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     Volume 4 Issue 8 | August 13, 2004 |

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Reliving the Heritage of Bengal

Mustafa Zaman

"In My eyes entire Bangladesh is a museum" writes Babu Ahmed in the brochure published on the occasion of his solo exhibition. Ahmed spent 18 years of his life documenting the archeological treasures of Bangladesh. This is the third attempt on his part to showcase the vast treasures that are spread across this country. His first show was composed of glimpses of archeological sites strewn across the land, the second solo was exclusively on Mughal Muslim architecture and this one, his third solo, is a homage to the Hindu temple architecture of Bangladesh.

Interestingly, the show is a reminder of lost expertise. After one has taken a tour through the Bengal Gallery, where Ahmed's one hundred photographs of temples are on display, one will wake up to the richness and the variety of the temple architecture in this region.

Most temples in Bangladesh are left to ruin. With the absence of government intervention, and at most cases, with the blatant transgression by many land-grabbing neo-rich of the rural areas, who have no inkling of what archeological treasures mean, most temples are in danger of being obliterated from the face of this part of Bengal.

"In Bangladesh, there are near about five hundred temples. That is a lot for a small country," assures Ahmed. While the Department of Archeology has earmarked only a handful of temples as heritage sights and brought them under their protection programme, Ahmed has meticulously catalogued five hundred of them. "I have only had the opportunity to photograph three hundred temples, and in this show I had to take that number down to one hundred because of space constraint," he says.

The Gallery walls are crammed with photos of temples, most showing clear signs of being in neglect. The temples that still stand and had not reached the irreparable stage were built within the time starting from the last three hundred years to the early 19th century. "You will not find a single temple that dates back to the time before Muslim invasion of Bengal. They either could not stand the test of time or were brought down by Muslim invaders," Ahmed continues.

Standing among the photographs of one hundred temples that hang on the walls of the Bengal Gallery, one will have little time to rue over the ones lost in time, as anyone will be gripped by a strong sense of reclamation of the past just by looking at the ones that the photographer captured. As most of them fell into disuse long ago, they too, it seems, ominously stand only to meet the fate of their predecessors.

Kalinarayana Temple, Joydevpur, Gazipur, circa 1900, built by Maharaya Kalinarayana of Bhawal, a pancho-ratno type temple

Ahmed's photos are a strong testimony to the decaying architectural landscape of bygone Bangladesh. The photographer himself found many of the structures devoid of their spire or with a great chunk gone missing during his recent visits. "Every time I go back to my subjects after an interval of a number of years, I find them in a diminished condition. Many temples are being used as bathans -- meaning barn for cattle," Ahmed discloses. It pains him to see this wealth being on the verge of disappearance as a result of both vandalism and apathy of humans.

His first encounter with a mondir (temple) was the "Twin-Shiva Temple" in Bolihar, Naogaon. "Now it houses cattle, and the spire of the temple at the right is gone," Ahmed picturises the temple in ruin, one that he photographed ten years back with the temple in one piece.

If time and weather have a drastic effect on these structures, it is human encroachment that deals the greatest blow and set the final stage for their demise. As more and more temples fall in the hands of land-grabbers, all traces of past glories of building and designing are under threat of being erased. Ahmed's contention is that, at least through his photographs the future generation would be able to relive a glorious past.

Ahmed says that the listed archeological sites are quite few. Many temples remain unlisted by the government; even the listed ones are not being given proper attention and care. Conservation remains a far cry in this land that is a treasure trove in archeological terms. "Some people are pulling out bricks from the temple walls as they lie unguarded or abandoned or are being used as homes by derelicts. Pieces of terracotta are also going missing as there is a good price for these exquisitely done relief works," Ahmed raises a voice of concern.

It was during his childhood that Ahmed developed an interest for history or things of historical importance. "I loved reading history, and I also liked to look at what the kings and zamindars had built in their times," Ahmed explains his affinity towards history. As he grew up, that affinity was transformed into a mission. "I always carry a mesuring-tape along with the camera and other paraphernalia, to take the measurement of the structure I photograph. Taking measurements is crucial for the drawing I later develop to determine the plan for each building that I photograph," adds Ahmed whose works are more about keeping a document of the historical structure than about aesthetic pleasure.

His interest was always archeological in nature. And it made him roam around the length and breadth of Bangladesh. He even went on to cross the boarder to capture the temples of West Bengal. "In the last eighteen years I have kept at my job, recording whatever buildings that I thought had historical value," he proclaims. He is doing what the Bangladesh government has failed to even consider. If it had not been for the photographs, many of the most ingeniously built architecture of Bengal would have remained unexposed to a vast majority of Bangladeshis. The photographer too is happy to notice that his works have induced a sense of pride and an urgency to preserve the national treasures among the visitors.

After he was led through the gallery, the UNESCO Chief Wolfgang Vollmann could not hide his astonishment, he was swept away by the sheer number and the variety of the temples. Vollman was heard saying that he would not have imagined that in such a small country so many historical sites were built and are still standing.

Mathurapur Deul, Madhukahli, Faridpur, circa 1600.

Mahilara Math, Gournadi, Barisal, circa 1800

For photographer Babu Ahmed it was just one batch of temples he chose from his huge collection. Ahmed did his stint as a press photographer. He virtually worked for almost half the national dailies. From Sangbad, Azadi to Prothom Alo, he worked for them with abiding interest. However, at present, he has given up his job to pursue his dream of building up an archive of the archeological treasures of Bengal.

The Hindu population has decimated, but the efforts of people like Ahmed, at least, may go to serve to raise a voice of concern to save the crumbling structures that stand proof of a culture based on the idea of integration. In the show, with many a temple, the melding of styles is detected. A Twin-Shiva Temple of Mymensing built in the 1820s shows a strong presence of Muslim architecture; even the colonial patterns are visible in Navo-Ratno Temple of Tantiband, Pabna. Many of the temples are simply memorials, and are called maths or deuls. These are the structures either built to crown the ground where the ashes of the nobles were buried or just with their memories in mind.

Whether they are temples or maths, many of the structures have lost their original contour. Successive renovation works have robbed them of their original relief work that used to adorn the surface. Those that did not lose the original intricate ornaments or the repetitive ornate cornices that runs the length of the spire, are sights of extraordinary beauty. The Dhakeshwary Temple with its living deity is a prime example of a temple that lost its ornaments to renovations.

The solo exhibition titled "One Hundred Temples" strives to relocate our point of attention, it initiates a change of heart on the visitors part. Those who had no idea of the vast architectural riches that Bangladesh holds inside its periphery, will have a clear idea of it after a single visit. Yet the question remains, will this break the slumber of the relevant authorities? Will they hear Ahmed's clarion call?

The exhibition was held from 1 to 10 August 2004.



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