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Update : 2017-01-20 00:00:00
special feature
Mahasthangarh The SAARC Cultural Capital
Rajib Kanti Roy, back from Bogra

Mahasthangarh The SAARC Cultural Capital

Photo: Mohammd Asadurjaman Aslam Molla

In this age of technological advancement, often we need to cope with the rapid changes. Knowing about every single happening makes us updated and we consider it as a way to be smart. We prefer to define ourselves in terms of where we are going, not where we come from. Our ignorance of the past is not the result of a lack of information, but of indifference. Even when people think about the history, most of them show interest about the recent past, which is limited to last five hundred years. Obviously history of the recent past is important, but the heritages related to our ancient times are more significant to know and understand the journey of our ancestors. Besides the tale of our liberation and long struggle for it, we have great civilisations that were nurtured in this region. A visit to Mahasthangarh, one of the most iconic historical places of the country, can take you 2500 years back, when it was Pundranagar, the capital of Pundra Vardhana. With a unique combination of vast landscape, archaeology, architecture and history, Mahasthangarh was declared as the cultural capital of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) on November 24, 2016, by a SAARC Cultural Centre team, led by its director Wasantha Kotuwella from Sri Lanka. The announcement will come into effect from tomorrow.         ‘Mahasthan’ means a place that has sanctity and ‘garh’ means fort. So Mahasthangarh was named for its sacred fort. Mahasthan was first mentioned in a Sanskrit text of the 13th century entitled ‘Vallalcharita’. It was also mentioned in another book ‘Korotoa Mahatta’, circumstantially written in 12th–13th century. The same manuscript also mentions two more names of the same place – Pundrakhetra, land of the Pundras, and Pundranagar, city of the Pundras. In 1685, an administrative decree described the place as Mahasthangarh. This earliest and largest city, fortified by mud and red bricks, measures 1,525 metres long to north-south, 1,370 metres to east-west and 5 meters high from the soil level. Mahasthangarh is located in the Mahasthan village in Shibganj upazilla, 13 kilo metres north to Bogra town. In the primeval period, civilisation was developed based on a river so that the water way could make communication easier along with road communication. Mahasthan was situated on the western bank of river Korotoa. Another important feature that was considered as a prerequisite for such establishment was its security system. To ensure strong security preparations, building fort was a must in that time.     That is why the long and muscular brick wall was made surrounding the area. The river on the east and deep moat on the east-south and north was the protection belt for the city.         From the archaeological evidence, it is proven that Mahasthangarh was the capital of the Mauryans, the Guptas, the Buddhist Palas, the Hindu Sen dynasties kings and Muslim rulers in the later period. Initially it was found as Varendra-bhumi or Barind tract, which comprises the northern districts of East Bengal. As a Bhukti or administrative province of the Gupta Empire and later Kingdoms, Pundra Vardhana was a larger territory, including a large segment of even southern West Bengal. Beyond the citadel, other ancient ruins were found within a radius of 7-8 kilo metres in a semi-circle in the north, south and west, which testify the existence of extensive suburbs. It is worth quoted that Xuanzang, the famous Chinese pilgrim visited Pundra Vardhana (pan-na-fa-an-na) in between 639-645 AD. Eminent British historian and archaeologist Alexander Cunningham rightly identified the present Mahasthangarh as Pundranagar following the description of Xuanzang.     The first archaeological excavation was carried in the area in 1928-29 under the supervision of the then leading archaeologist Kashinath Narayan Dikshit. The excavated mounds were Bairagir Bhita, Munir Ghon and Govinda Bhita. An excavation in 1934-36 by Nani Gopal Majumdar revealed a gigantic shrine or stupa plinth built in the terraced cellular style of construction. After a long gap the excavation was resumed in 1960-61 to continue till 1988. It got a new momentum with the joint venture of Bangladeshi and French archaeologists in 1993. In the first phase, the operation was concentrated in the middle of the eastern rampart area. Then in the second phase the excavation continued around the mazar area till 2000. These expeditions have revealed a long cultural sequence raging from 4th century B.C. to 15th century A.D. Mud and brick-built houses, roads, drains, wells, temples, mosques, gate ways, bastions of pre-Mauryan, Mauryan, Gupta, Buddhist Pala, Hindu Sen dynasties and the Muslim period have been successfully unearthed in 18 building levels. Apart from these architectural leftovers, a large number of movable objects used by the inhabitants of the city have been discovered. Inscribe stone tablet, punch marked coins, copper cast coins, black and red ware, roulette ware, terracotta plaques, stone and terracotta images, semi-precious stones, beads, terracotta beads balls, net sinkers, earthen and metal objects of everyday use and a stone slab of calligraphic inscription are noteworthy among the findings. All these are kept in the Mahasthan Museum so that the curious travelers can visit those.     The whole area of Mahasthangarh is full of separate esteemed spots. You can start from the most distant Vasu Bihar, which is locally known as Narapatir Dhap. The mandap or assembly hall occupies the center of the shrine around. The impressive gateway complex is set at the north facade projecting outward.     Then you can go to visit Mahasthan Museum. With a view to projecting ancient culture and artifacts, it was established in 1967. With the passage of time, newer inventions are added in the gallery. Besides there are some other historic findings placed in an open flower garden of the museum area. We did not find any text (related with Mahasthangarh) to collect from there. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs should publish a book consisting of the history and photographs of Mahasthangarh so that the visitors, especially the young kids and foreigners, can know about the place. Govinda Bhita, a high mound traditionally ascribed as the Govinda temple, is located outside the northern rampart of Mahasthinagarh. Shila Devir ghat is a place at the bank of river Korotoa, which is famous as the sister of Hindu king Parshuram Shila Devi committed suicide there when she was forced to change her religion. Jiyat Kunda or the well of life’s reputation is associated with a myth that if any war injured solider drunk the water from it, he would recover and fight again. The palace of Parshuram still testifies the golden days of Mahasthan. On the way to Gokul Medh, you will find the mazar of Shah Sultan Mahmud Balkhi Mahisawar (Rh), who defeated King Parshuram in a battle and worked towards spreading Islam in the region. And Gokul Medh is locally called as Behula-Lakkhindarer Bashor ghar. It highlights ruins of 42-feet high platforms consisting of 172 blind cells. On the flat top of this platform a Buddhist religious establishment was built.   Well, if you are eager to visit this historically significant site, you can travel by bus to reach this place. Several quality bus services are available to take you to Bogra, a northern district, 156 kilometres away from Dhaka. You can stay at some classy hotels and rest houses including Hotel Naz Garden, Hotel Mid City, Red Chilies Guest House, Hotel Akboria, Hotel SiesTa and Parjatan Motel. Don’t forget to taste famous yogurt (curd), sweets and vermicelli desserts (lassa shemai) available in Bogra.