A GOLDEN AGE
The sub-continental empires owe a lot to the wealth generated in the Ganges delta in Bangladesh
The average citizen of modern India very evidently, not only chooses to openly ignore the importance of the lands of ancient India that are now Bangladesh in the development of the rich history and heritage of the sub-continent, but even, often, in the writing of open history in places such as Wikipedia, bend it, or even pervert it.
Boasting of the development of one of the world’s first industrialised civilisations in the Ganges basin, India continues to ignore the fact that the gateway for that civilisation was the Ganges delta, the heartland of Bangladesh.
That the Brahmaputra, because of its deltaic gateway to the world, was probably the world’s first of the famed “Silk Roads,” is also widely ignored, presumably, to acknowledge it would involve admitting the vital importance of the heartlands of Bangladesh in its existence.
That it may well have been the flourishing international centre of trade around the delta, brought Alexander the Great into India, and subsequently attracted both the Khilji and Mughal conquerors, can readily be glossed over with more attention to minute detail than strategic overview of such history.
That it was, also, probably the annual outwash of the rural and industrial communities of the basin that left the fringes of the eastern basin the world’s greatest source of the crystalised residue of human and animal waste that is saltpetre, the vital ingredient of gunpowder, a resource with which the inhabitants of the lands for years resisted the Mughals, and which certainly attracted the Europeans, is also widely ignored.
The Europeans, of course, used the saltpetre, not only to create, and maintain, for nearly two centuries, the world’s greatest ever Empire but also to turn the sub-continent from a patchwork of principalities into a cohesive, and largely democratic, whole that, in 1947, could be given the freedom of self-governance as three major nations is also something most, it seems, would rather forget.
When we say that the lands of Bangladesh have been, in every real sense, the foundation stone of both empires, and today’s nations, as an overview of the history and heritage, it cannot be readily contested.
But even within the history of the sub-continent itself, the lands of north-east India seem to have contributed more than a reasonable share to the remarkable heritage.
Some of the greatest Indian empires had their roots in these lands, and that certainly argues for, above all, the wealth that can generate such cohesive power.
The ancient Magadha Empire and the Mauryan Empire both grew out of Patna on the banks of the Ganges. There seems little doubt that it was the wealth generated in the area that supported such imperial ambitions, and to which, no doubt, the developing cities that are now located in the lands of Bangladesh made major contributions.
But, in terms of the first of the greatest of the empires of the common era, especially, first the Gupta, and then the Pala, it seems that proximity to the delta became even more important.
The first of these, the Hindu Gupta dynasty, probably had its roots firmly in, or around, the lands of modern Bangladesh and its immediate environs.
There is much debate about the origins, but there are substantial historians who attribute the origins of the dynasty to the lands of Varendra, those of modern Rajshahi and Rangpur.
Sadly, Indian and Hindu nationalism can be identified as playing a role in a great deal of historical debate such as that of the Gupta origins, so it is difficult to regard many opinions as being entirely objective. However, logically, it would seem that power bases are likely to be more closely aligned to wealth bases, and greater proximity to both the trading wealth of the Delta lands, and to the great cities that we have every reason to believe developed around the deltaic lands, might support assumptions of origin closest to the delta.
The Gupta Empire seems to have been founded in the second part of the third century CE, and, as it blossomed, and spread, became historically famed for “inventions and discoveries in science, technology, engineering, art, dialectic, literature, logic, mathematics, astronomy, religion, and philosophy.”
It need, however, hardly be said that such evolution, and rapid social, cultural, and intellectual development cannot have emerged, quite suddenly, from nowhere.
Despite the strong Hindu influence of the dynasty, and the many attempts by Hindu historians to point to this “golden age,” as the fruit of Hindu development, it seems reasonable to recall that, with, at that time, already over 800 years of existence, the Buddhist faith group had made remarkable strides forward in their links with such developing cultures as those of China, that had probably already begun to embrace the Buddhist beliefs and practices.
Rather, one suspects, the Gupta were good at avoiding the communalism of the Brahmin culture, embracing, rather, all that the history of the environment of the foundation places of the Empire had to offer.
We have evidence, from pre-Gupta period crafts and artefacts, that these lands around the delta were far from uncivilised. Indeed, museum collections around Bangladesh reveal the advanced skills of sculptors, jewellers, metal workers, and terracotta workers, amongst others, who have left enduring traces. And we cannot forget the literature that originates in that area, too.
Even scientific and engineering skills of a much earlier period are manifested in the enduring “lost wax” sculptural and casting work, still practiced, largely as a tourist craft, in Bangladesh.
Sad to say, despite the fact that this “golden age” may have had its birth in the lands that are now Bangladesh, there appears to be little tangible evidence of its far reaching influence remaining in these lands.
However, it has often been suggested that the lands around the Ganges delta were, in the last millennium BCE, and for centuries of the common era, a perfect example of the great Baron de Montesquieu, the early 18th century, French philosopher’s premise that “peace is the natural consequence of trade.”
It certainly appears that the golden age of the Gupta empire differs most significantly from the brief, early second millennium Hindu rulers, the Senas, who adhere to a more militant, Brahmanic tradition of exclusion of others, in its evident tolerance of Buddhist development, and even rule of parts of its empire.
In this tolerance, it more closely mirrored another 500 years earlier Hindu ruling dynasty, the Sunga dynasty, in keeping the peace to protect the flourishing international trade from which it derived so much of its economic power.
A strong economy, and a largely peaceful environment is, of course, a generally recognised prerequisite to cultural and social development. And it was, doubtless, such an environment that saw an early flowering of educational attainment, including, probably, the mathematical assertion of such contentious issues as the decimal system, and the concept of zero. These were mathematical achievements that, through a millennium of exchange between Indian sub-continent and the Middle East, laid the foundation for later Arab supremacy in such disciplines.
The mathematical skills probably also lay at the foundation of significant advances in both architecture and engineering, as well as a wide array of artistic achievement.
In such an advanced culture, especially, it seems that these lands that are now Bangladesh, may well lay claim, through its trading expertise, to have laid a foundation stone to cultural development that was, to eventually become a hallmark of historic Indian culture as a whole.
JULY 25, 2015