Barisal, most easily accessed from Dhaka, perhaps, by speedboat, is another of the ancient port cities of what was, for over two thousand years, one of the great trading centres of the world, offering access, not only to the agricultural wealth of the deltaic lands of Ganges and Brahmaputra, with its world famous cotton cloths, such as muslin, and even silk, but also to the enormous riches, both of Northern India and Tibet, but also China, along the Brahmaputra Silk Road. And even the fabulous gems and minerals of southeast Asia, the traders bringing their riches to the ports of the Delta, that from at least the middle of theist millennium BCE, welcomed traders from across the known world, including those from Egypt, Greece and Italy.
|Kuyakata Beach, Barisal|
Located on a distributary of the mighty Ganges, like the more famous trading centre at Sonargoan, on the Old Brahmaputra, there is little doubt that this port city welcomed visitors from across the world, from ancient times.
We know that, probably from the early days of Buddhism, the last few centuries of the last millennium BCE, this area hosted Buddhist Vihara, for which there is archaeological evidence in the area, and we are fortunate to have a glimpse of the city in the latter part of the 16th century, in the Journal of the English merchant, Ralph Fitch, who visited it about 1584.
He records, ‘I came to Bacola (identified by experts as Barisal); the king whereof is a gentile (non christian!), a man very well disposed and delighted much to shoot a gun. His country is very great and fruitful and hath a store of Rice, much cotton cloth and cloth of silke. The houses are very faire and high builded, the streets large, the people naked, except the little cloth about their waste. The women weare great store of silver hoopes about their neckes and armes, and their legs are ringed with silver and copper, and made of elephant teeth’.
|Guthiya Mosjid, Barisal|
No visitor to Barisal today would recognise much of all that; the streets are narrow and crowded, and the arrival of Islam has rather transformed to garb that, presumably, in Fitch’s time, might have suited the climate!
But a wander around the thronging streets close to the riverside today, will, on careful examination, reveal considerable traces of the 18th and 19th century merchant houses that reflect a wealth from trade that probably didn’t end until the middle of the 20th century.
In a very real sense, there is an air, in Barisal, of the busy international port that Fitch found, 450 years ago.