A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee
(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)
Last weekend we had been to Chandraketugarh – a 2200+ year old pre-Maurya period archaeological site which boasts of Vikramaditya’s favourite astrologer Varahamihir’s mansion from where his daughter-in-law Khawnaa used to preach her poetic forecasts. It is located at a distance of just 40 kilometers from Kolkata beside the gorgeous Bidyadhari River near Barasat.
When we reached there after a dusty village drive, we were already half dusted ourselves. The green sojourn at Chandraketugarh was rejuvenating but the first impression of the archaeological site conveyed an air of utter negligence in terms of maintenance – even the excavations have been left incomplete due to unknown reasons. A locale said that the pits here were cursed by a monster called Betaal 2500 years back and thus anyone who tries to dig the area gets killed by the devil. The site has now become more a rural romantic getaway for the local couples than a historic site. A century old tree right in the middle of the mounds stands as the only testimony to its rich past.
Finding outsiders taking photographs around the place stimulated interests in various forms to the surrounding public. As we looked around, an old Muslim gentleman left his dirty bicycle near our car and approached us almost voluntarily and introduced us to a neglected chapter of medieval Indian history.
The Chandraketugarh area belonged to a 2500+ year old urban civilization which flourished in the nation during pre-Mauryan period till Pala dynasty. It can be worth tagged as the ‘Mohenjo-Daro of Bengal’. But due to the sheer disregards from authorities, it never came to limelight neither received the deserved importance over time.
The brick mounds on which we were standing actually belonged to Vikramaditya’s favourite astrologer Varahamihir. His son Mihir was a legendary mathematician of Ancient India, sharing equal credits with Aryabhatta and was one of the esteemed gems of Vikramaditya’s Navaratna jewels.
Upon invitation, Mihir had once been travelling to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to exhibit his mathematical skills. There he grew love interests on the king’s daughter Lilavati and tied knots with her. After they came back to Chandraketugarh, motivated with the astrological calculations, Lilavati casually started delivering her agricultural predictions to the local women folks. Within a year, her poetic style and accuracy of predictions caught the attention of Vikramaditya and he appointed her as one of his Navaratna gems, replacing her husband Mihir. Thus arguably princess Lilavati became the first Indian lady to earn a monthly salary.
Varahamihir sensed immense threat from Lilavati’s rising popularity at the royal court and thus he instigated his son Mihir to take immediate precautions against their capsizing future. Unnerved, he approached the mythical king Chandraketu to seek his guidance. When Lilavati came to know about her husband’s conspiracy, she chopped her tongue off with a double-edged knife and promised not to talk ever in her lifetime if that would safeguard Mihir’s honour at the royal court.
This infuriated Vikramaditya and he persistently motivated Lilavati to continue with her tuneful art of predictions. Much later Mihir too realized his offence and requested Lilavati to start prophesying again. It was then she learnt a special art of speaking through her nasal passage. The pronunciation added a nasal tone to her voice and thus with time she came to be more known as Khawnaa (nasal speaker) and her sayings as ‘Khawnaar bachan’.
The brick mounds were the remnants of the temple, prayer hall, adjacent vestibule, astrology chamber, living room, kitchen and remaining portions of the mansion of Khawnaa and Mihir. Now only the wrecked brick walls remain with a green carpet of long grown grass over them at places. But there is an indigenous anticipation that many precious gems of golden age might be hidden inside.
The roof had already collapsed long back, perhaps even before the half-hearted excavations had started. Due to the eroding condition of the structures and brittleness of the primeval bricks, it has been left half dug by the authorities and the edifices are mostly underground at present. There did exist a flight of broken stairs which led us to the lower floors of the building but due to fears of snakebites, we could not walk to the bottom-most level.
The old man also warned us of misleading patch of green grasses over the mounds – It has soft pits at many places and no one knows if you happen to step on any of them, in which obscure world will you end up inside! Some ancient Kharosti scriptures were visible on the brick walls of the temple, probably the place from where Khawnaa used to chant her melodic forecasts every afternoon.
After a historic visual drive to the past, we enjoyed a brisk walk to Chandraketu’s garden and burial ground little away from the fort. Government allowed public access to this side of the citadel for picnics earlier, but now due to political reasons, the gates has been closed for picnickers. It has been converted to a religious place where there is Muslim graveyard at one side and Hindu burial ground on the other. They say, Chandraketu was very liberal towards religious beliefs which perhaps have made this possible.
The sun had set in the west by then. We thanked the old man for rejuvenating the historic sacrifice of a talented lady. After listening to the mythical stories surrounding the place, we felt very uncanny to stay there after sunset. Thus, hurried our way back to car and geared off fast.