Of a bygone era: excavations reveal Buddhist monastery complex at Bharatpur of Bengal

The site had previously been excavated in the 1970s, when a large Buddhist stupa was found, along with black and red ware pottery from the Chalcolithic Age

Updated - January 21, 2023 09:56 pm IST

Published - January 21, 2023 07:47 pm IST - KOLKATA

Excavations at Bharatpur reveal presence of a monastery complex. Photo: Special Arrangement 

Excavations at Bharatpur reveal presence of a monastery complex. Photo: Special Arrangement 

Recent excavations at Bharatpur in West Bengal’s Paschim Bardhaman district have revealed the presence of a Buddhist monastery. The Kolkata Circle of the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) started excavating the site in the second week of January and a structural complex of a monastery has now been partially exposed.

The site was initially excavated almost fifty years ago between 1972 and 1975 when archeologists from ASI and from Burdwan University found a Buddhist stupa at the site.

“The site lay unexcavated for almost fifty years. We were looking at the cultural sequence of the stupa from where black and red ware pottery belonging to the Chalcolithic Age was also recovered. A Buddhist stupa cannot exist in isolation, and the recent excavations have revealed the presence of an extended monastery complex,“ said Shubha Majumder, superintending archeologist of the ASI Kolkata Circle.

Mr. Majumder, who is supervising the excavations, said that archeologists working at Bharatpur will be able to ascertain more details about the monastery complex and its date of construction once the excavation progresses. “So far, we have exposed some structures which appear to be the outer wall of the monastery, containing nine layers of brick and a small circular structure, probably a stupa,” he added. 

Unique stupa

According to experts, what makes the site unique in terms of Buddhist sites in the State is the presence of a large stupa along with a monastery complex and black and red ware pottery from the Chalcolithic or Copper Age. In other sites across West Bengal, such as Karnasubarna in Murshidabad, Moghalamari in Paschim Medinipur and Jagjivanpur in Malda, archeologists have found only smaller votive stupas.

A Buddhist stupa is a commemorative monument usually housing sacred relics associated with the Buddha or other saints or priests, whereas votive stupas have similar significance but are smaller structures originating in eight cylindrical structures. 

When archeologists excavated the site in the 1970s, they found black and red ware pottery, associated with the Chalcolithic Age which predates any Buddhist structures. “Excavation is likely to shed more light to understand the earliest occupation of the site and its continuity till the establishment of a Buddhist monastery,” Mr. Majumder said.

Early village settlements

Rupendra Kumar Chattopadhyay, former professor at the Department of Archeology, University of Calcutta said that the site was important for two main reasons: one, because it is an early village settlement on the bank of the river Damodar which could date to around 2000 BCE; and two, the Buddhist monastery complex. “So there are two significances to the site: one is secular which is an early village settlement, and second, religious, which is Buddhist site,” he said.

Professor Chattopadhyay said that the site could have been a nucleus of an early village farming site from where sites radiated to other areas along the other bank of the Damodar and other rivers like Ajoy and Darakeshwar.

Referring to other pre-historic sites in the region, Mr. Majumder said that there are early village farming sites at Dihar and Pakhanna on the other bank of the Damodar in the State’s Bankura district. He added that the excavation is an attempt to trace the cultural continuity of the site where settlements could have been located for thousands of years.

Sculptures found

In the 1970s when the site was excavated along with the stupa, five beautiful seated sculptures of the Buddha in Bhumisparsha Mudra -- with all five fingers of the right hand extended to touch the ground -- were found.  These miniature sculptures, each about 30 cm in height, were most likely used for worship in the monastery. 

Both Professor Chattopadhyay and Dr. Majumder said that almost all the Buddhist sites have been found in the Rarh Bengal region, which is the south-western part of the State. The ongoing excavation at Bharatpur, also in the same region, has the potential to reveal interesting aspects about the extension of Buddhism in the region, the added.

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