The prosaic, online references today to this ancient city add something of an air of mystery to the city, once known, even in Europe, as Bacola.
Perhaps no other significant metropolis in Bangladesh receives such a cursory online coverage, and a rich history and heritage largely ignored. And this despite an extraordinarily rich architectural heritage, not unlike that of that other ancient city of Bangladesh, Rajshahi.
The wealth of such visible heritage around the bustling centre of the city pays mute testimony to that heritage. Well has it been written: “He that has eyes to see, let him see,” when applied to any visit to Barisal. The streets have been narrowed as more modern developments burgeon before one of the richest collections of merchant mansions and public buildings to be found anywhere in the country; there are few streets, or lanes, that do not reveal to seeking sight municipal and residential magnificence.
And the ruins of palaces around the city district, such as Ulania, Lakutia, and Madhubpasha, together with a magnificent diversity of ancient temples and mosques, even the early 20th century Oxford Mission Church, the largest such in Bangladesh, bear their own testimony to the immense bounty at the foundations of such visible local affluence.
Even the colonial splendour of schools, colleges, legal and administrative buildings represent a significant past.
Once the centre of the famous British colonial territory of Bakerganj, it seems very likely, in the days of the East India Company, and particularly the Raj, that a crossing to Chandpur from the extensive quays and moorings that denote an ancient place of trade, of Barisal, almost certainly contributed to it as a continuing, flourishing mercantile centre. Which would of course provide some explanation of those lavish, if, in many cases, semi-ruinous mansions, in and around the city.
It is, anyway, interesting to note that the Bakerganj District was founded by the East India Company some four years before the Battle of Buxar finally created the environment in which the Mughal regime felt the need to concede control of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa to the Company.
1760, as it happens, was also the year that the Company was conceded Chittagong, and the lands south, to the Naf River. That this city and its location were of significant importance to the Company seems unquestionable.
The ruins of palaces around the city district, even the early 20th century Oxford Mission Church, the largest such in Bangladesh, bear their own testimony to the immense bounty at the foundations of such visible local affluence
Sad that with evidently distinguished places of education thereabouts, it seems that none have attempted to thoroughly research and record such a rich and colourful history.
Located effectively on one of the main distributary waterways of the great Ganges, it is probably safe to assume that its history dates back for millennia; indeed, a location close to nearby Gopalganj is postulated as the ancient recorded capital of the Kingdom of Gangaridai. That kingdom, we have every reason to believe, existed in these deltaic lands from at least the 4th century BCE, the time of Alexander the Great, to the 2nd century CE/AD, when the Kingdom is marked on Ptolemy’s famous map.
It may very well prove, if the day ever comes for serious exploration of this heritage, that deep beneath the alluvium of the area lies evidence of a past that reaches back thousands of years.
The apparently endless, flat, swampy lands of these deltaic plains have, for centuries, been significant rice-producing areas, certainly from the earliest times when exports of rice to other parts of the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Without much doubt, those cargoes shipped from the ancient port of Barisal. No doubt, also, perhaps, together with cargoes of the jute that is also extensively cropped in the region as that, too, became a major cash export crop from the 18th century. This agricultural bounty accounts for at least some of the wealth reflected in the merchant mansions of the city, and the zaminder palaces of the district.
It is that wealth of architectural heritage, in mosques, temples, churches, public and private buildings that provides the most tangible clue to, not only that commercial wealth of the area, but also the significance of public and religious activity.
Certainly, Barisal was amongst the points of departure across the waters of the delta for travellers and traders on the Grand Trunk Road, the millennia old route that, eventually, reached from Kabul in Afghanistan to Chittagong. That Chandpur represented a hub for, especially, such as rail travel to the spread of Raj controlled territories into what is now north east India, there is no doubt, but whether reached by water from the Hoogly, or by land, there is little doubt that Barisal played its own part in such transit; as indeed it continues to do so today, as a major station on the water route, still plied by the famous “ferry” craft to the Sundarbans.
Such points of transit, of course, also derive wealth from such travellers. Even beyond the tangible evidence of wealth, we have environmental, historic, and documentary evidence.
The famous Durga Sagar, the largest artificial lake in southern Bangladesh, of course, represents late 18th century wealth and power of the local zamindari, as do the numerous zaminder palaces in the area. But, one of the earliest documentary descriptions of life in Barisal, in the late 16th century, firmly established both the significance of the location, and the evident affluence of its inhabitants.
It is clear that even lower social classes displayed some of that affluence.
Ralph Fitch, the English merchant, a leatherworker of London, who, in the mid 1580s, in the course of extensive travels in the region, visited “Bacola,” paints a vivid word picture of the city.
He had, according to his published journal, already been in Cooch Bihar, and his description of the “citie Bottia,” in today’s Bhutan, stands as one of the clearest pieces of evidence of the Southern Silk Road trade route, with his mentions of “merchants which come out of China, and say out of Muscouia and Tartarie ... Come to buy musk, agates, silk, pepper, and saffron like the saffron of Persia.”
Indeed, it has even been suggested that he himself may possibly even have penetrated to Lhasa in Tibet. He was not, therefore, liable to be easily impressed by Barisal, which he so evidently was.
“From Chatigan in Bengal, I came to Bacola; the king whereof (almost certainly the famous Pratapaditya) is a Gentile (Hindu), a man very well disposed and delighted much to shoot in a gun. His country is very great and fruitful, and hath store of rice, much cotton cloth, and cloth of silk. The houses are very fair and high built, the streets large, and people naked, except a little cloth about their waist. The women wear a great store of silver hoops about their necks and arms, and their legs are ringed with silver and copper, and rings made from elephants’ teeth.”
In Fitch’s commentary we may accept that, quite apart from his description of the tall buildings, broad streets, and lavishly decorated residents, which must denote the wealth of a flourishing centre of trade, his references also support the view of a flourishing agricultural and manufacturing economy. Indeed, Pratpaditya’s wealth was almost legendary!
Perhaps more interesting still, is sufficient evidence, today, in those early period mosques and temples, and of both Buddhist and Christian places of worship, too, that social cohesion was also strong. As the 18th century French philosopher observed: “Peace is the natural consequence of trade!”
From Barisal, Fitch travelled on, giving us a much more comprehensive glimpse of the wealth and trade of the environment within which the port city lay. Passing through “Serrepore,” probably close to Dhaka, he arrived in “Sinnergan” (Sonargaon), and, even there, it seems, he found little more than had already so impressed him at Barisal.
His travels, of course, resulted in a report on his return to London that was significantly responsible for consolidating the chartering of the East India Company; we can have no doubt that his report must have reflected the potential for trading wealth in the region.
And there can, also, be little doubt that the evident affluence of Barisal was amongst the evidence he provided to Queen Elizabeth to justify the development of the trade that was to prove, in the ensuing two centuries, the foundation of, still, the greatest empire the world has seen: The British Empire.
Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.