Somapura Mahavihara: A Place of Historical Significance and Architectural Elegance


“We shape our building, thereafter they shape us…” [Winston Churchill]

       Architecture, as the aforementioned quote suggests, holds much significance not only for aesthetic purpose but also for understanding the way building of a physical structure is intricately linked with socio-cultural life. It is this aspect which has always fueled my propensity to take a tour to historical sites and religious places adorn with unique architectural styles. Being an ever-wandering traveler, my interest lies in paying a closer look at the architectural uniqueness of any tourist site in a bid to unfurl the socio-cultural ramifications that might be muted in the physical structure of a site. Particularly, exploring Buddhist architecture has always remained an intriguing exercise for me to understand the socio-cultural history through material remains. It is this curiosity which drew me to Somapura Mahavihra which is one among the best-known Buddhist viharas and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Based on the data collected from excavation at Paharpur and the seals bearing inscriptions found at the site, it has been identified that Somapura Mahavihara was built by the second Pala king, Dharmapala (781-821 AD) of Pala dynasty. While reading about ancient and early medieval history of India, I happened to come across the historical account of Pala dynasty and came to know how the Pala rulers being patrons of Buddhism helped in building a number of monasteries in erstwhile Bengal province. Among those monasteries or viharas, five great Mahaviharas that stood out in its excellence and elegance are Vikramashila, Nalanda, Somapura, Odantapura and Jaggadala. One of these Mahaviharas that excels in its architectural grandeur is Somapura Mahavihara which has now been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But to my surprise, the Somapura Mahavihara despite having a rich historical significance has not received much attention in historical discourses. This lack of recognition is what sparked my curiosity to explore the historical as well as architectural significance of Somapura Mahavihara.

       Somapura Mahavihara is located in Paharpur, Naogaon district in present-day Bangladesh. But it is important to note that India and Bangladesh though stand as different nations today, share a common history. Specially, Bangladesh and West Bengal have much in common in terms of culture; and architecture does not seem to be an exception in this regard. Though geographically Somapura Mahavihara belongs to Bangladesh now, this mahavihara has been a part of the cultural heritage of the Indian subcontinent. The Paharpura site which contains the architectural remains of the notable Somapura Mahavihara followed the structure of a square quadrangle with the main shrine adorning the centre of the courtyard. As far as architectural features are concerned, the site exemplifies the structure of a temple which is not very typical of an exclusive Indian type of temple architecture. In this context, Sukumar Dutt (1988)[1] has ascertained that the  mahavihara shares no similarity with typical characteristics of an Indian temple architecture, rather it “… is strongly reminiscent of Buddhist temples of Burma, Java and Cambodia, reproducing the cruciform basement, terraced structure with inset chambers and gradually dwindling pyramid form … during the age of the Palas some sort of intercourse between eastern India and south-east Asia existed … but how this temple type, represented in India by this solitary example, became the standard of Buddhist temple architecture is not known” (Dutt 1988: 373). This speculation of cultural diffusion seems fascinating to me as I wonder whether the temple-architecture of Java and Cambodia have been borrowed from Somapura or it is the latter which has imitated the architectural specifications of the former two sites.  However, what appeared striking to me was that the Paharpur site has long remained deprived from proper maintenance as it is evident from the missing superstructure of the mahavihara as well as some other peripheral parts, the absence of which may pose an impediment to any endeavour of arriving at a comprehensive knowledge about the architectural as well as socio-cultural significance of this historical site. However, K. N. Dikshit was the first one to carry out an archaeological documentation of the mahavihara and came up with the study entitled ‘Paharpur, Memoirs of Archaeological Survey in India’ (1938). Further, some more insights were provided by Mohammed Ali Naqi[2], an architect from the University of Khulna.

        Somapura Mahavihara has been designated as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1985. There have been a number of missions sent from the UNESCO to carry out a systematic review of the process of archival preservation and architectural documentation as well as to come up with a master-plan for the restoration process. Despite several initiatives being taken to preserve the monument, it has not ceased to remain vulnerable to damage and decay. Specially the terracotta artworks which have added much artistic value to the monument have suffered from serious damage due to lack of proper maintenance, shortage of financial aid and also natural calamities like heavy rainfall etc. There is also a lack of administrative goodwill to carry out maintenance programme in a planned and timely manner. Somapura Mahavihara as the most spectacular pre-Islamic monument of Bangladesh stands as an evidence for the rise of Mahayana Buddhism in Bengal from the 7th century onwards.

       Buddhism as a formal and institutional religion in India has now been on the verge of extinction. However, its impact is noteworthy as it has a long-standing history in the Indian subcontinent spanning over nearly seventeen centuries – fifth century BC to twelfth century AD. But Buddhism is not just as a belief-system or a religion or a mere philosophical doctrine, rather the way Buddhist ideas have penetrated into the life of the masses needs a closer look; and any serious enquiry about the socio-cultural impact of Buddhism must begin with taking a closer look at the Buddhist organization (Sangha) operated through different monastries (viharas). Since such organizational structures constitute aspects of tangible culture, it becomes worth-observing for anyone enthusiastic about culture and society. It is in this consideration that Somapura Mahavihara deserves our attention to preserve the cultural legacy and historical integrity. This mahavihara was also a renowned intellectual centre until the 12th century. Thus, the historical and cultural significance that this monument carries is immense and worth-preserving. Yet, the architectural elegance of the site has eroded with time as a result of natural as well as human-driven factors. It is thus imperative to take up a serious endeavour to come up with a comprehensive architectural documentation as a first-hand resource needed to solve the mystery of the terminating top of the central structure of Somapura Mahavihara. Under the tutelage of UNESCO World Heritage Site project, a comprehensive management plan including conservation policies and provisions for a buffer zone has been designed under “South Asia Tourism Infrastructure Development Project”. But lack of adequate human, financial and technical resources has been an impediment to the sustained operation of the identified management system and continuous implementation of the conservation and maintenance plans.

[1] Reference: Dutt, Sukumar. 1988. ‘Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India: Their History and Their Contribution to Indian Culture’, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

[2] Reference: Naqi, Md. Ali; Islam, Ziaul; Bhuyan, Md. Shoeb; Gomes, Catherine Daisy (1999). “The virtual reconstruction of Paharpur vihara”, Khulna University Studies1 (1): 187–204.

Author: Nabanita Samanta, University of Hyderabad, Palashi, Hooghly


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