Sun, 26 Mar 2000

Archaeological heritage of Bangladesh

The prehistory of Bangladesh is nebulous at best. The few Mesolithic and Neolithic fossilized stone artifacts salvaged from Comilla, Noakhali and Chittagong in the past, along with a series of about 250 fossil artifacts discovered recently in the low- lying Mainamati-Lalmai hills of Comilla -- that belong to the middle and late stone ages -- present only a distorted picture of the prehistoric period. More vigorous exploration is clearly necessary. These findings, however slight, poignantly illustrate the faltering footsteps of early man in the region.

The political geography of the land from remote antiquity has been changing like the ever-shifting courses of its rivers. From the third century B.C. to the mid 18th century, the country was ruled successively by the great Mauryans, Guptas, Palas, Senas and Muslims until the arrival of the British. On the night of June 23, 1757, the Muslim rule in Bengal was swept away as dramatically as it had begun five centuries before, by the English East India Trading Company at the historic battle of Palassy. At that crucial moment in history, the destiny of Bengal passed from the Muslims to the British, and would remain in their hands for the next 200 years.


During more than 2,000 years of checkered history in Bangladesh, a large number of affluent cities, fortified palaces, magnificent temples, stupas, monumental gateways, mosques, mausolea, katras and other public buildings were built by various rulers of the country, most of which have perished with the passage of time, and at the hands of various destructive agencies of nature. Nevertheless, Bangladesh is still heir to a rich archaeological heritage. The extensive fortified ruins of Mahasthan in Bogra district, spread out irregularly over the western bank of the moribund Karatoya river, represent the earliest city site in Bangladesh. It is identified with the ancient capital city of Pundranager, and is mentioned in the epigraphic records of the Mauryans (third century B.C.), the Guptas (fifth century A.D.) and the Pala Kings (eighth to 11th centuries A.D.).

Limited excavation has revealed heavily fortified earth and brick ramparts with bastions about a mile long and two-thirds of a mile wide that are enclosed by wide moats. Packed dwellings, temples and other public buildings were exposed by the excavation also, while beyond the fortified area more ancient ruins were discovered, revealing within a 8.5-kilometer radius an extensive suburb. The few early temple remains discovered in excavations at Mahasthan and its surrounding areas, such as the Govinda Bhita temple, Bairagi Bhita temple and the imposing Lakhindarer Medh, were found to be built around a central shaft -- with a series of blind cells surrounding it on graded terraces -- each packed with earth resembling a honeycomb. The device was used primarily to strengthen the foundation of such massive buildings and is the antecedent of our own modern piling system.

But the most spectacular pre-Islamic monument is the gargantuan temple and Buddhist monastery in the Naogaon district, originally known as Somapuri Vihara. It is the second-largest Buddhist monastery south of the Himalayas, built in the eighth century by the great Pala Emperor Dharmapala (781 A.D. to 821 A.D.). The remains of the temple, located in the center of the monastery, still stand at a height of about 21.6 meters.

The immense complex has 177 cells -- once used by anchorites -- built into the inner wings, a single gateway, numerous votive stupas, and a multitude of other ancillary buildings within its vast enclosure. It is dominated by a cruciform central temple which rises in gradually receding pyramidal terraces around a deep central shaft with procession paths in the two upper terraces. The base of the temple is adorned with 63 stone sculptures of various gods and goddesses, and rows of endless terra-cotta plaques which faithfully depict the folk art of the period.

Paharpur Mahavihara is a treasured heritage of the world, which in ancient Asia introduced for the first time temple building on a grand scale that was later adopted by Myanmar and Java. Such temples and monasteries have also been found in large numbers in the hills of Mainamati-Lalmai in Comilla, dating back to the same period, notably at Salban Vihara, Kotila Mura, Ananda Rajar Badi mound, Charpatra Mura, Queen Mainamati's Palace mound, Itakhola and Rupban Mura mounds. Similar Buddhist monasteries have also been dug up at Sitakot in Dinajpur, Vasu Bihar near Mahasthan and other places.

Later medieval Hindu temples were constructed beside the two main North Indian Pida and Rekha deul types. A particularly popular form was the construction of ornate miniature spires of ratnas crowning the superstructure at the corners of the receding stages, such as the fabulously decorated Kantanagar navaratna temple (nine ornate spires collapsed in an earthquake in 1897). But an indigenous Bengali style soon evolved as the logical consequence of the climate and geography of the land. The style is characterized by sloping rooftops with curved eaves and unusually stunted pillars, relieved with delicate figural, floral and arabesque motifs. An excellent example of this is the jor bangla temple in Pabna town, built in the 18th century. All of these medieval temples were embellished with terra-cotta art depicting epic tales and myths -- unlike the earlier, more primitive eighth and ninth century work of the pala-Chandra period.


