‘Over 17 Unions (roughly 17 parishes), if you put a spade in the ground, you have 18 inches of mud, then brick’. Thus, Professor Sufi Rahman, from the archaeology department of Jahangirnagar University, who spent some weeks earlier this year undertaking excavation work at this ancient city on the Ganges Delta in Bangladesh.
Clearly, a large city to mostly disappear beneath the alluvial soils of the delta, but then , as Egyptian archaeologists have found in exploring the Nile Delta, it isn’t actually so hard to ‘lose’ cities under the shifting waterways of such lands. And the Delta of the Ganges, which that famous Asian river has, for millennia, shared with the other great, holy river, the waters of the Brahmaputra, is, after all, the largest river delta in the world.
Like most of Bangladeshi history, we are more reliant on random archaeological finds, and documentary and reported history, than on the confirmation of rigorous archaeology. From the time of the partition, in 1947, to Independence in 1971, little archaeological work was done in Bangladesh, and following that crippling Liberation War, the new nation has lacked resources to thoroughly research its rich history as an international trading centre.
However, we can be reasonably sure that Vikrampur, which seems to derive its name from King Vikramoditya, of the Vedic Period around 1,000 BCE, was one of the main cities on the great international trading centre of the Delta, and the Southwest Silk Road that headed north from there along the old Brahamaputra.
Famed for early Buddhist scholarship, it passed under both Hindu and Buddhist rulers, and it is significant that, even under the 11th and 12th Century Sena Dynasty, it seems to have managed to mitigate the worst excesses of a resurgent Brahmanism elsewhere, presumably since Buddhist merchants tended to be better educated, and more concerned with trade, than with the far narrower interests of Brahmin. And trade was, unquestionably, the vital lifeblood of the region.
It was from Vikrampur that the Buddhist Monk, Atish Dipanker, set out for Nepal and Tibet, in the middle of 11th Century, to help the King of Tibet restore Buddhism, leaving behind, it is said, and, as a result of Professor Rahman’s work this year, there is now more tangible evidence to support the view, a university of 8,000 trainee monks from across the Buddhist world, including Tibet, China, Japan, Nepal, and the countries of South East Asia.
It may be a curiosity that, lacking archaeology, we cannot yet explain why Ralph Fitch, the late 16th Century English merchant, who visited the area, noting Sonargaon and Barisal, fails to mention Vikrampur, but instead mentions Sripur, ‘a flourishing centre of trade and shipbuilding, dominated by Portuguese’ which he notes as being ‘six leagues from Sonargaon’ (about 22 km). Of Sripur, more, in another blog, later, but what we can say is that it is more than possible that this city, which seems in no way to resemble Sreepur near Gazipur, is now under the waters of the Ganges Delta, another victim of changing patterns of river courses.
For now, therefore, Vikrampur must be regarded, for visitors, as the first of the seven ancient cities of Bangladesh, that mark the course of trade along the ancient South-west Silk Road; Vikrampur, Mograpara, which may have a claim to have been the base of the 12/13 th Century, invading Khilji Afghans, Sonargaon, where there is little evidence, thus far, to suggest it is earlier than late Mughal period, of mid 18th Century, Wari Bateshwar, Egarasindur, Mahathangarh and Bhitagarh.