The Pleasures and
Treasures of North Bengal
AN escape from the stressful life of Dhaka city is always much anticipated for its long-suffering inhabitants. That is exactly how we felt about spending a weekend in North Bengal. It was an educational form of recreation, since we were going for a study tour on the 'History of Bengal Architecture' and 'Architectural Conservation' courses; thirty-eight students out for a jaunt under the supervision of the respective teachers.
By 8 a.m. on a Friday, our group was ready to go, bubbling over with excitement, looking forward to the next couple of days. It was a continuous journey with only a short break at Bogra for lunch. Mahasthangarh, the ancient capital of Pundravardhana, was our first destination. Notably, this is the earliest urban archaeological site (dating back to 3rd century B.C.) discovered in our country. Not much remains of the site except the numerous mounds. Everything that has been excavated has been relocated to various museums.
After almost two additional hours in the bus, we came to Paharpur, the other destination of the day. I had fallen asleep on this ride and the quadrangular structure, standing out of the landscape literally mesmerized me as soon as I woke! This was it - the famous Buddhist monastery from the postcards. The view was, in one word, breathtaking. And huge too! No wonder it once accommodated 177 cells. Richly ornamented with terracotta plaques, the intricate workmanship was appreciated by all. Dusk was nearing and somehow nature seemed closer as we climbed the series of steps of the dwindling pyramidal form. The geometry underlying the architectural construction was hard to miss. Overall, the fact that Paharpur had served as a spiritual space needed no reminder.
On Saturday morning we started off for the Chhoto Shona Mosque, constructed in the Sultanate period of Gaur, renowned for its fifteen gilded domes - including three chauchala domes at the centre. We were to find out later that this was indeed a well preserved site. The facades of the rectangular edifice were in Rajmahal blackstone and the monumentality of the mosque could be felt both indoors and outdoors. The arched doorways enhanced the elegance of the structure although the main attraction was the superb ornate stonework decorations, which echo the traditional heritage of Bangla terracotta art. It was enlightening to find out that this was a place where both the heritage value and original purpose of its use was still maintained.
The Tahkhana Complex, nearly half a kilometer northwest of the Chhoto Shona Mosque, was next on our list. Although the Shah Niamatullah Mosque within its premises is still in use, and the spaces within the complex could all be accessed, it was disappointing to see that unlike the previous site, this series of structures did not benefit from the same standard of preservation. The plastered forms prevent observers from appreciating its originality and it is hard to understand why this conservation process went wrong.
Next, we approached the Darasbari mosque, which is also situated in Gaur - but because of its location not many people know about it. This jame mosque clearly shows influence from the Adina Mosque at Pandua. The simplicity of its décor transported us to a different era despite the severe damage inflicted on it by time, weather and unappreciative locals. The roof is non-existent, the columns are broken, and bricks have been dislocated. And yet the scale, proportion and magnitude of the space will awe anyone who stands within the arched facades. There is no doubt this 15th century mosque can still be preserved and is of strong heritage value. We are fortunate that it had not deteriorated further, and the sole reason for this is its remote location. The foundation of its madrasa reflects the simplicity in organization we had already witnessed at Paharpur. And interestingly, this is the only mosque in the country where each element of Mughal architecture is clearly portrayed. It is surprising that Darasbari has not attracted the attention of the archaeological department as of yet, and that immediate steps for conservation are not underway.
As we headed back for lunch, I thought about all that we had seen and all that we had yet to see. With strong historical roots, it should be part of our culture to take active measures to hold on to these historical treasures. So where is the appreciation? Or haven't people realized our rich architectural heritage is under imminent threat? These thoughts continued to trouble me as we headed for Puthia, one of the oldest estates of Bengal.
Puthia, which was once a complex of 16 Hindu temples, intrigued and delighted us both at the same time. We were guided through a few of the ones in better condition, including the Puthia Rajbari. The large four-storied pyramidal dol mancha at the north of the site reminded me of the famous paanch mohol of Fatehpur Sikri. The columns used resembled the Greco-Roman style, while the balcony represents the traditional verandah suitable to our climate. The Shivmandir is a pancharatna temple with a number of small, pointed domes on the central ratna. Celebrations still take place here on the last Monday of each Srabon. The base of the main statue of black basalt is still preserved and the mythical images of the gods are engraved on the walls. The single-domed, octagonal formed Roshmoncha to the east of Shivmandir is not used for celebrations, but still stands gloriously silhouetted against the skyline.
The Govinda Temple is situated in the middle and eastern portion of the Rajbari itself. It is also a pancharatna with circular discs on each peak and terracotta plaques intricately engraved on its facades. This was a place from which food would be distributed at dusk around two centuries ago. Another temple, possibly an ahnnik, had once rested on its southeast side but now only its ruins serve as evidence of its existence. The choto ahnnik, and another dol moncha are also on site and under preservation, but due to lack of maintenance, the terracotta plaques (of the neglected temples) are degrading and conservation is urgently needed.
Mixed emotions engulfed me as we bid farewell to North Bengal and returned to our buses. For the time being, we all seemed satisfied with our pleasant weekend and headed back to Dhaka with smiles on our faces for now. We have a lot of potential to preserve our archaeological treasures in a variety of sites, but we're not aware of it.
(The writer is a final year student of BRAC University)