The monumental monastery complex built on an area of 90,000 m² around the year 800 under the Pala dynasty is the largest of its kind south of the Himalayas. It was laid out in terraces and is an outstanding stone testimony to the heyday of Mahayana Buddhism in Bengal
Paharpur Ruins: Facts
|Official title:||Ruins of the Buddhist monastery of Paharpur|
|Cultural monument:||Buddhist monastery complex Somapura Mahavihara (“Great Moon City Monastery”) built on an area of 90,000 m², with a side length of 273 m, the largest monastery complex south of the Himalayas; built on a cross ground plan (150×100 m) and in brick construction on a multi-level terrace and decorated with terracotta; 177 monk cells along the thick brick walls; a bastion of Mahayana Buddhism, the so-called “Great Vehicle”, a form of Buddhism based on Hinduism with pronounced Bodhisattva worship|
|Country:||Bangladesh, see recipesinthebox|
|Location:||Paharpur, northwest of Pabna and Dhaka|
|Meaning:||stone testimony to the heyday of Mahayana Buddhism in Bengal|
Paharpur Ruins: History
|around 775-812||Reign of the Pala King Dharmapala|
|around 800||Construction of the 80 m high monastery|
|12th century||presumably abandonment of the monastery after the flood disaster|
|1979||With the help of UNESCO, start of a restoration program|
The Buddha’s lunar city mandala
At the beginning of the 19th century, when Dr. Francis Buchanan traveled the plains of northern Bengal on behalf of the English “East India Company”, he discovered a massive brick hill, covered with bushes and inhabited by leopards and other wild animals. This hill, crowned by a small brick room, gave the place its modern name: »Paharpur«, the »hill town«.
Buchanan was long dead when the first archaeological excavations more than a hundred years later confirmed his suspicion that it was a temple of the Buddha: what emerged there were the ruins of the largest and most magnificent Buddhist monastery south of the Himalayas, yes even all of South Asia. The labeled seals that were found clearly identify this monastery as the renowned “Great Moon City Monastery” – “Somapura Mahavihara” – of the 8th / 9th century. Identify the 19th century ruling Pala king Dharmapala.
From the air the whole complex, including the fortress-like surrounding wall, emerges as a three-dimensional mandala, as a sacred diagram, in the center of which stands the temple as a symbol of the cosmic world mountain Meru. Instead of the usual floor plan, which separates the monastery and the sanctuary, there is a plan with an integrated monastery and the monument for the storage of the relics of the Buddha, the stupa, which is accessible from the north through a monumental gateway. Numerous monk cells with a veranda in front surround the extensive courtyard.
Over the centuries, monks and pilgrims donated numerous votive stupas and also a small replica of the central stupa in the southeast of the complex. In the center of the wide, open courtyard rectangle rises the huge cross-shaped brick stupa, the massive central core of which is preceded by four cult halls, which originally probably contained large stucco figures of the four transcendental Buddhas. The entire complex rises over three terraces, which become wider at the bottom.
Behind a water basin for cleaning when entering the temple area, a staircase leads from the north to the terraces on which the ritual changes were performed. In the central core of the building, a vertical cavity opens up as the “backbone” of the complex, which extends down to the second terrace. The crumbled superstructure must have been colossal in size; its shape was probably hemispherical and surrounded by four seated Buddha figures in the main directions or by miniature stupas.
The monotony of the seemingly endless outer walls of the terraces is loosened up by the sheer unbelievable number of terracotta panels – more than 2,800 have been found so far – depicting a wide variety of mythological, folk and religious themes: animals, plants, Buddhist and Brahmanic deities and geometric patterns. On the walls of the lowest platform there were 63 large-format stone reliefs, probably reused building fragments of an earlier sanctuary. The most important discovery was a bronze figure of a standing Buddha from the 9th century, which was unfortunately partially destroyed and is considered to be the largest metal sculpture in South Asia to date.
In its heyday, this important Buddhist center attracted large crowds of pilgrims from distant countries such as Tibet and China. The takeover of political power by the Brahmin Sena dynasty in the 12th century and the Muslim conquests in the 13th century led to the decline and eventual destruction of this once great Buddhist sanctuary. The design of a mandala-like step pyramid spread from here to Southeast Asia and Tibet: The monastery complex in Paharpur introduced a new and revolutionary concept of Buddhist temple architecture into the art of Asia for the first time.