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Thursday, February 25, 2021

West Bengal: Archaeology

Found in the mist of time


Recent discovery of a vihara sheds light on Bengal's history
CHANDRASHEKHAR BHATTACHARJEE | Issue Dated: September 16, 2012, New Delhi

In 2003, a team from Calcutta University's Archaeology department led by Dr Ashok Dutta stumbled upon an ancient ruin while looking for a lost stretch of the Subarnarekha river. It was felt that it was a Buddhist vihara. According to the latest reports, dated July 15, 2012, it has been established that the ruins are indeed that of a Buddhist vihara from the 6th Century AD.

The excavation at Mogalmari in the Dantan block of West Medinipur began in 2003. Dr Dutta was told by Narendra Nath Biswas, a professor of Dantan Bhuttar College, that locals would get a number of ancient "dolls" while digging in the area. “Local people showed us hundreds of artefacts and statues of stone, stucco and terracotta that they had collected for generations,” Dr Dutta noted. The team, with due permission from the University, the panchayat samiti and the land-owner Tarun Sangha Club and Pathagar, started excavation.

In May 2007, a major breakthrough came with the discovery of the layout of the complex. Dr Dutta writes, “We have recovered the south-western corner of the structure and since the length of southern and eastern wall measures 60 metres each, we can therefore conclude that the plan of the monastery was a 60 metre by 60 metre square structure with an entrance in the northern part, although currently it is concealed under the huge gateway of the second structural phase of the monastery.” The excavation revealed a central temple complex surrounded by a courtyard with rows of cells. Beyond that lay a massive outer wall with panels in decorative bricks and stucco animal figures, The southern section of which has been unearthed this year.

The find is significant in a number of ways. At about 3600 square metres, 75 per cent of which has so far been unearthed, this is the largest historical structure discovered in West Bengal. “The artistic designs and style are unparalleled in any Buddhist viharas of India outside of Nalanda. The figurative stuccos were discovered in huge numbers, which is a stark difference with other similar excavated sites. A total of 13 stucco figures have been retrieved from the debris,” said Dr Rajat Sanyal, who is now leading it since the demise of Dr Dutta barely 15 days after writing the June 15 report confirming the find.

Furthermore, the find proves the hypothesis of a trade route through the area. Eminent historian Dr Ramakrishna Chattopadhyay says, "Buddhist monasteries came up along trade routes, especially outside settlements where people of lower castes lived. The fact that an ancient trade route existed from Nalanda and Gaya to North Bengal through Orissa is proved by the existence of this monastery." In fact, it was to prove this possibility that the team had been looking for the lost tracks of the river.

Interestingly, Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang, in his travelogue, mentions a Dantapur Vihara, which is yet to be discovered. Archaeologists believe that this was the Dantapur Vihara. Dr Sanyal tells TSI, “We are looking for the seal of the vihara. If that is recovered, we will be sure of its name.”

Sadly, not much help has come from the Union government or the Archaeological Survey of India. “Paucity of finance delayed the discovery by about a decade. The university’s fund and ASI’s matching grant was not much," rues Dr Sanyal.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017