Stupas and site visits across Southeast Asia

Professor Ruth Young tells us about her summer adventures across Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan
Stupas and site visits across Southeast Asia

Ruth and the Lion of Babylon

Bangladesh does not get a particularly good press – one of the most densely populated countries in the world (and Dhaka often gets singled out as a very crowded city) with high levels of poverty, poor employment conditions and of course frequent natural disasters that lead to humanitarian crises.  So when I was invited to speak at a conference on ’Rivers and Religions’ in Dhaka in June 2019, I was not entirely sure what to expect.  Dhaka does indeed have a lot of people, and has terrible traffic problems – traffic and traffic jams turn out to be a permanent conversation topic for Dhaka residents – but it is also a city with a great deal to offer visitors, not least the courtesy and kindness of its inhabitants.

Navratna Hatikumrul
Navratna Hatikumrul Hindu Temple, Bangladesh
The conference was organised and hosted by the Center for Archaeological Studies at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) on behalf of the ‘South and Southeast Asian Association for the Study of Culture and Religion’ and brought together a range of very interesting papers on many aspects of culture and religion, many of which made me think about my own work rather differently.  In addition to the conference in Dhaka, I also went on a tour of some of the heritage sites of Bangladesh which was fantastic.  As well as the UNESCO World Heritage site of Paharpur (a Buddhist stupa and monastery) and the site of Mahastangarh (an early historic walled city) we visited other Buddhist sites, plus the Navratna Hatikumrul Hindu Temple, the Kherua Mosque, and (because I pleaded very hard for a British period site), the Bogra Nawab Palace.  The latter was home to Mohammad Ali Bogra who became Prime Minister of the undivided Pakistan in 1953, and is currently presented as a museum with various displays of British period life on show.

Parhapur Buddhist monastery
Parhapur Buddhist monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Bangladesh

While obviously only a short visit (and a very hot one, just at the start of monsoon season) I found Bangladesh an incredibly interesting country and would love to go back and see more of it.  It has a fascinating and long history, evidenced through its archaeological and heritage sites – and huge potential for further work on both.

Following on from my visit to Bangladesh, I spent the rest of June and early July in Sri Lanka and Pakistan; primarily for meetings around future field projects, but also to give a public talk at the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology in Colombo (Sri Lanka), and give a research seminar and run a graduate workshop at the University of Hazara in Mansehra (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan).  I’ve been working Pakistan on and off for nearly 25 years now (my PhD fieldwork was in northern Pakistan) and in Sri Lanka since 2004, so going back to both countries is always a treat, and it is always really interesting to see how things change (like my shock at seeing a new drive-thru McDonalds on the Karakorum Highway north of Islamabad!).

The Kacheri in Jaffna, Sri Lanka
Both countries have a wealth of archaeological and heritage sites, and both have challenges around the ways in which these sites are presented and how they engage with tourists.  Pakistan for example has some major Buddhist sites such as Taxila where there are multiple monasteries and stupas.  Sri Lanka is also known for stunning Buddhist sites across the southern and central areas; in contrast, the northern regions have fascinating Hindu temples and sites that are less well known outside the country, as well as buildings from the European period such as the Kacheri (District Secretariat) in Jaffna.

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