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Unearthing Bharatpur Stupa: A treasure trove of historical and cultural artifacts

9 February, 2023 10:22:05
Unearthing Bharatpur Stupa: A treasure trove of historical and cultural artifacts

Bharatpur is a small village in Galsi, on the left bank of the Damodar River, seven kilometres southwest of Panagarh railway station in the East Burdwan district. The area is surrounded by undulating plains and elevated mounds. Recently, the Kolkata Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) started excavating the site and a structural complex of a monastery has now been partially exposed. The site was initially excavated almost 50 years ago between 1972 and 1975 when archaeologists from ASI and Burdwan University found a Buddhist stupa at the plot. After this, the area remained unexcavated for almost 50 years.

The story of how this archaeological site was discovered is very interesting. A local farmer needed clay to repair his cow shed, so he went to a fallow plot and started digging with his spade. Suddenly, his spade struck something solid. The farmer was surprised. He tried digging again, and hey presto! A portion of a structure became visible. The farmer had inadvertently brought to life centuries of history that lay sleeping, undisturbed under the ground. 

This site is unique in terms of Buddhist sites in the state, because of the presence of a large stupa along with a monastery complex and black and red ware pottery from the Chalcolithic or Copper Age. A monastery is a community of men or women (monks or nuns), who have chosen to withdraw from society, forming a new community devoted to religious practice. The word monk comes from the Greek word monos, which means alone. Buddhism, the first Indian religion to require large communal and monastic spaces, inspired three types of architecture -- Stupa, Vihara, and Chaitya. All these three types of architecture are part of Buddhist and Jaina monastic complexes but the largest number belongs to the Buddhist religion.

The architectural feature of a stupa is unique. The central structure consists of a hemispherical dome (anda) on a base over which one can see harmika and chhatra, with a relic chamber deep within. The dome symbolizes, among other things, the dome of heaven enclosing the earth. The circumambulatory path, Pradakshina path, is surmounted by squared railings called Vedika that can be said to represent the word mountain. The older stupas were enlarged during the period between Mauryas and Guptas. The famous among these are- Sanchi, Bharhut, and Amaravati. In other sites across West Bengal, such as Karnasubarna in Murshidabad, Moghalamari in West Midnapore, and Jagjivanpur in Malda, archaeologists have found only smaller votive stupas. When archaeologists excavated the site in the 1970s, they found black and red ware pottery, associated with the Chalcolithic Age which predates any Buddhist structures. Further excavation is likely to shed more light to understand the earliest occupation of the site and its continuity till the establishment of a Buddhist monastery. 

A Buddhist stupa cannot exist in isolation, and the recent excavations have revealed the presence of an extended monastery complex, according to ASI officials. This site is important for two reasons: one because it is an early village settlement on the bank of the RiverDamodar, which could date to around 2000 BCE; and two, the Buddhist monastery complex. In other words, the site is significant because of its secular nature as it reveals an early village settlement, and second, religious, because it is a Buddhist site. This area could have been a nucleus of an early village farming location from where it radiated to other areas along the other bank of the Damodar and other rivers like Ajoy and Darakeshwar. There are early village farming plots at Dihar and Pakhanna on the other bank of the Damodar in the Bankura district. According to ASI officials, this excavation is an attempt to trace the cultural continuity of the site where settlements could have been located for thousands of years.

The excavation was carried out in two phases at four levels. In the first level, weapons made of stones, pots and black-red pottery, red designs on black vessels, different objects made of animal bones, various types of bead ornaments of colourful stones, copper fishing rods, pit machines, blades, and neolithic axe, etc. were discovered. Red painted clay pots, ivory combs, bangles, rings, ring, a clay oven with a 50 cm diameter, and terracotta objects were discovered from the second level. The third level revealed antiquities and pottery from the Gupta Period, clay bricks that were dried in the sun and burned in wood were found from this level. Then out came the Buddhist stupa from the fourth level. This is the first Buddhist stupa discovered in West Bengal. The estimated construction period is between the 7th – 9thcentury. From the use of two types of bricks, it can be inferred that it was later built with the bricks of a prehistoric monument destroyed in the devastating floods of Damodar. Since the upper part of the stupa is divided into five phases respectively, it is called the pancha-akriti architecture. This architecture is similar to the Ratnagiri stupa of Odisha. This stupa is mentioned in an ancient manuscript preserved at Cambridge University as ‘TulakshetraBardhaman Stupa.’

In the 1970s when the site was excavated along with the stupa, five beautiful seated sculptures of the Buddha in Bhumisparsha Mudra -- with all five fingers of the right hand extended to touch the ground -- were found. These miniature sculptures, each about 30 cm in height, were most likely used for worship in the monastery. So far, the ASI officials have excavated some structures which appear to be the outer wall of the monastery, containing nine layers of brick and a small circular structure, probably a stupa. This Buddhist stupa dates back to the 9th century AD. The Buddhist mound is the ruins of a brick-built stupa built. In 1994-95, the Burdwan Gazeteer commented that the style of construction indicated that the stupa at Bharatpur was built during the 7th-9th century. The lower portions of the excavations indicated the presence of a neolithic-chalcolithic habitation which remained deserted till the time of construction of the stupa. 

One fascinating aspect, pointed out by archaeologists, has come to the fore and that is, almost all the Buddhist sites have been found in the Rarh Bengal region, which is the southwestern part of the state. The ongoing excavation at Bharatpur, also in the same region, has the potential to reveal interesting aspects of the expansion of Buddhism in this region.

(Additional text by Shuvra Dey)

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