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Mahasthangarh

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 24.9546 N 89.3430 E
No:458        (list of all attractions)
Category:Ancient cities and towns, Abandoned cities and towns, City walls, Museums
Values:Visual, Archaeology, Architecture, History
Rank:4
Address:Asia, Bangladesh, Rajshahi Division, Bogra District, Shibganj thana, some 15 km north from Bogra at Karatoya river
Name in Bengali:মহাস্থানগড়
Alternate names:Pundranagara (most likely - older name), Paundravardhanapura (most likely - older name), Pundrakshetra, Mahasthan Ghar
Founded:the 3rd century BC or earlier (the 7th century BC?)
Flourished:the 3rd century BC - the 7th century AD (as a capital of Pundravardhana), the 8th - 12th centuries AD (as a part of North Bengal)
Abandoned:the 18th century AD (rural settlement up to this day)
Ruins of Mahasthangarh, Bangladesh
Ruins of Mahasthangarh / P.K.Niyogi, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

True wonder of the ancient past of Bangladesh is Mahasthangarh. This enormous city was founded at 300 BC or even earlier and served as a capital of Pundravardhana state.

Location

Mahasthangarh is located next to Karatoya River, in a comparatively high location, some 25 m above the sea level. Currently this is small, silted river but in the earlier times Karatoya was an important and sacred river, which then seemed to be as large as sea: reportedly three times wider than Ganges in the 13th century AD. This river served as a border between Pundravardhana and Kamarupa - another ancient country to the east.

This high bank at the giant river was one of the main reasons why this location was selected for the city. And most likely loss of the might of this river can be blamed for the decline of the city. Such changes in the flow of rivers are frequent in Bangladesh and are caused by silting and earthquakes.

Rivers were the main transport routes but Mahasthangarh was connected to important regional centres (e.g. Pataliputra, Mithila) with roads as well.

Description

City walls of Mahasthangarh citadel, Bangladesh
City walls of Mahasthangarh citadel / P.K.Niyogi, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Remnants of this ancient city are well visible up to this day albeit not too exciting: for most part there are visible massive ramparts and simple brick walls of diverse buildings.

Main part of this city is its citadel - fortified central part of the city. This rectangular area is 1,523 km long from north to the south and 1,371 m wide in east - west direction, enclosing an area of 185 ha. The impressive brick ramparts around the citadel have been preserved up to this day and rise up to 11 - 13 m high above the surroundings. Around the walls was made also a ditch which also partly has been preserved.

Structures inside the citadel

Citadel has several gateways - Kata Duar in the north, Dorab Shah Toran in the east, Burir Fatak in the south and Tamra Dawaza in the west.

There are remnants of many interesting buildings inside the citadel. Some of these structures are:

  • Bairagir Bhita - palace for women - hermits, built in the 4th - 5th century AD.
  • Jiat Kunda - well which, according to legends, possessed life giving power. According to legends dead soldiers were revived with its water during the fights.
  • Khodar Pathar Bhita - Buddhist shrine.
  • Munir Ghon - impressive bastion.
  • Parasuramer Basgriha - palace of king Parasuram, in use from 800 AD to 1800 AD.

Structures outside the citadel

Hundreds of mounds scattered for kilometres to the north, west and south from the citadel testify that Mahasthangarh was a true metropolis also by today's scale. Each of these mounds hides some important ancient structure or group of structures. Most of these mounds are unexplored up to this day, but some of the most interesting explored sites are:

  • Govinda Bhita - temple of Govinda is located to the north-east from the city walls, at Karatoya river. This is ancient building, possibly from the 3rd century AD, although here have been found artefacts from the 3rd century BC.
  • Mazar - holy tomb of Shah Sultan Balkhi Mahisawar with later built mosque next to it. This structure is located at the south-eastern corner of citadel, in the site of an ancient Hindu temple.
  • Gokul Medh is located some 3 km south from the citadel. This Buddhist monastery belongs to most impressive archaeological sites in this area. This enormous structure was excavated in 1934 - 1936, when 172 rectangular blind cells were exposed. Gokul Medh was built in the 6th - 7th century AD. On the top of this approximately 13 m tall structure was standing stupa which is lost now.

