Anuradha Goyal: Namaste and welcome to Detours with me Anuradha Goyal. Today we have with us Smt. Anita Bose Ji from Calcutta. She is an author, an artist, an independent researcher, a former guide at the National Museum of Bangkok, and a convener at the Global Ramayana Encyclopedia project. She is the author of two books Ramayana footprints in Southeast culture and heritage and Pattachitra of Odisha in Jagannath culture. Today, we are going to talk about the ancient history of Bengal. Anita Ji Namaste and welcome to Detours.
Anita Bose: Namaste Anuradha Ji. Thank you for inviting me.
Listen to our podcast on Journey to ancient Bengal.
Detours: Ancient Bengal With Anita Bose
Anuradha: Anita Ji, let’s start with the place where we know is the oldest living heritage of Bengal, What is the oldest known Swaroop of Bengal?
Anita Bose: We know about the Bengal that it is the colony or British Bengal or the Mughal Bengal but history did not start there. It started long back. It was mentioned by the Greek traveler Megasthenes in his book Indica. There are so many maritime travelogs of Southeast Asia. So the history of Bengal started early, from written proof it can be said that at least before Christ. It was a very ancient and very prosperous heritage site. Also known as Bongo, not Bengal. It was called Bongo Hridaya or Bengal is the Heart. It was the heart of the whole eastern part of India. If there was nothing here why did Mughals and Britishers come? If you have something only then people will come to you. So, the same thing happened with the Bengal also.
Megasthenes book Indica
Alexander met a monk and the description by Megasthenes is that of a Naga Sanyasi. He asked how you live in this way and whatever your philosophical thought and everything and Alexander was quite interested in him. He tried to cross the Jamuna and he wanted to come to this part of India so he sent his messenger to the Monk that I want to go there. So, the monk told him you are not happy with the territory you have conquered here. So, you want to go to that side. He said yes I want to go to that side. Sanyasi said don’t go there because there is a place named Bongo. People in Bongo are so courageous, they have so much power, you can not win them.
So this is the beginning of the first history by the Megasthenes. It is told by Periplus and Ptolemy also. If you go through the Ptolemy map you can see their prosperous area is named Bongo and Prasi. So there were two emperors or two prosperous kingdoms one was Bongo and one was Prasi or Praswayi.
Anuradha: So, I just want to clarify that when we say Bongo, It includes the current area of West Bengal, Bangladesh probably Tripura, and parts of Assam as well.
Anita Bose: Yeah. Because when I come to the point of maritime trade you can listen that how horse-trading was important in Bengal. It was not only inside India but horses went to the Unaan, ancient China and from there the Kambuja, the Malaya, the Sumatra even up to the Philippines. If you see the geographical position of the current Bengal and Bangladesh, it is very close to the sea and the Ganga river. Trade depends on the river route.
So, in this way, the Bongo Hridaya or the Ganga Hridaya was the ancient clan of the Bengal. We can read about it in the History of early southeast Asia by Kenneth R Hall. He mentions archaeological evidence that the Gangetic plain of the Bengal was very famous during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Transport of goods shifted to the sea along the maritime route between the southern part of China and the Bay of Bengal. So you can imagine that how long the route was. If there is no prosperous country, no prosperous people then for whom they are trading those things.
Ancient Ports in Bengal
Anuradha: So tell us about the ancient ports we can find in Bengal.
Anita Bose: Gangahriday was that first port and then we had Chandraketugarh port and Saptgaon or Saatgaon. The Saatgaon was very famous and is now known as the Adisaptagram. Adi means the ancient and the Saptgram means seven villages. It is known by different names like Devanandpur. When the very big ship came to the Saat gaon port or Saptagram in 1560, French traveler Ceasor Fredriseh wrote that Satgaon is a prosperous city like Sri Lanka. It had so many gold ornaments and the architecture was full of gold and jewelry. One British traveler also writes down about that trip in 1583. So, Saatgaon was very popular and a huge civilization happened on the shore of these seven villages. It is not very far from Kolkata.
Anuradha: So between Saatgaon and Chandraketugarh which one is older?
Anita: Chandraketugarh is older because the place dates back to the 12th century BCE or at least the 4th century BCE as per ASI.
Anuradha: So, Anita Ji I am going to take a step back and ask you Gangasagar is also mentioned in our Puranik stories and it is an important part of our epics. How do people of Bengal relate to them today?
Anita Bose: See, Gangasagar is related to the sage name Kapil, a place of Kapilmuni ashram Original ashram may have shifted as Ganga changes its course. We all know the story of Bhagirath and the 100 sons of King Sagara at Kapilmuni ashram. Bhagirath from whom the river gets its name Bhagirathi is still known in Bengal as Bhagirathi. Bhagirathi river came from the Murshidabad towards Saat gaon. The Bhagirathi is touching those places and come to the Triveni. One Triveni is in Praygaraj and one Triveni is in Saptagram. It’s very close to Saptgram that’s why it was so important port at that time and it is the Ganga, Jamuna, and Saraswati.
Anuradha: Again the same three rivers?
