The design of this Buddhist ‘monastery and university’, the largest and one of the most important in South Asia, is rather unusual.
Mahavihara Somapura, Paharpur, Naogaon
The only other Vihara of similar pattern are found in Burma, Java, and Cambodia, which tends to confirm the growing appreciation that Bangladesh may well have been the ‘Cradle of Buddhism’. The great flow of trade that passed between China, Tibet, and the rest of the world, from well before the 6th Century BCE, was not only what financed such early developments, but also the means by which the religious teachings were spread.
Buddist Vihara Somapura, Paharpur, Naogaon
North Bengal, the lands of western Bangladesh, are rich in the sites of vihara, most of which have either never been excavated or have not been properly excavated, having only been dug in the most superficial levels.
Paharpur Vihara, recorded under the ancient name of Somapura, is widely recognized as a Pala Period development, between middle of the 8th Century CE and the late 12th Century CE.
|Buddist Terracotta, Paharpur, Naogaon|
In fact, there is evidence that predates such conservative estimates. Excavation has revealed brickwork of the Mauryan Period, 321 to 185 BCE. Additionally Chinese travelers of the early period of the Common Era noted the existence of a Stupa to mark a place where the Buddha himself preached, presumably one of the many known to have been erected by Ashoka, the third Mauryan emperor, who converted to Buddhism and was an enthusiastic patron.
Terracotta Sculpture, Paharpur, Naogaon
Early writings in India identify Somapura as one of the five great vihara of India, with neighbouring Jaggadad Vihara, yet largely unexcavated and unexplored, as another. In fact, at the last count, there are at least ten vihara in North Bengal, all no doubt flourished, as vihara were prone to do, in the massive flow of traffic and trade along the Silk Route through Bangladesh.
Terracotta ViharaWall, Paharpur, Naogaon
Somapura is now recognised as a World Heritage Site, it attracts large numbers of local visitors every year, most of whom are unaware of the great history the place represents. There is a small site museum, but many more of the rich treasures excavations have revealed are either in the Rajshahi Museum or the National Museum, although, sadly, it is believed many more may be found in the antique shops around the world and the private houses of collectors.
Somapura is well worth a visit, especially as a part of a larger tour exploring the extraordinary history of the area as the ‘Cradle of Buddhism’.