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MAHASTHANGARH: WITNESS TO A LEGACY OF TWO THOUSAND YEARS CULTURAL CONTINUITY

M. Shafiqul Alam and Jean- Francois Salles


Mahasthangarh appears to be the only historical site in Bengal where relics of more than two thousand years have been discovered. It’s original name Pundranagara within the Pundravardhana Bhukti suggests it to have been a apart of the early historical empires– both Hindu and Buddhist. During the Muslim period the site was not forsaken looking for a new place as was their tradition. The physical feature and the strategic importance of the place must have been of higher priority in the selection process. But the fact that the settlement pattern of the Hindu-Buddhist Period did not hinder in anyway their own settlements within the same wall proves that at least in architecture and living way there was a continuity of form and technique which never died out with the passage of time. It was in fact this cultural unity which made the mind of the Bangalees both liberal and secular.

The excavations at Mahasthangarh till today have revealed five periods of occupation. The remnants of these periods are important and show how these finds created a total period of it’s history.

Period I: Early Historic (3rd century BC to 2nd century CE)

No archaeological remains prior to the late fourth century BCE have ever been recovered from the region of Mahasthangarh, which suggests that the initial population selected this area and quickly built up the site, possibly as a trading center given it’s favorable location on the banks of the Karatoya River. The excavations at the Eastern Rampart site since 1993 have provided stratigraphic information about successive phases of the site. The material record of the earliest periods in this excavation indicate that the site was wealthy even at it’s inception, and the residents of relatively mundane structures made use of items such as bronze mirrors and bowls, stone beads, and coins.


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1. Excerpts from Md. Shafiqul Alam and Jean-François Salles (Ed.), France-Bangladesh Joint Venture Excavations at Mahasthangarh, First Interim Report, 1993-1999, pp. 67-73. The title and the two introductory paras are by the Editor.


The simultaneous development of labor-intensive landscape modifications (i.e. rampart and subsequent fortification wall, artificial ponds, and probably, rice paddies and terraces), throughout the area of Mahasthangarh presupposes a large population even in this initial period. It also presupposes a relatively high level of agricultural fertility and sophisticated agricultural practices, because during the dry season labor-hours would have been expended on construction projects as well as agriculture (due to the monsoon, there cannot be a seasonal rotation of labor between different types of outdoor productive activities). There are no archaeological or historical documents that suggest that there was settlement outside of the fortified urban core in the Early Historic period, although 3rd c. BCE remains were reported by N. Ahmed (Mahasthan, 1981) at the site of Govinda Bhita, just a hundred meters North of the rampart.

Period II: Gupta (3-6th centuries CE)

The identifiable archaeological vestiges from this period in the survey material are exceedingly rare, and the suggestion of a settlement pattern around Mahasthangarh is mostly drawn from literary accounts and previous excavations in the area. In part the lack of Gupta-period material among the survey data may be the result of later-period occupations that have obscured any remains from the Gupta period and earlier.

In the region outside of the walls of Mahasthangarh, excavated remains from this phase include later Gupta-era sculptures from the site of Mangalkot. Early-phase Gupta sculptures were reported to have been recovered from areas to the south of Mahasthangarh, at the site of Balai Dhap. Also reported from this region were two Gupta coins from the village of Bamanpara, and a bronze image of the fifth century CE from the adjacent village of Saralpur. Aside from these finds, sites with Gupta- period structures include Govinda Bhita, located immediately outside of the rampart’s northeast comer.

The historical texts of this era indicate that there should be more Gupta-period remains from the region of Mahasthangarh than are currently known. The most famous reference to the post-Gupta period consists in a description by the seventh century Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang. He wrote that in the country of Pun-na-fa-tan-na (Pundravarddhana), ‘there are about twenty sangharamas [monasteries] with some 3000 priests... [and] there are some hundred Deva temples, where sectaries of different schools congregate’. Hiuen Tsang also describes a monastery called Po-Shi-Po twenty li (about 6.5 kilometers) to the west of the capital, where there were about 700 monks who studied the Mahayana. There are two sites that correspond to the general location described by Hiuen Tsang; some place the site at Bihar, and some at Bhasu Bihar.

Both Bihar and Bhasu Bihar have been excavated. The excavations at Bhasu Bihar stopped at levels corresponding to the 10-11th centuries, although there is a potential for earlier remains as the excavations did not reach virgin soil. The excavations at Bihar revealed structures in an area measuring about 0.75 hectares on the eastern side of a mound that still measures 3.5 hectares, and was likely to have been larger than


this prior to the encroachment of fields and houses in the vicinity. The excavations at Bihar, conducted in 1979-83, produced the outline of what appears to be a single large structure measuring 57 × 61 meters with a number of rooms identified as monastic cells. The excavations at Bihar and Bhasu Bihar indicate that the substantial constructions of this era outside the walls of Mahsathangarh appear to be religious sites related to Buddhist practice.

The current excavation of the Eastern Rampart area show that the levels corresponding to the Gupta period are relatively disturbed, and that the site does not appear to have been as wealthy as in the Early Historic period. One could speculate that this may be the result of economic changes in greater Bengal, in which trade activities shifted to the south. The history of Bengal in this time period indicates a greater proportion of Gupta- era activity in the south, near the confluence of the Ganges and the Meghna Rivers.

