Bengal and SE Asia

We know about the Bengal that it is the colony or British Bengal or the Mughal Bengal but history did not start there. It started long back. It was mentioned by the Greek traveler Megasthenes in his book Indica. There are so many maritime travelogs of Southeast Asia. So the history of Bengal started early, from written proof it can be said that at least before Christ. It was a very ancient and very prosperous heritage site. Also known as Bongo, not Bengal. It was called Bongo Hridaya or Bengal is the Heart. It was the heart of the whole eastern part of India.

If you go through the Ptolemy map you can see their prosperous area is named Bongo and Prasi. So there were two emperors or two prosperous kingdoms one was Bongo and one was Prasi or Praswayi.

When we say Bongo, It includes the current area of West Bengal, Bangladesh probably Tripura, and parts of Assam as well.

When we come to the point of maritime trade you can find that horse-trading was important in Bengal. It was not only inside India but horses went to the Unaan, ancient China and from there the Kambuja, the Malaya, the Sumatra even up to the Philippines. If you see the geographical position of the current Bengal and Bangladesh, it is very close to the sea and the Ganga river. Trade depends on the river route.

Bongo Hridaya or the Ganga Hridaya was the ancient clan of the Bengal. We can read about it in the History of early southeast Asia by Kenneth R Hall. He mentions archaeological evidence that the Gangetic plain of the Bengal was very famous during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Transport of goods shifted to the sea along the maritime route between the southern part of China and the Bay of Bengal.

Gangahriday was that first port and then we had Chandraketugarh port (12th Century BCE) and Saptgaon or Saatgaon (4th Century BCE). The Saatgaon was very famous and is now known as the Adisaptagram. Adi means the ancient and the Saptgram means seven villages. It is known by different names like Devanandpur. When the very big ship came to the Saat gaon port or Saptagram in 1560, French traveler Ceasor Fredriseh wrote that Satgaon is a prosperous city like Sri Lanka. It had so many gold ornaments and the architecture was full of gold and jewelry. One British traveler also writes down about that trip in 1583. So, Saatgaon was very popular and a huge civilization happened on the shore of these seven villages. It is not very far from Kolkata.

Gangasagar is related to the sage name Kapil, a place of Kapilmuni ashram Original ashram may have shifted as Ganga changes its course. We all know the story of Bhagirath and the 100 sons of King Sagara at Kapilmuni ashram. Bhagirath from whom the river gets its name Bhagirathi is still known in Bengal as Bhagirathi. Bhagirathi river came from the Murshidabad towards Saat gaon. The Bhagirathi is touching those places and come to the Triveni. One Triveni is in Praygaraj and one Triveni is in Saptagram. It’s very close to Saptgram that’s why it was so important port at that time and it is the Ganga, Jamuna, and Saraswati. So the main port and trading were dependent on the Saraswati river that time in Saatgaon in Saptgram.

From Bengal, it was the fine cotton that was exported. We have to remember that time it was Bongo and was not divided as Bangladesh and Bengal. Muslin and cotton were very famous from here. In southeast Asia, they knew it as cotton of Bongo. It was so fine that it can pass through a ring. It went to southeast Asia especially Sumatra, the Philippines, Malacca, Malay, and Java also. Also Areca nuts and to some extent potteries too. Bengal Areca nuts were in great demand throughout south east asia. The trading route with Bengal and those places carried various foodstuffs. They mention rice, dry fruits, fruits, Bay leaf. Ibn Batuta also wrote that the Bay leaf of the eastern part of India or Banga bhumi was very famous not only as a spice but was also used for its aroma. We call it Tejpatta in Bengali.

Few sociologists and archaeologists think we were also getting something. It was gold coins and elephant teeth or ivory. Ivory was a very important thing at that time. Mainly Bengal earned money because they were always almost self-sufficient.

