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     Volume 7 Issue 32 | August 8, 2008 |

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The Price of Neglect

Adiba Rahman

After an afternoon class one Tuesday, my friends and I headed off to Dhanmondi Rd.28 for an all-time favourite phuchka treat. The feeling of Tagore's favourite season, Monsoon, hung in the air while a slight drizzle accompanied by a welcoming breeze enlivened our spirits. The best part of it all was the sweet fragrance of freshly showered earth; that by itself is, quite frankly, incomparable. The scent invading my senses was accompanied by the occasional whiff of kathgolap (my favourite flower) drifting from across the street, and it made me smile as I joined in with the laughter of my friends. Biting into the delicious crust filled with chaat, I couldn't help feeling that everything was just perfect…

The four of us had come to this part of town to attend an informal seminar on the “Selected Temples of Bengal”. It was to be presented by the famous photographer and journalist Babu Ahmed. Being students of architecture, we hungered for more knowledge on historical structures, and patiently waited for the presentation to begin. Paharpur and Moynamoti were both Buddhist sites and the Kantajee temple was the only Hindu temple that we had any thorough previous knowledge of. So we were filled with anticipation and quite excited to find out what this session had in store for us.

Bhawal Raj Mandir in Gazipur. Photo credit: Babu Ahmaed

A temple is the house of a Hindu God. It is the earliest religious edifice in Bengal. It is a place for regular religious activities like puja at specific times of the day as well as for rituals such as Jhapar, Annaprashan, shradha, etc. Other than for conducting ceremonies and festivals, a temple itself is a structure holding plaques that depict myths and views of ancient social lifestyles. The temples founded in our country are mostly of the Nagara (North-Indian) style with a garbhagriha (sanctum) crowned by a rekha or shikhar, ardhamandapa (porch) and mandapa (assembly hall) topped off by a pidha or bhadra.

The projector flashed image after image of various temples that were built from the 18th century onwards as Babu Ahmed explained each of them to us in detail. We visited temples and their ruins from all around Bengal in his virtual tour and it was fascinating to observe the skill with which they had been built so long ago. And to see them still standing today really was overwhelming! The Shiva and Kali temples were made of bricks, cement, surki and even concrete from the 19th century. Some were made with sandstone and one particular temple even had iron railings and posts.

Temples in Bengal were built in the traditional style where the form is taken from domestic huts. The Ek-Bangla or Do-chala temple is the most common, where the structure is crowned by three finials or turrets over a two-sided gable ended roof on an elongated base. It usually has a single or triple arched entry. The Jor-Bangla or Joint Roof temples comprise of two Bangla temples each topped off with three finials. The Char-chala temple falls under this category with a square or rectangular base where the four-sided roof meets at a point or a ridge. Similarly, an At-chala temple consists of a roof of two Char-chalas. The number of finials crowning them is significant in categorising them as well. For example, a Nava-ratna tower has nine (nava) turrets.

The inner and outer decorations of the temples included sculptures and engravings of The Ramayan and The Mahabharata. Most of the intricately detailed plaques and figures have been stolen, misplaced or, in some cases, recovered by the archaeological department for display in museums located in the towns. Yet, a lot of them still remain on the original structures with their Do-chala or Char-chala roofs. And undoubtedly, they retain their aesthetic beauty.

But the tragedy is that while a minimum of 400 Hindu temples exist in Bangladesh today, of which only 109 are “government protected”. Of the authorised ones, a lone signboard is the only symbol acknowledging that status, since not a single temple has been provided with any reliable security measures by the archaeological department. Vagabonds can be seen enjoying a peaceful siesta inside some buildings, while cows and sheep reside in others. Most of the temples are used for shelter in extreme weather and there is even an ancient Shiva temple that is currently used as a public toilet by the people of that locality. Need I say more?

Jor Bangla Mandir in Kalachadpur, Pabna. Photo credit: Babu Ahmaed

It's not that people are unaware of the importance of these buildings, because they are.

Ahmed told us how people of one locality begged him to take an engraving of a particular temple back to Dhaka with him for display, for fear of it being stolen otherwise. He shocked us with accounts of how the bricks are taken from temples and “re-used” to construct other buildings nearby. Another story was about his reaction when he found electrical wires pierced into the ceiling of a temple to connect a fan for the comfort of the guard! He called the archaeological department at once but doubts if any follow-up action was taken on the basis of his complaint.

Why are our precious monuments suffering such shocking neglect? They are evidence of our culture, heritage and tradition. If they are not preserved, what will future generations come to see and learn from? We have a well-documented history and a rich heritage. But will there be any proof of this in a few years' time? Campaigns are introduced now and then and in some cases people are growing more aware, but when will the necessary steps be taken? We need immediate and well thought out action plans to save the historical monuments that are and should be recognised as the pride and glory of Bangladesh.

A sense of cynicism invaded my thoughts as I contemplated the corrupt and selfish world we live in today. Had I not thought everything was perfect only a couple of hours ago? How foolish of me to let my imagination run wild like that! But then again, maybe it isn't completely insane. Perhaps there's still time to do something. It's just strange to think that people realise what's wrong, know how to undo the wrong, are capable of taking the necessary actions but then decide not do anything about it at the end! How bizarre! We do have a bit of self-respect left in us, surely? If we can still indulge in patriotism and rhetoric, why is action being left out of the equation?

I desperately struggled to answer the questions troubling me as I travelled back home that evening. And while the presentation did not succeed in making me cry, it managed to break my heart and introduce a certain degree of frustration in me. Will the treasures of our land take the place of an untouchable mirage? I was worried as a stubborn desire for immediate action took over my mind. As they say, it's never too late but something should be done now…

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