Archaeology, Bangladesh Existence of any prehistoric phase in the deltaic land of Bangladesh was not suspected by archaeologists for a long time, although some stray finds of stone tools from different areas were known. It is only very recently that widely spread traces of a fossil-wood tool making tradition have been detected. Early archaeological activities in Bangladesh areas were chiefly concerned with ‘early historic’ and ‘early medieval’ period remains.
Of the Hindu-Buddhist archaeological sites in Bangladesh, the most important are paharpur (Pahadpur) in Naogaon, mahasthan (Mahasthan) in Bogra, and mainamati (Mainamati) in Comilla. Each is unique in its own way. Paharpur is the largest monastery and temple. Mahasthan is not only the one city site among the mostly religious sites in Bangladesh but also a city going back to the distant past (3rd – 2nd century BC). It is contemporary with the early historic cities of the Gangetic valley – Vaishali, Pataliputra, and Kaushambi – to name only a few. Mainamati’s uniqueness lies in its being a complex of religious establishments – monasteries and temples of latter day Buddhism (of c 6th to 13th century AD) extending over miles on the hill-top. Of these Buddhist remains, the only exception may be the Charpatra Mura temple, which may have been of Vaisnavite affiliation.
Sir Alexander cunningham‘s archaeological expeditions in areas now forming Bangladesh was carried out in 1879-80 and included Mahasthan and Paharpur. Cunningham also reported on bhasu vihara (Bhasu Vihara) near Mahasthan, Jogi Gupha near Paharpur, Ghatnagar, and Debar Dighi. Some other British administrators like EV Westmacott (1875), H Beveridge (1878), and CJ O’Donnel had already written on the ruins of Paharpur and Mahasthangarh. Owing to non-cooperation of the local zamindar, Cunningham could not investigate the site long enough to understand the real nature of Paharpur. Excavations carried out much later, however, proved that it was the remains of the biggest Buddhist monastery in the subcontinent (very recently Vikramashila has been claimed to be slightly larger).
However the outstanding achievement of Cunningham during his 1879-80 tour was his brilliant identification of Mahasthangarh with the city of pundranagara on the basis of huen-tsang‘s itinerary. At a later date (1931), a stone plaque discovered from the site, bearing an inscription in early Brahmi characters (mahasthan brahmi inscription), points to the site’s probable association with the Mauryan Empire, perhaps as a provincial capital.
Paharpur The first excavations at Paharpur were carried out in 1922-23 under the joint auspices of the Varendra Research Society of Rajshahi and the University of Calcutta under the direction of DR Bhandarkar of the University. Afterwards, these excavations were taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India. The excavations continued till 1934 and beyond, except for a break in 1930-32. kn dikshit led them, but RD Banerjee and GC Chandra were sometimes in charge also. The Paharpur report was published in 1938 as Memoirs No 55 of the Archaeological Survey of India and forms the most important and complete report on any Bengal site till today.
Excavations at Paharpur led to astounding results. Architecturally, they revealed a new type of Buddhist temple architecture, labelled as the Sarvatobhadra type, they had a cruciform ground plan and a terraced superstructure, and a new type of monastery design, ie four long rows of monastic cells enclosing a large quadrangle, the main temple occupying the centre of the quadrangle. Several more examples of this kind of cruciform temple were later discovered in Bangladesh at bharat bhayna, Savar, and most notably at Mainamati. Indeed, Bharat Bhayna, and at least one example found in Mainamati, predates Paharpur. It is interesting to note that the Paharpur and the Mainamati cruciform temples have marked affinities with some of the Buddhist temples of southeast Asia, particularly some of the Pagan (now Bagan) series in Myanmar. These Burmese temples were of later date than the Paharpur and Mainamati ones. But Borobudur (late 8th century AD) may be contemporary. The Paharpur monastery complex was built by dharmapala and was named, as known from the sealings of the monastery, as the Dharmapaladeva Mahavihara situated at Somapura.
The numerous terracotta plaques, on the other hand, offer a means of study, among other things, of everyday life in Bangladesh in those bygone days. The number of miniature bronzes from Paharpur, which abound in Bhasu Vihar and Mainamati, however are not many. The discovery in 1982 of a c 9th century torso (43) of a colossal bronze image of Buddha (which originally must have been over 8ft in height) mutilated by fire in ancient times, has, however, compensated for this. This is a splendid example of the excellence achieved by ninth and tenth centuries AD in bronze casting.
