Monuments in a Flood Zone: "Builders" and "Recipients" in Ancient Varendri, (Eastern India and Bangladesh)

Article excerpt


Anyone who has seen the imposing Buddhist Vihara at Paharpur in Bangladesh is filled with a sense of wonder at this towering eighth--ninth century AD monument rising above the flat Holocene terrain (Figure 1: The surrounding terrain; Figure 2: The Monument of Paharpur). The alluvial landscape of the area is interspersed with similar structural remains, although few are so magnificent as the one at Paharpur. Such monuments were constructed by the Pala kings between approximately ninth to eleventh century AD in the eastern part of India and Bangladesh in a region covering about 1200 square kilometres, the ancient name of which was Varendri (Figure 3). They have been classified on the basis of structural details and religious attributes by researchers in this domain. But given the lavish nature of the architecture and the impression it creates on a spectator in this dull, monotonous land, it makes one wonder what impact they had in the past, and for whom. Were they major landmarks, the relics of former political centres or the residences of reclusive monks?


According to Tilley (1994; 1996) landscapes are experienced and known through the movement of the human body in space and time. Because landscape plays such an important role in the constitution of self-identity, controlling knowledge of it may become a primary resource in the creation and reproduction of repressive power or structures of social dominance. This control could be expressed in one way, through the symbolically effective placing of monuments in the landscape. Architecture is a potent medium for controlling people; what they see and do.

There are certain limits to this view of landscape, in that all the people moving around processional routes or around monuments are taken to be universal people. The monuments have been appropriated by the archaeologist: 'me as monument' (Hodder 1999: 136). This lack of focus on individual lives is closely related to the refusal to consider specific cultural and historical meanings (Hodder 1999). Thomas's defence of the phenomenological approach is that we are entering into the same set of material relationships in which people found themselves in the past, in order to produce our own interpretations. Using our own bodies as analogues for those of the past we are seeking to "reanimate" a past world and in the process to identify the ways in which it differed from our own (Thomas 2001).

I agree that the effect is concerned with the individual experience of encountering sites, a subjective response to the landscape which has its own validity. However it seems difficult to assume that experiences will be universal; landscape and monuments represent a variety of constantly changing meanings that are determined by the light in which they are seen. Moreover certain people "built" the monuments while others are the "recipients" (Holtorf 2000), and these are likely to have different attitudes to them. Why were these monuments created by the "builders"? Were they of vital importance in the creation of authority? Did the "recipient", on the other hand, actually respond to this authority? How did they "receive" this newly created landscape? What is the difference between the experience of the "builders" and the "recipients"? People constructed monuments in a way that made sense then, much as we do today. How is the experience of contemporary urban Indian, Western-educated archaeologists like us different from the experience of the past? Whose landscape are we "experiencing" today? This article is an effort to distinguish the experience of similar landscapes by different individuals, between builders and recipients, between past and present.

The nature of the land: monsoon country

The Varendri.region, which lies in the Pleistocene Barind Formation is high, open, undulating and devoid of shade. The ground is hard and drinking water is scarce, but in autumn the country is a green expanse of winter rice. …