A Promising Site on the Mahabharat Trail in Bihar
|Excavated Remains at Panr|
The Archaeologist’s spade at work in a North Bihar site has served to modify the contours of concurrent understanding about development of civilization in the past. Taking back the story of civilization in the region by thousands of years, the discoveries may lead to something akin to the Harappa revelations about a century ago, which then had redefined the known History of India. This Promising site with immense potential to change the regional History has inspired me to start following and analyzing sites lying on the Mahabharat trail. The otherwise sleepy and non-descript village named as ‘Panr’ or ‘Pandavsthan’ in Samastipur district, Bihar, earlier visited only by winter migratory birds has become the ‘new destination’ for the Historical researcher. Located at about 110 kms from Patna and about 5 km. northwest of the Dalsinghsarai subdivision, it lies on the northern bank of the Ganga and at the southern boundary of the ancient Mithila region. Surrounded by large picturesque water bodies, which were frequented for hunting birds, crocodiles and other wildlife during the British era, stories of which are still remembered by old-timers, the site must have had an easy access to water in the ancient past. The surrounding lakes seem to have been formed by the dead beds of Ganga and Balan which once flowed nearby and are not very far even today with Bālan flowing at about 2 kms and the Ganga at about 22 kms to the south, respectively. Traditionally, locals have believed that the ‘Pandavas’ of the Mahabharat fame, had stayed here for some time during their journeys across India, and a temple thus revers the said site.
|The Location of Panr|
During my childhood days, I was a frequent visitor to my maternal grandfather’s village ‘Pachpaika’, located just about 3 kms from Panr. It was perhaps sometime around 1991 that I first learnt about the existence of historical antiquities and their being unearthed at Panr. In this remote locality, news about a potter who while digging his fields for clay came across some treasure trove in the form of a pot containing ancient coins, had then spread like wildfire. Those were the days when the Mahabharata serial was being regularly screened on television, and villagers who watched often visualised the wealth of the Pandavas and wondered whether they may have left antiquities at Panr. The pot which was the talk of the locality was claimed by some as having contained gold coins, while others assigned them as copper or bronze. None seem to have had actually seen or verified the rumours, which seemed to have originated from the shop of the local goldsmith who was believed to have dealt in some. But, it did lead to frantic digging at the site by the locals. While some diggers could actually find some coins including those of Gold probably in the process, the main discovery was that of an ancient township, the walls of which were constructed of baked bricks.
|Pandava Temple, Panr (Photo dated 22nd June, 2015)|
With most of the houses around the site then (in 1991) being constructed out of mud and straw, the locals utilized the discovery as an opportunity to pillage bricks from the ancient site, and within days, several truck-loads of brick had been removed for being placed in newer constructions. One of the villagers who had collected some bricks while tilling his fields in Panr showed me a specimen which looked very different in design from the present bricks. Though baked in the same style of kiln firing, the bricks had a unique dimension being about 3 inches thick and of a rectangular shape with a length of almost 1.5 feet and breadth of 1. There were three finger stretch marks on the top for reasons unknown, but believed to have been some religious signage or perhaps a mark of the brick kiln where they were first baked. As I stayed at the village, while spending my summer vacation, I heard of more frantic digging going on at the site, till one fine morning when it stopped upon orders of the then District Magistrate, who probably happened to learn about the continuing rampage from sources. This came as a big relief, and also inspired me to join the civil services later in life, in order to meaningfully contribute to society.
|Ancient Well now subsumed by Tree (Photo dated 22nd June, 2015)|
I visited Pachpaika regularly till the summer of 1993, after which I had to move out of Bihar and thus my visits became irregular. But I do remember that after the activities at the site were stopped, not much interest was shown by the locals who continued to still rever the place as usual. From the villagers, I had then learnt that the site possessed an ancient well into which banana stumps when dropped did not emerge above but probably got transported to the river Ganga or some other unknown place by some probable underground tunnel which sucked them within. Some also claimed to have seen human remains inside the well when it was being cleaned etc. Several stories about Panr were in vogue while people were looking for more legendary associations about the site. As I joined the police service in Bihar, from 2003 onwards, I again tried to keep track of the developments at Panr. I learnt that the KP Jayaswal Institute of Patna was conducting excavations at the site which was also visited by the Chief Minister of Bihar sometime in 2012. The CM had seen the antiquities recovered from the continuing excavations during his visit, a photograph of which had been then carried in the newspapers.
