It is one of the most talked-about sites in history circles – not only because of its antiquity but also because it is shrouded in mystery. Around 50 km north-east of Kolkata, near the tiny village of Berachampa in West Bengal, lies the 2,300-year-old site of Chandraketugarh, filled with the most amazing terracotta sculptures. Once an important coastal hub in international trade, it is now no more than a barren mound fallen to neglect.
It was during routine road-building work in the early 1900s that a brick structure was discovered adjacent to the almost dried-up Vidyadhari river.
This was noticed by a local doctor named Tarak Nath Ghosh. On closer inspection, Ghosh also found some plaques and pottery. This prompted him to write to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and, as a result, the then chief of its Eastern Circle, A H Longhurst visited the site in 1907.
But, on further study, Longhurst reported that ‘the ruins were of little or no interest’, ending the quest for what could have been a major discovery. Two years later, archaeologist Rakhaldas Banerji – the man who discovered the ruins of Mohenjodaro – visited Chandraketugarh and found a vast crop of terracotta artefacts. He collected a few and published his thoughts in the Bengal monthly Basumati in 1920.
His article had the desired effect and members of the Ashutosh Museum of Indian Art, under the University of Calcutta, took matters into their own hands. Starting in 1956, they conducted a decade-long excavation and found that Chandraketugarh had been a centre of civilization right from the 4th century BCE! The site had been continuously occupied from pre-Mauryan times to the Sunga-Kushana period, followed by the Gupta and the Pala-Sena dynasties in 12th century CE.
Several historians identify Chandraketugarh as the town of Gangaridai, one of the four towns mentioned by Greek geographer Ptolemy in his famous Geographia (c. 150 CE). This suggests that the site had, if not direct, at least indirect relations with Rome and other ancient civilizations, and was part of a much wider network of trade in metal. The abundant coins unearthed here point to this.
But what really stands out is the huge yield of terracotta objects discovered on-site, ranging from seals, pottery, toys, figurines and plaques. This can be explained by the alluvial soil present in the lower Bengal belt coupled with the absence of major mountains that could have been a source of stone. The hundreds of objects found here show unusual precision and elegance in craftsmanship.
Clay was a popular medium used by common folk to express themselves, and this, in turn, helps us learn about the life and times of the people who lived here.
The female figurines are depicted wearing elaborate head-dress, knob-earrings, heavy bangles and neck pieces.
They are draped in a very thin fabric, which is believed to be the famed muslin of Dhaka. Also found here are idols of various goddesses along with yakshis and animal figurines. But the surprise element is the erotic art on the plaques, which is 1,000 years older than Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh. Besides terracotta, there are also objects made of ivory.
In the year 2000, another dig by the ASI at Chandraketugarh made other revelations. They found evidence of a rectangular fort rising to a height of 30 ft encompassed by rampart walls. The fort has been dated to between the Maurya and Gupta periods. The team also found structural remains of a temple with elements such as columns and toranas.
This brings us to the legend associated with the region. Locals believe that the name of the site is derived from King Chandraketu, who ruled here. While there are no records of such a king in Bengal’s medieval literature, there are various assumptions. Some argue that this name refers to Chandragupta Maurya, while others claim he is the same person mentioned in Greek accounts as ‘Sandrocottus’. (While it is believed that Sandrocottus was Chandragupta Maurya, this theory has been contested recently.)
But there are more pressing issues than how the site acquired its name. In 2001, the ASI abruptly stopped its excavation and there were no published reports. The site was abandoned, leaving it open to the theft of its antiquities. Today, museums all over the world, including Musee Guimet in Paris have artefacts acquired (possibly illegally) from here. Even the Sotheby’s catalogue displays Chandraketugarh figurines for sale.
For two decades, there has been no attempt to protect the site, either for research or for tourism. Recently, the state government announced plans for its preservation but they remain only on paper, making Chandraketugarh a striking example of heritage apathy. Alas, a site with so much potential lies forgotten.
Cover Image: Suman Kumar Giri via Wikimedia Commons