Thursday, 12 March 2015

Where Mystery Meets History

Under the earth there's a story to tell. Sitakot in Nawabganj of Dinajpur.

Sitakot detail.
Sun-bright, heat-baked, sweat-dripping, glare-straining: is this the scene that greeted Sita when she followed husband Rama into exile in the wilderness? She would’ve needed a glass of water.

Wall with chambers, Sitakot.
Divine daughter of the earth-goddess Bhūmi; found in a furrow and adopted by King Janaka of Nepal; married to Rama; avatar of Lakshmi and wife of Vishnu: Sita’s life story takes pride of place in Valmiki’s epic Ramayana.

First she followed her husband and they made a home in the forest. Later, abandoned by him and pregnant, she wandered the forest again, taking final refuge in the hermitage of Valmiki. He was the author of the Ramayana revered as Ādi Kavi, the First Poet. He is credited with inventing śloka, the epic meter that defined Sanskrit poetry.

A brilliant grass rectangle.

As a single mother she raised her sons and once they had reunited with their father, she sought refuge once more in the arms of her divine mother Bhūmi. Hearing her pleas, the Earth split open. Bhūmi appeared and took Sita from an unjust world.

Brickwork at Sitakot.
Brilliant grassy stretch over hillock and rectangular ruin: Sitakot in Nawabganj of Dinajpur. The place is as shimmering as its legend.

“I heard the name Sitakot from long before, from my grandfather,” says one villager. “I heard Sita was here.”

At the main-road tea shop, noise has come. Any visitor will attract attention and enthusiastic chatter. In the local psyche, a part of neighbourhood identity, Sitakot is like a relative. So, you’ve come to visit the ancient site? Then you’ve come to visit all of us.

The carved hillock of Sitakot.

Enthusiasm in the local tea shop.
Delighted mention follows of a sal forest further in, the last remnants of Sita’s forest so locals say. There’s the waterhole, Ashurer Beel, within it; and arrangements are quickly made for a cycle van to take you. Meanwhile a shopkeeper gives free betel leaf to chew.

When advised you may never see him again, he says: “That’s just why I want to give it.” Friendlier people have become difficult to imagine.

Farmhouse gateway.

Neat mud farmhouse and chicken yard lie along the bright dirt track. Sitakot occupies its sundrenched hillock to the right. Rice field and plough: it’s quintessential rural Bangladesh and not hard to imagine one Sita found there somewhere, as a baby in a furrow. If only it had happened that way…

The road to Sitakot.

Despite the legend that has long mingled in the locality the site has no relation to the Ramayana.

Mudbrick houses nearby.

For one thing, Sita’s actual forest, the Dandaka, the Panchavati, is near Nashik, beside the Godavari River in Maharashtra. It’s not Nawabganj National Park. For another, Valmiki’s hermitage is on the bank of the Tamasa in Uttar Pradesh; not beside Ashurer Beel. So what is Sitakot, then?

From the central courtyard of the complex.
A wall nice in a cell. For a Buddha image?

Historically, Sitakot is not born of Hinduism. It’s a Pala-dynasty Mahayana Buddhist monastery from the 7th – 8th centuries. Roughly sixty-five by sixty-five metres, the site features 40 cells around a large courtyard. Its broad entrance measures 1.8 metres. Unlike many monasteries of its vintage there is no evidence of a central temple. Rather, on three sides are larger cells with pedestals that might have housed divine figures.

Beyond that not much is known; two bronze images of Bodhisattva Padmapani and Boddhisattva Manjushri were recovered, helping to give an approximate date to the site. Ink pots, terracotta toys and ornamental bricks were found.

Sitakot: actually an ancient Buddhist monastery.
Local Morfidul Islam, 30, of Golabganj village, speaks of the discovery of an axe. “When a cowherd pushed his koti (the stick to which cows are tied) into the ground he heard a clang. When they dug they found the axe.”
“Foreigners come once or twice a year,” he says, “Sometimes Hindus perform puja.”
There is further excavation work to do at Sitakot. Islam thinks he knows why the archaeologists keep their distance. “The earlier diggers had a dream that if they keep digging they will die.”

The start of Nawabganj sal forest.

It might not be that Sita was there – and the Buddhist history is impressive enough. But to think of it in another way, Bhūmi surely dwells wherever there is soil; in a landscape as idyllic as that, Valmiki’s poetic meter must find its home. In capturing village imagination Sita has nonetheless staked some claim to the place. Sitakot is of her memory, at least, if not her slated geography.

The cycle van.
Perhaps it’s generally true that shade follows sun. Beyond, the sal trees start and the cycle van winds into a darker, not less beautiful world. Suddenly, in the forest are faces… curious, different-looking, non-Bengali faces…

Nawabganj National Park keeps yet another history. Under the canopy at its edges the culture and wisdom of the Santhals shelters… 

Suddenly a new history... the surprise of Santhal faces.

Me on the cycle van, Nawabganj National Park.

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