Alexander never came to Bangladesh, but he tried
To paraphrase the famous British military anthem: Some talk of Alexander, and some of Megasthenes; of Ptolemy and Virgil, and such great names as these …
British grenadiers, of course, made their own military mark on the history of Bangladesh; and writers of the famous Roman and Greek classical period of Europe also made theirs.
Writing, in some cases, over 2,000 years ago, they presented a reality of their age, of familiarity with the lands that are now those of Bangladesh.
As well as of being as fascinating with perhaps even greater worldwide familiarity than today’s Bangladesh. How ironic, in the age of information.
I wonder, in those ancient times, how often writers were asked, “Where is Gangaridai?” compared with how often I am asked today, “Where is Bangladesh?”
There can, indeed, be little doubt that the educated, and especially, the traders and merchants, were familiar with not only Gangaridai, but also its location, and that of lands beyond. Deep into the Ganges basin, and north towards an inland city, called Thina, and the great difficulties in reaching it.
However, the great Roman geographer late in the last century BCE, Strabo, writing in his famous work Geographia, comments: “Concerning those who sail from Egypt, even to the Ganges, they are but private citizens with no knowledge of the history of places they visit.” The earliest known example of academic snobbery.
It was a much valued destination, of that there can be little doubt.
Poets, historians, and businessmen of the half millennium, known as the “classical period” of European history, wrote about its location and both its trade and, it seems, especially the military prowess of its people.
Prowess that always, inevitably throughout human history, has involved wealth.
Even with all the aids, technology, and progress of modern archaeology, and advances that have facilitated a better appreciation of such significant places and events in pre-history, we continue to be unable to take any definitive view on periods and locations of the emerging — we might say — embryonic, modern, commercially-based civilisation, that certainly emerged in these lands of Bangladesh over two millennia ago.
Even the duration of the Kingdom of Gangaridai, if kingdom it was, is hazy. Was it a kingdom?
Archaeological development of appreciation of the very early Harappan civilisation further west suggests an absence of mansions and palaces in urban sites, which to some archaeologists suggests that some form of true democracy was an early form of governance.
Around histories of Vanga, Magadha, and Mauryan periods swirl such questions; perhaps only Megasthenes’ commentary of the Aleaxandrian invasion goes some way towards offering a definite period within the history of Gangaridai.
Modern politics also thickens the swirling mists of time that have left us with dateable sites and artefacts, but no certainties.
Gangaridai, we are told, were a people dwelling on the east side of the Ganges. Knowing as we do, the mobility of river courses in the Gangetic plains, even that fails to locate with certainty.
Naturally, India, recognising the inevitability of archaeological and historical definition of the existence and significance, of Gangaridai internationally, have laid claim to a capital city close to Calcutta. Since that is a fringe of the delta, it seems an improbable claim.
Within the lands of the delta, one modern claim is made for a location of the capital at Gopalganj; others suggest the site, with its 5km rampart on the banks of the Old Brahmaputra at Wari Bateshwar; or even Egarosindur, a largely unexplored site at Kishoreganj.
Of Gangaridai however, we have early writers to thank for our certainty that it not only existed, but was, in its time, internationally significant, as a major crossroads of international trade and commerce.
Megathenes was a traveller, born in modern Turkey, who arrived in the city of Pataliputra (modern Patna), capital of both Magadha and later, Mauryan Empires.
Those who believe that Chandragupta, the first of the Mauryan Emperors, built the east/west Grand Trunk Road may well be as confused as historians seem to be about times and places, since Megasthenes is said to have arrived at Pataliputra along the “great” highway.
Surely the Grand Trunk Road is said to have been constructed by Chandragupta? Or, perhaps, simply following the footprints of Alexander?
However, it appears that he arrived there shortly after the failure of Alexander and his army to cross the Ganges, a crossing that — it may be reasonable to suppose, across a wide river, perhaps in flood — beyond which it was intended to seize the wealth of the flourishing trading centre with the lands of Gangaridai.
Every army sought financial rewards for their endeavours, and Alexander’s was, certainly, no exception.
Whilst most of the great writers of Alexander’s endeavour, over the subsequent seven or eight hundred years, write of his eventual failure, his military achievements before his death at the age of 32 still resonate down the centuries.
Focusing on military issues, there are also mercantile and geographical commentaries that confirm the importance for perhaps as much as nearly a millennium, of Gangaridai, to a wider world.
The world map, produced in the late 3rd century BCE by Eratosthenes, is remarkable for the evidently detailed knowledge of the Ganges and its major tributaries, such as Jamuna.
Such maps reveal very evident sources of information, and familiarity with such destinations.
Similarly, Strabo also shows great familiarity with the delta and its components in both his commentaries and cartography.
The publication of mid 1st century CE, Periplus of the Erythaean Sea, a merchants guide to trade, not only provides detailed instructions for approaching the delta, but also prime items for trade.
And, of course, Ptolemy, the great mid 2nd century CE cartographer, whose detailed sources for his remarkably accurate maps of the known world made his own map of the deltaic lands, with remarkable accuracy; including the mark of a settlement called Ramcu, exactly where Ramu stands, today.
But it is the military historians that throw the most revealing light onto to sheer strength, in population numbers, military resources, and evidently, wealth that we may reasonably suppose derived from manufacturing and trade of the deltaic lands.
The earliest writer, describing the military strength of Gangaridai, was of course Megasthenes, writing with the benefit of his experience of the geography; and, certainly familiarity around Patna, of those who could recall the circumstances of Alexander’s advance.
He describes a River Ganges, that faced Alexander’s army, at least eight miles wide and 20 at its maximum, and an estimated 100 feet deep.
The forces assembled to resist any attempt by Alexander to make a crossing, comprised, he wrote of 1,000 horses (interesting, considering horses were not native, and over subsequent centuries, until recent times, originated in Bhutan), 700 elephants, and 60,000 infantry (“in apparatus of war”).
Diodorus Siculus, a Roman historian, writing in the second half of the last century BCE, may well have derived some of his information from Megasthenes.
However, his estimate of assembled forces were far greater. “An army of 20,000 horses, 200,000 infantry, 2,000 chariots, and 4,000 elephants trained and equipped for war.”
All subsequent historians agree that the forces of Gangaridai had by far the largest number of war elephants in India.
A very clear comment on the wealth and prowess of the military might of the “kingdom.”
More of them also increase the estimate of numbers; Quintus Curtius Rufus, Plutarch, and Pliny the Elder, as, like most Romans, great admirers of Alexander, may well have considered that only unbelievable geographic and military hurdles could possibly have daunted Alexander and his army.
They, and others, such as the 3rd century Dionysius Periegetes, add geographic descriptions to their writing of what was for centuries regarded as the edge of the known world.
Even Ptolemy’s usually accurate mapping fails at mapping territories beyond east and south-east of the lands of Bangladesh.
For them, it seems, Alexander did in fact march to the ends of the known world, only to be confronted by unsurpassable obstacles to further advance.
Indeed might the old song go, “Some talk of Alexander,” it was unquestionably the ill-fated attempt by Alexander to conquer the peoples and lands that are now Bangladesh to add to his, hitherto, unparalleled adventure in international conquest, that opened the ancient, early worldwide awareness of these lands of Bangladesh.
To the successful rebuff by nature, and the power and courage of the peoples themselves, we owe such knowledge that has put early times in the lands of Bangladesh into the ancient history of world civilisation, and well as on some of the earliest maps of the world.