Somapura Mahavihara losing lustre

World heritage site at Paharpur in need of care within three years of renovation
Despite restrictions, people use a wooden staircase to reach the top of the main temple. PHOTO: STAR

Within three years of the completion of several conservation and development projects, the Somapura Mahavihara has started to lose its shine.

The 1,300-year-old Unesco World Heritage Site, located at Paharpur area in Badalgachhi upazila of Naogaon district, bears the evidence of an ancient higher learning centre for Buddhists.

Between March 2014 and December 2016, the Department of Archaeology (DoA) implemented the Asian Development Bank funded "South Asia Tourism Infrastructure Development Project" on the site.

Under the project, the main temple and its surrounding architecture were polished and renovated. Separate wooden structures including staircases were built on the main temple and other places of the site for visitors to go up and move around safely, according to officials.

However, within a few years of completing the projects, the effects of the renovation have begun to fade from the site, making archaeologists and visitors question the quality of renovation and maintenance works.

The photos were taken before the pandemic when the site was open to public. PHOTO: STAR

"As we walk around the place and imagine how the monastery worked in those days, one feels excited. But then it becomes evident that this historic and archaeologically important place lacks the care it needs," said Md Roknuzzaman, a teacher at a private university in Rajshahi.

Since 2019, walls around the main temple started turning black with algae, while salinity took hold on the terracotta plaques. The wooden staircases and pavements got damaged too, due to being exposed to open air and use by too many visitors.

Considering the situation, authorities have suspended visitor movement to the main temple at the end of last year. Visitors now have to use the broken stairs and pavements to the site, which can be quite risky.

After the implementation of the renovation projects, the revenue collection from visitors on entry, car parking and other purposes were increased by more than two-and-a-half times. However, ticket prices were reduced after the site began losing its splendour.

According to the DoA, the revenue in 2014-15 and 2015-16 was around Tk 27 lakh. In 2016-17, the income soared to Tk 72 lakh, and increased further to Tk 77.25 lakh in the following year. In 2018-19 the revenue was Tk 76.60 lakh. However, following the change in ticket price, it came down to Tk 56 lakh in 2019-20.

Talking to The Daily Star, Swadhin Sen, a professor of archaeology at Jahangirnagar University, said the historic site had a "troubled history" of going through development projects since 1985.

"When we talk about conserving an archaeological site, we mean the site has to be maintained as it is -- which means changing the appearance of an archaeological site is prohibited by law. A large number of visitors are using the stairs for climbing to the main temple. This is damaging the 1,300-year-old historical architecture," he said.

The site had a longstanding problem of waterlogging and salinity. The projects achieved success in controlling waterlogging, but the problem of salinity still persists, he said.

Meanwhile, in the name of protecting the terracotta plaques from the site, DoA did a questionable thing, archaeologists and officials said.

During the excavation, 265 terracotta plaques were taken to the Barind Research Museum in Rajshahi while remaining 3,000 terracotta plaques were on the main temple. To protect those from thieves and salinity, most terracotta plaques were removed under the projects and replicas were placed, Prof Sen added.

Of the original terracotta plaques, only 17 are on display at the Paharpur Museum on the site, while the rest have been stored "without proper care", site officials said.

The traditions and customs of the Pala dynasty could be traced in these plaques. Evidence of their secular ideas is also found because these plaques reflect the Hindu gods and goddesses as well as Islamic symbols, along with a multitude of arts, culture and practices of the Buddhists of the time, archaeologists said.

Contacted, Naheed Sultana, regional director (Rajshahi and Rangpur) of DoA, said the conservation and development activities were carried out following proper rules and with involvement of local and foreign experts.

"It is very difficult to stop visitors from climbing to the main temple. When there were no wooden stairs, visitors were seen climbing to the top, taking risks. The wooden stairs were helping reduce the risk. Moreover, after the implementation of the projects, the revenue increased," said Naheed Sultana.

The official said they wrote to headquarters to repair the damaged wooden infrastructure, but were yet to receive any response to this end.

Implementation of the projects was directly controlled by the DoA, Sultana said, adding that local officials played no part in the projects besides partial monitoring.

She said the site has been closed since March 26 due to the pandemic and will remain closed to public until further notice. As a result, no revenue has been generated between March to June, with most of the revenue coming between November and March, she added.


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