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16 April 2006
The pillage of Bengal's ancient history

The economy in this small, nondescript pocket of rural Bengal is booming. And not due to a miraculous leap in agricultural yield but the highly lucrative business of smuggling priceless antiques, including ivory and gold objects, and exquisite terracotta art, out of the country. Located 40 kilometres northwest of Calcutta (India), Chandraketugarh is a treasure trove of antiques, some dating back to 650 BCE. These are being dug up by locals who form the first link in international gangs of smugglers. There has been little effort to prevent the looting of this rich archaeological site, which has been going on for at least two decades now. The find tells the story of a rich urban civilisation that was once a centre of maritime trade dating to sixth century BCE.
     What makes the looting particularly tragic is that these relics could have unveiled little-known aspects of ancient civilisation in Gangetic Bengal. A.H. Longhurst, a renowned British archaeologist, visited the site in 1907, followed by Rakhaldas Bandopadhyay (the man behind the excavations at Mohenjodaro) in 1909. Both noted that detailed studies and extensive excavation of the site was necessary. Sadly, Chandraketugarh remained neglected for decades, save for limited excavations by Kunja Gobinda Goswami of Calcutta University's archaeology department, from 1955 to 1963, and by the ASI a few years ago. The area, which was covered with forests four decades back, is now thickly populated, precluding any possibility of large-scale excavations. It has, thus, become a happy hunting ground for smugglers who commission diggings in privately owned land. Treasures from this site can be seen in the world's leading museums, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
     Instead of acting to prevent the brazen looting of the site, government authorities are locked in a blame game. The Archaeological Survey of India's superintending archaeologist, Bimal Bandopadhyay, told Outlook it's the state administration's job to stop these illegal activities. Gautam Sengupta, West Bengal's director of archaeology and museums, blames the ASI for not giving enough importance to any ancient site in Bengal. Since the land is privately owned now, little can be done to stop anyone from digging his own plot of land for antiques. These are smuggled out through many routes, primarily Bangladesh and Nepal, mostly to the West and Japan.
     Though no textual references to Chandraketugarh have been found, Bandopadhyay believes that references by Ptolemy in the second century CE and in Periplus of the Aerythrean Sea (1st century CE) to "highly developed people of Gangaridae (in eastern India) whose capital city was Gangei" could relate to it. But most historians say no firm conclusion can be drawn about this ancient civilisation. The only way a definite conclusion can be drawn is by carrying out more excavations and studying in greater detail the antiques dug up from Chandraketugarh. But with excavations ruled out and the best of its treasures out of the reach of historians, Chandraketugarh may forever remain an enigma.

Source: Outlook India (17 April 2006)

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