Bangladesh: Building National Identity through Archaeology

Article excerpt


For a developing nation, Bangladesh has a surprisingly large number of active archaeological excavations and museums. Resources have been invested not only in the capital city of Dhaka, but also in regional centres where there are archaeological museums and sites open for public visitation. These venues, identified by politicians and philosophers as the repositories for symbols of heritage and national identity, provide another significant benefit in the form of open public space for recreation and leisure. The use of these spaces by growing numbers of urban-dwelling Bangladeshis illustrates the often under-appreciated phenomenon of domestic tourism as a component of archaeological heritage management in developing nations.

From the late centuries BC to the medieval period, the deltaic region where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra meet was celebrated for its prosperity and agricultural fertility. The majority of archaeological remains in Bangladesh date to the 3rd century BC and later (Chakrabarti 1992). Archaeologically known chronological periods can be characterized as follows: Mauryan and post-Mauryan, 3rd century BC-AD 3rd century; Gupta, 4th-6th centuries AD; Pala, 8th-12th centuries AD; and medieval, 13th-18th centuries AD. At present, there are active archaeological projects undertaken in each dry season, including excavation, mapping and architectural conservation. The country has two sites designated as UNESCO World Heritage monuments: the 15th-century AD Islamic city of Bagerhat, and Paharpur, dating to between the 8th and 12th centuries AD and the subcontinent's largest Buddhist monastery. Other prominent sites include Mainamati with its Buddhist remains of the 7th to the 12th centuries AD and the city of Mahasthangarh (Salles 1995; Gill 1999).

Archaeology and national heritage

The history and archaeology of Bangladesh is intimately tied in with the remainder of South Asia, a region in which the interpretation of national heritage is often brought into political dialogues (Coningham & Lewer 1999; Crick 1994; Manda11993; Rao 1994; Silva 1989; Singh 1980-81; Smith in press). During the British colonial era, this portion of the Indian subcontinent witnessed numerous regional struggles over identity tied to economic and political boundary-making, and while there was a shared language (Bengali/Bangla) making the region distinct from the remainder of India, there were nonetheless growing divisions between Hindus and Muslims as well. A short-lived attempt to separate the region along religious lines was made in 1905-1912 and served as a precursor to the geopolitical configuration seen today (Baxter 1984).

The region of Bangladesh has passed through the crucible of two independence movements in the 20th century, first from Britain in 1947 when the region became part of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan subsequent to the partition of the Indian subcontinent. There were, however, significant disputes between the two geographically separated halves of the nation over trade, economic development, the role of religion in public life, and the non-recognition of Bangla as an official language (Baxter 1984). The latter served as a flash point for a language-based independence movement, and in 1971 the region of East Pakistan fought a devastating war to achieve sovereignty and become the nation-state of Bangladesh.

As a result of these successive divisions, Bangladesh is somewhat unusual among postcolonial nations in that its people speak a single language, Bangla, and have a high degree of religious homogeneity with about 85% of the population being Muslim (Madan 1998; see also Chakravarty 1974; Kohl 1998). In the creation of this new nation nearly 30 years ago, linguistic unity and a claim to a distinct regional identity were manifested in patriotic songs, theatre performances and literature (Osmany 1992; Majumdar 1979). This process of nation-building also made explicit references to material culture and archaeological remains (Khan 1972: 22):

It is a national pride of every country to display her cultural treasures in museums which are the veritable mirrors of a nation's history . …