Saturday, September 24, 2011


Water was certainly the favourite highway of the ancient world being safer, easier and more comfortable than land alternatives. Why, then, do so many assume that these ancient merchants would set off from the great trading centres of the ancient Mediterranean world on foot, to walk or ride five or six thousand miles across the hostile terrain of Central Asia? A route which not only involved seasonal horrors of snow and blistering heat, but also the customs collectors of innumerable small nations, dangerous bandits and the unpredictability of rising and falling empires.

It is no great surprise that the Romans, having lost an army to the Parthians (Caesar famously worked hard to recover the lost legionary Eagles) should seek an alternative route for trade. According to the 3rd Century BCE traveller Megasthenes, they favoured a route that Alexander the Great once took an interest in. Half way across India, the emperor was persuaded by his army not to tackle the forces of ‘Gangaridai, a nation that possesses a vast force of the largest sized elephants’.

Strabo, the Greek geographer and historian, writing of 1st Century CE trade comments that ‘regarding the merchants who now sail from far as the Ganges River, they are only private citizens’.
That the ‘People and the Senate of Rome’, the public administration, would not sponsor such trade is unsurprising. The senate enacted legislation to ban the wearing of silk because the fabric becoming a ruinous drain on the exchequer. But quite apart from Strabo’s commentary, current excavation reveals Roman artefacts at Wari Bateshwar, the ancient trading centre on the banks of the Old Brahmaputra, from which has also been recovered punched silver coinage dated from as early as the 6th Century BCE.
Another 1st Century writer, of the ‘Merchants handbook’, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, comments on the Ganges Delta as ‘a source of raw silk…from the great inland city of Thina’.

Ptolemaic Map of Trade Routes of the Ganges Delta

That Ptolemy’s 2nd Century map of the Ganges Delta should be remarkably accurate is no great surprise. His source was usually Phoenician merchants from Lebanon. And it should not be wondered how such traders reached the Ganges since, in the 1st Millennium BCE, the Egyptians constructed a canal from the Nile Delta to the Red Sea.
It was Malaysian tin, found in the Chinese bronze of the 1st Millennium BCE which first raised suspicion that there was an ancient trading route to China; similarly the finds of Money Cowries from the Indian Ocean in 3rd Century BCE tombs of the in Yunnan Province of China raise the same questions.   
Perhaps, above all, it is the ancient trading centres, the hundreds of Vihara and temples, the numerous palaces and forts that line the water ways of Bangladesh, as well as the greedy eyes of European nations that drew them to this remote corner of South Asia, that bear testament to the great wealth.  A wealth generated by the rich trade that unquestionably passed through this great crossroads of the world. Which was, incidentally, also the gateway to the Ganges Basin, now shared by Bangladesh and India, and the site of one of the world’s first industrialised civilizations.

Beads and stones from Archaeological Excavations

But a glance at a world map can easily explain how so many routes led, by land and by sea, to this great ‘Singapore of the ancient world’

A map of trade routes of the 1st century reveals that, with the famous Maritime Trade Route not yet opened (by Da Gama in the early 16th Century), there were alternatives to the Central Asian routes more conventionally associated with Von Ricthofen’s ‘Silk Road’.

By land or river, it was possible to make the way, down the famous Euphrates, or across Arabia, to cross the Arabian Sea to the ancient civilisations of the Indus. Heading north up the Indus, where there were unquestionably great opportunities for trade, there were two choices; to head North West into Afghanistan and then join the traditional Central Asian routes, or to head east. We know that, in the 3rd Century, the original Grand Trunk Road was constructed by the first of the Mauryan Emperors to reach from the Indus to the Ganges at Patna, thus facilitating a fairly short transit to head by water to the Brahmaputra.  No doubt that this great highway was built to facilitate trade.
Traders travelled to the Delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra, from such places as the great sources of gems in Sri Lanka, Java, Sumatra and Thailand, as well as locales specializing in spices and other commodities
From the Delta, the Brahmaputra carried merchants north. In what is now North Bangladesh, three routes divided; the Teesta River to Sikkim and thence to Tibet, via land to Cooch Behar and through to Bhutan into Tibet, or north east up the Brahmaputra to North Assam and thence by the ancient Ledo Road through Burma, passing close to fabled Mandalay, into Yunnan and Sichuan, from where the headwaters of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers were easily accessed as routes to the heart of Chinese civilisation.
In the 16th Century, the Grand Trunk Road was extended, in the West to Kabul, and in the East to Sonargaon in Bangladesh, marking acceptance of the vital importance of the trade routes to the Mughal Empire. It was, indeed, the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, who famously described the land around the Ganges as ‘the Paradise of nations’, because of the wealth that trade engendered; and Robert Clive, the British victor of Plassey in 1757, explaining to the directors of the East India Company the benefit of gaining Diwani, Tax Collecting, rights to Bengal, Behar and Orissa, that the wealth they could anticipate would ‘ defray all the expenses of the investment, furnish the whole of the China treasure, answer the demands of all your other settlements in India’.
By then, of course, the draw of the Spice Islands of the East, had opened the Maritime Silk Road, that by the middle of the 19th Century had become the main route of trade between East and West. But for, perhaps, as much as 2,000 years or more, there is little doubt that the Southwest Silk Road was one of the main, if not the main, route of trade between the great trading centres, and Empires of East and West.

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