The story starts with a Maharaja who built ramparts, a fortified city and a large deeghi (water reservoir) in the North Western part of Bangladesh. This fortified city lay forgotten, buried under the changing times and the flowing Talma river, only to be discovered in the early 19th century, when Francis Buchanan visited Panchagarh and came upon Bhitargarh. It can be said that the city state of Bhitargarh was functional and active from 6th-13th century (CE).
There is proper written mention of the identity of Prithu Raja who was supposed to have founded it but apart from its strategic location across the ancient trans-Himalayan trade route connecting Bengal with Tibet through the Himalayan passes, Bhitargarh may also have connected Magadha to Yunan/Szechuan via the Brahmaputra valley in Upper Assam. It offered one of the many routes available to travellers of that time and according to theory, it could also well have been a city state, much like the city states of Kathmandu.
Up until 2008, no proper excavation had been done, so Dr Shahnaj Husne Jahan, a faculty at ULAB, took the herculean task of unearthing the lost glories of this ancient fortified city. Her initial surveys included long walks under a scorching sun with a GPS monitor and a sharp eye for detail while her students from the coursesdssd"Archaeology, Bangladesh Studies and World Civilizations", offer their support through the project she has initiated called Experiencing the Past. This allows students taking her course to work at the excavation site of Bhitargarh and learn more about the area and its history.
At a size of 25 sq-km, this site is the largest ancient fortified city in Bangladesh (and possibly South Asia!) and is enclosed in four concentric quadrangular boundaries. The fourth quadrangle in fact falls mostly in the Indian side as Bhitargarh lies on the Northern most borders, with Jalpaiguri as its neighbour; Bhitargarh has indeed seen many settlers call its ancient fort city walls their home.
Currently, five sites are being excavated where two phases of civilizations have been discovered, with debris consisting of cultural material found in all. Some findings like a black basalt idol have been found prior to the research and are housed at the Rock museum in Panchagarh. In one of the sites the superstructure is missing where only the foundation remains with a few laid bricks, but in other sites, locals have heavily pilfered the bricks and used them to build their own homes.
The Maharajar Deeghi is one of the largest man made water tanks in the region and ten ghats with laid brick alignment have been discovered around it. The foundational remains of a quadrangular cruciform temple were found but the area is now the local graveyard and slabs from here were used by locals, some as the staircase inside a house! A further stupa mound was also found near the Maharajar Bhita and currently four homesteads and a betel nut garden stand there. A rim of an iron vessel, a copper bangle and fragments of glazed tiles were artefacts found here.
Yet, one of the more fascinating finds was the discovery of two structural remains in the Salmara river where stones of various sizes were found. The locals have always been using them and they also found iron nails inserted into the stones! This could well have been a stone quarry, also evident by its name, Patharghata, or an embankment to regulate the flow of the river.
In the eight years that Dr Jahan has worked here, she has actively involved the local communities in a number of promotional activities and awareness raising campaigns. She reached out to members of the youth, local Govt officials, teachers, locals and the general public, to help them develop a sense of ownership and pride in their heritage. A feeling of compassion towards conservation and understanding the need to preserve and save our heritage for posterity was an emotion Dr Jahan had to instil in the people she met in and around Bhitargarh.
ULAB was instrumental in backing her endeavours with funding and other support while the locals offered her the much needed grounding where help came in all forms: food, lodging and hosting the students, the locals went out of their way to accommodate the archaeological excavation team. Her efforts have had a deep lasting impact on the locals as the UP office has provided her with rooms for accommodation, often times sacrificing space for their own usage to the visiting students or guests at the excavation dig.
Heritage conservation especially in developing countries with a booming population, has heavily depended on the support offered by the people living in it the vicinity of a heritage site. So whether it be communities living around a forest or an archaeological excavation preserving cultural heritage, the people that surround the site play a key role in its ultimate conservation. Dr Jahan has managed to involve the locals in a way that not only helps them feel proud and excited about their heritage but also provides them with employment opportunities. The popular term of “community archaeology” can be applied to the Bhitargarh excavation project which has provided people especially women, the opportunity to be involved in work related to the excavation.
This season, 25 locals were involved and 2/3 were females. Five workers are initially trained and they trained subsequent new employees and so on. Payment is provided according to the skill of a worker, thus providing them with an incentive to improve themselves. These locals are taught some basic tasks like distinguishing between pottery and iron sherds so they can help while sorting out the material excavated. This task also includes washing and classifying pottery. Initially five locals were trained then others came and were trained subsequently and so on. The locals are often not educated so Dr Jahan ensures they can at least sign their names when collecting their salary.
Currently, locals are very excited as new discoveries are made, yet a feeling of apprehension remains with some home owners where artefacts or remnants of old structures have been found. If a major find happens, the Department of Archaeology under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs will need to outline a proper roadmap aimed at compensation to the locals as well as preservation of the site. So far the DoA is also working alongside Dr Jahan but we hope their efforts remain focused at more preservation for the future.
Dr Jahan is trying to set up an eco tourism/community based facility where a group of locals like van drivers, locals trained as guides and proficient in local folklore and stories, form the basis of a heritage village. The Bhitargarh Promotional Society has been formed by a group of individuals keen at preserving our heritage and offer Dr Jahan the much needed support as a civil society body.
For more information on the site and key publications, do visit www.bgpsbd.org