The Ruins of Paharpur
By far the most spectacular Buddhist monument, discovered in regular excavation is the gigantic temple and monastery at Paharpur in the Rajshahi District. It has been identified from a set of inscribed clay seals, as the reputed Somapura Vihara of the great Pala emperor Dharmapala (770—810). It is the biggest single vihara south of the Himalayas, measuring 922’—O” north—south and 919’—O” east—west. This immense quadrangular monastery with 177 monastic cells enclosing the courtyard, its elaborate northern gateway, and numerous votive stupas, minor chapels and extensive ancillary buildings within the 22—acre courtyard, is dominated by a lofty pyramidal temple in the centre.
This colossal temple rises upwards in a tapering mass of three receding terraces which, even in ruins, reaches a height of about72’_O”abOVe the courtyard. In plan the temple is a gigantic square cross with projecting angles between the arms. Each of the receding upper terraces has circumambulatory passages around the monument which are enclosed b a parapet wall. Access to the first and second terraces was original provided by a grand staircase from the north. The whole design of this complicated temple centered around a square hollow shaft rising high above the three terraces and, as observed by the Archaeologist K.N. Dikshit, was the result of a predetermined proposal for a single central unit in which future expansion was anticipated in a vertical direction. On each of the cardinal points around this brick shaft, is added a rectangular ante— chamber and a mandapa. As the rectangular projections are equal in length the resulting shape is a mirror of the lower platform. Most of the upper part of the temple is now missing but originally. it appears to have been surmounted by a towering superstructure with the main shrine crowning the top of the three terraces and the four shrines placed at each cardinal point. Halls and ante – chambers were located on the second terrace whilst ambulatory passages were provided at each floor. Unlike the successive major reconstructions of the great temple at Nalanda. the main fabric of the Paharpur temple was erected from its foundations to its summit in a single building phase. Only minor repairs and additions have been made in successive periods and these have not materially affected its main features.
Architecturally and historically Paharpur Vihara is a treasured heritage of the world. Along with its construction was introduced for the first time in ancient Asia. a striking new style of temple architecture on a grand scale. Later this style was copied in the Far East. more particularly in the temples of Pagan in Burma, and the Chandi Loro Jongrang and Chandi Sewu temples in central Java.
The basement wall of the great temple is adorned with 63 stone images which, curiously belong mostly to the Brahmanical Pantheon. Above them run a single row of terracotta plaques which depict faithfully the prevailing folk art of Bengal. The monotony of the walls in the first and second terraces is also relieved by uninterrupted bands of terracotta plaques in double rows, which are set in recessed panels – the rows being separated from each other by a projecting ornamental cornice.
It is possible to distinguish at least three distinct groups amongst the stone sculptures which vary considerably in style and artistic excellence. In the first group a large number depict mythical scenes from the life of Krishna. The popular themes from the great epics of the Mahabharaia and the Ramayana and various folk scenes from village life. The common people represented in these scenes wear plain and scanty clothing and display no trace of refinement or sophistication characteristic of the Royal Court. The second group is the product of the transitional period between the eastern Gupta classicism and the later Pala art. Save for a few panels, which are marked by the classical Gupta idiom, this group is characterized by a general heaviness of form. The third group is distinguished by a soft and refined modeling of form and a delicacy of features and adornment which are usually associated with the hierarchic art of the Gupta school.
Of all the loose stone images found in the excavation the most interesting is the fragmentary black basalt image of Hevajra in close embrace with his Sakti or female counterpart. This is certainly a product of the debased Taniric Buddhism of about the 10th and 11th Century. It was found in the tank in front of the Main Gateway. The God is represented with six heads in a row and possibly had two more above to correspond with the eight pairs of arms. The central pair of arms hold the Sakti in close embrace, while the remainder each hold a filled skull cap. There is a third eye on each of the foreheads and a garland of skulls hangs around the body. The debased cult of Hevajra is rarely found in India but it occupies a very important place in the Tibetan Buddhist Pantheon.
The terracotta art of the temple, however, plays the most prominent part in the scheme of decoration. There are still about 2000 plaques in situ and about a further 800 were collected from the site during excavation. The richness, variety and exuberance of these terracotta, although technically rather crude, are unrivalled. The principal Brahmanical deities represented are Siva. Brahma, Vishnu, Ganesha and Surya; whilst the Mahayana Buddhist divinities include the Buddha, Bodhisauva, Padmapani, Manjusri and Tara. In addition, familiar stories from the
Pan charanira are depicted with evident humor and vivacity. This rich plastic art portrays all conceivable subjects which must have attracted the simple mind of the rustic artists: human and animal motifs, flora land geometric decorations and divine and semi—divine beings.
