Sav­ing the Her­itage

Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites in South Asia are fast de­te­ri­o­rat­ing as a di­rect re­sult of the government’s neg­li­gence. Bangladesh is no ex­cep­tion.

Southasia - - Culture Heritage - By Taha Ke­har Taha Ke­har is a blog­ger on so­cial is­sues and has pre­vi­ously worked for a me­dia mag­a­zine. He is cur­rently pur­su­ing a de­gree in Law at the School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies.

Ma­hasthangarh has been billed as a ma­jor ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site in Bangladesh. Sit­u­ated in the vil­lage of Ma­hasthan, some seven miles north of Bo­gra, it con­tains the rem­nants of the an­cient city of Pun­drana­gra. A lime­stone tablet dis­cov­ered in 1931 re­veals that the ori­gins of the his­toric site date back to 3rd Cen­tury BC. Fur­ther ar­chae­o­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion sug­gests that Ma­hasthangarh was the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of the Mau­ryan, the Gup­tas and the Palas em­pires. But re­cent ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ef­forts have not ac­tively ex­plored the myths and mys­ter­ies sur­round­ing of the city of Pun­drana­gra. On the con­trary, spe­cial­ists and ex­perts from across the world have re­mained in­dif­fer­ent to the prospects of con­duct­ing field­work in Ma­hasthangarh. Over the years it has be­come ev­i­dent that the Bangladeshi government can­not do much to save this ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site from era­sure. Even pres­sure groups have cast a blind eye to­wards pre­serv­ing the relics and mounds in Ma­hasthangarh. The grad­ual dis­in­te­gra­tion of the re­mains has ren­dered all prospects for fu­ture ar­chae­o­log­i­cal work and con­ser­va­tion ef­fort par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult to ex­e­cute.

There are numer­ous anec­dotes and leg­ends about the an­cient city of Pun­drana­gra. The city was renowned as the main nu­cleus for Bud­dhist learn­ing. Monas­ter­ies in the re­gion played an im­por­tant role in prop­a­gat­ing the Bud­dhist faith and greatly en­riched the scope of re­li­gious knowl­edge.

Ac­cord­ing to his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence, the pop­u­lar­ity of Bud­dhism was chal­lenged with the ar­rival of Shah Sul­tan Balkhi Mahi­sawar – a mys­tic who vis­ited the city in the 11th Cen­tury AD to spread Is­lam. King Para­suram was the rul­ing sov­er­eign in Ma­hasthangarh when Mahi­sawar paid a visit to the city. Le­gend has it that the mys­tic asked the king for a tract of land where he could spread his prayer mat. The king granted Mahi­sawar’s re­quest but once the mat was laid out on the floor, it be­gan to ex­pand through­out the em­pire. Threat­ened by the machi­na­tions of this du­bi­ous mys­tic, Para­suram de­clared war on Mahi­sawar.

Dur­ing the ini­tial stages of the war, Mahi­sawar’s troops suf­fered count­less de­feats. The royal troops had so­phis­ti­cated weaponry and de­vised fool­proof war strate­gies to de­feat their op­po­nents. Su­per­nat­u­ral forces also worked in their fa­vor. Ru­mor has it that when a sol­dier was felled in the war, his corpse was bathed in the well of Jiat Kunda and he would in­stantly come back to life. Seiz­ing the op­por­tu­nity to weaken his op­po­nents, Mahi­sawar or­dered his troops to fly a kite over the Jiat Kunda and drop a piece of meat into it to ex­tin­guish its spir­i­tual pow­ers. The strat­egy worked and the royal troops were de­feated.

Although the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site in Ma­hasthangarh and the aban­doned

city of Mo­hen­jo­daro were both re­dis­cov­ered in the early 1920s, the lat­ter has re­ceived more at­ten­tion from his­to­ri­ans and ar­chae­ol­o­gists. This is pri­mar­ily be­cause Mo­hen­jo­daro is con­sid­ered one of the most ad­vanced cities of the an­cient In­dus Val­ley civ­i­liza­tion. Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal in­ter­est in the re­gion has also been jus­ti­fied by the fact that the site has been des­ig­nated as a UNESCO World Her­itage Site. As a re­sult, sur­vey groups from Ger­many and Italy have taken a keen in­ter­est in pur­su­ing ex­ca­va­tion work there.

