was carried out immediately. Nevertheless, the inscription in the copper plates was deciphered by experts and identified as that of Raja Devakhadga who had donated land for four Vihara and Viharikas (Buddhist Monasteries) in the region. Similar plates found later in Mynamati Vihara confirmed the time frame of the plates of Ashrafpur, Chakbari as that of seventh century AD The punch marked silver coins received similar treatment. Nalinikanta Bhattashali, the first curator of Bangladesh National Museum, studied the coins found in another village of Narshingdi named Marjal by the bank of Arial Kha River and identified two series of coins. One series belonged to the pre-Mauryan period and the other to the Mauryan era. He recorded his findings in 1942. Yet again, archaeologists of the British and Pakistan period did not venture to explore the Narshingdi region in search of the early history of Bengal.

Punch marked silver coins.

Meanwhile, Hanif Pathan, for whom it had become an obsession of sorts, continued collecting artifacts in Wari and nearby villages: Bateshwar, Sonarutala and Rangertek. During the rainy seasons the topsoil of the land washed away and from time to time colourful beads of various shapes and sizes were found that local people called “Solemani pathor” (stones of King Suleiman). Hanif Pathan felt that these beads and semi-precious stones might have some archaeological value as they were found in such abundance. His intuition was further instigated by the presence of a long stretch of elevated land called “Asom Rajar Gor”, as well as an accompanying moat that extended towards the Arial Kha River, indicating the presence of a fortress. Based on his observations and findings, Pathan wrote an article “Purba-Pakistaner Pragoitihasik Shobbhota” (The early history of East Pakistan) in “Dainik Azad” on January 30, 1955.

In the same year, his son Habibullah Pathan seemed to have caught his father's bug and started collecting artifacts with him. While going to school with his father, he used to notice that his father always kept his eyes open for signs of artifacts. Unfortunately, age had blurred Hanif Pathan's vision by then and the son became his father's eyes. At 15, when he was a student of class eight this neophyte explorer found his first artifact - a large-sized bead. In his own words he describes his first find: “My adolescent mind felt that I have achieved something really special. From then on, I got myself involved.” Mohammad Hanif Pathan had been able to collect some punch marked coins but his son extended his collection to an admirable level. Prof Sufi Mostafizur Rahman, professor of archaeology at Jahangirnagar University and the pioneer of the excavation in the area, says, “Habibullah Pathan is a true successor of his father. If we may measure Hanif Pathan's work then Habibullah Pathan has amplified it by twenty times.” Apart from making the collection of artifacts a fulltime passion, Habibullah kept on writing in different papers and magazines about his discovery trying his best to bring Wari-Bateshwar to the public eye. Habibullah's literary works on the subject exceeded that of his father and in 1989, he succeeded in making a point among the experts of the field by writing a book “Prattotatik Nidorshon: Wari-Bateshwar” (artifacts: Wari-Bateshwar).

Prof Emeritus Dilip Kumar Chakrabarti, of South Asian Archaeology Department at Cambridge

Metal garuda

University, was a visiting professor at Jahangirnagar University in 1989. He then visited Wari-Bateshwar and for the first time the region received an expert opinion about its importance in Chakrabarti's book “Ancient Bangladesh: A Study of Archaeological Sources” which was published in 1992. His student Professor Sufi Mostafizur Rahman of Jahangirnagar University explored the area in 1996 and immediately felt the need for intensive excavation. “In archaeology, there is no alternative to excavation. Although Pathan had done a lot of work, he could not carry out any professional digging; as a result people did not accept his theories. However, excavation brings out evidence in a systematic, methodical way and people will have to accept it then,” says Prof Sufi.

