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Urban interludes in Bangladesh history

Shihab Sarkar | Published: May 02, 2019 21:19:23


The remains of 'King Virat Palace' at Khirtala village in Raiganj upazila, Sirajganj (left), a group of archaeologists from Rabindra University who discovered the site (right). —Photo courtesy: Dhaka Tribune

The frequent discoveries of ancient ruins in the recent times point to a significant milestone in the country's archaeological past. If the excavations of newer sites go on without let-up, the architectural history of Bangladesh may have to be subject to a thorough rewriting. Until the late 20th century, the country's past remained limited to the historical sites of Masthangarh, Paharpur, Mainamoti and a few other relics like the Lalbagh Fort, Shat Gombuj Mosque, Kantajeu Temple etc. But the scenario underwent a radical change in the early years of the 21st century, 2015 to be precise. It was the period, when the watershed discoveries of Wari-Bateshwar port town near the Narsingdi district, and some other less publicised semi-urban sites were made.

The latest of these explorations was made a few years ago at Nateshwar at Bikrampur in Munshiganj district, not far from the capital Dhaka. Five thousand kilomertres of land were discovered as the excavations proceeded in 2013-2018.  The sprawling relic that emerged was one of a full-scale Buddhist monastery. The most striking features distinguishing the ruins now include the pyramid-like stupas, wide walkways, residences, worship altars, hundreds of artefacts etc.  Over 1000 years ago, an enlightened semi-urban neighbourhood kept thriving there without hindrance.

However, the most striking archaeological discovery in Bangladesh in the modern times was made last April. Led by a senior teacher at the archaeological department at Rabindra University in Sirajganj, a group of students claimed to have discovered the remains of the palace of the ancient King Virat who used to rule the area. According to Mahabharata episodes and historical documents, Raja Virat used to live in the palace 2,500 years ago. According to the teacher who led the expedition team, the village where the ruins of the palace were found was an urban centre in around 800 to 1000 AD. According to experts, the terracotta figurines found in the palace are from the Gupta Dynasty. Locals are said to have found coins belonging to the era.

The discoveries of remnants and ruins over the last two hundred years present this part of Bengal as one hitting the heights of different types of arts including architecture and city planning. Although outwardly agrarian, with people mostly engaged in farming, the land's rulers in different times have demonstrated their fondness for urban settings as well. Perhaps this is the reason the lush green and marshy landscape has been accommodating scattered pockets of urban lifestyle since the pre-medieval times. To those who know this part of Bengal as swampy and humid, its people mostly emotion-charged, isolated urban enclaves across the land might appear quite strange. But with the new excavations being carried out to reveal marvellous urban structures one after another, the long hidden urban past also finds a seemingly normal accommodation in the land's context. That there have been dozens of riverports, urban settlements and centres of learning have long been proved beyond doubt. They were built under the auspices of different local kings, as well as foreign rulers.   Unfortunately, those did not last long. The main reasons they had eventually disappeared included the alluvial soil component of the land, especially in its central and the southern regions. Compared to them, the northern and southwestern parts of the eastern Bengal constituted hard and semi-rocky soil. As a result brick-made structures constructed in those places stand even today. It is these establishments which become public quite often after remaining out of sight for centuries owing to long periods of disuse.

As viewed by some historians, the whole Bengal was once an integral part of a long urban chain running from Nepali and Bhutanese towns, Kochbihar, Mahasthangarh, Paharpur, Mainamati through Dhaka, Chittagong up to Rangoon, and Phnom Penh. One of the major bonds between these urban centres was Buddhism. Scores of kingdoms' capitals and business centres were built in the middle of these urban centres. Thanks to climatic onslaughts and dominance of new cultures, most of these smaller townships disappeared. However, an ironical truth pops up here. The fact has similarities with the discoveries of many long lost towns and urban settlements elsewhere in the world.

The Nubian civilisation that developed along the Nile in northern Sudan is traced back to at least 2500 BC. It survived up to 8th century BC. But an important aspect related to this civilisation is unlike the Egyptian civilisation, it at one point of time slipped into oblivion. It was attempts by the UNESCO to get to the roots of the neglected Nubian sand sculptures that had brought into public view this long-forgotten civilisation. A similar thing happened to the West African Mali Empire (presently Republic of Mali). The vast empire, along with its ancient culturally developed city of Timbuktu, came to global spotlight in 1324. Its past glorious chapter also gathered layers of dust. Timbuktu at one point of time emerged as a major centre of learning and scholarship in whole of Africa. On the other hand, the Mesoamerican Maya civilisation remained hidden for centuries in Guatemalan jungles. It was by sheer chance that a group of researchers led by John Lloyd discovered the Maya marvels in the 1840s. The discovery of the Mayas and the Incas has solved many riddles related to the past of South America. Moreover, they shed light on the vast richness of the tradition and heritage of the American Indians.

Urban remnants in Bangladesh are no match for these great world sites. But they have regional importance. At least these ruins shed new lights on a past of Eastern Bengal which is different from that held in traditional notions. The most prominent of these beliefs is the soil component of the land in general was not conducive to withstanding brick structures. But the structures built in different eras have debunked these myths. Along with the salinity-dominant sandy and boggy land masses, the land has also been rich with a soil that resembles the one akin to the rocky soils found in many parts of the Sub-continent. The ancient ruins which these days keep being explored in many parts of the country stand proof to the whole Bengal's semi-urban past.

 

shihabskr@ymail.com

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