Visit to Panr on 22nd June, 2015
I visited the site on the 22nd of June 2015, years after having heard stories about it. The ancient low mound measuring about 2 meters in height and spread over about 38 acres is approached by a narrow village road. Expecting a protected area within fencing, I was surprised to see no such structure at the spot now marked by a temple dedicated to the Pandavas and a school which was full of children when we happened to visit. Upon reaching the site, I firstly asked for the location of the ancient well I had been hearing of since my childhood days. I was directed to a well grown Pipal tree which had now subsumed the well now almost covered and located on the boundary of the recently constructed Pandava temple. The site where the diggings had taken place in recent years were found to be covered and under cultivation. They were pointed at a distance. Apart from this excavated mound which was excavated, historical settlements at Panr seem to have extended up to the lake (chaur) area with scope for further excavation remaining.
|Excavated Site now filled and being used for Agriculture (Photo dated 22nd June, 2015)|
Explorations and the Excavation at Panr
Though Panr retained its religious sanctity and had a small shrine occasionally visited by locals who often related it to the Mahabharat stay, it was hardly remembered for its historical importance till when in the winter season of 1972-73, Dr. Sita Ram Roy, assisted by Shri B K Sinha and Shri N C Ghosh of the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Govt of Bihar, visited it during their exploration. A few sherds of the NBPW and its associated black ware were collected from the site. Besides, a copper cast coin (with elephant on the obverse and crescented hill on the reverse), an earthen pot with rope-impressed design and a stone bead were found in the collection of one Dr Pamdeo Mahta. Interestingly, the district of Samastipur has also yielded some other important antiquities from other sites. In 1974-75, Stone sculptures of Vishnu and eight-armed Durga, datable to Late Pala period were discovered by Shri B S Jha of the Archaeological Survey of India, at Simria-Bhindi village. In the course of his exploration, in 1982-83, B Nath of the mid-eastern circle of the Archaeological survey, discovered a large mound in Mangalgarh village yielding NBPW along with grey and black wares and a few terracotta figurines.
Even as several ancient sites in the vicinity like Mangalgarh remain to be fully explored, the K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute in Patna conducted the excavation at Panr by the permission of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleobotany, Lucknow assisted the findings through radio carbon-dating of the discoveries made in the process. The excavation at the site was commenced way back in 1999 but was halted several times as a result of which the researchers finally tasted success in or around 2010. Important terracotta artifacts and other brick structures were discovered at the site which revealed a history of continuous ancient cultures from the Neolithic age to the Gupta period. The full excavation report is yet to be probably made public but a look at the report as available on the website of the Institute reveals a continuous series of settlements dating back from 4500 BC to about 600 AD at the ancient site. Burnt brick structures dating back to Sunga and Kushana periods were also dug. Terracotta figures, gem stones (cornelian, agate, etc.), and latter day inscriptions in Brahmi script were found.
|Excavated Remains at Panr|
Excavations conducted during the whole decade unearthed 52 agricultural and animal remains and revealed a 7.50 m thick cultural deposit, divisible into five phases. The first settlers at the site used red ware, grey ware and black-and-red ware. The sherds in red ware and grey ware showed lustrous burnishing on the exterior while the interior was rough and hard-brushed. During the earliest Period I, the lowest deposit, people used bone objects such as arrowheads and points, beads made of steatite and agate and terracotta objects like beads and hop scotches for which the radiocarbon dates ranged between 2412-4261 BC, the latter date being an isolated with the cluster falling within the 3rd millennium BC. Archaeologists faced a difficulty in designating the early phase at Panr, the dates of which were seen as abnormal in the absence of any Neolithic tools at the site, and thus indicating an advanced civilisation. The radiocarbon dates here are much earlier than the previous discoveries made at the Neolithic site of Chirand in Saran district, also on the banks of the Ganga, and thus thought to have been probably connected, even as the potsherds of the earliest phases of the two sites closely resembled each other.
