Unearthing a culture

Print edition : February 22, 2013

A Buddha engraving on a wall of the monastery site excavated at Moghalmari. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

The cLubhouse in Moghalmari village that was converted to a museum. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

The huge outerwall of the monastery, with inside path to walk around it. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

Recent excavations at the Moghalmari site in West Bengal’s Pashchim Medinipur district have yielded extensive evidence of an ancient Buddhist culture.

THE Chinese traveller Fa Hien, who visited Bengal during A.D. 411-412, has written that there were 24 monasteries in the Tamralipta region (present-day Tamluk and its adjoining areas in Medinipur district). He stayed there for a while to copy Buddhist texts. More than 200 years later, the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang came to Bengal in A.D. 638 and noted in his travelogue that the Tamralipta region had 10 monasteries and 1,000 monks. But it was only in 2003-04, under the direction of the eminent archaeologist Asok Datta, that the Department of Archaeology, University of Calcutta, got the first piece of evidence of one such Buddhist monastery at Moghalmari village in the Danton police station area in Pashchim Medinipur in an excavation project. Asok Datta passed away on July 31 last year, soon after the latest discoveries were made.

The most recent excavations at the Moghalmari monastery site in 2012 have revealed the most outstanding features of this monastery noticed so far. The discovery of the western wall of the monastery decorated with human figures and floral motifs, votive tablets and decorative bricks, along with 14 life-size stucco figures has established that this monastery is the largest and perhaps the most prosperous Buddhist monastic complex found so far in West Bengal dating back to as early as the sixth century or even late fifth century. Votive tablets are objects of offering made of terracotta, depicting symbols and inscriptions of specific religious affiliations.

“Our latest findings have been so far the most important, and academically it adds a completely new chapter to the history of Bengal. Moghalmari holds the key to understanding the dimensions and facets of the spread of Buddhism in southwest Bengal,” said Rajat Sanyal, a teacher in the Department of Archaeology at Calcutta University, who has been involved directly with the excavation project right from the beginning.

Though archaeologists had occasionally stumbled upon scattered and stray remains of Buddhist artefacts and images in different parts of the region, this kind of consolidated and well-organised religious establishment was never unearthed before. The monastery premises measured 60 metres by 60 metres. There were also stupa bases in another part of the village, the likes of which had never been found before in the whole region. “It is evident from the excavations and the findings in different parts of the village and from the various artefacts gathered from all over the place that the entire village was the site of the monastery,” said Sanyal. Only two other Buddhist monasteries have been excavated in West Bengal—the Raktamrittika monastery at Karnasubarna in Murshidabad district and the Nandadirghi monastery at Jagjivanpur in Malda district.

The monastery at Moghalmari has two main structural phases—the first phase dating to circa sixth to eighth century, and the second to circa ninth to 11th-12th century. While the first phase is marked by the extensive use of lime/stucco and decorative bricks, the second is represented by a tri-ratha (a structure with three projections on plan, characteristic of the north Indian Nagara style of architecture) to the west of the complex, a brick stupa within the complex and a series of monastic cells that were used by the monks. According to Sanyal, there may have been a third structural phase between the eighth and the 11th century. “The nature of overlaps in structural components in the south of the mound (on which the latest excavations took place) possibly suggests a third structural phase, although at the present state of excavations, this remains conjectural,” he said.

From the votive tablets, it has been ascertained that the earliest identifiable phase of the monastery was around the sixth century A.D. At first it was thought that the most prosperous phase of the Moghalmari site coincided with the most prosperous phase of the Raktamrittika monastery, which was around the seventh century, though the structural levels of Raktamrittika date back to the second century A.D. “However, the artistic idiom of the sculptures and the dates of the inscriptions suggest that the most prosperous phase of the Moghalmari monastery was probably around the 6th century or may have begun even a little earlier, the late 5th century,” said Sanyal. The noted art historian Frederick Asher, when shown the excavated items, suggested that they might belong to the same period as the remains at Nalanda, which is sixth century A.D., or maybe, even a little earlier.

