What's new

South Asia’s greatest stupa isn’t in India but Bangladesh. This is its story


Dec 31, 2010
Reaction score

South Asia’s greatest stupa isn’t in India but Bangladesh. This is its story​

The decline and fall of Indian Buddhism was as complex a process as its rise. But all that remains of this dramatic history are silent ruins of brick.​

Anirudh Kanisetti
4 May, 2023 10:04 am IST
Illustration by Manisha Yadav | ThePrint

Illustration by Manisha Yadav | ThePrint
Text Size: A- A+

The decline and fall of Indian Buddhism was as complex a process as its rise. Perhaps no site exemplifies this as well as a great stupa-temple and monastery that today lies neglected in northern Bangladesh. Known as the Paharpur Bihar today, it was once called the Great Monastery at Somapura and profoundly shaped both the religious and political history of Eastern India.

The greatest monastery you’ve never heard about

Though generally outshone by its contemporary, the Nalanda mahavihara (Great Monastery), Somapura—as historian Sanjukta Datta writes in Building for the Buddha (2019)—is the single largest Buddhist monastery ever discovered. Its origin was the result of protracted State formation processes in the Bengal region (by which I refer to both West Bengal and Bangladesh). This historic geopolitical territory was composed of smaller units, studied by Professor Ryosuke Furui in Buddhist Viharas in Early Medieval Bengal (2021). The northern portion, known as Pundravardhana, was linked to Bihar, historically a great urban and State centre in northern India. The southern region, comprising the Bengal delta and the regions bordering present-day Myanmar, was a flooded, muddy, mangrove-dense terrain that would only be tamed by new labour mobilisations in later centuries (Furui 2021, page 101).

As early as the 5th century, the Gupta Empire of the Gangetic Plains had governors and officials in northern Bengal or Pundravardhana. Soon after the collapse of the Gupta State, the fertile region was repeatedly raided by warlords, finding itself on the frontier of other, more secure kingdoms. This came to an end with the rise of a new imperial formation in Bengal: the Pala Empire. By the late 8th century—around the same time as Buddhism had been subordinated in older centres like Kashmir—the Pala State had successfully subdued much of the wild Bengal frontier. Next it erupted into the Bihar region, which still had many major Buddhist sites, and began a protracted geopolitical struggle to take control of the Gangetic Plains. To legitimise themselves, they made gifts to older sacred sites, including those at Bodh Gaya and Nalanda. Much more significantly, they also commissioned mahaviharas across their territory, including those of Vikramashila and Odantapuri, as well as Somapura. A number of seals discovered at Somapura bear the inscription Śri Dharmapāladeva Mahāvihāriya Ārya Bhikshu Saṁghasya, “belonging to the Noble Order of Monks of the Great Monastery of the Auspicious Lord Dharmapala”. Dharmapala was one of the most powerful of the early Pala kings, and Somapura was built at a corresponding scale.

A 1999 reconstruction by Bangladeshi researchers suggested that at Somapura’s centre was a colossal stupa 70 feet tall situated on terraces, surmounted by a curvilinear superstructure. Symmetrical on four sides, this would have resembled a gigantic four-sided savatobhadra (“Auspicious on All Sides”) Hindu temple, its power emanating into the cardinal directions like a mandala (a sacred geometric diagram representing the cosmos). The brick core was decorated by friezes of carved stone. Surrounding this was a field of nearly a square kilometre, which had dozens of smaller structures, some of which have since vanished. This was enclosed by a wall with hundreds of cells for monks. All this already comprises the single largest Buddhist monastery discovered, but the mahavihara actually extended beyond these walls. Its actual extent is still unknown and awaits further excavation.

The Buddhist monastery as an imperial centre

Aerial view of Somapura Mahavihara | Wikimedia Commons
Aerial view of Somapura Mahavihara | Wikimedia Commons
These mahaviharas were powerful economic, ritual and political centres. Here monks studied and copied out Buddhist scriptures, which were no longer in Pali, Prakrit or Gandhari but in Sanskrit, by now the premier language of power in South Asia. Bronze and stone idols of Gautama Buddha and future Buddhas (bodhisattva) were offered libations of milk and scented water. Fragrant incense was burned, and sumptuous textiles were used; at least in a practical sense, the medieval Bengali monastery was quite similar to contemporary Shaivite monasteries in central India. Buddhism scholar Ronald M. Davidson writes in Indian Esoteric Buddhism (2002) that these medieval monks behaved practically like the kings-of-kings who were their patrons. They underwent ritual consecrations, established smaller viharas as vassals to their mahaviharas, and even maintained their own armed forces to administer justice and protect their possessions: land, gold, texts, and artefacts. Even the structure of Somapura, resembling the emanation of divine or royal power into the four directions, suggests that it saw itself as an imperial centre within an imperial centre.

Its semi-divine monks had a complex relationship with society and polity at large. At an early stage, they acted as integrative sites for the Pala State. For example, as Professor Furui writes in Land and Society in Early South Asia (2020), Pala vassals made donations to the Somapura mahavihara to ingratiate themselves with their overlord, its founder. In the late 8th century, the vassal lord Bhadranaga set up a perfumed chamber for worship in Somapura, and assigned a village he owned to support it. Bhadranaga himself was not based in northern Bengal but had extensive landholdings here in the heartland of the Pala State (Datta 2019, page 6). By assigning his village to a mahavihara, he made it effectively tax-free and “legitimately encroached upon the royal power” (Furui 2020, page 144).

The growing power of such vassals eroded the revenue base of the Pala State, which was already strained by its wars in the Gangetic Plains. From the 9th century in northern Bengal, the Pala kings no longer made grants to Buddhist institutions, instead preferring to patronise Brahmins who could offer royal ritual services. Land grants from vassal lords also disappeared as the State sought to consolidate its landholdings. (Datta 2019, page 6). But major changes were afoot: catalysed by Pala State formation in northern Bengal, southern Bengal was now emerging as a new agrarian and State centre. And other States had taken note of the waning of Pala supremacy.


Top Bottom