Virtual Bangladesh

Virtual Bangladesh: Rajshahi Division Tour

The Division of Rajshahi in the northwestern corner of Bangladesh is bordered on the east by the mighty Jamuna River and the Padma/Ganges River on the south, and shares a disputed border with India to the north and west, making access to Gaud, one of the most interesting archaeological sites in all of Bengal, almost impossible. During Partition, the ancient capital of Gaur was split through the middle and now part of it lies in Bangladesh and part in India.

[Paharpur Museum]Rajshahi Division has an impressive collection of sites which are spread over a wide area and are best reached by a private vehicle. Rajshahi is a University town, the center of the silk Industry, as well as being an important cultural center. Formerly it was also quite famous as a focal point for the Indigo trade with the Baro Kuthi building witness to the countless atrocities committed by the British related to this disreputable trade. The Varendra Research Museum is an essential starting point as it contains a massive collection of artifacts related to the area. The building itself is a blend of Hindu and Buddhist styles of the eighth and ninth centuries with the prevailing British influence of the 1920s. Inside is one of the finest collections of black stone sculptures in the country.

Eighteen miles (29 km) east of Rajshahi town, in the village of Puthia, is a fascinating but little-known group of medieval Hindu temples. Besides the imposing Maharani's Palace (Puthia was formerly a large estate) there is an interesting variety of temples. At the entrance to the village is a large white stucco temple dedicated to Shiva, following a typical north Indian design and dating from 1823. To the left of the main facade of the palace is the Govinda Temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Krishna, which follows a typical Hindu temple shape prevalent in Bengal at the time. It is decorated with delicate terra-cotta panels depicting scenes from the Radha Krishna and other Hindu epics. At the back of the palace is another delightful Bangla style miniature temple, which is in the shape of a Bengali bamboo hut but built of brick and adorned with some exquisite terra-cotta designs. Across a large tank to the right of the palace are a further pair of temples exhibiting a variation of styles. One, the Jagaddhatri Temple dedicated to the Hindu goddess Durga, is a combination of the Bangla style and the Chau-chala style, or hut-shaped roof with four slopes. The other temple alongside is also of the Chau-chala style. Both temples are liberally decorated with terra-cotta designs.

MahasthanTo continue the tour of Rajshahi, it is best to drive via Bogra to visit the Mahasthan and Paharpur sites. On the way, you will witness some fascinating local fishing methods - fish being the staple diet of the Bangladeshi- whether by casting or laying a net, by spear, or by trapping the unsuspecting fish in an upturned basket. You will see large expanses of sugarcane or cotton, which are 'dry crops' and of course an abundance of paddy fields as well as jute, which is grown throughout Bangladesh. The archaeological site of Mahasthan, dating from the third century B.C., which is about eight miles (13 km) north of Bogra, represents the earliest city site in the whole of Bengal. It is an impressive fortified city covering about 2.3 million square feet (210,000 square meters), most of which is still buried beneath farmland. The citadel is encircled on three sides by artificial moats and by the Karatoya River on the fourth.

Other ruins fan out within a semicircle radius of about five miles (eight km), making it one of the most important of all ancient sites in the region. It is worth walking up onto the platform of the citadel, which stands above the surrounding countryside, to see the extent of the site and to take a closer look at some of the recently exposed rampart walls. Outside and beyond the citadel on the right of the road is another interesting site where the remains of a brick Hindu temple, the Govinda Bhita, have been exposed. They stand on the bend of the Karotoya, which was said to have been the widest river in Bengal; today it is just a backwater. Opposite is the fine Mahasthan Site Museum, filled with finds from local archaeological excavations. About four miles (six km) west of Mahasthan are the ruins of Vasu Bihar, an early Buddhist monastic site recorded by the famous Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang in the seventh century. Recent excavations have shown several changes during its 500 year history.

[Paharpur] By far the most spectacular Buddhist site to be discovered is the gigantic temple and monastery of Paharpur, dating from the eighth century A.D. Paharpur is about 35 miles (56 km) northwest of Mahasthan via the busy market town of Jaipurhat. Access from Jaipurhat is along a rutted cart track that is sometimes passable in an ordinary car. Paharpur has been identified from a series of inscribed clay seals as the Somapura Vihara from the great Pala Dynasty. It is the biggest single vihara (image house) south of the Himalayas, measuring approximately 900 feet (273 meters) along each side and enclosed by an outer wall with 177 monastic cells built into it. In the center of the 22-acre (nine-hectare) courtyard are the ruins of a mighty temple which rises to a height of 72 feet (22 meters)- an unusual hillock giving the local village of Paharpur its name (pahar meaning 'hill'). The temple is cruciform in plan, built in high quality brick with thousands of terra-cotta plaques depicting the art form of that period, whether it be religious or secular, human or animal, mythological or purely an artist's whim .

Following the Buddhist creed and ritual, the monastery was built in the wilderness - but not too far from a town to enable the inmates to beg from the nearby town - alongside a river which ran along the southern side. Today, the remains of the bathing and toilet facilities beyond the outside wall can also be seen in the southeastern corner.

[Buddhist Panel at Paharpur] The temple was planned with two circumambulatories, lined with the terra-cotta plaques, which were enclosed walkways enabling the faithful to circumambulate in a clockwise direction and, at the upper level, within the cruciform projections, pay homage to the main Buddhist divinities.

Inside the courtyard there are the remains of several ancillary buildings and it is possible to make out the refectory, a miniature version of the main temple and a large well which the locals believe provides waters with great healing powers.

During recent exploratory excavations, an important archaeological find of a large bronze Buddha dating from the Gupta period was accidentally discovered in one of the monks cells. It is considered to be one of the most splendid specimens of mature Pala art of the ninth century, cast using the 'wax loss' process.

Paharpur's later history is uncertain but it seems to have been abandoned in the 12th century A.D., probably due to flooding. Today the site is under water during the monsoon.

In 1979, the government joined forces with the United Nations and UNESCO to prepare a conservation program to safeguard this priceless site. There is a small site museum close to the monastic complex containing, amongst other finds, some interesting stone images/scenes which are representative of over 55 in situ pieces hidden below present ground level at the base of the temple.

A few hundred yards from the monastery, on the eastern side, are the ruins of Satyapir Bhita, a Buddhist temple complex apparently dedicated to Tara, the female consort of the Dhyani Buddha.

KantanagarA long day's trip to the north end of Bangladesh, about 12 miles (19 km) beyond Dinajpur, is the beautiful Hindu temple of Kantanagar, which was built in 1752 by Maharaja Pran Nath of Dinajpur. This temple, which is famed for its fine terracotta work, was originally a nine-tower structure crowned with four richly ornamental towers at two levels, with a central spire over the third. It was badly damaged in an earthquake at the end of the 19th century, but it is still possible to make out the bases of the towers. Nevertheless, the temple rightly claims to be one of the best examples of its type in brick and terra-cotta built by Bengali artisans. Dedicated to the Hindu divinity Krishna, the structure stands on a stone plinth, in sharp contrast to the warm red of the terracotta, which depicts in the spandrels over the archway scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

 

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