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Discovery of a pre-pala Monastic Complex at Moghalmari, West Bengal.



The village of Moghalmari (21[degrees]57' N and 87[degrees]16' E) is in the district of Paschim Medinipur, about 5.2 kilometres north of Dantan town and 46 kilometres south of Kharagpur railway station on National Highway 60 (figure 1). This part of Paschim Medinipur belongs to the Dakshina Rarha (Rarh] region. The major drainage system of the area around Moghalmari is the River Suvarnarekha with its numerous spill channels. The site was originally located on the left bank of the Suvarnarekha, but now the river flows about 4.5 kilometres west of Moghalmari. There are also a number of other water sources like tanks and ponds (dighis) which are special features of the Rarh region.

Historical background

According to early historical literary sources, the area in and around Dantan formed either part of the Suhma territory or an extension of the geographical orbit of the trading port of Tamralipta. From the 7th century cE it came to be known as Dandabhukti, a major provincial administrative division under the rule of Sasanka (604-624 CE). Epigraphic evidence from this region suggests that the area formed part of the Dandabhukti mandala in the 11th century under the control of the Kamboja ruler Nayapala (1030-55 CE). The territory around Dantan has often been taken to have constituted a part of the early medieval (6th-7th centuries CE) geopolitical unit called Dakshina Rarh and has been equated with 7th-century Dandabhukti. The prosperity of the region in that period in terms of both polity and culture is unquestionable in the light of consistent discoveries of epigraphic and artefactual remains here from time to time.

The archaeological remains of Moghalmari represent the most extensive evidence of early medieval culture in the region. It may be pointed out here in this connection that the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang who visited Bengal in 638 CE immediately after Sasanka's reign, has referred to the existence of four kingdoms in Bengal- Pundravardhana (northern Bengal) with 20 monasteries and 3,000 monks; Samatata (southeastern Bangladesh) with 30 monasteries and 2,000 monks; Tamralipta (modern Tamluk and adjoining areas) with 10 monasteries and 1,000 monks; and Karnasuvarna (Murshidabad) with 10 monasteries and 2,000 monks. In the context of this observation by the Chinese pilgrim, Debala Mitra (1980, p. 238) in her famous book Buddhist Monuments says: "It is a great regret that the vestiges of not a single establishment have so far been identified at modern Tamluk." The present discovery of a monastic complex at Moghalmari is therefore a significant landmark in the history of Bengal and vindicates the pilgrim's observation for the first time. In fact, the monastic complex at Moghalmari did not grow in isolation. Both literary and archaeological evidences indicate that the site was in the close vicinity of a trade route connecting Tamralipta with other Buddhist monuments beyond the Suvarnarekha--Jayrampur, Basta, Khiching, Baleswar, Pushpagiri (Lalitgiri) of Orissa or Oddra, as well as Nalanda and Bodhgaya of ancient Magadha. The prosperity of the Moghalmari monastic complex during the 5th/6th century CE was no doubt a result of its proximity to this trade route.

Excavations at Moghalmari

The village of Moghalmari was selected for excavation in 2003-04 by the Department of Archaeology, University of Calcutta. (1) Before undertaking the excavation programme, different parts of both Purva (East) and Paschim (West) Medinipur were explored extensively to understand the potential of the area. These explorations yielded a large number of archaeological materials including inscribed Buddhist and Brahmanical stone sculptures, an inscribed terracotta seal (figure 2), different varieties of pottery of the 6th-7th centuries, and a Sultanate coin dated to 1473-74. After intensive explorations at various localities of Moghalmari village, two sectors (designated as MGM1 and MGM2) were selected. In 2006-07 more extensive excavations were carried out and one more sector, MGM3, was identified as a potential area. The major objectives of excavation at Moghalmari were:

a. To expose the structural remains at MGM1 in order to ascertain its character in totality.

b. To identify, if possible, the remains from Moghalmari with those of early medieval Dandabhukti.

c. To establish the cultural sequence of the site and correlate its different components in order to comprehensively demonstrate the settlement pattern.


MGM1 represents a large structural mound (80 x 80 metres) with bricks strewn all over its surface. Locally called Sakhisener Dhibi or Sashisener Dhibi (the mound of Sakhisena/Sashisena), this mound is the largest of its kind not only at Moghalmari but in the whole of the neighbouring region. MGM2 is a habitation site within the modern settlement area of the village to its north. It is associated with five circular brick bases of stupas (votive?) and has evidence of pottery scattered all over the surface. MGM3 is located about 200 metres south and southeast of MGM2 and again represents a habitation. The layout of excavations at MGM1 was depicted in horizontal plan after Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Since one of the basic objectives of excavation was to expose the buried structure of MGM1, we divided the mound into 144 grids or trenches covering a total area of 5,184 square metres. Each trench measures 6 x 6 metres. In 2003-04, altogether 14 trenches, nine in the western part of the mound and five in the southern part, were taken up for excavation covering a total area of 504 square metres. The trenches were partially or fully exposed at different levels according to requirements.

