History beneath a mound

Moghulmari,a village on the Bengal-Orissa border,finds itself on the country’s archeological map,thanks to a Buddhist monastic complex that dates back to the 7th century

Written by Shiv Sahay Singh | Published: March 29, 2009 11:13:14 am

Moghulmari,a village on the Bengal-Orissa border,finds itself on the country’s archeological map,thanks to a Buddhist monastic complex that dates back to the 7th century
The mound has always been a favourite spot in Moghulmari,a village in West Midnapore on the Orissa-West Bengal border. Children rolled down its grassy slopes,came dashing down in a burst and went scrambling up again. But in 2004,they stood downhill to watch their playground being dug up. Beneath the mound,archaeologists discovered a treasure house of invaluable artifacts and remains of a monastery that date back to the early medieval and prehistoric period.

It took a sensational accidental discovery in the winter of 2004 by archaeologists from the University of Calcutta,and subsequent sporadic excavation,to unearth what is being considered just a fraction of the treasure underneath. Led by professor Ashok Datta,the five-man team discovered that an 80×80-foot mound in the middle of Moghulmari was a structure straight out of medieval history. The discovery kick-started a major unearthing of valuable missing pieces of history as it catapulted the backwater village of Moghulmari into the archaeological map of the country.

These days,archaeologists are furiously working away at the site and say the Moghulmari mound and the newly discovered complex there could be part of one of the monasteries described by Huien Tsang,the famous Chinese traveller who visited India in the 7th century.

Moghulmari is an agriculture-driven village on the Orissa-Bengal border and villagers here speak both Oriya and Bengali. The village has ample evidence of an elaborate moat and mud fortifications that once existed here. In fact,till recently,mud from near the excavation site was being ferried away till the district magistrate stepped in and put an end to it after Datta put in a request.

Datta first came to know of the mound in Moghulmari in 1996,while he was in the middle of a navigation project of River Subarnarekha. Datta then returned to the spot four years later and then,eventually came here in 2004,this time,armed with a team of experts from Calcutta University.

Excavations at the site of the mound have shown the existence of a monastic complex that date back to the 7th-8th century. In and around the area,Datta and his team have also found black and red ware pottery that date back to as early as 1000-1500 BC.

The eastern and outer wall of the monastic complex excavated at the mound is 61metres long and is intact with equidistant pillars. The wall shows extensive stucco decoration,which is a design technique from the medieval period using water,lime,marble and gypsum. Stucco art is characteristic of the pre-Pala age in eastern India. The archaeologists found that the Moghulmari’s stucco images and its brick decorations are similar to the monastic establishments at Nalanda and Karnasuvarna. In fact,39 different types of decorative bricks have been identified from different structural components of the outer wall of the monastic complex.

A rare Buddha stone sculpture in the famous Bhumisparsha-mudra was also discovered from this monastery in 2006. The 24×14 cm image was found about 78-80 cm below the surface. Another structure,a 26.53-metre massive burnt brick form,representing a triratha projection,lies on the western face of the mound.

The western side of the Moghulmari monastic complex opens to a smaller structure that appears to have been built at a later period. The lack of decoration and the differing brick size show that this separate,smaller structure dates back to the 12th or 13th century.

Researchers have an interesting interpretation of how the smaller structure came about. They reckon that during the period the main monastic complex was destroyed,Buddhism was on the decline,and the newer structure was built without much grandeur and decoration.

When The Sunday Express visited the site with the researchers,we saw a sprinkler that was used at the monastic site. “At every step in this village and in and around the site,we keep bumping into new discoveries,” said one of the researchers.

In local folklore,the mound at the site is often called Sashisena’s mound. “We have heard the story of Sashisena or Sakhisona,a princess who started a school that once stood on this mound. She fell in love with a prince,the teacher of the school,” says Gauri Shankar Mishra,a villager.

The discovery hasn’t changed much in the village. Barring a few teachers,most people aren’t aware of the importance of the mound. A homeless family has taken shelter in one of the trenches that the archeologists dug up on the eastern wall of the monastic complex. Bamboo shafts and a thatch cover a part of the 25-foot mound.

According to early historical sources,the area around Dantan,near Moghulmari,used to be part of Suhma territory. Huien Tsang,who visited Bengal in 638 AD,referred to the existence of four kingdoms in Bengal of which one was Tamralipta (modern Tamluk and adjoining areas with 10 monasteries and 1,000 monks).

About 300 metres from the monastic complex lie three circular stupa basements. The religious nature of the site can be identified from the archaeological material found there. Archaeologists are looking for some missing links that connect the period from 1500 BC to 600 AD. Evidence of coins from the Sultanate age has also been found in the village. Datta says the entire village has grown around the structural mound.

“Once the whole mound is excavated and a detailed survey of the neighbouring areas is done,the history of Bengal,particularly the southern part of the state,will be hugely enriched,” says Rajat Sanyal.

“We have only excavated about 20 per cent of the monastic complex. Once we have funds at our disposal,we can excavate the whole site in a couple months,” says Datta.

A few years ago,the family of Pranati Jana,a local teacher,found an inscription on the mound. It has now been deciphered as a valuable 6th century Buddhist inscription,the credit for which goes to Prof B.N. Mukherjee. The inscription says: “Enough sacrifices have been made for the cause of religion.”
“This monastery is key to rediscovering the history of the period and also uncovering the art and architecture of the period. A monastery of this size has not been found earlier in this entire region,” says Mukherjee.

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