This fisherman in India is finding artifacts through erosion and challenging the history of the Sundarbans

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Business Standard, Gobardhanpur Islands, India

Fisherman Biswajit Sahu’s modest home is like many on Gobardhanpur Island, a secluded spot gradually seeing its shores erode as sea levels rise in the southwest tip of the Sundarbans delta on the Bay of Bengal.

 A cropped family photo, a certificate, portraits of freedom fighters and poets and a clothesline hang on a patchily cemented wall facing the home’s entrance. But there’s something that sets it apart from its neighbors.

On the ledge of a window sit bones and stacks of broken wares of different shapes and sizes, debris Sahu has salvaged from the sea. It is these – and other such accidental finds – raising questions about the history of the vast delta and piquing the interest of archeologists and historians.

Over the last 30 years, Sahu has collected more than 10,000 such artefacts while fishing around the edges of the mangrove forest here. The collection includes sculptures, stone tools, terracotta objects and pottery similar to that found in north India and ascribed to the Gupta (320–540 AD) and post-Gupta periods. The rarer items include Brahmi and early Brahmi scriptures, indicative of the Mauryan (about 321 to 185 BC), Kushana (1st to 3rd century AD) and Shunga (from around 185 to 73 BC) periods.

When compared with other findings from recent excavations in and around Kolkata, Sahu’s discoveries gain significance. They indicate that the history of the region could date back to far earlier times than what is known.

“His work indicates that the history of the Sundarbans goes back to the 1st or 2nd century BC, even in areas that still constitute the forests,” says Sharmi Chakraborty, a fellow at of Centre for Archaeological Studies and TrainingEastern India, Kolkata.

Sahu's fossil collection lines one wall of his home in Gobardhanpur Island / Credit: Namrata Acharya

There is not much documentation of the history of the Sundarbans prior to the Mughal period. The East India Company bought proprietary rights to the region from Mughal emperor Alamgir II in the mid-1700s. Subsequently, some of the forests were cleared for settlements.

Sahu’s work is unique given the “structural and contextual nature” of his collections, and it points towards potential sites of settlement and not just stray findings, says Rupendra Kumar Chattopadhyay, Paresh Chandra Chatterjee professor of history at Presidency University in Kolkata.

“Some objects are very rare and could be of pre-Gupta period and pre-Christian era, “Chattopadhyay adds. “This is fascinating information.”

While collecting those artefacts has gained new importance, it also comes with a sense of urgency.

Sahu started his collection from a forest area spread over about 1,000 hectares in Gobardhanpur. The entire stretch has since been submerged by sea water. Sahu now draws his collection from Dhanchi, an adjoining forest area. Before the sea swallows Dhanchi and many other similar sites, washing away traces of never-known history, archaeologists say a serious effort needs to be put toward preservation since doing so could reveal a new story—of human settlements and evacuation by forces of nature.  

“The real archeological work in the region is yet to be done in the Sundarbans,” says Chakraborty. In particular, at a time when we are thinking deep about environment change, a scientific study on Sundarbans can be really impactful.”

A 2014 World Bank report on the Sundarbans said sea levels in the region could witness an estimated 3 to 8 millimeter rise per year due to various natural and anthropogenic processes.

"Given the relatively flat landscape, hazard mapping suggests that a 45 centimeter rise in the sea level would destroy 75 percent of the Indian and Bangladeshi Sundarbans," it said.

Broken embankments at Gobardhanpur / Credit: Namrata Acharya

From fisherman to archeologist

Sahu grew up at the edge of a roaring sea that claims lives and houses at the drop of hat. He has witnessed some 30 floods since he was born 50 years ago. When Sahu was 14 he left school to work as a daily labor, building river embankments or transporting fish to nearby areas.

But his passion for collecting has earned him accolades. He’s attended local-level history and archaeology seminars armed with his finds and participated in university sessions on archaeology. In 2016, the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) gave a citation to Sahu for his work on the Sundarbans. The visits from historians and archeologists, which are recorded in a 10-page visitor’s book that he now maintains in his house, have further validated his efforts.

Life otherwise remains tough. While electricity reached Gobardhanpur Island last year, Sahu’s home is still without it. And there have been times when he and his family have had to go without food for days.

“During calamities, sometimes the sea is so wild that aid does not reach us,” he says.

The interest in archaeology developed quite by chance when at 16 Sahu went to Kolkata for treatment for appendicitis. The wait at the government hospital was long so one day, to kill time, he visited the nearby Indian Museum. To his amazement, some of the objects he saw there were strikingly similar to the items he would come across while fishing when the steep erosion at the forest edges revealed layers of artifacts.

Once back at the Sundarbans, Sahu started to search for such items. While the other fishermen would return home after the day’s catch, Sahu would venture deep into the forests in search of artefacts. 

An exterior view of Sahu's home / Credit: Namrata Acharya

History in flux

Archaeologists are divided on the extent to which the history of the Sundarbans can be pushed back based on Sahu’s discoveries.

Acknowledging that they point to the Mauryan period, P K Mishra, former regional director (eastern region), ASI, has submitted a 35-page report to the Centre and sought permission for independent government-backed explorations. He says he has identified seven sites at the Sundarbans that all show traces that the region’s history goes back to the Mauryan and early Gupta period.

Chakraborty, however, says, “Ascribing the date of findings to the Mauryan age is far-fetched but that to the Shunga age is quite possible.”

And then there are those like Tapan Kumar Das, a professor in the department of ancient India history and culture at Calcutta University, who believe that the artefacts in Sahu’s collection and at other sites indicate that human settlement in the Sundarbans date back to the Neolithic-Chalcolithic age.

Besides Sahu’s finds, the discovery of artefacts from the Dum Dum mound, from Chandraketugarh in North 24 Parganas, from the Park Street Metro Station site and during the construction work at Bethune College also point to sophisticated settlements and vibrant maritime trade in the region much before the arrival of the East India Company. 

“We can guess the Sundarbans were a flourishing settlement. The vessels leaving from Tamralipti (the modern-day Tamluk near Haldia port) might have used the area on the way to Java, Sumatra, Malaysia and Sri Lanka,” says Santanu Maity, who retired as superintendent from the ASI. “Chandraketugarh possibly served as the center and all the other areas, including the Sundarbans, were satellite settlements.”

A view of Sahu's Museum / Credit: Namrata Acharya

So then what happened to the rich settlements of the Sundarbans?    

“The Ganga shifted its course over the years and the settlements also moved away. There is geological work to suggests that delta building activity has shifted eastwards,” says Chakraborty. “The Portuguese and Burmese pirates also caused large-scale devastation to the settlements near the coast. However, the real archeological work in the region is yet to be done.”

Archeologists say only a scientific, joint excavation in collaboration with the ASI, the Geological Survey of India and the Zoological Survey of India can ascribe certainty to the assumptions. “We need more elaborate explorations to confirm the presence of extensive human settlement,” agrees Nandini Bhattachrya, regional director (East), ASI. The ASI has informally identified close to 20 sites in the Sundarbans for possible exploration.

The fisherman who is behind these developments has, meanwhile, kept his treasured finds with the 12-member trust that runs the Gobardhanpur Sundarbans Old Museum. The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972 stipulates that antiquities cannot be kept in private collection, unless they have been registered with the government after verification. ASI is yet to officially verify Sahu’s collection, which also needs to be catalogued and preserved. But that would entail costs beyond the fisherman’s means.

This story was originally published in the Business Standard in India. It has been revised and adapted for re-posting on earthjournalism.net.

Title photo: Sahu showing a sculpture of Vishnu, one of the principal Hindu gods. Archeologists guess it belongs to the Gupta or post-Gupta period. (approx 320-750 AD) / Credit: Namrata Acharya