Mahasthangarh The remains of the walls of Mahasthangarh show the site as having been once a fortified city. Its suburbs extended for miles and their impressive remains can be traced even today. As its remains show it is also unique in being a city with a continuous history of more than 1500 years (c 3rd -2nd century BC to about 15th century AD). However, with the earlier discovery of probable evidence of urn burial and the recent discovery of probable Chalcolithic levels (Bangladesh-French joint excavations) the occupation of the site may go back to many centuries prior to the foundation of the Maurya period city. In the beginning of the 20th century some excavations were carried out at Mahasthan, particularly in 1907. Then in 1928-29 KN Dikshit of the Archaeological Survey of India excavated here, closely followed by Probhas Chandra Sen, a lawyer from Bogra. Sen probed a large number of mounds and published a report on behalf of the Varendra Research Society in 1929 in which he published an excellent map of the site and its environs.
Huen Tsang’s description of Pundranagara in the mid-7th century AD gives us glimpse of a prosperous and rich city. About five hundred years later, the same suggestion is made in the 13th century in the Karatoyamahatmya, confirming the city’s continuous prosperity over the centuries. However, Mahasthan excavations have always been on a rather limited scale and as such, except for some probable remains of Gupta and Pala period temples and non-descript structural remains, no considerable area of the city has been cleared to make its plan in any given period intelligible. The latest attempt by the Bangladesh-French joint excavations team also seems to have taken on the task of establishing the culture sequence of the site by vertical probing, instead of looking for any horizontal progress. At least that is the impression one gets at the end of seven seasons diggings. Some buildings, all apparently religious, around the city have been extensively excavated – govinda bhita in1928-29 and gokul medh or laksindarer medh, in 1934-36 (NG Majumdar).
As in other sites of Bangladesh, many terracotta plaques have been found in Mahasthangarh. However, we should take note of the recent discovery of a series of a very unusual type of large terracotta plaques from a place near the main city site. These plaques appear to have adorned the walls of a temple now completely gone. The speciality of these plaques is that they depict the story of the Ramayana. Each plaque depicts a particular scene and is labelled with a Sanskrit inscription using alphabets of the late seventh century. This is so far unique in Bangladesh. Very recently, a new cultural dimension has been added by the discovery of Rouletted Ware at Mahasthan.
Bhasu Vihar About 3-4 miles to the north-west of Mahasthangarh is situated a complex of sites formed of the Bhasu Vihar and Vihar mounds that Cunningham sought to identify with Huen Tsang’s Po-shi-po vihara. Po-shi-po or not, the post-Bangladesh excavations here have exposed the remains of two large Buddhist monasteries and a medium-sized Buddhist shrine.
The Vihar mound was excavated in 1979-83 and led to the discovery of a small monastery consisting of 37 cells. The excavations at Bhasu Vihar have led to the recovery of minor antiquities, most notably miniature bronze images and terracotta plaques both of a very high artistic order. No less than 60 bronze miniatures and over 27 terracotta plaques have been recovered, although no large bronze image has been found.
However, a large and inscribed pedestal suggests that such images used to exist. Bhasu Vihar terracotta plaques are larger than plaques found in other sites and are of striking beauty. Bhasu Vihar has also been prolific in the yield of inscribed terracotta sealings – more than 250 have been collected till now.
Sitakot In 1972-73 excavations were carried out at a site in Sitakot in Nawabganj upazila of Dinajpur district in which a Buddhist monastery built on a square plan (215 ft square) was exposed. However, this had no central temple in the courtyard.
The central cell of the southern wing apparently served as the main shrine. There were a total of 41 cells in this monastery, each 3.66m by 3.35m. Except for two Buddhist bronze miniatures and about 130 ornamental bricks no other major finds were collected from this site. The monastery has been dated to 7th-8th century AD.
Jagaddal Excavations are also going on at Jagaddal (Naogaon) where a small sized quadrangular monastery of the Sitakot type has been dug out.
Mainamati Antiquities dug up from Mainamati ridge have established its value as a potential archaeological site. The copper plate inscription of Ranavankamalla Harikaladeva was discovered as early as 1803. In 1875 ruins of what was supposed to be a small ‘brick fort’ was discovered in the Kotbari mound, along with some typical Mainamati terracotta plaques. It was, in fact, another monastery. Surprisingly Cunningham never visited the site. Francis Buchanan however visited it at the end of the 18th century. NK Bhattasali made a tour of Mainamati in 1917 and reported his findings in his Iconography of Buddhist and Brahmancial Sculptures in the Dacca Museum (1929).
