In the south-eastern extreme of the Sunderbans, where the island meets the sea, stands the village of Buraburir Tat. What separates this tiny, picturesque hamlet comprising farmers and fishermen is an unassuming little house made of brick and mud without even proper flooring. It serves as a museum of the history of the Sunderbans. Registered under the name “Gobardhanpur Sunderban Pratna Sangraha Sala”, the museum has on display ancient artefacts and materials painstakingly collected over 35 years from the surrounding coastal region by Biswajit Sahu. A fisherman, Sahu has made it his life’s purpose to unearth and bring to the fore the historical and cultural heritage of the land he lives in. On display are more than 10,000 items that include pottery, beads, seals, inscriptions, coins, terracotta figures, bone tools, small toys, semi-precious stones, and old animal remains and fossils. Archaeologists who have examined the collection are of the opinion that many of the artefacts belong to the “early historic period” (third century BCE to fourth century CE).
Shack of antiquities
To reach this remote village from Kolkata, one needs to travel nearly four hours by car, one and half hours by ferry, then another hour by motorised van. Yet, it is becoming a most unlikely tourist destination in Bengal. More and more people are being driven by curiosity to undertake the strenuous journey to see this unique shack of antiquities in the middle of nowhere. Earlier, the museum would be visited three or four times a year by a handful of academics and researchers, but now, the guest register that Sahu maintains shows an average of more than 30 visits a year, not just from scholars but also from tourists and people from all walks of life.
Following in the footsteps of the great amateur archaeologist Kalidas Datta (1885-1968)—whose discovery of antiquities in the Sunderbans in the 1920s put paid to the colonial claim that it was the British who first made the Sunderbans habitable—Sahu has been instrumental in throwing greater light on an otherwise neglected chapter in the history of Bengal. While Datta was a rich landowner and had the resources to carry out his archaeological project, Sahu has had to work with practically nothing but his instinct and his indomitable curiosity about the region.
Barely educated, having studied only until class 4, Sahu has no regular means of livelihood and suffers from a chronic lung problem. Yet he ventures out every day, walking great distances and travelling by boat, to search for the antiquities that lie buried in the mud and sand of the estuary. It is not just a collector’s obsession that goads him; his museum is testament to a simple, uneducated man’s search for his identity and his resolve to archive and preserve his heritage. “I have neither training nor education, but my work is helping people doing their PhD,” he told Frontline proudly.
Subha Majumder, Superintending Archaeologist of the Archaeological Survey of India, Kolkata Circle, who visited Sahu’s Museum and explored some of the areas from where the artefacts were collected, believes the venture has the potential to become an important source of academic research. “Although other parts of South Paraganas have been explored, the Sunderbans, mainly because of its topography, has been overlooked. Biswajit Sahu’s museum is wonderful in its diversity and important because it is not possible for the general public to explore the area from where he collects his artefacts; only fishermen and locals will be able to reach these places. Studying his collection can give us an idea of the history of the land. Scientific excavations have not yet taken place in the coastal extreme of the State,” said Majumder. According to him, the diverse nature of Sahu’s collection indicates that “there was some connection between the region and south-west Asia”. He said: “Some of the antiquities do not look like they have their origin in India.”
What started off as a hobby 35 years ago—collecting old artefacts buried in the mud while returning home after a day’s fishing—became an all-consuming passion for Sahu. Many of the things he has uncovered are yet to be carbon-dated or examined by archaeologists. But every new discovery presents a new angle to the history of the region. Studying the photographs of some of the new items in Sahu’s collection, which include seals, inscriptions, and figures, Rajat Sanyal, a professor of archaeology at the University of Calcutta, pointed out two rare pieces: a Surya image and an image of a two-armed Vishnu. “These are interesting and rare finds. They are lesser known evidence of typical art-in-stone of the pre-Pala and post-Gupta period, between the sixth and eighth centuries. This period is a nebulous time frame as far as knowledge of the history of eastern Indian art activities is concerned; and these figures suggest that there were post-Gupta settlements in the region,” Sanyal told Frontline.
