December 17, 2016
Mahasthangarh, located in the Bogra district of Bangladesh is the SAARC Cultural Capital for the year 2016-17. It requires mention here that this is the second occasion of naming a SAARC Cultural Capital, first being Bamyan in Afghanistan. The Delhi Resolution of the 3rd meeting of the Culture Ministers of the SAARC nations held in September 2014 had named Bamyan as the SAARC Cultural Capital for the year 2015-16 and had also declared the year 2016-17 as the SAARC Year of Cultural Heritage. The purpose behind nominating a SAARC Cultural Capital is to promote the destination through a series of year-long cultural events. As noted by the SAARC Cultural Centre, Sri Lanka, “preparing for being a SAARC Cultural Capital can provide opportunity for the city to generate considerable cultural, social and economic benefits and it can help in fostering urban regeneration, boosting the city’s image and raising its visibility and profile on a regional and international scale”. In that regard, Bogra shall host a series of festivals on literature, films, food, and dance etc. from October 2016 to September 2017.
Mahasthangarh is one of the earliest urban archaeological sites so far excavated in Bangladesh. Mahassthangarh hosts the archaeological remains of the 3rd Century BC and continued to play a crucial role in the early history of Bengal. Together with the ancient and the medieval ruins, Mahasthangarh hosts the mazhar of Shah Sultan Balkhi Mahisawar. Mahasthangarh was the ancient capital of Pundravardhana and remained a major centre until the 13th century when the political focus somewhat shifted towards south to the Gaur-Pandua region. Francis Buchanan Hamilton was the first to locate and visit Mahasthangarh in 1808 followed by several others. Alexander Cunningham identified in 1879 that the place was the capital of Pundaravardhana. Systematic excavation at the site began in around 1928-29 under the supervision of K.N. Dikshit of the Archaeological Survey of India. The site of Mahasthangarh was settled on a slightly elevated spot on the western bank of the Karatoya, a major artery of communication, in an un-flooded area at the limit between the Barind to the West and the lower terraces of the Jamuna basin to the East [i]. The inhabitants of Mahasthangarh appears to be skillfully active and economically rich but the cultural remains of the same period seem to be rather poor and indeterminate – at least in comparison to similar and contemporary cultural data from other centres in the Ganga valley. [ii] Mahasthangarh was founded by the Mauryas as their eastern capital. Exploration between the villages of Palashbari and Bamunpura about a kilometre west of the site of Mahasthangarh have yielded large numbers of terracotta plaques depicting stories from the Ramayana with short labels in 6th-7th century Brahmi. [iii] The earliest occurrence of moulded female terracotta plaques with hairpins is dated around 2nd century BC. Archaeological excavations conducted at several mounds located in the vicinity of Mahasthangarh have provided information on a diverse religious landscape with several Hindu temples coexisting with Buddhist monastic complexes.
The site in a sense stands witness to the rich heritage of South Asia and could very well be the archaeologists’ and historians’ delight. The tragedy of the hour is that a 2010 report titled, Saving our Vanishing Heritage, Global Heritage Fund, identified Mahasthangarh as one of twelve worldwide sites on the verge of irreparable loss and damage. The site lies in sheer disregard and calls for urgent attention. The report cited insufficient management and looting as primary causes for the dilapidation. The move to nominate Mahasthangarh as the SAARC Cultural Capital is a welcome initiative and is expected to draw attention – regional and international. This is expected to go a long way in harnessing the shared heritage of the region. On our part the most that can be done is that next time while looking for tickets for a vacation in Europe, we might wish to take a momentary lapse and reconsider the idea of witnessing the richness of the South Asian neighbourhood.
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[i] Ray, H.P. (2006) ‘The Archaeology of Bengal: Trading Networks, Cultural Identities’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, vol. 49, no. 1, pp. 68-95.
[ii] Salles, J.-F. (2004) ‘Archaeology and History of Bangladesh: Recent Perspectives’, in Ray, H.P. and Sinopoli, C. (ed.) Archaeology as History in Early South Asia, New Delhi: Indian Council of Historical Research.
[iii] Ray, H.P. (2006) ‘The Archaeology of Bengal: Trading Networks, Cultural Identities’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, vol. 49, no. 1, pp. 68-95.