Chandraketugarh (Inde) a city that never existed

What connects Bengal and the Indus Valley Civilisation? A 2,500-year-old archaeological site, suffering from neglect might have the answer.

Aniruddha Ghosal

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Chandraketugarh eye 759Peeking into the past: Khana Mihirer Dhibi in Berachampa. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

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. Now, a century later, a museum is being set up by the West Bengal government to showcase Bengal’s “forgotten history”, its maritime links to ancient Greece and Rome, and the incredible array of terracotta pottery found here.

Chandraketugarh first came to ASI’s notice in 1907 when local resident Tarak Nath Ghosh urged the government to investigate the area. Digging of canals would routinely lead to the discovery of tanks and more canals. An ASI official, AH Longhurst, arrived at the spot in 1907 and reported “the ruins are of little or no interest”. 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. The Indian government would then announce a few mounds at the site to be protected under the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act 1956-1967. 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.

However, since then, the historical site has been lying virtually ignored. Occasional excavations by the ASI were stopped halfway after 2014. In August 2016, TMC MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar raised the issue in the Parliament, and wrote letters to the Centre. She said, “In a place called Chandraketugarh in Berachampa, which is within my constituency of Deganga…The pious Ganges River is supposed to have flown there and that’s why the place is known as Deganga. Maritime trade was carried out with Europe 2,000 years ago. Seals, terracotta, figurines recovered there are getting lost… Mamata Banerjee had formed the Heritage Commission and excavation had started under the Archaeological Survey of India. We were expecting it to become a United Nations heritage site but the excavation has stopped…I draw your notice Madam, and through you the Hon’ble Minister of Culture, so that this place of heritage should find its place of prominence within our country.”

Neither Dastidar nor the government have any answers as to why the excavation was stopped halfway. Dastidar says, “We asked the union government to step in. But there was little response. Now the chief minister has decided to start a museum for the history of Chandraketugarh, which is unique and over 2,500 years old. The heritage here will help people find the missing links between Bengal and the Indus Valley Civilisation.” She added that the space for the museum at the site had been allotted and would open for visitors in two months.

What makes the museum so urgent, officials say, was the extent to which the ASI-protected site has been encroached upon. Ancient relics, including terracotta items dating back to the late Indus valley civilisation, have been stolen from the site in the past, making their way into the collections of private individuals across the world.

MuseumAn artefact from the archaeological collection in Chandraketugarh. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

Theft of these items has persisted in spite of police protection in the area due to the absence of a consolidated research space or general public interest. In the museum, we will get artefacts from Ashutosh Museum, and also seek contributions from private collectors. Those in possession of these artefacts are also welcome to donate them,” says an official.

Maps with the survey of India reveal no village by the name of Chandraketugarh. The name is derived from the mythical Hindu king of the medieval period, Chandraketu, who had a conflict with saint Syed Abbas Alias or Pir Gorachand. A mound at the Berachampa village (Deuliya), off the Barasat-Basirhat Road, is called Chandraketur Garh (fort of Chandraketu), which was later compounded as Chandraketugarh.

Another recent archaeological study being conducted by a team from IIT Kharagpur, believes that King Sandrocottus (mentioned by Greek explorer Megasthenes) was not Chandragupta Maurya, but Chandraketu, whose fort Chandraketugarh is in present-day North 24-Parganas — about 35km from Kolkata. Megasthenes visited India in the third century BC, after Alexandar’s invasion of India, and gives a detailed account of what he saw in Indica. He mentions king Sandrocottus as one of the most powerful kings of Gangahriday, the Gangetic delta that spread over the five mouths of the river and was a continuum of a landmass comprising Anga, Banga and Kalinga.

Officials say that the museum would also be the starting point to research and excavation into the site, previously beleaguered by lack of interest in the historical community and government. Even though there are inscriptions on the varied terracotta artefact, historians say those are difficult to decode. “That Chandraketugarh was a major Indian entrepot of the contemporary Indian Ocean trade has been amply proved by the find of not merely rouletted ware but also antiquities bearing unmistakable Roman influence… My inference is that the potters of Chandraketugarh witnessed Roman statuaries, including wreathed male heads and female busts, being imported and that they copied some of them in terracotta,” said historian DK Chakrabarti in the essay, Relating history to the land, published in the 2006 book Between the Empires: Society in India 300BCE to 400BCE.