THE recent discovery of ancient artefacts deep in the heart of the Sunderbans in West Bengal indicates that the region had human habitation as early as the third century BCE, and once again refutes the claim by colonial historians that it was the British who made the Sunderbans habitable. During an exploration carried out by the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Government of West Bengal, in Govardhanpur and its adjacent Uttar Surendraganj, located near the mouth of the Ganga in the interiors of the Sunderbans in South 24 Paraganas district, around 500 antiquities were found, whose dates range from as early as the third century BCE to as late as the 11th century A.D. This is evidence of continuous habitation in the region from the ancient period until the early medieval times.
“The main issue here is rooted in a very major historiographical debate —how old is the habitation history of the Sunderbans? The British rulers would have liked us to believe that people began to settle in the area only after they colonised the region and divided it into lots and plots in the early 19th century. In other words, according to them, human habitation in the Sunderbans does not have much of an antiquity. The latest findings further reinforce the fact that human habitation in the Sunderbans began in the ancient times,” Gautam Sengupta, Director of the State’s archaeology wing, told Frontline .
Moreover, the recent findings are unique in that they not only establish the theory of continued habitation in that region but also reinforce the fact that the area falls in what was a major trading route from ancient times. “We have found semi-precious stone beads in the region. The semi-precious stones, which were not available in this part of the country, must have been imported from western India. Raw materials would also have been brought here for manufacturing activities,” Amal Roy, Deputy Director of the State archaeological wing, told Frontline .
Maritime trade route According to archaeologists and scholars of ancient Indian history, the estuarine areas of Bengal formed a major maritime trading corridor linking northwest India and countries beyond the subcontinent from the first century BCE to around the third century A.D.
According to Rajat Sanyal, Assistant Professor, Department of Archaeology, Calcutta University, a large number of seals discovered in the Chandraketugarh area (now in North 24 Paraganas district) not far from this region gave a clear indication of thriving continuous maritime activities in the larger Indian Ocean trading networks and the role possibly played by the south-western part of the Bengal delta—namely the Sunderbans—in those networks. “According to the historian Bratindranath Mukherjee’s studies, the inscriptions on the seals represented a unique script—which he deciphered as the Kharosti-Brahmi script (Brahmi being the locally used script and Kharosti a unique script written from right to left and primarily belonging to north-western India). The use of two different systems of writing as well as the contents of these inscriptions clearly show continuous commercial and cultural contacts between two widely separated geographical regions, namely, the Bengal delta and the north-west frontier,” Sanyal said.
Eearly challenge to colonial claim The colonial theory of the British that it was they who made the Sunderbans habitable was first challenged in the 1920s by Kalidas Datta (1885–1968), an amateur archaeologist from Joynagar-Majilpur in South 24 Paraganas district. Datta, a prosperous landowner of the region, began to scour the Sunderbans areas collecting artefacts, which dated from the second century BCE to the ninth century A.D. On the strength of the evidence he collected, he was able to claim that the habitation history in the Sunderbans had indeed great antiquity. Datta’s was a single-minded pursuit to establish a Bengali identity under the yoke of colonial rule. It may be borne in mind that the people of Bengal were still smarting under the pain of the first partition of Bengal in 1905 by Lord Curzon, and the educated middle class began increasingly to turn their attention to the larger questions relating to their past. Datta was at the forefront of the rising intellectual movement of tracing the history of the region. His project required enormous hard work, walking and travelling all over the very difficult terrain of the Sunderbans, but it threw new light on the region that refuted the colonial claims.
The recent evidence may further strengthen the pioneering efforts of Datta, but according to Sanyal, what is most significant about the recent findings is that they provide the dating of a chronological span in Bengal’s history of which very little is known from excavated stratified contexts. “In the absence of inscriptions and epigraphic records of the history of the Sunderbans between the 4th century A.D. and the 12th century A.D., we are mostly dependent on archaeological finds. The latest discoveries help to increase our knowledge of that period of our history,” he said.
Fishermen's find It appears that the spirit that prompted Datta to scour the uncertain terrain of the Sunderbans in search of self-identity did not die with him; it resurfaced from the most unlikely of quarters: Biswajit and Bimal Sahu, two fishermen brothers who live in Govardhanpur. For the past 25 years they have been collecting and preserving these artefacts—potsherds, terracotta figurines, and so on—which they find on their fishing trips or during their expeditions to the deep forest around them. It was, in fact, they who brought the Govardhanpur and Uttar Surendraganj finds to the notice of the State archaeology wing, prompting the latter to explore the area.
“On my way home after fishing during a low tide, I would collect these artefacts that lay partly buried in the beach. The receding tide would reveal them,” Biswajit said. For many years, one particular spot in the region —Sashtham Khanda Jangal—threw up such objects. “But they got exhausted around 10 years ago, so I went out by boat in search of these relics in the jungles. There, too, I discovered many shards of pottery and other artefacts,” said Biswajit. As in the case of Datta, it became a quest for identity for Biswajit too. “I wanted to collect more and more evidence to show that the part of the Sunderbans where I live has an ancient past, and I wanted to present this to the whole world,” he said. The brothers have apparently collected thousands of such relics from the past, and now the State government is planning to build a museum in the region where their collection will be showcased.
Archaeological treasure The vast and archaeologically difficult terrain of the Sunderbans is a treasure trove of ancient and early medieval relics. Excavations carried out at Tilpi and Dhosa some years ago on the banks of the Piyali river, about 25 kilometres from Govardhanpur, also revealed a prosperous settlement dating back to the third century BCE. Just a stone’s throw from the new sites of archaeological exploration, in Uttar Surendraganj school, is preserved a collection, including gold coins, from the reign of Sasanka (seventh century A.D.). In another place nearby, called Rakshashkhali, a copper plate dating back to the reign of Dommana Pala (late 12th century A.D.) has been found.
Unlike in Tilpi and Dhosa, no architectural remains have yet been found in Govardhanpur and Uttar Surendraganj. “Only if structural remains come out upon further excavation can more facts be ascertained. We will also have to explore the deep forests from where the Sahu brothers have collected much of the relics,” said Amal Roy.
The region is a fluvially active zone, which makes extensive archaeological projects difficult to carry out, particularly with the sea constantly changing the contours of the edges of the land. “This will cause severe problems for any archaeological inquiry. Nature will make it very difficult to study sequence, and so on. It is also most unlikely that we will find a conveniently located mound in the region, but we are trying to locate a place where there was a site,” said Gautam Sengupta.