The architecture and art of the Muslim period, covering more than 500 years, may broadly be classified under two phases: the pre-Mughal and the Mughal. The period of isolation and independence of well over two centuries (1338 A.D. to 1557 A.D.) is distinguished by strong regional elements reflected in a luxurious richness of surface decoration -- terra-cotta art and the occasional use of intricate stone carving or glazed tile.

Among other indigenous elements characterizing the pre-Mughal period, is the striking curvilinear form of its roofs which emulated the common rural hut, replacing the open court. Surviving monuments of this phase are the Tomb of Khan Jahan (1459 A.D.) at Begerhat, the Shait Gumbad Masjid in the same locality, the mosque of Baba Adam at Rampal (1483), Sura Mosque (1493-1519) in Dinajpur, Chota Sona Masjid (1493-1519) at Gaur in Chapai Nawabganj, Bagha (1523), the Kusumba mosques (1558) in Rajshahi, Qutb Mosque in Mymensing, and Kherua masjid (1582) at Sherpur in Bogra.

The Bagerhat group of homogeneous monuments are distinct from the rest. The architecture is characterized by its severe simplicity, cyclopean tapering walls and minarets, which bear a close resemblance to the more famous Tughlaq architecture of Delhi of a century before. In this group the most magnificent brick mosque -- the biggest in Bangladesh -- is commonly known by its misleading name of shait gumbad masjid or the mosque with 60 domes; it is actually topped with 77 domes. Other elegant examples of this period are the Chota Sona Masjid, originally covered with 15 guilded domes, the 6-domed Kusumbha Mosque (1558), and the 10-domed Bagha Mosque (1523). All are heavily decorated with terra-cotta floral scroll and richly relieved with intricate stone carvings.


With the advent of the Mughals becoming rulers of the province, radical changes in building were introduced. Bangladesh's regional isolation was broken and a uniform style was imposed. New elements introduced by the Mughals included a dominant central dome, along with tall central entrances set in a projected bay with the entrance itself being inset in a taller half dome. But the fundamental change in embellishing their buildings was brought about by discarding the traditional terra- cotta art of the time and replacing it with plaster panels. The curvature typical of the cornices of the pre-Mughal buildings was likewise abandoned in favor of straight horizontal cornices.

Important architectural legacies of the Mughal period, mostly confined in and around Dhaka, are the Bara Katra and Chota Katra, the Lalbagh Fort, the unique mausoleum of Bibi Pari, Sat-gumbad Masjid, the Mosque of Haji Khwaja Shahbaz (1679), Khan Muhammad Mridha and Kartalab Khan's Mosques, the Hussaini Dalan and a series of picturesque river forts at Idrakpur, Hajiganj and Sonakanda around Dhaka. These brick forts, erected on river banks for guarding the water route to Dhaka against ongoing raids by Portuguese and Mogh pirates in the 17th century, were provided with huge artillery platforms used for mounting high-caliber cannons.

Lalbagh palace fortress, overlooking the Buriganga river to the south, originally known as Fort Aurangabad, is the unfulfilled dream of Mughal Prince Muhammad Azam, third son of the last great Mughal Aurangzeb. This incomplete fort encloses within its perimeter an array of impressive buildings: the two- storied Audience Hall and Hammam of the Mughal Viceroy, the Bibi Pari's mausoleum, an elegant three-domed mosque, two gateways and high ramparts. Bibi Pari's mausoleum is a unique monument -- all of its nine chambers including the mortuary chamber at the center are richly decorated with white marble from Rajputana, black basalt from the Rajmahal hills and glazed tiles. The roofs of all nine chambers have been curiously covered with massive overlapping courses of black basalt slabs on the principle corbel, while the central chamber supports a false copper dome in order to add a sense of balance to the composition.

Because of the natural fertility of the land, temperate climate and fabled riches, it has always attracted new conquerors, settlers, traders, missionaries and fortune seekers of various nationalities -- mostly from the west -- who have left behind their own unique contributions in the form of myriad historical monuments.

Much of this archaeological heritage has disappeared with the ravages of time, however. As a result of this, one romantic writer mused, "At the whims of kings and conquerors, eager to perpetuate their fame, new cities have arisen with startling rapidity, often to be deserted well neigh before the last stones have crowned the minarets and pinnacles of their mosques and palaces." But whatever remains today is a precious record of the history of this ancient land. Therefore, these mouldering and venerable monuments should at all costs be protected and preserved as the heirlooms of the nation. (Dr. Nazimuddin Ahmed, Jan. 5, 2000)