The Remains of a
Rich & Vibrant Past
Bizarrely resembling a step-pyramid, jutting out of a vacant green field in the middle of a bustling city, ever wondered what lies behind the mystery of the Mainamoti ruins…?
MURA, Vihara, Kutila…none of these strange words from ancient Bengali meant anything to me until I visited the Mainamoti ruins in Comilla. By looking at pictures of the famous archaeological site, the reality of how chilling the ruins actually looked had never struck me. The two mound like stupas in front of me dated back from a time which is not very well documented by historians, partly due to lack of adequate references, either from coins, texts, inscriptions on statues or any form of ancient reference, explicitly naming the region or describing it. Even with a bustling, raucous crowd of 44 people, the magnificence of the discreetly mysterious ruins did not escape me. They whispered secrets of a past that I was until then, completely unaware of and urged me to educate myself a little as to their origins.
A rough date between 7-13th AD is assigned to the ancient ruins of Mainamoti-Lalmai hills in Comilla. Interestingly this archeological marvel even contains traces of pre-historic life with a number or fossils found in the Lalmai region. According to Imam Abu in Excavations At Mainamoti: An Exploratory Study, this area during the making of the Mainamoti monasteries, was known as Samatata, or eastern-Bengal, and the capital was Devaparvata, also referred to as Pattikera. Mainamoti was the name of the queen Maynamati (Madanavati), wife of Manikchandra, ruler of the Chandra dynasty who ruled in the 10-11th AD. She was a famous yogic scholar and many famous Bangla ballads are sung in her honor. The ruins lie about 8 km from the main city, the hills sloping up and down a region that is now interspersed with the BARD and cantonment area, along with markets and the general hullabaloo of a bustling town. This area was home to intense Buddhist activities, visited by scholar and traveler Hiuen Tsang in the 7th century AD who found 70 monasteries, about 2000 Buddhist monks and an Ashoka stupa from the 2nd century BC. The likes of such an establishment are unparalleled, even in India's Nalanda ruins. However, an additive to its mysterious past is the fact that no Tibetan text acknowledges its presence! Or we just never found them.
The main part of Mainamoti that is flashed on covers of any brochure or travel documentary of Bangladesh, is actually one of the many mounds that were mapped, and only 1 out of 9 other excavated. This is the Salbon Vihara, (Vihara means Monastery) possibly named due to the presence of Sal trees, of which I forced myself to believe I could still spot a few. The remains of a bygone monastery reveal the typical structure of the ones found in Paharpur and the famous Nalanda ruins in Bihar, India. The reason why this particular site is so famous is because it is the only one thoroughly excavated and shows the perfect cruciform design, (following the popular style as Angkor Wat or other Javan, Burmese sites of those days) a crucifix shaped structure, than the other sites excavated. The structure is built of red brick and if its presence bang in the middle of a huge vast and empty plot is not enough to give one an eerie feeling, the staircases leading to nowhere are a sure winner. These may have led to a terrace but archaeologists are not entirely sure. However this main building is not the only resident of the Mainamoti ruins. Other similar stupas stretch across the Lalmai hills and most of them follow the same basic structure of a cruciform temple, except for Itakhola Mura, (Mura means Mound) which is also well known for housing the largest headless Stucco (plaster) image found in Bangladesh. The other major site of interest to historians and any lover of archaeology would be the Kutila Mura, where three stupas are found side by side representing the Buddhist "Trinity" or three jewels i.e. the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
The first cruciform structure however was detected in Rupban Mura, where the famous sandstone Buddha was discovered. This image demonstrates Gupta influence, which means it was most probably installed in the 7th century. The statue has a final resting home in the Mainamoti museum right next to the Salbon Vihar site.
The Terracotta plaques found in Ananda Vihar are fashioned after similar ones found in Burma, Siam and Java, depicting carvings of divine, semi-divine human & animal forms. The plaques are also on display in the Mainamoti museum, but interestingly, do not try to read too much into them, since when excavated, the archaeologists noticed adjoining plaques were not related to one another. However, plaques from other sites depict an interesting medley of scenes from everyday life. The other winner of a find housed in the museum is the bronze Vajrasattva from Bhoja vihara sitting at 1.5 m high, in the typical position of a Boddhisatva.
How to get there: Comilla is about a 2-2.5 hrs drive from Dhaka on a holiday. Snacking on the way is highly recommended since Comilla is home to the famous Rosh malai and Pera sweets. But a good meal in any of the restaurants scattered along the way to Comilla, Noorjahan being the most celebrated one amongst them, can certainly be included in the itinerary.
Other activities: BARD (Bangladesh Academy of Rural Development) could be an alternative visit spot, a must do for an invigorating walk through the serene academy, with lots of greenery and a wonderful playground for kids. A great hill climb can jog up those muscles with a rewarding view of the Salbon forest from the top. For shopaholics , the numerous shops selling Khaadi outside the BARD main gate are a good choice for a stop over.
However, one first needs to overcome the overpowering feeling that there is still enormous scope for discovery at the Mainamoti ruins, where lack of funding and neglect make things worse. To be casually viewing a place which was once the hub of all Buddhist religious activities, with a string of dynasties ruling it and an entire infrastructure of management personnel, catering to the needs of the students and visitors alike, among the many other everyday activities that went on, is a very overwhelming feeling to return with. A feeling that nonetheless instills a veritable amount of pride in our rich past.
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