Things that make you to Think

A City Hidden in Darkness

The hidden city of Bhitargarh discovered in Panchagarh and the threat that looms over this historical site.

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There used to be a king named Prithu, commonly known as Prithu Raja or Maharaja, who ruled parts of the Indian Subcontinent. A lot of relics from his time that have survived the ravages of time are named after him, such as Maharajar Bhita, Maharajar Kacharighar and the famous Maharajar Dighi. From what can be found about him in the history, Prithu Raja was well-liked by his subjects; recounts of British surveyor Buchanan, who visited Prithu Raja’s fallen kingdom in the early 19th century, vouch for that. The Hindu locals that he came across during his visit considered Prithu Raja to be “a holy personage, who was much afraid of having his purity sullied, for which, on the approach of an abominable tribe of impure feeders named Kichok, he threw himself into a pond, and was followed by all his guards, so that the town was given up for plundering, and the family ceased to reign.”

Prithu Raja ruled his kingdom during the end of the 6th century. He was forced to flee to Kamarupa after losing a battle, according to Professor Dr Shahnaj Husne Jahan, an archaeologist who wrote a paper on the history of Prithu Raja. The defeated king then settled in Bhitargarh and founded a city.

The place where Bhitargarh used to exist evolved into what is now known as Panchagarh, the extreme northwest district of Bangladesh. The entire city of Prithu Raja was discovered in Panchagarh in 2008 by Dr Jahan, who continues her excavations on this site.

Sadly, Prithu Raja of the 6th century and his Bhitargarh city received little light in this region’s historical accounts, until now.

What is more surprising is that this seemingly insignificant settlement is now being considered as the country’s largest archaeological site, covering an area of 25 sq-km, and has stood the test of time for almost 1,400 years. Bhitargarh is now regarded as a place of great importance not only for the history of Bangladesh, but the history of the entire South Asia.

The site, which is about 459 kilometres away from the capital city, is yet to be declared as a heritage site and gazetted under the Antiquity Act 1968. Neither has it been included as the protected site in the list of the Department of Archaeology (DoA) under the Bangladesh government. No wonder this ancient fortified settlement is far from getting logistics support.

While visiting this site, this reporter also found that this vast city is under severe threat, having already been damaged by the ignorant locals as well as some corrupt people for years, due to lack of concern on the government’s part. This is despite a rule issued by the High Court (HC) on 14 June 2011 to the Director-General (DG) of DoA, the deputy commissioner (DC) of Panchagarh and the Superintendent of Police (SP) of Panchagarh asking why a direction should not be imposed upon them to protect and maintain this historical site, also instructing them to take necessary steps for continuous monitoring within Bhitargarh so that no one can destroy/damage any existing part of this site.

However, despite the HC order, this reporter found that a Zilla Parishad Rest House was recently constructed upon the western bank of Maharajar Dighi by the Panchagarh Zilla Parishad itself. The ancient bricks casing the embankment that leads to the central ghat was also damaged as two stairways were built in 2009 in the name of its development, the initiative taken by Majharul Haque Pradhan,

Member of Parliament from Panchagarh-1, which were inaugurated in the presence of the then district administrator Banamali Bhowmik. Furthermore, some opportunists are causing damage to the Fort as they carry on their corrupt activities.

While speaking with Ahmed Kabir, the additional district commissioner (ADC) of Panchagarh, this reporter asked why the rest house was built in a historical site. He replied, “We were not aware of the Fort while constructing the house. We were instructed to break it down; we did as we were told.”

Some local people, all of whom requested anonymity, told this reporter, “Some dishonest local government officials are involved in providing government-owned lands to the ‘landless’ people within the Bhitargarh Fort area and Bodeswari Fort in Boda upazila.”

Interestingly, when asked about this matter, ADC Kabir avoided answering. Despite such obstacles and lack of logistic support from the government, excavations within the entire area have been ongoing since its discovery in 2008.

Archaeologists believe that, if the excavations are completed without any disruptions, the nation will come to know a very intriguing part of our past. It will also open a new window to the history of South Asia besides bringing a significant progress to the country’s heritage.

About Bhitargarh Fort City

Bhitargarh Fort city is located at Bhitargarh Mouja and Sonarban Mouja of Amarkhana Union, which is nearly 16 kilometres from Panchagarh Sadar Thana, about 443 kilometres from Dhaka city.

According to many archaeologists, this settlement is believed to have been hidden under the eastern bank of the River Talma for almost 1,400 years. The most significant fact about this ancient fort is, as Dr Jahan discovered, that it is enclosed within four concentric quadrangles built with ramparts and moats, something that has never been seen in any other fortified sites in the country.

Structural remains of the ramparts, constructed with soil as well as brick, still stand in the site. The city has 10 ancient ponds; among them, Maharajar Dighi is the largest, which covers 53 acres of land. Interestingly, except one, all of these ponds are situated on the east as there used to be rivers on the west within this site.

