Bhitargarh Day Festival : 19 March 2016, Saturday

Bhitargarh Day Festival : 19 March 2016, Saturday

Bhitargarh Day Festival : 19 March 2016, Saturday

Bhitargarh Day Festival : 19 March 2016, Saturday

Bhitargarh Day Festival : 19 March 2016, Saturday

Bhitargarh Day Festival : 19 March 2016, Saturday
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What Makes Bhitargarh Walled City Unique?

Bhitargarh (literally the 'inner fort') is located about 16 km northeast of Panchagarh town in Amarkhana union under Panchagarh Sadar police station in Panchagarh (literally the 'five forts'), the northernmost administrative district of Bangladesh. Interestingly, the site is actually transnational because portions of its outer enclosure on the northwest, the north and the northeast lie in Jalpaiguri district, West Bengal, India. According to local tradition, Bhitargarh was the capital of a king named Prithu, "a very holy personage, who was so much afraid of having his purity sullied, that, on the approach of an abominable tribe of impure feeders named Kichok, he threw himself into a tank, and was followed by all his guards, so that the town was given up to plunder and the family ceased to reign".

After carrying out a systematic archaeological investigation for about two years in Panchagarh district and considering various criteria such as the size of the site, its woeful state of preservation and ongoing pilferage, the thickness of the habitation deposit, the cultural sequences perceived from explored materials, I had no hesitation in choosing the site of Bhitargarh for excavation in 2008. Since then, I am conducting  systematic archaeological exploration and excavation at Bhitargarh with the permission of the Director General, Department of Archaeology and active participation of the students of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), who had opted for the course "Experiencing the Past" under their General Education Program. The project is funded by the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) since 2009 and in addition, we are receiving research grants from the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh from 2013 onwards.

Systematic archaeological investigations at Bhitargarh Walled city from 2008 to date have revealed numerous unique features. Some of these are as follows:

  • Bhitargarh is the largest fortified settlement in South Asia, extending over an area of about 25 square km.
  • Enclosed within four concentric quadrangles surrounded by ramparts and moats, Bhitargarh was an urban settlement.
  • Well-planned internal layout and public architecture of Bhitargarh are exclusive.
  • An extensive water-body Maharajar Dighi with ten brick-paved ghats and brick casing lofty embankments makes Bhitargarh exceptional.
  • Bhitargarh might have functioned as an independent city-state governed by a sovereign administrative system sometime between 6th and 12th century CE.
  • The inhabitants of Bhitargarh had developed quite an ingenious structural feat for irrigation and cultivation throughout the year.
  • The importance of Bhitargarh primarily lay in trade because of its strategic position on the ancient overland and riverine routes connecting Tibet, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, Assam, Koch Bihar and the regions of the middle and lower Ganga valleys.
  • Two rivers Karatoya and Tista played a very important role in the trade of the ancient city-state.
  • Archaeological and natural beauty of Bhitargarh makes it very special for cultural and -eco-tourism.

It is clear from the above statement that Bhitargarh contains immense potentiality in terms of history and heritage of Bangladesh in particular and South Asia in general. Unfortunately, the archaeological remains of this ancient city are gradually disappearing due to human and natural activities. Therefore, it is suggested that necessary steps should immediately be taken to protect the archaeological heritage site of Bhitargarh in Panchagarh district under the provisions of the Antiquities Act.

King Prithu and Bhitorgorh Walled City:
A Millenium Old Legend

By Suhel A Choudhury

King Prithu ruled Bhitargarh Walled City as an independent ruler of present north-eastern Bangladesh over a thousand years ago. There is little or no recorded history on it, only oral traditions (upakhkhan/stories passed from generation to generation) have survived as a legend for over a millennium in the minds of the people who have inhabited the vicinity of this fortified settlement. Bhitargarh, about forty kilometers from Banglabandha Land Port which is the entry point for Nepali goods into Bangladesh,  is a large archeological site located in Panchagarh (meaning five-forts), the northern-most district in Bangladesh. The ‘Maharajar Dighi’, a majestic tank and the largest among ten tanks within this walled city of 25 sq km with moats and ramparts, parts of which are still visible, is perhaps the only visible testimony of that bygone era. Archaeologists, who are conducting excavations for over five years now, though on a very limited scale, and general visitors can still find this tank as a prominent landmark. Maharajar Dighi is surrounded by high mud and brick wall on all sides. According to archaeologist Prof. Shahnaj H Jahan, who is working at the site for about six years now, this is by itself something remarkable as the side walls of this large tank are also covered by bricks, a feat not matched by any large tank built anywhere else in Bangladesh. Such a wall is absent even in Ramsagar Dighi named after Raja Ramnath ( 1723 -1760 AD) of Dinajpur,  which is the largest of such tanks found in the country. Ramsagar attracts a lot of tourists every year.

