HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY: BANGLADESH’S MOST UNDERVALUED ASSETS?BY TIM STEEL
Recent research by the distinguished US based-Archaeological Institute of America reveals that visits to historical and archaeological places have ranked third, after dining out and shopping, amongst activities of Americans travelling abroad in recent years, and the number is increasing. This explains the continuing rise of tourism statistics in South and South East Asia, as well as in Europe. In fact, it is likely that the destinations of more up-market, better educated and wealthier tourists are defined by such sites, with the eating out, shopping, and such as beach leisure and activities as great add-ons. Bangladesh has tremendous opportunity to capitalize on this well established pattern of tourism motivation that goes back over 150 years, such as the British and American ‘Grand Tours’ of wealthy young travellers, taking in Italy, Greece, Egypt, amongst others, as destinations for recognized sites of ancient history.
Bangladesh has a golden opportunity to be a top archaeological destination for tourists, as the extraordinary fact is becoming increasingly evident that the country can claim to be a significant early site of the history of this region, if not the entire world.
From the clear evidence emerging from the ground in sites like Wari Bateshwar, Mahasthangarh, Vikrampur, and probably Egarasindhur, there are signs that the second or third millennium BCE ‘cradle of Indian civilisation’ – the Ganges Basin Civilisation – reached the open sea through the great Ganges Delta. And from the gathering of European nations around that Delta since the fifteenth century, it is reasonable to suppose there is a great deal of history in the deltaic lands on the origins of not only South Asian civilization, but early urban and commercial development of the world. What is certain is that the documentary evidence of both maps and writing from at least the second century BCE reveals an international awareness of immense possibilities for trade and commerce in, and through, the Delta from very early times.
The Chinese archaeologist, Bin Yang, whose work on the history of Yunnan Province of China was published by Columbia University of New York in 2004, identifies the Southwest Silk Road of trade between China and the rest of the known world from at least the mid-first millennium BCE. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation has invited the Government of Bangladesh to join their Silk Road Project, as a result of evidence submitted to them of the existence of this early trade route.
Strabo, the great Roman geographer whose defining work ‘Geographia’ was published about the year 7 CE, mentions the merchants, “who sail from Egypt, even to the Ganges”, while the famous “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea” published around 50 CE, lists some of the products obtainable for trade in the Ganges Delta, described as on the edge of the known world.
From Megasthenes’ writings of third century BCE it is clear that by then the nation of Gangaridai had emerged around the lands of the east side of the Ganges, which clearly defines, uniquely, lands that are now Bangladesh.
Gangaridai is recorded in both Roman history and Greco Roman myth, although it may not always be easy to distinguish between the two.
The third century rewrite of the myth of Jason, the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece mentions a chief of Gangaridai. Similarly, Roman military historians, such as Plutarch and Pliny the Elder are clear about military dispositions in Gangaridai. Moreover, the great Virgil in his famous Georgics verse celebrates the contribution of men of the Gangaridae in a mid-first century BCE Roman victory in Galatia in Asia Minor.
The evidence of this rich history of the lands of Bangladesh is considerable and compelling. It was in these lands, enriched by great trade, that the Hindu religion developed, then the Jain philosophy, and finally, the Buddhist. Similar, the remains of a Mosque believed to be built in the seventh century lies in Ramzanpur in Rangpur. This could be the earliest mosque build in South Asia touching the time of the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam.
It is not surprising that in this country we begin to find the sculptural collections, the architectural artefacts and the massive ruins of the civilizations that once occupied the lands. Here, emerging from museum collections and documentation, or the tangible places that can be explored, we can find an estimated 400 or so ruined Buddhist vihara to complement such as Pahapur, that lie under protected across the entire country.
The wealth of Mughal period architecture is rapidly being engulfed and the great palaces of British period, together with forts, schools, colleges, universities, roads, bridges, railways and the rest, all rapidly vanishing.
However, even today, there is almost too much to be seen, touched and explored of the extraordinary past that is unique to Bangladesh. This is why tourism development undertaken in Bangladesh should not solely focus on forests, beaches and hills, the likes of which can be found in countless other destinations in the world. The facilities developed need to focus on the international market to develop facilities and standards of service to appeal to far more valuable opportunities.
If Bangladesh reached the international average level of travel and tourism as a contribution to Growth development and employment, it would potentially generate over US 9 billion dollars of foreign exchange and create over four million, much needed, high value jobs. Some say that the cost of excavation and conservation is unaffordable in Bangladesh. It is hard not to recall Oscar Wilde’s famous line, “A cynic is someone who knows the cost of everything, and the value of nothing.” It is time for the country to move away from such cynicism and discover its glorious past that can be valuable assets in tourism development.
December 21, 2012
Tim Steel is a marketing, advertising and communications specialist.