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Faith and heritage

  • Published at 06:02 pm February 5th, 2016
Faith and heritage

Of whatever faith, or none, the roots of faith groups appear to hold an irresistible attraction for heritage tourists. And Bangladesh, with perhaps one of the widest diversities of faith groups, including major sub-groups, is something of a living museum -- tangibly, visibly, and emotionally.

Animist beliefs, we are told, linger amongst the peoples of the hills and forests of Bangladesh. Such beliefs reach far back into human history, reflecting the awe of natural phenomena, whether sun and moon, or rivers and forests, events and places, or stones and rocks.

In a mango garden close to Chapai Nawabganj, I have seen a small shrine dedicated to a block of basalt, clearly an architectural remnant of a Buddhist temple, that, for the locals, emerged as a miracle from the fertile ground following an inundation. From these ancient beliefs emerged, across the world, groups with a Shamanic tradition, with the evolution of priestly structures.

And, again, in these lands of Bangladesh, and those of the Ganges basin now in India, these traditions appear to have evolved, with a vast pantheon of deities representing all forms of human and natural phenomena, and combinations of both, into the great Hindu beliefs -- in which developed Sanskrit, the earliest known written language.

From such roots evolved Jainism, and finally, reversing the deist faiths, came the “God within you,” beliefs of the Prince Gautama -- “The Buddha.”

Whilst Dhakeshwari Temple in Dhaka may be the “national temple,” the well-maintained buildings most were constructed about two centuries ago by agents of East India. Most obvious are the group at Puthia, and the fine terracotta Kanthiji Temple.

The group at Puthia, dominated by the vast facade of the neo-classical 19th century palace, were the work of the Hindu zamindar family, first granted possession by the third Mughal Emperor Akbar.

The great, white, Shiva Temple, overlooking Shiv Sagar Lake, with the small, domed, Roth temple beside it, promises one of the most fascinating heritage sites in Bangladesh.

Altogether, including the neat Bara Ahnik Mandir, and the fine, small, Jagannath Temple, and almost countless others, the former home of the second largest zamindari in Bangladesh, represents a considerable tribute to Hindu beliefs.

The lands of Bangladesh have, throughout the last two and a half millennia, come under the rule of empires established beyond its borders: Mauryan, Gupta, Sena, Mughal, and the British amongst them. However, the one empire with origins within these lands was that of the four century-long Buddhist Pala Dynasty.

Paharpur is well known, but Buddhist history records five of the greatest Buddhist centres of learning in the lands of the Ganges, of which this heritage site is one. The other, less well-explored by archaeologists, famed in the records for its literary traditions, is the site of Jahagadal. Few sites in Bangladesh offer as much heritage of the Muslim period as the array of early mosques around Bagerhat -- especially the world heritage “sixty dome mosque.”

However, as a statement of empire, elegance, and faith, it is, perhaps, Chapai Nawabganj that has the best to offer.

Here, Shah Suja -- the favourite son of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz -- built an extraordinary tribute to his faith and that of his “mentor,” in classic, well-conserved, Mughal style.

A fine mosque, a mazar for his mentor’s tomb, and a small, magnificent guest house, all still in unusually great condition, represent the best of mid-17th century Mughal architectural work … and all in a garden rich in pieces of Buddhist architectural stonework.

The nearby Golden Mosque, and a fine Madrassa building constructed from recycled Hindu and Buddhist pieces, on the very evident site of a Buddhist Vihara, all enhance any heritage hunter’s visit. The early British “rulers,” however, were sceptical of the missionaries of the Christian faith -- it was not until the 19th century that missionary work by various Protestant groups were really admitted.

For any heritage tourist seeking the earliest traces of Christianity, hereabouts, they may well explore these earliest Catholic cathedrals, the oldest of which is in Chittagong.

Or, perhaps, they may reflect upon the ancient presence of Armenian merchants, amongst the earliest of Christians to arrive in these lands, of whom the magnificent Armenian Church in Dhaka is a tangible memorial.

Within Dhaka, the early 19th century Church of St Thomas, built between the Old City, with its fascinating Christian cemetery at Narinda, and the newer areas developed by the company and its administrative centre, is as fine a piece of British, early Victorian church architecture as can be found anywhere.

Its own form of oriental Gothic in style, it was built around 1820 by “volunteer labour” from the Dhaka Jail. Consecrated in 1824, by the great evangelical Bishop Heber, bishop of Calcutta, on his tour of north-east India, it represents, even in its present location, the kind of oasis of calm usually associated with such parish churches.

All four of these expressions of faith bear witness to the development of four of the world’s bigger faith groups.

In truth, it may well be said that no other country in the world has given birth to, or hosted, so many great faith groups. Sufficient, perhaps, to offer the “heritage hunter,” experiences that may feed our local faith that, someday, Bangladesh may rank alongside the world’s great destinations for heritage tourism.