Our heritage sites need our help to stem the ravages of time and negligence
The dilapidated condition of the lonely ruins scattered across the country can be attributed to many reasons. Perhaps the most concerning is the abject apathy of the concerned authorities towards historical sites and their preservation. A prime example of which would be the indiscriminate demolition of our heritage buildings. According to local media reports, between 2008 and 2018, more than 600 historical buildings have been demolished around the country. A lot of these building were Mughal era structures built in Old Dhaka by the court grandees.
Case in point: the famous Amligola Haweli built in the Mughal era which has been completely razed to the ground. And then there are structures that have been illegally occupied by land grabbers. These sites are at times turned into shops, and at others into drug peddling haunts. Without care or preservation measures, these structures fall into disrepair with time.
Unfortunately, even the national archaeological sites that have been recognised as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO are not being taken care of by authorities concerned. Let's take the case of the legendary 1,300-year-old Somapura Mahavihara, situated in Paharpur, Naogaon, for example. This ancient Buddhist seat of learning is considered one of the five great Viharas that include Nalanda, Vikramashila, Odantapura and Jaggadala—the last one also located in Bangladesh, while the other three in the eastern Indian state of Bihar.
Designated by UNESCO in 1985 as a World Heritage Site, the Somapura Mahavihara attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every day. Unfortunately, it fails to attract as much government attention it seems. The deteriorating condition of the site is a testament to the indifferent treatment, if not gross neglect, by the concerned authorities.
Under "South Asia Tourism Infrastructure Development Project" funded by the Asian Development Bank, the Department of Archaeology (DoA) undertook a renovation and polishing initiative, from March 2014 to December 2016. The main temple along with surroundings areas were supposed to have been renovated. A separate staircase was also built for the ease of visitors to safely climb up and down the site.
With the renovation work completed, more visitors were attracted: revenues shot up drastically. A report published by this daily, titled, "Somapura Mahavihara losing lustre", citing DoA figures suggest that "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, three years into the renovations, things have started to fall apart. Salinity, a persistent problem faced by the site, remains. And the external staircase that has been erected to facilitate the movement of the tourists, is apparently harmful for the site. The report mentioned earlier, quoted Swadhin Sen, a professor of archaeology at Jahangirnagar University as saying, "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." As a ripple effect, revenue plummeted to Tk 56 lakh in 2019-20.
Even worse, some of the fabled terracotta plaques of the monastery have been removed during renovation. And of the ones remaining, only 17 are being properly displayed at Paharpur Museum, while according to the newspaper report, the rest have been stored away without proper measures.
The shoddy work at the Mahavihara brings into question the quality of the renovation. Around the world so many preservation projects are implemented with success every year. These renovations last for decades. So, what went wrong at Paharpur? The answer remains shrouded in mystery, as one authority ping-pongs the responsibility to another: the regional director (Rajshahi and Rangpur) of DoA, suggested that the project was controlled directly by the DoA and "local officials played no part in the projects besides partial monitoring", as mentioned in The Daily Star report.
And Somapura Mahavihara is not alone in its plight. Adnan MS Fakir, director of Finding Bangladesh, an indie documentary series highlighting the hidden gems of Bangladesh's rich archaeological heritage suggests that there are many other historical sites that are in need of care and repair. The list includes, "Chanchra Jora Shiv Temples, Jessore; Abhaynagar 11 Temple Complex, Jessore; Dhopadi (Moth) Temple, Jhenaidaha; Shyamnagar Rajbari, Satkhira; Shonabaria Temple, Kolaroa, Khulna; Rayerkathi Rajbari and Temple Complex, Pirojpur and Krittipasha Rajbari, Jhalokathi."
And so, the heritage of our country, its rich history and legacy wither away bit by bit, in broad daylight and in darkness, without care, and—as in the case of Somapura Mahavihara—despite "renovation".
While the remnants of the glorious past of our ancestors bear the marks of the cruel treatment inflicted upon them by us, it is time we take action to save whatever is left of them. The concerned authorities must take lesson from the ineffective renovation of the Somupura Mahavihara, and roll up their sleeves to initiate meaningful projects to save our heritage sites. Accurate listing, through inspection and a well-charted strategic plan to protect our archaeological masterpieces are essential for the preservation of our history.
Since all of the historic sites are now closed to the public due to the pandemic, it is a good time to inspect the sites and identify the ones that need immediate attention. It would be logistically difficult to initiate effective and lasting renovation project at all the sites all at once, so these initiatives can be taken in phases, depending on the state of the heritage sites across the country. Partnerships with donor partners, I/NGOs, the private sector can also be undertaken to mobilise resources to this end.
Our heritage sites are our pride, our roots. If we allow these sites to fall into decrepitude, we would essentially be facilitating the corruption of our identity as a people.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem