Close to India’s border with Bangladesh lies a Harappan site which has been guarded over diligently by citizens who care for the wealth that lies hidden from plain sight. Without any tangible support to save this vast heritage site, this incredible chapter of history may be lost to us. Put your travel shoes on and make your way to Deganga region of West Bengal, a discovery of this lifetime awaits.
You really shouldn’t trust Google maps when setting out to explore the unknown. It was a hard way of finding out that a heritage site, located just 50 kms from the heart of Kolkata would take me 3 hours to reach! We had to stop thrice, just to stretch our backs from the constant bumping along the tattered roads. Taki, the celebrated border town of Bengal lies just another 10-12 kms from our destination and I had planned to visit the border as well on this trip. But that was my plan, the roads had a different plan altogether.
I had first heard of Chandraketugarh from Goutam Dey, a photographer who lives in Deganga region and has been one of the key people working towards the conservation of the heritage site.
“Chandraketugarh was a flourishing port city between the second to the sixth century BC,” he said. “There is evidence from the early excavations that a river, possibly the Ganga, flowed in these parts and relics from Greece and Rome have been discovered as well to establish that the city was connected, through its port, to major trade centres of the world at the time.”
What is mesmerising about the city, like most others in the Harappan sites, is that archaeologists have not been able to determine why it died. While some say there was a massive flood that submerged the city and forced the population to move inwards towards higher ground, others claim famine or even others have claimed war caused the cities to be stranded. What we do know, for sure, that Chandraketugarh, lies many layers below the land as we see today and the partial sites that were excavated have produced incredible artefacts of great value.
You can imagine my dismay when I saw nothing in plain sight. But to the handful like Goutam Dey, who are fighting a losing battle to ensure that the entire history of Chandraketugarh is not lost, the eyes hold the shimmer of the unseen glory.
The only visible proof of the hidden city lies at a site named ‘Khana Mihirer Dhipi’ where ASI has marked the region and managed to retain the excavated portion. Goutam Dey, who grew up not far from the site, says that being exposed to the elements has already taken a toll on the site. “There used to be a hole in the wall and I would get into the tunnels that lay within. I could not get very far but it was a secret hideout for me,” he said. “Over the past decade, poor restoration efforts have added to the effect of nature. A cement pavement has been mindless laid along the way, blocking that hole and making it impossible to explore the inside anymore.”
I could clearly see the construction pattern and tried to make sense of what the buildings could have looked like all those centuries ago but imagination fails me as I only notice plastic strewn all around and people using the earmarked chapter of heritage as a picnic spot and a smoking joint.
Sensing my dismay, Mr Dey graciously offered to take me to another lesser-visited spot. I wondered if I could finally get a glimpse into that elaborate port city which attracted the world to it.
The flat green landscape that I had been soothing my eyes broke into a bumpy outline and we finally stopped in front of a large mound. A signboard from ASI established that the government acknowledged its presence but there were no fences, no guard, no signs of protection that the heritage site usually has around it. Moving up the mound, I saw farmland stretched out on both sides of the mound and several large trees standing wearily all around. “These 40-50 trees are all the protection that this site has. When the site was originally declared, it stretched for miles all around. Archaeologists were absolutely certain that from the port, close to where we stand right now, Chandraketugarh stretched as far as two of the towns you see today,” Mr Dey shared.
We walked to the far edge of the mound and I could spot the two places that were dug into in the ’70s when excavation had been restarted. Despite repeated excavation efforts and a promise of a museum to be set up last year, no tangible change seems to have taken place to protect the sites.
“The people living around the sites have been asked to keep their distance from affecting the sites. These lands are being used for cultivation and the irrigation channels being dug and the mobile phone towers being set up are harming the heritage that lies under the ground”, shared Mr Dey.
Despite citizen initiatives to protect the land, encroachment continues destroying a yet undefined amount of wealth, just because we cannot see it. “A greater interest in the region to explore the artefacts and regular tourist visits to the sites will help the local population understand that the place is off limits,” he explains. And that important catalyst for change that day, was me. Just by visiting the mounds where once the kingdom of a prosperous king, Chandraketu, once stood, can go a long way to ensure it stays alive, even if beyond our line of sight.
As and when Chandraketugarh is excavated and its wealth brought to light, we will finally understand the connection between the Harrapan settlements of the North and this prosperous port in the East. As of now, several relics discovered from the excavations at Chandraketugarh can be seen at Ashutosh Museum.
Plan your visit to Chandraketugarh, near Kolkata, with Mr Goutam Dey and stand on a mound and see history unfold before your eyes. There are not a lot of good accommodation options available to stay, so make sure you plan your return from Barichampa (closest town to Chandraketugarh) well in advance. Deganga region is also connected by train and I plan to explore that on my next visit to the City of Joy.
— Text and photos by Susmita Mukherjee