Chandraketugarh: A Lost Civilization

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 2,500-year-old archaeological site located near the Bidyadhari river, about 35 kilometres north-east of Kolkata, India. It was once an important hub of international maritime trade and a centre of civilization from the pre-Mauryan to the Pala-Sena period. The site is famous for its exquisite terracotta sculptures, seals, coins and pottery, which reveal the artistic and cultural achievements of the ancient people who lived here.

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. The site was first discovered in the early 1900s by a local doctor named Tarak Nath Ghosh, who noticed a brick structure and some artefacts during road-building work. He wrote to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), but the site was initially dismissed as of little or no interest.

Later, archaeologist Rakhal Das Banerji visited Chandraketugarh and found a vast crop of terracotta artefacts. He published his findings in a Bengali monthly magazine in 1920, which attracted the attention of the Ashutosh Museum of Indian Art, under the University of Calcutta.

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. They conducted a decade-long excavation from 1956 to 1968 and established the chronological and historical significance of Chandraketugarh.

Khana Mihirer Dhibi

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.

Mother and child, Chandraketugarh, 2nd-1st century BCE.

Some historians identify Chandraketugarh as the region of Gangaridai, one of the four places mentioned by Greek geographer Ptolemy in his famous Geographia (ca. 150 CE). This suggests that Chandraketugarh had trade relations with Rome and other ancient civilizations, as evidenced by the coins found here. The terracotta objects found here show a remarkable diversity and sophistication in craftsmanship. They depict various aspects of life, such as religion, mythology, warfare, agriculture, music, dance, animals and birds. Some of the most notable terracotta sculptures include a plaque of Proto-Durga slaying a buffalo demon, a mother goddess with multiple arms holding various weapons, a winged goddess with a lion head, a plaque of a royal couple with attendants, and a plaque of a woman playing a veena.

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.

Fertility goddess, Chandraketugarh, 2nd-1st century BCE. (Ethnological Museum, Berlin)

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.

Goddess with her attendants, Chandraketugarh, Shunga Dynasty, 185-75 BCE. (Met Museum, New York)
Male figure with headgear, Chandraketugarh, 2nd-1st century BCE. (Ethnological Museum, Berlin)

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.

Yakshi Celebratory Procession, Chandraketugarh.

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.

Winged female deity, Chandraketugarh, 2nd-1st century BCE (Ethnological Museum, Berlin)
Source: Chandraketugarh Museum
A terracotta plaque with scene of abduction from the Ramayana, Chandraketugarh, 1st century BCE – 1st century CE.

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.

Chandraketugarh is an enigma in Bengal’s history, as it remains largely unknown and neglected by the public and authorities. Despite its importance, Chandraketugarh has failed to make it to the front pages of historical research.

21 thoughts on “Chandraketugarh: A Lost Civilization

  1. Frankly, before you mentioned the name of the place during our wa discussion, I haven’t heard of it ever though my maternal home was very close to Barasat and I used to visit the place quite regularly every year…
    Hats off to your tenacity to research on the subject and publish such interesting article…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nilanjana Moitra

    Wow, such a huge heritage and I wasn’t aware of. I am sure many Bengalis are not aware of this place or the heritage. Thanks for your research and sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Manojit Dasgupta

    Wonderful research work Indro. A very important piece of article on ancient Bengal. I think the artefacts excavated were polished and coloured, looking absolutely fresh.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A day-tour was arranged to Chandraketugarh from our school. The condition was pathetic back then too. In fact, we were terribly disappointed! However, I’ve learned that the government has arranged some securities now, but illegal activities, as you have mentioned, is still prevailing.

    Thanks for the related piece of history. Informative, as always… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ashis Bannerjee

    Kolkatar eto kachhe kintu naam e toh sunini. Ekdom keu jane na. Ei rastay gechhi o. Ki jata yaar! Khon abd Varahamihir were from Bengal! By god, jenei toh jete ichhe korchhe.

    Liked by 1 person

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