Although there is little doubt that it was the delta of the three great rivers, the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna, in which lay the foundations of this extraordinary nation, Naogaon, in Rajshahi Division of Bangladesh, holds, perhaps, the distinction of being able to offer the heritage seeker more to see and explore, within a limited area, the remaining traces of the five imperial dynasties, than any other in the country.
It is a little sad that few, if any, divisions or districts in Bangladesh, including Naogaon itself, have sufficient interest, both in their own, in many cases, rich (in every sense of the word), history, and distinctive heritage, to offer proper conservation and presentation, nor in investing in the prospect of moneyed visitors, to research and publish accessible guides to their past.
Whilst the bordering districts of both neighbouring Rajshahi and Rangpur, divisions are, themselves, also rich in heritage reaching back millennia, it is this remote, north-western area that can be said so to hold so much to visit, view, explore, and from which to learn.
However, all that there is to explore in Naogaon would amply fill any opportunity for such an adventure.The “jewel in the crown,” in terms of its state of conservation and presentation not great, but about as good as it gets in Bangladesh, with its lack of experience, expertise, and resource is unquestionably the rare, cruciform, Paharpur Vihara, known as Somapara Mahavihar, rightly designated a world heritage site.
Its designation it owes not only to the considerable proportion that remains, but also to the fact that it was replicated in both Myanmar and Java, bearing testimony to the spreading of Buddhist traditions, from the Ganges basin, within which, of course, Naogaon lies, across the Buddhist world.
Most of what is visible was built during the time of the somewhat neglected, by historians, Pala dynasty of rulers; the last rulers of substantial parts of the Indian sub-continent by a dynasty of Bangladeshi/Bengali origin, and Buddhist belief.
Whilst publicly described, on site, as a 7th century CE construction, which the visible structure certainly was, beneath ground level lies evidence of its real origins, also part of the patrimony of the district, in the 3rd century BCE. That the foundations of the world famous monument were laid in the time of the earliest, and most famous convert, to Buddhist beliefs, Ashoka, the third Mauryan Emperor, there is little doubt.
It seems equally probable that another of the “Famous Five,” the most internationally famous of the literally hundreds of Buddhist Vihara of the region, over 400 of which lie within today’s Bangladesh, of the first millennium of Buddhist belief, also located in the Naogaon District, Jahagadal, was probably also founded in Ashoka’s time.
One centre has been partially excavated, but that site is surrounded by other mounds which, to judge by the brick, tile, and ceramic debris, that cover these neighbouring parts of what was, once, surely, a great complex. Not, perhaps, of sufficient scale to challenge the apparently greatest of all Buddhist sites in Bangladesh, the complex at Mainamati, near Comilla, in the east of the country. It was, however, certainly of sufficient size to earn it an international reputation.
It may very well be that, when Bangladesh has sufficient resource, and the will, to invest more considerably in archaeological exploration of the rich past that holds such great fascination for tourists around the world, further evidence will emerge, even in this small district, of the works of the great Mauryan Empire.
The same is likely to be true of traces that may be expected of the great Gupta Empire, known as the “Golden Age” of India, a part of which spread across these lands.
The site museum at Paharpur, which contains some fine pieces of sculpture, of a quality equal to any contemporary work in Europe, from the period of the Guptas as well as Pala, sculpture that represents both Buddhist and Hindu traditions, suggests that there may well, yet, be more to find, hereabouts, of that flourishing culture.
The Pala Dynasty, that ruled extensive territories, not only across today’s lands that are Bangladesh, but across much of northern India, too, and may well have been founded hereabouts, is very evident, not only in the two “Great” vihara, but in many others, most of which have yet to be explored, but including Halud Vihar, close to Paharpur.
Interestingly, such early Islamic monuments as the famous Kasumba Mosque, bear visible witness to previous Empires, not only Pala, but, perhaps, also Sena, credited with the destruction of the Buddhist heritage.
This little gem of a mosque, built towards the end of the Sultanate period, just before the arrival of the Mughals, is clad in architectural material of black basalt, in a very early example of recycling of such materials. The architectural pieces certainly have Pala, or earlier, origins; that it was available for early Islamic building bears evidence of that, probably, Sena orgy of destruction.
Travelling the winding country roads of the district, there is scarcely a community that cannot point the visitor to some ancient site, but tangible evidence of the great Mughal dynasty may well be rare. However, three great zamindari, the palatial residences of the literal “Landholders,” who, from the Mughal period onwards, until 1947, were given the rights and responsibilities of local overlordship and revenue generation, are said to have originated from the early part of the 17th century.
Of the three, Mahadevpur, a largely neo-classical structure, evidently a 19th century “palace,” is a part of local administration accommodation, and is, as a result, probably in best repair.
Balihar, a part of which is built in evident, 19th century Mughal style, is also a former residence of a zamindar family said to have roots in the Mughal period. A curious, broad stairway, however, leading nowhere, suggests that there was, perhaps, an even greater structure that may have collapsed, like so many other in North Bengal, in the 1897 Great India earthquake.
The most picturesque ruin of the three, however, is certainly, that of Dubalhati Palace. Left in a ruinous state by the Pakistan Army, who evidently used its impressive structure for some target practice, the grand facade, very reminiscent of Buckingham Palace, in London, with residential complex behind faces across a large pond, the houses built, apparently, for the artists and musicians who provided entertainment to the “court.”
This zamindari, too, is said to have roots in the time of the early Mughal rulers in the 17th century. The history of those roots, however, also wrapped within charming legends. In 1830, Dwarkanath Tagore, the wealthy, Calcutta-based, merchant grandfather of the great poet and writer, Rabindranath Tagore, acquired the zamindari of Patisar, where the Kachanbari, probably occasionally visited by his famous grandson, as were others of the zamindari held by Dwarkanath, including at Pabna and Kushtia.
The controversially “restored” zamindar “palace” also offers, for the visitor, a glimpse of late 19th century and early 20th century life under the British Empire, the immortal, “Raj.” In Naogoan itself, characteristic, red brick buildings in a kind of 19th century Romanesque style also offer further evidence of the “Empire upon which the sun never sets.”
Five Empires in a couple of days, the very essence of the prospects for the Heritage tourist in these extraordinary lands of Bangladesh.