Archaeological Relics of Bangladesh

Dr. Md. Shafiqul Alam
Director, Department of Archaeology

Bangladesh is heir to a very rich cultural legacy, despite the various destructive activities of nature and man over centuries. In its over two millennia of chequred history splendid  cities, palaces, temples, stupas, monasteries,  mosques, mausoleums,  roads, bridges etc. were created by various dynasties, dignitaries and even commoners. These are the unmistakable source for the reconstruction of human history of this fertile delta. But unfortunately a large number of those establishments have disappeared with the passage of time. Still the surviving relics are not less than 2000 which spread throughout the country.

Department of Archaeology owns 391 such relics which have been declared as protected monuments under the provisions of the Antiquities Act. 1968 (Amended in 1976). Of them Paharpur Buddhist Monastery and Bagerhat group of monuments have been included on the World Cultural Heritage  List and Mahasthan, Mainamati, Sitakot Vihara, Kantaji Temple and Gaur Group of monuments are in the tentative list. Other famous sites are Vasu Bihar, Bihar Dhap, Mongolkot, Bharat Bhayna, Harishchandra’s Palace, Baro Bazar group of monuments, Baga Mosque, Kushmba Mosque, Hatikumrul Temples, Panam City and so on. Short description of some major archaeological sites is as follow :

Mahasthangarh

Situated in village Mahasthan of Shibganj thana under Bogra district the extensive site represents the wreckage of an ancient city (4th century BC. to 16th  century AD.) called Pundranagara. It is oblong (1.523 km X 1.371 km) in shape enclosed by high rampart with thick brick wall. Inside the fort, remnants of temples, stupas, mosques, tombs and residential complexes at random are still visible. A large number of movable antiquities have also been salvaged from the site. They include silver punch marked coins, copper cast coins, rouletted ware, NBPW, Black slipped ware, Black and Red Ware, beads of semiprecious stones, terracotta plaques, toys, sculptures, objects of every day use and so on. But by far the most important one is a Brahmi inscriptional slab datable to the 3rd century BC. Suburbs were developed in a vast area around the fortified city excepting the east. A large number of monuments, mounds and water reservoirs testify to that. A few of them namely Vasu Bihara, Bihar Dhap, Gokul Medh, Mongalkot, Salvan Rajar Bari, Govinda Bhita, Godai Barir Dhap have been excavated in last few  decades. There is a small site museum near the northeast corner of the fort.

Bangladeshi and French archaeologists have been working in Mahasthan citadel since 1993 in order to reconstruct the unknown or half known history of the site.  This joint venture has discovered the existence of human occupation in the city before the Mauryans. It has also presented a dozen of  C14 dates earliest of which goes back to (-370-72)BC.

Lalmai Mainamati

An extraordinary rich cultural assemblage of Buddhist period spreads over the Lalmai-Mainamati hill range which stretches through the middle of the Meghna basin in Comilla district of Bangladesh. The northern part of this hill range is known as Mainamati while its southern part as Lalmai. The 16 km long range lies about 8 km west of Comilla town.

This range was inhabited by the people in the remote past. The cultural evidence of the people of both prehistoric times as well as of historic period are abundant. Though the prehistoric evidence is less known and has been identified recently but the historic archeology is well known for a period of more than a century.

Of the prehistoric remnants only the Neolithic artifacts of fossilized woods have been discovered from the southern part of the hill range. These artifacts consist of axe, splayed axe, adze, chisel, flake, blade etc.

The entire range was thickly populated during the historical period as indicated by the discovery of a large number of Buddhist monasteries, temples , stupas  on the crest, slope and foot of the hills ranging between 6th and 13th century of the Christian era.

