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The paradise of nations

  • Published at 06:52 pm December 19th, 2014
The paradise of nations

Each year, as the anniversary of the victory that guaranteed the Independence of a nation called Bangladesh approaches, I find myself reflecting on the trials and tribulations through which the diverse peoples of the nation have passed throughout the millennia, including, from the 13th century, close on a millennium of occupation, by Pathans, Persians, Afghans, Europeans and, in parts, by neighbours such as Tripuran, Burmese and Assamese.

Perhaps the rich diversity of the peoples, their courage and resilience has been formed by such a history. So, too, has their colourful heritage and culture with music, poetry, literature, architecture and craft skills amongst those in which they have, and still, excel.

The Ganges delta, the largest such delta in the world, and the access to ocean of three great rivers, the Holy Ganges and Brahmaputra, and the Meghna, along with up to seven hundred other waterways, tributaries and distributaries, lies at the heart of the lands. Waterways, that have long given access to the heartlands of both India, and of central and eastern Asia, and upon the waters of which up to 150 variants of craft have been identified, with influences from China, Arabia and Europe.

 Perhaps this, as with most of the world’s great deltas, has been the wellspring of millennia of international prominence, from which grew the foundations of empires, trading wealth and fame, even international economic traditions, as well as that rich history and today’s flourishing diversity of cultures.

In the Ganges basin, of which the present lands of Bangladesh form, not only a considerable proportion, but also, importantly, access to the world, unfolded, up to four or five thousand years ago, one of the world’s first industrialised civilisations, founded, we may assume, by both indigenous peoples, descendants, perhaps, of “out of Africa” migrants, and such as refugees from the 8 or 10 thousand year old Harappan civilisation, and Aryan migrants.

This civilisation developed, due in part, perhaps, to its trading activities for which tokens or records were essential, one of the world’s first written languages, Sanskrit. A language, so much of which has passed, over millennia, into other great linguistic roots such as Greek, Latin and English.

From the traditional roots of belief and philosophy, such as Animism, and then Shamanism, evolved, in this economic and cultural melting pot of trade and culture, the complex pantheistic religion of Hinduism, which we may believe inspired the more monotheistic Jainism, and eventually, the “your god is within you,” Buddhism.

To, and through these lands, came Arabs, to trade, bringing with them, almost certainly in the lifetime of the Prophet himself, the great Islamic faith. And it is even arguable, at least, that the Christian teacher, Christ, may possibly, before commencing his ministry, have been sent by such a wealthy, merchant, patron as Joseph of Arimathea to the great Buddhist centres of learning, an estimated 400 of which developed in these lands of Bangladesh, from the time of the Buddha, onwards.

The archaeological treasures slowly being unearthed in these lands, to which, even before the Common Era, led such great trade routes as the Spice and Silk voyages from Arabia and the Mediterranean, the Southern Silk Road from China and central Asia, the first of those iconic trading links, and the Grand Trunk Road that stretched, eventually, from Kabul to Chittagong, speak volumes for that history of trade and civilisation.

And there seems little doubt that the traffic in traders and visitors enriched the endemic culture of the lands in the arts, education, and probably the sciences as well. Indeed, there is one school of thought that attributes, almost, perhaps, ironically, the discovery of the properties of saltpetre, the vital component of gunpowder, to Buddhist monks; a discovery they are said to have shared in the 6th century with the Emperor of China!

It is, perhaps, no coincidence that we know such monks hailed from across the contemporary world; from Japan and China, from South east Asia, from all over the subcontinent and central Asia, and very probably further west as well. It was, also, possibly, the significant deposits of saltpetre, hereabouts (an estimated 70% in the 17th century), that proved so attractive to both Mughal and European invaders.

Alexander the Great, it seems reasonable to believe, was headed to this affluent centre of trade in the delta of which the Kingdom of Gangaridai, a name derived from the Sanskrit “ganga rashtra” (the wealth of the Ganges), was the heart, with, we may also suspect, the great walled and moated city now being slowly excavated at Wari Bateshwar, as the famed, lost city of Ganges, its capital (whatever India may be attempting to convince the World Heritage people).

