The district of Cooch Behar in West Bengal draws tens of thousands of tourists every year. Most head straight to the magnificent palace museum that once housed the rulers of the former princely state of Cooch Behar. Few tourists ever venture as far as the village of Gosanimari, 33 km south-west of here. Yet Gosanimari is home to one of West Bengal’s few surviving forts, and has a fascinating history.
The earliest mention of this part of Bengal may be found in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, where it is stated that the area was inhabited by tribes such Kambojas, Kiratas, Savars and Mutivs. According to historians, the descendants of the Kiratas eventually came to be known as the ‘Koch’, of the Koch Empire, later Anglicised to ‘Cooch Behar’. Cooch Behar was established in 1586 and existed till 1949.
But before Cooch Behar was founded, the most important political entity in the region was the Kingdom of Kamtapur. It was established in 1257 CE, when Sandhya, a ruler of Kamrupnagar (in modern-day Assam) moved his capital here, to present-day West Bengal. The reason for the shift was at attack by Malik Ikhtiyaruddin Iuzbak, the governor of Gaur in Bengal for the Mamluk rulers of Delhi.
From 1250 CE to 1305 CE, Kamtapur was ruled by Sandhya and his successors. The last ruler, Singhadhwaj, was overthrown by his minister, Pratapdhvaj. When Pratapdhvaj died in 1325 CE, his throne was seized by his cousin, Dharmanarayan, who was challenged by Pratapdhvaj’s son Durlabhnarayan. A settlement was reached and the kingdom was split.
Kamtapur, along with Kamrup, Goalpara, Jalpaiguri and the areas comprising modern-day Cooch Bihar went to Durlabhnarayan, whose successors held sway in the region until 1365 CE. By that time, the 1362 CE invasion of the region by the Sultan of Bengal, Sikandar Shah (r. 1358-1390) , had left the last king Indra Narayan in a weakened state. Taking advantage of this weakness, a Tibeto-Burman dynasty known as Khyan or Khen seized power.
Legend has it that the Khen came from humble origins. A young boy named Kanta Nath from the Khen tribe, abandoned by his parents, was employed as a cowherd. One afternoon, when his master went looking for him, he found him asleep under a tree, with a cobra shading him from the sun with its raised hood. Convinced that the boy was destined for greatness, his master absolved him of menial labour. When Kanta Nath eventually did become king in 1440 CE, he assumed the name of Niladhwaj, and his former master served as his minister.
It was Niladhwaj who began the construction of the fort at Gosanimari. Harendra Narayan Chaudhuri writes in The Cooch Behar State and its Land Revenue Settlements (1903) that the citadel was “a double line of fortifications, the outer one being of earth, and the inner one of bricks, with a moat between the two. A temple was erected within the brick wall for the worship of the family deity, who was called Kamateshwari”. Niladhwaj was succeeded by his son Chakradhwaj (1460–1480), who, in turn was succeeded by his son, Nilambar, in 1480 CE.
Nilambar, Chaudhuri writes, had five wives. He was most attached to his youngest queen, Vanamala. However, Vanamala was having an affair with Manohar, the son of the king’s minister, Sasi Patra. Enraged when he discovered this, the king had Manohar apprehended as he was leaving Vanamalsa’s bed chamber one day.
He then ordered him to be executed and his body hacked to pieces. Nilambar then compelled Vanamala to cook the meat, and had it served to Sasi Patra at a grand feast. When the minister had had his fill, the king told him where the meat had come from. Sasi Patra left Kamtapur sick with grief and horror, and swearing revenge. He eventually reached the capital of Bengal, Gaur, and laid his complaint in front of the Sultan, Alauddin Hussain Shah (r. 1493-1519).
