Tuesday, May 17, 2011


The Lord of The Rivers
There are, of course, more rivers per square kilometre in Bangladesh than in any other country in the world. Indeed, the geography of the country comprises the delta of two of the world’s great rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra.  Together with the over 800 braches, tributaries, and other rivers, the country might well be described as something of the water garden of the world.
It is those rivers that are the foundation of a long, rich and colourful history that few countries in the world can match.
Iron House, also known as Alexander's Castle, Mymensing Rajbari
The Ganges, from very early times, was one of the great trade routes feeding into the fabled South West Silk Road, the first few hundred kilometres of which was the lower reaches of the Brahmaputra.   In the 3rd Century BCE the Grand Trunk Road was built by the first of the Mauryan Emperors of Greater India from the Indus to Patna on the Ganges.  Later, in the early 16th Century CE it was extended to Kabul in the west and Sonargaon, in Bangladesh, in the east.
Traders from across the world, whether crossing South Asia by land, or approaching the delta lands by sea, from both Arabia and East and South East Asia, travelled to the northern border of what is now Bangladesh, where the River Teesta offered a passage to Sikkim and through into Tibet, or continued along the Brahmaputra into Northern Assam, and thence by land again across upper Myanmar, passing close to fabled Mandalay, and into Yunnan Province of China.
For the last 400 years or so, of the, probably 3,000 years of this great trade route between East and West, traffic on the rivers of Bangladesh, both the ‘main roads’ of Ganges and Brahmaputra and all the smaller feeder rivers and canals, was policed by Zaminders.
The role in most of India, from the time of the Mughals, was essentially a deputising role for the Imperial administration.  As landholders, Zaminders were responsible for collecting rents and tithes, as well as tolls and duties on trade, and local charges such as marriage fees, as well as acting as a peacekeeper.  These roles were held by what became, or were already, hereditary ‘barons’:  Princes, Rajahs, Nawabs.
By the time the role was abolished in both India and East and West Pakistan, not long after Partition in 1947, there were in East Pakistan (which less than 25 years later would become Bangladesh) about 150  Zaminders.
After the Battle of Plassey, in 1757, when the East India Company acquired control of Bengal and neighbouring states, and certainly after the Permanent Settlement of 1795, most of the traditional Zaminders in Bangladesh were replaced. The new Zaminders were more appropriate for the commercial farming of the agricultural lands of Bangladesh:  rich alluvial lands producing in particular bounties of rice, jute, and indigo and.  The new Zaminders were also vital to the great trade that continued to flow through to country, to and from China and Central Asia.
Puthia Palace, Rajshahi
These new ‘Lords of the Rivers’,  having bought at auction the role from the East India Company and committed to collecting at least the levy of dues required by the Company, of which they were entitled to retain 10%, seemed set to become, themselves, hereditary aristocrats.
In fact, most lasted only 3 or 4 generations before British rule in India ended. When in 1858 the Government of Britain took over from East India Company, the greatly expanded hegemony that covered almost all of Indian Sub Continent, they saw no reason to change the very effective administration of Zaminders. In fact they added to the feeling of inherited power by liberally handing out semi royal titles, such as Maharajah and especially Nawab.  Although such titles were held only for a lifetime, subject to performance and loyalty, successors were invariably treated to the same aristocratic appearances.
Panam City, Sonargaon, Narayangonj
The number of the palaces of these ‘Lords of the Rivers’ that stand on, or in proximity to the banks of rivers and waterways, not only marks out the importance of policing the waterways, but also that it was from these waterways, through tolls and dues, that much of their wealth derived.
And there can be little doubt about the scale of that wealth. Across Bangladesh there are probably well over 100 palaces, in varying states of repair.  Many of these palatial estates are not only magnificent in scale and appearance, but also extensive in the great temples and mosques attached to them, as well as clusters of houses for actors and musicians, servants and suppliers.  Clearly homes to lavish lifestyles.
Across Britain too, many of the great palaces and stately homes owe their existence to the enormous wealth acquired by investors in the East India Company. Even royalty are clearly associated with it, illustrated by the fantastic confection of ‘Bengal ‘ architecture, and the eastern and oriental treasures within, of the famous Brighton Pavilion, built for the Prince Regent to indulge himself and his favourites, on the South coast of England.
Today, Zaminder may not be a title that is readily recognised in the lists of aristocracy across the world, but few peers anywhere in the world could match the wealth and power of the Lords who kept the trade flowing on Bangladesh’s rivers for 400 years.

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