Bhitargarh is located about 16 km northeast of Panchagarh town in Amarkhana Union under Panchagarh Sadar police station. It is the largest fortified settlement in Bangladesh, extending over an area of about 25 square km. The site is actually transnational because portions of its outer enclosures on the northwest, the north and the east lie in Jalpaiguri district, West Bengal, India.
Physiographically, Bhitargarh lies in the Old Himalayan Piedmont Plain. The topsoil of the site, known as Black Terai soil, is very dark grey or black in colour. At places, the texture of the soil is loamy sand but over most of the landscape, it is sandy clay loam. The major hydrographic determinants of the site are two rivers that originate in Jalpaiguri district (India), namely the Talma in the west and the Kudum in the east. Both the rivers are currently tributaries of the Karatoya.
Beside the two rivers a total of ten dighis or tanks serviced the site in ancient period. These are: Maharajar Dighi, Kabarguri Dighi, Phulpukuri, Kodal-dhoya Dighi, Bara Malani Dighi, Singari Dighi, Baghpukuri, Jhaljhali Dighi and Chota Malani Dighi. Of these, Maharajar Dighi, covers an area of 53 acres and is enclosed with lofty embankments. When Francis Buchanan visited the site in the first half of the 19th century, found that the local Hindus considered Prthu Raja a very holy person, 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 his guards, so that the town was given up to plunder and the family ceased to reign.
The fortified settlement of Bhitargarh is enclosed within four concentric quadrangles created with ramparts constructed by means of burnt-brick and earth. The brick sizes are 24 x 23 x 5 cm, 23 x 22 x 5 cm, 22 x 20 x 5 cm, 20 x 18 x 4 cm. An earthquake that hit the site in 1897 is believed to have caused considerable damage to the structures. The first quadrangle (innermost) measures 340 m in the north, 650 m in the east, 450 m in the south and 610 m in the west. The ramparts are currently 2 m wide at the top and 2.55 m high from its base. Rectangular bastions, spaced at regular intervals, have been integrated in the ramparts. There is no moat outside the ramparts of the first quadrangle. Foundations of a cruciform temple and a stupa flanked by two pillared verandas have been discovered inside the first quadrangle.
The temple measures 22 m from its eastern to the western extremities and 27 m from the northern to the southern limits. The temple was built around a central hall measuring 9 x 9 m. The northern projection, which appears to have served as the sanctum, measures 6.40 m x 5.80 m in the interior. The eastern and the western wings, which may have served as sanctuaries for subsidiary deities, measure 3.60 m (east-west) x 4.28 m (north-south) along the central axes of the wings. The dimension of the southern wing, which must have served as the entrance to the temple, is inverse of the two side wings: 3.60 m (north-south) x 4.28 m (east-west) along its central axes.
The stupa is located at a distance of 120 m southwest from the temple and its foundation was constructed with burnt bricks. The central part of the stupa foundation consists of three concentric squares. The inner square measures 6.25 m on each side and its walls are 2.14 m thick. It is enclosed with an intermediate square that measures 19.80 m a side and the walls are 1.53 m thick. The two squares are separated by a gap of 3.05 m. The third square, 27.50 m a side in the exterior and the walls are 1.25 m thick, is separated from the second by another gap that is 2.75 m wide. The design of the structure as concentric squares and the thickness of the walls clearly indicate that the structure was originally pyramidal in shape and ascended in a tapering mass of three receding terraces. From the third square, two rectangles project to the east and the west. These projections measure 10.5 m x 9.5 m on each side (in the interior) and contain within them bases of 16 pillars. It appears that the projected rectangles were pillared halls. The four corner pillars of each rectangle show holes in the centre, that measure 36 × 34 cm. The holes indicate that pillars, built with blocks of stone held together by dovetail joints or wooden post, stood at the corners. Another projected rectangle was unearthed immediately to the east of the eastern pillared hall. It measures 4.75 m (north to south) and 2.55 m (east to west) and appears to have served as the entrance to the stupa.
The second quadrangle encloses within it the first and is also bounded by four connected ramparts. The northern and southern ramparts are each 1.4 km long, the eastern rampart is 2.86 km long, and the western is 3 km. The ramparts, currently 3.5 m high from its base and 2.5 m wide at the top, have entirely been constructed with burnt bricks. The western rampart is a hugely undulated line because it follows the course of the Shalmara River. As in the first quadrangle, rectangular bastions have also been used at regular intervals to strengthen the ramparts of the second. Like the first quadrangle, ditches surround the exterior of the ramparts of the second quadrangle. Two gateways one is Yama-du'r (lit., the Door of Death), located on the southern rampart and another is Kala-duar (lit., Door of Eternal Time), located on the northern rampart.
The third quadrangle is bounded by four connected ramparts: that of the north measures 2.88 km, that of the east, 5.27 km, of the south, 3.71 km, and the west, 5.37 km. The ramparts, are currently 4.9 m high and 30 m wide at the top, and have been constructed with earth but bricks have been used at two strategic sections. All the ramparts are surrounded by depressed channels on the exterior of all the sides except the west. These channels are 29 m wide and 4.5 m deep. The Talma River runs in north-south direction immediately outside the western rampart in a manner that clearly indicates it served as a moat of the rampart.