Anita: So the main port and trading were dependent on the Saraswati river that time in Saatgaon in Saptgram.
Anuradha: Before we come to the maritime trade through this port, Is there any annual festival or a periodic festival that still happens in Gangasagar?
Anita: Yes, so at Gangasagar we still have Paush Mela on Paush Sankranti Various people come from different parts of India and do meditation and take baths. Actually, it’s just the same thing as Kumbha Mela.
Anuradha: And this happens every year?
Anita: Yes, every year and there is a huge fair just like Kumbha. You can say that the small version of the Kumbha Mela is done there.
Anuradha: Great to see that there is a thread of living civilization for such a long time.
Anita: Gangasagar and this Kapilmuni Ashram have an ancient link with the Ramayan Sadhu. In Bengal, we know that the Ramayan Sadhus often sing about Ramayana or telling Ramkatha. So that Ramayan Sadhus actually belong to that ancient Kapilmuni Ashram. Now there are not many left but there is still a link between Ramayan Sadhu and Kapilmuni Ashram.
Anuradha: Very nice, I am very sure many of our listeners would be happy to know about this. So, coming back to Saatgaon and Chandraketugarh we understand that the Bengal was a major trading port even well before the British came down to Calcutta. So tell us a little about the things that were traded from these ports. What were the key items that were either exported or imported from there?
Anita: Actually, you know that India is rich in many things. From Bengal, it was the fine cotton that was exported. We have to remember that time it was Bongo and was not divided as Bangladesh and Bengal. Muslin and cotton were very famous from here. In southeast Asia, they knew it as cotton of Bongo. It was so fine that it can pass through a ring. It went to southeast Asia especially Sumatra, the Philippines, Malacca, Malay, and Java also. The trading route with Bengal and those places carried various foodstuffs. They mention rice, dry fruits, fruits, Bay leaf. Ibn Batuta also wrote that the Bay leaf of the eastern part of India or Banga bhumi was very famous not only as a spice but was also used for its aroma. We call it Tejpatta in Bengali.
Anuradha: Betel nuts as well!
Anita Bose: Yes, the betel nut. Once we went to an ancient port of Thailand. They have a small museum and the curator showed me something. I love wearing sarees, so she asked me oh you have a very beautiful saree and from which part of India you are. I said I am from Bengal and she told me that come here to see this is from the Bengal. Your Bengal had so many betel nuts, the ancient betel nut, and pottery. So, this was a very important port for trading it’s not only for the Mughals or the Britishers, it had a very ancient link with other parts of the planet.
Anuradha: So, what did we get in return? So, we were exporting cotton, we were exporting dry fruit, we were exporting bay leaf, exporting betel nut so what were we getting from these lends in return?
Anita Bose: Few sociologists and archaeologists think we were also getting something. It was gold coins and elephant teeth or ivory. Ivory was a very important thing at that time. Mainly we earned money because we were always self-sufficient. India had everything. My father was a sailor, he was in the navy and he always told me that I roamed around the whole world but I never see a country like us. We have everything. So our traders are mainly fond of beautiful Indonesia and Japanese carvings, I got few things. Sometimes, they exchanged these or in Burma, they exchanged Ruby stones or different types of jewelry.
Precious Metals & Stones
Anuradha: So, we were getting all the precious metals and precious stones.
Anita: Not all but a few from there.
Anuradha: In fact, I think this is how we collected all our gold.
Anita: Maybe, because there was a famous phrase that in Rome and that time in Greek also all our gold is going to India and they give us the cotton. So, in exchange for cotton, they take our gold.
Anuradha: So, I would say from our perspective our cotton was worth gold. Also, you have taken us from Pauranik to the ancient era to the medieval era. What were the material remains of these times that we still can see. Are there any ancient temples or ancient ports or anything that we can see?
Anita Bose: Bengal is now divided between Bengal and Bangladesh. There were so many architectural valuable things that were destroyed. Still, we have the Mahasthangarh University. We all know about the Nalanda but very few know about the Mahasthangarh. It was a very ancient stupa university around 700 BCE. It is now in Bangladesh. If you come to our Bengal, 100 km away from Kolkata, in Bardhaman and Bankura districts, you get 7-8th CE temples like the Sonatapal temple, Deulghata Purulia, Bankura temple, etc. There are ancient temples like Jatardeul, Bahulara temple, Satdeul, and Pakuria temple that still remain around.
Anuradha: Tell us about a couple of oldest temples, what kind of architecture they have or what kind of material they use?
Anita: Mostly there are Terracotta temples.
Anuradha: Terracota temples are all medieval temples right?
Anita: If you see the 8th and 9th century’s temples, mostly are Terracotta, few are the stone temples. There is also a very ancient and huge mound known as the Pandu Rajar Dhibi.
Anuradha: Where is this?
Anita Bose: This is in Bardhaman and is related to king Pandu of Mahabharata. The excavations were started under B.B. Lal, and he said it is almost 1600 – 1700 BCE. They also got the chalcolithic copper utensils and some pottery. So, we should do more research on our culture.