The mound of MGM1 rises up to 8 metres from ground level. Besides other antiquities, structural remains have been identified in all the trenches of this mound. A 26.53-metre burnt brick structure forming a triratha projection has been exposed in the western part of the mound running north-south. It appears from the alignment of the structure that this wall formed part of a small monastic complex. The width of the wall varies between 1.89 and 2 metres, and its height from the plinth is 1.13 metres. The excavation at MGM1 has also yielded some regular rectangular/ square structures (which may be called cells) attached to the outer wall on the southern part of the mound. Some of the completely exposed cells measure 3.20 x 2.80 metres and 2.45 x 2.35 metres.

The excavation of MGM2 in 2003-04 revealed three circular brick structures with diameters of 2.80, 2, and 1.25 metres (figure 3). It is clear in the light of the character of the site as well the material assemblages that these huge regular circular brick structures were originally the bases of stupas. Altogether five such structures have been found, suggesting that the main large stupa might have been located somewhere near these. The ceramic industry as well as other associated cultural remains of MGM2 suggest its close association with the post-Gupta cultural phase (6th-7th centuries CE). However below this cultural level, there was a long time gap in the cultural history of the site as indicated by a 55-centimetre silt deposit which is totally devoid of any human artefact. Below this silt deposit which may have been a result of flooding of the river, there was a Black and Red Ware (BRW) cultural deposit 1.46 metres deep, represented in layers 5 and 6. Besides such representatives of the BRW culture, the typical type was Red Ware with white painting.

In 2006-07 a more extensive excavation was undertaken. Altogether 21 trenches covering a total area of 750 square metres, 20 in MGM1 and one in MGM3, were taken up for excavation. The trenches were excavated partially or fully at different levels as per requirements. Of the 20 trenches, eight were in the western part of the mound. The basic objective here was to trace the triratha (with three projections) plan of the structure which had been partially exposed in 2003-04. But the major emphasis was given to the eastern part of the mound where as many as 12 trenches were taken up for excavation with the objective of tracing the entrance of the monastic complex.


However, instead of the entrance of the monastic complex, we encountered an extensive wall running north-south. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that the entire wall excavated to a depth of 3.75 metres was found plastered with stucco over exquisitely decorated moulded bricks (figures 4 and 5]. The major area of decoration was found between 50 and 118 centimetres below the surface. The bricks were of a uniform range in depth and thickness. From a comparative study of other excavated monastic sites in eastern India, it appears that this wall possibly formed part of the outermost wall of the eastern temple of the monastery. (2) The excavation further reveals that there were at least two phases of structural activity (if not more) as evidenced by the presence of a still earlier structural phase in the western part of the mound. However, the most notable discovery of 2006-07 is a Buddha image in slate stone from a stratified level of MGM1 (figure 6). The image, measuring 24 x 14 centimetres, was found at a depth of approximately 1 metre.



In 2006-07, the triratha plan of the monastic complex in the western part of the mound, partially exposed in 2003-04, was recovered. The measurement of this complex is 22 x 22 metres. This complex belonged to the late medieval period (14th-17th centuries CE]; the plan of the larger complex of the earlier structural phase is yet to be recovered. Only the eastern part of the temple complex with extensive stucco decoration in the eastern part of the mound and the monastic wall with lime plaster in the western part have been exposed.

Among the notable finds at MGM3, from a single trench measuring 6 x 6 metres, at a depth of 1.96 metres, were evidences of iron smelting activities, ceramics of various types, and a terracotta seal matrix. The upper 28-30-centimetre deposit in this trench was disturbed while the rest is stratified. The excavation in this trench continued to 3.80 metres below the surface without reaching virgin soil. The deposit is characterized by profuse brick activity.


The first season of excavations at Moghalmari resulted in the partial exposure of a huge brick structure with its extensive walls, square chambers, and brick paved platforms at MGM1. The triratha plan of the structure in the western part of the mound, the discovery of a Buddhist terracotta sealing, numerous terracotta lamps, and huge quantities of grey, buff, and red pottery with the occasional exposure of typically Gupta applique pottery--all these evidences from MGM1 together with the circular brick structures from MGM2 clearly indicated that the complex was a religious one, Buddhist to be more precise. Besides, at MGM2, the excavation revealed a 1.5-metre-thick deposit of BRW culture at the lowest level--crucial and significant evidence that the site was probably deserted for centuries, to be settled again in the early medieval period.

The more extensive excavations in 2006-07 confirmed these indications beyond doubt. The excavations revealed the existence of a pre-Pala monastic establishment exhibiting two distinct phases of structural activity. Even earlier excavations had revealed a third structural phase at a still lower level, probably representing the earliest structural phase at MGM1. The earlier phase is represented by a large monastery with a frontal temple complex on the eastern side. The outer wall of the temple, its brickrammed external platform at a depth of 3.75 metres from surface level, represents possibly the most extensive architectural stucco art creation in the whole of the delta. Unprecedented as it appears, the variations in the style and theme represent a unique idiom and technical excellence in craftsmanship. Plastered with thin lime and/or stucco and constructed with a variety of plain and decorated bricks set in mud mortar, the structures at Moghalmari definitely parallel those at Nalanda, Karnasuvarna, and other pre-Pala monastic establishments of eastern India. A large number (22 types have been identified) of foliated and geometric motifs with unique proportions and style were found in the temple complex.