In 2000, excavation work was started after mapping 48 sites in the Madhupur tract of the Narshingdi district. Soon discoveries of artifacts and mud and brick structures were made. artifacts included, semiprecious stones beads, terracotta, punch marked silver coins, broken parts of black-and red earthenware, knobbed ware, rouletted ware and northern black polished ware. Large structures found in the region included a 180-metre long, 6-metre wide and 21-35 cm thick road with a by-lane. Recent excavation also unearthed a brick made structure shaped as an inverted pyramid. Among other interesting discoveries a pit dwelling, an underground complex for habitation was found which consisted of a separate sleeping quarter, hearth and granary. Besides, brick walls were often found in different places including Ashrafpur. The most recent findings include a Lotus Buddhist temple at Kamrabo, Dhupirtek.

To determine the age of the archaeological sites two methods had been used absolute and relative dating. Absolute dating or Carbon-14 dating could not be carried out in our country. As a result, charcoal samples extracted from the dig were sent to Netherlands's Centrum Voor Isotopen Onderzoek, which does archaeological laboratory testing. Carbon-14 is a naturally radioactive carbon isotope with atomic mass 14 and a half-life of 5,730 years, used in determining the age of ancient organic specimens. With improved technology, this method can calculate the age of an object as old as 100,000 years. Centrum Voor Isotopen Onderzoek confirmed the age of the charcoal to be of 450 BC. Therefore the age of the layer at which the charcoal was found could be claimed as about twenty-five hundred years old. The discovery of Black-and-Red Ware, Northern Black Polished Ware, and punch marked silver coins of Janapada and Imperial series at different layers of excavation had been used to fix the relative chronology of the sites. Previous archaeological studies had already established Black- and-Red ware as being characteristic of the Chalcolithic era, referring to 1900 BC - 700 BC. Similarly, Northern Black Polished Ware refers to a time period of 600 BC to 100 BC. The punched marked silver coins could be categorised into two series; the Janapada ones belonging to pre-Mauryan era (600 BC to 400 BC) and the Imperial ones belonging to the Mauryan period (400 BC to 200 BC). The layers of the site at which these artifacts were found can therefore be deduced of the same time period.

Map of the excavation sites in Narshingdi.
Momtazuddin, villager and landowner at Dhupirtek.

Study of the artifacts also helped the archaeological team to draw a hypothesis about the life, culture and history of the ancient civilisation. The huge number of beads with sophisticated designs; chip flakes and raw materials found in the area indicated the possibility of a bead manufacturing industry in the region. Interestingly, the raw materials of the beads and semi-precious stones found in the Wari-Bateshwar region were not local in origin implying trade possibilities with other regions outside present -day Bangladesh. Another discovery indicating trade was that of the rouletted ware (a particular pattern on the vessel), the attributes of the Roman Empire. Based on these findings and the geo-location of the Madhupur tract near the Old Brahmaputra River which joined with Meghna River and ultimately leading to the Bay of Bengal, Prof Dilip Kumar Chakrabarti presented an argument in his book, “The Oxford Companion to Indian Archaeology: The Archaeological foundation of ancient India” published in 2006. He said that Wari- Bateshwar could be Souanagoura, a prosperous town of the east described by Greek scholar Ptolemy, which had trading ties with the Mediterranean. Amulet, knobbed ware and painted ware threw some light on the religious practice of the people of the Wari-Bateshwar civilisation. According to Ian Glover, Emeritus Reader in Southeast Asian Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College, London, knobbed ware, whether made of bronze, stone or pottery, were not used in household chores but served a certain religious purpose. The raised centre and the circles surrounding centre resembled the concentric pattern of the Mandala, a Buddhist sacred art form. The discovery of knobbed ware, the first of its kind in Bangladesh, at the 3rd and 4th century BC layer also carried important implication for the history of Buddhism in Bengal. The recent discovery of the Padma Mandir (Lotus Temple) also implied the practice of Buddhism in the region.

