Delve Into Bengal’s Buddhist Past At Moghalmari

Delve Into Bengal’s Buddhist Past At Moghalmari
Stucco figures on walls, Photo Credit: Uttara Gangopadhyay

This little known Buddhist site in West Bengal keeps surprising archaeologists with its rich haul of artefacts

Uttara Gangopadhyay
May 11 , 2019
04 Min Read

As soon as the artefact was dug out of the mound, the experienced archaeologists on the job that March morning in 2016 knew they were holding a rare find. They were happy but not surprised. Because the Sakhisena (also Sashisena) mound in Moghalmari in Paschim Medinipur district of West Bengal has been known to throw up surprises ever since excavations started here in 2003. The day before, 40 bronze artefacts had been dug out.

It was confirmed a few days later that the artefact was indeed a piece from a gold crown. Finding artefacts of gold and silver during excavations of old Buddhist sites is rare, the chief archaeologist at the site, Prakash Maity was quoted as saying by a leading newspaper. However, the Vajrayana sect (of the Mahayana school of Buddhism) is known to have worshipped what is known as the Crown Buddha, he said, and probably this find was part of a similar Buddha idol.

Even though several people right from the British period to modern times have talked about the antiquity of the region, with evidence of random archaeological findings, it was in 1999 that the attention of renowned archaeologist and scholar Prof. Asok Datta was drawn to the mound by a local educationist and history-lover. Convinced about the mound’s importance, Datta and his team from Calcutta University’s Department of Archaeology initiated excavations in the area. The work of excavation was later taken over by the state’s Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, who now manages the site.

The gate marks the entry to the enclosure containing ruins of the sixth to 12th century Buddhist monastery

Today, lying at one end of the village, the sprawling site is a testimony to a flourishing Buddhist enclave dating back to 6th to 7th century (post Gupta period/pre Pala period). Excavations so far have unearthed a Buddhist monastery, several stupa, bronze idols of Buddha, Bodhisattva and a Buddhist goddess, decorated stucco plastered wall and images, terracotta tablets, seals bearing post-Gupta Brahmi scripts, mixed metal coin bearing the name of King Samachardeva, gold pendant and part of the crown, etc. After deciphering some of the seals, experts said that the monastery was called the Sribandaka Vihara Aryabhikkhu Sangha. According to the late Prof. Datta, the monastery likely continued until the 12th century.

Located a little over 169km from Kolkata, Moghalmari (meaning ‘the place where the Mughals were killed’) is a small village off the national highway that goes to Odisha from West Bengal. Apparently the place got its name in the 16th century when a pitched battle was fought here between the Mughal army and a local ruler. The Mughal army won the battle but lost many soldiers. The narrow lane off the highway leads directly to the site, which is looked after by a local club, Tarun Seva Sangha O Pathagar, on a day to day basis.

Despite the excavation, the shape of the mound is evident as you enter through the arched gateway bearing the name Mogalmari Boudhha Mahavihara. Scattered over a large area are exposed brick structures, including cells, platforms, walls, etc. At one end is a small hangar-shaped structure where you can see some stucco figurines on a low wall, and the history of the excavation as well as details of various artefacts found explained through photographs and sketches. Overlooking the mound is a small museum maintained by the club.

The ruins are overlooked by a small museum and a hangar like structure containing the history of the excavation

According to Atanu Pradhan, a local resident with a keen interest to preserve the archaeological site, the village probably sits on top of the Buddhist settlement. Many a time, villagers have dug up or come across broken pieces of artefacts. Some of them have been displayed in the museum.  

It is believed that the monastery consisted of a central temple complex with rows of cells arranged along the square courtyard surrounding it.  Many of the structures have been built over previously existing ones, according to archaeologists. Comparisons have been made with Nalanda Mahavihara of Bihar and Udaigiri and Lalitgiri in Odisha.

As most of the outdoor excavated area has been sealed up to prevent damage by the natural forces, a member of the local club can help you to understand the layout of the place as well as explain about the partly exposed brick structures. However, do avoid walking over the archaeological remains because they might be structurally weak.

Getting there: Moghalmari (also Mogolmari) is 165 from Kolkata by road. Although off the highway connecting Kolkata with Odisha, there is no direct transport to the site. Best to have your own vehicle. The site may be visited anytime of the year. But avoid peak summer and monsoon. Best time: winter. Remember to carry some kind of protection from the sun/rain as well as drinking water and light snacks. Washroom facility available on request in the adjoining site office.

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