In the next Period II, having all ingredients of a chalcolithic culture, people began to use black-slipped pottery in addition to the earlier types. The sherds frequently exhibited clay mixed with paddy-husks. Certain sherds in black-and-red ware and grey ware had white paintings in form of white dots, straight lines, oblique lines, and receding curves with shapes like dishes, bowls, dishes- on-stands, vases and basins. The use of copper was confirmed from the copper hooks and bangles discovered, even as bone remained in use for making tools and weapons. The profuse use of bone and the evidence of copper hooks suggested hunting and fishing activities of the people in this period, but agriculture was confirmed by the retrieval of charred grains and paddy-husks. There was a phase between the chalcolithic horizon and that of the Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW), when iron made its appearance in the form of recoveries of an arrowhead, a blade and an unidentified object.
|Painted Perforated Potsherds , Chalcolithic|
During the Period III, represented by NBPW, the frequency of bone tools and weapons did not decrease, but that of iron and copper increased proportionately as a medium for making objects. Among the iron objects were found nails, daggers, spearheads, knives, sickles, a ploughshare, a harpoon and a hoe. Copper objects included antimony rods, earrings and finger-rings. Thus iron was used for productive purpose and weaponry, while copper was shaped into ornaments. Among the terracotta objects, beads and well-fired sling balls seemingly catapulted by some device to serve as missiles were most numerous. Several human and animal figurines were also discovered along with copper punch-marked coins and cast coins in the terminal phase. These, together with the luxury objects and the deluxe ware in this horizon indicated that the site was becoming associated with a broad circuit of trade exchanges.
|Iron objects, Bone arrow heads points and beads of Semi precious Stone NBPW|
Period IV at the site, belonging to Śunga-Kuṣāṇa phase, was marked by vigorous constructional activities in two broad phases, with the first phase having bricks measuring 42x22x5cm, and second with those measuring 38x22x5cm. This phase yielded ring wells, having several courses. During the Kuṣāṇa period, glass objects appeared in greater frequency, and replaced copper as the preferred material for making ornaments, as bone was no longer important for making tools and weapons. During the Śunga period, terracotta figurines were made, as confirmed from the discovery of several human and animal figurines alongwith a mould. During the Kuṣāṇa times, terracotta corn-rubbers and spindle-whorls were produced in great quantity.
Period V at the site belonging to Gupta times was represented by red-slipped ware having thin rims and constructional activities marked by the reuse of old bricks. Among the antiquities, an inscribed ivory ring and a bone seal, having the name “Indracetasya” inscribed on it was interesting.
|Ivory Ring, Bone Seal, Gupta Period|
The Mahabharat Trail !
The Mahabharat survives as a key to explore some long forgotten and silent facets of ancient India. The longest epic in the world, it houses several stories and legends interspersed into the main narrative, which often give a definitive indication about various subjects like the ancient geography of India, the position of the rivers, lakes, kingdoms, the then ruling kings, their pastimes, economies, military tactics and famous pilgrimage destinations. The legendary Saraswati well described in the Ancient Vedic texts seems to have still existed as a living river during the Mahabharat as is well exemplified and illustrated by the detailed descriptions of several sites and pilgrimage destinations on its banks from the Mountains to the Sea. Traditionally ascribed to 3102 B.C., the dates of the events described in the Mahabharat War between the Kauravas and Pandavas still remain to be fully settled among the wider stream of Historians, who place it between 1000 to 3000 B.C. But, the antiquity is undeniable and as an inseparable part of Indian culture, the Mahabharata still retains its popularity across India and serves as a source of religious and traditional wisdom.
|The Pandava Brothers, Pandava Temple, Panr (Photo dated 22nd June, 2015)|
The Mahabharata is not just about the ancient war, but is in fact also a compilation of stories then popular in ancient India. All these have been preserved for generations in the Mahabharata. However, even as one may doubt the authenticity of the Mahabharat, its footprints can still surely be felt across India. Wandering anywhere in India, one does come across various sites ascribed to one or more of the legends from the Mahabharat. While Kurukshetra is known to have been the site of the actual war, Delhi as Indraprastha or Gurgaon as Gurgaon always remind. While Hastinapur still can be traced on the banks of the Ganga, the ancient city of Dwarka has also been confirmed as submerged under the sea (about 5000 years ago), well fitting into the ancient descriptions of the Mahabharat. Apart from the more well known sites, there is an extensive list of other lesser known sites which have their nomenclature or existence from one of the legends of the Mahabharat.