Prithu Raja and his Bhitargarh Fort, which is one of the most interesting historical sites in Bangladesh apart from the ancient tribal kingdom site of Nijpat, Jaintiapur containing huge megaliths, have been mentioned by Robert Montgomery Martin, an Anglo-Irish member of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), the ‘ Steel Frame of British India’. According to Upashana Salam (in the Daily Star), Montgomery Martin, in his book ‘Purniya, Ronggopoor and Assam’, has said that Prithu Raja ruled this area before the advent of Pala dynasty. This makes Prithu Raja a ruler of Bhitargarh over a thousand years ago. Montgomery Martin has, however, not quoted from any scripture, inscription / copper plate or recorded history when he mentioned about Prithu Raja and the ancient Bhitargarh Fort. That, in the absence of any other reference in writing about King Prithu, makes the entire story a legend.

Should we discard the entire legend about Bhitargarh and Prithu Raja only because there is no recorded history available in Bangladesh?  The English mentions about ancient King Arthur, perhaps nearly a contemporary of King Prithu, with pride although there is hardly any solid historical evidence of King Arthur. In our case, no major study or research has been made so far within Bangladesh on King Prithu and or Bhitargarh. What about the neighboring countries like Nepal, Bhutan and India? Has any research been done on this issue outside Bangladesh, particularly in the adjoining states of Nepal, Bhutan and old kingdoms of Kamrup (350-1100 AD), Tibet (604-822AD), Koch Bihar, Sikkim etc and the rest of India? We are not aware of any. It is the duty of our historians to find out more on this issue. However, for now, we have to depend on the millennium-old legend that has survived from mouth to mouth, perhaps uncorrupted, for such a long period of time even during eight hundred years of Muslim rule in the region. Hopefully, more evidence would emerge on the basis of archival or archaeological records found (?) in the countries or areas mentioned earlier. In the absence of anything to the contrary brought to the notice of pundits and visitors, let us preserve this millennium old legend of Prithu Raja and Bhitargarh Walled City for the next millennium.

Maharaj Dighi
Maharajar Dighi

This Dighi has a lot of stories associated with it including the mass suicide of King Prithu, his whole family, courtiers and dependents when low cast Kichoks attacked his kingdom. Two hundred years back, locals told this story to Robert Montgomery Martin when he came to survey this ancient site.

Bhitargarh or Bhitargarh Fort

Bhitargarh or Bhitargarh Fort is situated in the northern most district of Bangladesh namely Panchagarh and is located about 16 km northeast of Panchagarh town in Amarkhana Union under Panchagarh Sadar Police Station. This is one of the five forts which characterized the district of Panchagarh and in fact it is believed that the name of the district is derived from five such forts i.e., Panchagarh or Five Forts.

Bhitargarh or for that matter the other forts attracted the attention of scholars, surveyors and archaeologists  in recent times who put forward various interpretations of these relics. The consensus of opinion is this that these relics are ruins of forts or fortified cities which grew up in ancient times. Local traditions also point to these origins. In the absence of any written or inscriptional evidence so far various scholars interpreted these forts in different ways. Francis Buchanan Hamilton, the British Official  who carried out a survey of the area in the early 19th century  recorded many local traditions about the area but could not give any definite history of the area and its heritage. Rakhaldas Bandopadhya mentioned these forts  but could not elaborate much on them. Dr. Nazimuddin Ahmed however observed recently that the Bhitargarh or other forts ‘ formed a part of the chain of early medieval  mud-forts erected mostly by the Muslim rulers at different times to defend their territory against the incursion of their northern Hindu neighbours’( Banglapedia, 2003, p187). Dr. Nazimuddin himself did not carry out any excavation and his remarks are therefore not tenable. In fact this northern part of Bangladesh is very ancient territory where civilization dawned quite early and which formed part of  the ancient Indian world. That the forts of Panchagarh are relics of ancient structures there cannot be any doubt , but their full history has yet to be revealed.

Recently a group of scholars and student-archeologists of the University of  Liberal Arts Bangladesh, Dhaka  led by Professor Dr. Shahnaj Husne Jahan have carried out an excavation  of the site of Bhitargarh and unearthed many valuable evidence. However, the excavation is still far from complete. Nevertheless on the basis of what has been discovered so far it may be said that Bhitargarh was the largest walled city of the area with many features of urban life and culture.  Local tradition has it that the walled city belonged to one King named Prithu who had the title of Maharaja. Most of the relics that have survived are named after him. However, the local traditions though very useful cannot be accepted as history. It has been claimed that in the ancient times, the walled city of  Bhitargarh served as a transit point being a part of an important trade route linking the ancient kingdoms of Tibet with Pundrabardhana and other ancient kingdoms of Bengal  and eastern India.

Bhitargarh walled city, however, completely declined by 12th century. Though it will never be possible to reconstruct fully its political and cultural history, the archeological excavation of the site of Bhitargarh will certainly reveal the chief features of the city. Hence further excavations should be carried out so that we may know much about the place. If we do so we will be able to contribute to the glorious history  of the Panchagarh District or for that matter of Bangladesh.