Mahasthangarh: Bangladesh's Oldest City

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    One of the subcontinent’s oldest cities in the east is still telling its story 2,300 years after the Mauryans built this magnificent provincial capital in what is now north-west Bangladesh. Identified as the glorious city of Pundranagara, it is known as Mahasthangarh today and is situated in what was earlier East Bengal.

    Mahasthangarh is Bangladesh’s oldest-known city, an archaeological site 200 km north of Dhaka on the banks of the Karatoya River. The site goes back to the 3rd century BCE, to the height of the Mauryan Empire, whose capital was Pataliputra in present-day Patna, the capital of Bihar in Northern India. And what a sight it must have been!

    Long and snaking walls made of burnished brick still outline the city’s fortified heart, a citadel that measures 1.5 km x 1.4 km. Inside the citadel and all around, excavations are still uncovering structures that reveal what was undoubtedly a vibrant administrative and cultural capital.

    Archaeological remains and medieval literary descriptions point to a well-planned and highly organised city that had sturdy walls, elaborate gates, opulent palaces, large assembly halls, places of worship, lush orchards, pleasure gardens and vast suburban areas where common folk lived.

    This ancient city was first discovered, not by an archaeologist, but by Scottish geographer and botanist Francis Buchanan-Hamilton in 1807.

    Employed by the British East India Company, he was asked by the Government of Bengal to survey the area and report on its topography, history and inhabitants. During one of his field visits, he came upon the abandoned site of Mahasthangarh and made a note of it.

    But Pundranagara was not ready to be discovered, at least not yet. It would be 70 years before Alexander Cunningham, the father of Indian archaeology, visited the site, in 1879. And it was he who identified it as the ancient city of Pundranagara, mentioned in classical literary texts.

    The Aitareya Brahmana, a Vedic text, talks of the Pundra people living in the eastern part of the subcontinent. That’s how the city probably got its name. The Chinese monk Hiuen Tsang, who visited the area in the 7th century CE, wrote that Pundranagara had 20 Buddhist monasteries, over 3,000 Buddhist monks, 100 Dev temples and followers of multiple sects, including Jain Digambar monks.

    Evidence that helped identify this as the city Pundranagara came from a chance find by a local farmer, who happened to dig up a limestone slab in his fields. The six-line inscription in the Brahmi script recorded a land grant and was dated to the 3rd century BCE, the era of the Mauryan Dynasty.

    The inscription tells us that ‘a mahamatra was posted in the well-organised and prosperous Pundranagara. He gave orders to dole out sesame and mustard seeds to the samvargikas... The crops were stored in the royal granary in the fortified area of the city.’

    The famous 11th-century text Kathasaritasagar by Somadeva, a collection of folktales, mentions a road from Pundranagara to Pataliputra, the Mauryan capital. It seems Pundranagara was an important trading city in ancient times and was well connected to other parts of Bengal, by road and by river. The Arthashastra of Kautilya refers to ‘Paundrika patrorna’, a type of silk, and dukula, a fine-quality cotton cloth, both produced in Pundra.

    The site of Mahasthangarh, which includes the citadel at its centre, covers an area with a radius of 9 km, and includes hundreds of mounds, some excavated, others yet to be, scattered across several villages. Excavations, which began in the 1920s, have revealed cast copper coins belonging to the 3rd century BCE, which support the antiquity of the city.

    Amazingly, the site shows continuous occupation from the 3rd century BCE to the 13th century CE, which is reflected in remains that date from pre-Mauryan times to the Mauryans, Kushanas, Guptas and the Palas.

    The remains found here include the ruins of Buddhist monasteries, Hindu temples and numerous Hindu and Buddhist sculptures.

    Excavations have also uncovered a trench and a tunnel built through the massive fort wall, a sign of a military siege. While this military practice is well-known through textual sources, most notably the Arthashashtra, the Mahasthangarh tunnel is the earliest archaeological evidence of this military strategy in the Indian subcontinent.

    Weapons like arrows, spears, crossbow heads and terracotta slingshot balls, dated to the 7th-8th century CE, have been found in large numbers. After the siege, important construction activities were undertaken that can be placed in the Pala period, a long period of peace in North Bengal.

    This spectacular city appears to have fallen to ruin when a massive earthquake hit the area in 1255 CE. Besides the obvious damage, the earthquake probably caused the Karatoya River to silt up, forcing the residents to migrate.

    Excavations are still being carried out here but Mahasthangarh has faded from public memory. Sadly, lack of adequate conservation, poor water drainage and looting are damaging this vital archaeological site. This was stated in a 2010 a report titled Saving Our Vanishing Heritage prepared by the Global Heritage Fund, which identified Mahasthangarh as one of 12 worldwide sites most ‘on the verge’ of irreparable loss and damage. What will it take to save Bangladesh’s oldest city and a vital part of India’s heritage?

    Cover Image: The Gokul Medh mound, 3 km south of the citadel, courtesy Azim Khan Ronnie

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