Saving the Heritage

Written by Taha Kehar  •  Features  •  April 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Archaeological sites in South Asia are fast deteriorating as a direct result of the government’s negligence. Bangladesh is no exception.

Mahasthangarh has been billed as a major archaeological site in Bangladesh. Situated in the village of Mahasthan, some seven miles north of Bogra, it contains the remnants of the ancient city of Pundranagra. A limestone tablet discovered in 1931 reveals that the origins of the historic site date back to 3rd Century BC. Further archaeological investigation suggests that Mahasthangarh was the provincial capital of the Mauryan, the Guptas and the Palas empires. But recent archaeological efforts have not actively explored the myths and mysteries surrounding of the city of Pundranagra. On the contrary, specialists and experts from across the world have remained indifferent to the prospects of conducting fieldwork in Mahasthangarh. Over the years it has become evident that the Bangladeshi government cannot do much to save this archaeological site from erasure. Even pressure groups have cast a blind eye towards preserving the relics and mounds in Mahasthangarh. The gradual disintegration of the remains has rendered all prospects for future archaeological work and conservation effort particularly difficult to execute.

There are numerous anecdotes and legends about the ancient city of Pundranagra. The city was renowned as the main nucleus for Buddhist learning. Monasteries in the region played an important role in propagating the Buddhist faith and greatly enriched the scope of religious knowledge.

According to historical evidence, the popularity of Buddhism was challenged with the arrival of Shah Sultan Balkhi Mahisawar – a mystic who visited the city in the 11th Century AD to spread Islam. King Parasuram was the ruling sovereign in Mahasthangarh when Mahisawar paid a visit to the city. Legend has it that the mystic asked the king for a tract of land where he could spread his prayer mat. The king granted Mahisawar’s request but once the mat was laid out on the floor, it began to expand throughout the empire. Threatened by the machinations of this dubious mystic, Parasuram declared war on Mahisawar.

During the initial stages of the war, Mahisawar’s troops suffered countless defeats. The royal troops had sophisticated weaponry and devised foolproof war strategies to defeat their opponents. Supernatural forces also worked in their favor. Rumor has it that when a soldier was felled in the war, his corpse was bathed in the well of Jiat Kunda and he would instantly come back to life. Seizing the opportunity to weaken his opponents, Mahisawar ordered his troops to fly a kite over the Jiat Kunda and drop a piece of meat into it to extinguish its spiritual powers. The strategy worked and the royal troops were defeated.

Although the archaeological site in Mahasthangarh and the abandoned city of Mohenjodaro were both rediscovered in the early 1920s, the latter has received more attention from historians and archaeologists. This is primarily because Mohenjodaro is considered one of the most advanced cities of the ancient Indus Valley civilization. Archaeological interest in the region has also been justified by the fact that the site has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a result, survey groups from Germany and Italy have taken a keen interest in pursuing excavation work there.

Mahasthangarh, on the other hand, has attracted only a modest degree of attention. Apart from the fortified citadel located at the centre of the ancient city, only a marginally small portion of the site has been excavated so far.

Interestingly, both archaeological sites have suffered from neglect by government bodies. The Global Heritage Fund released a report in June 2012 mentioning both Mahasthangarh and Mohenjodaro among the twelve archaeological sites that stand the risk of disappearing owing to the dearth of effective conservation measures. The risk of losing a heritage has not been exaggerated. On the contrary, residential encroachments on the site of the ancient city have grown extensively in recent years. The courts in Bangladesh have outlawed squatting on the site and have issued orders to demolish houses that are illegally constructed. But the damage is irreversible. Most of the houses have been constructed by recycling bricks and using excavated materials. Small villages have emerged. Under the circumstances, it appears unfair to displace people from their homes just to preserve a historical legacy.

Moreover, the government has to take proactive measures to mitigate the incidence of looting on the site. For several years, miscreants have taken advantage of the lax attitude shown by concerned authorities. As a result, many artefacts have been pillaged from the site and subject to misuse. This is a powerful testament of the extent to which a historical heritage has been exploited.

The Bangladeshi government currently finds itself in a quagmire. It is embroiled in a challenging act of balancing the immediate needs of the people with the somewhat ambitious desire for historical preservation. The interests of the population should, as a matter of priority, trump all other considerations for social improvement. But the debate cannot simply boil down to a question of priorities. The scope for promoting the archaeological site as a tourist destination must be recognized.

The excavation work conducted since the early 1920s has led to some intriguing discoveries such as the Jiat Kunda, the Mankalir Dhap and the Khodar Pathar Bhita. In addition, the fortified citadel and the site museum offer a whole spectrum of different artefacts bearing historical significance. The government will need to take a proactive and sustainable approach to developing the ancient city as a tourist destination. The process of compulsory purchase seems to be the only convenient solution to grapple with the problem of competing interests on the land. However, this would serve as drastic step and may elicit a negative response from the media and several international organisations. As a result, the Bangladeshi government will need to chalk out an innovative strategy of preserving the remains of the ancient city through citizen-based initiatives. The activities of pressure groups can play an important role in producing change but ordinary citizens themselves need to understand the negative consequences of losing a heritage and take a step in the right direction. 

Taha Kehar is a blogger on social issues and has previously worked for a media magazine. He is currently pursuing Law Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

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