Perhaps due its proximity to Bitagarh, the sixth century centre of international trade on the banks of the Teesta, and even the probably seventh century mosque, “The Lost Mosque,” close to nearby Lalmonirhat, give the first clue to Rangpur Division as a lodestone of ancient trade.
Bitagarh, a centre of Buddhism, has been identified with trade from the Ganges region and beyond, and the ancient kingdoms and empires of the Himalayan region, as well as China itself.
Such evidence of Buddhist engagement in such trade, of course, begins to explain the wealth responsible for the vast investment in Buddhist heritage, especially great Vihara, to be found in and around the lands of today’s Bangladesh, constructed of basalt, granite, and marble, and none of it locally sourced.
The “Lost Mosque,” with its dating tablet of 69 years, apparently relating to the Prophet’s (pbuh) migration, would certainly support the belief that the Prophet’s uncle built the first mosque in ancient China, during the Prophet’s lifetime, whilst trading there.
He is believed to have made a number of trading journeys to China, at least one of which was a journey undertaken on the “Southern Silk Road,” up the Brahmaputra and Lohit rivers. Lying, as it does, close to the junction of the Brahmaputra and Teesta rivers, this mosque could well have been the last point of departure for the Muslim merchants of those early times.
And Rangpur city itself provides from the 17th century, at latest, documentary evidence of its importance to the great and ancient kingdoms of the Himalayas as a vital trading centre.
Cooch Bihar is believed to have been, also from very early times, another crossroads of trade, possibly related to the Bitagarh centre, but the warfare that followed the Sultanate, and subsequent Mughal, invasions of the sub-continent, and attempts to secure access to the wealth generated by trade, appear to have disturbed the importance of Cooch Bihar. No doubt the opening of sea routes for trade also reduced Chinese interests.
Ralph Fitch, the late 16th century English visitor who spent some considerable time exploring trading activities in the northeast of the sub-continent, and other parts of southeast Asia, certainly mentions such trading links, at some length. He is even credited, by some, with visiting not only Sikkim and Bhutan, but even Tibet.
His report back to London on his return in 1592 certainly played a significant role in the establishment of the East India Company in 1600; the main purpose of his exploration, it is believed by some, was at the behest of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s famous secretary of state.
It may, in fact, have been exploration of the saltpetre, the essential ingredient of gunpowder, which was to rapidly become the main cargo of the Company within the next century.
It is the records of the Company that confirm that, probably even before the granting of tax gathering rights in Bihar, Bengal, and Orissa to them by the Mughal Emperor following the Battle of Buxar in 1765, a major market was held regularly in Rangpur, for Bhutanese merchants.
Quite how long Bhutan has been trading with Bengal and Assam, we have no means of knowing, but the sixth century city of Bitagarh would appear to suggest that it would have been the better part of a millennium, at least, before British records, especially, identify trades in, amongst other commodities, lac, horses, wool products, gold dust and silver, amber and musk, in return for cotton cloth, British broadcloth, tools, tobacco, spices, and probably, gunpowder.
The Bhutanese are also known to have acted as middle men for merchandise of Tibetan and even Chinese origin, including silk; Ralph Fitch, in his report, also noted such trades, with agate and pepper in addition.
Relationships, in the 17th century, between Cooch Bihar and Bhutan, were very close, and assistance by the latter to the former was given when Emperor Aurangzeb ordered the launching of expeditions on these fringes of Bengal … to which he is known to have referred as “the paradise of nations, for its wealth and trade” ... to raise money for his conflicts in Southern India with Hindu adherents.
Following the granting to the British of Diwani Rights for Bengal, as well as Bihar and Orissa, after their victory over Mughal forces at Buxar, in 1764, the British slowly extended their areas of control. That their financial control was high on the agenda we may deduce from, in 1789, their closing the mint in Cooch Bihar, that has made silver coinage for Bhutanese as well as for local use.
Rangpur city itself provides from the 17th century, at latest, documentary evidence of its importance to the great and ancient kingdoms of the Himalayas as a vital trading centre
During the 18th century, Rangpur was already well recognised as the destination for what was known as “the Grand Annual Caravan” of Bhutanese merchants, with the annual market that was to become so vital to the economy of the Kingdom of Bhutan.
Indeed, not simply the Kingdom, but, in fact, the king and his friends, in particular.
It is inevitable that the Bengali-based traders who made their way to that annual fair, including those doing so on behalf of the East India Company and the royal authorised Bhutanese,brought considerable wealth to this city with such a clear and unique history as a trading centre.
Today’s Rangpur reflects that wealth. The city that was, in the early years of the 20th century, to see, not merely the birth of one of Britain’s most famous social reformers, William Beveridge, but also the foundation of the famous Carmichael College.
It remains the site of many zamindari mansions and palaces, the most conspicuous of which, Tajahat Palace, was also built early in the 20th century, to replace that which was destroyed in the 1897 Great India earthquake, killing the incumbent zaminder.
Clearly, the wealth generated locally ensured an excellent living for local landholders, ie zaminders. The city has, within and around it, many other splendid examples of the design of mansions and palaces.
It was amongst those zaminders that were the founders, too, of Carmichael College, opened in 1916 by the governor of Bengal; such as Gopal Lal Roy Bahadur, and Babu Monidra Chanra Roy were amongst the many sponsors of the famous college.
And, no doubt, the famous Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, born locally, was also familiar with its foundation.
The remains of at least five other mansions and palaces, in addition to Tajhat, are still to be found in this one, relatively small, community. Nothing could say more for the wealth and status of the community that had to wait until so recently, for its recognition as a major military and administrative centre.
Equally, a proliferation of places of worship, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian amongst them, abound in the immediate vicinity and towns around; not to mention, still, great administrative architectural examples from the 19th century, not only in Rangpur itself, but also in nearby Saidpur, once the centre of rail traffic for most of the lands that are now Bangladesh.
Today, Google searches for Rangpur produce a clear majority of entries about the Rangpur orange -- a slightly bitter mandarin orange -- grown alongside a famous crop of limes.
This number of entries, however, relate, especially, to “Rangpur Gin,” distilled and bottled by the internationally famous Tanqueray distillery, produced with some flavouring from that unique orange.
It may well be doubtful if many gin drinkers around the world, today, recognise the name of Rangpur on the label.
But there is little doubt that for centuries in the past, this was a widely known, international, trading centre; then, as now, very much a trader’s city.
Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.