Not quite Charnock's Kolkata

Print edition : February 14, 2003

Recent archaeological data indicate that where Kolkata now stands, an advanced civilisation existed long before the supposed founding of the great city.

in Kolkata

Excavation work by the Archaeological Survey of India in progress at Dumdum, Kolkata.-COURTESY: ASI

JOB CHARNOCK is credited with having founded Calcutta, now Kolkata, in 1690. But excavations conducted recently by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at Dumdum, near the location of the Kolkata airport, indicate that an advanced urban civilisation flourished in the region long before the chief of the East India Company got there.

According to informed ASI sources, seals, semi-precious stones and terracotta and stone figurines unearthed from the site belong to the Sunga-Kusana period. "It is fascinating that where Kolkata now stands such an ancient civilisation existed,'' Bimal Bandhopadhyay, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Kolkata, told Frontline.

The excavations took place in three phases - between June and July 2001, from December 2001 to May 2002, and finally from November 2002. Acting on a proposal in 2001 for the protection and preservation of the house in which Robert Clive lived, the ASI surveyed the surrounding areas. "The Clive house is situated on a mound. It was perhaps a Dutch or Portuguese habitation before Clive occupied it and had it renovated into a double-storeyed structure,'' Bandhopadhyay said. (Robert Clive, 1725-1774, who came to India as a clerk for the British East India Company, laid the foundation of British rule in India as the victor of the Battle of Plassey.)

A figure of a single-horned rhino, belonging to the Kusana period.-COURTESY: ASI

During the survey, the ASI team found shards of ancient pottery and brick. Shortly after the surface finds were made, excavations recommenced in June 2001. "The initial excavations, which were done on a 10x10 metres single trench in a horizontal method yielded fascinating results. We discovered terracotta figurines, semi-precious stones, coins belonging to the eighth century A.D. and even earlier,'' Bandhopadhyay said. Subsequently, a floor made of lime and brick jelly, covering the length of almost an entire trench, a hearth, and around it a lot of tortoise shells and fish scales, were found. "This has led us to believe that the people of the region were probably non-vegetarians in their diet.'' Also, judging from the materials found, including art objects, punch-marked coins, and seals, he said, it was obviously a very advanced, prosperous civilisation, and the people were skilled craftsmen. "This may very well have been a busy trading centre.'' One of the most interesting finds was a seal on which, in Nagari script, was written `Samapasasya'. This language was prevalent in eastern India in the 8th century A.D. The inscription, as deciphered by the scholar and historian B.N. Mukherjee, means `belonging to Samapasa'. A Mithuno terracotta plaque was also found.

Encouraged by these discoveries, the ASI embarked on an excavation project on a larger scale from December 2001. "We found Sunga terracottas, pot shards, beads, crystals, punch-marked and cast copper coins, and semi-precious stones like agate, jasper and lapis lazuli. The pot shards, including greyware, blackware, redware, all in fine fabric, stylistically date back to around the second century B.C. "These items once again indicate that this region was probably a prosperous business centre,'' Bandhopadhyay said.

Among the finds was a terracotta plaque with the image of a one-horned rhino on it. Although rhinoceros are not present in the Sunderbans now, it is known that they, especially the one-horned variety, were found in large numbers there." Stylistically, the rhino carving dates back to the Kusana period, around the first century A.D.,'' Bandhopadhyay observed. Although the Kusanas never ruled Bengal, their influence in the region, especially in the field of art, is obvious.

A figure of a Yakshini.-COURTESY: ASI

Pottery and carvings belonging to the Gupta period, from the fourth to the seventh century A.D., and to the post-Gupta period were also found. The most common motifs of terracotta art are those of mother and child, and figurines of semi-divine yakshinis. Another interesting find is a solitary miniature stone carving of Mahishasuramardini, dating back to around the 10th century A.D. "We believe that this site was occupied in two continuous phases, the first from the second century B.C. to the 12th century A.D., and after a gap of around 250 years, from the 15th century to the present times,'' Bandhopadhyay said. Apart from artefacts, three human skeletons were found at the lowest level of excavation. These have been sent to the Anthropological Survey of India. If the skeletons, as conjectured, belong to the first and second century B.C., they could throw light on the burial rites of the people of the region.

