Through the Mittal Institute’s South Asia Arts Travel Fund, Harvard graduate student Louis Copplestone traveled to the Paharpur World Heritage Site in Bangladesh to further his research on Buddhist architecture. This Buddhist monastery, dating back to the late 8th century, influenced subsequent Buddhist architecture throughout South Asia.
By Louis Copplestone
Though it might have been the jetlag, my recent field trip to the Paharpur World Heritage and archaeological site in Naogaon District in northern Bangladesh did not feel like my first visit. As a second-year graduate student in the department of History of Art and Architecture, I had written a seminar paper on the vast Buddhist monastery last fall for a class on esoteric Buddhist art and had spent days hunched over site plans, maps, and photographs of the ninth-century complex.
But while the site was strangely familiar, I had only known it as a series of disconnected photographs stitched together in my mind using a “map’s eye view” through archaeological site plans. Only upon walking through the gateway of the vast monastery, exploring its 177 monastic cells, and coming face-to-face with its towering central structure did the relationship between these parts start to make sense as a whole. Architecture is experiential and how one moves through it — how it feels to ascend the central structure with the midday sun glaring — can be as revealing as an abstract understanding of its forms. As such, visiting a site of research can be an indispensable and valuable opportunity.
This is certainly true in my case, as I prepare to expand an earlier seminar paper on this site with an eye to create a future dissertation project on the Buddhist architecture of medieval eastern India.
Louis Copplestone is a second-year graduate student in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.