Nowhere in Bangladesh, perhaps, better illustrates the myriad of confusions that swirl around the history of the country, than the history of Comilla, both city and district. In a country where history so often appears to be what a modern people want it to be, such confusion is perhaps, inevitable.
Indeed, the history of Comilla, in the usually fairly reliable and authoritative, if often somewhat cursory, Wikipedia, clearly illustrates that such a history should always be approached with caution and independent cross references.
It contains a manifest inaccuracy. “Queen Victoria visited Comilla several times.” Since it is well known that Victoria seldom travelled outside Britain, and never outside Europe, certainly never visiting the Indian sub-continent, in that developing age of transportation, common sense would recognise the likelihood of further inaccuracy in such references.
It is hard to imagine how such a howler could have been entered; and, inevitably, casts doubt on all the rest of the fairly sketchy information readily available online; such information as there is that is, comes replete with the common anti-British sentiment. Although, in that, it appears, it probably reflects something of late 19th and early 20th century reality thereabouts. Certainly Comilla manifested itself as a hotbed resistance to the Raj, and all its works. “Through a glass, darkly” indeed!
However, with what we know of this remarkable city, and the district around it, it is hard for anyone to resolve any clear picture through some of these swirling mists of time.
Indeed, given the number of universities in Bangladesh today, including one, at least, in Comilla itself, one is tempted to wonder just how much original work, if any, is carried out, into researching, and making sense of, timelines, causes, activities, and outcomes that might lead us to true appreciation of the history, heritage, and roots of today’s culture, in one of the greatest cities of today’s Bangladesh.
Like the history of most nations, the history of this nation and people of Bangladesh reminds us that national history often also comprises parts of that of other peoples; in much the same way that British history ranges across much of the world for the activities and origins of its people. And, inevitably, in the process, also combining the histories of other peoples and nations.
With what we know of this remarkable city, and the district around it, it is hard for anyone to resolve any clear picture through some of these swirling mists of time
The history of today’s Bangladesh is, or could be, readily regarded as a foundation of the history of most of its neighbouring states as well, including, especially India itself, and indeed, many other parts of today’s global world.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland comprises, in large part, the very early history of the Indo-European migration, and the more recent history of some of those peoples. Peoples, such as the Romans and the “Norsemen,” the Anglo Saxons, Danes, and Norwegians, all of whom once ruled parts of today’s lands of Britain.
These are histories that are recognised and revelled in by most Britons today. Except, perhaps, those Britons, who never studied history anyway, and who are content with their own, usually fairly ill informed and somewhat myopic notions of nationalism.
It is possible, given the proximity of the city to the world’s largest river delta, that of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers, that both research and archaeology are slowly revealing as one of the world’s earliest centres of wealth generation and international trade... That much of the history of early and mediaeval Bangladesh “happened hereabouts.” And it is, then, unsurprising that the history of Comilla should encompass so many apparent changes of control and attempts at control.
Settlers have arrived in these lands in and around Comilla for millennia, and created the pattern of the extraordinarily rich history. Even in the era of documented history have arrived the well armed refugees from around Afghanistan, fleeing the Mongols, and replacing the Empires from west and north Bengal, and beyond. Most of whom have left behind their enduring traces ... Mauryan, Gupta, Pala amongst them.
They brought with them a more militant Islamic faith than that experienced before, that would, in modern times, finally overwhelm the animists, the Hindus, the Jains, the Buddhists, all of whom saw the blossoming of their beliefs in the region. Beliefs that have also left their enduring traces, as much around Comilla, as anywhere in Bangladesh.
The Mughals, like the earlier invaders, also from lands around today’s Afghnanistan, fought long and hard to conquer and keep these lands. But, in the course of their struggles, they were forced to abdicate the rule, conceded by their predecessors to, for a time, possibly, the Arakanese; but certainly to the Tripurans, and eventually, of course, the British. All of whom, like the Pakistani successors to the British, left their marks.
It was, indeed, only during Pakistan time, in about 1960, that the city became known as Comilla, changed from being named for Tripura.
Today, the once great Tripuran heritage, now somewhat tattered, even across the border, in the Indian state that still bears the name, remains reflected in Comilla in the Queen of Tripura’s bungalow, on the banks of one of the city’s great tanks -- another of the great landmarks of the Tripuran rule.
The District of Comilla, now a part of the large Chittagong Division, lies astride the Tropic of Cancer, bearing signs of being neither such a centre of wealth and influence as either Dhaka or Chittagong, yet still, with some justification, claiming to be the third most ancient city in Bangladesh.
With the ruins of upwards of forty Buddhist Vihara, those great centres of worship, education, and trade of the 1st millennium CE/AD, it is not hard to imagine how, about a millennium and a half ago, the area thronged with “industry,” whether education, agriculture, or manufacturing. Small wonder that it was, from earlier years, a focus for the changing rule of the region.
Even today, in neighbouring Feni and Noakhali, Khiji rule can be found reflected in the extensive use, for example, of the name “Sikander.”
This might suggest that the early Sultnanate era rulers, themselves possibly descended from men of Alexander’s army, left behind in the lands around today’s Afghanistan, made themselves very much at home in the lands east and south east of Comilla.
It is not hard to imagine that, with their main base in the region at Sonargaon, Comilla itself must have been a significant part of their lands of interest.
But, when we consider the earlier occupation by Buddhist rulers, who facilitated and sponsored one of the largest concentrations of Buddhist centres in the sub-continent -- much of which remains unexplored in detail -- we can probably only speculate on the significance of today’s Comilla in those earlier times.
Fortunately, much tangible evidence remains of those earlier times, even if we cannot be sure who sponsored and protected, such substantial monuments to such impressive times.
Amongst the splendid diversity of the architectural treasures that mark the rich history and heritage of both city and district, are of course those Vihara, easily the most intriguing and significant.
It is estimated that there are, in fact, ruins of at least fifty such Vihara, Buddhist monasteries, and places of learning, spreading for many kilometres across the countryside around the district. Such a manifestation of wealth and sophistication!
Forts, Hindu and Jain temples, mosques from earliest times, mansions, schools and colleges, also abound. They, too, speak volumes for a heritage of wealth, faith, sophistication and education.
But in attempting to cut through the apparent complexity, confusion, even, of the marks of history, heritage, and culture, perhaps it is those Vihara that could bear the closest examination.
The sheer scale of such development represent wealth, artisan skills, and international connections of a gigantic proportion. Wealth, that we can only assume derived from trade through the waters and across the lands. But that cannot necessarily begin to explain the reason, and point to those who invested so heavily in both faith and learning.
Oddments of archaeological recovery offer some clues to origin, but, it seems they merely scratch the surface of our ability to identify the true significance of the considerable presence.
From some paucity of archaeological artefact recovery, we can probably assume wholesale looting at the time of destruction, and, such as they are, cannot really explain the reason for their very existence.
Or, more importantly, perhaps, identify, not just the rulers who patronised such development, but also those who gave their lives in it.
The fact remains, however, that they certainly once represented an enormous investment of wealth and humanity, right around the Comilla we know today. Why? Who? How?
Perhaps we shall never know, being left with speculation and theorising; or possibly an investment in considerable archaeological activity could begin to unravel an answer to the mystery.
For now however, much, if not all, remains a confusion to trace the evolution of what is surely one of the most fascinating parts of today’s rising nation of Bangladesh.
Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.