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Somapura Mahavihara

By Devik Balami at
ruins of somapura mahavihara

Somapura Mahavihara is located in Paharpur, Badalgachhi Upazila, Naogaon District, Bangladesh. This Mahavihara is one of the most important archaeological sites in the country. Hence it is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985. Other than it is also best known Buddhist viharas in the Indian Subcontinent.

Historical account of Somapura Mahavihara

In ancient Bengal and Magadha, a number of monasteries were established during Pala period. As mentioned in the Tibetan sources, a five great Mahaviharas were also established. They were Vikramashila, Nalanda, Odantapur, Jaggadala, and Sompura Mahavihara. These monasteries were well established and formed a network within themselves. These Mahaviharas were under the direct supervision of the state.

When excavated at the Paharpur area, the team found the seals bearing the inscription, "Shri-Somapure-Shri-Dharmapaladeva-Mahavihariyarya-bhiksu-sangghasya" which mentions that the Mahavihara was built during the period of the second Pala king Dharmapala of Pala Dynasty.

Likewise, Tibetan sources mention that the Somapura Mahavihara was built by Dharmapala's successor Devapala after his conquest of Varendra. The sources include the Tibetan translations of Dharmakayavidhi and Madhyamaka Ratnapradipa, Taranatha's history and Pag-Sam-Jon-Zang.

Later during the reign of Mahipala, it is recorded in Taranatha's Pag Sam Jog Zang that the monastery was repaired. Again in the 11th century, the monastery was destroyed by fire during a conquest by the Vana army, as mentioned in the Nalanda inscription of Vipulashrimitra.

Along with this event, there were others as well which made the monastery decline its state. During the Sena Dynasty in the second half of the 12th century, the vihara started to decline. It was mainly due to the widespread unrest and displacement of population consequent on the Muslim invasion. Presently, the Mahavihara is in ruin state.

Architecture of Somapura Mahavihara

The area of the Mahavihara is in the quadrangular structure which consists of 177 cells and a traditional Buddhist stupa in the center. The cells are mainly used by the monks for accommodation and also for the meditation. During the excavation, it was learned that large numbers of stupas and shrines, Buddha statue, terracotta plaques, stone sculpture, inscriptions, coins, ceramics etc. have been discovered and presently, they are preserved.

It is believed that the architecture of Somapura was unusual. As one scholar described that the complex was dominated by a temple. The temple had the characteristic features of Buddhist temples of Burma, Java, and Cambodia with cruciform basement, a terraced structure with inset chambers and gradually dwindling pyramid form. This form of unusualness may be due to some sort of intercourse between eastern India and south-east Asia but the exact reason behind this Buddhist temple architecture is still unknown.

Another commentary regarding the style of architecture states that there can be no doubt that the architecture was influenced from Burma, Java, and Cambodia. Since the nearest approximation temples are Chandi Loro Jongrang and Chandi Sevu of Prambanam in Central Java.

Notable building and statues in the premises of Somapura Mahavihara

The Somapura holds central temples whose purpose of constructions remains unsolved since its discovery. This central temple was established in the midst of the courtyard.

The statues that were excavated were reserved in the adjacent museum for display. Some of them are- 'Chamunda' statue of clay stone, standing 'Seetala' statue of red stone, broken parts of 'Visnu' statue of krishna stone, 'Keerti' statue of clay stone, damaged 'Haargouri' statue, broken statue of Laxmi Narayan of krishna stone, 'Uma' statue of krishna stone, 'Gouri' statue of clay stone, 'Visnu' statue of clay stone, Nandi statue, 'Visnu' statue of krishna stone, Sun statue, and 'Mansha' statue of clay stone.

During the excavation, metal images were also found. They were an image of Hara-Gouri, a standing naked Jaina, the bronze figures of Kubera and Ganesha, and large and important bronze Buddha Image.