Reema Islam uncovers the heritage sights within Bangladesh
Photographs by Reema Islam
An ancient seal was discovered in Mahastangarh site, written in Brahmi script. The seal proved to some, that Buddhism had indeed flourished in our deltaic land Before Current Era (BCE), a fact that has given rise to much debate. Yet, Pundravardana, or Mahastangarh as we know it, was a flourishing territory by the banks of the Karatoya River. By the time Hiuen Tsang, the famous Chinese pilgrim arrived in 639-45 CE (current era), he did not mention meeting a king but wrote about 20 monasteries, 3000 monks and a vibrant atmosphere of Buddhist chants and learning. Trade routes right up to Sindh and Gujarat from present day Mahastangarh have also been mentioned in many texts. Hiuen Tsang travelled further down to Samatata or the Mainamoti ruins in Comilla and possibly passed Somapura Mahavihara or Paharpur, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bangladesh housed two of the five most famous universities roughly between 5th-11th century CE: Somapaura Vihara or Paharpur in Naogaon and Jaggadala, which is still to be discovered. A thriving maritime port is also thought to have been around since the 3rd century BCE, in Wari-Bateshwar, Narshingdi. An ongoing excavation has revealed the most interesting tunnels and structures built within the earth, leaving archaeologists perplexed while drawing history enthusiasts from all over!
So whether you consider the flourishing universities in Mainamati and Jaggadala to the Mughals arriving and putting Dhaka in the limelight, our history is resplendent with diversity and a unique combination of religions, cultures and ethnic origins of the people. Sri Ballal Sen setting up the Dhakeshwari temple in the 12th century CE or the Baro Bhuiyans and the Rajas of Satkhira in the 16th century CE to the oldest, constantly inhabited Hindu street, Shakhari bazaar in Old Dhaka, Bangladesh too has its unique layers of a heritage we seem to have either forgotten or simply ignore.
More ancient history comes to life as archaeologists toil to bring to light our lost ancestry. Bhitargarh in Panchagarh, Dinajpur is being excavated to reveal a 6th-7th century CE fortified city, where some village homes still have the ancient fort walls running along at parts. Situated at a junction between Assam, Koch Bihar and several other states, this area had a significant influence on the world of trade. Another site in Bochaganj, Dinajpur is also laying bare a temple from the 8th-9th century CE, which was possibly a Buddhist temple that was converted to a Hindu one. The famous Buddhist scholar Atish Dipankar hailed from Bikrampur, where these excavations are bringing us closer to this eminent personality as well as other structures from his era, giving us a wider view of how people lived back then.
A recent workshop organised by the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and the Ministry of Tourism and Aviation called ‘Developing Sustainable Tourism based on Buddhist Heritage Culture and Pilgrimage Circuit’ has officially put Bangladesh on the map of countries with Buddhist heritage and the year 2016 is ‘Visit Bangladesh Year.’ With a heritage as rich and diverse as ours, it really is time we did something to preserve it. Our archaeology gives us a panoramic view of how different parts of Bangladesh functioned as autonomous kingdoms, forts or even ancient port cities, which together form a glorious web of ancient heritage that we seem to have done little to preserve. A visit to the museum, a family trip down to look at the archaeological ruins, visiting a village that still practices ancient rituals should be encouraged. There’s so much out there- let the journey to discovery begin. Let the Visit 2016 year also be a year where we cherish our heritage.