Exploring Bengal’s medieval history in the ruins of Gaur

GAUR — The Medieval City of Bengal c.1450-1565: Pub. by Centre for Archaeological Studies & Training, Eastern India, State Archaelogical Musuem Old Building, I Floor, I Satyen Roy Road, Behela, Kolkata-700034. Rs. 800.  

Though it was first mentioned in Harshacharita in relation to Sasanka, the King of Gaur and then again as the medieval capital of Bengal Sultanate, ambiguity remains with regard to the geographical limits of pre-medieval Gaur. In some sources, Gaur encompasses the entire Bengal, while in others it is limited to the eastern region; more often the western or north-western part of Bengal is accepted as Gaur.

Akshay Kumar Maitreya, a contemporary and close collaborator of Rabindranath Tagore, in his Gaurer Katha (The story of Gaur) said “The whole of Gaur was once known as Gaura Desh. The Bengali language only a few days ago was known as Gauriya Basha… Even now in many parts of India Bengalis are known as Gauriya. So if one attempts to write our history, one must begin with Gaur.” (Maitreya BS 1390:122)

The book under review, Gaur — The Medieval city of Bengal (c. 1450-1565), a special issue of Pratna Samiksha — a Journal of Archaeology by Centre for Archaeological Studies &Training, Eastern India, gives us an opportunity to explore the history in the ruins of Gaur. Once again it proves that history lies in the field.

It all began with an Indigo-planter Henry Creigton (1764-1807), a native of Scotland, who pioneered research on the antiquarian remains of the medieval city of Gaur. As he lived at Guamalati located north of the actual site, it was easy for him to frequently visit the monument. His illustrated book, The Ruins of Gour published in 1817 accurately represented the architectural features of medieval Gaur, which also inspired indigenous scholars to focus their attention on the site.

Creigton’s observation of details led to a correct representation. He did not indulge in using the ruins to create oriental scenery. Rather the monuments as they stood, the cracks created by trees settling down their long roots, the gaps from where coloured bricks had been eased out were placed in his paintings to cry out for care and conservation. Until 1860s, the transmission of knowledge of the antiquity of India’s traditional art objects, architecture, inscriptions and texts were mainly left to individual scholars and societies. For most of the Europeans involved in these projects, India provided a vast field of varied collectibles and curios to fill European museums and country houses. (Cohn 1997:9) With the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) established in 1861 with Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893), an army engineer turned archaeologist at the helm, a more orderly system and a perfect method of studying the past was put in motion. Cunningham also laid the foundation of historical archaeology by trying to trace the route followed by Hiuen-Tsang and to identify the monuments mentioned by the Chinese pilgrims.

It is almost ironical that Lord Curzon, who was demonized by the natives for the partition of Bengal, was instrumental in firming up a policy regarding archaeological work to be carried out in India. On February 6, 1900 while addressing a gathering at Asiatic Society he identified the three cornerstones of the new archaeological policy as “It is my judgement, equally our duty to dig and discover to classify, reproduce and describe, to copy and decipher and to cherish and conserve”. Abid Ali, a ministerial officer of PWD, Bengal was commissioned to write an account of the ruins of Gaur and Pandua. His memoirs were later published by H.E. Stapleton, Director of Public Instruction, Bengal. Abid Ali was perhaps the first to suggest that systematic excavation in Gaur might yield greater knowledge of the past.

With the foundation of Barendra Research Society in 1910, under the guidance of Akshay Kumar Maitreya, the Barendra Museum was established after a few years to house manuscripts and antiquities by a team of Indian scholars. It needed a great deal of persuasion by Indian scholars like Rakhaldas Bandhopadyaya and Akshay Kumar Maitreya to make the British archaeologists relinquish their claim on what they considered to be their official right. A new genre of history writing now came into existence.

At the same time exhibitions of archaeological artefacts helped them substantiate their claims. Though the thrust of the writings of experts like Rakhaldas was on the periods of Pala-Sena rule, mainly from eighth to twelfth centuries, they conceived a regional history, which covered the medieval period. Bengal came to be conceptualized as a broad territorial entity covering several periods and archaeological sites.

This volume is divided into seven chapters provides the background, historiography, political history and economic formation, environment, Archaeology and settlement pattern, epigraphy and Numismatics, technological innovation and the aftermath of Gaur in a most detailed and descriptive manner. Besides those who are the helm of this Centre, we also need to applaud scholars like Aniruddha Ray, Ratnabali

Chatterjee, Sharmi Chakraborty, Sutapa Sinha, Pradip Kumar Mitra, Somnath Ghosh, Soumitra Das and many others for presenting a comprehensive account of this medieval city. Indeed their writings and findings on the ruins of Gaur will create a deep interest among the students of history and architecture.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 5:33:51 PM |

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