Ancient Temples
There were so many architectural valuable things that were destroyed. Still, we have the Mahasthangarh University. We all know about the Nalanda but very few know about the Mahasthangarh. It was a very ancient stupa university around 700 BCE. It is now in Bangladesh. If you come to our Bengal, 100 km away from Kolkata, in Bardhaman and Bankura districts, you get 7-8th CE temples like the Sonatapal temple, Deulghata Purulia, Bankura temple, etc. There are ancient temples like Jatardeul, Bahulara temple, Satdeul, and Pakuria temple that still remain around.

The 8th and 9th century’s temples, mostly are Terracotta, few are the stone temples. There is also a very ancient and huge mound known as the Pandu Rajar Dhibi, which is in Bardhaman and is related to king Pandu of Mahabharata. The excavations were started under B.B. Lal, and he said it is almost 1600 – 1700 BCE. They also got the chalcolithic copper utensils and some pottery.

Gokul Math temple is 8th century Pala’s architecture temple. This is from the Bogura district of Bangladesh. But the Jatardeul near Diamond Harbour in South 24 Parganas is from the 10th century. The Bahulara temple which is of the 8th century present in the Bankura district.

Sculpture and Structure
The sculptures of the Pala period in various museums across India, are very exquisite, very finely carved in black stone usually dark black stone, and obviously stone doesn’t happen in the Bengal region. It had to come from outside at some point in time.

Although most of the ancient sculptures have gone outside India.One can still witness the Pala period’s beautifully carved stone images, especially the Bodhisattva or the Buddhist Tara in some of the museums in India. In the Sonatapal temple or the Bahulara temple one can get the beautiful structures, few remained still now. A very small museum in Bishnupur has few ancient pieces of the Pala period.

Sculptures are mobile and are scattered all over the world, but structure are static and ancient in nature. So similarity of structures can provide much light in ancient relationship between civilisations.

In Surabaya there is the Majapahit and the Mojokerto temple. It is surprising to see that the same structure, same style of architecture, and same style of surroundings whatever is seen in Deulaghata and the Sonatapal temple. The same thing happened in that place in the 11th century, because there were very strong links between the two.

Most temples in far south east asia are dedicated to the Sun god or Vishnu. Sun worship is also very popular in Bengal.

Worship of the Mother
Another interesting thing, if you start from the Bengal and go to Southeast Asia the most of the places through the seaside worship the mother godess. If you follow the route from Bengal to Burma then Kamboja, Thailand, which was known as the Sham Kamboja in the past, they also have very much faith in Goddess Umadevi.

Umadevi and Laxmi are the form of Durga, or the part of the mother Durga whatever you like to say. In Indonesia there are thousands of Mahisasurmardini Durga. If you go to Bali, they worship Laxmi, which is also related to the Bengal. In Bengal Lakshmi is worshipped every Thursday at homes. It is related to rice cultivation and is known as the Dhanalaxmi. The same concept is in Bali and they call the goddess Dhanalaxmi. Similarly Saraswati. In Bali, they worship Saraswati twice a year. They have beautiful Saraswati temples.

The Poila Baisakh or the first day of Baisakh, is celebrated in Bengal as Poila Baisakh. In Assam, it is known as the Bihu. In Punjab, it is known as Baisakhi. If we see the map, we shall find the whole southeast Asia celebration of Baisakhi with different names. Sankranti is Thingumin in Burma. And these are ancient rituals there as well.

We can thus conclude that trading route with Bengal, Assam, and a few parts of Punjab, were also selling their produces through Bengal port or Ango Bango Kalingo, which is also known as Kalingan and Bangan in South East Asia. In Phuket, Thailand one will come across a part named Bangli and Kling. Bangli is where people from Bonga came to, and Kling is where people from Kalinga resided. There are innumerable similar references to Kling and Bangli in many other southeast asian countries till today.


Src: An excerpt from and interview with Smt. Anita Bose, an author, an artist, an independent researcher, a former guide at the National Museum of Bangkok, and a convener at the Global Ramayana Encyclopedia project. She is the author of two books Ramayana footprints in Southeast culture and heritage and Pattachitra of Odisha in Jagannath culture. Interview conducted by Anuradha Goyal of Detours with me.

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