Cambridge University Professor of Indian Archaeology Professor Dilip Chakrabarti shares, in his fine work ‘Ancient Bangladesh’, that there are over 50 Vihara sites in Mainamati, close to Comilla on the Tropic of Cancer, in South East Bangladesh.
On yet another of the Pliocene ridges upon which much of the 10,000 year archaeology of Bangladesh stands, this extraordinary 12 mile row of ancient sites represents one of the largest concentrations in the world. Remarkable, even by the standards of Bangladesh, where the presence of at least 300 such sites represents the world’s most intense concentration and justifies assumptions that, from the time of the Prince Gautama, who himself certainly shared his teachings here under the patronage of the Magda king, his first noble convert in the early 5th/late 6th Century BCE, Bangladesh was one of the main areas in which Buddhism developed, alongside the evolving Hindu religion, and the contemporary Jain faith.
At Kotbari in Mainamati, standing in close proximity to each other, five such Vihara are easily visited.
The hill top, pyramid structure of the largest of these...it is hard to distinguish between the natural hill, and the hill topping structures...has views across dozens of miles of the surrounding deltaic plains. Facing east, close to the top, are the remains of what was probably a twelve foot Buddha in the classic ‘Lotus’ position. Decapitated by whosoever terminated the Buddhist study, education and worship hereabouts, and the culprit remains unclear, it may well have originally been clad in gold, the glinting of the sun and its high position making it visible from a great distance.
It is apparent that, as with most archaeological sites in Bangladesh, a country with limited resources for such work and many more desk bound archaeologists than field workers, the sites are largely unexplored. Even the largest stands on ground that continues to fall away sharply below the excavated line, suggesting further layers yet to be uncovered.
Whilst dating plaques have been found for the land grants of 12th Century, excavations so far suggest that the developments reach back to at least the 7th Century and early Pala period. However, excavations in the North Bengal of some of the more famous sites, such as Paharpur, have revealed Mauryan Period (3rd Century BCE) brickwork, and since excavations at Kotbari are clearly fairly superficial, it may well be that construction of a far earlier date remains to be exposed.
An hour or so spent in Kotbari will give a glimpse to the interested visitor of the astonishing extent of Buddhist remains in the country.