The Shalmara River cuts through the western part of the third quadrangle site, meandering from the north to the south. It separates from the Talma in the north-eastern part of the quadrangle at a place called Birb'ndh (lit., the 'powerful embankment'), where it penetrates the northern rampart of the third quadrangle. The Shalmara meanders in a south-easterly direction, nearly touches the western rampart of the second quadrangle and then veers off in a south-westerly direction, meandering again till it exits from the quadrangle by cutting through the western corner of the southern rampart at a place called Domoni (from do-mohona or 'two mouths'). There, it unites with the Talma.
Three shalmard remains have been identified in the channel of the Shalmara. One of these is at Domoni; it is indicative of a stone embankment that appears to have regulated the flow of the river. The remaining two are stone structures that traverse the channel at two points known as Pathar-ghata and Kamarbhita, such that they trisect the river into three parts. The stone structures were constructed with granite stone blocks joined together with nails. The embankments allowed the river to overflow at a certain level and thus stored water at the upstream ends. It is strongly probable that the regulatory mechanism at Birbandh actually diverted the Shalmara into the T'lm'. Because the course of the Talma is very uniform giving a clear impression of human work, whereas the meandering channel of the Shalmara cannot but be natural, it is very much possible that the latter (ie, Shalmara) was the original channel, which the inhabitants of the city diverted at Birbandh.
Two low walls, one is about 1600 m in length and another is 1400 m long, are seen in the northern and southern part of the third quadrangle respectively. Both the walls run in east-west direction and a depressed channel attached to these walls connected to the Shalmara.
Another structural remain is a small brick-built square, measuring 130 m x 130 m internally and 170 m x 170 m externally that projects inward from almost the centre of the southern rampart of the third quadrangle. Inside the square, a mound, measuring 40 m x 40 m, strewn with brickbats has been identified.
The fourth quadrangle is also bounded by four connected ramparts but these are built entirely with earth. The northern rampart is 3.08 km in length, the eastern as well as the western is 5.7 km and the southern is 4.08 km. Currently, these are all 1.4 m high and 12 m wide at the top. The ramparts are surrounded by 15 m wide depressed channels on the exterior.
The most important structural remain in the fourth quadrangle is known as Dhumgarh. It is a small quadrangle, measuring 210 m in the east and west, 610 m in the north and 520 m in the south. The ramparts are 2.9 m high and are surrounded by 15 m-wide moats on the exterior sides. The river T'lm' runs by the southwest corner of Dhumgarh. Satellite image indicates a paleochannel running out from the middle of the southern rampart of Dhumgarh, meandering in south-westerly direction till it meets the Talma.
Another rampart (1.3 m high and 16 m wide at the top) is situated to the south of the southern rampart of the fourth quadrangle. The total length of the rampart is 4.04 km. Its southern edge is lined with a 15 m wide depression.
Excavations at the site have revealed interesting pottery assemblages, which bear evidence to the craft specialisation of the inhabitants. The assemblage consists exclusively of red ware and grey ware of both varieties: fine and coarse. The vessel forms mostly consist of eating plates (thalas), dish, bowl, saucer, globular cooking pots, earthen lamps, baking pans, in varying sizes. These are mainly decorated with incised and stamped designs. Fragments of iron and copper objects have also been found during excavation. Besides, a highly debased iron nail (20 kg in weight), a brass piece, an oval-shaped sandstone seal, a fragment of an idol of Manasa, court view of Ramachandra, and Hanuman, all made of black basalt have been found by the villagers.
The annals of history of Bengal shed very little light on Bhitargarh. What is known is that in the 16th century, the settlement may have been a part of Kamta-Koch kingdom, a 'tribal' state that emerged when a Koch chieftain named Vishvasingha drove out the Muslim rulers. The latter had been ruling this territory as a part of the sultanate of Bengal after Husain Shah conquered the medieval kingdom of Kamrupa in 1498. Still earlier, in 1257 AD, when Sultan Mughisuddin set out on his fatal expedition to Kamrupa, there was no centralised monarchy in its western part as this part 'was divided among Bara-Bhumyas of the Bodo, Koch, Mech tribes'. In the first half of the 10th century, Bhitargarh may have witnessed the arrival of the Kambojas who, as ascertained by the Bangada pillar inscription and the Irda copper plate, reigned briefly in Gauda in the 10th century. Still further back, prior to the 4th century, the history of Bhitargarh must be sought in the history of Pragjyotishpur, which lay to the east of Karatoya.
In the light of this historical framework and archaeological investigations, it may be tentatively suggested that the fortified settlement of Bhitargarh was not built by early-medieval Muslim rulers of Bengal. We may believe that the site was constructed anytime before the 10th century AD. This is not only corroborated by local traditions but also the construction technique of the ramparts, temple and stupa found during the excavation. However, site plan of Bhitargarh is very similar to the early historic fortified settlements of South Asia. Most of the key elements of material culture that are generally accepted as indicators of a city or an urban settlement are compatible with the archaeological datum of Bhitargarh. The archaeological datum of Bhitargarh also agrees with the Arthashastra recommendation for construction of moats and ramparts, internal layout to the city with gates, streets and allocation of different areas for different communities or purposes, etc.
Bhitargargh may have been an independent city-state and the importance lay primarily in trade because of its strategic location on the ancient over-land and riverine routes connecting Tibet, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, Assam, Koch Bihar and the regions of the middle and lower Gabga valleys.
It is not possible to say, at this stage, why the urgency of the state' had emerged and how the city perished. Situated in an inhospitable environment created by dense forests, as the physiography of the site and its natural vegetation pattern indicates, the inhabitants may have had to protect themselves from beasts as well as unfriendly 'tribals' living in the forests, and face stiff competition from the neighbouring centres of trade. [Shahnaj Husne Jahan]