Amongst these Salvan Vihara, a large monastery with a central shrine in the courtyard near Mainamati Museum, Kutila Mura, a group of stupas, Charpatra Mura, a small temple, Rupban Mura, a small monastery and a temple, Itakhola Mura, another monastery and a temple site, Bhoj Vihara, a large monastery with a central temple in the courtyard, Queen Mainamati’s Palace Mound and Latikot Mura have been excavated. Besides, Anada Vihara, the largest monastery in the area with a large central shrine has been partly exposed. From these excavated sites a large number of movable objects have been recovered which include Hindu and Buddhist sculptures, coins, objects of daily use, terracotta plaques, carved bricks ornaments,  potteries, metallic utensils, seals and sealings, copper plates etc. On stylistic ground they may be dated in the circa 6th-13th century AD.

Scholars are of opinion that there lie the ruins of a southeastern Bengali capital ‘Devaparvata’ by name in a corner of the hill range. There was another capital ‘Joykarmantavasaka’ in an adjoining corner of the range.

Phaharpur

Situated in the heartland of ‘Varendra‘, comprising the northern districts of Bangladesh, the extensive ruins of Paharpur, originally known as ‘Somapuri Vihara’, is undoubtedly the most spectacular pre-Islamic monumental complex in the country. Built in the 8th century by the great Pala emperor Dharmapala in his native land of ‘Varendra’ as a famous Asian centre for education and pilgrimage, it is located in a flat countryside amid an unspoiled peaceful agrarian landscape. Occupying about 9 hectares of land this vast, nearly square monastery complex, measuring 281m each side with 177 monastic cells, numerous votive stupas and a multitude of other ancillary buildings inside its enclosure, is dominated by a cruciform central temple, which rises in gradually receding three pyramidal terraces. It is conspicuous for its complicated scheme of decoration of basement walls with carved brick cornices, friezes of numerous terracotta plaques and stone sculptures. The exquisite stone sculptures, placed in specially built niches which decorate the base of the gigantic temple, represent various scenes from the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon, created in the glorious aesthetic tradition of the classical Gupta period and of the Pala art. 

It was an intellectual centre of great renown, attracting, learned Buddhist monks from all countries of Asia, and in its turn sending monks as missionaries to Central Asia and the Far East. It was also a centre of the arts whose influence was felt in workshop as far away as Nepal, Tibet, Burma and Ceylon. Architecturally this grand monument is a treasured heritage of the world which, in ancient Asia, profoundly influenced the later architectural efforts of the Far East.

Bagerhat

In mid 15th century, a Muslim colony was founded in the inhospitable mangrove forest of the Sundarbans near the sea coast in the Bagerhat district by an obscure saint-General, Ulugh Khan Jahan by title. He was the earliest torch-bearer of Islam in the south who laid the nucleus of an affluent city during the reign of Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah (1442-59 AD) then known as `Khalifatabad’ (present Bagerhat). Khan Jahan adorned his city with numerous mosques, tanks, roads and other public buildings, the spectacular ruins of which are focused around the most imposing and the largest multi-domed mosque in Bangladesh, known as the Shait-Gumbad Masjid. The stately fabric of the monument, serene and imposing, stands on the eastern bank of an unusually vast sweet-water tank, clustered around by the heavy foliage of a low-lying moorland characteristic of a sea­coast landscape.

Other monuments of Khan Jahan, precariously surviving against the ravages of time within the ruined city area for miles around, half-hidden in luxurious vegetal growth of the locality, are the massively built Ranvijoypur Mosque, Bibi Begni’s Mosque, Chunakhola Mosque, Singar Mosque, Nine-domed Mosque, Reza Khoda Mosque and Zinda-Pir Mosque. Besides the elegant single-domed tomb of the great saint-General, there is an identical mosque close to it. The simple tomb of the founder of- the city is perched picturesquely on the elevated northern bank of another unusually large sweet-water tank known as Thakur dighi. The stepped grave within the mortuary chamber is profusely inscribed with verses from the holy Quran as well as the date of his demise on 26th Zil Hijjah 863 A.H/25th October 1459 AD.

