Exploring the ruins of a Jain temple in Paschim Medinipur

One morning while having tea and cream crackers, I was browsing through Chitralekha, local magazine on arts and culture, when I came across a short photo-essay by Prof. T.T. Mukherjee of Dantan Bhatter College on an abandoned centuries-old Jain temple only a few miles away from Medinipur town. I perked up. Although there are Buddhist sites scattered across Bengal, I had not heard of any ancient Jain temples in the region. I did know that the southern part of Bengal, including most of Purba and Paschim Medinipur districts had been a part of the kingdoms of rulers of Kalinga. Quickly researching the topic, I found out that the early rulers of the eastern Ganga dynasty did patronize Jainism, giving credence to the theory that any abandoned Jain temples had to be at least 600 (and more likely 900-1000) years-old.

What was more amazing to me was the fact that there was such a site right across the Kangsabati river from my hometown that I had never heard of! When I spoke to family members and friends, they were clueless as well. The only person I spoke to who could provide reliable information on its existence was a poet and essayist who had visited it years earlier. I searched for the precise location on Google Maps and found that at least one person who had visited it had been kind enough to drop a label. So, armed with confirmation from an article, an eyewitness, and a map I headed out to see if I could find the ruins.

On the way, we asked for directions and found that many villagers had no idea what we were talking about. We drove very close to the estimated location on the map, and knew we were on the right track when we saw fragments of architectural structures in front of farmers’ homes. There were a few that were used as milestones as well.  One person enjoying tea at a roadside stall was able to point us in the right direction, but road conditions deteriorated rapidly.

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Finally, after slowly plodding through a dusty trail that passed farmers’ homes and brick kilns, we reached a courtyard in front of a hut. Two women were soaking in the winter sun on charpoys. Two small children were looking at us with puzzled expressions on their faces.

We crossed the courtyard careful not to trample on the paddy that was drying there. Then we saw the structures. The farmers had tied their cows to the stones of the ruined temple. It was difficult to spot the structure, which must not have been more than 20-feet high, because the entire roof was covered with leafy vines. We pushed away cows grazing in the vicinity and entered the ruins. I was encouraged to go further because it was winter – not much of my skin was exposed and I didn’t have to worry about snakes.

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In the central sanctum was a centuries-old stone statue of Mahavira to which someone had more recently applied sindoor. In the outer part of the temple the roof had given way in many places. Without any efforts at conservation, the entire structure will collapse soon.

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In every village in Bengal there are temples that are centuries old that are still in use. However, none that I’ve seen are quite as old as the ruins of the Jain temple at Jinsar. It is possible this temple fell into a state of disrepair because of lack of patronage from locals, none of whom were practicing Jains.

Who built this temple? How old is it? We may never know.

That is the beauty of traveling. You only need the willingness to travel and to talk to strangers, plus a GPS-enabled device to have an adventure.

(An earlier version of this post was published as a column at M3.tv)

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A visit to the Buddhist monastery complex at Moghalmari

Driving on a straight stretch of National Highway-60 from Medinipur to Balasore, you would be forgiven for missing the small sign unbefitting one of the most significant archaeological sites discovered in Bengal. After all, the sleepy hamlet Moghalmari, is similar to others in the southern part of Paschim Medinipur district, close to the border with Odisha. But after traversing a few hundred metres off the highway, you come across an impressive hillock, which locals refer to as the “mound of Sakhisena” and the “mound of Sashisena”. My own native village is in the vicinity so I’m familiar with the area, but even a day-trip will acquaint the casual observer with the geography of the region and to that the fact that this is an anomaly since most of the region is very flat.

In 1996, a local schoolteacher, Narendranath Biswas, informed Asok Datta, a professor of archaeology at the University of Calcutta about various ancient-looking artifacts villagers were finding near this mound. A very large number of medieval coins with Buddhist inscriptions, shards of pottery, and ornate bricks were being discovered.

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In 2003, the mound and two other adjacent sites were selected for excavation by Dr. Datta. This small village, Moghalmari was hypothesized to be a part of a flourishing ancient center known as Dandabhukti. Further, just as today the village is situated just off of a national highway, in antiquity, it was thought to be on a trade route connecting Tamralipta, one of the most important ports in Buddhist times, to other sites of significance to Buddhism.

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Further examination of the site led Dr. Datta and his team to believe that the Subarnarekha River, which now flows approximately 4 kilometers southwest of Moghalmari was close to the mound, further strengthening the argument that the village was once a center of Buddhist learning.

Excavation began in earnest, but proceeded slowly through five stages over nearly a decade, more often hampered by lack of sustained funding and bureaucratic bottlenecks, than by any shift in significance. Excavations leading up to 2012 revealed that the mound was the site of an extensive Buddhist monastery complex built over centuries and perhaps as early as the sixth century, the likes of which have yet to be discovered elsewhere in Bengal. Many human figures including that of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, bowls, terracotta lamps, tablets for worship, and seals were found within the central region surrounded by massive brick walled structures ornately decorated with stucco panels and floral motifs.

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A brick stupa was discovered in 2012 along with proto-Bengali scripts. Shortly before Dr. Datta’s death in 2012, he wrote in a local magazine, Ebong Shayak that “Moghalmari possibly exhibits the largest monastic site so far discovered in Bengal.”

