Historical Sites

Ruins of Paharpur


Far from the din and bustle of city life, immense mass of tapering artificial hill, near Paharpur, has revealed the remains of the largest Buddhist temple and monastery South of Himalayas. These precious remains are located in East Pakistan, happens to be a piece of poetic justice. Once dominant religion of Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, Buddhism, for all practical purposes, survives only in East Pakistan, enclave with more than half a million followers, while it has completely disappeared from the land of its origin.

Rising to lofty height of about 80 feet above the surrounding crop fields Paharpur, remains of temple and monastery reared up under the royal patronage of Pala emperors in 8th century AD, lay thickly shrouded in trees, shrubs and fields.

So hidden behind cluster of bamboo were the remains that till the early 19th century, it aroused awe-inspiring curiosity among the local people, and the stray adventurous tourists. The huge tapering mass was covered by remarkably fine banyan tree, visible from great distance as familiar landmark. Obviously Paharpur derived its name from this hill (or "Pahar" in Bengali), under whose shadow it rested.

Ever since the monastery, now in ruins, must have dominated the landscape of surrounding area for centuries and provided sharp contrast to the monotonous topography of the region. It was only in the year 1933-34 that the entire remains, isolated pile of conical earth mound, could be completely exposed to view.

Paharpur is in insignificant border hamlet about three miles West of Jamalgunj railway station, in Bogra district of North Bengal on the main line of Pakistan Eastern Railway. But the village, which actually lies in Rajshahi district, is connected with outside world only by un-metallic, dusty cart track.

According to the epigraphic evidence recovered from the excavations of the extensive remains of Paharpur, the monastery was named Somapura Vihara. Measuring 922 feet North-south and 919 feet East-west externally, monastery represents the biggest single "Vihara" so far known in the subcontinent.

This gigantic establishment with surrounding 177 monastic cells, elaborate gateways, votive stupas, minor chapels, tank, refractory and multitude of other ancillary structures is dominated by central shrine conspicuous for its lofty height and architectural peculiarities. The colossal temple, measuring 356' 6" North-south and 314' 3" East-west, occupies nearly the center of the immense quadrangle forming the monastery. The ground plan consists of gigantic square cross with angles of projection between arms.

The temple rose in several gradually receding terraces, with ambulatory path enclosed on the outers side by parapet wall around the monument in each of the two upper terraces. Access to the first and second terraces was obtained by the extensive staircase provided on North.

The complete plan of the central cruciform temple, from basement to the top along its various component parts, seems to have been erected in single period of construction and later repairs, additions and alterations carried out in subsequent periods did not fundamentally affect the general arrangement and plan.

The whole scheme of this complicated pyramidal temple, pivoted round a square hollow pile shooting high up above the four terraces was, as observed by the excavator, Mr. K. N. Dikshit, certainly the result of premeditated development of single central unit, in which future expansion was, in a sense, premeditated in vertical direction.

On each of its face is added rectangular projection, consisting of ante-chamber and "Mandapa", with marginal space left vacant at both the corners of faces. All the rectangular projections are equal in length, the resulting shape, therefore, is square cross with projecting angle between the arms of cross.

The temple, as it is visualized, appears to have been lofty terraced edifice, with the shrine crowning the top of three terraces, halls and ante-chamber on the second floor, and ambulatory passages on all the floors. This type of temple architecture profoundly influenced similar architectural efforts of South East Asia, specially Burma and Java.

The basement wall is relieved with 63 stone sculptures and above this line runs single row of terracotta plaques, depicting the contemporary folk art of Bengal. Similarly, the plain walls of the double-rowed terraces are decorated on the outer faces by bands of terracotta plaques, set in recessed panels. Projecting cornice of ornamental frieze separate two rows from each other.

The quadrangular monastic establishment at Paharpur relates to to the late period of development of such institutions, when they became well-organized and self-sufficient. Its massive enclosure walls, provided with only one elaborate gateway complex and guard rooms on North, remind one more of fortress than religious establishment, where security from outside attack is given great priority.

These late monastic establishments, removed far from the mundane activity of urban life and beyond, what may be aptly termed as, begging distance of the city, on which the earlier fraternity primarily depended for sustenance, could only have come into existence, when the profession of begging had fallen out of fashion. Viharas, themselves became self-sufficient, often under royal patronage, and consequently the proximity of the city was no longer vital necessity. However, they must have still remained the center of cult and learning.

As already noticed, the plainness of the temple walls is relieved on the outer face by projecting cornice of ornamental bricks and bands of terracotta plaques, set in recessed panels, which run in single row all around the basement and in double rows around the ambulatory passage in the upper terraces.

In fact, the vast wealth of terracotta  plaques of this great Vihara play the most dominant part in the scheme of decoration. There are above 2000 plaques, which still decorate the faces of the temple walls and about 800 more were picked up loose from the site. These plaques are dated to 8th century AD, as the majority of them are contemporaneous with the building of the edifice. No regular sequential arrangement has been followed in fixing these plaques.