Some inscriptions are also interesting. “They are in late Brahmi and Sanskrit scripts and are mostly personal seals of people who were engaged in trading activities. Some may be associated with a local cult, but mostly they are personal seals of traders who conducted business in that area. And we know that this was a fertile trading zone in the early historic period,” said Sanyal.
Animal bones and fossils
Also on display are old animal remains and fossils. “Scientists from the Zoological Survey of India [ZSI] came and studied these, pointing out that there was a time when rhinos and elephants roamed this region. Of the 3,000 animal remains I have gathered, the ZSI documented 100 items,” said Sahu. When contacted, the ZSI was reluctant to comment on the matter. However, a zoologist attached with a government institution told Frontline that it was time scientists explored the Sunderbans coastal region more closely. “The kind of forest tract that existed earlier to support different kinds of animals may not exist anymore. Due to the rise in the sea level, a lot has also gone under water. These remains can tell us more. It is very commendable that he [Sahu] has collected animal remains. As zoologists, we may be interested in these things, but most people are not, and yet he realised their importance even though he has no knowledge of the subject,” said the scientist. She believes an “interdisciplinary exploration” of the region would give an all-round picture of the life and flora and fauna in the past.
A difficult dream
For Sahu, fulfilling his dream of creating a museum and maintaining it has been a hard journey. Ten years ago, he had told this reporter that it was his ardent wish that a museum would be built in the Sunderbanswhere his collection could be put on display. When Sahu realised that it was not likely to happen in the foreseeable future, he took it upon himself to build one. Initially, it was a mud hut adjacent to his house in Gobardhanpur village, which is now being slowly consumed by the sea. Five years ago, he was forced to move further inland to Buraburir Tat with his meagre belongings and his beloved collection. Today, the museum is a part of his house and of his everyday life.
“People come to make money from doing research from my collection, but I get nothing. On top of that, many of the artefacts have also been filched while I was not looking. This place became famous after someone mentioned it on Facebook. Now many people other than academics are coming to see my collection. I am now asking for donations from visitors to help me maintain this,” said Sahu.
Archaeologists believe Sahu does not have the necessary equipment to preserve his collection, and many, including Subha Majumder, have asked him to allow an institution to take care of them. Moreover, it is only a matter of time before the sea encroaches further and threatens his new house too. But Sahu refuses to part with his precious finds. “I don’t want to give it up. I want to build a museum in the Sunderbans and I want people to come to the Sunderbans and do their research [here] rather than sit and do it from Kolkata,” he said.
- Biswajit Sahu is a fisherman who lives in the village of Buraburir Tat, at the south-eastern extreme of the Sunderbans in West Bengal. Collecting old artefacts buried in the mud while returning home after a day’s fishing started out as a hobby for him some 35 years ago but has now become an all-consuming passion.
- His unassuming little house, made of brick and mud without even proper flooring, serves as a museum.
- Registered under the name “Gobardhanpur Sunderban Pratna Sangraha Sala”, it has on display the ancient artefacts and materials that Sahu has painstakingly collected.
- On display are more than 10,000 items that include pottery, beads, seals, inscriptions, coins, terracotta figures, bone tools, small toys, semi-precious stones, and old animal remains and fossils. Archaeologists who have examined the collection are of the opinion that many of the artefacts belong to the “early historic period” (third century BCE to fourth century CE).
- To get to this museum from Kolkata, one needs to make a long journey, but it has become a most unlikely tourist destination in Bengal.
- Subha Majumder, Superintending Archaeologist of the Archaeological Survey of India, Kolkata Circle believes the museum has the potential to become an important source of academic research.
- He said that the diverse nature of the collection indicated that “there was some connection between the region and south-west Asia”.
- Maintaining the museum is not an easy task. He does not have the necessary equipment to preserve his collection, and he gets no money for the work he does. Sadly, some people who come to view his collection have stolen artefacts.