A statue of lord Shiva, kept in an Old Dhaka temple for ages largely beyond public knowledge, offers a new gateway to history as well as ancient art and heritage of this region.
It is a stone statue of Nateshwar, a depiction of dancing Shiva on the back of his bull-carrier Nandi, found at Sarangadhar Jeu Akhada in the capital’s Chawkbazar.
The Nateshwar, worshipped in temples around the world, is a prominent symbol in art from the period of Chandra dynasty.
The dynasty ruled between the 10th and 11th century -- a glorious chapter in the history of Bengal -- with its capital in Mainamati and later transferred to Bikrampur.
The architecture and sculpture that flourished in that era had long been regarded as the works of Pala dynasty.
According to experts, the presence of the Shiva statue in Dhaka is a testament to the rule of Chandra dynasty in this region as well as a rich civilisation here in the 10th and 11th centuries.
The statue was discovered in 2011 during a prolonged study by the Committee for Documentation on Architectural Sites in Dhaka.
Earlier in 2008, the committee began surveying old mosques, shrines, churches, graveyards and temples, as part of its investigation into Dhaka’s ancient architecture.
After conducting a series of extensive research and survey, the committee concluded in 2015 that it has actually found a Nateshwar statue, and started preparing a draft report about the discovery in 2017.
Meanwhile, a number of researchers, journalists, photographers and cultural activists were invited to visit the statue at the Old Dhaka monastery, Sarangadhar Jeu Akhada.
The draft report was finalised in June last year.
However, no foreign journalists or researchers were informed about the discovery until June 11 this year when the committee communicated with Dutch researcher Anna Slaczka, who had conducted an extensive research on Nateshwar.
Slaczka, also curator of South Asian art at the Netherlands Rijksmuseum, said the discovery is indeed a great news.
“It is fascinating that one can still ‘discover’ images that are not known to scholars,” she said, adding that she would mention about the statue in her next research.
According to Slaczka, the craft of Nateshwar statue was pioneered by Bangalee sculptors and later it spread outside.
Slaczka also wrote an essay on Nateshwar statue titled “Dancing Shiva Image from Bengal” providing a list of 39 statues of dancing Shiva discovered previously. Of them, 25 were found in different parts of Bangladesh and West Bengal.
The essay was incorporated in the book, “Studies in South Asian Heritage Essays on Memory of M Harunur Rashid”, published by the Bangla Academy in 2015.
Talking about the statue, Prof AAMS Arefin Siddique, renowned educationist and chairman of the documentation committee, said the discovery would help researchers understand and explain the ancient history of this region.
According to relevant sources, there are two variations of dancing Shiva -- Nataraj and Nateshwar -- in the heritage of Indian sculpture.
Nataraj is the depiction of a four-armed Shiva dancing within a fire ring with his left leg lifted in the air and right leg on a base that symbolises Apasmara, a mythological character who represented ignorance.
Nataraj statues are found in the southern India, not in Bengal. Only Nateshwar statues are found in Bengal.
Nateshwar stands on his bull-carrier Nandiand is flanked by his two dancing wives -- Ganga and Gauri. Even Nandi appears to have lifted its face and two legs in rhythm.
Prof Niranjan Adhikary of Dhaka University, an expert on Indian literature and culture, said Nataraj is the fearsome face of Shiva that destroys evil powers while Nateshwar is his amicable face which brings welfare to all.
Nateshwar statues are on display at different museums across the globe, including Bangladesh National Museum in Dhaka, India’s Delhi National Museum, and USA’s Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Nalini Kanta Bhattasali, sculpture expert and one of the founders of Bangladesh National Museum, in his book titled “Iconography of Buddhist and Brahminical Sculptures in the Dacca Museum” mentioned that many Nateshwar statues were discovered in the south-eastern districts, especially in Dhaka and Tripura (currently greater Cumilla).
Generally, there are two types of Nateshwar -- one with 12 arms and the other with 10. The making process of ten-armed Nateshwar is described in “Matsya Puran”, one of the oldest of the 18 post-Vedic Hindu scriptures.
The 12-armed Nateshwar statue holds a veena while the one with 10 arms does not.
The statute discovered in Chawkbazar has 12 arms. It is 3 feet tall and 1 foot 10 inches in width and the length of the veena is about 1.5 feet.
Shiva’s two wives -- Gauri and Ganga -- are there on two sides in the lower part.
Dr Niru Shamsunnahar, ancient art researcher and former keeper of the National Museum, said the statue is currently kept in the Sarangadhar Akhada, which itself is a heritage site of Dhaka.
The presence of Nateshwar statue here can contribute to flourishing the heritage site-based tourism, she added.
The monastery was mentioned in James Wise’s book titled “Notes on the Races, Castes and Trades of Eastern Bengal”, published in 1883.
“One Mansha Roy founded the Akhada in the 17th century. The Akhada was dedicated to the name of Sarangadhar or Tirandaj Vishnu,” said the book about the Akhada, also known as Sarangasthan.
Ramanuja had established Sree community, the largest group of the Vaishnavas, in the Indian subcontinent. Sree community used to worship Vishnu Avatar.
A section of people who came to Dhaka from North India for job or business purposes were devotees of the Sree community.
Parmeshwar Maharaj, an elderly member of the Sree community, is involved in the management of the monastery since 1940s.
He said he came to Dhaka from Uttar Pradesh to manage the monastery and has been residing here since then. “The statue has been here all along.”
A statue of Shiva is not usually found in a Vaishnava Akhada. According to the documentation committee, there might have been an Akhada of Shivas here during the Chandra dynasty. Shaivism gradually decayed following fourteenth century.
This Akhada might have been abandoned around that time, the committee said in a report, adding that the forsaken Shiva Akhada was transformed into a Vaishnava monastery during the Mughal rule.
(The writer is a member of the documentation committee. Translated by Shahariar Sajib, sub-editor, The Daily Star.)