The Ancient Monastery of Jagaddala

During the winter of 1996, the Department of Archeology in Bangladesh undertook to excavate a large mound of earth thought to conceal buildings of historical significance in the Varendra region of modern day Bangladesh. The mound measures around 105 meters by 85 meters, and the initial small-scale excavations revealed the remains of a Buddhist monastery thought to have been built by Ramapala, the fifteenth ruler of the Pala Empire which existed in the eastern region of the Indian subcontinent between 750 and 1174 CE.

Hundreds of viharas (Buddhist monasteries) were established by rulers of the Pala Empire, but five were distinct as mahaviharas (great monasteries) – namely Somapur, Odantapura, Vikramashila, Nalanda and Jagaddala – serving as a network of centers of Buddhist learning. Jagaddala specialized in the form of Buddhism referred to as Vajrayana, and also known as Tantric Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism and Mantrayana, and a significant number of texts featured in the Tibetan Buddhist Canon were either composed or copied at Jagaddala. It is also believed that the earliest collection of Sanskrit verse composed by the respected Buddhist scholar Vidyakara was penned at Jagaddala in the late 11th or early 12th century. Scholars believe that inhabitants of Jagaddala abandoned the monastery ahead of Muslim invaders and it was destroyed in 1207.

Only a relatively small portion of the site has been excavated so far, but even this limited exploration has yielded some interesting artifacts. Included in the more than 150 items found are stone sculptures; terracotta plaques; inscriptions on stone; ornamental blocks etched with zigzag patterns and lotus petals; earthen pots in many shapes and sizes; pedestals; beads and iron nails. The terracotta plaques decorating one of the walls depict deer, birds, an archer and a doorkeeper. A black stone image of Vishnu, as well as a limestone-carved image of Heruka – the wrathful protector of Buddhist devotees – has also been unearthed. Important discoveries, which assisted in setting a date for the construction and habitation of Jagaddala, were inscribed stone pillars – one near the southwest corner and another near the monastery’s eastern gateway.

Although archeological discoveries have confirmed some of the theories of history scholars, more work needs to be done to unearth the mysteries of Jagaddala. In 1999, details of Jagaddala Mahavihara were submitted to UNESCO for ranking as a World Heritage site and it is currently on UNESCO’s tentative site list for this status.