The museum is not on Google Maps, and it is not much to look at. An unpainted brick structure, it remains swaddled in darkness once the last Trekker bus to Ramnagar station passes by at 6 pm. But the Rajinikanta Gyan Mandir Museum and Research Centre, in Dharas, a village in East Midnapore, has an uncommon distinction – it houses two rare ceramic jars, or amphorae, that were once used to ship agricultural produce, wines, oil and pickles.

One of these has been identified as an amphora made between 4th and 7th century CE in Aqaba, a port in Jordon which, incidentally, featured in all three Indiana Jones movies. The other, still under study, seems to have originated in Saudi Arabia. The visitor’s book of the Rajanikantha Museum has a note from Dr Roberta Tomber, an amphorae specialist from the British Museum, in which she expresses her joy at finding “the first Roman Amphora from West Bengal”.

What makes it extra special is that such jars were earlier never reported from the eastern part of India, though fragments of amphorae have turned up in western and southern India. So could it be that this far-flung and hard-to-commute spot was once where ships from Rome and Arabia stopped to unload merchandise?

Photo credit: Subrata Ganguly
Photo credit: Subrata Ganguly

History’s foot soldier

Getting to the museum requires a 190-kilometre bus ride from Kolkata and then a long bumpy ride on the roof of a packed Trekker. Once there, founder and curator Aurobindo Maity – who lives next door – comes across the fields, his beaming face, framed in the quintessential Bengali “monkey cap”. The little man doesn’t have impressive titles before or after his name. A retired high school teacher with a passion for history is all he claims to be.

Maity belongs to that indispensable straggle of individuals – foot soldiers of history who surmount odds to rescue and preserve relics of the past. Nowhere are such individuals more necessary than the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta where gushing tributaries and fluctuating sea levels redesign the landscape, endangering archaeological sites and artefacts. Had it not been for these amateur relic hunters, there would have been few resources left for archaeologists and researchers.

It takes Maity a few minutes to find the right keys in his market bag and once inside, the informality of the museum is striking. Inaugurated in 1975, the interiors are unkempt and need illumination. Even with two bulbs lit, a torch is necessary to see the collection. The first of the two rooms was intended for seminars so just a few animal fossils and photographs are on view. The collection is stacked in the next room in display cabinets, almirahs, racks and shelves – all terribly dusty and worn. The floor is littered with broken pottery. “What am I to do?” said Maity. “Preserving everything is difficult. The rats drop pots from shelves, damage manuscripts and fabric.”

Photo credit: Subrata Ganguly
Photo credit: Subrata Ganguly

He has been scouring the countryside for relics since the 1970s. Two of his teachers – one of whom the museum is named for – inspired him to collect real historical objects for the benefit of local students. From collecting old coins sold at Egra haat to inspiring youngsters to rescue silver punch mark coins for the museum and following him on relic hunts, Maity has come a long way.

“The best time is the rainy season. We also keep a lookout when ponds are being dug or roads built,” Maity said, as he picked out items he had rescued – a Mughal-era metal casket, a tiny quartz head of the Buddha, a handful of Neolithic tools and a terracotta tile among others. “Not everyone cares about these things. Not unless they think it is silver or gold.”

Photo credit: Subrata Ganguly
Photo credit: Subrata Ganguly

The big find

And finally he gets to the prize items – the Roman and the Arabian amphorae. The Roman amphora lay on its side inside a cupboard behind a clutter of other pottery. At 77.8 cm, it is quite tall and fragile. In a museum it may have been appropriately displayed on girders with proper lighting and protection.

Its origins in Aqaba calls for a “relook into the chronology and extent of trade networks around coastal West Bengal between the 4th and 7th centuries CE when such amphorae were used,” said Kaushik Gangopadhyay, a senior archaeologist at Calcutta University. He and V Selvakumar of Tamil University, Thanjavur, published their findings in the Asiatic Society Journal. Maity was also mentioned as an author of the paper.

Photo credit: Subrata Ganguly
Photo credit: Subrata Ganguly

Both the Roman and Arabian amphorae were found by chance along the seacoast of Ramnagar Block II. The Arabian amphora was unearthed at Karanji and the Roman amphora was stuck in a sand ridge near Kalindi.

Kaushik said that surface marks on the widest part of the Roman amphora suggest it has rubbed against other amphorae during transit. And there is a curious white stain inside the amphora which may indicate what it had once contained.

The amphora is so well-preserved and almost completely intact that Tomber felt this indicated “the existence of either a harbour or a shipwreck site”. The idea of an ancient harbour along the East Midnapore coast is not new. Accounts of Chinese pilgrims, excavations in nearby Tamluk or Tamralipta, Moghalmari and Bahiri have recorded human settlements in this area dating from before the 1st century CE. Later evidence of monasteries, a paleo channel linked to the sea and foreign inscriptions on seals and pottery shards have shown this region as a religious and trade hub.

The museum obviously needs more help, but Maity says that so far both the Archaeological Survey of India and state archaeology wing seem indifferent. Even universities have not helped much, though items from this collection have sparked several research projects. A cache of 83 coins had prompted research by Calcutta University professor Susmita Basu Majumdar. The coins were identified as belonging to the reigns of Kanishka and Huvishka. Barun Das, a professor of English in a local college, is doing research on a rare manuscript found and preserved by Maity.

Researchers love these informal museums. With none of the usual restrictions and red tape, they are able to freely access and document the artefacts. Authorities insist that individuals cannot collect and keep antiquities unless the objects are formally registered, but neither this nor the law that require individuals to submit all excavated objects over 100 years old to the government are taken seriously. Criminals still manage to sell off precious finds to the highest bidder. Lack of awareness seems to slow down the government process of regularising these collections and giving due credit and technical support to local collectors. As things stand, it is up to collectors and local inhabitants to protect their heritage.

Abdul Jabbar, Dilip Moity, the late Narottam Haldar, all built museums on their own. Debishankar Middha, a science graduate who helps out in the family pharmacy, has such a collection in Kashinagar. He began gathering objects since class IX. “We have a plot close to the Jatar Deul site,” he said. “So while playing, I used to pick up small objects of stone and terracotta. No one believed me until Gautam Sengupta [former director general ASI] confirmed their historical worth.” Today the entire third floor of their residence is a museum.