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Of the Paharpur stupas two within the courtyard of the monastery need mention. Their bases are square, but are projected on each side with a diminished arm making them thus of somewhat cruciform in design. Their upper parts are gone. The largest number of stupas, however, have been discovered in the compound of the temple of Satyapir Bhita. Their numbers have been counted as one hundred and thirty two. The existence of such a vast number of votive structures of various sizes, designs and ornamentations around the temple of Tara undoubtedly speaks of it’s fame and sanctity. Of all these stupas mention must be made of one in the south-eastern corner lying in a conspicuous position. It measures 3.12m on each side and contains a sacred chamber, 1.5m in diameter, in which were found miniature stupas numbering ‘thousands’. It appears that the pilgrims when visiting the temple of Tara solemnly offered these stupas in the chamber as tokens of their reverence to the deity.

3.2.2 Monastery

If stupa was the most important of early architectural forms, it was the monastery which was the most significant in early Bengal architecture. The Chinese accounts and the inscriptional eulogies of which we have made a mention at the beginning, in fact, all relate to monasteries and the temples within them. Monasteries in India were at first of wood on a substructure of stone or brick. But as the monastic organisation developed, they became huge brick structures with adjuncts of smaller buildings for various purposes. Monasteries in Bengal and Bihar were generally designed in the old traditional Kushana pattern-square in plan with rows of small rooms on all the four sides of a vast courtyard in the middle. The rooms in most cases must have been originally in several storeyes, but now only the ground floor cells remain to allow us to ponder and make conjectures. In front of the rooms was a spacious verandah which ran on all the four sides broken only occasionally by the entrance halls or inward porches placed in the middle of the sides. The main entrances ascended by a long flights of steps were generally from the north, but sometimes they were also seen from


1 The sacred formula, according to I-tsing, was placed inside the stupas as a substitute for the corporeal relic, and the stupas those enshrined them may thus be said to have a two-fold character– relic and votive.

the east. In front of the entrance halls and porches were placed the steps for descending into the courtyard. In the centre of the courtyard was erected the main temple which was flanked on all other sides by smaller structures such as subsidiary temples, stupas, water reservoirs, baths, granaries, dining halls and kitchens. In a word a monastery was completed with all kinds of structures providing the necessary amenities for a monastic life. Rightly perhaps it has been compared with a modern residential university. Remembering the conditions of those days it is indeed remarkable to see how from a humble dwelling house for the monks, the monastery eventually came to be developed into a great architectural feat. The monastery in general is said to have exercised a great influence on the development of madrasa architecture which although is commonly known to have begun in the 11th century in Iran is probably of much earlier origin.

The earliest known monastery of which we have some reference in a copper plate grant of 479 CE. (Gupta Period) appears to have been a Jaina vihara at the present site of Somapura Vihara of Paharpur. But unfortunately it’s plan is not known. It is, however, reasonable to assume that, as elsewhere, it followed the usual plan of the later Buddhist viharas, and the great Pala vihara followed the same plan on a much grander scale.

In point of time the next important known monastery appears to be that of Sitakot in Dinajpur. It is not known exactly when it was erected, but archaeologists estimate that the period must be between the 5th and the 7th century CE. Parts of the monastery have now been unearthed. It is a medium-size building and consists of almost a square block measuring 63.65m from north to south and 64.25m from east to west with a courtyard in the middle. The lateral walls are 2.6m in width and at present remain only

1.2 to 3.65m in height. In the middle of the northern side is the gateway in front of which is the entrance chamber flanked by two guard rooms. On the opposite side of this chamber are the ruins of a pillared hall, possibly of a later date. The small entrance measuring only 1.5m in width on the northern part of the eastern side was probably used as a kind of private doorway. The rooms around the courtyard number 41– eight on the northern side and 11 on each of the other three sides. They measure an average of little more than 3.35m square and are fronted by an 2.45m verandah which runs on all the four sides. It is curious that the monastery does not have a temple in the centre of the courtyard. But the three large rooms in the middle of each of the sides of the monastery except the north are provided with alters which suggest that these were used as worship-chambers. On the north-eastern corner of the monastery there are some remains of a staircase which suggest that the vihara consisted of more than one storey and that the staircase was used for ascending to the upper floors.

Similar in plan but smaller in size than the Sitakot Vihara are the two monasteries

discovered at Bhasu Vihara, about seven km west of Mahasthangarh. Of the two the one fully uncovered on the south measures 48.6m from north to south and 45.6m from east to west, while the other partly unearthed to the north measures about 55.5m from

north to south and 48.3m east to west. The southern monastery has a projected entrance gate in the centre of it’s east wing with a pillared entrance hall in front flanked by two ante-chambers, meant probably for guards. There are 26 living rooms in the monastery with seven in each side except the east where because of the gate


Mahasthangarh: Bhasu Vihara, ground plan, (c 7th or 10th-11th century)

there are only five. The back wall of the structure measures 2.5m in thickness, while the front wall is 2m and the partition walls vary from 90cm to 1.37m. The verandah in front of the rooms is 2.6m wide and surrounds the inner courtyard measuring 24.6m by 24m which does not contain any temple in the middle. The northern monastery contains eight living rooms in it’s southern wing and nine in the western side, the only two partly excavated areas of the vihara. The usual verandah in front of the rooms, like the former, measures 2.6m in width, and it is likely that it’s gateway lies in the eastern wing, and that there also does not exist any central temple within the courtyard.

