History is engraved in the depths of Bangladesh. Our land, once occupied by the British Raj, ruled by the Mughals and dynasties before them, was home to millions before us. It holds the most tangible pieces of evidence of their existence.
But how many of us know that the land we live on today has a 3,000 year old history that is slowly fading?
"Many say that Bangladesh is losing its heritage. But heritage does not fade away – it changes with time and it has to. Our heritage is our culture and it never disappears," said professor Shahnaj Husne Jahan, PhD, director of the Center for Archaeological Studies at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh, during an interview with The Business Standard.
Dr. Shahnaj has been teaching and researching South and Southeast Asian history, culture and archaeology, maritime archaeology, Islamic art and architecture, and cultural heritage management for the past 25 years. She has taken part in many excavations and has been part of the crew at the largest fortified settlement of South Asia - Bhitargarh.
"We have read of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Roman, Italian and Greek civilisations, but have we ever been taught of Paharpur, Lalbagh, or Panam Nagar?" she questions.
During the interview, we stepped into one of Shanaj's classes and conducted a small survey. Out of 40 students, none knew how many heritage sites we have in Bangladesh. A handful of them could only name four heritage sites of Bangladesh.
Shahnaj believes that family members have a big role to play in engaging their children and creating newfound interest in historical sites and events.
"I have heard from many Indian friends that they go to visit Jagannath Temple or Ajanta Cave during holidays. Most have been to historical sites when they were kids. But the same thing does not happen in Bangladesh. Parents do not take their children to places where they can get to learn about their past," says she.
Not being taught the importance of history has taken away people's interest in learning about their own heritage. To this Shahnaj adds, "Nowadays, parents feed kids by bribing them with videos and games on phones or tablets. If kids are exposed to historical knowledge through these videos, we might not have to teach them about their heritage at schools."
However, she also stressed that there is a lot to be done at the root level before we expect our younger generations to show interest in their heritage.
"Heritage was never a focus for our nation. There are 2,500 archaeological sites in Bangladesh, out of which only 519 sites are under the supervision of acknowledged authority. We are not doing much to preserve it, yet we are promoting tourism extensively," she laments.
Not only is there not enough information about these sites available on paper or online, there is no proper signage available at sites themselves. If we cannot present heritage sites properly, then why would people be interested in visiting these places?"
In Bangladesh's context, Shahnaj believes the government alone cannot preserve the nation's heritage. It is imperative that the stakeholders – local people, administrative officers, elected bodies, Department of Archaeology, museum authorities, researchers and the media – understand their roles in cultural heritage management and preservation as well.
A huge part of our heritage is buried within sites such as Jessore's Jora Shiv Mandir, Shyamnagar Iswaripur Rajbari, Abhayanagar's Shiva temples, Draupadi temple, mosques of Bagerhat, Rayerkati Zamindar Bari, and the only remaining temple located deep in the Sundarbans – all of which have yet to be preserved.
Shahnaj says we can still preserve all 2,500 of the sites that exist in Bangladesh. Her idea is that we should document all these sites first, then select and nominate sites that we can work on and promote it. The end goal should always be to get people to understand the importance of recognising our roots.
Archaeologists face many challenges while excavating a site. The biggest barrier lies in establishing proper channels of communication with the people who reside on the heritage land.
"When someone understands that they own a part of Bangladesh's heritage; they feel proud. But how can people contribute if they are not aware of how to do so?
Oftentimes, when a person finds antiquity, he or she has to send an application to the nearest government office. If this process is not clear or easy or if the person feels undervalued in any way, they will not follow through. And we'll lose access to heritage land," she explains.
Lack of communication and proper knowledge often results in destruction of such artifacts, further burying a potential heritage site. And sometimes, pieces of our heritage become part of an illicit trade.
Dr. Shahnaj says the solution is fairly simple: "Starting from general citizens to law enforcement officials, we all need to follow proper protocol. For instance, the local people in areas like Bhitargarh are very sensitive. They need to be informed of their situation properly or else will feel that we are barging into their homes and trespassing on their land and they will resent us for it."
We have over 3,000 years of preservable history, but no idea of our land's historical value. Shahnaj believes we have to teach all generations, but especially the next ones, so that these sites can be saved and protected not just for their historic value, but for the future they are able to inform. As the saying goes, history can repeat itself – we should learn as much as we can while we still can.