Ancient Heritage Temples
Anuradha: Yes, that’s what we need to do. Which are the other two or three temples you would recommend for people who are very interested in the ancient heritage?
Anita: Gokul Math temple is 8th century Pala’s architecture temple. This is from the Bogura district of Bangladesh. But the Jatardeul is from the 10th century.
Anuradha: Where is this Jatardeul?
Anita: Jatardeul is in the South 24 Paraganas.
Anuradha: So not too far from Kolkata!
Anita: No, it is near the diamond harbor. There is one beautiful Bahulara temple which is of the 8th century present in the Bankura district.
Anuradha: So, I have seen the sculpture of the Pala period in various museums across India, and a lot of them are actually in the Patna museum and some of them in the Delhi museum. They are very exquisite, very finely carved in black stone usually dark black stone and obviously stone doesn’t happen in the Bengal region it had come from outside at some point in time but do we have any temples or any other structural remains of the Pala period?
Anita: Yes, you can get so many things if you go to the Indian museum also and Pala period’s beautifully carved stone images especially the Bodhisattva or the Buddhist Tara. If you go to the Bishnupur or Bankura that side Malla dynasty ruled there.
Anuradha: But the Malla dynasty is very late. Malla dynasty is 1600.
Anita: But before also, if you go to the Sonatapal temple or the Bahulara temple you can get the beautiful structures few remained still now. A very small museum in Bishnupur has few ancient pieces of the Pala period. Most of the ancient things have gone outside India.
Anuradha: What I was looking for more of a structure, the sculpture I know are all scattered over the world but structure which is ancient.
Anita: I was in Surabaya and they have the Majapahit then the Mojokerto. I was surprised to see that the same structure, same style of architecture, and same style of surroundings whatever I see in Deulaghata and the Sonatapal temple. The same thing happened in that place in the 11th century.
Anuradha: Because there were very strong links between the two.
Anita: And most of them either Sun temple or the Vishnu temple.
Anuradha: So, Sun worship is also popular in Bengal?
Anita: Yes, Sun worship is also popular in Bengal.
Anuradha: We in our popular perception associate Bengal with Chandi puja or Devi pooja.
Anita: Yes, the Matra Shakti. I forgot to tell one another interesting thing that If you start from the Bengal and go to Southeast Asia the most of the places through the seaside are worshipping Mothers.
Anuradha: So, what route would you follow? So, from Bengal, you would go to Odisha.
Anita: No, I will follow the Bengal to Burma then that Kamboja, Thailand. It was known as the Sham Kamboja in the past. So, they have also very much faith in Umadevi.
Anuradha: Yes, I have seen Umadevi sculptures.
Anita Bose: So, Umadevi and Laxmi. Who are these Umadevi and Laxmi?. They are the form of Durga, the part of the mother Durga whatever you like to say. If you go to Indonesia there are thousand and thousand of Mahisasurmardini Durga. It’s so amazing to see. If you go to Bali, Bali is worshipping Laxmi that is also related to the Bengal because we worship Lakshmi every Thursday in the Bengali homes. It is related to rice cultivation and is known as the Dhanalaxmi and the same concept in Bali the Dhanalaxmi. Now, we are worshipping Saraswati and in Bali, they are worshipping Saraswati twice a year.
Anuradha: And they have beautiful Saraswati temples.
Anita Bose: Yes, they have beautiful Saraswati temples. I have to say that the Poila Baisakh or the first day of Baisakh, we celebrate it in Bengal as Poila Baisakh. In Assam, it is known as the Bihu. In Punjab, it is known as Baisakhi. If you see the map you see the whole southeast Asia celebration of Baisakhi with different names. Sankranti is Thingumin in Burma. So they all are celebrating those things and if we go back to history.
I can say that trading route with Bengal, Assam, and a few parts of Punjab also selling their things through Bengal port or Ango Bango Kalingo that is also known as Kalingan and Bangan. If you go to Phuket you get a part named Bangli, so the Bangli is people from Bonga and Kling from Kalinga. Kling and the Bangli you can be found in many parts of southeast Asia till the date.
Bengal to Lanka Sea route
Anuradha: Great! I remember I recently read Chandimangal, the 15th-16th century text from Bengal and it has an elaborate description of the sea route from Bengal to Sri Lanka and it actually covers every port on the way.
Anita Bose: Yes, and if you go back to Sri Lankan history also you can see Prince Vijaysingha gives the name Singhal and he was from Bengal. I have a friend in Sri Lanka and I tell her you are my sister and she said how? I said your beginning is from Bengal. So, there are so many fascinating facts and history scattered all over the substation and the relation is very strong with the part of Bengal.
Anuradha: I think all we need to do is kind of start talking about it so that we know that we have always been a very global country.
Anita: Yes, the world is Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam since the beginning for us.
Anuradha: Great Anita Ji. Thank you so much for taking us through this lovely journey through Bongo and we hope that we will come back to you to listen more about your works in different fields your social work with Ramakrishna mission and a whole lot of other things. I of course follow you on social media and we are connected through the Ramayana project.
Anita: Thank you so much.
Anuradha: Thank you so much for enlightening us about Bengal.