There are thick layers of murk that veil the early history of these lands that are now Bangladesh. The most obvious layer is that of time.
There is little doubt that one of the earliest forms of written language, Sanskrit, had developed in the lands around the Ganges, as is so often claimed, by Hindu devotees for the propagation of religious teaching.
Word of mouth was by far the most common and early form of such teaching in the age of widespread illiteracy. The written form was more likely used to record commercial transactions in the flourishing center of trade.
However, the deficiency of enduring surfaces for such writing means that, apart from early, splendid architectural and sculptural forms, little, if anything else, material has survived.
The second layer of murk is, literally, the depth of the layer. The layer that is of the alluvial out-wash from the annual inundations of Himalayan melt waters, and monsoon rains.
Far beneath that layer, who knows what treasures of early heritage might have survived to bear testament to what was unquestionably one of the world’s earliest centers and crossroads of trade, even of civilization itself.
The third, and today the most challenging of the murk through which to peer for evidence of the early history, is the deficiency of resources in Bangladesh, for archaeology, specially by comparison with those in India, and the politicization of the history of the subcontinent by, especially, India.
What India cannot ignore, it attempts to hijack. India claims the ancient capital of Gangaridai lying close to Calcutta, ignoring the huge site on the banks of the Old Brahmaputra at Wari Bateshwar, in much the same way it has attempted to take possession of Jamdani.
Bangladesh itself seems preoccupied from the middle of the 18th century to mid 20th century, obsessing with the ills inflicted by the British, largely to the exclusion of the historic ills of the Pakistan period, especially the last few years, and even that of the Mughal and Sultanate regimes, neither of which appear to have left any substantial bequest for the good of the embryonic Bangladesh society.
Even the great faith of Islam certainly arrived in these lands at latest by the Pala era; like the earlier Gupta period, tolerant of all faiths.
Through these layers of murk, lacking locally produced documentary commentary, and with a somewhat warped attitude toward tangible, environmental and circumstantial evidence, as well a substantial lack of interest in such archaeological evidence as is uncovered, it is not always easy for the commentator today to pin point persons, places, and developments of local genesis.
However, whilst histories were written in the pre Common Era, one suspects that close scrutiny of sources in Arabia, Persia, and even North Africa might turn up some interesting Bangladeshi history, sparse in individual and human contributions to the history, there are names that occasionally emerge.
Why would such material be relevant to today’s Bangladesh? There are, of course, those who would contend that Bangladesh had no history prior to 1971.
That is like Britain denying any history prior to the Act of Union, in 1707, that created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; or ignoring, in the face of such overwhelming evidence, any history before 1066, and the Norman invasion, with all its awful consequences for Saxons and Britons alike.
As a modern society, all of us are the product of our social, economic, environmental, and, perhaps above all, our genetic histories. And from them, there is no real escape. It is, quite literally, in our DNA! A DNA of which the people of Bangladesh may have one of the widest diversity of origins in the world.
So, we may turn over the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic stone tools and weaponry recovered from places within today’s Bangladesh, and speculate upon the contribution of nameless and faceless ancestors to the evolution of today’s nation. We may, if we read the records of neighboring peoples, such as those of prehistoric times in Myanmar, China, Nepal and India, gain a better appreciation of just what form of human, or humanoid, created such utilities of ancient lives.
And, slowly, we may learn to appreciate, not merely the contribution of the named, recent forebears who have created our people — Bangladeshis — but the foundations for our people, laid millennia ago.
To understand where we have come from, may well provide clues to where and how capable we are of developing.
The earliest glimpse of an early Bangladeshi appears, it seems, in a fine and famous, literary work of over two thousand years ago, the first half of the 3rd century BCE.
Apollonius of Rhodes. Born in Egypt, at the time a regular source of trade with the Ganges delta, and a kingdom we can now identify from the writings of Greek, Roman and Chinese as lying at the heart of what is now Bangladesh, Gangaridai. He rewrote the 8th century BCE, Homeric saga of Jason and the Argonauts, the legends of the Golden Fleece.
In his rewrite he included a character, Datis, “a chief of Gangaridai,” who was in the army of King Perses 3rd, fighting in a civil war in Colchis, now identified as a part of modern Georgia, on the north coast of the Black Sea.
There is ample evidence that Colchis really existed. Of both King Perses, and even Datis, himself, we can be less sure.
In ancient romantic writing, facts were usually wreathed in legend. But, although it is now generally accepted that the Kingdom of Gangaridai, lying at the heart of the delta of the Ganges did exist, we may never know what he looked like, or anything of his personal history.
However, his inclusion in Apollonius’ romance suggests the international awareness, not only of the Kingdom itself, but also of its formidable strengths.
We have no names from the very famous Roman poet, Virgil, of the 1st century BCE, but his Georgic that would celebrate in “gold and ivory the battle of the Gangaridai and the arms of our victorious Quirinius,” suggests that Apollonius, two centuries earlier, was not alone in admiring the military strength of the people of Gangaridai. Quirinius certainly existed, a successful general of Roman armies fighting in Asia Minor at that time.
Might we reflect upon the beginnings of our understanding and appreciation of the very human qualities of these earliest of men from the lands of today’s Bangladesh.
Qualities to take pride in. Qualities which have earned the interest and admiration of writers and visitors from across the known world, creating a cultural, social and historic heritage that if presented to the world could, even today, enhance the fame and the fortune of the peoples of Bangladesh.