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Dhaka Tribune

The royal silk city

Update : 16 Jun 2016, 03:58 PM

There are many who recognise the real possibility that silk, the fine, valuable, luxurious fabric woven from the cocoons of the mulberry silkworm, had its origins, not, as is generally supposed, in China, but even, possibly, in the lands around the Ganges river and delta, most of which are now the lands of Bangladesh.

There are two reasons for that possibility to be advanced; first, that there seems little doubt that the fertile soil, and favourable climatic conditions of the foothills of the Himalayas and the Ganges Delta, offer perfect conditions for the cultivation of both the Mulberry, and breeding the moths.

The second is that China is frequently, wrongly, identified as the source of such development, largely because of their well-documented history. There appears to be no evidence that either Mulberry, or moth, are indigenous to any part of China.

The use of saltpetre exemplifies the point of misappreciation; the properties of that particular chemical were, even Chinese documentation accepts, identified by Buddhist monks around the Ganges basin and delta.

No source, in fact, can clearly identify the actual location of the origin of silk. However, one of the earliest documentary pieces of trading evidence can be found in the mid-1st century CE “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,” a merchant guide to trade on the Arabic and Indian Oceans, which identifies the Ganges Delta as somewhere that silk may be acquired, “from an inland city called China.”

Whether the writers were confused about the identity of China as merely a city, or were simply aware that the source was an inland city, is not clear. But, if they believed the source was an upstream city, it would not be hard to identify Rajshahi as such a possible source.

With identifiable origins from the Pundra period, as much as five millennia ago, Rajshahi was, by the 18th century, as trade with Europe boomed, at the very heart of the silk industry, said to produce the finest silk in the world.

And the tradition of silk production continues, today, in this “royal” city; known, even today, as Silk City.

The suggestion the city was founded in the second half of the 17th century is, in fact, to ignore both circumstantial and empirical evidence of a somewhat earlier period. Indeed, it seems unlikely that it was not a community as early, perhaps, as the Mauryan period about the 4th century BCE.

Today, any walk through the town will discover temples of the 18th and 19th centuries; and many other buildings, such as mansions,  reveal that, throughout the British period, this was a major mercantile city, on the banks of the Padma/Ganges river.

It is hard to imagine that, since, in close proximity, European nations based their operations, similarly, on the banks of the Ganges, there was not already a community where today’s city now stands.

Indeed, the bund of the river, from which colourful sunsets across the diminishing waters are wonderful to enjoy, remain one of the greatest, most pleasant, most sociable, and safest places for an evening walk, not just in this city, but, in fact, in all of Bangladesh. Only the sea wall at Kurushkhul, close to Cox’s Bazar, and the river bank in Sylhet, can begin to rival it.

For anyone with a more than passing interest in social history, the building, in the centre of town, of the Rajshahi Co-operative Society conjures up the late 19th and early 20th century of positive British influence; more so, perhaps, than any other remnant of two centuries of domination.

However, of the many traces of the British and Imperial period, it is, perhaps, the Varendra Museum, inaugurated in 1910, that best illuminates. The first such in the lands that are now Bangladesh, its collection of sculptural and architectural works from Jain, Buddhist, and early Hindu periods may no longer appear to match the numerous quantity listed in the catalogue of the 1960s, but still it offers an exhibition of the supreme skills of workers in stone within the late centuries of the Pre-Christian period, and the early centuries of the Common Era.

Wandering through the seasonal mango markets in and around the city will leave little doubt of the diversity of form and flavour!

The road route between Dhaka and Rajshahi should only take between three and four hours of travelling time, but the way, once the impressive expanse of the bridge across the great Jamuna River is left behind, is littered with evidence of that heritage and cultural traditions.

Pabna, a little to the south of the way, offers one of the fairly numerous homesteads of the great poet Rabindranath Tagore. But, also, the well preserved, riverside, Edwardian Oriental palace of Sitlai (now a pharmaceutical factory, but largely intact, and located in an original deer park), and the little, neo-classical gem of Tarish Palace.

Natore, with its fascinating ruins of the Mughal palace of the great Rani Babhani, and magnificent neo-classical and oriental Edwardian pavilions, as well as the former Rajbari, now the official northern residence of the prime minister, can also easily prove an attraction, inviting a detour.

Puthia, however, lies athwart the main road, and it is hard to resist its fine, neo-classical palace, and some fifteen or so attendant Hindu temples.

It is, however, beyond Rajshahi, at Chapai Nawabganj, close to the border with India, that some of the finest heritage sites in Bangladesh can be found; and unique, tribal, cultural traditions explored nearby.

The ancient Bengal capital of Gaur once spanned what is now the border, and some of the heritage sites within today’s sprawling town of Chapai Nawabganj were originally built in that city.

Gaur, itself, had its origins in early empires, including both Mauryan and Gupta, and traces remain of that, early, imperial past.

It was revived, in the late 17th century, as a hunting and leisure area for the Nawabs whose capital at nearby Murshidabad succeeded Dhaka as the centre of administration of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. Chapai Nawaganj, with the complex of Mughal period buildings constructed by Shah Suja, the favoured son of Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz, the wife for whom Taj Mahal was built, and still in excellent condition, is, indeed, well worth exploring.

There is much for the heritage student to study in this fascinating adjunct to Rajshahi; not least, also, its own, seasonal, mango market, the largest in Bangladesh.

Today, Rajshahi lies at the centre of its own administrative division, containing some of the most outstanding cultural and heritage experiences in what remains a much neglected part of, not simply, Bangladeshi history, but even, arguably, human history.

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