Shompur Vihar and the varendric settlers
Vipul Sri Mitras' Nalanda inscription 'a singular feast to the eyes of the world' says it all about Shompur Vihar, now Paharpur, built and established by Pal king Dharmapal during 770 AD. Excavations in 1927 of the main temple exposed a copper plate dated 448 AD of Kumar Gupta of the Gupta era confirming the fact that the place was well inhabited even before the Pal period. The inscription tells of a land grant made for Jaina monks, disciples of monk 'Guhanandan', belonging to the sect 'Pancha Stupanikaya', which is situated in today's 'Batgohali Jainas' occupation in Paharpur proving beyond doubt that the history of the Bihar goes back a long way. Some pre-Pal sculptural pieces found in the nearby village reconfirm this fact. In all probability, Jainas' occupation in and around Varendra can be dated even beyond this period as they were the original settlers before the Buddhist advent in this region.
Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Sang's tract that dates back to 645 AD also confirms beyond doubt that Lalmai-Mainamati and Varendric lands were mostly occupied by the naked and clothed Jainas residing side by side hundreds of years earlier, which automatically dates the area beyond 1st century BC. Besides, 'Sangbangyas' mentioned in the Ashok inscription, found at Mahastangarh, which dates back to 3rd century BC, were one of the five original Jaina sects living in and around 'Pundanagal', Sanskritized at a much later date as 'Pundravardhana', is also ample proof of the fact that the tradition goes back a long, long time.
It is worth mentioning here that Ashok, a Jaina by birth as he was the grandson of the emperor Chandragupta, who was a Jaina, turned to Buddhism at a later date. And Vadrabahu, a Jaina teacher, who hailed from the Varendra, was Chandragupta's mentor and a friend.
Therefore, it is more than clear that the Jainas were the original settlers here in the land of Varendra and the surrounding areas and at Paharpur as well. The Vihar in fact is situated on top of a Jaina temple. A cruciformed four-faced temple was found after excavation during 1925-26 on top of virgin soil and the next layer on top of it was Dharma Pal's vihar.
Situated in Badalgachhi union of Naogaon, Sompur Vihar was first officially discovered by Buchanon Hamilton somewhere around 1807-12 AD. He found the site to be about 30-45 metres high. And then in 1875, Westmacot, District Magistrate of Dinajpur, marked it as Pal period Buddha Vihar as did Hamilton. Interestingly, Cunningham, during 1879, wrongly marked the site as a Brahminical temple.
The first excavation was reported in 1923, and then it went on in multiple phases: from 1925 to -26 and 1930 to -31, and finally it was Dikshit who had an excavation in between 1933 and -34.
Surrounded by a fort wall, the area of the monastic building was 284 by 282 metres, and the thickness of the walls was around 4.4 metres. There were 177 monastic cells in all, and each room measured approximately 4.2 by 4.1 metres, with altogether 45 cells in the northern wing and 44 each in the other three wings. The structure, as was found lately, rose to an approximate height of 23 metres, having two terraces between the top and the bottom. There was, and still is, a staircase that has access to the two terraces from the north.
The outer walls were filled up with terracotta plaques set in recessed panels. A single row of these plaques at the basement and two rows in the upper terraces were filled with sculptures wrongly depicted, as did Cunningham, in Brahminical sculptures. But mostly they were found to be of Buddhist origin.
In those days only the Jainas and the Buddhists, who came later, were the original settlers and no other religious sects were inhabiting in and around the varendric land and the deities of the Buddhists were the same as that of the Jainas as there is a history of appropriation of the Jaina deities by the religions that made their emergence later.
First, they were slowly but automatically incorporated into the Buddhist creed. Ganesh, for example, is a Jaina god, not a Brahminical property, as is often taken for granted. It is at a much later date, when Jainism and Buddhism declined that Hinduism took Ganesh along with other deities into its fold. From the Gupta 240AD to the Gupta 550AD they were all known to be a part of Jaina belief system. Therefore, as the Guptas declined as a dynasty, the financial patronage for the Jainas from the Guptas vanished causing the Jainas to fade away, thereby creating an opportunity for the Buddhists to surface with, of course, the financial backup from the kings of the Pal dynasty.
Later, following the invasion of Bakhtiar Khilji, the two main religion of this region fell into disfavour, in fact Khilji's arrival hastened the departure of the Jainas and the Buddhists around 13th century. They dispersed towards the hills and forests of Harikel. During 1585 Ralph Fitch saw some of the Jainas feeding ants with sugar in Tripura.
Among the terracotta plaques, some were identified as Bodhisatta, Padmasri, Manjusri and Tara. On some, there were depictions of the life of peasants and their families. These were rendered mostly in crude basic forms. During the excavation, a copper plate inscription was discovered in the verandah at the north-east corner dated 479 AD of Budha Gupta's rule. This was a land grant donated to Jaina vihar, the chief of the vihar since he was a famous Jaina teacher who went by the name of Guhanandin. This copper plate inscription was the oldest among all the other inscriptions found here. Jagadishpur copper plate inscription is another example, which was donated by Kumar Gupta during 447-48, for the same cause as mentioned earlier, to a Jaina vihar by a Jaina disciple. Apart from these plates, four stone pillar inscriptions were also found in the vihar and they were donated to the cause of Buddha 'Triratna', indicating the fact that the Jainas and the Buddhists were living in perfect harmony.
Besides the plaques and copper plates, important finds like coins and statues were also discovered after the excavation at the site. Coins dating 778 AD of Sultan Harun-ar-Rashid of Baghdad, five copper coins dating back to the Pal period, silver coin of Emperor Akbar, coins of Sher Shah (1540-48), Islam Shah (1550-53), Giasuddin Bahadur Shah (1557-58), Daud Karrani (1573-74) and Sultan Hussain Shah Sharki were also found. In one room (Room no. 122), 3 and half seers of 'Kowri' were also found.
Statues of Buddha, Jaina deities including Ganesh were found in small numbers, as was also a naked Jaina deity in front of room number170 of the monastery. Four stucco heads of Buddha were also discovered in the verandah at the south west corner of the temple.
The Jainas and the Buddhists were the settlers of the land of varendra from pre-Ashok period till they were driven out during the 13th century. A singular feast to the eyes, the Shompur Vihar, was a wonder of the world in those days and therefore attracted many scholars including the famous Atish Dipankar and the likes as well as thousands of disciples from both far and near turning this into an epicentre of knowledge and spirituality as well as ensuring it long life as a phenomenal site to visit till the Pals faded into history at the beginning of 13th century.
OMAR KHALID RUMI, an ex-national cricketer and a musician, turned to archaeology during 1996 and has so far contributed to leading English and Bengali dailies on the subject. He is currently working on a book on archaeology and soon to be released photography exhibition.