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.
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.
To 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
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.
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.
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.
A 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.