Contributed by Reema Islam. About the Author: Reema is an environmentalist by profession working in the development sector in Dhaka, Bangladesh. With an active wanderlust Reema never misses an opportunity to travel to the remote regions of the country. Self consciously striving to be an eco friendly traveller while contributing her bit to protect the environment through her work, Reema’s real passion however lies in archeology. So from the elusive mangroves of the Sundarbans to the mysterious solitude of the Buddhist monastery ruins, Reema’s journeys take her to the greenest and the oldest regions of Bangladesh.
It was a glorious Friday morning with blue skies and fluffy white clouds. 6am, and even after a grueling week at work I didn’t mind waking up so early on the weekend as I was preparing to catch the 8:15 train to Comilla for an overnight trip with two friends. Mo arrived by 7:45 and we were off to the station where our friend Sadia met us and once the train arrived, we scampered with our bags to grab our seats on the first class carriage, normally at the front end of the train. A smart conductor in his uniform of blue shirt and maroon tie helped us into our compartment. Now trains in Bangladesh have been running since the British arrived and not much has changed in terms of the train design etc, but we weren’t expecting the quaint little passage with doors on its left that slid open to reveal a homely cubicle with spacious seats and a window and mirror on the back of the door! A merry combination of the Harry Potter trains and Wagon Lits from Agatha Christie books, we really had to hide our excitement. We shared the cabin with a family of three young girls and their parents who for the rest of the 4 hours journey kept offering us food and tea and biscuits and never let us pay for anything. Their warmth made the 4 hr journey seem like a half hour one! I furnished my two companions with info on the archeological sites we were going to see in Comilla and they diligently read all to grasp an idea on the history of ancient Comilla, that we were going to take a closer look at. The train arrived at Comilla station and we got off to catch an electric run Ez-Bike (7 hours of electrical charging makes it run for 100-110Km) to reach Sadia’s relatives’ house, who were nice enough to put us up for the night.
Comilla was known as Samatata from around 6th-13th century AD. Bangladesh fell under the region called Vanga and being at a close proximity to Maghada, which was quite a powerful state since the time of Asoka (304-232 BC). The Mahajanapadas or Great Learning Centers were a group of institutions that are said to have had an interactive relationship of knowledge sharing. The most famous one of these centres is said to have been Nalanda Institute in the now Bihar region of India. A corresponding university was said to be in Pundranagar, now lying in Naogaon district of Bangladesh. This centre is now designated a World Heritage Site and is called Paharpur. However a learning centre of probably a lesser kind was also discovered further South of the country. This institution is said to have housed 2000 monks at a time, as cited by the great Buddhist traveler Hiuen Tsang. As he weaved his passage through the Buddhist world of the 7-8th century AD, he came across temples, schools, monasteries and neighborhoods of people practicing the gospels of Buddha. In Samtata did he find one such institution and here did he document the name Kanakastupa Vihara. This could well be the now excavated Salban Vihara, the large monastery adjacent to the museum in Comilla now.
After a quick yet sumptuous lunch of beef bhuna laden with spices and oil and a mixed vegetable dish mixed with pulses (it was a Friday and Sadia’s family was enjoying it to the hilt!) we packed our bags with water bottles, flicked open our umbrellas, and tottered out with our full bellies in the roasting June afternoon sun! We booked a CNG driven tuk tuk and first headed to the Comilla museum, to be greeted by the remains of a fossilized tree at the entrance. Like all museums, we were not allowed to take pictures eventhough yours truly tried to sneak in a few but failed miserably as sans flash it would not work. A stunning collection of pottery shards, coins, huge stone mortars and pestles or “Shil & Batta” (where the mortar had caved in considerably with such extensive use) and not to forget the great many statues of the Buddha in various poses along with other Hindu gods and goddesses were on display. We gazed at the Buddha with his crown of curly hair bunched up on his head, Lord Vishnu with his two consorts Saraswati and Laxmi on either side, and a large bronze statue of Buddha in a Vajrasattva pose (sitting in a typical lotus pose, holding a thunderbolt in his right hand which is diamond shaped, supposed to cut through anything and not be cut itself, symbolizing purity and in his left hand is held a bell to symbolize wisdom and compassion. Together these 2 are essential in reaching enlightenment). The museum is large and houses many relics set in simple glass shelves, from the times of the Guptas, the Palas, the Chandra Senas and also the local ruling dynasties such as the Khagdas and the Devas, guarded by the sincere museum officials in plainclothes with the knack of swooping down upon you the moment your hand surreptitiously goes for the camera! After several foiled attempts at taking pictures I stepped out to the front entrance. Like all museums designed in Bangladesh, a tiny “bookshop”, consisting of two shelves set behind the old man at the ticket counter is situated near the main entrance. I brought out dusty old volumes of books I wanted to buy and brochures which cost so little that I wished the Govt had made them slightly more expensive so the Department of Archeology could raise some much needed revenue!
We stepped out in the blazing sun and walked down the sloping road to the Salbon Bihara, or Salavana Vihara as the signboard said, confusing my two friends, who had yet to learn how the names of these ancient sites were completely messed up on accounts of the confusion between Bengali and Sanskritic spellings. Vihara means monastery and Salbon is basically the Sal (shorea robusta tree) Forest (bon), so the locals call this place by a name given at a time when the forest still surrounded these parts and the Bihara was still not surrounded by the artificial garden now sprawling around it. With paved brick paths and flowers of every size and color that made one feel like they were in the middle of a very cheesy Indian movie shooting where the “hero” would pop up any moment from behind a tree and dance his way Jeetendra fashion, complete with white shoes, to his “heroine”, the garden was a welcome site for Friday revelers in their resplendent saris and bus loads of screeching kids. We blocked out the noise and concentrated at the lone kid sprinting across the boundary wall to the bihara (with our umbrellas open of course!) with signs everywhere warning visitors to NOT climb the wall. The main part is said to be the area that housed the main monastery for the students, a fact quite evident to even a novice like myself, with little cubicles that obviously accounted for the little cells where the monks resided. In total there are 115 cells and remnants of what could be a kitchen, abbot’s office and courtyard have been identified by the experts. However to inquisitive novices like, us all we could make out were possible windows or door jambs or a seat, none of which I am sure were correct. We photographed, waited in the sun for the people to clear off so we could take a picture of the vestige in its true form, gave up and left for our next destination.
