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What is the Somapura Mahavihara?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

Somapura Mahavihara is a large monastery in Bangladesh. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1985. Somapura Mahavihara is an incredibly important site in Bangladesh, and is one of the most well-known monasteries in Southeast Asia.

Somapura Mahavihara dates to the 8th century, and is perhaps most notable for its incredible size. It is the second-largest Buddhist monastery south of the Himalayas, with the complex itself covering more than 20 acres, almost a million square feet (85,000 sq. meters). The Somapura Mahavihara is important for the three major historical religions in the region, serving as a center for Jains, Hindus, and Buddhists.

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Woman waving

The Somapura Mahavihara consists of 177 distinct cells, with a number of stupas and temples accompanying the main complex. The entire thing is encircled by large walls which have various ornamentation, bearing testament to the Jains, Hindus, and Buddhists who inhabited the monastery. Each of the four sides of the Somapura Mahavihara is precisely 922 feet (281m) long, built around a massive inner courtyard that houses the inner shrine.

The Somapura Mahavihara was built by King Dharmapala of the Pala Dynasty, in the late 8th century. The Somapura Mahavihara was inhabited steadily for a few centuries, before being abandoned in the 12th century, following repeated attacks and being burnt nearly to the ground in the 11th century by the Vanga army. Over the next centuries the Somapura Mahavihara steadily declined and disintegrated, left abandoned by the new Muslim rulers of the area, until reaching its current state of decay.

The Somapura Mahavihara was entirely covered by grass over the centuries after its abandonment, and it was more or less forgotten at that point. The site is often referred to as Paharpur, which simply means hill town, reflecting the fact that the site was often thought to simply be a hill. In the 1920s the site began to be excavated, and more and more was uncovered over the next decades. Work increased drastically after independence, and by the early-1990s the site was at roughly its current level of excavation.

The site is found deep in the countryside of Bangladesh, and many people find one of the most pleasant experiences of their visit to be traveling so far into rural Bengali life. Because of its relatively remote location, Somapura Mahavihara is not overrun with tourists, and it is possible to have a peaceful, fairly uninterrupted experience of the place. The entire site can be taken in within a few hours for those on a tight schedule, but the various terracotta pictures throughout can easily occupy an entire day or more for those who want to delve more deeply into the site.

There is a museum near the site as well, to give visitors a bit more information about the Somapura Mahavihara. The museum contains a number of ornaments, relics, and coins that were discovered in the site. Guidebooks are available, and guided tours can help get a better understanding of the site.

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