Sunday, September 16, 2012


It’s all beginning to slot into place. The huge amount of archaeology to be found in the deltaic plains of the Ganges/Brahmaputra Delta in Bangladesh begins to make sense when you recognise that this was a hub of international trade from long before the Common Era.

One of the oldest coins in the world, believed to date back around 2,500 years!

It is not so long ago that distinguished archaeologists in the country stated with certainty, ‘there was no stone age in Bangladesh’. Today, we know that was not right. The lack of evidence could, certainly, only bear that interpretation, although even that tended to ignore documentary evidence of finding Palaeolithic and Neolithic tools in the Hill Tracts around Sitakunda and Chittagong; in other words, on the higher ground above the endless mangrove swamp it was assumed the area to comprise.

However, geologically, we now have recognised ridges of  Pleistoscene outcrops that run broadly NW to SE across much of the country, and on these outcrops evidence of stone age occupation has been found. Wari Bateshwar has certainly produced such evidence, and archaeologists agree that Mahasthangarh will almost certainly provide similar evidence of stone age occupation on such higher ground that rose above the swamps.
But moving forward to times within the last 3 millennia, quite apart from the fact that the Ganges/Brahmaputra can now be recognised as trading routes, both into the developing and ancient civilisations of the Ganges basin, and North eastward towards the Himalayas and into China, via Myanmar/Burma, Sikkim/Nepal/Bhutan/Tibet, the evidence of major cities is, slowly but surely, emerging from the ground, and, unsurprisingly, emerging along the river courses.
Lost civilizations emerging from the ground.

The main course of the Ganges, these days called Padma in Bangladesh, is approached from the Bay of Bengal, the maritime route from Mediterranean lands, Arabia, South India and South East Asian countries, through the low lying islands, shoals and sandbanks that are the inevitable consequence of deltaic outflows of such lengthy rivers, with regular shifting patterns of navigability, both seasonal, and over time periods.
Historic communities line the channels. To the east, for example, the island of Sandwip, once the resort of misplaced Portuguese who turned pirates, as well as an international shipbuilding centre. To the west, the ancient port city of Barisal was once a major trading centre, which still contains evidence of rich merchant mansions in the crowded, narrow streets.
Entering the main river system, the wide flow of the Ganges, flowing westward, which, since the late 18th or early nineteenth century, has also included the vast waters of the Brahmaputra which now flow into the Ganges 100 Kilometres west of the ancient course of the river, at the junction with the mighty Meghna river, where once the Brahmaputra also joined are the remains of the once great city of Vikrampur. Capital of both Hindu and Buddhist  kingdom, Archaeologist Professor Sufi Rahman of  Jahanagir University says, that over17 Unions(parishes),’If you put a spade in the ground you have 18inches of mud, then brick’. A phenomenon that was apparent at various sites of an archaeological adventure this summer.
The Chinese Government have built a Pagoda to mark what is said to be the site of the birthplace of Atish Depanker, who left Bangladesh in the middle of the 11th Century to restore the Buddhist faith in Tibet. He is said to have been head of a university with 8,000 students from across the Buddhist world, located in his home city when he received the urgent summons from the King of Tibet for his assistance.
Bhuddist pagoda in Vikrampur.
Heading north, in the direction taken by both Meghna and Old Brahmaputra, a few kilometres lies Mograpara.
Throughout this small village are obviously ancient stone works which are believed to be the remains of a walled town which was probably to original capital of the Khilji invaders, the first of the great Muslim dynasties who settled here from Afghanistan in the early 13th Century. Descendants of the army of Alexander the Great, a fine basalt tomb marks the burial place of  the late 14th Century ruler, third of the Ilyas Shahi dynasty, Sikander; a name, of course, still common in the areas east of the Old Brahmaputra, deriving from that of Alexander.
A few more kilometres further north lies Sonargaon, said to be ‘ the ancient capital of Bengal’. In fact, very evidently a merchant city, with most of the splendid buildings, largely merchant houses and Zaminder palaces of the period from mid 18th Century to late 19th, this settlement probably marks the transition from Mughal to British rule, and the architecture bears traces of both influences.. with some French!
At this point, the now narrow course of the Old Brahmaputra runs parallel to the mighty Meghna. It is unclear when, if ever, the two were merged. But, following the ancient waterways, some 40km north, the site of the ancient city of Wari Bateshwar is reached.

Baffling findings at Wari Bateshwar.

We have commented on the signs that this site was one of human habitation from stone age times, and, as it is being slowly excavated, it is confirming what 80 years of surface find collecting had suggested, that this was a major trading and manufacturing centre, enclosed, on the banks of Meghna and Brahmaputra, within 5.3 km ramparts that still stand over 10ft high.
Following the Old Brahmaputra course further north, at Kishoreganj, is the site of Egarasindhur, which was only excavated, briefly, in 1935, but where finds were similar to those being recovered from Wari Bateshwar.
Beyond this site, archaeologists speculate that there may well prove to be other such sites on the banks of the Brahmaputra, as it runs, first, northwest, then enters Assam before turning northeast and heading to the precipitous gorges through which it passes the Himalayan range before finally turning west again to its source in Tibet.
Along the route are scattered evidence of other human activity; forts, temples, palaces and ancient mosques.

Lovely old rajbari in Natore.

Back to Vikrampur, and following Ganges, the first major city is Old Dhaka, now the capital city of Bangladesh. Archaeology has already produced evidence of a 6th Century site, including Buddhist Vihara, and with a 1500 year history, that includes an extraordinary Mughal period when it is said the weaving industry of the fine muslin for which Bangladesh was once famous caused a population of 1,000,000 to gather. Dhaka, of course, is now about 11th or 12th most populous megacity in the world, and looking set, within a decade, to become the largest. Sadly, much of the archaeology of the city is rapidly being engulfed, like most such places in the world, by urban development.
Further west along the Ganges, close to the Indian border beyond Rajshahi, lie some remains, around Chapai Nawabganj, of the ancient city of Gaur; but the whole area around there is littered with the sites of ancient Temples and Vihara, representing the religious development of the early kingdoms of the  Ganges Basin.

Before reaching as far as Rajshahi, however, the mighty Jamuna River, which has, for the last 200 years, included the waters of the ancient Brahmaputra, heads north. Not far from the banks of that river, on the banks of what was once another of the great rivers of the Ganges area, stands the ancient, ramparted city of Mahasthangarh.
Already excavated to the 3rd Century BCE, but almost certainly its origins reaching back to the stone age, this is identified as a site where the Buddha himself preached, marked by an Ashokan pillar. One of the largest, and earliest cities in the whole of north India, it is both fascinating, and with many secrets, probably, yet to divulge.
Ashokan pillar where the Buddha himself preached!
Further up the main river, close to the junction with the Teesta River, stands the city of Rangpur, recorded as a major trading centre between Sikkim, Bhutan, Tibet, and Bengal, certainly from before the 10th Century.
Northwest along the Teesta, just before the border with India, almost in view of the Himalayas, stands the newly excavated city of Bhitagarh, already identified as a 6th Century development as a major trading centre, and standing within a number of defensive ramparts as the largest such city state so far identified in the whole of ancient North India.

Palace at Rangpur.

Great urban centres, therefore, line the banks of the ancient waterways of trade in Bangladesh, but the lands between are extraordinarily rich in hundreds of sites of monasteries, temples, mosques, forts and palaces. The tangible remains of a rich tradition of trade along the lower reaches of the ancient Southwest silk Road.

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