It might be suggested that, deprived of strong political leaders, people living in the Mahsathangarh region may have turned away from the urban core and concentrated it’s resources on the maintenance of monasteries located outside of the city. The presence of monastic sites shows that the region did retain some level of importance in this era, and remained on the traditional itineraries of pilgrimage for long-distance travelers such as Hiuen Tsang. In the archaeological narration, the proposed settlement pattern for this region shows a principal corridor of activity between the fortified city and the region to the northwest, in which was located an active Buddhist monastic zone represented by the Bihar/Bhasu Bihar sites.

Two hypotheses about the configuration of the hinterland population can be proposed for the Gupta period.

I. The majority of the population was housed within the city walls, and made the daily journey to fields and periodic visits to any religious establishments outside the walls. The city’s leaders (in the form of a local chief or council) would have had direct control of various kinds of habitation, manufacturing and marketing within the city, as well as direct control of surplus labor for the construction of the fortification walls.

II. The city was a symbolic edifice containing mostly administrative and bureaucratic structures, and the majority of the inhabitants lived in small settlements or individual households in the dispersed hinterlands of the city. Households and small villages maintained economic and social relationships with non-urban institutions such as religious establishments, perhaps through corvée labor or payment in kind (i.e. food, bricks). The city leaders would have tapped into this pool of labor and resources for the construction of the first fortification walls of the city on top of the earthen ramparts already established on the east side to protect the population center for the seasonal floods of the Karatory.

Although the Gupta period may have witnessed something of an economic decline, the archaeological record of the Mahasthangarh region shows that for the first time, there was substantial activity outside of the fortification walls that resulted in the creation of structures.


Period III: Pala (8-12th centuries CE)

Within the walls of Mahasthangarh, the current excavations have shown a resurgence of a relatively rich material culture during the Pala period. In the hinterlands of the urban core, there are numerous archaeological remains that correspond, or are likely to correspond, to this period. The distribution of different site types around Mahasthangarh indicate that the area to the northwest of the city continued to be an area with substantial Buddhist activity, while the area to the south contained habitations and semi-autonomous communities.

The zone to the northwest, already identified as a thriving zone of Buddhist activity in the preceding Gupta period, appears to have received additional and substantial architectural investment in the Pala era. The excavations at Bhasu Bihar show that in this period, two substantial monasteries and a shrine were constructed, the latter decorated with terracotta plaques. These monasteries are in the form of a closed rectilinear building with an interior courtyard; on all four sides, the interior of the building is lined with small rooms that have a single opening facing the courtyard. This striking architectural design is paralleled in at least two cases by other preserved sites to the northwest of Mahasthangarh: Lohana and the westernmost of the two mound groups known as Kanjerhari-Dhap.

Interestingly, these mounds are located between Mahasthangarh and Bhasu Bihar, and may represent an attempt by those who sponsored the construction to bring Buddhist activities closer to the city while still maintaining a symbolic distance between the economic life of the urban core and the contemplative life of a purely religious domain. Within the walls of Mahasthangarh, there are reports of religious structures dating to this period as well. Ahmed’s volume on the site indicates that in 1961, a temple of the 8th century CE was excavated near the gateway on the southwest interior corner of the fortifications. A pair of temples, of the 8th century and of the 11th century, were recovered from the site of Bairagi Bhita, also on the interior of the fortifications but located in the northeaster portion of the site.

To the south and southwest of Mahasthangarh, the types of structures found outside the walls of this era are very different from the monasteries found to the northwest. The most distinctive type of architecture is a kind of artificial hill such as that seen at Gokul Medh, about 1.5 kilometers south of the southern rampart of Mahasthangarh. This curious construction was made of a lattice of brick cells solidly filled in with earth, producing a densely-packed mound made of a lattice of brick cells solidly filled in with earth, producing a densely-packed mound measuring nearly 100 meters long by 50 meters wide, with the long axis running east-west. The uppermost cells were cleared out in the excavations of 1934-36; excavations also produced terracotta plaques that are reported to date to the 6-7th century CE although the construction was greatly enlarged in the subsequent Pala period.


The region immediately around Gokul Medh is surrounded by the vestiges of mounds with structural remains and numerous artificial ponds (tanks). Two other very large mounds to the southwest of Mahasthangarh illustrate a similar pattern of a large structure accompanied by habitation mounds and artificial ponds. One is the site of Godai Bari, located 1.5 kilometers west of the southwest corner of the Mahasthangarh fortifications. This site, excavated by the Directorate of Archaeology in 1998, consists of a complex of solidly-packed brick structures and walls; the combined effect of these constructions is a steep-sided mound in which the long axis runs east-west. In the immediate vicinity of Godai Bari there are numerous other mounds that have structural remains, including the very large site of Kanai Dhap to the southwest, now reduced to about 3 hectares in size and covered to a considerable extent by a modern village.

