The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Archaeology has the capacity to push back the chronological frontiers of history. One accidental discovery in the early Twenties in Punjab pushed back Indian history and civilization by a thousand years and more. Indian civilization is no longer dated from the Vedic period as it was before the discovery of the archaeological sites known as the loci of the Indus Valley Civilization. Similarly, till a few months ago, the history of Bengal used to begin in the Gupta period circa 4th century AD. But excavations in Chandraketu Garh and more recently in the northern outskirts of Calcutta have revealed a longer history than had previously been accounted for. The discoveries near Calcutta push back Bengalís history to 2nd century BC. Archaeologists and historians will, of course, make detailed analysis of the remains and will arrive at their own conclusions. But the very change in the chronological contours is pregnant with significant suggestions.

Conventional wisdom places Bengal outside the pale of the Great Indian Tradition located in Aryavarta. When urban centres and empires thrived in the Gangetic plain, before the birth of Christ, Bengal was supposed to be a marshy land untouched by civilization. Bengal had no place in the glory that was India. These impressions have to be substantially altered after the recent excavations. The remains suggest an urban settlement which had a degree of continuity right up to 11-12th century AD. The existence of urban centres immediately suggest a modicum of trade and the presence of an agricultural hinterland which fed the townships. The other features of these settlements are yet to emerge, but the existence of urban centres in Bengal so far back in time is of no mean importance. Historians will seek the origins of these settlements and their links with the urban centres and empires of north India. Who were the inhabitants' What were their religious and social practices' Exciting questions and hypotheses hover over the excavations.

It is tempting to label these settlements the Hooghly Valley Civilization in the manner of the great civilization on the banks of the Indus. Such a claim may well be a bit premature. There is no evidence that civic amenities in these settlements were as developed as those in Mohenjodaro and Harappa. It is also too early to make any claims about Bengalís cultural and historical separateness. But the discoveries are not without irony. The discovery of the remains near what in the 18th century became Calcutta means that civilization in this region is at least 2000 years old. A new and colonial urban centre has suddenly acquired a long pre-history. By an amazing, if telling, coincidence, the remains of the settlement have been found under the mound on which Robert Clive built his palace. Bengal now has an ancient past. What impact such a discovery will have on Bengalís present, its politics, the arrogance of the Bengalis and on their sense of their own past, is a matter of speculation, if not of contest.

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