Despite conservation efforts, Somapura Mahavihara losing its shine | The Daily Star
12:58 PM, August 03, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:24 PM, August 03, 2020

Despite conservation efforts, Somapura Mahavihara losing its shine

The Somapura Mahavihara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located at Paharpur area in Badalgachhi upazila of Naogaon district, has lost its shine within only three years of completion of projects for its conservation and development.

The 1,300-year-old ruins of Somapura Mahavihara bear the evidence of a higher learning centre for Buddhists.

Between March 2014 and December 2016, the Department of Archaeology implemented the 'South Asia Tourism Infrastructure Development Project' on the site with funds from the Asian Development Bank.

Under the project, the main temple and its surrounding architecture were polished, and renovated. Separate wooden structures including staircases were built on the main temple and other places of the site for the visitors to go up and move around safely, according to officials.

However, within a few years of completion of the projects, the renovation works have begun vanishing from the site, according to the visitors.

In 2019, the walls of the main temple turned black with algae, while salinity took hold on the terracotta plaques. The wooden staircases and pavements got damaged, being exposed to open air.

Considering the situation, the authorities suspended movement of visitors to the main temple at the end of last year. Visitors have to use the broken stairs and pavements to enter the site amid risk.

Immediately after implementation of the renovation projects, the revenue collection from visitors on entry fees, car parking and other purposes increased by more than two and half times. However, the revenue has come down after the site began losing its splendour later on.

According to the Department of Archaeology, the revenue in 2014-15 and 2015-16 was around Tk 27 lakh. In 2016-17, the income soared to Tk 72 lakh, and increased further to Tk 77.25 lakh in the following year. In 2018-19 the revenue was Tk 76.60 lakh.

However, the growth in revenue could not be sustained later on. It started dwindling and came down to Tk 56 lakh in 2019-20.

The unique architecture of the mahavihara represents geometrical illustration of the Buddhist spiritual concept of the universe -- the Mandala. At the centre of the architecture is the multi-storey main temple, standing at a 100 feet height. The monastery, situated on seven hectares of a quadrangular land, consists of 177 rooms.

Great Asian scholars from the ancient times, including the Bengali scholar Atish Dipankar Srigyan, among others, emerged from this mahavihara.

Archaeologists have speculated that Somapura was the epicentre of Buddhist monasteries that stretched to Borobudur in Indonesia and Bagan in Myanmar, where similar architectural characteristics were followed.

Towards the end of the 7th century, the Pala dynasty emerged out of the chaotic situation of "Matsya Nyaya" or the "law of fish" where the strong devoured the weak in absence of the rule of law. Dharma Pala (770-810AD), son of the dynasty's founder Gopala, established the Somapura monastery in the 8th century and brought together scholars from different places. Later, rulers of Pala dynasty expanded the monastery.

For five centuries, it remained one of the most important pilgrimage sites for those seeking knowledge. When the reign of the Pala rulers came to an end, the monastery was also lost. The Buddhist scholars began leaving the area during the Hindu rule in the 12th century. The site became completely abandoned during the Muslim rule in the 13th century.

Scottish physician Dr Francis Buchanan Hamilton discovered the site during his visit to then British India between 1807 and 1812. Later on, archaeologists identified the site as the ruins of the Buddhist monastery.

In 1919, the then Indian government included the ruins as an archeologically important site. Archaeologist Babu Rakhal Chandra Das, patronised by the then Dighapatia Jamidar Sarat Kumar Roy of Natore, excavated the site till 1934 and found the ruins.

UNESCO declared the Somapura Mahavihara as a world heritage site in 1985.

"Visiting such a vast site gives me the impression that the ancient system of education was very practical, not confined into small rooms of concrete buildings like present days," says Md Rokonuzzaman, teacher of a private university in Rajshahi.

"As we walk around the place and imagine how the monastery worked in those days, one feels excited. But then it becomes evident that this historic and archaeologically important place lacks the care it needs," said Md Roknuzzaman.

Talking to The Daily Star, Swadhin Sen, a professor of archaeology at Jahangirnagar University, said the historic site had a "troubled history" of going through development projects since 1985.

"Look, when we talk about conservation of an archaeological site, we mean the site has to be maintained as it is. Laws prohibit changing the appearance of an archaeological site. By these definitions, I cannot support any logic for building the new staircases," he said.

"A large number of visitors are using the stairs for climbing to the main temple. This is damaging the 1300-year-old historical architecture," Prof Sen said.

The site suffered problems of waterlogging and salinity for long. The projects achieved success in controlling waterlogging, but the problem of salinity still persists, he said.

Meanwhile, in the name of protecting the terracotta plaques from the site, the Department of Archaeology has done a strange thing, archaeologists and officials said.

During the excavation, 265 terracotta plaques were taken to the Barind Research Museum in Rajshahi while remaining 3,000 terracotta plaques were on the main temple. For protecting those from thieves and salinity, most terracotta plaques were removed under the projects. Instead, replicas of the plaques were placed on the temple, the said.

Of the original terracotta plaques, only 17 are on display at the Paharpur Museum on the site while the rest have been stored "without proper care", the officials said.

The traditions and customs of the Pala dynasty could be traced in these plaques. Evidence of their secular ideas is also found because these plaques reflect the Hindu gods and goddesses and the symbols of the Muslims, apart from the multitude of arts, culture and practices of the Buddhists of the time, archaeologists said.

Contacted, Naheed Sultana, regional director (Rajshahi and Rangpur Division) at the regional office of the Department of Archaeology (Bogura), said that the conservation and development activities were carried out following proper rules and with involvement of local and foreign experts.

"It is very difficult to stop visitors from climbing to the main temple. When there were no wooden stairs, visitors were seen climbing to the top, taking risks. The wooden stairs were helping reduce the risk. Moreover, after the implementation of the projects, the revenue increased," said Naheed Sultana.

She also said that they wrote to the headquarters for repairing the damaged wooden infrastructure, but were yet to receive any response to this end.

Implementation of the projects were controlled directly from the headquarters, Naheed Sultana said, adding that local officials played no part in the projects besides little monitoring.

About dwindling revenue, she said the site has been closed since March 26 due to the pandemic and will remain closed to the public until further notice. As a result, there has been no revenue generated from March to June.

Most of the revenue comes between November and March in a fiscal, she added.

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