Not much has been gleaned about the Buddhist monastery complex at Moghamlari from the standard texts of the time that historians rely on for information. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) may have alluded to it in 638, when he visited Tamralipta, but he did not mention any specific name. Tamralipta is extensively mentioned by Xuanzang and Faxian (Fa Hien) before him, but to date, no archaeological site corresponding to this major Buddhist centre has been discovered. As such, Moghalmari may be the best preserved site in the vicinity and could hold the key to unraveling the secrets of Buddhist society in Bengal at that time.

I visited the mound at Moghalmari in October, 2012. Up until that time, only small areas of the mound that had been excavated by Dr. Datta’s team. The area had not been cordoned off by the Archaeological Survey of India. In fact, the only sign mentioning the historic significance of the Buddhist complex at the location had been erected by a club of local citizens, who had also taken up the important task of safeguarding the excavated sites. Some relics had been shipped to Kolkata, while others had been kept in a small clubhouse converted into an archive. We were the only visitors that day.

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This was in marked contrast to the situation earlier this month. The Directorate of Archaeology & Museums of West Bengal is currently undertaking a complete archaeological excavation and restoration of the Buddhist monastic complex at the mound. I visited the site last week and was greeted enthusiastically by experienced, local diggers who had previously worked with Dr. Datta, and state archaeologists, who guided me around the site and eagerly answered all my questions regarding the layout of the complex. Work is progressing rapidly and many artifacts are being uncovered every week. I also saw a flat site adjacent to the mound, which in the near future will house a small museum of antiquities.

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I am very excited that we will finally learn more about this important site, and this unknown facet of our history, but I also understand there are underlying responsibilities. For many years, the Buddhist monastic complex at Moghalmari was safely buried under layers of soil because no one knew about it. With excavation will come the challenge of protecting the structures from tourists, vandals, and thieves. The structures will also be exposed to the vagaries of local weather such as high humidity and water erosion.

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Elsewhere on the subcontinent, in Mohenjo-Daro, concerned authorities are contemplating reburying exposed structures under soil to protect them from further damage as exposed walls are crumbling from the foundation. Preservation is an ongoing activity, and the people I spoke to at Moghalmari this month told me that they had thought seriously about this important duty. I remain cautiously optimistic that we will be able to rise to this challenge. Moghalmari contains extensive evidence of our early cultural heritage which deserves closer inspection: the responsibility of protecting it lies not only with the authorities who plan to safeguard it, but also with us.

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December 19, 2013- update: Archaeologists uncovered a gold coin from the Gupta period (likely sixth century A.D.) and a locket yesterday. The coin has the image of an emperor on the obverse, and the image of what seems to be a goddess on the other side.

(An earlier version of this post was published as a column for M3).

A conversation with a barber

I have been flying in to Netaji Subhas Chandra International Airport in Kolkata since 1980, but even after so many years, it is a thrill to arrive in Bengal after a series of long flights. This year, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the new Kolkata International Airport was in service.

This year having arrived from a city that was literally below freezing when I left it, I was a little taken aback by the layers everyone was wearing in 20 degree Centigrade weather- scarves, sweaters, shawls, monkey-caps, and windcheaters. I am sure they all thought that I was some sort of lunatic for wearing a half-sleeve shirt and trousers during the evening! Apparently, there was a cold-spell going on at the time.

Speaking of evenings, the first few days after I arrive always go by as a blur and I’m never really ever sure if it is morning or night. However, because I travel internationally more than I used to, my experiences with jetlag have become more manageable than in the past. That said, I still find myself waking up very early in the morning for the first week or so.

But there is something I have to do within the first day or two of arriving in Bengal. And that is to get a haircut and a shave from a friendly barber.

Make no mistake, an interaction with a barber is not solely about getting a haircut or a shave, though certainly that is the primary goal. There is a binding contract that a grown man has with his barber. In America, my elderly Vietnamese barber is a well of anecdotes, unsolicited advice, and general chitchat. As time has passed, I’ve gotten to know more about her early struggles as a poor immigrant in America and as a single parent raising a daughter.

With Abhi, my barber in India, for obvious reasons, I have to schedule a session before I arrive through my in-laws, so that he can close shop to make a house-call. At the designated hour, I sit on a chair on a verandah with a gamcha around my neck. Abhi’s starts to work with his scissors.

“What news, Abhi?” I ask.

“Dada, did you know that the Khagen babu is selling his house in February? His daughter is getting married to a decorator.”

“Is it?”

“Yes, dada. Should I cut your sideburns, dada?”

“Yes, make them equal. Abhi, where did you hear all this about Khagen babu? How are you so sure of it?”

“Dada, I go to cut his hair. ”

Abhi knows everyone in the neighborhood. We continue talking as Abhi puts the finishing touches on my haircut, and then starts to work up a lather for my shave. By the time Abhi has shaved my face, I have received a complete intelligence report on my hometown. Some of Abhi’s stories are invariably false, but they’re all very good stories.

As Abhi applies aftershave, he asks, “When should I come again?”

“I’ll send you a message.”

Achha, dada. Aaj ashi.”

Abhi packs up his tools, puts the money I offer him in his pocket without counting it, and takes my leave. I head straight for the bathroom to take a shower.

(An earlier draft was published as a column at M3).