The Ganges/Brahmaputra Delta has been the subject of international interest for over two millennia.
Megasthenes, the Greek traveller, wrote, in about 300BCE of the people of ‘Gangarida’, that it was ‘a nation that possesses a vast force of the largest size elephants’.
His interest was presumably stirred by Alexander the Great’s decision not to advance and come into conflict with the legendary strength of these people!
Strabo, the 1st Century Roman writer, mentions the deltaic lands: ‘Regarding merchants who now sail from Egypt…as far as the Ganges, they are only private citizens...’
|Beads from Wari Bateshwar|
His comments are unsurprising, too, since finding Roman beads and other materials at Wari Bateshwar, the ancient city with roots from before the Bronze Age presently being slowly excavated beside the Old Brahmaputra in Bangladesh.
The 1st Century ‘Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’ makes an interesting joint reference that more or less supports other contentions that the great trading centre that was the Ganges/Brahmaputra Delta had early connections to China trade, referring to the accuracy of the description of the Ganges delta, but mentioning China as ‘the great inland city, Thina, that is the source of raw silk’
Such reference, of course, implies that traders to the delta assumed the silk they were acquiring came from China, but without any real idea of where, or even what, China was.
|Ptolemaic Map of the Ganges Delta|
A hundred years later, Ptolemy’s map of the Ganges Delta, a remarkably accurate piece of mapping, to which we have referred before in this blog, showed quite clearly that his informants knew all about the course of the Brahmaputra River, crossing through the Himalayas, then bending westward to its source in Tibet.
No one seriously doubts that this delta was a major international trading centre, almost certainly from much earlier than the Common Era. The industrialisation of the Ganges basin, which commenced, perhaps, as early as 1,000 years before the Common Era found its most convenient shipping outlet down the Ganges itself, although the Grand Trunk Road was probably built between Patna, in the basin, and the Indus River, to facilitate trade.
|Coin excavated from Wari Bateshwar|
The Malaysian Tin identified in Chinese Bronze of the ancient times, and Money Cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean found in tombs in Yunnan of 3rd Century BCE support the belief that trade with China also commenced at an early period. We also know that gemstones and other merchandise from such as Thailand and Java were traded in the delta and through it.
Clearly, this history of such rich trade goes a long way to explaining some of the more improbable aspects of the archaeology of a country more commonly associated with poverty.
With over 250 identifiable remains of Buddhist universities/monasteries and a vast and rich trove of both Buddhist and Hindu sculpture and architectural pieces dating back to before the Common Era, indeed, from the time of the Buddha himself, it clearly required considerable wealth to build and maintain such treasures. Equally, some of the architectural gems and sculpture of a great Hindu tradition from both the early times and more recent, especially the 17th and 18th Centuries, and the countless great Mughal and pre-Mughal mosques, together with over 150 palaces, in various states of repair, forts, infrastructure and public buildings all speak of considerable riches which are, at present, scarcely imaginable.
|Ahsan Manzil, The Pink Palace|
But it is perhaps the recent work of the Chinese archaeological writer Bin Yang whose work, ‘Between Winds and Clouds; The Making of Yunnan’, published in 2004 by the University of Colombia, that confirms, most powerfully, the work of earlier writers and archaeologists, such as D.P. Singhal and Janice Stargardt, in identifying this much neglected route of international trade.
He identifies a number of sub routes of the of the road: Sichuan-Yunnan-Burma-Assam-Bangladesh.
Much of his consideration of the route is of its most recent uses, especially from 12th Century CE, when, for example, he believes it was used to ship bullion from Yunnan (Gold and Silver being amongst the minerals in which Yunnan is rich), through Upper Burma, into Bengal, making use of the ancient route, known as the Ledo road, through Burma, which also passed through famous Mandalay, and from there, the Brahmaputra valley through Assam and modern Bangladesh.
Well, we might think, did Robert Clive of India the victor of Plassey, writing in 1765 to the Directors of the East India Company, explaining the importance of buying the Diwani rights (tax collection) to Bengal, Behar and Orissa, speak of ‘the whole of the China treasure’; and the great Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb describe Bengal as ‘the Paradise of the Nations’.
Even Robinson Crusoe, in Daniel Defoe’s famous novel, written in 1719, commented on his last adventure, ‘on our return to Bengal I was very satisfied with my adventure...but it is little matter for wonder when we consider the innumerable ports and places where they have free commerce’.
|Curzon Hall, Dhaka|
Or Ralph Fitch, the London merchant who explored the commercial possibilities in 1586, producing the report that resulted in the East India Company being formed, describing Sripur in Bangladesh as ‘a flourishing centre of trade and shipbuilding’.
Indeed, one wonders why so many of the pieces published about Silk Roads, a description of the trade routes between the great Empires of the world invented by Baron von Richthofen in the late 19th Century, which has acquired a gestalt all of its own, have consistently failed to identify this Road through the Delta.
The answer may lie in the interests of Chinese traders who wanted to keep it secret, and merchants in Bangladesh and India, especially Armenian traders. And of course, in today’s classic ignoring of Bangladesh as a remote corner of India, steeped in poverty and corruption, and disaster prone. Not a place one would normally associate with being an historic centre of world trade!
However, the emerging evidence of the ancient cities of Bangladesh, in particular Wari Bateshwar, Mahathangarh, Bhitagarh, Vikrampur, Egarasindhur and Sonargaon will, surely, eventually help the world to recognise what may be one of Global trade’s last great secrets .
Please remember, you heard it here, first!