Though similar stucco materials were discovered in Buddhist monasteries in past excavation projects, including the one at Karnasubarna led by S.R. Das, it was at Moghalmari that for the first time such life-size figures and a large number of decorative bricks were unearthed. “More than 40 designs of bricks have been discovered, and all of these were used to decorate the monastery. This indicates a very high level of craftsmanship and considerable prosperity,” said Sanyal. The votive tablets and the stucco art also suggest that a large number of artists and artisans had settled in and around the place. Perhaps, along with the development of the monastery, the region also grew as an important centre for artisans.

Influence of Middle Ganga region

The artefacts that have been discovered at the Raktamrittika monastery, including stucco figures, have a more localised appearance, suggesting that they are the work of local craftsmen. In Moghalmari, however, the artefacts reflect the traditions of artisans of the Middle Ganga region. The archaeologist and art historian Anasua Das, who is attached to the Indian Museum in Kolkata and has examined the findings, told Frontline: “The Moghalmari artefacts clearly reflect the artistic trend of the Middle Ganga region, highly influenced by the Gupta art tradition. The themes, the styles, even the facial expressions of the figures, are very reminiscent of the Gupta tradition of the Middle Ganga region.”

There is a possibility that artisans were brought from the Middle Ganga region to work on the monastery. “Such a phenomenon has not been encountered so far in any other monastery site in West Bengal, and this is what sets Moghalmari apart,” said Sanyal.

However, the votive tablets were made with a very local idiom, which was circulated only within the surrounding area and was perhaps associated with a specific Buddhist cult of Avalokiteshwara that was practised in this particular monastery. Interestingly, it was Peter Skilling, an authority on ancient South Asian Buddhist votive tablets, who first suggested that the specimens discovered at Moghalmari were unique in that they were probably made for a “specific ritual that would never be repeated”.

On the trade route to other Buddhist centres

The Moghalmari monastic complex was situated on the trade route connecting Tamralipta, then a very important trading hub and port area, to other Buddhist centres in what is now Odisha on the one hand and the Middle Gangetic valley on the other. Moreover, if the theory that present-day Danton was what was known in ancient times as Dandabhukti is true, then the region where the monastic complex is situated was part of a prosperous and important administrative centre. In fact, during the rule of Sasanka (A.D. 590-625), the region was a major provincial administrative division. Though there have been other excavations and discoveries in the region to highlight the socio-cultural situation prevalent in the 7th and 8th centuries, according to scholars, the findings in Moghalmari are the most extensive so far and throw greater light on the early medieval times there.

But the main reason for the prosperity of the monastery was perhaps the trade route on which it stood. References to this trade route connecting the Tamralipta region with other areas, both by land and by the Subarnarekha river, can be found in books written as early as the second century B.C. According to Durga Basu, who teaches Archaeology at Calcutta University, the monastery would not have flourished if it were not for the patronage of the traders. “Since it was located in the Tamralipta region, we can presume that it was traders rather than the king who were behind the growth of the monastery,” she told Frontline.

The Subarnarekha river, which is believed to have flowed close to the monastery, subsequently changed its course. Interestingly, very near the excavation site, there is a cornfield called Jahajdubi, which literally translates as “shipwreck”. “There is no reason to call a cornfield by that name unless it used to be on the river route,” said Durga Basu. Though the Tamralipta region began to decline in the 7th century, there is evidence to suggest that the monastery continued to thrive until around the 11th to 12th century.

Until around the 8th century, the port of Tamralipta was also one of the most important Buddhist sites. The Mauryan emperor Asoka (reign 274-232 B.C.) himself had travelled to Tamralipta and erected a huge pillar there. Xuanzang claimed to have seen this pillar when he came to the region in the 7th century A.D.

Along with the Buddhist monasteries, he also saw many Hindu temples, pointing to the harmonious coexistence of the two religions at that time. However, Xuanzang, strangely, never mentioned the name of any one of the monasteries in the Tamralipta region. So, even though it has been established that the Moghalmari monastery is to date the largest and one of the most prosperous, its name remains unknown. The main seal, which would have had the name of the monastery, is yet to be found. “It is most unfortunate that Dr Datta passed away before he could find out the name of the monastery,” said Sanyal.

With Datta’s death the responsibility of the project has fallen to his student and protege Rajat Sanyal, who is expected to resume excavations soon. “Hope further excavations at the site will realise the dream of Dr Datta of finding the monastic seal and put the monastery at Moghalmari on the larger archaeological atlas of South Asia,” he said.

Related Articles