Paharpur Monastery: The quadrangular monastery, occupying an area of about 22 acres of land, has an enclosure wall, about 16’—0” thick which accommodates 177 monastic cells, each measuring approximately 14’—0”x 13’—6” The cells are all connected by a 9-0” wide verandah in front. The central blocks on three sides, extend to the exterior and the interior and contain an additional three cells and a passage around them. In the center on the northern side is located the main portal which consists of an inner and outer entrance hall. The elaborate gateway complex is flanked on either side by guard rooms.
Located in the south-eastern corner of the courtyard is a highly interesting group of fine votive shrines of various shapes and decorations, in which bold and deep corn ice moldings are prominent. The most striking in this group is a star-shaped sixteen sided structure. The kitchen and the refectory, with its long hall is also cited close by. Apart from a number of ancillary structures on the eastern side, an interesting structure representing a miniature model of the main temple is noteworthy. Here the slightly asymmetrical plan of the great temple seems to have been perfected in the model.
The monastery’s latrine block is located on the southern side at a distance of 30 yards from the main complex. It consists of an open rectangular platform measuring 105’-0” x 27’-0”running parallel to the monastery wall. The platform is l0’-0”above ground level and accessible only across a raised and vaulted gangway from cell No. 102 which is 16’-6” wide. The vaulted passage between the gangway and the wall, allows a free passage to people outside the enclosure. The entire southern face of the platform is provided with a series of water-chutes at regular intervals. Incidentally, it is interesting to note here that the brickwork of the vaulted passage was found to be laid vertically with a slight inward curvature, somewhat resembling the voussoirs of a radiating true arch. This architectural innovation clearly indicates that, although the pre-Muslim builders of Paharpur usually employed corbelled arches for spanning short gaps as in drains, niches, small passages etc., they were evidently capable of using a true vault when the need for spanning larger gaps arose. It appears likely that, although they were familiar with the usual trabeated system of architecture, they were aware of the principles of the true arch, but hesitated to use it for lack of confidence.
It is clear from the available epigraphic records that the cultural and religious life of the great Somapura Mahavihara was closely linked with the Nalanda Mahavihara at Magadha. For instance, an interesting inscription dated around the 11th and 12th Century salvaged from Nalanda, refers to one Sri Vipulasri Mitra, a monk of Nalanda who carried out some renovations and repair works at Somap ura Vihara. The record further describes this vihara as a singular feast to the eyes of the world”. Tibetan sources testify that the illustrious Buddhist savant Dipamkara Sri Jnana Atisa of Vikrampura (near Dhaka) lived several years in this monastery and that his spiritual preceptor, Ratnakara Shanti was its Sihavira for sometime.
Satyapir Bhita: The ruins of the Satyapir Bhita mound are located about 300 yards east of the Paharpur monastery. The site is trapezoidal in shape with the northern boundary wall about l40’-0” long. A large number of votive shrines of various shapes, size and decoration, cluster around the main temple of Tara- an oblong structure facing south—which is 48’-0” wide from east to west and 80’-O” long from north to south. The general layout of the numerous votive stupas, erected within the perimeter of the temple, may be divided into two groups:-the sanctum placed in the northern sector; and a pillared hail to the south ,around which runs an ambulatory path. The identity of the temple was ascertained by the discovery, from various part of the courtyard of about 50 circular terracotta plaques stamped with the figure of an eight handed goddess and the usual inscription of the Buddhist creed. The goddess has been identified as one of the forms of Tara the Sakti of the Dhani Buddha or Bodhisauva. dated around the 11th Century. There are about 132 votive shrines of various shapes and dimensions within the courtyard the largest being a circular stupa of about 25’-0”in diameter, to the north-west of the main temple, whereas the smallest is only 2’—9” in diameter. The former is a solid structure enclosed within a separate rectangular boundary wall and accompanied by four miniature round stupas.
One of the votive stupas in the south-western area is decorated with tiers of moulded terracotta with figures of the Buddha seated in bhumisparsa mudra or the earth touching: attitude, and vyakhyana mudra or the bpreaching’ pose, in alternate rows. An inscription located on top of the basement moulding, which was identified by the Indian Archaeologist K.N. Dikshit to be of 11th Century character, records this (is the gift) of the elder, Prasantamati”.