I said “Itakhola Mura”, he gave me a puzzled look and said “there is no such place here”, I went into panic mode 1 and spluttered something incoherent at which his face gradually lit up and he said “Oh Ittkhola mura”! Ahhhh… the many phonetic wonders of our trip. Our tuk tuk driver labored on an upward sloping path and the vehicle heaved its way to arrive at yet another red brick built structure, in a cruciform design. These structures mainly depict either a monastery of sorts with a residence area, courtyard and maybe an office or two. Itakhola Mura had less people as it requires a mildly steep ascent to the main structure so we took pictures to our heart’s content. We climbed the main structure which had a staircase certainly newly installed by the Dept of Archeology to make it easier for visitors (much to the exasperation of Sadia who felt this mixture of old and new bricks was taking away the authenticity of the structure) and discovered to our delight a narrow passage with little alcoves in the wall probably meant to place oil lamps within. At the end of this passage was some kind of an alter but the real surprise was waiting for us when we climbed one storey ( the “stairs” were really the disintegrating bricks of the main walls, making us wonder whether we really should be climbing up in the first place..) and discovered the top of an iron cage. Looking into it we saw a large, whitish torso-less statue, in a lotus position walled in on all 4 sides. This in situ statue was not removed by the authorities and left to dazzle its visitors. The walls surrounding it also had the same alcoves for oil lamps, making us all speculate how they must have lit them considering the only way in was from where we were standing, one storey above. A ladder, ropes, or agile monks, however they lit those lamps in there, we came away animated and rearing to visit our next site.
The tuk tuk rolled down the slope and it suddenly started raining. The pre monsoon rain turned into quite a downpour so we ended up at the Cantonment canteen just down the road and ordered sweet tea with biscuits. The canteen was full of the locals watching the Friday movie show on the Bangladesh television (BTV) and while the “heroine” in a red silk gown with sequins was meeting her “hero” wearing a leather jacket and cowboy boots in a jail cell, we sipped our tea and serenely looked out at the road lined with trees on either side and the falling rain making the leaves dip rhythmically.
Once the rain ended, we took the short minute drive up to another sloping path and arrived at our last stop of the day, Rupban Mura. This site had more than one built structure as it contained a monastery, a cruciform temple and 2 votive stupas (so the museum brochure specified!) Stupas, especially votive stupas were a tradition that were popularized by Asoka when he had the remains of the Buddha brought in and distributed them in several hundreds of urns and placed these in the various temples that he had built. Thus the dome shaped stupa structure got absorbed into Buddhist architecture and morphed into the Pagodas of Japan and the striking tall, chimney type version of the Thai, Cambodian or the Java versions. A life size sandstone Buddha was found at Rupban Mura now resting in the museum and I promptly stepped into the cavity where it was and looked up to see a cruciform roof sloping upwards. The mura itself was harder to climb up than the other structures but we somehow managed although one of us (certainly NOT me) remained down pretending to be enjoying the serenity but frankly scared of heights! The Rupban Mura spoke little of its past but raised many questions as to some of the structures strewn around the site. Some were just raised octagonal brick platforms that frankly looked more like a stage set for a play or where a teacher must have sat and spoken to his disciples sitting around him on the ground beneath… we left pensive and wondering how the monks of Devaparvata must have lived.
We slept like babies to wake up refreshed and started off at 9:30am to reach the war cemetery within the Comilla Cantonment area. This cantt being the oldest in Bangaldesh was witness to the ravages of the 2nd World War when the Japanese were attacking the neighboring Burma. Hence troops from all Allied forces along with those of the then British colonies like India, East Africa et al are buried here. I have always felt that graveyards should somehow not be open to tourists and visitors, but the fact that I saw soldiers from all over the British Commonwealth countries and some of them as young as 19 years old, coupled with the touching epitaphs left by their families, left me quite impressed. To think that we as a country actually had a fairly important role to play in the war was indeed news to me. However the next stop uplifted our somber moods ending our trip on a high note.
Ranir Bungalow mound was next on my list of places before I leave Comilla and we spent a long time looking for it finally arriving at the Dharmasagr Ranir Kuti. The mound was somewhere neaby but by then we had decided to check out the colonial style bungalow, though not very well preserved that greeted us instead. We entered only to find the BARD folks (Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development, an old organization with a very spacious and picturesque campus near the Salbon Bihara) with an office there. Their presence has at least ensured that the bungalow is relatively well looked after. Rather an empty interior led to a gorgeous view of an expansive pond and a quaint garden with a small wooden boat in one corner. Apparently the King of the Trippera region or Tripura, Dharma Manikya would come to Comilla to hunt and was prompted to build a summer house. Hence the “Dharmasagar” or the huge pond was cut up in the 1400s and is said to have been the largest one in Bangladesh. The royal family of Tripura now reside in Agartala, India. The lovely breeze that wafted over the pond was so calming that we just sat on the wide stairs that led down to it like a typical ghat and forgot all about our train in half hour!
The train was unfortunately three hours late and we came back home, hungry and exhausted, but with renewed gusto for our next visit.
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