Somapura Mahavihara: A Resurrected Buddhist Sanctuary

If you’ve ever yearned to delve into the depths of history while surrounded by serene beauty, Somapura Mahavihara in Paharpur, north-western Bangladesh, beckons you. This ancient Buddhist monastery complex, a testament to human intellect, not only has a rich past but also a fascinating story of rediscovery. Join us on a journey to explore this enigmatic site, its royal patronage, and the intriguing interplay of diverse faiths.

A Great Monastery Reborn

The magnificent central Buddhist stupa at Somapura Mahavihara, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Bangladesh in 1985, almost a century after its “rediscovery.” ( Source )

Somapura Mahavihara, meaning “Great Monastery” in Sanskrit, is nestled in Paharpur, a village within the Bangladeshi district of Naogaon. Its sprawling 11-hectare expanse makes it one of the largest monastic complexes south of the Himalayas. During the Pala period (8th to 12th centuries AD), this Mahavihara stood among the five great mahaviharas in the eastern Indian subcontinent, encompassing Bengal and Magadha. The quartet of Vikramashila, Nalanda, Odantapura, and Jaggadala accompanied it in this revered league.

Historical records reveal that Somapura Mahavihara took root at the close of the 8th century AD, during the reign of Dharmapala, the second ruler of the Pala Empire. A significant clue to this timing lies in the discovery of a clay seal bearing the king’s name during excavations at the site. Although Tibetan textual sources propose a slightly later founding in the early 9th century AD, during the reign of Devapala, Dharmapala’s successor, after his conquest of Varendra.

A Sanctuary of Royal Patronage

Inside Somapura Mahavihara, the stone carvings adorning the walls incorporate a fusion of motifs from Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain traditions. ( Source )

Under the benevolent protection of Pala rulers, Somapura Mahavihara evolved into a celebrated Buddhist intellectual haven. Its unmistakable Buddhist identity is encapsulated in the central stupa, a colossal structure comprising three terraces. The upper terrace, a rectangular block, forms the central brick shaft. A broad circumambulatory path, traversing all four main chapels, graces the middle terrace. The lowest terrace accommodates the primary circumambulatory path. Standing at 21 meters (70 feet), this stupa, despite its name, continues to shroud its exact purpose in mystery.

The precincts of Somapura Mahavihara are delineated by a quadrangular outer wall. The monastery’s ornate main entrance, nestled in the northern wall, boasts a thickness of approximately 6 meters (19.7 feet). Within this protective boundary lie 177 cells, once inhabited by monks. The unique feature of these cells is their orientation towards the central stupa.

The outer walls of Somapura Mahavihara unfold an astonishing tapestry of artwork, embracing Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist iconography. These artistic depictions allude to the coexistence of multiple faiths within this sacred complex.

The Winds of Change

Robust walls provide vital support to the terraces and the entire edifice. ( Source )

The 12th century witnessed a shift in the tides of history. The Buddhist Pala Empire was overthrown by the Sena Empire, a new dynasty rooted in Hindu beliefs. With the fall of the Pala Empire, the glory of Somapura Mahavihara began to wane. Subsequently, the region of Bengal succumbed to the conquest of Muslim rulers.

Intriguingly, despite the transitions brought about by the Sena Empire and the subsequent Muslim rule, the ruins of Somapura Mahavihara exhibit no widespread destruction. It is a testament to resilience and the site’s ability to survive the tumultuous tides of history. In fact, it is believed that Somapura Mahavihara is one of the few Buddhist monasteries that endured the Muslim invasion of South Asia.

A Legacy Rediscovered

Intricate stone carvings found at Somapura Mahavihara could represent either Buddhist, Hindu, or Jain influences. ( Source )

The story of Somapura Mahavihara takes an intriguing turn as we move closer to modern times. Rather than succumbing to destruction, the monastery was quietly abandoned. Over centuries, nature’s embrace cloaked the ruins in vegetation, preserving its heritage for the future. It was only in the early 19th century that its historical significance was acknowledged.

This newfound recognition can be credited to the efforts of Buckman Hamilton, a British scholar who studied the monastery’s ruins. However, it took more than a century for archaeologists to embark on a comprehensive excavation.

In 1985, the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation bestowed upon Somapura Mahavihara was a testament to its enduring significance. Today, it stands as a symbol of cultural heritage and is a thriving tourist attraction.

Preservation Challenges

While the site is a treasure trove of history, it faces certain preservation challenges. Some parts of the central stupa, along with delicate terracotta plaques, are in a state of deterioration due to environmental factors such as soil salinity and vegetal growth. In a bid to safeguard the plaques, some have been removed from the site. Furthermore, these invaluable artifacts have also suffered from vandalism and theft over the years.

The story of Somapura Mahavihara serves as a compelling reminder of the resilience of our shared history and the importance of preserving our cultural heritage.

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