Bhasu Vihara has been identified by Cunningham with the great Po-shi-po of Hiuen Tsang, located exactly in the same place. It has not, however, yet been clear if the monasteries unearthed represent a part of the Po-shi-po Vihara or are separate monasteries built sometime in the 10th/11th century CE as the excavators suggest. If they represent the Po-shi-po certainly they must have been built before the 7th century CE.

The greatest assemblage of Buddhist monasteries now in Bengal, however, appears to be in the Mainamati-Lalmai ridge, about 4.5 km west of Comilla town in Bangladesh. Lying on the eastern slope of the ridge and spreading over a distance of more than six km in length there are at present five of them which have been excavated or partly excavated and known. The assemblage of a large number of sites more than fifty in number suggests that there exist the remnants of more monasteries lying buried. From the examination of sites archaeologists are certain that there are three more mounds beside the ones excavated which contain monasteries with their debris. They are Kotbari Vihara, the Second World War cemetery Vihara and Rupban Kanya Vihara. The excavated ones are from the South Rupban Vihara, Itakhola Vihara, Salban Vihara, Bhoja Vihara and Ananda Vihara. The last one has been partly excavated. The names as known today are certainly legendary local epithets, nothing to do perhaps except that of Ananda Vihara with the original names of contemporary historical times. From the excavated monasteries the Rupban Mura Vihara probably comes first in point of time. Lying between the BARD and the BDR camp on a hillock the monastery is a small structure roughly 34.1m square with two open courtyards, one in front on the north and the other smaller and narrower at the back, probably the reminiscent of two periods of construction. The important point about this monastery is that it exists separately than the shrine which lies about 31m north-west. The separate existence of the monastery and the shrine attached to it suggests together with other indications that this antedated the greater examples such as the Salban Vihara or Ananda Vihara, and was probably built by Khadga King Balabhatta in the late 7th century CE. The shrine also suggests two periods of construction, one square and earlier and the other cruciform and later. In the event of the separate existence of the two structures within a common boundary it may be suggested that at the beginning monastery and shrine were probably separately built, but for convenience, grandeur and aesthetics shrines were constructed later within the courtyard itself.

The Itakhola Mura Vihara lying opposite to the Rupban Vihara on the north side of Comilla Kalibazar Road was similarly built on a separate plan. The plan of the monastery here, not superimposed by successive constructions, is square and simple with an open courtyard measuring 16.2m each side surrounded by 20 monastic cells. But the most complicated is the shrine which shows five periods of construction.

The plan of the shrine here is square with a rectangular wide approach from the east flanked by other narrow ones, the whole being surrounded by a rectangular circumambulatory path. The plan of the shrine being square has a similarity with that of the first period Rupban Mura shrine, and may be of about the same early date. It is interesting that the shrine here has not been changed to cruciform plan, a fact suggestive of a later period and perhaps from the time of the Deva dynasty.

The Salban Vihara which is now a great tourist attraction is built roughly on a square plan measuring 167.6m a side and contains a total of 115 living rooms arranged round a courtyard in the centre of which is to be seen the ruins of a large temple. The outer wall of the monastery is 5m thick, and survives at present to a height of 1.2 to 1.8m. The entrance of the monastery is from the north and consists of a projected structure with a 22.2m wide front facade. The structure contains an entrance hall, 10m by 7m, flanked by guard rooms. The rooms of the monastery measure an average square of 3.6m a side, separated by a partition wall of 1.6m thick, and fronted by a wide verandah 2.6m in width. The inside of the rooms were once provided usually with three corbelled niches, meant probably for keeping votive images, and necessary materials of daily use. Among other structures discovered within the courtyard are some shrines on the south-west corner, a dining hall establishment on the south-east corner, and a medium-size shrine outside the monastery square on the north-west corner. The monastery was built by the last known Deva ruler, Xri Bhava Deva, probably sometime during the 8th century, and it continued to be occupied with restoration and reconstruction till the 12th century CE.

Locally known as Bhoj Rajar Bari, the Bhoja Vihara is an important site and stands in the middle of the Mainamati assemblage near the BARD keeping Rupban Vihara on the south-west and Ananda Vihara on the north-east. A huge water tank, like that of Ananda Vihara, lies on it’s east. It is one of the original 18 sites surveyed by T.N. Ramchandran in 1944-45, and contains a neatly arranged monastery about 137.2m square with a large cruciform shrine profusely ornamented with terracottas in the centre of the open courtyard. The centre of this structure was occupied by a 1.8m square blind box chamber, an important discovery as found at Paharpur. Within the courtyard, like that of Salban Vihara, are seen the remnants of other subsidiary structures, such as stupas and shrines.

The last named Ananda Vihara measures 195m a side and contains a central temple and other subsidiary structures like those described above, all heavily damaged by army contractors during the Second World War, and also subsequently by brick­

hunters. It has been suggested that the monastery was built by Xri Ananda Deva, the third ruler of the Deva dynasty sometime towards the end of the 7th or the beginning of the 8th century CE. The Devas appear to be contemporary with the early Palas of North Bengal.

The description of the monastery architecture in Bengal will not be complete until we speak of the largest and the most well-known of them, the Somapura Vihara of Paharpur. It is not only the largest in Bangladesh, but also in the whole of the sub­ continent, and has rightly been appellated the Mahavihara– the great monastery2.

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