Why we marvel at Mahasthangarh

Bogra has a far more ancient history in its land that we realise

Bogra has a far more ancient history in its land that we realise

Dhaka Tribune
Tim Steel

The origins of this very ancient site that we know today as Mahasthangarh, but which has been known through history as Pundranagara, is somewhat veiled from us by the usual mists of history.

Lying just north of Bogra, in the Rajshahi division of North Bengal, it has been subject to exploration and investigation for over two centuries; the most recent period of such work, by a joint French and Bangladesh team, has lifted a large part of that veil from the fifth century.

First identified as a site with major historic significance early in the 19th century, both the international excavations carried out there over recent years, and studies, such as that of the etymology of its ancient identity, is in some ways seen to raise more questions than answers.

The general consensus appears to identify it with a non Indo-European, non-Aryan people known as the Pundra. That mention should be made in the Mahabharatra of these people, probably about 9th century BCE, suggests that they may, indeed, have indigenous connections from beyond the Ganges basin.

Whilst there continue to be attempts to “Islamise” the site — a somewhat bizarre habit at such sites, predating Islam by as much as a thousand years in Bangladesh, we may well, however, wonder at origins even earlier than the retreat of the sea waters.

Perhaps the origins lie millennia before the apparent foundation, predating even the suggested third or fourth millennium BCE arrival of the Aryans.

Excavations of sites of the Harappa civilisation of north west India appear to suggest social settlements that may even predate those of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Is it possible, one may well wonder, that in this site we have suggestions of a far more ancient history for the lands that are now Bangladesh than hitherto suggested?

We already have considerable evidence of pre-Common Era history of these lands as a group of independent “kingdoms,” reaching back, probably, even to the earliest times of urban development.

There seems little doubt that the wealth generated by international trade, including that with lands of Central Asia, along with what we now identify as the Southern Silk Road, linking Central Asian lands with what is now the Middle East and Europe, financed such communities.

The road to Bogra, today, to visit this extraordinary site, is itself littered with the heritage of over 5,000 years of history; and within 20km of the main site can be found, traces of over 100 Buddhist sites, together with those of both Hindu and Jain history, together with Islam of more recent centuries.

Indeed, there can be little doubt that it was the wealth of trade, and probably also social intercourse, that meant that these lands made their own significant contribution to the evolution of the three great, early, faith groups: Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

Of these, the greatest tangible inheritance is that of Buddhism, dating from the time of Prince Gautama himself; a presence considerably amplified by the Pala Dynasty Empire of 8th to 12th centuries CE, which had its roots in North Bengal.

Crossing the bridge over the Jamuna, which, when it opened a couple of decades ago, was the World Bank’s biggest project and ninth longest bridge in the world, is still a memorable experience, whatever the season. But it is not long before any traveller knows they are entering a world so rich in history and heritage.

Just beyond the bifurcation of the road, where one heads toward such heritage treasures as Pabna, Puthia, Natore, and Rajshahi, the road heading northward, towards Bogra, passes, on the right hand side, an archaeology department sign to a little gem of Mughal period, Hindu temples — with two parts elegantly restored.

Further towards Bogra, a left hand road heads to Bhabanipur, with some more fine, early 17th century temples, and the ruins of an interesting, Mughal period palace, the home of the famous Rani Bhabani, known as the Queen of North Bengal, whose husband built the temple complex at Sirajganj.

Bogra itself is in the thick of Buddhist heritage, with its proliferation of Vihara sites.

Mahasthangarh, itself, is surrounded by such Buddhist remains, although the walled citadel itself, occupied until the 18th century, contains little that is visible within the walls and ramparts. Believed, originally, to have been founded by Hindus, to judge from the proliferation of treasures of Hindu origin during excavations early in the 20th century, there are many Buddhist sites in the immediate vicinity.

Indeed, the apparent coexistence of contemporary Hindu and Buddhist remains of both the Hindu Gupta Empire of the 4th to 6th century CE and that of the Buddhist Pala Dynasty of the 8th to 12th centuries CE, have reinforced the general belief that, despite the faith of the rulers, religious tolerance was well established in those periods.

In fact, the present day level of religious intolerance was largely absent from the lands of Bangladesh throughout most its history; Sultanate and Mughal Muslim rulers appear to have continued the practice of earlier Hindu and Buddhist rulers.

An object lesson, perhaps, for today’s Buddhist and Hindu rulers in neighbouring Myanmar and India?

North and south of the site, in immediate proximity, are fine remnants of Buddhist constructions. The site museum contains a few pieces of architectural and sculptural interest, but the National Museum in Dhaka, and the Varendra Museum in Rajshahi both hold more and better pieces, mostly of sculptural interest.

A limestone slab, found on the site in 1931, is believed to be inscribed by a royal order of the Magadha period, the vast kingdom that sprawled across much of the northern sub-continent for, perhaps, a thousand years before the Mauryan period from 4th century BCE. One of the last of the Magadha Kings is believed to have been the first significant convert, by Prince Gautama, to his Buddhist creed.

Within a circle of about 20km around the main city site, further sites, of Hindu and Buddhist origin, are plentiful, together with a few of early Muslim periods.

In immediate proximity lie such as Govinda, Mangalkot, Khulnar, and Godaibari Temples, all of which have been fully excavated, as has the beautiful, well kept site of the Bhasu Vihara.

In fact, driving on the narrow roads, especially to the north and west of the main citadel, many of the hillocks to be seen disguise unexcavated Vihara. A walk upon them will often reveal fragments of terracotta and pottery. And there are not a few visible remains of ancient mosques and temples, also, to be found.

In fact, over 30 sites, at least, remain unexcavated within that 20km circle, and archaeologists believe that there are around 100 yet to be recognised.

It continues to be a pity that accommodation to internationally acceptable standards is hard to find, for those visiting foreigners, who bring with them, not only cash, but also their cultural and social sensitivity, as well as their experience, and, sometimes, even expertise, to explore the wealth of archaeology, history, heritage, and cultural and social traditions that abound around this magnificent and, unquestionably, unforgettable gem of Bangladesh inheritance.

By any standards, for the seeker of cultural and heritage treasures, Mahasthangarh offers, simply put, a magnificent feast.

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