This great wealth of plastic art faithfully represents contemporary folk art of Bengal and excels most in the exuberance and richness of their subject matter. They depict gods and goddesses, human beings in various movements, animals, semi-divine beings, grotesque animals, subjects from the vegetable kingdom, popular legends and folk tales of Bengal, and in fact, any conceivable subject, which flashed across the minds of those simple rural artists.

Technically, however, these plaques are crude and often disproportionate in physiognomic details. In modeling them, artists show little flexibility of the figure; toes and fingers are, in most cases, indicated only with incised lines and the long round. bulging eyes are set almost on round faces.

Basement of the great temple is relieved with as many as 63 stone sculptures in alto-relieve but strangely, all the images represent Brahmanical icon, except the only Buddhist image of Padmapani fixed in the middle of Southern side. Apparently this striking inconsistency of such vast number of Brahman deities installed in the niches of this Vihara at once attracts notice.

Similar sculptures representing Brahman gods and goddesses are very common in Nalanda Maha Vihara also. Their presence in Paharpur Vihara suggests that these were probably collected from some earlier monument, which stood in its neighborhood and fixed up all around its basement as its embellishment.

One can easily distinguish in these sculptures three distinct groups with marked difference in style and artistic excellence. The first group, which, in fact, constitutes the majority of sculptures was undoubtedly made at the time of the construction of the main fabric of the temple and, therefore, they are contemporaneous (8th century AD).

Large number of them depict legendary scenes from the life of Krishna, as the eternal lover, and his exploits as the divine hero, while others represent scenes from the great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata and also scenes from the daily life of the ordinary village folks, which obviously had wider popular appeal. This group, in artistic style and subject matter, is closely analogous to the vast mass of terracotta plaques already noted.

The second group, although it shows affinity to the first, deserves to be treated separately for its manifest exclusiveness. Its figures are distinguished by their general heaviness of form, coarseness of drapery and ornamental details. It is marked by dull rigidity and stiffness of form of the figures, bereft of the plastic form of the classical Gupta tradition. These sculptures are supposed to have been produced during the transitional phase, between the fading Eastern Gupta period and flourishing period of Pala school by indigenous Bengali artists.

The third group, of which only few specimens exists, may aptly be accepted as Eastern version of Classical Gupta art. The dominant theme of this group is Radha-Krishna legend and also includes Yamuna, Sina and Balarama reliefs. This group is characterized by soft and tender modeling of form, which is usually associated with Gupta classical art. Figures of this group are characterized by elasticity and refinement of treatment.

Among a number of mutilated stone-sculptures, such as Manasa, Kuvera, Bodhisattava etc. found loose during excavations, particularly striking image of Hevajra, in close embrace with his Sakti or female counterpart, is noteworthy. The god is represented with 6 heads and 16 hands, the central pair holds Sakti, while each of the seven on either sides holds skull-cup filled with some indistinct object. Third eye appears on the forehead of each one of the heads and garland of skulls runs around the body.

The image is made of black basalt and is dated to the late 11th century. The cult of Hevajra is not common in Indo-Pakistan subcontinent and belongs to the late phase of degenerated Buddhism, before it passed into Tibet, where the deity holds very important place in their pantheon.

Among the collections of Muslim coins, discovered in this site, ranging mostly in date from 1540 to 1547 AD and unrelated to the period of great Vihara, particularly interesting round, silver coin of Caliph Haroun-or Rashid, dated 788 AD, picked up from the surface, is undoubtedly noteworthy. Although obviously this coin was never currency here, it happens to coinside with the general dating of Paharpur Vihara and most have traveled by way of trade.

Another important discovery of the site constituted the inscribed copper plate grants and stone inscriptions, which throw light on the history of the site. The earliest is Copper Plate, dated 159 of Gupta era (497 AD), found from the monastery area. It records the purchase and grant of land by Brahman couple, for maintenance of Arhats and resting place at Vihara, presided over by Jaina teacher Gahanandin and his disciple, and disciple of disciples. But how this Jaina record of land grant of earlier date found its place in later Buddhist monastery of Somapura is a matter of great controversy.

A number of stone pillar inscriptions (4 belonging to 10th and 12th centuries) discovered at the site and excavation, contain records of the donation of pillars referring to either Buddha or Tri-Ranta (Three Jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha).

Considering the immense size and important of great Vihara, the number of metal images found at the site of the excavation is indeed insignificant. This small group consists of one ornamental bronze image of Hara Gauri in conventional style, bronze image of standing Buddha in the attitude of Protection (Ahhaya Mudra), standing naked Jaina image and bronze images of Kuvera and Ganesha. Apart from large collection of vvarious types of pottery and other minor terracotta antiquities are 4 mutilated stucco Buddha heads of about 8th09th century AD.



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