Stuart Forster pays a visit to the ruins of Somapura Mahavira monastery
For the briefest of moments I spot what looks like a reddish pyramid, then it disappears behind the trees. From within the moving minibus I gauge the height of the ancient monument to be around 70ft, thanks to a woman in a yellow sari walking on it.
We’ve been jolting along on country roads for the past three hours. Our destination, the town of Paharpur, is 90 miles from the city of Rajshahi. This isolation means relatively few foreign visitors make the effort to come to the Somapura Mahavira ruins, one of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bangladesh.
A thousand years ago, between 2,000 and 5,000 Mahayana Buddhist monks would’ve been praying, studying and meditating here, explains my guide. This was once one of the largest, most important monasteries south of the Himalayas, but an invasion more than 800 years ago led to the decline and, ultimately, abandonment of this place.
It’s still a sizable site and, on account of the neatly trimmed grass, reminds me of a public park. We stand by the knee-high remnants of a handful of the 177 tiny brick-built cells once used by monks. Even today, the Bangladeshi countryside is dotted with the chimneys of numerous brick works, producing the country’s chief building material.
I wonder how many bricks were used, 12 centuries ago, to construct the central stupa here – it’s a struggle to envisage the pyramidical ruin during its heyday, when it would have resembled one of the ornate temples of Angkor Wat. Somapura Mahavira influenced the architectural style of Southeast Asia’s stupas, my guide tells me.
A group of teenagers are snapping pictures of me with their smartphones. They interpret my smile as an invitation to click a couple more. As my group wanders towards the stupa, one of the lads asks which country I’m from. “Very good!” they chorus, when I tell them Britain.
On reaching the three-tiered temple, I squat to photograph details around its base: terracotta plaques depicting peacocks, shield-bearing warriors and dancing elephants. A small crowd gathers to observe me in action, as if I’m some kind of street entertainer. I show a couple of the kids the display on the back of my camera. They grin, say something, and then everybody wants to see the pictures.
Circumnavigating the stupa takes time. Countless families and school groups ask me to pose with them for pictures, some even snap photos from up on the temple. They’re giving everyone in my international tour group the celebrity treatment.
“Thank you for visiting Bangladesh,” says a middle-aged man out with his family. “Please tell your friends this is a good place,” he adds, shaking my hand.