During the Second World War the Archaeological Survey of India, under its superintendent TN Ramachandran, carried out an investigation and a limited rescue operation in order to save the remains from the vandalism of military contractors On his recommendation, 20 sites were protected. Ramachandran’s illuminating report was published in BC Law Volume, pt II, in 1946. Meanwhile, the partition of India took place. The Pakistan Department of Archaeology very wisely took a cue from Ramachandran. In the thorough survey that followed, about 55 ancient sites were listed that could still be traced scattered through the entire length of the Lalmai ridge. From 1955 Continuous excavations followed and still going on. These excavations have helped in revealing important and unknown facts of southeastern Bangladesh’s political, economic, religious and art history and the evolution of Buddhist religious architecture in the eastern-most corner of the subcontinent before its extinction. Barrie M Morrison, an American scholar, investigated the ruins in the early sixties of the 20th century and published the results in 1974 in a thought-provoking book called Lalmai – A Cultural Center of Early Bengal.
So far only nine sites have been excavated and some excavations are ongoing. They are shalvan vihara, kutila mura, Charpatra Mura, Ranir Bangalow, ananda vihara, itakhola mura, rupban mura, bhoja vihara and Mainamati Mound 1A. Although Ramachandran did not attach any special importance to the Shalvan Raja’s Palace Mound (now called Shalvan Vihara) FA Khan, the then Director of Archaeology in Pakistan, wisely chose it for his first excavations. The results obtained later amply justified his choice. On the whole, Mainamati has been extremely prolific in the yield of cultural material but Shalvan Vihara, identified as Bhavadeva Mahavihara on the basis of a sealing, in particular has proved to be a treasure house of inscriptions, coins and terracotta plaques.
Of the thirteen (14 if we include the Harikaladeva copperplate retrieved in 1803) copper plates recovered from Mainamati excavations no less than eight were from Shalvan Vihara, four from Charpatra Mura and one probably from Ananda Vihara. Of the nearly 400 coins found at Mainamati about 350 were collected from Shalvan Vihara, which included a few gold coins of the Guptas, Devas and the Khadgas. The number of bronze miniatures excavated from Shalvan Viharas is also considerable. In contrast to Paharpur where the largest number of stone sculptures and terracotta plaques in any one site in Bangladesh has been found, an astounding number of inscriptions, coins and miniature bronzes have been hauled from Mainamati, unequalled for any one ancient site not only in Bengal, but perhaps in the entire subcontinent. What is more important, however, is that not only in sheer number but also in significance they are unparalleled. The inscriptions belong to no less than five dynasties (Guptas, Khadgas, Devas, Chandras, and later Devas), and in some cases introduce us to new dynasties and kingdoms not known before, like the Devas. Altogether the discoveries from Mainamati – inscriptions and coins, sculptures and architecture – have changed the concept of the history of south-east Bengal between c 6th and 13th centuries AD. Not only its political history but also the area’s artistic, religious and economic histories have been illuminated by the finds.
In the case of the Shalvan Vihara excavations, for instance more than 300 coins – gold, silver (bulk), and copper – testify to the use a regular currency. This has revolutionised our long held idea about Bengal’s currency system, which was based for long on the absence of Pala and Sena coins. It now appears that at least the southeastern part of Bengal had a flourishing currency system that incidentally also indicates a flourishing economic life. Also, the fact of the discovery of the Pattikera and Harikela silver coins side by side at Shalvan Vihara has helped clarify our understating of both the coinages.
These excavations have revealed several kinds of Buddhist religious architecture including the cruciform type that we have already discussed. Among this type at Mainamati, the Ananda Vihara was the largest. If the Vihara was named after the third Deva king, who it seems now had ruled sometime in the middle of the 8th century, then among the cruciform temples his was perhaps the earliest, and perhaps it was even earlier than the ones in Paharpur.
The three other notable architectural varieties are represented by the Kutila Mura ruins, which have three traditional type stupas in a row, each having a Chaitya hall in front. The Kutila Mura complex has been called a Ratna-traya (Buddhist, Three Jewels) type Stupa. This may be the earliest establishment on the hills, going back perhaps to Khadga times, that is to say, mid-7th century to mid-8th century AD. There are reasons to believe that the last quarter of the 7th century may be the probable date for the Kutila Mura stupas. kutila mura is significant since portions of the original superstructures of the stupas are still standing. Rupban Mura is also noteworthy in this respect since a very small part of the original superstructure in the shape of a corbelled roof in one of the image chambers is still intact, and is the only example of the type among the ancient remains of Bangladesh.
The other two notable architectural types are the charpatra mura and the Itakhola Mura. Charpatra Mura is the findspot of an inscription of Ladahachandra, the Chandra king. There is a possibility that Charpatra Mura was a Hindu Vaishnava temple dedicated to Ladahamadhava.
