BOGRA/BAGERHAT, Bangladesh: Many will have heard of Bangladesh as a populous country with a large majority-Muslim population, sitting on the Bay of Bengal next to its much larger neighbor, India. Beneath the surface, however, lies a country with a heritage that boasts huge religious diversity and ancient buildings that reward the effort of the tourists willing to go the extra mile to see them.
Bangladesh’s current religious makeup is a product of tumultuous events from the 20th century. The historic region of Bengal encompassed the modern Bangladeshi state, as well as a large part of what is today northeast India, including the major city of Calcutta. However, during the 1947 partition of India, Bengal was roughly split along religious lines. The larger, eastern part initially became East Pakistan, but became independent Bangladesh after 1971. Islam became the state religion in 1988.
The significance of Islam in Bangladesh is attested by the magnificent Sixty Dome Mosque in the southwestern district of Bagerhat. The 15th-century mosque, beautifully situated between a lake and an exquisitely tended garden, offers a fascinating perspective on the divergent schools of thought in mosque architecture: The low ceilings and hypostyle plan echo early mosques such as that of Ibn Tulun in Cairo; the multiple, regular domes recall the Old Mosque in Edirne, Turkey. The thick brick walls are typical of the Tughlaq style, named after the dynasty that ruled the Indian subcontinent in the 14th and 15th century. Inside, the white ceilings and cool brick floor offer a welcome respite from the oppressive tropical sun.
Further north, ruins from many more long-dead civilizations demonstrate Bangladesh’s rich cultural diversity. The ruins at Somapura Mahavihara have survived in an excellent state since the 8th century, when the Bengal region was under the control of the Pala Empire, which at its height dominated the north Indian subcontinent in the foothills of the Himalayas. The ruins were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
The power of that empire is evident from the magnificent remains of the temple’s central shrine. The foundations of the complex’s 177 monks’ cells laid out around its periphery indicate the complex’s enormous size. A terraced brick superstructure rises 21 meters to dominate the flat landscape of the surrounding paddy fields. Around its edges are hundreds of intricate, individually unique terracotta tiles that offer enough intrigue to keep the curious traveler entertained for an entire day.
Between these two ancient sites, on the Padma River that bisects western Bangladesh, is a completely different example of historical Bangladesh. Lining a small, still lake, a number of terracotta Hindu temples make up the Puthia Temple Complex.
Built in 1823, the Bhubaneswar Shiva Temple - the largest shrine to Shiva in the country - features a raised central spire decorated with hundreds of mini-domes. On the four corners of the square base, painted a cool white, sit ancillary domes. A sweeping staircase leads visitors down onto a rich green lawn, and then onto the lake.
A short distance away, in the inner precincts of the magnificent Puthia palace, the Pachna Ratna Govinda Temple echoes its neighbor in form, but its walls are decorated in unpainted terracotta tiles of a deep brown.
Getting to each of these magnificent sites can be a challenge: Public transport links are poor, and many of the buildings are a long way off the beaten track, so it may be necessary to hire a driver. Nevertheless, committed travelers will be rewarded with the experience of a unique and diverse architectural and religious heritage.