Journeys of the Pandavas
Delving deep into the Mahabharat, it is interesting to note the description of various ancient sites. If the Mahabharat is to be taken as the poetic and literary description of actual historical events, it indicates an extensive travel by the Pandavas throughout the length and breadth of ancient India. The sites on the trail if followed and explored carefully may further attest to the reality of the legends connecting them. Extensive travelers and explorers that the Pandavas were as described, their journeys in ancient and well forested India started in their early life itself and continued later till they finally left for the Himalayas and ascended to Swargaloka. Keeping in mind the nature of the extensive travels of the Pandavas across India for long durations, if considered authentic, it is quite natural that some memories may have been preserved in some form by the succeeding generations. Travelling across India does generate such feelers indeed as one comes across living memories of the stay and journey of the Pandavas still inscribed in the minds of the existing generations and having survived intact through the ensuing centuries. Most of the sites described in the Mahabharat however, are now forgotten on the Map though, and systematic attempts thus need to be made for their proper identification.
|Images at Pandava Temple, Panr (Photo dated 22nd June, 2015)|
As a traveler notes, many lesser known places are still associated with legends at the local level. However, a holistic survey like the one carried out during the Archaeological Survey of Buddhist sites based on the travelogues of Hieun Tsang and Fa Hien seem not to have been undertaken with the same level of sincerity, even though efforts seem to have been made in bits and pieces, as in the case of excavations made at Hastinapur and the Old Fort complex in Delhi by the Archaeological Survey of India. Given the antiquity of the Mahabharat, to be able to sift actual historical significance of sites from the local legendary associations is an uphill task indeed, but is one which provides immense scholarly satisfaction and opens new vistas of historical understanding; and thus must be attempted.
Following the Mahabharat Trail in Bihar
Panr in the Mahabharat trail ?
Panr being one of the sites still remembered as visited by the Pandavas, with the recent archaeological evidence dating it back by thousands of years, has the potential to shed much light on our understanding of the ancient history of the region. If tradition is to be relied upon, the Pandavas during their exile also visited some other places in Mithila like Pandoul in Madhubani, as mentioned by the Gazetteer. I thus tried to look for any specific reference of the site of Panr in the Mahabharat. However, even as I could not come across a specific description about the site in the Mahabharat, I could infer that it may have been visited during one of the journeys, the memory of which may have survived in local legends and thus gave the place its name. As nothing in this regard can be stated conclusively, I analysed several ancient routes used by ancient travelers and discovered that 12 prominent routes of pilgrimage in ancient India have been noted by the Historian S M Bhardwaj (1973). Two of these routes were the land route from Nimisha to Gaya and another from Gaya to Gaurisikhara, possibly in the Himalayas and then to the Karatoya river in modern Bangladesh. Another ancient Buddhist age route between Vaishali to Champa has been mentioned by Mithila Sharan Pandey, who was not sure about the exact place where the Ganga was crossed, which then in 1963 was at Manihari as the bridge on Ganga did not exist The most important place between Vaisali and Champa was Bhaddiya, which has been identified as Munger by Rahul Sankrityayana but as some other place near Bhagalpur by Pandey.
Till recently, it was believed that the antiquity of human settlements in north-central Bihar comprising districts such as Samastipur, Begusarai, Darbhanga and Madhubani was not so deep. In fact the settlement history of this district was often supposed to begin from the medieval period. But recent diggings at Chechar, Ramchaura and Paṇr have shown the antiquity of the region to be much older. The explorations in the surroundings of Paṇr have brought out several sites yielding Neolithic sherds as at ‘Bhaddiya’ just about 20 kms. south of Paṇr or chalcolithic sherds as at Mangalgarh 35 kms northeast of Paṇr and at Manda 30 kms north of the site. A new page has been added to the rich cultural history of Bihar as 6,000 year old human civilization has been unearthed during the excavations. The results usher in a new era for the study of human history in the region as the traditional sources need to be accomodated in the analysis of the development of these sites in ancient times along with the scientific evidence.
