Ancient records of early Buddhism, recovered from Tibet, identify five great centres of learning in the Buddhist firmament of the period of the Pala Empire, which might have been at the time, amongst the greatest centres of learning in the world, up to a thousand years after the birth of Prince Gautama, the Buddha, “The Enlightened One.”
Of the five, two are amongst the over four hundred lesser Buddhist sites, in the lands that are now Bangladesh; Somapura Mahavihara and Jaggadala.
And, of those two, Somapura, or Paharpur as we know the site today, is certainly still the best explored and most famous, as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
There seems to be little room to doubt that, as early as the last centuries before the Common Era, the concentration of early Buddhist sites in Bangladesh represent a major source of early learning.
There are even scholars of Christian teaching who, detecting Buddhist influences in the teachings of Christ in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, suggest that the precocious child found debating with elders in the Temple, who only emerges as a great teacher himself some 20 years later, may in fact, under the influence of Joseph of Arimathea -- a merchant associated with Christ in biblical tradition -- have organised for the young Christ to travel to what were, in their time, the greatest centres of learning of their age, the great Vihara of the Ganges basin.
And Paharpur would have been of course the most accessible from the great centre of trade in the Ganges Delta, had Christ made the journey, as at the time many did, by sea.
Whatever the truth of that speculation, what is more incontrovertible is that, from the earliest times of the rise of Buddhist belief, Paharpur was “in the thick of it.”
Excavation has revealed that, unsurprisingly, beneath the undoubted construction of remains of the period of the great Pala Empire (which had its roots in proximity to Paharpur, and, who knows, may have derived in part from its presence?), lie traces of buildings of the Mauryan period in the early years of Buddhism.
We also know from onsite evidence that it continued to flourish during the “Golden Age of India” under the second century liberal Hindu, Gupta Dynasty (also with their own roots in close proximity to Paharpur!).
No doubt the expertise of Buddhists contributed to the astonishing transformation of social, economic, and technical strengths of Indian society that flowered in that period.
That Paharpur was one of the most significant centres of learning in the various Buddhist schools there can be little doubt; the sheer scale of its estate and constructions bear testimony to its significance.
We may, perhaps, attribute that fact to its greater proximity to the great international routes of communication by sea, and by the famous first of the great Silk Roads, the Southern Silk Road, Brahmaputra, Teesta, and Lohit River routes into the Himalayan states and beyond, into China.
It is already clear that, in its time, Paharpur was culturally important, not simply to the Buddhist tradition, but to the range of Dharmic beliefs
What is also certain is that the ruins today of this great centre of meditation, teaching, and learning are the largest in the Indian sub-continent, and that the design has been closely replicated in Burma, Java, and Cambodia, with two temples in central Java bearing closest resemblance to Paharpur’s distinctive design, rather than any others in the sub-continent.
Such imitation seems to speak volumes for the influence of Paharpur over the propagation of the faith groups beyond its origins in the Ganges basin.
The decline, in about the 12th century -- either under the Brahmanic regime of the last Hindu dynasty, the short lived Sena, or perhaps as likely, in the face of the advent of the Afghan Sultanate forces that, having raided into India for a century or two, finally shifted their base as far into north India as they could reach -- seems to have been fairly abrupt.
But that the schools, the Vihara, lasted in their influence for about a millennium and a half, enduring across the eastern world even today, not only speaks volumes for their power and influence, but also of the wealth in the lands in which they grew.
They developed, it is probably fair to say, out of centuries, even millennia of social, cultural, and economic evolution in these lands along the edges of the great Ganges river.
Archaeology, both in India and in Bangladesh, is only slowly making sense of the evidence of both on and in ground work, alongside the circumstantial and documentary, even empirical evidence for which, in today’s Islamic and Christian world there may not be a great deal of incentive.
And the rise in India of the return of more aggressive Hinduism probably doesn’t help, either!
However, despite its continuing strength in important nations like Japan, and its re-emergence in China, the study and appreciation of the significance in world cultural and economic history, has probably not yet reached its time.
It is, however, already clear that, in its time, Paharpur was culturally important, not simply to the Buddhist tradition, but to the range of Dharmic beliefs.
Paharpur stands in by far the largest compound, and is easily the largest Buddhist site in Indian subcontinent
These are those that evolved around the lands that, as the deltaic lands of the Ganges are now largely the lands of Bangladesh.
The Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist belief groups of that Dharmic tradition, which were probably both influenced by each other, and by the more primitive beliefs of traders from across the world, and also propagated through the linkages of communication, grew in all likelyhood from the more primitive Animist and Shamanic traditions of earliest traceable beliefs.
That the Sanskrit language developed hereabouts was also, in all probability, due to this as a very ancient centre of trade, requiring more than a verbal tradition of communication to support trade.
But the ability of such common and written form of communication certainly also facilitated the wider communication of beliefs, as well as facilitating travel, social, and cultural interchange.
It remains somewhat difficult to make complete sense of the human developments of these lands with such a demonstrably rich heritage of culture and philosophy.
Not the least of these difficulties, of course, in the case of the lands in and around those of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers.
And the rest of the 700 or so rivers, tributaries, and distributaries of the Ganges, especially is the simple depth of the annual deposits of flood borne alluvium.
And today, politics also plays its own part in revelation, and even suppression.
Ironic, indeed, that the lands that so clearly gave birth to beliefs to which over 5% of the world’s population today still adhere, should be ruled by adherents of different beliefs!
All of which would probably have seemed absurd to the denizens of Paharpur, throughout much of its life.
It may well not be without significance that Paharpur stands in by far the largest compound, and is easily the largest Buddhist site in the Indian sub-continent.
Close to the origins of Buddhism, just across today’s border and the ancient capital of the Mauryan Empire, it was even closer to the roots of both Gupta and Pala Empires, in which it conspicuously flourished.
Despite the somewhat half-hearted endeavours of today’s Indians to “talk up” Vihara on their own lands for the sake of tourist income, there may well be every reason to suppose that, in fact, Paharpur, Somapara Mahavihara, was in fact, from early times, the most influential and powerful in the complexities of the Buddhist faith, of the great five.
Paharpur, a historic root for Bangladesh to cherish, and to take pride in.
Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.