Evidence of the rise of Mahayana Buddhism in Bengal from the 7th century onwards, Somapura Mahavira, or the Great Monastery, was a renowned intellectual centre until the 12th century. Its layout perfectly adapted to its religious function, this monastery-city represents a unique artistic achievement. With its simple, harmonious lines and its profusion of carved decoration, it influenced Buddhist architecture as far away as Cambodia.
Geographically located to the north-west of Bangladesh in the district of Naogaon, the heart-land of ancient “Varendra”, close to the village of Paharpur the extensive ruins of the Buddhist monastic complex are the most spectacular and important pre-Islamic monument in Bangladesh.
The first builder of the monastery was Dharmapala Vikramshila (770-810AD), the king of Varendri-Magadha, as inscribed on a clay seal discovered in the monastery compound. The plan of the monastery can be described as a large square quadrangle measuring approximately 920 feet, with the main entrance, an elaborate structure, on the northern side. The outer walls of the monastery are formed by rows of cells that face inwards toward the main shrine in the centre of the courtyard. In the last building phases of the Monastery these cells, which formed the outer wall, totalled 177. The main central shrine has a cruciform ground plan and a terraced superstructure that rises in three terraces above ground level to a height of about 70 feet. The upper level is a massive rectangular central block which forms the central brick shaft. The intermediate terrace is a wide circumambulatory path which passes four main chapels or mandapas architectural plan, it is in fact a simple cruciform that has been elaborated with a series of projections at the re-entrants, a form that is copied at all levels on the main shrine. At the intermediate level there were originally two bands of terracotta plaques running around the full perimeter of the shrine, out of which half are still preserved in situ.
The ground level today is 3 feet above the original pradakshinapatha or main circumambulatory path, below the base of the lowest band of terracotta plaques. Archaeological excavations have revealed a 15 feet pathway that follows an elaborated cruciform shape, a feature that can be discerned from the foundations of the outer wall that enclose the pathway and that still exist. At the base of the shrine, there are over 60 stone sculptures which depict a variety of Hindu divinities. The main entrance to the monastery was through a fortified gate on the northern access to the central temple. The majority of the ancillary buildings, such as the kitchen and the refectory, are located in the south-east corner, but there were also a few structures to be found in the north-east corner.
Epigraphic records testify that the cultural and religious life of this great Vihara, were closely linked with the contemporary Buddhist centres of fame and history at Bohdgaya and Nalanda, many Buddhist treatises were completed at Paharpur, a centre where the Vajrayana trend of Mahayana Buddhism was practiced.
Today, Paharpur is the most spectacular and magnificent monument in Bangladesh and the second largest single Buddhist monastery on south of the Himalayas.