This striking group of 5 centuries old mosques are characterized by their puritanical simplicity, massively built tapering walls and bastion-like corner towers, comparable to the Tughlaq architecture of Delhi and represent important milestone in the architectural development in Asia. These monuments, situated close to the sea-coast are subject to regular sea water inundation to high tide and therefore, suffered badly due to dampness from salinity and water logging of the area.

Bharat Bhayana

The site is located  in village Bharat Bhayna under Jessore district. The village and its surroundings are dotted with some mounds and sparsely lying architectural pieces. Of them only one, Bharat Rajar Deul, has yielded the substantial ruins of a brick-built temple of cir. 5th-6th century AD. Originally the temple was planned on a cruciform base and in later phase it was endowed with a series of bind cells above. It shows strikingly plain wall surface save some offsets at the base level only. The present height of the roofless structure is about 10m at its highest point which appear to have been much more in its original form. The site has also yielded some terracotta busts of princely male figures of Gupta idiom.

Harischandra Rajar Place Mound

Situated on the north-east corner of Savar town (18 km north of Dhaka Metropolitan city), the mound has yielded the substantial ruins of a smaller Buddhist monastery entirely built of brick. On its close north there still exist the ruins of a medium size stupa. The site has also exposed some bronze sculptural pieces belonging to Buddhist pantheon, carved bricks, potteries and a silver coin of Pattikera –Harikela origin. It is worth mentioning that a number of Imitation Gupta Gold Coins have earlier been reported from the surroundings. Moreover, there exist the remains of a mud fort, Kotbari by name on the north west of the monastery. A group of votive stupas were also discovered a few years back in a place called Rajasan which is only 150 m east of the site. Among other promising structural ruins of the neighboring area mention may also be made of ‘Harischandra Rajar Buruj’ which appears to have been a brick-built stupa. On stylistic ground they are datable to the circa 6th-8th century AD.

Laksmanavati Gour

The site sprawls over roughly 5sq. km area in the Shibgonj thana of Chapai Nawabganj district and in the bordering areas with Maldaha district of India. It accommodates some sparse medieval monuments and demonstrates the place where the suburb of the first capital of the sultans of Bengal, Gauda by name was established in the 13th century AD. However, the capital continued  to flourish excepting some short interludes, till the downfall of the sultans in 1538 AD. To understand the grandeur of the bygone city there one can still visit the Chotosona Mosque (1493-1518AD) Darasbari Madrasa (1504 AD.) Darasbari Mosque (1479 AD), Khania Dighi Mosque (15th century AD), Dhunichak Mosque (15th cent. AD), Shah Sujas Taha Khana (Turkish Bath) (17th cent. AD.) and Shah Niamatullah Walli’s Tomb-Mosque complex (17th cent. A.D.).

Sonargaon> Panam City

Situated near the eastern peripheral land of Dhaka, at about 24 km from the zero point, the site represents the substantial remains of an early medieval bygone city called Suvarnagram>Sonargaon. It now accommodates a mosque called Gowaldi Masjid built in stone-brick masonry (1519 AD), a tomb built entirely of carved stone called Sultan Giasuddin Azam Shah Mazar, some bridges (17th century AD), a tomb complex and some sparse structural vestiges. There is also a folk museum at one corner of the site. Another attraction of the site is  ‘Panam City’ which emerged  in one end of the Sonargaon during British regime (late 19th- early 20th century AD). More than 50 beautiful buildings still survive on either site of a narrow street.

Sahar Muhammadabad Barabazar

It lies in Barabazar of Kaliganj thana under Jhinaidaha district and historically known as Sahar Muhammadabad (the town of the Muhammedans). It sprawls over roughly 8sq. km area with scattered remains of mosques, graves and reservoirs. Notable of them are Shatgachia Gayebana Mosque, Monohar Mosque (both are 35 domed), Gorar Mosque, Noon gola Mosque, Pirpukur Mosque, Namajgaon Grave yard, Jahajghata etc. They have been dated in circa 15th century A.D.