There is little doubt that it was the ancient South West ‘Silk Road’ that is responsible for the silk industry in Bangladesh, centred on the ancient trading markets of Rajshahi.
There is clear evidence that, from at least the middle of the last millennium before the Common Era, the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers were main components of this ancient trade route between Europe and Mediterranean, Middle East and Arabia, South and South East Asia, and the kingdoms and empires of Central and Eastern Asia. The presence of Malaysian tin in the bronze that fuelled China’s first ‘Great Leap Forward’, up to 1,000 years BCE, suggests that the trade is very ancient indeed.
Silk clearly had formed a part of the trade by the time of the Roman Empire, who were so alarmed by the cost of importation they sought to forbid the wearing. The presence of glass beads manufactured in Rome in the excavation of the Brahmaputra bank city of Wari Bateshwar, with dating evidence of trade from before 500BCE suggests that this trade route might have also had very early use. And since the Romans lost a whole army to the Parthian Empire, who straddled Central Asia, in the first century BCE, it seems likely that they were certainly interested in alternative routes.
The route through the 1,000 BCE canal from Nile Delta to Red Sea certainly offered maritime access to either the route through Pakistan and Afghanistan via the Indus, but an alternative, less vulnerable to the harsh winters of Himalayas, was either around India to Ganges and Brahmaputra Delta, or across India to Ganges, a route formalised in 3rd Century BCE by the construction of Grand Trunk Road. This route, in early 16th Century, was subsequently extended to Sonargaon, in Bangladesh, on the very banks of Brahmaputra.
It is sometimes debated whether the Silk industry that formed such a romantic and colourful part of what was, often, a much more prosaic trade in such as minerals and chemicals, in fact originated in China, or that part of ancient India , Bengal, that is now part of Bangladesh. The debate will probably, like that as to whether Marco Polo took noodles to China, or brought them from China, never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
What is certain is that, from earliest times, Bangladesh acquired an international reputation for weaving fine cloths. Muslin was, famously, such a product of Bangladesh, and an enormously popular cloth for women’s clothing for centuries. But silk cloths, too, have been also long produced in the area, and the industry still flourishes.
There are many manufacturers in Rajshahi city, producing fine cloths for both home consumption and export. The skills of cultivators, those engaged in extracting the thread from cocoons, and the weavers, is evident when the visitor is privileged to tour the factories and the workshops.
Somehow, surrounded the fine remains of ancient palaces, temples and vihara, and with an extraordinary collection of sculptures of up to 2,000 years of age to explore in the century old museum, it isn’t hard to make the connection with the air of luxury and affluence that hangs like a rich pall over such an industry.
The number of ancient religious centres that positively litter the lands of North Bengal suggest that the view that the area has a much more ancient history of trade than is easy to imagine in the country with its clearly misplaced reputation for being a centre of poverty and natural disaster may be justified. And, if it is, Silk is likely to prove a significant component in that ancient history that came to such an abrupt halt following Partition in 1947, and the effective exploitation by Pakistan that followed, and especially following the genocide War of Liberation from Pakistan in 1971.