Chandraketugarh translates, from all its Sanskritic philological manoeuverings, as ‘the bastion of Chandraketu’. Quite naturally, this fuels the curiosities of many as to who was Chandraketu? While the lack of certitude is baffling to many, it is fodder to the rest. However, it is the inviting nature of history that allows one to not locate Chandraketu in a fixed time and place, as some have, but rather to unravel the many lores that surround this enigmatic king. This article attempts to map a few of these lores that surround the early historic archaeological site of Chandraketugarh. These lores traverse thousands of years in their narratives, but they range from 200 to 500 years in their historicity. In each of its tellings of who Chandraketu might have been lies the history of stratified human association and consciousness regarding this site. After all, a site is as much about its materiality as it is about the lives that were embroiled around it over the years.
Therefore, we get back to the question as to who might have Chandraketu been? Was he a mythical king or was he the Sandrocottus that Megasthenes wrote about? More importantly, what is the value of Chandraketu as a historical figure? The site of Chandraketugarh is still an ancient one revealing a spectacular range of artefacts, from the pre-Mauryan period (3rd century BCE) to the Sena period (12th century CE). Do the several imaginations of Chandraketu restrict our understanding of the history or do they, on the other hand, open a world of imagination before us? David Shulman, the stalwart scholar of early modern Tamil compositions, would have disagreed and lent his views to the latter as he wrote a history of imagination that Bhakti compositions managed to attain in early modern Tamil Nadu. In his book More than Real, he explores the mentalities that challenged dominant orders of the day and crafted empires of minds (Shulman 2012). A glance at the scholarship on Bhakti will reveal how supernormal and miraculous tales managed to provide voice to the mundane lives of people across geographies and temporalities not for once diminishing the importance of the historical referentialities.
Treading a world of imagination, where Chandraketu oscillates between the Mauryan supremo Chandragupta (Sandrocottus) and a meek noble under the Senas of eastern India (11th to 12th century CE), is a slippery slope. In all its tellings, however, Chandraketu’s lore is a tragic tale. In some he is a renunciant who left his kingdom in two minds, in others he is a valiant hero who lost a decisive battle, while in some others he is an upholder of Brahminical faith who staunchly refused to convert to Islam and was subjected to an eventual defeat.
Chandraketu as the protector of Sanatan Dharma is a really fascinating story. In this version, Chandraketu appears to be a king of Deuliya, one of the three names that surround this historic site, the other two being Berachampa and Debalay. Deuliya today translates as ‘penniless’. It is interesting how this name gained traction since this might be a possible reference to King Chandraketu’s defeat and his humble turn of fortunes after his encounter with the mystic pir or darvesh. The lores are quite forthright about coming to terms with Chandraketu’s defeat and never about resistance or resentment for a loss, and therein lies the key to understanding the politics behind the many stories.
This encounter is between the darvesh (used interchangeably with pir in the narratives) and the monarch Chandraketu. Someone familiar with stories of pirs and darveshes will take little time to recall similar patterns in the stories of cultural encounters between wandering professors of Islam with their non-Islamic monarchs, be it in the hills of Turkey (the foundation stories of the Ottoman Empire), the cold deserts of Mongolia (one can refer to The Secret History of the Mongols for more references [Cleaves 1982]) or the marshy lands of Bengal (Richard Eaton’s Rise of Islam should be a starting point for more on such narratives [Eaton 1993]).
According to a local collector of antiquities and lores, Dilip Maite, the story of the darvesh still leaves its mark on a place today known as ‘Shalke Da’, which he believes to be a distortion of ‘Shalikh Daha’, or ‘The Mynah Village’, named after the demise of the pet bird (mynah) of the darvesh on his visit to Chandraketu. This place is located a few metres from the ‘Khana-Mihirer Dhipi’ (The Mound of Khana and Varahamihira), doing justice to the years of entwined histories effortlessly strewn around Chandraketugarh.
Darvesh’s visit to Chandraketu to impress the king blends with the many philosophies of Islam of acculturation and persuasion. The purpose, however, was to get the king to eventually accede to Islam. But the king held firm, much to the displeasure of the darvesh. In some version the pir assumes a conspiratorial character who poisons the king’s two bodyguards to make his way into the palace, and eventually the king’s quarters. In other versions, the darvesh gives way to the Auliyas (Aul-Baul), a sect in late medieval Bengal otherwise known to be inspired by the Sufis but professed to have no allegiance to either Brahminism or Islam.
In this case, however, the Aul-Pir deployed his miraculous and political power in front of the monarch to make a statement, perhaps of an authoritative Islam. The story also depicts Chandraketu as firm in standing up to such display of power and almost always narrates his eventual fall, or defeat if one may. Some stories recount the all-powerful darvesh defeating the king through his miracles, while some recount an army sent from Arabia defeating and exiling the king Chandraketu.
That these stories legitimize the present communities around the site can be inferred from Maite’s notes (Maite 1984) about the presence of worship of several pirs (one such being the Badr Pir) around the villages of Chandraketugarh. Thus, a narration of defeat of a Hindu king is certainly not a saga of foreign victors and desecrated spoils, but rather a canvas of acculturation, keeping the authority of Islam and the integrity of the royal power intact. How else will peace be made around a site which, despite having had 2,000 years of history, is still dotted by inflected population? Maite’s observations candidly puts to shame years of colonial writings and ethnographies around southern Bengal.