Moghalmari possibly exhibits the largest monastic site so far discovered in West Bengal. Its Buddhist character is unquestionably proved by the discovery of a stone image of the Buddha in bhumisparsha mudra. A large number of antiquities including terracotta lamps, two stone pestles, cowrie shells, iron nails, spindle whorls in stone, and a variety of pottery fragments characterize the archaeological assemblage of MGM1.

Excavations at MGM3 (primarily a site of habitation contemporary to MGM1) have resulted in the discovery of some major material evidences, of which the assemblage related to iron smelting activity demands special attention. A large number of iron objects and a huge quantity of charcoal have been found at different depths. However, the most important discovery from this trench is the inscribed terracotta seal matrix containing four indistinct incuses, each bearing the name of a person, at least two of which can be read probably as Srivarma. The script represents the eastern variety of post-Gupta Brahmi datable to the 7th-8th centuries CE.

Excavations at the site of Moghalmari have thus revealed that it was in continuous habitation from the BRW cultural phase after which it was deserted for centuries to be inhabited again only in the early medieval (historic) period. This means that the early historic phase at Moghalmari is absent, the reasons for which are still obscure. The problem can only be solved through more extensive excavation. However, the site demonstrates a unique archaeological character in having been one of the few early medieval settlement sites in eastern India where both religious and non-religious habitation segments can be clearly demarcated through excavated archaeological materials as well as the nature of settlement structures. Further excavation at the site is expected to yield more detailed information about the plan of the monastic complexes and settlement character. The site of Moghalmari containing rich evidence of our early cultural heritage, demands immediate protection, preservation, and further excavation before its archaeological character is lost through human encroachment on the mound or vandalism.


The Department of Archaeology, University of Calcutta expresses its deep sense of gratitude to those who rendered immense help during the excavation. As director of excavation, I would like to express my sincere thanks and gratitude to Shri Narendranath Biswas of Dantan who actually gave me the information about this mound when I visited Dantan in 1996 and then again in 2000. I first visited the site along with my colleague Dr Mallar Mitra who was then Head of the Department, and having seen the potentiality of the structural mound and the habitation area within the village, we decided to take up excavation at the site. Unfortunately the idea did not materialize as she fell sick. In 2003 when I took charge of the Department, I immediately decided to undertake the excavation, and I am grateful to Dr Mitra for giving me the idea. I am also grateful to Professor B.N. Mukherjee for reading of the terracotta seal inscription. I express my deep sense of gratitude to Professor Asish Banerjee, Vice-Chancellor, and Professor Suranjan Das, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (A), University of Calcutta, for constant support. I express my sincere thanks to Professor Amiya Bagchi and Professor Ramakrishna Chatterjee for their help and cooperation. I am especially grateful to Professor Bhaskar Chakraborti for giving me the idea of holding an exhibition on the excavated materials in the University which was very successful. Thanks are due to Shri Surya Nandi and Alok Nandi of Dantan for their help. I am grateful to Minister Shri Nanda Gopal Bhattacharyya who extended all possible help and assured me of financial help for future large-scale excavation and preservation of the monuments, l am also grateful to Shri Prabod Panda, MP who visited the site and assured me of financial help for this project. I also would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Dr Gopal Chouley, former Director, ASI and Dr S.K. Mitra who visited the site at different times and gave fruitful suggestions. My special thanks to Mr A.K. Das who was in constant touch with us during the whole excavation. Last but not least I am obliged to Dr Pratapaditya Pal who took the initiative to publish this brief preliminary report in Marg.


(1) The excavation was directed by this writer assisted by Dr R.K. Chattopadhyay, Dr B. Basak, Dr D. Basu (faculty members), Rajat Sanyal, Sharmila Saha, Munmun Mandal, Sharmistha Chatterjee (Ph.D. students), Tanmoy Gantait, Subhasis Pal (technical staff), Dulal Sen, Santosh Saha, San joy Mondal (office staff), Dakshinaranjan Malty, Subhendu Mukherjee, and others.

(2) Buddhist monasticism in India had much in common with monastic establishments in other parts of the world. Monasteries were erected in wild and desolate places undisturbed by any human environment. The Indian monastery, modelled in the form of dwelling-cum-educational unit with temple within followed an age-old tradition, and became widespread in the post-Gupta period throughout India. The temple inside the complex also had some economic significance as considerable amounts of money and food were required for maintaining the huge establishment, which came from the offerings made by devotees and pilgrims visiting the temple.
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Author:Datta, Asok
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2007
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