Bustling Bogra is a sprawling town centred around the hectic Shat Matha – seven road junction. Ollie and I stayed at the lovely Red Chillies Guest House in the centre of town, which included a fantastic Bangla style buffet breakfast.
Although we only really used Bogra as a base in which to explore two impressive archaeological sites further afield, we quite liked the city for its decent restaurant offerings and the local speciality, mishti doi. This is a sweetened yoghurt dish, sold in dedicated shops all over town, and was the tastiest in all of Bangladesh.
From Bogra we made two day trips; our first excursion was to the ancient walled city of Mahasthangarh, just 30 minutes away by local bus. Mahasthangarh is considered to be the oldest city in Bangladesh, dating back to around the 3rd Century BC; as such very few ancient structures remain. The main site, the citadel, consists mainly of foundations and hillocks that merely hint at its rich past; its outer walls form a rough rectangle of about 2 sq km.
Over the centuries the site was used by Hindu empires, as well as Muslim and Buddhist occupations. Two points of interest within the citadel are Jiyat Kunda, which means Well of Life, and the plinth work of the Parshuram Palace, the residence of one of the past Hindu kings.
The Well of Life dates from the 18th Century and its waters were said to have supernatural healing powers. What we loved most about this archaeological site was its peaceful rural setting. The inside of the fort is now mostly used as farmland and offered a pretty pastoral panorama in which to walk beside.
We walked the length of the citadel, roughly along the line of the main road, to the museum, just outside the far entrance to the site. Though we didn’t actually go inside the museum, we read that it is a good place in which to familiarise yourself with local history. Highlights include statues of Hindu gods, terracotta plaques depicting scenes of daily life and some well-preserved bronze images found in nearby monastery ruins.
Just over the road, opposite the museum, lies the Govinda Bhita Hindu Temple, which is now in ruins. It dates from the 6th Century and is dedicated to Krishna; though the temple itself isn’t much to see, the tranquil location beside the river makes for a picturesque place to sit for a few moments in quiet contemplation.
The other major site at Mahasthangarh is Bashor Ghar, located in pretty Gokul village roughly 1.5km south of the citadel. Set within a well maintained garden complex, Bashor Ghar is the grandest of Mahasthangarh’s sites and makes for some great photo ops.
The multi-tiered red-brick pavillion dates to around the 7th Century, though it was only excavated 80 years ago. The walk here from the main road winds past glowing green paddy fields and through a rural village; the bucolic setting is very picturesque and reminded us that Bangladesh is extremely beautiful once you escape its maddening towns and cities.
The second day trip we made from Bogra was to Paharpur, home to the most impressive archaeological site in the country and the third and final UNESCO World Heritage site in Bangladesh. The Somapuri Vihara was once the largest Buddhist monastery south of the Himalayas, dating from the 8th Century AD; today it is all in ruin.
To get there we took a local bus to Jaipurhat and then, as the next bus to Paharpur wasn’t leaving for another 30 minutes, took a CNG on to the site. This journey proved to be a very scenic one as, instead of taking the direct route on the main road, the driver took us via small country roads that wound past emerald green rice fields and through traditional mud hut villages. It was very scenic and provided us with another beautiful insight into rural Bangladeshi life.
Somapuri Vihara itself is easily the most worthwhile sight in the country and the grounds are very well maintained; we spent a good hour or so wandering the ruins. Covering 11 hectares, the complex is shaped like a quadrangle; monastic cells line the outer walls and enclose an enormous open-air courtyard with a hulking 20-metre-high red brick stupa at its centre.
Apart from the walls of the stupa, almost every other structure within the complex has been reduced to its plinths and base walls over time. The monastery is thought to have been used by Buddhists, Jains and Hindus, which explains the mixture of artwork that can be found.
It is possible to stay within the grounds at the Archaeological Rest House, which allows visitors the chance to experience the serenity of the ruins after all other visitors have left. Seeing the monastery at sunrise or sunset would certainly have made for a wonderful experience and some truly atmospheric photos.
It was easy enough to make the trip from Bogra in a day though – roughly 2 hours each way – and we were happy with what we saw. Paharpur was a fascinating place to wander and one corner of Bangladesh that is definitely worth including on any travel itinerary to the country.