Glancing through the documentary, empirical, circumstantial, and archaeological evidence of millennia past of the history of the lands around the Ganges, and its delta, it is easy to catch glimpses of the social and cultural and even the economic history of civilisation itself.
Slowly emerging from the depths of the alluvial soils on Bangladesh, and from the libraries and museums of the world, is a picture of the early beating heart of trade, beliefs, languages.
There can be little doubt that, in the Ganges delta, developed one of the world’s first global centres of international trade. With rivers that reached into both the heart of the Asian continent, and its sub-continent, and sea routes established at an early time, across the known and even unknown world, to east and west, even as far as the Mediterranean lands, at least two and a half millennia ago -- and probably much earlier than that.
The Ganges basin also saw the very early development of manufacturing skills, not least in metals, iron, and brass, but as well as weaving, pot making, and gem cutting. And there can be no doubt that these first vestiges of “civilisation” laid foundations of much of what was to come.
It may well, too, have been the cultural exchanges with travelling traders that lay foundations, both to one of the world’s earliest written languages, Sanskrit, but also stimulated the evolution of the great belief groups that have been born, in and around these lands.
Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, possibly, even, some suspect, Christianity, too; and certainly acted as a cross roads for the spread of Islamic belief.
In these lands, Buddhist monks are believed to have been the first to investigate the properties of saltpetre (potassium nitrate) -- experiments which, in the 6th century CE, they shared with the Chinese emperor. The Chinese saw, subsequently, the potential in warfare of its somewhat “explosive” qualities.
Ironic, but unsurprising, perhaps, that, in the mid 16th century, the Mongol descendants, the famous Mughals, created one of the great so-called Gunpowder Empires.
There is reason to believe that, in the later part of the same century, the British sought, and found, the copious source of the raw material of gunpowder around these lands, and by early 17th century, were shipping large cargoes of gunpowder to support the military and naval endeavours of Britain to become, it is said, by 1759, “Masters of the World.”
With their contracts to supply the gunpowder, the East India Company grew into the world’s first true corporation, administering vast lands, innumerable servants, and incalculable wealth.
The inheritance of such a past, in Bangladesh today, offers the prospect to citizens, and visitors alike, of enjoying the exploration of more than 4,000 years of cultural evolution.
This evolution has produced a globally renowned cuisine, that is rich in unique, often long-forgotten traditions and ancient crafts, and shopping, as people have done here for millennia, for amazing fabrics, fragrances, garments, and jewellery.
All of that, in the historic centre of ancient trade and commerce, and birthplace and crossroads of ancient faiths and early languages, where 2,000 and more years ago, the people of the lands were widely respected across the classical world, written and no doubt spoken of, readily recognised in a way that even today, cannot, perhaps, be matched.
There can be little doubt that, in the Ganges delta, developed one of the world’s first global centres of international trade
How, one wonders, should one describe the culture of today in lands that have seen the development of language, of literary, artistic, musical, sculptural, and architectural achievements to match the finest in the contemporary world?
This is a people who achieve much in a wider, contemporary world, especially in international institutions and commercial organisations. But also a people vulnerable to both military and religious oppression.
A younger generation, representing over half the population, warm, friendly, hospitable, and with an untrammelled, natural curiosity and instinct for hospitality, is, without doubt, the greatest natural resource of Bangladesh today. It may be a resource that requires careful nurturing, as invaders, and potential invaders, and even rulers, of the lands that are now Bangladesh, have found, to their cost, throughout the ages, they are no “pushovers.”
Adventurous, too. That seamen from these lands, the “Laskars,” made famous in 19th century western literature, were sailing around the world from millennia ago. Certainly, they were reaching, and settling in Britain from at least the 17th century.
This, then, is the cultural heritage of a remarkable people. And it is a heritage of rich and diverse contemporary cultures that enrich any visitor to communities across the lands. From great Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and even Christian and Animist festivals, colourfully celebrated throughout the year, to such challenging events as boat racing.
To compare with any other such in Asia: Kite fighting, Mughal wrestling, fire eating, water festivals, and even today, surfing!
There is also a wide diversity of cuisine, amongst which, this writer, at least, possibly values most, the amazing range of tea shop snacks, both savoury and sweet.
Not to ignore the architectural splendours of palaces, forts, bridges, houses, temples, mosques, churches, and public buildings, from Sultanate, Mughal, Company, and Raj periods of rule; they may be decaying, but what architectural heritage, anywhere in the world, is not? However, across the country today, over 150 palace sites, 400 Buddhist monasteries and universities, countless temples and mosques, and all the rest, from the earliest periods of the faiths and traditions they represent, can be found in just about every locality.
Perhaps the world’s last hidden treasure of heritage, under some threat, as are so many such treasures around the world, that of Bangladesh is, certainly, amongst the most ancient, and the most obscured. Shaded, perhaps, by the vastness of modern India (the political foundations of which were, ironically, laid in the lands of Bangladesh), and other, smaller neighbours such as Bhutan and Nepal.
None of which neighbours, in fact, can outreach Bangladesh in the age and diversity of their heritage; but none of which have had to struggle so hard to throw off foreign domination, losing both people and tangible heritage, so substantially, in the process.
Having myself planned, organised, and, sometimes, even led tours from one day, to 14 and more, for both Bangladeshi born and bred, as well as natives of other cultures, traditions, from all over the world, educated and sophisticated travellers of all ages, to explore this unique and remarkable heritage, I can truthfully say that few, if any, have returned without a sense of wonder, especially a wonder that it is not better known. A pity!
Well might the sixth Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb have described Bengal as “the paradise of nations.” It was a Bengal, ruled, in his time, from Dhaka. For him, it was the wealth and trade that appealed. For today’s visitor, it is much more to be experienced, touched, tasted, seen, inhaled, heard, worn, and appreciated!