Satgaon known as Saptagram (meaning seven villages) in ancient times, was an important port town in medieval Bengal. It was a seat of Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina cultures in the pre-Muslim period. It was situated on the southwestern bank of the now silted up Saraswati river near its junction with the Hughli river. It is believed that the Saraswati used to flow on the bed of the Rupnarayan river on which stood the port of tamralipta. Since the end of the seventh century AD, the Saraswati had begun to move towards the present course of the Hughli river.
By the early twelfth century, the Saraswati had come out of the Triveni junction (of the Ganges, the Saraswati and the Jamuna) and after a movement towards the west turned to the southeast to meet the Hughli again at Bettore opposite Howrah, thus forming a loop. Satgaon was situated on the upper part of the loop on the southern bank as is testified by the ruins seen in late nineteenth century. The contemporary Portuguese sketches also point to the same location. It has been surmised by some that the loop was the original flow of the Hughli and the present channel of the Hughli was then in the process of formation.
Saptagram came under Muslim occupation for the first time in 1298 AD during the time of Sultan ruknuddin kaikaus (1291-1300), the grandson of the Delhi Sultan ghiyasuddin balban. The conquest is connected with the name of the celebrated warrior-saint Zafar Khan Ghazi. During the time of Sultan shamsuddin firuz shah (1301-1322 AD) the city was used as a military base for the conquest of southeast Bengal, particularly sonargaon. In 1324, ghiyasuddin tughlaq conquered Bengal and placed Azam Khan as Governor. Muhammad bin Tughlaq divided Bengal into three parts, made satgaon the capital of southwestern part of Bengal and it was developed as a mint-town in 729 AH/1328-29 AD. This status it retained for more than one hundred years. With the establishment of the mint, traders and merchants had begun to settle here and with the transfer of the capital from pandua to gaur in the middle of the fifteenth century, the port of Satgaon started functioning as a seaport. The main items of export of this city included rice, cotton-stuffs, lac, sugar, long-pepper, dried myrabalans etc.
Seven inscriptions, dated between 1445 and 1505, are available from the Satgaon area. These referred to the headquarters at Sajla-Mankhabad in which Satgaon was included. The administrator of the area was styled as Commander and Wazir with extended powers. In the ain-i-akbari (1595-96), Abul Fazl placed Satgaon as one of the nineteen sarkars of Bengal and it had fifty-three mahals (revenue units) with an income of Rs 4, 16, 118. The revenue of the port of Satgaon was Rs 30, 000 annually. Satgaon had developed to a considerable extent to become the headquarters of the area before the Mughal conquest of Bengal.
The city also emerged as a seat of learning. It is learnt from the inscriptions (dated 1298 and 1313 AD) that Zafar Khan, the ruler of Satgaon, founded a mosque cum residential madrasa providing board and lodging for both teachers and students. It appears from the contemporary Bengali literature that Satgaon was also a centre of Sanskrit learning. According to Vipradasa, there were many Hindu ascetics and monasteries in Satgaon and many Brahmin Pandits well-versed in the shastras lived in that place in the fifteenth century.
bipradas pipilai, writing in 1493-94, gave the first account of the city of Satgaon (Saptagram). There were rows of well-decorated houses in which the Hindus worshipped idols with musical accompaniment. There were several groups of Muslims including the Mughals and the Pathans. But Bipradas did not refer to the port. By the early sixteenth century, tome pires, the Portuguese writer from Malacca, had referred to the port of Satgaon as a good one with good entrance. He mentioned ten thousand inhabitants. The two Bengali poets, Vrndaban Das and Jayananda, referred to the prosperity of Saptagram. They mentioned the existence of many rich merchants. Some of their houses had enclosing walls, lofty doorways and the windows were decorated with glass. Basudev Ghos, a contemporary of Chaitanya, mentioned different professional people at Saptagram. Among the merchants, there were Subarna Baniks (gold merchants), Gandha Baniks (perfume merchants) and Kansa Baniks (metal merchants).
In the Kulaji book of the Subarna Banik, generally of doubtful validity, the Karjana Samaj of Saptagram has been mentioned. It was stated that Sultan Alauddin. husain shah had oppressed the merchants of the Samaj. A statement of Tome Pires supported this. A little later the Karjana Samaj was split, possibly after the arrival of the portuguese in Bengal, on the question of association with them. In 1535, Sultan Ghiyasuddin Mahmud Shah had given permission to the Portuguese to establish factories at Satgaon and Chittagong. They established the factories around 1555. Despite the political anarchy created by the invasions of sher shah and humayun, in 1567 caesar frederick saw thirty to thirty-five ships in front of Satgaon.
