New twist from excavations

New twist from excavations

Archaeologists feel findings will throw light on the history of Buddhism

New twist from excavations
In the first week of March, the discovery of a broken golden crown from Moghalmari in West Midnapore district of Bengal piqued the interest of not just archaeologists and historians but also local villagers. The site, which has been undergoing excavation for years, just turned out to be the biggest find in the history of Buddhism in eastern India. Researchers believe Moghalmari could be one of those sites Fa Hien had mentioned in his writings.

The Chinese traveller and chronicler, who visited Bengal in early 5th Century AD, had mentioned in his writings about more than 20 Buddhist monasteries in Tamralipta, the region currently identified as Tamluk in Midnapore. Another prominent Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang, who visited the area nearly two centuries later, however, found only around 10 monasteries. Archaeologists currently studying Moghalmari and related Buddhist sites in Bengal, feel that the latest findings will throw significant light on the history of Buddhism in India.

Archaeologists stumbled upon Moghalmari in 2003 when an innocuous-looking mound led to finding a few bricks and relics that seemed to belong to the Buddhist period. Further excavations over the last decade opened up interesting vistas. Archaeologists believe Moghalmari could be one of these unaccounted for monasteries, which did not find mention in Hiuen Tsang’s account but Fa Hien had written about. Matters took a more interesting turn in 2012 when the dig revealed outstanding features of a forgotten Buddhist monastery.

The discovery of the monastery’s western wall, adorned with human figures and floral motifs, decorative bricks, and terracotta votive tablets, with religious symbols and inscriptions, along with 14 life-size stucco figures, established the monastery’s place in history as the largest and perhaps the most prosperous Buddhist site in Bengal. Technological advances in the dating process have helped archaeologists determine that the monastery was most likely to have been set up as early as late 5th Century.

Archaeologist Asok Datta was the first to piece together the clues in 2004, following initial excavation. Incidentally, local schoolteacher, Narendranath Biswas, informed him in 1996 of ancient artefacts turning up near the mound, which is now identified as excavation site MGM1. Since 2003, Datta started excavations at MGM1 and at two other sites nearby, leading to ground-breaking finds. Since his demise in 2012, the work has been carried forward, with the state archaeological department taking an active interest.

While standard texts from the period could not help archaeologists gather information about the monastery, the dig is not without its share of highs and lows. Despite the earnest interest of archaeologists like Datta and others, the dig has sometimes suffered due to lack of continuous funding and redtape, with archaeologists forced to continue excavations in five phases over the last 13 years. Notwithstanding setbacks, archaeologists have been able to strike a kind of rapport with local residents not often seen around such sites. Ensuring local cooperation and collaboration in keeping the crucial excavation site safe and secure, archaeologists have recruited the help of Moghalmari Tarun Seva Sangha O Pathaghar, a local club that also runs a reading and lending library.

Datta helped set up a museum at the club, which stands on a mound overlooking the dig. Under his guidance, club members became custodians of artefacts that pop up across the village with club functionary Atanu Pradhan turning a blogger, giving regular updates on the excavation site. In his blog, Pradhan explained that if the first season of excavations partially revealed the complex was a Buddhist site, extensive excavations during 2006 further endorsed the belief that excavations have revealed the existence of a pre-Pala monastic establishment.

While the excavation work has come a long way since the crucial first steps Datta had taken, the latest finds have left archaeologists rather awestruck. Of particular interest to them is the partial golden crown, since ornaments of precious metals like gold and silver have rarely been found at a Buddhist site in India. While the portion of the crown, most likely set on a terracotta Buddha statue, has been sent to the state archaeology museum in Kolkata, archaeologists are increasingly finding confidence in the belief that Moghalmari might be among the oldest Buddhist monasteries in India.Besides the large number of statuettes, fragments of terracotta pottery and bronze instruments or utensils, the recent excavation since January led to the discovery of gold coins with the name of Samachar Deva, a king from a pre-Pala period. Archaeologists pointed out that the Pala dynasty ruled the region stretching from what is now Bihar and West Bengal, between 8th century and 12th century. This, they believe helps establish the fact that the Moghalmari monastery was definitely built before this period.

“Some finds point to the fact that the Moghalmari vihara  received royal patronage during pre-Pala times from Samachar Deva, a local satrap who rose to power in south Bengal after the fall of the Guptas in 550 AD,” said Prakash Maity, site’s chief archaeologist. Even though finding gold ornaments and coins initially took archaeologists by surprise, they now believe that since Moghalmari fell on an important trade route, with Tamralipta being a major port, the ornaments was most likely gifted by traders from China and South Asia.

Talking on this note, Associate Professor Durga Basu from Calcutta University’s archaeology department, involved with Moghalmari excavation from the start, said that findings during the latest phase of excavations are particularly significant. “For the first time, we find a large number of stucco decorations and sculptures in the region. Stucco art was earliest seen in the Gandhar region, which around Peshawar and northern Pakistan,” she said. This makes her believe that people from Gandhar region had trade and other ties with the Gangetic plains of Bengal.

The finding of two terracotta seals suggests that the monastery might have been known as Sribandaka vihara. “The latest findings are the most important and they will help course weave a completely new chapter in the history of Bengal. Moghalmari holds the key to understanding how Buddhism spread through southwest Bengal,” Maity said.
“Moghalmari possibly exhibits the largest monastic site so far discovered in Bengal,” Datta wrote in an article on the site and its significance for a local magazine, shortly before his death.

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