Dr. Debjyoti Chanda, Rabindra Bharati University
A five member delegation from Bangla-Worldwide visited Rajshahi at the invitation of Mayor of the City Corporation A.H.M Khairuzzaman Liton to acquaint themselves with the developmental works that are being implemented in the city towards making it the Green and Education Hub amongst the urban centres of the country.
This visit of ours, however, began on a different note when our hosts decided to organize a tour for us to an ancient historical site which was indeed a pleasant surprise for all of us.
As we wandered through the extensive paddy fields in the district of Noagaon, located in the north-west of Bangladesh in the centre of ancient ‘Barendra’, presently near the village of Paharpur, stood in front of us the elaborate and extensive ruins of the Buddhist monastic complex which is considered to be one of the most spectacular archaeological structures of pre-Islamic Bangladesh. Experts opine that the Paharpur Monastry as it is locally called is not only grand but it is the biggest one situated in the south of the Himalayas.
The 1300 years old Somapura Mahavihara, as it is formally known, is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and bears testimony and evidence of higher learning during the Buddhist period. With funding from the Asian Development Bank the Department of Archaeology of the Government of Bangladesh completed the excavation project in between 2014 to 2016 under the ‘South Asia Tourism Infrastructure Development Project’.
It was at the end of the 7th Century, Dharma Pala (770-810 AD), ruler of the famed Pala dynasty and founded the Somapura Mahavihara and invited scholars from different parts of the world who resided in the premises and engaged in the scholarly discourse. It was a thriving place for academic pilgrimage for more than five centuries. With the end of the Pala dynasty’s rule scholars started leaving the area and it became completely forlorn and devastated as the Muslim rule began in the 13th Century.
Francis Buchanan Hamilton, a Scots man by origin and a physician by profession, discovered the site sometime between 1807 to 1812. Rakhal Chandra Das, an archaeologist of eminence aided by Jamindar Sarat Kumar Roy of Dighapatia excavated the site till 1934, finally discovering the ruins. It was in 1985 UNESCO included Somapura Mahavihara in the list of World Heritage Sites.
A first time visitor to Somapura would definitely appreciate its meticulous care that is being observed in the maintenance of this site. However, keeping in mind the enormous expenses in the maintenance of this vast site, proper plan to develop it into a tourist destination attracting the Buddhist pilgrims from South Asia and South East Asia including Srilanka, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, China, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam must be taken up in right earnest.
This region being well connected by Railways (Balurghat/New Jalpaiguri), by National Highways (Siliguri) and Airport (Bagdogra) in India and Rajshahi in Bangladesh the Somapura Monastry can be added to the Buddhist Circuit which takes tourists to the places of Buddhist pilgrimage in Bodhgaya, Rajgir, Nalanda, Varanasi, Sarnath, Kushinagar, Sravasti, and Agra in India and Lumbini in Nepal.
Adequate infrastructure for taking care of 2-3 night stay, palatable cuisine, local transport along with Yoga-Pranayam retreat camps, workshops on Pali-Buddhist literature, Dhamma and culture may be organized to attract the tourists.
This will not only help in the upkeep and maintenance of this ancient archaeological site of learning, culture and heritage but will also help in the economic upliftment of the north western region in Bangladesh which is comparatively less developed than the rest of the country.