Another site in which this pattern is repeated is the site of Chota Tangra, located 4 kilometers west-southwest of the fortification walls of Mahasthangarh. This very large mound currently measures 80 × 40 meters and seven meters high, and has it’s long axis running east-west. The mound appears to have been the central focus of numerous other constructions in the vicinity, including two large rectilinear artificial ponds and several mounds 0.5 to 1.5 hectares in size. Although unexcavated, there is some indication that it dates to the Pala period, as there is a report that terracotta plaques and stone sculptures of the 8-9th century were found but later thrown into a nearby pond. At Gokul Medh, Godai Bari and Chota Tangra, the archaeological groups of monumental structures, habitation mounds and artificial ponds appear to represent semi-autonomous communities. Monumental hills and other civic architecture such as ponds, serving as the focus of communal social activity outside the walls of Mahasthangarh, may have been the result of a local desire to express autonomy from the central city of Mahasthangarh. The construction of these very labor-intensive structures in outlying areas also suggests the presence of authorities in these smaller population centers who had the resources to sponsor such projects.

Throughout the western portion of greater Bengal, the Pala period was one of growth and prosperity, as indicated by the Pala endowments of religious monasteries (such as Paharpur) and civic improvements (such as the large artificial pond at Dhibar in the Naogaon District of western Bangladesh). At Mahasthangarh, this period of prosperity was manifested in development of a complex urban hinterland with a distinct division into different zones: to the northwest, a religious area with monasteries, and to the south, a zone of semi-autonomous communities such as the one around Gokul Medh.

Period IV: Sena period (12th century CE)

There are few archaeological remains that can be securely dated to the Sena period from this era, although the introduction of Hinduism by the Senas permits the identification of some structural elements that probably date to this period. Hindu votive and structural elements appear at the uppermost levels of Gokul Medh, where a square construction was recovered and identified as a temple. In this structure was


found a small piece of gold leaf with a relief of a recumbent bull, an attribute usually associated in Hinduism with the god Shiva. This temple also has architectural elements that are not seen in earlier levels, such as a pavement on the west side made of bricks laid on edge in a grid pattern.

A similar pattern of bricks is also seen among the uppermost layers of Godai Bari, where the pavement is found on the eastern side of the structure. At Chota Tangra, the uppermost levels have already been razed by the local villagers, so that it will be difficult now to recapture any information about the later construction phases. However, if the monumental constructions at these sites were the focus of community activity in the Pala period, it is not surprising that their function as central laces would have been reutilized by the builders of Hindu temples as they introduced new forms of worship to the population.

Period V: Early Islamic (13-16th centuries CE)

This period is one whose chronological parameters are not yet well-understood at the central site of Mahsathangarh. However, there are a considerable number of archaeological vestiges dating to this period throughout northwestern Bangladesh. The general impression is that in this period there were numerous local chiefs who mad use of the economic revitalization brought along with Islam to construct small-fortified sites and trading centers. At Mahathangarh, this revitalization made use of an urban center that had been in place for centuries. On the south-eastern interior of the site, religious investments had already been made in this specific area throughout the site’s history. During the Islamic period, this area was utilized by the practitioners of Islam for the public display of a new faith. The exact date of the earliest construction is unknown and the mosque that now stands there is dated by an inscription to 1719 CE; earlier structures in the vicinity include a possible tomb dated to the 17th century through paleography, and a pre-Mughal mosque that is located about 300 meters to the north-west at Mankalir Kunda mound.

The distribution of Islamic structures indicates that construction activities and population were concentrated on the southern side of the urban core in the Islamic period. The archaeological vestiges on the exterior of the fortification walls also indicate a concentration of population on this southern side as well. To the immediate south of the fortification wall, there are numerous artificial ponds that are cut through dense deposits of ceramics that appear to be late-period types. And to the far southwest of the urban core there are sites such as Salban Rajar Bari, as well as Jogir Bhavan where there are a number of Hindu temples. In sum, the population of the greater Mahasthangarh region was drawn into a wider region south of the urban core in the Islamic period. The semi-autonomous communities of the Pala period maintained their status as settlements, but the regions to the north of Mahasthangarh with their Buddhist attachments were abandoned.


Summary of excavations

Pending a more thorough investigation of Mahasthangarh’s hinterlands, the observations made in this paper must be regarded as extremely tentative. The excavations at the Eastern Rampart indicate that there were significant changes over time in the prosperity of the site’s inhabitants. As judged by the types of artifacts found in these excavations, there were also shifts in the contacts sustained between Mahasthangarh and other regions in Bengal, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. It is to be expected that these shifts, seen archaeologically in the urban core, would also have had an impact on the relationship between the city and it’s immediate hinterland.

It is certain that the hinterlands of the site show patterns of different types of sites. Starting in the Gupta period and continuing into the Pala period, there appears to have been a distinction maintained between different parts of the urban hinterland: specialized religious sites such as Buddhist monasteries were found to the north-west of the urban core, and satellite settlements with monumental architecture were found to the south. When new ideologies and political rulers gained favor in the region, the population centers at the southern edge of the site were the location of Hindu shrines and, soon afterwards, Islamic monuments.



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