By now a connoisseur of history would have begun to be suspicious of so many medieval and early colonial references surrounding an ancient site. The field notes from the surveys reveal yet another interesting narrative, and just like the others it attempts to come to terms with the ruins of the present site.[i] Chandraketu, in this version, encounters a bhikshu or a mendicant, possibly a Buddhist one. Thus, instantly this narrative transposes itself somewhere in the post-Gupta era. Chandraketu challenges the bhikshu to improbable tasks, and the bhikshu achieves them all through his miraculous powers, one such being the growing of champa flowers on the fence (bera) of the fort—hence, lending credence to the name Berachampa. In another version, this miracle is performed by a Sufi pir, which led to the same consequence—the humbling of the king. The bhikshu story ends with a disaster when the king’s pet monster is unleashed on its own founder and eventually the city by the omnipotent bhikshu. And thus fell Chandraketugarh, yet again.
What appears curious about this version is the absence of it in the collection of lores surrounding this site by Maite. It is possible that the range of interest garnered in recent decades about the ancient origins of the site has led to refashioning of some of its stories of origin. Otherwise all of Maite’s collections are constructed around Sufi pirs and darveshes. This makes sense for a practitioner of history, since most of the lores around this site reflect the practices of settlement, including conflict and rehabilitation, evidence of which dates back to not more than a few hundred years in southern Bengal. This is not to say that ancient or early medieval eras did not yield any settlements, rather narratives of assimilation, confrontation and habilitation together share their history with the expansion of the frontiers of Islam.
We are thus, left with the third name for the village, i.e., Debalaya (‘Abode of the Gods’). Maite is very upfront about the fact that it was named not more than a hundred years ago. The reason he cites is interestingly two-fold. One, being the obvious pure Sanksritized Bengali, distinctly different from the other two. The second, being the translation, about god’s abode at a place which consciously chose a humble name perhaps a few centuries ago, going by the presence of Sufi pirs and darveshes. After all, the might and destruction of pirs and monarchs and the many Chandraketu lores especially give space for the high and the low to coexist, the king and the pir, the Hindu and the Muslim, and the old and the new.
While the many Chandraketus continue to live in the Deuliya and Berachampas, the march of empiricist history obsessed with dates, facts and figurines continues. A study conducted by the faculty at IIT, Kharagupur, promises some extraordinary discovery at the site, laden with even greater problematics:
‘An archaeological study into the history of Bengal, being conducted by a team from IIT Kharagpur, has stumbled upon an exciting find: King Sandrocottus, mentioned by Greek explorer Megasthenes, was not Chandragupta Maurya, but Chandraketu, whose fort Chandraketugarh is in present-day North 24-Parganas, about 35km from Kolkata...Megasthenes visited India in the third century BC, after Alexandar's invasion of India, and gives a detailed account of what he saw in “Indica”. Here he mentions King Sandrocottus as one of the most powerful kings of Gangahriday , the Gangetic delta that spread over the five mouths of the river and was a continuum of a landmass comprising Anga, Banga and Kalinga.' (Pandey 2006)
'The popular belief is that Chandraketu was Chandragupta Maurya', says Joy Sen, head of IIT Kgp's architecture department, the principal investigator of the project being conducted under the institute's Sandhi initiative, funded by the Ministry of Human Resources Development. 'But we will disprove that. The Greek account mentions Xandramese, who is definitely not Nanda, predecessor of Chandragupta Maurya. Again, Sandrocyptus of the Greek account was not Bindusara of the Mauryan dynasty,' he adds. What this means is that Chandraketu was a far more powerful king of Anga desh towards the end of the 5th century or beginning of the 4th century—‘so powerful, that Alexander himself met him.
Maybe Chandraketu was the famous Sandrocottus, maybe he wasn’t. May be he was just a figment of many, many indelible imaginations. The fear of multiplicities is a hallmark of modern empiricism, which fails to ask a basic question such—‘Why does Chandraketu have to be real?’—before conducting teleological studies. Maybe the historical site and the generations of people living here have made a much better bargain with multiple narratives than the modern scholars and practitioners of history. Somewhere beyond the mound today, where the lore of the brave Khana, the woman after whom the site of Khana Mihirer Dhipi is named, meets the mynah of the wandering pir when the sun sets, one can still get a whiff of the forlorn king visiting his palace every night, finding peace in the many crossroads of habitations that has kept a semblance of history and heritage alive at the bastion of Chandraketu.
[i] The fieldwork was carried out by Samayita Banerjee (UNESCO, Sahapedia Fellow) and the author of this article, both MPhil research scholars in the Dept of History, Delhi University, in the month of December, 2017 at Chandraketugarh.
Cleaves, Francis Woodman (trans.). 1982. The Secret History of the Mongols. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Online available at Archive.org. Accessed on 20th November, 2017.
Eaton, Richard. 1993. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Maite, Dilip. 1984. Chandraketugarh. Debalay: Chandraketugarh Museum.
Shulman, David. 2012. More than Real —A History of the Imagination in South India. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Pandey, Jhimli Mukherjee. ‘Was Sandrocottus Bengal’s Chandraketu?’. Times of India, August 22, 2016.
Online at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/Was-Sandrocottus-Bengals-Chandraketu/articleshow/53806349.cms. Accessed on 23rd December, 2017.