A few days ago, we were discussing about the history of Bengal in one of my WhatsApp groups. During the discussions, I told them of a place called Chandraketugarh in West Bengal. This place is very near to our ancestral home in Basirhat in the district of North 24 Paraganas. It’s around 20 km towards Barasat. Chandraketugarh is an urban centre of the ancient state of Gangaridai belonging to the trans-Bengal region at the interface of West Bengal and Bangladesh. Not many must have heard of the Chandraketugarh super gorgeous archaeological site in West Bengal.
Chandraketugarh remains one of the most important early historic urban coastal sites of eastern India. Though seemingly insignificant, it is far from being such in the works of geographer Ptolemy and the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, two of the most important early non-Indic sources frequently used in historical research, who identify it as the ancient capital of Vanga and possibly of the kingdom of Gangaridae.
The present Bengal was previously known as Gangaridai – indicated by the Greek traveler Megasthenes (350-290 BCE) in his work ‘Indica’. The capital of Gangaridai was Kotalipara (present day Gopalganj district of Bangladesh). The name ‘Sandrokrottos’ in Indica bears an unexplained similarity with the name ‘Chandraketu’ –a fact yet to be explored. According to Ptolemy (circa 90-168 CE) Gangaridai includes the entire region around the five mouths of the Ganges. ‘The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea’ mentioned about ‘Gangae’, but Megasthenese in ‘Indica’ mentioned the same region as ‘Gangahridi’ present in the eastern part of India.
Chandraketugarh is a city that never existed. The name, like so much else about this site and its 2,500-year-old history, is borrowed from local myths in the absence of actual research. Discovered by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1907, it was relegated to be of “no interest” for years. It wasn’t until historian Rakhaldas Banerji — the man who discovered the ruins of Mohenjodaro and Harappa — arrived in 1909 and published his impressions in the Bengal monthly, Basumati, in 1920. Extensive excavation work was then carried out at Khana Miherer Dhibi, a five-metre high mound at the northeast corner of Berachampa — leading to the discovery of a massive post-Gupta temple complex.
Khana was a learned woman, believed to be the daughter-in-law of the astrologer-mathematician Varahamihira. The legend of Khana still resonates in Bengal. Her knowledge and the accuracy of her predictions threatened even the authority of Varahamihira, who eventually conspired to cut her tongue off and silence her. The expression ‘Khanar Vachan’ (the words of Khana) is still popular in Bangla for an occurrence that is inevitable.
The history of Chandraketugarh dates back to almost the 3rd century BCE, during the pre-Mauryan era. Artefacts suggest that the site was continuously inhabited and flourished through the Shunga-Kushana period, onwards through the Gupta period and finally into the Pala-Sena period. Archaeological studies suggest that Chandraketugarh was an important town and a port city. It had a high encircling wall complete with a rampart and moat. The residents were involved in various crafts and mercantile activities. Although the religious inclinations of the people are unclear, hints of the beginning of some future cults can be seen in the artefacts.
The other aspect that stands out with regards to Chandraketugarh is the large number of terracotta objects/artefacts unearthed from the site. Ranging from seals, pottery, rattles, toys, figurines to plaques, the plethora of terracotta art sketches a vibrant picture of early urbanism and cosmopolitanism and also gives us a glimpse into the lives of the people. Of early historic sites from eastern India, Chandraketugarh has yielded the largest number of terracotta artefacts.
The female figures are elaborately covered in delicate earrings, pendants, hairpins, headdress and other accessories, making one believe that the place had amazing craftsmen and artisans.
IIT, Kharagpur had made an extensive study on Chandraketugarh. The place was connected with the Bay of Bengal mainly through two rivers: Bidyadhari and Padma, flowing into Bangladesh. It is believed that the city had trade contacts with international frontiers or lands like countries in the Southeast Asia and also in the Mediterranean and perhaps, indirectly with even the later Greco-Roman world in its formative and early days. There are traces and findings that point out to an older tradition beyond 400 BCE, making and presenting something more powerful in the lineage of eastern Indian history and something comparable to the ancient Indus Valley findings in the west of India.
Bengal is famous for several unique arts and crafts, all of which lend a distinctive identity to its culture. The terracotta craft is one such exclusive craft that Bengal has perfected and applied through its incredible sculptures and murals. The earliest history of terracotta sculptures start from the Mauryan Age (324-187 BCE), though there are some evidences of pre-Mauryan sculptures also are as found in West Bengal.
The major drainage of this area is constituted by the Bidyadhari River flowing by the side of Haroa, little south of the concerned area. This area was most probably linked with the Bidyadhari River in some way and the Ganga in some way was connected to the Bidyadhari River. These rivers are lost today. Due to change in the course of the river, Chandraketugarh became a dead place.
The irony that haunts Chandraketugarh is that it makes more headlines in newspaper reports than in history books, due to the tremendous extent of illegal activities in relation to procuring artefacts and selling them to famous auction houses. Many museums all over the world display objects from Chandraketugarh. In 2017, the West Bengal state government has established a museum at Chandraketugarh to save and protect the ancient artefacts from being stolen and smuggled.
Despite its importance, Chandraketugarh has failed to make it to the front pages of historical research.