The untold history of the Sundarbans

The untold history of the Sundarbans

January 28, 2014

Ancient artefacts collected by two fishermen over 25 years may rewrite the history of the Sundarbans – or Bengal, in fact. It is generally believed that habitation in the wild, mysterious islands started because of the British but the fishermen’s untaught conservation and recent explorations indicate that human settlements here date back to the 3rd-century BC.


Artefacts found in Gobardhanpur



The unknown past

They knew it was something important. For 25 years they zealously collected the relics and kept visiting government officials to draw their attention but in vain. They believed these were remains of an ancient civilization and their instinct has proven true.

The collections of the fishermen in Gobardhanpur in Pathar Pratima block of South 24-Parganas have got the stamp of approval of the state archaeology directorate.

Gobardhanpur is a small hamlet of about 200 fishermen that is brushed by the sea. It was while taking their boat deep into the waters of the Sundarbans that the two school dropout brothers, Biswajit and Bimal Shaw would come across terracotta potsherds, figurines, artefacts and fossilised bones.


Their persistence brought them to the archaeological directorate recently, where experts were left speechless by their findings. The directorate rushed exploration teams to the zone and has concluded that human settlements existed at Gobardhanpur and its vicinity as early as the 3rd-century BC. It lasted till 3rd-century AD and after a gap, the relics indicate a new civilization from the 7th-century AD.

The directorate is mulling an extensive exploration in Gobardhanpur this fiscal. The dense forest and dangerous terrain will make excavation difficult. Also, the archaeologists will need special permission and a lot of protection if the excavation takes them to protected zones in the tiger reserve.


The Gobardhanpur beach



“We have found a large number of antiquities dating back to the early historic times (3rd-century BC to 3rd-century AD) that point out to human habitation at the Sundarbans. This is certainly exciting news for us, setting the stage for further investigations,” said Gautam Sengupta, director of state archaeology directorate.

History to be rewritten

While pottery sherds have been found in the thousands, the most common terracotta human figure is that of a woman with a child in her lap – commonly believed to be that of the Mother Goddess. A large number of animal figures of rams with pronounced horns, bulls, buffaloes and deer have also been found.

The most significant absence is that of tiger figurines.

“Bricks from the early historic period and early medieval period have also been found. You will be amazed at the different kinds of hairdo women would indulge in at that time as is evident from the figurines of yakshinis. Some interesting antiquities like remnants of clay pyres, pieces of weapons and even water filters have been found,” said Amal Roy, deputy director of state archaeology directorate.


A view of Gobardhanpur



The directorate has collected about 500 antiquities of which 250 have been documented. “Gobardhanpur has the capacity of opening up a treasure trove. We will concentrate on it as soon as we complete our excavation in Moghalmari, West Midnapore, where we will bring a Buddhist monastery to life,” Roy said.

Parting thought

What is perhaps most interesting that the discovery will rekindle a long-running standing debate on British colonial historiography, which has always implied that the inaccessible Sundarbans were brought under human habitation by the British through the much talked about ‘lot and plot’ method. “The antiquities clearly point out to a much older indigenous civilization, thus calling for a new debate,” Sengupta added.

The directorate will set up a museum to protect and preserve the more than 15,000 artefacts that have been collected by the Shaw brothers and people of the locality.

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