Gold coins from the Gupta period dating back to around 1,700 years ago, as well as ancient jars, seals and statues, sit in retired postal employee Chitta Ranjan Biswas’s home. It is the site of an unusual village museum in Debagram, in West Bengal’s Nadia district, holding artefacts found across the area, particularly along an ancient and now-extinct river known in historical records as the Marali.
It was the river that started it all, all those centuries ago and indeed in recent years. Biswajit Roy, a geography professor who lives near Debagram, was studying palaeo-channels (ancient, long-extinct rivers) for his PhD when he stumbled upon scores of pot shards near a mound that promised more. This was in 2012.
Roy decided to take his finds to the villagers of Debagram, and together they have since made numerous more: pottery, seals, coins, sculptures from what is now referred to as the Debalgarh site. Most have come from across a 20-sq-km area that holds numerous ponds, with glimpses of built-and-now-buried structures all through as well.
A local committee was set up to preserve and protect these artefacts. By 2016, the collection had grown so large that Roy began to work with the villagers to find it a proper home. Biswas volunteered the space. A neighbour donated cases to house the artefacts in. The museum was opened in 2017 (it’s free and open all week).
This room, then, holds gold coins most likely issued during the reigns of Samudragupta (who ruled from about 330 to 380 CE); terracotta seals with a lotus motif; several Bengal-made amphoras (inspired by the tall jars with two handles and a slender neck used in ancient times in the Mediterranean region). All of which suggests that the ancient town had a bustling trade, wealthy merchants and extensive connections with distant lands.
Even today, new artefacts are being added. Locals routinely turn up more when working in fields or during construction. Almost a dozen stone sculptures of Goddess Tara (estimated to be from the 10th to 11th century CE) and of Vishnu (c 8th to 9th century CE) have been found. A palm-sized metal sculpture of the rare Muchalinda form of the Buddha (as a meditative figure guarded by a giant hooded snake; c 5th to 6th century CE) has also been recovered.
The museum and the findings have drawn attention from time to time. In 2018, the monthly bulletin of the Asiatic Society described Debagram as a new destination for archaeo-tourism in West Bengal.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has not yet excavated at or visited the Debalgarh site. Shubha Majumder, ASI superintending archaeologist for the Kolkata Circle, says there are plans to. Work has been underway across the archaeologically rich Nadia district, he says. “In March 2020, we were planning to explore the Debalgarh site but that did not work out due to the pandemic. We are hoping to visit the site either this year or next.”
There are so many such sites across West Bengal, Majumder adds, that local museums have come up from time to time, in villages, at local libraries. “In the case of the museum at Debagram, we have asked Roy to register all the artefacts recovered, which will eventually be formally registered as per the provisions of the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972.”
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