The History of Bangladesh in ancient maps

The Article is written by Tim Steel


The twentieth century American writer, John Henrik Clarke, observed: “History is not everything, but it is a starting point … it is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day.” He went on to describe it as “a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography.” Of, perhaps, greater import to Bangladeshis, he also observed that “the map tells them where they are but, more importantly, what they must be.”

Map of Asia in 323 BC . The Gangaridia currently Bangladesh

Maps are important, not for merely marking places, but also times, and offering the historian, even the archaeologist, one of the most convincing trails of evidence for ancient civilisations; in other words, what once was, and where, marking and suggesting routes to progress. And the histories of the lands that are now Bangladesh are no exception.

To many, Bangladesh has only existed since 1971. However, like every other part of the world, it has an ancient history, and origins that reach back into the misted past. Geologically, it is not hard to estimate its origins. Originating, as what is known as the Indo-Australian Plate, it merged into the Eurasian Plate, and folded the Himalayan barrier as recently as about 10 million years ago. It is still advancing, at a calculated rate of 67mm a year, and over the next 10 million years will probably advance a further 1,500km into Asia!

Thus, the lands that are now Bangladesh originated far south of its present position, whilst its lands have, since then, continued to be extended, annually, but the outflow of seasonal flooding from these, the world’s newest mountains, bearing alluvial soils to add to the sea bed rocks folded up in the original merging of land masses.

Wikipedia, in its fine “Early World Maps” entry, tells a story of the evolution of these lands dominated by the great rivers originating in the mountains, including both ancient Ganges and Brahmaputra, and the role of those lands in world history.

The oldest known map in the world, marking the progress of the human civilisations that produced such maps, originating in Babylon, around the end of the seventh century BCE, or early sixth century, simply, unsurprisingly, focussed on Babylon itself. But it can also be interpreted to identify other lands that neighbour those of the Middle East, simply telling us that international travel and trade were already a part of life on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Why else would such a map be made?

By the middle of the sixth century, Anaximander, a Greek cartographer from Miletus, in Asia Minor, described the world as circular, and comprised of three parts, Europe, Asia, and Africa. A simplistic view, perhaps, but, in his time, entirely accurate. However, the very existence of such a map raises the question: was the drawing an inspired guess, or was his map based on real, substantial knowledge? Knowledge provided, it is safe to assume, by early travellers, who were almost certainly traders.

Within fifty years, another Miletian, Hecataeus, had amplified the contents of Anaximander’s outline of the world, marking both a long range of mountains spreading across the Asian bloc, which can only really be interpreted as the Himalayas, and from which a river springs, flowing from the mountain range, to the surrounding ocean.

Some might interpret this as the Indus, rising at the end of the Himalayan range closest to Asia Minor; however, a more reasonable interpretation, since it rises towards the end of the range, might also identify it as the Ganges. Whichever, it clearly identifies knowledge of the physical geography of Asia, even if the geopolitical knowledge is very evidently deficient!

The mouths of Ganga or the Ganges Delta – The Bengal region – Map by Ptolemy

However, by the middle of the third century BCE there is no longer any doubt about identifying the lands of the Ganges delta that are, today, at the heart of Bangladesh.

Eratosthenes, a Greek philosopher based in the great library in Alexandria, and assisted by the records of Alexander’s campaigns, whilst believing that, north of the Himalayan range were the lands of ancient Scythia, today’s Russia, clearly marks, and names, the Ganges. He also shows the origin of the river in the Himalayas. Only those who had travelled the waters of the great river could possibly have told him that.

By the middle of the second century BCE, another Greek cartographer, Posidonius, based in Rhodes, could boldly mark both Indus and Ganges rivers, and, interestingly, had added, east of the Ganges, a land he names as Sinae, that we might reasonably interpret as China, by then under the progressive rule of the Han Dynasty. Clearly, travellers had widened, and shared, the extent of their knowledge from direct experience.

Although the mid first century AD/CE publication, “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,” a merchant guide to trade, suggests the Ganges delta as a place to buy silk, from an “inland city called Thina,” there is other evidence that trade with China had already been carried on between the Ganges and China for more than a century or two.

Strabo, the great Greco Roman cartographer, in writing of trade with the Ganges Delta, in his very early first century CE publication, “Geographia,” also references the maps of both Posidonius and Eratosthenes.

However, contemporary with the Periplus, the map made by Pomponius Mela, the earliest Roman cartographer, is very clear that the dominant river of South Asia is the Ganges, with many tributaries, and an enormous delta system.

It was, however, the greatest of all the cartographers of the early centuries on Roman times, Ptolemy, who left maps of the entire known world. His map of the Ganges delta also marks the Brahmaputra, showing a route that brought its headwaters close to those of the Pearl river system of China. Interestingly, he marks clearly, in its correct location midway between Karnaphuli and Naf rivers, a coastal town called Ramcu; there seems little doubt that this is today’s Ramu.

He also marks, clearly, the territory of Gangaridai, leaving no doubt that the ancient kingdom, much written about by both Greek and Roman historians, was located within the lands of the Ganges delta.

Although, for the next couple of centuries, historians, especially, continued to write, often almost lyrically, of the Ganges delta, and especially, the Kingdom of Gangaridai, the knowledge of the broad triangular shape of the Indian subcontinent, bracketed by the two great rivers Ganges and Indus, seems to have been lost to cartographers.

Maps produced by Saxon, Viking, Arabian and even Chinese cartographers, over the ensuing thousand years, show no sign that the subcontinent was explored, or mapped, in detail.

It was not until Vasco da Gama, at the end of the fifteenth century, pioneered the Cape route for direct trade, that modern, identifiable, shape and form of the landmass of the subcontinent, reappears in mapping.

Clearly, for that thousand years, following the fall of Rome, and the outbreak of civil wars throughout Europe, ended the previous, near thousand years of geographic exploration and mapping, by, and for, traders who travelled the maritime routes between East Asia and the markets of Europe.

Meanwhile, more local and regional powers had not only traded with the delta lands, but such as the Pashtun Khilji, chased out of their Afghan lands by the Mongol hordes, and followed by those great chancers, the Mughals, had seized the rich lands of the delta.

Two hundred years after the Mughals, the British gained control of these most valuable of lands, and from that time, vastly improved cartography marks the more recent history of what was, once, one of the greatest global centres of economic activity. A fact evidenced by two and a half thousand years of cartography.

Maps can, indeed, it seems, mark the political and cultural time of day, and the place of a people in the world, should the people care to make a check before continuing setting a course towards a future, unknown, and unknowable.

A history in maps is but one of the routes to exploring the history of the peoples of Bangladesh. Documentary evidence, from at least the fourth century BCE, and archaeological evidence that can be scientifically dated, thus far, to at least the 7th century BCE, describes a society with one of the richest histories in the world.

It is a history, the tangible evidence of which may be rapidly disappearing, but the evidence of the maps, and the written history, describe the origins of the people more vividly than a mere history book could possibly do.

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