THE recent finds should be seen in the light of other such discoveries made in and around Kolkata. In 1956-57, Calcutta University undertook an excavation project in Chandraketugarh, near Barasat, situated 25 km from present-day North Kolkata. The materials found there dated back to an even earlier time, and were remarkably similar to the recent discoveries. "Chandraketugarh was a very important urban centre in ancient times, and it is possible that the site around Clive House was an extension of a flourishing trade centre,'' Bandhopadhyay feels. In 1997-98, a large number of artefacts, ranging from the post-Gupta period to the late medieval age, were found on the Bethune College campus in North Kolkata when work began for the construction of an auditorium.

Historical evidence shows that southwest Bengal was a populated region from very ancient times. In his book Geographia, Claudius Ptolemy mentions a river port called Gange in the region. Although Ptolemy never came to India, he was aware of the existence of settlements in this region. However, an anonymous Greek sailor, mentions in his book Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (first century A.D.), a port at the mouth of the Ganga from which Roman ships sailed out with exotic goods. According to the historian Paresh Chandra Dasgupta, Gange could be identified with Chandraketugarh, which was probably a river port. A large number of ship seals have also been found in the region, which substantiates this inference.

Bimal Bandhopadhyay, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Kolkata Circle.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Dilip Kumar Chakraborti, who teaches archaeology in Cambridge University, in his book Archaeology of Eastern India says that the port might have been in the Medinipur coast. However, he says, "There was an arterial route in West Bengal which linked the entire area from the Barind tract in the north or modern Malda and West Dinajpur to the Rupnarayan Delta, the coastal Midnapore in the south... We feel that the major early historic towns and cities of West Bengal were linked in various ways with these arterial lines of communication.''

Deltaic Bengal has been important in history and finds frequent mention in ancient literature, including in the Mahabharata and the Buddhist text, Samyukta Nikaya. Reference to the port can also be found in Kalidasa's Raghuvansam, in the )11th century court poet, Laxman Sen Dhoyi's Pavanadutam, and Dandin's Dasakumar Charitam. In all these texts there is reference to Sumbhadesa - a prosperous and well-populated country. Dhoyi gives a vivid account of the palaces, markets and people of Sumbhadesa. Sumbhadesa has later been identified with Tribeni, Saptagram and Pandua in Hooghly district. The whole of Bengal was a part of the Gupta empire and the code of Gupta coins was found in Kalighata, South Kolkata in 1783 during the time of Governor-General Warren Hastings, proving that the area was inhabited. The coins are now in London's British Museum.

Figurines belonging to the seventh and eighth century, excavated from the Bethune College campus, Kolkata.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

In the Medieval period, from the 12th to the 14th century, southwest Bengal was a part of the Bengal Sultanate, ruled by the Illyas Sahi dynasty and later by Hussain Sahi. According to historians, after Gange, Tamluk and Saptagram were the important ports. The Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta, mentions in his accounts a chain of villages along the Hooghly. In Abul Faizal's Ain-i-Akbari (16th century), Saptagram is mentioned as one of the 19 Sirkars of the Bengal Subah. Kolkata has been mentioned as Kalkatte, a pargana of Saptagram.

Pottery and other artefacts of the seventh and eighth centuries, excavated from the Bethune College premises.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

By the end of the 16th century, Saptagram was declining as a port. This prompted a large number of traders to leave the place and go to Govindapur. According to East India Company records, these cotton merchants were prosperous. They decided to shift to Govindapur probably because they wished to remain on the main line of the river and benefit from the Portuguese trade there. Adjacent to Govindapur were Sutanuti and Kolkata.

Said Uttara Chakraborti, Professor of History, Bethune College:, "Nineteenth century English historians, including C.R. Wilson, H.E. Cotton and Walter Hamilton, felt that Calcutta could not have grown overnight.'' According to C.R. Wilson, "the capital of British India, did not, as some seem to think, spring up as Jonah's Gourd in a single night. Calcutta, or at any rate, that position of the Hooghly where Calcutta now stands, has a history, and the city is the growth of many centuries.'' He said that Charnock chose the site of modern-day Kolkata not upon a whim, but after careful consideration. For not only was it strategically safe, but it was also an excellent commercial centre.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor