Ancient Bengal was a land of knowledge where institutional education flourished through vihara (monastery), mahavihara (monastic complex of viharas) and matha (cloister, institute or college). Thousand-year-old heritages like Nalanda, Shalban, Somapura, Vikramshila, Jagaddala and many others stand tall as a testament to our glorious past.
These ancient higher-learning institutions eventually laid the foundation of what later came to be known as universities.
Srihatta (present day Sylhet division) is home to such an institution, which is older than Jagaddala, as disciplined as Nalanda and was built in the early 10th century, according to historians.
King Srichandra of Chandra dynasty of south-eastern Bengal patronised constructing nine mathas at Chandrapur of Srihatta.
Details of these mathas were inscribed in a copperplate grant (historical legal records engraved on copper plates) found in Paschimbhag of Rajnagar upazila in Moulvibazar in 1958, which was later decoded and translated.
And after 62 years of this historical finding, the Department of Archaeology is all set to explore and excavate the long-lost heritage of the land, which lies beneath the ground -- once known as Chandrapur.
The Chandra dynasty of south-eastern Bengal ruled these lands from approximately 900 to 1050 AD, spanning five generations of kings, according to eminent historian Prof Dr Abdul Momin Chowdhury.
According his book "Dynastic History of Bengal", the kingdom was established by King Trilokyachandra and later ruled by his successors Srichandra, also spelled Sricandra, (930 to 975 AD), Kalyanchandra (975 to 1000 AD), Ladhachandra (1000 to 1020 AD) and Govindachandra (1020 to 1050 AD).
"Under Srichandra, the kingdom prospered and reached its peak, which seemed to continue during the reign of his son and successor Kalyanchandra," he mentioned in the book.
King Srichandra's administrative centre was at Vikrampura -- present day Bikrampur of Munshiganj -- and the kingdom included most of the northern, eastern and southern Vanga or Bengal.
PASCHIMBHAG COPPERPLATE INSCRIPTION
King Srichandra ruled for 45 years, longest in the dynasty; and his achievements, prosperity, battles and generosity were engraved in the copperplate inscriptions or grants at the time.
So far, 12 inscriptions of the Chandra dynasty are found and eight of them are from during the reign of Srichandra.
These are: Rampal plate, Kedarpur plate, Idilpur plate, Madanpur plate, Dulla plate, Bogra plate, a plate at Bangladesh Museum and Paschimbhag plate. All of them are land grants (a grant of public land, especially to an institution, organisation, or to particular groups of people).
Paschimbhag plate is the most notable and discussed.
According to Kamala Kanta Gupta Choudhury (commonly referred as Kamalakanta Gupta) -- a decoder of the inscription and author of "Copperplates of Sylhet" -- the inscription was accidentally found by one Binod Bihari Chakravarti in 1958 in a vacant land of Paschimbhag village of Rajnagar upazila in present day Moulvibazar.
The inscription was then passed into the custody of Pandit Syamapada Kavyatirtha Bhattacharya. Later in 1961, Sylhet Historical and Archaeological Society's member Aminur Rashid Chowdhury acquired it for the society and Kamalakanta Gupta decoded it by 1962.
"But whereabouts of the copperplate is unknown at present. It was primarily preserved by the society and some say it was later given to Kolkata Museum. But I visited all possible places in the last 4 years [in India and Bangladesh], but could not find it," Dr Md Zafir Uddin (Zafir Setu) of the Bangla department at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, told this correspondent recently.
WHAT THE INSCRIPTION TELLS US
The Paschimbhag copperplate inscription was of 5th regnal (of a reign or monarch) of king Srichandra, which was approximately during the year 935 AD.
Though family history of the king, his conquest and many other incidents were engraved in it, the main reason of the inscription was for land grant.
It was written in Sanskrit but the script is Devanagri -- a left-to-right abugida (writing system) based on the ancient Brahmi script -- commonly used during his reign, engraved by one Haradasa. There are 28 lines in obverse and 37 lines in reverse.
According to Kamalakanta Gupta and articles written in Bengali, later compiled and edited by Dr Zafir Setu in the book "Tamrashashone Sylhet", the king granted 452 patakas (a measurement of land) of Chandrapura of Srihatta for different purposes of nine mathas.
Based on these books and "Select Inscriptions Bearing on Indian History and Civilization" edited by Dines Chandra Sircar -- the first plot of land covering 120 patakas was granted in favour of matha (temple) of the god Brahman.
Of them, 10 patakas were granted for a upadhyaya (teacher or guru) of the Chandragomin's (Buddhist scholar) grammar and the rest were for 10 students, feeding 5 Brahmans, for makers of the temple, and other professionals.
The second plot -- covering 280 patakas -- were granted to four "desantariya mathas" and four "vangala mathas".
For each mathas, there was one upadhyaya who was also granted 10 patakas of land. Land was allotted to students, Brahmans, and some other professionals along with baidyas (doctors).
The third plot -- consisting the rest 52 patakas of land -- was given to six thousand Brahmans, in equal shares, mentioning names of 37 in the inscription.
CHANDRAPUR, 9 MATHAS, CONCEPT OF UNIVERSITY
Following his study and research, Kamalakanta Gupta believed that Chandrapur was a town in the Chandrapura Vishaya (subdivision) of Srihattamandala or Srihatta and the vishayapati (ruler) used to live there and the mathas were situated in the town.
The Chandra dynasty was of Buddhist monarchy and most Buddhist kings granted land for vihara in the name of Buddha.
Srichandra granted all land in the name of Buddha; these lands were granted to Brahmans and mostly to study Brahmanya (devoted to sacred knowledge) based on Chaturveda (collection of religious texts).
As a Buddhist monarch, he included only the grammar of Chandragomin and the main matha's upadhyaya was the teacher, as mentioned in the inscription, decoded by historians.
"The inscription and all the evidence lead us to believe that there was a large educational institute in the land, which was mainly a religious education centre, like Nalanda or Odantapuri," said Dr Zafir Setu.
"The educational concept, the land grant structure based on the level of labour distribution of around 25 types of professionals point that this was a planned and disciplined institute -- functioning almost like a modern university," he added.
"It makes me wonder how such an institution could be forgotten from history," he said.
WHERE IS CHANDRAPUR?
Many say the place is situated in the Dighirpar area of Juri upazila in Moulvibazar. The archaeology department is planning to start their survey works from the spot.
Historians, however, never agreed on a specific spot till to date.
According to the "Paschimbhag Copperplate", Chandrapur Vishaya was bounded by the Mani-Nadi (present day Monu river) in the south, Kosiyara-Nadi (present day Kushiyara river) in the north, large Kouttali in the east and Jangakhataka-Kastanyakhataka-Betraghanginadi in the west.
Kalamakanta Gupta believed that the Kouttali is a large garh or fort in the east and the west's Betraghanginadi is present day Ghungi river and he always gave emphasis to the original location where the copperplate was found.
Writer and researcher Prof Nripendralal Das said, "There are many possibilities where the town and the educational institute might be."
"The copperplate was found in Rajnagar upazila but there are many other places nearby like Nidhanpur or Kalapur where copperplates of other dynasties were found. It proves that the land holds many histories and mysteries, waiting to be unearthed."
WHY THE DELAY
Though the details of these mathas were found many years ago, no initiatives had been taken to conduct a survey in the area until now.
Dr Zafir Setu said, "Chandrapur is not just part of some local history… Government organizations like the archaeology department are meant to search for and protect our heritages. Yet they don't... most of the time."
"Historically, British detached Sylhet from Bengal and attached it with Assam… for that reason, Dhaka and Kolkata based historians or archaeologists didn't focus much on this part. Over the years, many local historians tried to raise voice over Chandrapur, but couldn't create larger impressions," he said.
But finally, the search for the site will begin, he added.
Contacted, Prof Nripendralal Das said, "The government institutions are mostly run by bureaucrats and for them it's just a job. That's why it takes such a long time to do something. But searching for heritage is also about dedication. As they are going to start looking for the site, they should involve researchers, historians and eminent archaeologists as well."
Eminent researcher Dr Muhammed Sadique, also the chairman of Bangladesh Public Service Commission, said, "Historians like Ramesh Chandra, Jadunath Sarkar also mentioned Chandrapur.
"Archaeological expeditions are expensive but the capacity of our department is limited. Offices of the department must be extended to district level, headed by an archaeologist…"
He said, "After the Liberation War our major focus was on building the country. All these years, our history and heritages were left uncared for. Even till to date, no significant archaeological survey has been conducted in Bangladesh, which is essential."
Asked about the delay in starting the survey for the site, Dr Md Ataur Rahman, regional director of the Department of Archaeology, said archaeological exploration in Chattogram and Sylhet region continued till 1956 and then it was halted for a long time.
"Even after independence, archaeologists focused on the northern and southern part of the country, maybe because structures were visible there. And Sylhet got left behind," he added.
The regional director said in the last 40 years, if people had worked on exploring the heritages of the eastern region based on numerous copperplates, many such sites would have been explored already. "But we are finally focusing on the region and hoping to find many notable archaeological heritages," he said.
SEARCH FOR CHANDRAPUR BEGINS FINALLY
On July 15, the archaeology department asked the regional director of Sylhet-Chattogram to look into the matter and file a detailed report after visiting the possible location at Juri upazila in Moulvibazar.
The regional director said, "Following the instruction, I've already started studying about the matter and am very excited to look for the historical educational institute."
Hannan Miah, director general of the department said, "If we find the heritage, it could be one of the greatest archaeological findings of recent decades in the country. Now, we're planning for research and survey at the first phase; if the result is promising, we will start a large scale excavation soon."