|Probable Route of Bheem during Digvijaya of the Eastern Sector|
Panr could be an important site lying on the ancient pilgrimage route from Gaya to Gourisikhara, where the Ganga was crossed. Panr may have lied on the cross junction of ancient routes connecting Vaishali and Champa and that from Rajgriha to the capital of Mithila. Pandey has noted the possibility of ancient routes from all major cities to Rajgriha followed by Pataliputra in the Buddhist age on the maxim that “All roads lead to Rome”. This does build up a case of Panr as being an important crossing point of the Ganga on the route from Mithila to Rajgriha. Describing the ancient routes, Alexander Cunningham has noted the route of the Buddhist Pilgrim Hieun Tsang who crossed to Pataliputra from Vaishali, and thus did not visit Panr. It seems that in due course of time by the post Gupta age, the site of Panr lost its importance after Mithila’s loss of independence to Vaishali and later Magadha.
With a background of the ancient routes, it is interesting to study the movements of the Pandavas in Bihar, which have been recorded at several places in the Mahabharat starting with the journey of Arjuna who travelled eastward from the forest of Naimisha to the mighty river Ganga and Gaya, and whose route may have included Panr.
|Probable Route of Krishna and Pandavas from Indraprastha to Rajgriha|
A higher probability however exists of Krishna himself having stayed at Panr along with Bheem and Arjun, during the peculiar route taken to visit Rajgir from Indraprastha to fight with Jarasandha. The Mahabharat has described them as having proceeded from the Kuru country to Mithila via the Himalayan foothills and then having crossed the Ganga and the Son, as having moved further eastwards to reach the Barabar Hills and finally Rajgir. Panr may perhaps have been the place where the Pandavas had stayed for some time prior to crossing the Ganga on their way. But as one can see from the Map, they did not seemingly cross the Ganga at Panr though must have passed through, considering the description that they had initially crossed the Gandak and thereafter the Ganga and the Sone. A Map constructed on a website shows the path followed by the trio (Bhima, Krishna and Arjuna) as they traveled to Magadha which includes the probable visit to Panr. One is however struck with the strangeness of the abnormal route to reach Magadha from Indraprastha, which has been explained by some scholars as due to their having travelled in disguise and thus having probably mostly traveled along the territories of those kings who though suffering from the dominating power of Jarasandha were not yet under his direct control.
Mithila Sharan Pandey has also noted the two Mahabharat routes of travel adopted during the fight with Jarasandha and again during Bheem’s conquest of the eastern quarter. He mentions that there may have been an ancient route from the eastern bank of the Sone to the Gorathgiri (Barabar) Hills, which may have been the route in continuation of another route traced in the Ramayana, though not in present usage. The route from Gorathgiri to Rajgriha is stated as still under use. The Pandavas may have again visited Panr moving for their pilgrimage during the 12 year exile and perhaps again by Bheem during the Digvijaya in the east. From the descriptions of the ancient routes, it transpires that Panr may have been used as a halt on the Ganga by ancient pilgrims and other traders during their journeys. Importantly, the old bed of the Ganga can still be seen near Panr and the antiquity of the settlement has been attested to by the recent excavations which date a culture without Neolithic tools as early as 4261 BC. It is very likely that Panr was an important settlement on the banks of the Ganga and on the border of Mithila with Magadha.
The Mahabharat stories were so popular that anything seemingly ancient but not well known was often fitted into one of the stories from the epic. Several sites in India are thus often associated with legends, the origin of which is often doubtful. Many a times, such legends are created by someone who is not ignorant about the falsity of it, but is often so much overawed by the ancientness of the site that he cultivates a legend which is easily acceptable by gullible innocent devotees, and gradually transforms into a tradition over the years, the history of which is not traceable. For instance, Bhimbetka, a Palaeolithic site in Madhya Pradesh which also houses prehistoric cave paintings is actually named after Bheem, the mighty Pandava as were several Mauryan era sites with Ashokan pillars in the past called as ‘Laths of Bheem’. Similar has been the case at Bagh in Madhya Pradesh, where the caves with Boddhisatva images were taken to be representing the Pandavas. Sikligarh, Purnea, Bihar another ancient site became associated with the legend of Prahlad and Hiranyakashyapa. In several towns across India, one comes across boards across temples which declare them as ‘Pandav-kalin’ i.e. of the time of the Pandavas. While the same may not always be true as was the case with the Mauryan pillars as later discovered, a common binding thread is indeed the antiquity of the sites, the accounts of which are often lacking or missing in recorded history. However, seeing their importance they do deserve to be explored further especially when of the more than 400 ancient pilgrimage destinations described in the Mahabharat, only some have been positively identified. An exploration exercise such as this would include the study of ancient routes from various sources, satellite imagery and physical archaeological excavations.
