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Wooden temples and ancient history

  • Published at 06:21 pm January 15th, 2016
Wooden temples and ancient history

On the 15th century reconstruction of the map of the Ganges Delta made in about 150CE/AD by Ptolemy, the great Greco-Roman cartographer, neatly placed on the coast, is marked a place called Ramcu. Lying south of a river that we might reasonably identify with today’s Karnaphuli, and another river that seems to match the Naf River, there seems little doubt that this is the modern market town of Ramu.

It seems safe to assume that, amongst the merchants who traded through the lands around the Ganges delta from, at least, the middle of the last millennium BCE, were those who could identify, in the making of the original map, this location.

Ptolemy drew much of the information for the maps he made of the known world with remarkable accuracy, based on information from Phoenician merchants who traded across the known world.

That they would have traded with the Ganges Delta, we may deduce from two other primary sources. Another Roman, Strabo, in his seminal work, Geographia, around the year one BCE, makes reference to “those merchants who sail from Egypt, even to the Ganges.”

We may debate whether their voyages originated in Egypt, or, since there is some evidence of an ancient canal that was built in about 1,000 BCE by an Egyptian Pharaoh, linking the Nile to the Red Sea, the voyages of the Phoenicians, at least, may have actually commenced in their homeland around ancient Aleppo in Syria.

Then there is also the mid-first century AD/CE publication, “The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,” a merchant’s guide to the Arabian and Indian seas, which also describes the trading opportunities in the Ganges Delta. There is, in fact, plenty of circumstantial, archaeological, documentary, and empirical evidence of the Ganges Delta as an international trading centre from early times -- the earliest known trading with ancient China.

There is, therefore, no reason to be surprised that Ramu, as a market place, should not have figured in such trading.

Of equal interest, even today, is the small market place, in the town, known as the, “Beggars Market,” which appears to suggest the existence, at some earlier time, of a larger centre of trade in what was, presumably, a flourishing city.

Today, Ramu contains a Buddhist Temple, Ramkot, that boasts foundation by the 3rd century BCE emperor of the Mauryan empire, Ashoka, an early convert to Buddhism.

There is, in fact, no real evidence of such an origin, although the present generation of Buddhist monks have worked hard to demonstrate support for the claim. It is, however, worth noting that Ashoka is, in fact, believed to have extended his Grandfather’s empire at least as far south as the Naf River, today’s border between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

It is also suggested, by Burmese Buddhists, that the Buddha, himself, Prince Gautama, visited as far south as Pegu, in today’s Myanmar. Who knows?

In more recent times there is evidence that early visitors to these lands, including the famous 14th century Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta, and the late 16th century English traveller Ralph Fitch, both visited this port city.

The town, today, lies a little inland from the sea, on the banks of the Bakkhali River; it was not uncommon for ports on vulnerable coasts, to be so located, to protect them from both cyclone surges and monsoon seas, as well as, in more recent times, from pirates!

What we can say, with certainty, is that the earliest of maps made by European traders from early 16th century Da Gama, onwards, mark only two towns in what is now Cox’s Bazar District, Ramu and Chakoria. But Ramu is the most consistently marked, and it certainly tends to bear out the supposition of greatest age.

Since no archaeological exploration has ever been undertaken south of Chittagong, by any of its more recent rulers, British, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi, there is, unfortunately, no such evidence to support any such opinion. What we can say is that contemporary Ramu holds, for any heritage hunter, a veritable feast of cultural and heritage traces.

The wooden temples, those saved from the onslaught of 2012, as Buddhists happily attest, often by the intervention of Muslim neighbours, are far from unique in form elsewhere in Myanmar and Thailand, but are certainly unique in Bangladesh.

These survivors of the 2012 onslaught are only a century, or century-and-a-half old, and are remarkably similar in design, layout, and wood construction to each other, and even to private dwellings of the same period. A temple of greater age, a century, or so, earlier, sadly was amongst those burnt.

What is clear is that these temples represent both a traditional and a cultural frontier between the heritage of South-East Asia, and that of South Asia. That such a frontier should be visible, halfway between the border with today’s Myanmar and Chittagong, seems, itself, quite extraordinary.

In addition to the five remaining wooden temples, dating, as they do, from the second-half of the 19th century, there are also two Stupa, which, judging from some exposed brickwork, may well have greater age. That which stands in very close proximity to a Hindu temple, on a mound adjoining the Ramkot development, certainly appears to have foundations of the flat, square bricks that are characteristic of the first millennium CE/AD.

Its proximity to the highly renovated Hindu complex that shares the hilltop, and may well have fallen victim to the pogrom carried out under the influence of the Pakistan Army in the 1960s, suggests it originates from a much earlier and enlightened time of coexistence between Hindus and Buddhist scraps of evidence is a copper plate inscription describing the famous Pala dynasty that ruled large lands in north east India from the middle of the 8th century to the end of the 12th as “risen from the sea-coast,” an inscription that has led to the suggestion that the entire Pala dynasty, in fact, originated as kings of the Kingdom of Ramu.

It may be an enduring clue, beyond Ptolemy’s marking, that the British merchant, Ralph Fitch, exploring the commercial potential for trade with the area.

The other stupa dominates the skyline north of Ramu, on the summit of what the local people call “Golden Hill,” supposing, as is so often the case with historic sites in Bangladesh, that the hill is full of buried gold.

Some estimate the age of this Stupa at about 1,000 years, and it is certain that consideration of similar structures in Myanmar, carefully dated at about that time, would suggest it may be so.

In peril from earth slips on the hill, it has been fairly recently reguilded, and gives a striking appearance of the Buddhist tradition hereabouts.

The present Buddhist communities in Ramu comprise two groups, the Rakhine and the Barua.

It used to be said of the Barua, that they were the “Bengali speaking Buddhists of Chittagong.” Today, both they, and the Rakhine, who are descendants of Arakanese refugees from the great Burmese pogromscraps of evidence is a copper plate inscription describing the famous Pala dynasty that ruled large lands in north east India from the middle of the 8th century to the end of the 12th as “risen from the sea-coast,” an inscription that has led to the suggestion that the entire Pala dynasty, in fact, originated as kings of the Kingdom of Ramu.

It may be an enduring clue, beyond Ptolemy’s marking, that the British merchant, Ralph Fitch, exploring the commercial potential for trade with the area, and perhaps, also, an as in the former Kingdom of Arakan, which, for around six centuries, included the lands as far north as Chittagong, are all bilingual.

One of the largest of the wooden temples of Ramu, close to the banks of the Bakkhali River, is the most recently erected, late in the 19th century, and known as the “Rakhine Temple.” Both temples, and associated structures within the compound, which includes an aged Bhodi tree with its ancient beribboned trunk and boughs, as well as fine pieces of sculptural work, offer, perhaps, the best example of such a heritage piece.

However, the decaying beauty of the small site off Lamapara offers, rather, more of a sense of enduring tradition. This is, indeed, a town rich in its history. Its heritage is much neglected and usually missed by the many visitors to nearby Cox’s Bazar.