No account of Mainamati will be complete without reference to the three marvels recently discovered; two of metallurgical skill and one of stone sculpture. The stone sculpture is a standing Buddha image discovered in the Rupban Mura excavations. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that this is the only sculpture approximating the classical Gupta Buddha image in Bangladesh, or for that matter, Bengal as a whole. The other two marvels are a bronze colossal Vajrasattva image discovered in the ruins of Bhoja Vihara in 1994 and a huge bell found at Rupban Kanya Mura. The 1.5m high sitting Vajrasattva is a wonder of bronze casting dating probably to 10th -11th century AD. Of the same kind, but mutilated, (since only the head being preserved), is part of another bronze image, a large life-size bronze head of Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara which has traces of gold plating on the polished surface. This was collected from the Bairagi Mura mound. The bronze bell’s estimated weight is about half a ton. This can also be dated to the 10th -11th century AD.
Wari-Bateshwar Very recently, the Department of Archaeology in Jahangirnagar University has been playing a significant and fruitful role in probing new fields in the archaeology of Bangladesh. Their two pioneering achievements have been in the domain of prehistory and ‘early history’ of Bangladesh.
Their recent work in Wari-Bateswar has established an ‘early historic’ horizon, 4th – 3rd century BC – Mauryan, perhaps pre-Mauryan – in southeast Bengal (Vanga-Samatata) like Mahasthangarh in northern Bengal (Pundravardhana). Wari and Bateshwar are two contiguous villages in the Narsingdi area of greater Dhaka and are known for various surface finds of minor antiquities. Among them, the most significant are stone (fossil wood) tools, punch-marked coins in thousands, and also thousands of semi-precious stone beads – many of which are unfinished, indicating that they were manufactured locally.
This is however a site where no mounds have been found. A respected local family, the Pathans – Hanif Pathan and his son Habibullah Pathan – have built up a family collection of these ancient relics and have been trying persistently since 1933 to project the importance of the site by writing in journals and publishing books about them. Also, NK Bhattasali visited the site and reported on it in 1935-36.
What is significant is that several miles around Wari and Bateshwar there are sites bearing punch-marked coins establishing the cultural, political and economic importance of the entire region. There are several early medieval sites around, for instance Belavo (Bhojavarman copperplate inscription) and Ashrafpur (2 copperplate inscriptions of Deva Khadga) which speak of the continuity of the importance of the area over a long period. The Archaeology Department of Jahangirnagar University has been investigating the site since 1989. In 2000, Archaeology Department of Jahangirnagar University, International Centre for Study of Bengal Art (ICSBA), and the government Archaeology Directorate carried out a joint excavation in the nature of trial digging. A preliminary report has come out recently, and has been published by ICSBA. However, much more work is needed to establish the nature of the site. That it goes back to ‘early historic’ times of the sub continental chronological frame work – 4th-3rd century BC – is now certain. But the details of the nature and extent of the culture, and the reason why it is here at all, are points to be worked out. Its connection with some kind of maritime activities has been postulated. The picture is still blurred and it will take many years before we get a clearer view.
Prehistory The other achievement of the Archaeology Department of Jahangirnagar University has been in the domain of prehistory. This important work has arguably opened up a new prehistoric horizon for Bangladesh previously thought to be unlikely in this deltaic land. A few stray finds of stone tools – a Palaeolithic scraper made of fossilwood from the Chhagalnaiya area of Noakhali and a few fossilwood Neolithic celts in the 7th – 8th century AD levels of the Shalvan Vihara excavations – were known earlier. Two specimens from Sitakunda (Chittagong) were on record, again of fossilwood, one found in 1886 and the other sometime before 1917.
Several Neolithic celts were collected in the Wari-Bateshwar area. In 1958 Mr Dyson, an American, is known to have collected a stone tool that was later deposited in the Chittagong Ethnological Museum, but which has now become untraceable. But with the discovery of a Palaeolithic fossilwood industry at Mainamati by a Jahangirnagar University team led by Professor Dilip K Chakrabarti, a stone tool using culture utilising fossilwood as raw material can now be established.
This has been further followed up by the discovery of another stone tool using culture in chaklapunji in Sylhet, again by the Archaeology Department of Jahangirnagar University. However, these researches are at a very preliminary stage now. Much more work is necessary for a more coherent and intelligible view of these cultures to emerge. One factor to be noted is that all the stone tools have been found without any associated skeletal remains. JU Archaeology Department is also making an ethno archaeological study of Megalithic culture in Jaintiya in Sylhet.