Alauddin Hussain Shah sensed a great opportunity here. In the period preceding his reign, Bengal had been ruled by a succession of short-lived Habshi Sultans, and it had been a period of anarchy. Taking advantage of this, the Khens had slowly expanded into Bengal, seizing territory on the border between the two kingdoms. Now, an army of 24,000 cavalry backed by infantry and a flotilla set out to conquer Kamtapur. However, the fort of Gosanimari was strong and well-defended. When it couldn’t be stormed, the Sultanate army dug in for a siege.
The siege was a long one – 12 years, if legend is to be believed – and was ended by an act of treachery reminiscent of the Greeks and their Trojan Horse. Alauddin Hussain Shah sent a message to Nilambar stating that since the siege had proved pointless he was accepting defeat and returning home to Bengal. He desired that before he left, his wives be allowed to make a courtesy call on the queens of Kamtapur. Sensing nothing wrong in this, Nilambar permitted the visit. But instead of sending in his queens, Hussain Shah sent in palanquins packed with soldiers. As soon as they had been admitted into the fort, the armed men leapt out, slaughtered the guards and opened the gates to the invading army.
The fort was conquered and looted. The queens of Kamtapur committed suicide to avoid being captured, as was then the norm. But Nilambar, it is said, was captured alive and put in an iron cage to be transported back to Gaur as a prisoner. Along the way, he asked to take a bath and was taken to the banks of a large pond. Nilambar went into the water and never emerged. It is said that he either committed suicide or was eaten by crocodiles. With the death of Nilambar in 1498 CE, the Kingdom of Kamtapur ceased to exist.
Before returning to Gaur, Alauddin Hussain Shah appointed his son as governor of Nilambar’s territories. The Sultanate forces stationed in the region then mounted an attack on Ahom territories. However, this proved to be a misadventure. The Ahoms simply retreated into their mountain strongholds and waited for the monsoon to set in. Once the rains had turned the country roads into slush, they attacked, cutting off the Sultanate army’s supply lines and forcing them to retreat. This would be followed by a decade of anarchy before Viswa Singha (r. 1515-1540) finally established Koch political power in 1515.
The Gosanimari Fort, meanwhile, was abandoned and swallowed by the sands of time. Over the years, the large mound covered in overgrowth would come to be known as Rajpat, believed to be a corruption of the Bengali Rajprasad, or Royal Palace. The mound was first surveyed by a Scottish doctor and geographer, Dr Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, in 1808. Between 1998 and 2000, the Archaeological Survey of India conducted two rounds of excavations and uncovered substantial portions of the walls of the fort, two large wells, a number of sculptures and several well-preserved utensils. Most of the artefacts uncovered are now on display at a museum set up near the fort.
The archaeology of North Bengal remains under-explored. The capital of the Kamtapur Kingdom is said to have shifted multiple times, and in each place, there are unexplored historic remains. One example is the fort known as ‘Nol Rajar Garh’. Located within what is now the Chilapata Reserve Forest, little has been done to preserve the site or even explore its massive sprawl.
The massive fort complex, almost 1.9 sq km in area, was first explored and documented in 1966-67, by P C Dasgupta, D K Chakravarty and S C Mukherji of the West Bengal State Archaeology Department. It was hidden amid dense forest, surrounded by a moat, its massive brick walls still 7.5 metres high in some places.
Inside the walls, the archaeologists found what looked like a series of furnaces, possibly used for smelting, as well as a large aqueduct and the remains of a temple complex. Based on the bricks used for the walls and the stones used for the temple, the archaeologists estimated that while the fort itself probably dates back to the Gupta period (4th to 6th CE), the temple appears to have been constructed during the reign of Bengal’s Pala Dynasty (8th to 12th century CE).
Most of this grand, rectangular complex remains covered in shrubbery, with just one wall and a single arched entrance exposed. Who knows what else is hidden in the Himalayan foothills.
As recent judgement by the Supreme Court brings curtains down on the dispute over the Padmanabhaswamy temple and its treasures, we look at what actually lies hidden in the temple’s vaults and some issues that it raises for the future.
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