History

Walls of the ancient Govinda Bhita shrine in Mahasthangarh, Bangladesh
Walls of the ancient Govinda Bhita shrine in Mahasthangarh / P.K.Niyogi, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Mahasthangarh is one of the oldest ancient cities discovered so far in Bangladesh. Its true age is unknown, but the oldest dated artefact here is an inscription from the 3rd century BC. It is written in Prakrit - Indo-Aryan language.

City though could be much older, even from the 7th century BC.

Its current name - Mahasthangarh - comes from the medieval times and in Sanskrit means a place of sanctity (Mahasthan) and fort (garh).

Capital of Pundravardhana

Mahasthangarh is the former capital of Pundravardhana - state of Pundra people. This was an ancient state, founded by a little known culture which spoke in a language which does not belong to the Indo-European family.

Initially Hinduism was the main religion here but it is assumed that Buddhism came here already before the 3rd century BC. This new religion did not come without conflict - thus some 18,000 followers of Ajivika philosophy were killed upon the orders of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka in the area of Pundravardhana.

Mahasthangarh developed as an important inland port with intense connection to the sea port of Chittagong.

Gokul Medh - medieval Buddhist monastery in Mahasthangarh, Bangladesh
Gokul Medh - medieval Buddhist monastery in Mahasthangarh / Shahnoor Habib Munmun, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Medieval times

In the 6th century Pundravardhana most likely became a part of Gauda empire and did not exist as a separate political unit anymore.

Importance of Mahasthangarh decreased together with the decline of Pundravardhana, although the city was enormous and continued to be inhabited for centuries long. In the 8th - 12th centuries it was an important centre of Buddhist religion as testified by numerous large monasteries built in this time here.

Local people were converted to Islam in the 14th century AD by Shah Sultan Balkhi Mahisawar, who resided in Mahasthangarh after he took it with force from Raja Parshuram in 1343. His tomb (mazar) is located at the ancient city.

New times

Fortifications of Mahasthangarh were used until the 18th century (and even during the liberation war in 1971) but it was never fully abandoned - Bangladesh is too densely populated to afford such a luxury.

First European to visit this ancient city was explorer Francis Buchanan Hamilton in 1808. Another explorer - Alexander Cunningham identified this ancient site as the capital of Pundravardhana in 1879.

In 1928 there were started excavations by Kashinath Narayan Dikshit, Archaeological Survey of India. Soon after the inside of citadel was cleaned - before the excavations it looked rather like an hill. Excavations continue up to this day and we can be sure that scientists will have here enough work for centuries. Researchers have identified in the cultural layer of this ancient city 18 construction layers from different periods.

Mahasthangarh does not belong to most spectacular landmarks but nevertheless it is popular among people interested in history. It is also sacred place for Hindus. Next to the site is built a museum which contains many items which have been found during the excavations.

Unfortunately Mahasthangarh is endangered - unknown quantity of artefacts are stolen from the hundreds of unexplored mounds, site is also endangered by swamping.

Map

See Mahasthangarh on the map of Bangladesh!

 

References

  1. A. K. M. Yaqub Ali. Pundranagara: an Emporium of North Bengal. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Vol. 53, No.1., June 2008, Dhaka.

Landmarks of Bangladesh

Puthia temples, Bangladesh
Puthia temples / Nasir Khan Saikat, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The densely populated Bangladesh has had large and influential cities for millenia long. Country is rich with interesting archaeological heritage, such as remnants of viharas - Buddhist shrines and monasteries and abandoned ancient cities.

Ancient cities and towns

Mari 5,000 years ago, Syria
Mari 5,000 years ago, Syria / Balage Balogh / CC BY-SA 3.0

Category of ancient cities and towns in this site includes those settlements which have developed as urban areas at least 1500 years ago - around 500 AD. The oldest densely inhabited permanent settlements in the world could be Jericho in Palestine (densely built already at 9400 BC) and Çatalhöyük in Turkey (7500 BC).

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