Ancient mosque unearthed in Bangladesh

Investigation of remote archaeological site could prove it to be earliest mosque in South Asia.

In a remote village in northern Bangladesh, an amateur archaeologist has discovered the remains of a mosque believed to be built in the 7th century.

Villagers initially stumbled on the site where they found ancient treasures and artifacts of Islamic history, including a stone with Quranic scripture, buried underground.

Further investigation into the findings could prove the site to be the earliest mosque built in South Asia.

There is no doubt about the date that construction work on this remarkable mosque, that connects right back to the earliest days of Islam in East Asia, was completed. A fine piece of terracotta brick, now, finally, in Tajhat Palace museum in Rangpur is enscribed with a Surah, dates backs to 69 years after the death, in 632 CE, of the Holy Prophet (saws) himself.

The location of the ruin, that was uncovered some years ago from jungle overgrowth is perhaps unsurprising.

At the time, the flourishing City states of North Bengal, such as what are now known as Mahasthangarh, Paharpur and Bhitagahr, were centres of the Silk trade that continues to flourish in the region today. They were close to the course of some of the ancient trade caravans routes to China.

Following the foothills of the Himalayas, the land route continues through what is now Assam, and across towards China; an alternative route, by land as far as the great Brahmahputra river which leads to the Bay of Bengal, and the eastern Coast river ports of Bangladesh, such as Chittagong, Ramu, and Cox bazar.

Either way would take the travellers close to Lalmonirhat. The alternative, the sea route around Indian land mass was subject to the seasonal winds; it was, nevertheless, also much used. Indeed, the early Muslim community in Kerala dates from early in the period of Islam, perhaps even the lifetime of the Holy Prophet; and there are recorded landing by Muslim traders on the east seaboard of Bangladesh, also at that period.

The great alluvial plains of Bangladesh, with the annual flooding of the deltaic waters of great rivers such as Ganges and Brahmaputra, are only slowly revealing their hidden secrets to archaeologists. And this revelation came, rather, to villagers in a remote community. As far as we are aware, despite the obvious interest in the discovery, there has, in fact, been no formal excavation at the site.

Instead, the villagers themselves have constructed a new building above the old that they have, in an amateurish way, opened to view. They, clearly, feel the sense of connection with the earliest history of their faith that many other people in their vicinity did not share; they simply looted the site of the more interesting artefacts, including the date inscription which it took senior local official’s pressure to get placed in Tajhat.

There is fine brickwork, made of the characteristic flat, square, terracotta bricks that are a feature of all high status buildings of the period. Above that brickwork, the local people have heaped loose stones and pieces of brick in an innocent attempt at some form of reconstruction. But more impressive, by far, is their determination that this treasure should not be lost again!

All of which could, in some measure, rewrite the history of Islam in this remarkable country, with its vivid background in the three great religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, which is, today, of course, the majority religion of the country. For that reason, alone, perhaps, this mosque bears further investigation. But then, as such an ancient building, in its own right, it deserves better.


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