|Pandava Images at Panr (Photo dated 22nd June, 2015)|
If the Mahabharat journey is not taken as an authentic fact, it is quite possible that an hypothesis may have been generated about the stay of the Pandavas in some ancient times about Panr which lied on the important ancient cross junction connecting Mithila and Magadha and also Vaishali and Champa. The excavations have indicated that the site was probably abandoned in post-Gupta times, even as the adjoining areas of the mound still await further excavation. If the present-day village is taken to have been settled around the turn of the eighteenth century, as the excavation suggests it may have been so that the recent settlers being quite aware of the antiquity of the site having come across such remnants at the site of settlement may have ascribed it to the times of the Pandavas. As it stands on date, it is not clearly known whether the name Panr was known as such in the medieval times as well. It may so have happened that the temple site may have been revered still and due to the antiquity, the remains may have been ascribed to have been visited by the Pandavas during their journeys. But why such a legend should have originated is not clear and interestingly from the timings as obtained about the antiquity of Panr the site certainly had a civilization at the time of the Mahabharat war, the date of which is often quoted in the range between 1000 to 3100 BC by different historians, the traditional date of course being around 3102 BC. The Mahabharat connection is thus suggested but remains to be confirmed with evidence from other more possible sources apart from tradition.
The dating of settlements in North India has always been debated. Traditonally ascribed to much earlier dates, the archaeological evidence has often been found lacking. The K P Jayaswal Institute’s report mentions Lahuradewa (Sant Kabir Nagar dist. U.P), where the early period has dates ranging between 9000-3000 BC, without yielding any Neolithic tools. Other scholars have also noted the early dates of finds from various places in the Middle Ganga plains. The early remains of Paṇr still remain to be fully analysed for it to be classified either as Neolithic or an Early Farming phase (as Lahuradewa). Yet, such early dates for human culture in the Ganga Valley and the absence of lithic tools at several sites such as Narhan, Lahuradewa and Paṇr have opened up new possibilities and the need to accentuate further research in the middle and lower Ganga valley. The materials of other recently excavated sites thus need to be re-examined in the light of the results at Panr. Further a re-assessment of sites in the vicinity said to be traditionally associated with the Mahabharat like Pandaul in Madhubani, or Mahishi in Saharsa also needs to be done. Interestingly, the findings at Panr have suggested the early origins of farming techniques like crop rotation and multiple cropping, and of trade of agriculture products between Bihar and the eastern world, as well as the West. Crops including rice, green gram, barley, wheat, lentils, and grass pea, dating back to 4200 BC, were found at the site. A preliminary study of a sample of skeletal remains also revealed the presence of buffalo, goat, spotted deer, blackbuck, gazelle, wild pig, porcupine, hare, peafowl, common teal, Ganges soft shell turtle, Indian mud turtle and others during the same period, indicating domestication of animals.
|Excavated Remains at Panr|
While earlier excavations did not give any information regarding exchange of trade and agricultural practices between Bihar and the rest of the world, the new findings reveal otherwise. Further scientific study of the history of agriculture in the state would reveal more aspects of practice in ancient times and animal husbandry in the region. There is a need to compare the botanical remains from the historical period in Bihar with respect to those from other regions during the same period so that we can understand the history of agriculture in Bihar and the rest of the country. This will be possible only by adopting multi-disciplinary scientific approach to study zoological and botanical remains in the state. The limited excavation at Pandav Sthan has thus been a huge achievement as it has confirmed the history of this place since 4,000 B.C and thus in times coterminus with the supposed incidents of the Mahabharat. There is need of extensive excavation at the site, conservation of the remains and development of the site as a tourist spot.
|Students of the School near Pandava Sthana (Photo dated 22nd June, 2015)|