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Mainamati an isolated ridge of low hills in the eastern margins of deltaic Bangladesh, about 8 km to the west of Comilla town is a very familiar name in our cultural heritage, where archaeological excavations have revealed very significant materials. A landmark of our ancient history, it represents a small mass of quasi-lateritic old alluvium. The ridge, set in the vast expanse of the fertile lower Meghna basin, extends for about 17 km north-south from Mainamati village on the Gumti River to Chandi Mura near the Lalmai railway station. In its widest parts, the ridge is about 4.5 km across and its highest peaks attain a height of about 45 metres. These highlands were once thickly wooded with an abundance of wild life, but modern developments have rudely disturbed its serene and idyllic setting. With an ever-expanding Cantonment at Mainamati, in the northern half of the ridge, and a fast growing township at Kotbari in about its centre, the fairy-tale beauty of the place is already a thing of the past.
The twin names - Lalmai- Mainamati - of the place have significant link with the past: Lalmai or the southern part is identical with Lalambi-vana of the Chandra epigraphs, while the northern part recalls the name of the legendary Chandra queen 'Maynamati', mentioned in local ballads and folk-songs. The archaeological finds have now established beyond any doubt that the cultural and political centre of ancient Vanga-Samatata (southeast Bengal) was located here. The glory and magnitude of that remarkable past is emphatically manifest in the innumerable monuments, mounds and excavated remains, adequately supplemented by an impressive array of stray finds from the area. Mainamati today is, however, better known for its Buddhist remains exposed by excavations. Here, indeed, lies the greatest assemblage of ancient Buddhist remains in Bangladesh.
The Discovery During the course of rebuilding the old axial road through these hills in 1875, workers accidentally uncovered the ruins of what at that time was thought to be 'a small brick fort'. It was actually a Buddhist monastery. Some 72 years earlier (1803), from the same area, was discovered the first Mainamati relic, the copperplate of Ranavankamalla Harikaladeva, dated 1220 AD, which records a description of the capital city of Pattikera as 'adorned with forts and monasteries'. The name now survives in the modern Patikara pargana of the locality.
The Mainamati ruins were rediscovered during the Second World War. While setting up an advance camp, the military came across ancient remains at a number of points in the ridge. In the hurried survey that followed, 18 sites were recognised and protected by the government. In more regular and systematic surveys undertaken between 1955 and 1957, when the entire ridge was undisturbed by human occupation, more than 50 sites were located. Most of those sites lie in the northern half of the ridge, now within the Cantonment. Archaeological excavations started in January 1955. In several phases of excavation of the 50 odd sites nine have so far been exposed. Though the excavations have not yet been completed and have been limited in many respects, the results so far obtained and the information gained provide a sound archaeological basis for the reconstruction of the history and culture of the early period of this hitherto obscure region.
Excavated Sites Most important among the excavated sites is shalvan vihara, which lies about the middle of the ridge in the vicinity of the present day Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development (BARD) at Kotbari. Excavations have exposed a large paharpur type Buddhist monastery and a wealth of material objects datable from the 7th to 12th centuries AD. The discoveries from the site include eight inscribed copperplates, about 400 gold and silver coins, many terracotta and baked clay seals and sealings, a large number of sculptural specimens in stone, bronze and terracotta found in situ or otherwise. The grand monastery together with its central shrine was built by Shri Bhavadeva, the fourth ruler of the early deva dynasty of devaparvata, sometime towards the end of the 7th or early 8th century AD.
At kutila mura, the highest mound in the northeastern part of the ridge near ananda vihara, were unearthed the most attractive monuments in Mainamati The excavated monuments include three principal stupas and a number of subsidiary chapels and chaitya-halls built around them, all of which were enclosed by a massive boundary wall. Interesting and intricate structural forms and decorative styles have been preserved at the site. Excavations have not yet been completed here; the monastery in the northern end and two grand stupas in two wings of the site remain to be cleared yet. The excavated evidence suggests 7th century AD as the date of the beginning of these monuments. The site continued to be occupied till the 13th century AD as indicated by an Abbasid gold coin recovered from an upper level of the site.