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Dhaka Tribune

Five empires and a corporation

Update : 03 Sep 2016, 02:59 PM

Few, if any, other parts of the world can lay claim to what have been an essential part, if not the root, of the development of five great empires over less than two and a half millennia, and the world’s earliest true private sector multinational corporation.

But the very rich history -- in every sense of the phrase -- of the lands that are now those of the nation and people of Bangladesh hold such a distinction, for better, or worse. Or even, better and worse!

Of that, there can be no doubt. Archaeological, documentary, empirical, and circumstantial evidence all point in that direction. And, not least, the cultural and documentary history of other nations around the world, from Japan through China, the Middle East to  Mediterranean, and even east African lands.

And that -- within these lands of Bangladesh and those close by also developed three of the world’s greatest faith groups, together with clear evidence of two other such groups enjoying significance in their evolution within and through the lands -- is absolutely unique.

The fact that, in these lands and around, also developed one of the earliest forms of written language, and although rooted here, nonetheless contributed considerable vocabulary to many other, including great European languages, ancient and modern, is probably related to these extraordinary facts.

Traces of the earliest of these Empires, the Mauryan Empire based upon Patna in modern India, the successor to what was known as the Magadha Kingdom (which, although it is believed to have lasted for up to a thousand years, never appears to have had great scale, despite being extensively mentioned in early writings, including those of Jain and Buddhist tradition) are mostly artefacts of the period, sculptural and personal.

The Gupta Empire may well have had its roots around today’s Rajshahi and Chapai Nawabganj, in Bangladesh. It survived for a little over two centuries, but left behind an astonishing record of cultural and economic achievement

Traces, however, of its architectural heritage remain in the foundations of such masterpieces as the, later period, Paharpur Vihara in north Bengal.

Few early sites in Bangladesh, it seems, do not include detectable origins of the last centuries before the Common Era, in which the great Ashoka, the third Mauryan Emperor, reigned.

Perhaps the most enduring trace of that great Empire, however, which reaches across the entirety of northern Indian sub-continent even today, is the Grand Trunk Road, reaching from the Indus to the Ganges delta.

It may be open to question how much earlier, even, than the 3rd century BCE that link existed.

Kingdoms, we know, from classical writers, including 4th century BCE Megasthenes and 3rd century BCE Apollonius of Rhodes, flourished hereabouts, in the lands that are now Bangladesh.

Archaeology in both India and Bangladesh also point to a proliferation of evidently wealthy, well-armed but peaceful enclaves around the delta.

Although financed perhaps by the trade, subsequent minor empires rose and fell in the region, it was not until the early years of the 4th century of the Common Era that the next of the great empires reached out across most of northern India.

Described by historians as the “Golden Age of India,” with its remarkable age of invention, innovation, and evolution, we may well wonder how connections with China facilitated such development.

The Gupta Empire may well have had its roots around today’s Rajshahi and Chapai Nawabganj, in Bangladesh.

It survived for a little over two centuries, but left behind an astonishing record of cultural and economic achievement.

A century later, the great Buddhist Pala Empire arose, again, sprawling across much of the north of the sub-continent.

This dynasty of rulers, that lasted about three and a half centuries, also had its roots in the lands that are now Bangladesh, in north Bengal, around Dinajpur.

It really cannot be any coincidence that such developments originated in these lands with its extraordinarily rich economic and cultural experiences of earlier ages.

Traces of these empires remain in Bangladesh, both in the highly visible Buddhist Vihara... University monasteries, and a considerable collection of artefacts.

Many, sadly, now in museums and antique collections around the world.

However, if the Gupta Empire left its bequests to the entire sub-continent, the Pala Empire certainly left its legacy across today’s Buddhist world, especially Tibet, whence, in the early 11th century, travelled Bangladesh born Atish Dipanker, known widely in the Buddhist world as “the second Buddha,” for rescuing the Buddhist traditions of Tibet from decline, and establishing the order that survives there even today.

There is no arguing with the traces the Mughals left behind, culturally, architecturally, and artistically, and in an administration their successors were happy to emulate. And plenty of those traces remain in Bangladesh

Even the Chinese government have paid their tribute to his work by building a commemorative pagoda close to his birthplace in Munshiganj, near Dhaka.

Between these great empires of the Common Era, a degree of turbulence prevailed; not least during the lengthy period that followed the Pala Empire, first with a short lived Hindu regime, and then, more enduring, what has become called “the Sultanate,” or the “Slave Rulers.”

Originating from the Muslim communities of today’s Afghanistan and Persia, they migrated southwards into familiar ground they had raided for centuries as the Mongol hordes flooded across Asia.

It is probably fair to say that they left nothing that has really lasted, except laying the foundations for the first, truly cohesive, Muslim ruled Empire, although there are certainly both documentary records of, for example, the rulers at Sonargoan, east of Dhaka, where their palatial state in the early 15th century is recorded by Zheng He, the great Chinese admiral, and of a relatively sophisticated bureaucracy.

However, their turbulent reign petered out with the arrival of the Mughal dynasty. Of Mongol origin, with considerable Persian influence, they created an empire that only really lasted about two centuries, although their nominal reign lasted three, as “puppet” rulers for the era of “privatised” rule; the British, East India Company, which in true, modern corporate style, gave itself a tagline, “honourable”; an early example of the claim not fulfilled by the delivery?

There is no arguing with the traces the Mughals left behind, culturally, architecturally, and artistically, and in an administration their successors were happy to emulate.

And plenty of those traces remain in Bangladesh, from where the main wealth generating states of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa were ruled during arguably one of the most effective of the Mughal reigns, that of the sixth emperor, Aurangzeb.

Known as one of the three great gunpowder empires, the Mughals, sadly, were finally consumed by that same gunpowder.

It was the cargoes required by what was to become without doubt the greatest “gunpowder empire,” of them all; the British Empire, from which Mughal administrators exacted vast sums to reach shipping in time for the monsoon winds, that finally moved the great East India Company to take the opportunity to seize control of the lands of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa.

For, perhaps, the first time in history, the world witnessed rule by business; if those over whom it ruled still complain of commercial exploitation, there may well be lessons, even for today’s world, in which privatisation of public services appears to be the fashion... With the same outcome?

Whilst it may be argued that the lands in and around Bangladesh financed the eventual British conquest and maintenance of the entire sub-continent and vast tracts around the world, the legacy of the century of their “management” remains highly debateable. Their tangible and visible legacy, however, whilst slowly diminishing, remains considerable.

The fifth of the empires, of which the entire sub-continent has come to be regarded as the “jewel” was of course the British Empire, decaying in the later decades of the 19th century, and the early ones of the 20th.

Above all, the enduring legacy of that empire was, of course, the very domain of Bangladesh itself, although it was left to the people of Bangladesh themselves to extricate themselves from the undesirable marriage they, apparently, entered into lightly, with distant Pakistan in 1947.

This is a history, probably unique in the world; it is a story of lands, and peoples, who have survived such an extraordinary journey through well over two thousand years, and probably much longer, to emerge with the makings of yet another era of international trade and cultural influence; influence that many other countries in the world, especially Britain, have already experienced.

Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.

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