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Inscriptions confirm presence of two medieval monasteries at Moghalmari

The site where the excavations were carried out and (below) the seals which have been deciphered to reveal names of the Buddhist monasteries.  

A study of inscriptions on clay tablets recovered from recent excavations at Moghalmari, a Buddhist monastic site of the early medieval period in West Bengal’s Paschim Medinipur district, have confirmed the presence of two monasteries — Mugalayikaviharika and Yajñapindikamahavihara.

Details of the study of these inscriptions were published earlier this month in PratnaSamiskha, a leading peer-reviewed journal from Bengal on Indian Archaeology.

“The presence of two monasteries dating to the same period within a single compound is unique in eastern India. Earlier excavations had indicated the presence of two monasteries on the basis of the structural plan,” Rajat Sanyal, who deciphered these inscriptions, and is the author of the paper, told The Hindu.

Prof. Sanyal, who is associated with the Department of Archaeology, University of Calcutta, was a member of all the six seasons of excavations carried out at the site by the university. The monasteries at Moghalmari date from 6th century CE and were functional till the 12th century CE.

Tiny fragments

During one of the later seasons of excavations by the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Department of Information and Cultural Affairs, Government of West Bengal, six tiny fragments of inscribed seals were found. “Each of them contained a set of letters accompanied by the deer-dharmachakra symbols. We had to arrange them through different permutations to read and make sense of names inscribed on these tablets,” Prof. Sanyal said.

The inscriptions are in Sanskrit and the script is a transitional phase between later north Indian Brahmi and early Siddhamatrika.

The first name Yajñapindikamahavihara, implying etymologically ‘a place of sacrificial offering’ is of special significance. The second name on the seals, Mugalayikaviharika, bears a phonetic resemblance to the modern name of the site, Moghalmari.

In Xuanzang’s travels

Archaeologists and historians point out that famous Chinese traveller Xuanzang (more widely identified as Huen Tsang), who visited India in the 7th century CE, referred to the existence of ‘ten monasteries’ within the limits of Tamralipta (modern day Tamluk in adjoining Purba Medinipur district). However, he did not refer to any specific name or location.

With the discovery of the site and the deciphering of the inscriptions, at least two of these monasteries are now identified, Prof. Sanyal said. He added that it was known from Buddhist texts that Buddhist monasteries have a definite hierarchy — Mahavihara, Vihara and Viharika — which is reflected in the inscriptions found.

“The study provides the only contextual epigraphical proof for the existence of a viharika (Mugalayikaviharika in this case) as early as the 6th century in this part of the subcontinent,” Prof. Sanyal said. The study of the inscribed seals suggests that the monastery was called Mugalayikaviharika. Its continuation in the modern name of the area “still remains a riddle which needs more careful inspection and study,” he said. “Apparently, the name Mugalayika suggests a fair connection to the modern place-name Moghalmari,” he added.

In his paper, Prof. Sanyal refers to L.S.S. O’Malley’s gazetteer of 1911, where the name Moghalmari is said to trace its name to a medieval battle between the Mughals and Pathans, sometime in the 16th or early 17th century. “It is difficult to ascertain if the name written on the seals indeed represents an early toponym of the modern village of Moghalmari.”

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