But the big ships of the Portuguese were unloading the goods at Bettore and transferring these by smaller boats to Satgaon. This seemed to have continued for some time. Around 1575, the French traveller Vincent Le Blanc found the prices to be low at the market of Satgaon. He saw the worship in the temples, with music playing. Even around 1583, ralph fitch found Satgaon a prosperous city, by which time the Portuguese had established the port of Hughli. But Satgaon was still functioning as a port. In 1622 the English factors at Patna reported the arrival of Portuguese boats from Satgaon with goods from Southeast Asia. After the Mughal conquest of Hughli in 1632, the customs office was transferred from Satgaon to Hughli, which signified the fall of the port of Satgaon. The comment of the Bengali poet mukundaram chakravarti around 1594 would show that the Bengali merchants of Saptagram were not going overseas.
rakhaldas bandyopadhyay divided the city into several wards between Trisbigha and Bansberia on the basis of profession. From the ruins, it seems that the nobles occupied the southern bank of the Saraswati. The French traveller was staying in the house of such a noble not far from the market. The Vaisnavas appeared to have settled their monasteries in the west on the southern bank. It seems plausible that the later immigrants began to occupy the northern bank of the river. Sultan Alauddin Hussain Shah had built a bridge for their convenience in 1505. From the sketches of the Portuguese, it seems clear that the city, after moving towards the east on the southern bank, began to take a sharp turn towards the south parallel to the river and then suddenly veered towards the east to the Bhagirathi. From the account of the French traveller it seems that the city was able to reach the Bhagirathi, thus creating an octagonal shape. One therefore sees three movements of the city. The earlier one was running parallel to the river towards the west, hugging the southern bank. The second, perhaps occurring immediately afterwards, was the movement towards the south running parallel to the river. The last one was the movement towards the east, when the city had left the river to move towards the Bhagirathi. This may suggest the gradual silting of the Saraswati, particularly in its lower reaches, and the greater flow of traffic in the Bhagirathi.
The second half of the sixteenth century saw the crisis gradually enveloping the city. The transfer of the capital of gaur towards tandah and then to rajmahal on the other bank followed by the grueling Mughal-Afghan contest had robbed the port of Satgaon of its rich hinterland and the consumption centres. By that time the Portuguese pirates, in association with those of Arakan, were almost controlling the Bhagirathi river mouth, and this affected trade and the city. The silting of the Saraswati must have been pronounced by this time, when the Portuguese decided to found Hughli directly on the Bhagirathi. After 1632, trade had shifted to Hughli, leaving the port fairly deserted.
The city of Saptagram however continued to linger as a centre for the production of paper and other crafts till the early nineteenth century. The Dutch traveller Stavornius had mentioned the city in 1769-70, while the Dutch officials had found the city deserted enough at the end of the eighteenth century to have their outings there from the nearby town of Chinsurah. After the desertion of the city, some parts like Bansberia began to rise, sponsored by semi-independent zamindars.
Historians had generally attributed the decline of Saptagram to the silting of the Saraswati. It seems that the decline was caused more by the invasions of Sher Shah and Humayun in 1538 and the Mughal-Afghan contest beginning in 1575 that dislocated the trade nexus. The silting of the Saraswati was a long process, lasting perhaps several centuries, starting from the second half of the fifteenth century, the high-water mark of the prosperity of the city. The decline however took place at a quicker pace, caused more by the growing political anarchy.
The rise of Saptagram had not occurred under court patronage. The cosmopolitan character of the city, even under the crisis, would show the city to be without a distinct communal, religious or racial character. It had emerged due to the conjunction of the market forces of the times and it died more due to political exigencies that had coalesced to sponsor the rise of another nearby port city, Hughli, on the principal flow of the Bhagirathi. With the end of the Sultanate in Bengal, Satgaon gradually lost its moorings. [Aniruddha Ray]
Bibliography' DG Crawford, 'Satgaon or Triveni', Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, III, 1909; RD Banerji, 'Saptagram or Satgaon', Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, V, 7, 1909; Aniruddha Ray, 'Morphology of Medieval Saptagram or Satgaon', Journal of Bengal Art, 4, Dhaka, 1999.