Megasthenese, the Greek historian, writes of the people of Gangaridai, describing, as did many subsequent Greek and Roman historians, the military strength of the nation which, together with the width and depth of the Ganges, forced Alexander to end his advance across the known, and the unknown, world of his time. Indeed, those who wrote, subsequently, of this are almost a pantheon of great Greco Roman historians.

Apollonius of Rhodes, rewriting the Homeric legend of the Golden Fleece, in the 3rd century BCE, found in his writing, place for “Datis” a “Chief of the Gangaridai.”

And Virgil, the great Roman poet, celebrates, probably significantly, “in gold and ivory, the battle of the Gangaridae and the arms of our victorious Quirinius.” There seems, indeed, little doubt, that gold and ivory were amongst the items of trade through the Ganges delta.

From the great geographer, the early 1st century CE, Roman, Strabo, we find that merchants sailed to the Ganges from Egypt; and the map made by the 2nd century cartographer, Ptolemy, of the Ganges delta leaves us in no doubt of the familiarity of Roman traders with both Ganges and Brahmaputra. Which supports the view that Ganges, Brahmaputra, ancient Ledo Road, and the Yellow River, was probably, as the Southern Silk Road, the favoured route to China for traders, who included it is believed, an uncle of the Prophet, the 7th century Arab merchant who some credit with founding the Saan’a mosque in Shanghai.

Certainly, Money Cowrie shells in 3rd century BCE tombs in Yunnan province, and the report by a 1st century BCE emissary of the Han Emperors who is recorded as reporting his certainty of such a trade route between China and India and the Mediterranean world, down the Brahmaputra, supports the view written, in the middle of the 1st century CE/AD of the merchants guide to trade in the Indian and Arab oceans, “The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,” of the profitable cargoes to be acquired in the Ganges delta.

Through the centuries since, Chinese and Arab visitors have commented on the evident wealth in these lands. And the first known English visitor, whose journey brought him to travel extensively in these lands, and whose travels are mentioned by Shakespeare, in his play, Macbeth, who may well have been scouting the prospects for supply of saltpetre, also writes of the affluent appearance, and extensive use of such as ivory and silver in personal adornment.

All of which support the view that what attracted both visitors and invaders was that wealth of trade, as well as the natural resources. Even the early 18th century the British novelist, Daniel Defoe, writing his great work, Robinson Crusoe, attributes to his hero wealth and success in “trading in opium and diamonds” to his great satisfaction.

This, surely, describes a nation that was once, undoubtedly, the foundation stone of the building, and protection of the British Empire. And one that was even the foundation of the Industrial Revolution and today’s world economy; not to mention the largest democratic nation in today’s world, India. All despite being left much in ruins by the Pakistan Army, in 1971, an Army and its allies, who also destroyed, with massacres of social, economic and intellectual leaders, the immediate future of the nation, from which it still struggles to recover.

The trade that, in Aurangzeb’s day, moved him to make his famous remark about Bengal, describing it as “the paradise of nations for its wealth and trade,” flowed through Dhaka for millennia before Calcutta was founded, after his time. It flowed, indeed, for the most part the rivers and lands that are now Bangladesh, occasioning his praise, and was certainly well known to the Mughals; why else would they have spent so long struggling for their control of Bengal in the face of the resistance of, especially, the famed Baro Bhuiyans? And why else would his father, Shah Jahan, have sent his favourite son, by his wife, Mumtaz, for whom he built the Taj Mahal ... no doubt with treasure acquired in these lands ... Shah Suja, as Governor?

Despite the long period of recovery from the appalling Liberation War, Bangladesh has so much to be proud of, both its ancestors and their stunning achievements that truly led the world, and changed it, and, increasingly, their younger generations, so evidently capable of continuing to build, once again, a real Paradise of Nations. 

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