Ma­hasthangarh, on the other hand, has at­tracted only a mod­est de­gree of at­ten­tion. Apart from the for­ti­fied ci­tadel lo­cated at the cen­tre of the an­cient city, only a marginally small por­tion of the site has been ex­ca­vated so far.

In­ter­est­ingly, both ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites have suf­fered from ne­glect by government bod­ies. The Global Her­itage Fund re­leased a report in June 2012 men­tion­ing both Ma­hasthangarh and Mo­hen­jo­daro among the twelve ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites that stand the risk of dis­ap­pear­ing ow­ing to the dearth of ef­fec­tive con­ser­va­tion mea­sures. The risk of los­ing a her­itage has not been ex­ag­ger­ated. On the con­trary, res­i­den­tial en­croach­ments on the site of the an­cient city have grown ex­ten­sively in re­cent years. The courts in Bangladesh have out­lawed squat­ting on the site and have is­sued or­ders to de­mol­ish houses that are il­le­gally con­structed. But the dam­age is ir­re­versible. Most of the houses have been con­structed by re­cy­cling bricks and us­ing ex­ca­vated ma­te­ri­als. Small vil­lages have emerged. Un­der the cir­cum­stances, it ap­pears un­fair to dis­place peo­ple from their homes just to pre­serve a his­tor­i­cal legacy.

More­over, the government has to take proac­tive mea­sures to mit­i­gate the in­ci­dence of loot­ing on the site. For sev­eral years, mis­cre­ants have taken ad­van­tage of the lax at­ti­tude shown by con­cerned au­thor­i­ties. As a re­sult, many arte­facts have been pil­laged from the site and sub­ject to mis­use. This is a pow­er­ful tes­ta­ment of the ex­tent to which a his­tor­i­cal her­itage has been ex­ploited.

The Bangladeshi government cur­rently finds it­self in a quag­mire. It is em­broiled in a chal­leng­ing act of balancing the im­me­di­ate needs of the peo­ple with the some­what am­bi­tious de­sire for his­tor­i­cal preser­va­tion. The in­ter­ests of the pop­u­la­tion should, as a mat­ter of pri­or­ity, trump all other con­sid­er­a­tions for so­cial im­prove­ment. But the de­bate can­not sim­ply boil down to a ques­tion of pri­or­i­ties. The scope for pro­mot­ing the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site as a tourist des­ti­na­tion must be rec­og­nized.

The ex­ca­va­tion work con­ducted since the early 1920s has led to some in­trigu­ing dis­cov­er­ies such as the Jiat Kunda, the Mankalir Dhap and the Kho­dar Pathar Bhita. In ad­di­tion, the for­ti­fied ci­tadel and the site mu­seum of­fer a whole spec­trum of dif­fer­ent arte­facts bear­ing his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. The government will need to take a proac­tive and sus­tain­able ap­proach to de­vel­op­ing the an­cient city as a tourist des­ti­na­tion. The process of com­pul­sory pur­chase seems to be the only con­ve­nient so­lu­tion to grap­ple with the prob­lem of com­pet­ing in­ter­ests on the land. How­ever, this would serve as dras­tic step and may elicit a neg­a­tive re­sponse from the me­dia and sev­eral in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions. As a re­sult, the Bangladeshi government will need to chalk out an in­no­va­tive strat­egy of pre­serv­ing the re­mains of the an­cient city through cit­i­zen-based ini­tia­tives. The ac­tiv­i­ties of pres­sure groups can play an im­por­tant role in pro­duc­ing change but or­di­nary ci­ti­zens them­selves need to un­der­stand the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of los­ing a her­itage and take a step in the right di­rec­tion.

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