Based on the data obtained from the archaeological explorations and excavations, Dr Jahan says, “Some time between the 6th and 10th centuries, Bhitargarh was an independent city-state governed by a sovereign administrative system.

“Bhitargarh played an important role in trade because of its strategic location on the ancient overland and riverine routes connecting Tibet, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, Assam, Cooch Bihar and the regions of the middle and lower Ganges valleys,” She adds.

“I want to discover its entire city plan – a complete lay-out of the city. I want to know about its irrigation system, market place, entrance and exit, its population and their engineering and technological situations, construction process and water management system, the environment, climate and rainfall, etc, as well as the political, social and religious conditions of Bhitargarh,” she shares with this reporter.

Dr Jahan hopes that further study will expose more details on the city-state after the currently ongoing archaeological excavations are finished.

Digging out the Past

There are around 250 archaeological sites in the district of Panchagarh. Archaeologists were first acquainted with Bhitargarh Fort only by its name. It was Dr Jahan, born in Tetulia upazila under the district, who first brought light on this dark and hidden city.

However, after her illustration to the historical significance of Bhitargarh through scientific explanation and research, she started to conduct excavation at the site after acquiring permission from DoA.

Meanwhile, being a professor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), she brought her university and its students into her project. Due to its involvement in this project, ULAB has been offering a general education course titled “Experiencing the Past”, which provides the students with a practical knowledge about excavation techniques, survey method and the heritage of our country.

Dr Jahan has already prepared a topographic map of the entire site with the help of field documentation using global positioning system (GPS), spot satellite images and mauza maps.

During her four-year excavation, she has discovered the brick ramparts of first and second enclosures, foundation of seven monuments including a pyramidal structure with two projected pillared hall, possibly a Buddhist stupa, and three temples including a cruciform temple. They are situated in the first quadrangle, which can be roughly dated to the 6th or 7th century.

The professor says, “It is the most important archaeological discovery in the region and is expected to shed some light on the past cultural landscape of Panchagarh district in particular and Bangladesh in general.”

The Continuous Damage
While visiting this area, this reporter found that most of the people are more or less aware of Bhitargarh Fort and its significance. Before 2008, however, they only knew that there was a king named Prithu Raja because of the Maharajar Dighi, as it was visible. However, as Dr Jahan conducts seminars, photo exhibitions and door-to-door visits, people are much aware about this archaeological site and its importance.

However, corruption persists here as well, and it continues to bring harm to Bhitargarh. In spite of the HC order, projects of Assort Plus Ltd, ACI Poultry and Selilan Tea and Estate Ltd have been taking place, carrying on activities that directly cause damage to the Fort. Besides, local people unknowingly keep causing harm to the site while carrying on with their daily lives.

Some have been found constructing building or walls, which are also responsible for the destruction. People are also found to be taking off bricks for different purposes. Ongoing construction of a mosque has been found in front of Maharajar Dighi, while a majar sharif
(mausoleum for prominent Muslim personalities) has already been established on the northern rampart of the first quadrangle.T

The Antiquity Act 1968 states a strict prohibition of any sort of damage on any archaeological site in the country. The 19th section of this act says, “Under section 12, no person shall, except for carrying out the purposes of this Act, destroy, break, damage, alter, injure, deface or mutilate, or scribble, write or engrave any inscription or sign on any antiquity, in respect of which the Director has accepted guardianship or the Central Government has acquired any right.”

Archaeological experts and concerned people agree that individual effort to discover and protect the country’s historical sites will never be enough – only the government can provide this support to save our heritage. According to them, as people living in the area have acquired ownership of the lands that fall inside the heritage site over time, they can only be requested and motivated to refrain from doing anything that might cause damage to the site.

Nothing is Impossible

The entire Panchagarh district covers an area of 1404.53 sq-km and Bhitargarh Fort takes a tiny portion of only 25 sq-km in the region. Its historical significance, however, goes beyond the country’s 147,570 sq-km area. It has much importance from historical and archaeological
perspectives. By studying its four enclosures which have not been seen in any other fortified
settlements, its irrigation system created by building stone embankments, its communication system and constructions, historians can get more insight into how life used to be in 6th-century ‘Bengal’.

Dr Jahan believes that, with support of the government, the Bhitargarh Fort City can be protected, preserved and can add valuable information that would enrich our history. It can also boost the country’s tourism sector, which in turn could help alleviate the unemployment situation in Panchagarh.

Archaeological experts of the country have already agreed that Bhitargarh is, indeed, the largest heritage site with much significance and adds so much to our legacy. They all firmly
believe that the government should make an effort to protect this site from suffering any more damage, taking immediate steps to help the ongoing excavations and research to be successful. Without the government’s direct involvement, little can be done in the long run to save this significant source of history.

This story was published at Morning Tea, a weekly magazine of The Daily Sun.

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