The brick road along with broken parts of walls at various places of Wari not only signify the existence of an urban civilisation but also point towards the existence of a citadel. Wari-Bateshwar region is protected naturally by the rivers in the northern and eastern front. On the western and southern side the 6-km “Asom Rajar Gor” and the accompanying moat around Wari formed double fortification. According to Habibullah Pathan the large number of axes discovered could not belong to individuals, there had to be the existence of a powerful state and he believes Wari to be the capital of the city of the Gangaridae people, described in Greek and Latin literature. Prof Sufi agrees that the attributes of the archaeological discoveries and the geographical location of the place indicate the existence of an important urban civilisation with Wari as its fortified capital; however, the exact name of the civilisation can only be confirmed after further research.

Habibullah Pathan showing a prehistoric tool.
Mohammad Hanif Pathan

The Janapada series of Wari-Bateshwar coins have given even more exciting leads. Prof Sufi Mostafizur Rahman says that the coins indicate that the region was one of the Mahajanapadas mentioned in ancient Buddhist and Jain texts. According to Dilip K Chakrabarti's argument, the Mahajanapada of Wari-Bateshwar was part of the Samatata civilisation, which, so far had been identified with the ancient civilisation of the Comilla- Mynamati region. Prof Sufi explains that although the history of Samatata started from the 7th century AD in Bangladesh, King Samudragupta, who ruled in the 4th century AD, had mentioned the term Samatata in his Allahabad inscription. He could not have done so had there been no such nation. “Still, there is a missing link of approximately 700 years. If the Mahajanapada civilisation started in Wari-Bateshwar in the 6th century BC and flourished till the 1st century BC, what happened within the 1st century BC to 7th century AD is yet to be discovered,” said Sufi. Commenting on the volume of work that needs to be carried out Prof Sufi adds,“We have completed only a infinitesimal fraction of a humungous excavation and research work.”

The excavation of the Lotus Buddhist Temple at Mandirvita, Kamrabo, Dhupirtek.

(from left) Etched beads, Metal toy and Amulet locket,

Prof. Sufi Mostafizur Rahman

Despite reports of randomly found prehistoric tools at various places and although Habibullah Pathan had himself collected some they had not been found through excavation of archaeological sites. Thus pre-historic human inhabitation could not be confirmed yet. Nevertheless there is evidence that, civilisations from different periods starting from 1900 BC to 7th century AD did exist in the Wari-Bateshwar region. Most of the archaeological sites were found in the flood-free elevated land of the Madhupur tract, which ensured preservation of brick structures and artifacts below the earth for so many thousands of years. Once excavated, the sites are open to air and water erosion. For the time being to protect the site, Professor Sufi Mostafizur Rahman and his team have covered the site with polythene and soil. However research needs to be carried out for scientific preservation of the sites.

The effort to unfold the mysteries of the ancient civilisations of Wari-Bateshwar is not confined to mere archaeological initiatives. Starting with a single man's passion to extract the secrets of history, the villagers of the entire region have participated in the excavation and preservation of these precious sites. They not only voluntarily provide their land for excavation but also look after the needs of the excavation team. They also act as custodians of the open sites. As a result, there has not been a single incident of theft of bricks or disfigurement of the structure in the Wari-Bateshwar region. Mamtazuddin, landowner of the Lotus Temple sites at Dhurpirtek, says, “I feel proud to lend my land for the excavation work. Now it has become our country's asset, a part of our heritage”. Commenting on the hospitability of the people of Narshingdi region, Prof Sufi says, “We have successfully implemented the concept of public archaeology in Wari- Bateshwar.” In case of funding too, the initial excavations were financed by individual philanthropists and corporate bodies until the present government granted an annual fund for excavation work. Love for one's culture and heritage has led these people from different walks of life to dig out their common history. That is why when Habibullah Pathan is asked about what he has attained from the fifty-five years of searching he quotes Rabindranath Tagor, “ 'Khepa khuje fere poroshpathor' (The madman searches for the eternal stone). I may not have discovered poroshpathor, but I have found many treasures of our common heritage.”

The museum of Habibullah Pathan. The inverted brick structure discovered at Wari- Bateshwar.


Photos: Zahedul I. Khan & Archaeology Dept. J.U.


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