Somapura Mahavihara, Bangladesh: A Rediscovered Buddhist Center
Somapura Mahavihara was a well-known Buddhist monastery complex located in Paharpur, in north-western Bangladesh. The monastery was established during the 8th century AD and flourished as an intellectual center until the 12th century. Despite being a Buddhist monastery, Somapura Mahavihara was occupied by the Hindus and Jains as well. After its decline, the monastery was abandoned. It was only “rediscovered” during the 19th century. About a century later, the site was excavated, and today it’s probably Bangladesh’s most impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site, which also include the Sundarbans and the mosque city of Bagerhat.
The central Buddhist stupa at Somapura Mahavihara, which has been a stunning Bangladesh UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, about one hundred years after it was “rediscovered.” ( Danita Delimont / Adobe Stock)
Somapura Mahavihara Was One of the Great Five Mahaviharas
Somapura Mahavihara is Sanskrit for “Great Monastery.” It is located in Paharpur, a village in the northwestern Bangladeshi district of Naogaon. The monastery covers an area of 11 hectares (27 acres), making it one of the largest of its kind south of the Himalayas. During the Pala period (8th to 12th centuries AD), Somapura Mmahavihara was one of the five great mahaviharas in the eastern region of the Indian subcontinent , i.e., Bengal and Magadha. The other four great mahaviharas were Vikramashila, Nalanda, Odantapura, and Jaggadala.
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Somapura Mahavihara was established around the end of the 8th century AD, during the reign of Dharmapala, the second ruler of the Pala Empire . This dating is based on a clay seal that was found during excavations at the site. The seal had an inscription bearing the king’s name.
According to Tibetan textual sources , however, the monastery was founded at a slightly later date, i.e., in the early 9th century AD, during the reign of Devapala, Dharmapala’s successor, following his conquest of Varendra.
The stone carvings along the walls of Somapura Mahavihara’s interiors are a mixture of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain motifs. ( Matyas Rehak / Adobe Stock)
Royal Pala Patronage Made Somapura A Rich Buddhist Center
Thanks to the royal patronage of the Pala rulers, Somapura Mahavihara became a renowned Buddhist intellectual center . The fact that Somapura Mahavihara was a Buddhist site is most clearly reflected in the presence of its stupa (a mound-like structure containing a Buddhist relic) at the very heart of the monastery complex.
This is a massive structure consisting of three terraces. The upper terrace is rectangular block forming the central brick shaft. The middle one is a wide circumambulatory path (used for walking around the structure for devotional purposes) and passes through all the four main chapels. The lowest terrace is the main circumambulatory path. The entire structure reaches a height of 21 meters (70 feet), and despite being called a stupa, its exact function remains unclear.
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Thick walls support the terraces and whole structure. ( CC BY 2.0 )
Somapura Mahavihara is separated from the surrounding area by a quadrangular outer wall. The main entrance to the monastery complex is an elaborate structure on the wall’s northern site. The walls are about 6 meters (19.7 feet) thick, and contain the cells used by the monks living at Somapura Mahavihara. These cells, 177 in total, face inwards towards the central stupa.
The walls of Somapura Mahavihara also indicate the presence of Hindus and Jains at the monastery. This is evident in the artwork on the outer walls of the monastery, which depict Hindu and Jain, in addition to Buddhist, figures.
During the 12th century, the Buddhist Pala Empire was overthrown by the Sena Empire. The new dynasty, unlike their predecessors, were Hindus. Following the fall of the Pala Empire, Somapura Mahavihara went into decline. Subsequently, the region of Bengal was conquered by the Muslims .
In spite of these changes, i.e., its conquest first by the Sena Empire, and then by the Muslims, the ruins of Somapura Mahavihara show no signs of widespread destruction. It is also claimed that “Somapura Mahavira was one of the few Buddhist monasteries to survive the Muslim invasion of South Asia.”
A detailed stone carving at Somapura Mahavihara that could be Buddhist, Hindu or Jain. ( Danita Delimont / Adobe Stock)
Abandoned But Not Destroyed: Our Good Fortune!
It seems that Somapura Mahavihara was simply abandoned. Whilst the new rulers of the region did not destroy the monastery, they did not reuse the site for other purposes either. Over the centuries, the ruins of the monastery were covered in vegetation, and it was only at the beginning of the 19th century that its historical value was recognized. During this time, a British scholar by the name of Buckman Hamilton studied the monastery’s ruins. Still, the site was only excavated by archaeologists more than a century later.
In 1985, Somapura Mahavihara was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site , and is today a tourist attraction. Some threats to the site have been identified. For instance, it is reported that the still uncovered parts of the central stupa, along with some terracotta plaques, are deteriorating due to environmental factors. These include soil salinity and vegetal germination. A measure to counter this deterioration process, in the case of the plaques, was the removal of some of them from the site. These plaques, incidentally, were also damaged by vandalism and the target of thieves in the past.
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As a tourist site , Somapura Mahavihara is open every day from 0700 to sunset. It is suggested that the best time to visit the site is either in the morning or just before sunset. It is estimated that two hours are needed to see the whole site. Tickets are required to enter the site, and English-speaking guides are available at the ticket booth upon request.
Top image: Somapura Mahavihara, is among the best-known Buddhist viharas on the Indian subcontinent and is one of the most important archaeological sites in Bangladesh. Source: Abdulmominbd / CC BY-SA 4.0
By Wu Mingren
Davidson, L., 2021. Somapura Mahavihara. Available at: https://www.historyhit.com/locations/somapura-mahavihara/
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2015. Somapura Mahavira. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Somapura-Mahavira
UNESCO, 2022. Ruins of the Buddhist Vihara at Paharpur. Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/322/
visitworldheritage.com, 2022. Somapura Mahavihara. Available at: https://visitworldheritage.com/en/buddha/somapura-mahavihara/93e425f7-17ee-4577-a40e-3ea5c12cf1f1