Ancient Buddhist Monastic Establishments in Bangladesh

During the rainy season Indian ascetics used to live together in fixed residences, suspending their life of a mendicant. With the rise of Buddhism this temporary shelter came to be known as rain-retreat (vassavasa) . Gradually two types of Buddhist settlements grew into prominence, one known as avas in the countryside and the other as arama in or near a town. The permanent abode of Sangha was called Sangharama or vihara. The fortress-like condition of a Sangharama was meant for 'the sangha where in safety and in peace to meditate and think at ease.' Over time these residences developed into concentration of buildings such as stupas, shrines, temples and monasteries.

The religion of Buddha could thrive and persist over a long time in Eastern India as it was outside the zone of traditional Vedic culture. Bangladesh, a part of the geographical Eastern India witnessed the dramatic moments of Buddhism's natal time as the remains of the Buddhist monastic establishments in Bangladesh would testify.

Hiuen-Tsang, in the 7th century AD. came across twenty Sangharamas with 3000 priests there in Pundravardhana, studying both the Sthaviravada and Mahayana. Twenty to the west of Pundravardana there stood the po-chi-po's Sangharama, which caught the eye of that illustrious Chinese, with 700 resident monks. A stupa built by Emperor Asoka was near by Cunningham identifies the ruins of Bhasu Vihara as those of the po-chi-po, four miles away from Mahasthan in the district of Bogra in the northern part of Bangladesh.

In 1973-4, excavation had laid bare at Bhasu Vihara a semi cruciform temple and two comparatively small monasteries. The shrine has three terraced ambulatory passage with the entrance on the north and a square mandapa at the center. Like Paharpur and Mainamati, the basement of the shrine is embellished with terra cotta plaques. Eighty-six bronze objects have been discovered during the excavation near Mahasthan and Bhasu Vihara.

Near the modern Ompur are found the ruins of Somapura Mahavihara, popularly known as Paharpur in the district of Rajshahi in northern Bangladesh. The central shrine of the Vihara measures 356x314 with a height well over one hundred feet. The general plan of the shrine is in the form of a cross with projections in between the arms. Above the basement it has three raised terraces with Caityangana (circumambulatory path). A continuous frieze of teracotta plaques runs on the inner wall of the path. K. N. Dikshit describes the Somapur Vihara as 'the biggest single sangharama that was ever erected in India for Buddhist monks'

There is a mound known as Satyapirer Bhita on the east of Somapur Vihara. The excavation on that mound has brought to light a temple of Tara. Its ruins, trapezoid in shape, are enclosed by a wall. Within this complex are found more than 120 votive stupas of varying sizes and shapes. Some glazed polychrome pottery along with a bronze statue of Jambhala is the most important discovery from this site.

According to I-Tsing Mahayana Srigupta had built a temple for the Chinese priests and granted an endowment for its maintenance. Standing close to the sanctuary of Mi-Li-Kia-Si-Kia-PO-NO in varendra, it lay about 40 yojanas to the east of Nalanda.

In the Ramacarita of Sandhyakara Nandi there is an account of a Jagaddala Mahavihara in Varendra. As a center of Tantric Buddhism it was a flourishing institution during Rampala's time. Before the foundation of the capital city of Ramavati this place may have served as a temporary royal seat where the king lived.

There are two other viharas in the district of Rajshahi, Viharail Rajbadi and Halud Vihara. On excavation at Viharail a standing image of Buddha on the Sarnath model was found. About nine miles to the west south-west of Paharpur is situated the Halud Vihara. Preliminary studies of the cultural objects recovered from the surface (including NBP shards) suggest a close cultural kinship with the site of Paharpur.

On the southern edge of the village Fathepur Marash, in the Nawabganj Upazilla of the Dinajpur district, lie the ruins of Sitakot Vihara. It was built roughly on a square plane with four wings, each 215 feet long. Bronze, iron and terra cotta objects are found in the ruins.

In South-East Bangladesh Buddhism flourished under the patronage of Buddhist dynasties. Archaeological remains, epigraphic records and Chinese accounts delineate a golden time in Buddhist history.

Hiuen-Tsang came to Samatata and noticed thirty Buddhist monasteries with 2000 priests of the Sthavira School. There was a stupa nearby, the construction of which is traditionally attributed to Emperor Asoka. An image of Buddha made from green jade was found in a monastery near it. When Seng-Chi came to Samatata during the reign of King Rajabhata there was a population of 4000 monks and nuns in its capital. From the epigraphic and literary records we come to learn about the names of Pattikera Vihara, Asrama Vihara, Raja Vihara, Sanghamitra Vihara, Vendamati Vihara and Pandita Vihara. Also in central Bangladesh, in the district of Dhaka, there were two monasteries named Vikrampuri Vihara and Vajrasana Vihara. as may be known from literary sources. Raghurampur and Savar are the two other Buddhist sites that came to notice through explorations and excavations. The ruins of a monastery with mental images, burnt clay tablets and charcoal have been found at Rajasan, Savar.

The archaeological remains on Mainamati-Laimai ridge in Comilla to-day stand out as an ample testimony of its importance in the past as a prominent cultural center of Buddhism. For its strategic geographical location and separate political entity the Janapada of Samatata deserves special mention, where the city of Devaparvata was situated in the forest region of Lalmvi. Lalamvi may be identified as the modern Lalmai and Devaparvata as one of the spurs in its northern extremity. For a long time Samatata had remained the stronghold of numerous Buddhist dynasts long before the advent of the Palas of Gauda.

The biggest assemblage of ancient Buddhist monastic sites can be found on the Mainamati-Lalmai hills. The ruins were discovered during the second world war. As many as 32 important mounds are being protected by the archaeology department in this area. Of these mounds excavations were carried out only on the ruins known as Salban Vihara, Kutila Mura, Charpatra Mura, the Palace and Temple of Queen Mainamati and Ananda Vihara. The Mainamati excavations have yielded an exceptionally rich harvest of valuable antiquities including 11 lengthy copper-plate grants, shorter image inscriptions, over 400 gold, silver and copper coins, innumerable baked-clay and terra cotta ceilings, a panoply of sculptural pieces in stone, bronze and terra cotta, semiprecious stone and terra cotta beads, gold and silver ornaments, copper vessels, earthenware pots, pans and utensils, oil lamps stone dabbler, and a variety of other objects of antiquity and works of art.

Lama Taranath described Chittagong as a new center of Buddhism after the decline of Nalanda. According to him there was a large Buddhist monastery known as Pandita Vihara, where the Buddhist pundits used hold religious parleys with the Brahmanas. The great Buddhist Tantrik sage Tila-yogi was born in Chittagong in the middle of the 10th century AD. Pandit Vana Ratna, who visited Tibet and became a great Buddhist scholar of Chittagong. As an instance of Buddhism's golden heritage in Chittagong one might as well point to the Buddhist cultural relics, among the other ruins, at Ramkot near Cox's Bazar.

(This article was written by Shamsul Hossain assistant curator of the Museum of Chittagong University)