There was an ancillary benefit of the French doctor and traveler Francois Bernier who became the personal physician of Dara Shikoh, elder brother of Saint Aurangzeb. It gave him direct access to the upper echelons and inner recesses of the Mughal royal court and family. It also enabled him to travel unfettered throughout the Mughal Empire, an experience he has recorded in his classic, Voyages dans les États du Grand Mogol or Travels in the Moghul Empire.
A brilliantly detailed chapter in this book titled The fertility, wealth and beauty of the Kingdom of Bengale makes for delightful and illuminative reading. Like the rest of Bernier’s book, it offers a powerful panorama complete with the minutest details of a Bengal at the zenith of luxury and plenty. We cannot help but marvel at the overwhelming prowess of Bernier’s felicity of observation and attention to detail. Indeed, Bernier’s Travels became an instant bestseller throughout Europe, and formed the raw material for John Dryden’s description of “Aurangzebe” and his portrayal of the riches of the Indus and the Ganges, places and people he had never personally seen.
But here is a summary of what Bernier observed in Bengal:
1. The pre-eminence ascribed to Egypt is rather due to Bengal.
2. Bengal rice was produced in abundance and sent to remote States (i.e., countries) by sea and land. It was sent to Ceylon and Maldives among other places.
3. The copious amounts of sugar that Bengal produced in abundance were sent to Golkonda, Karnatic, Arabia, Mesopotamia, and Persia.
4. The Portuguese who had a settlement along the Bengal coast quickly learnt the art of preparing fine sweetmeats and transformed it into a thriving industry.
5. Bengal had mastered the art of preserving fruits for long periods. Varieties of citrus fruits—large and small—were preserved in barrels and exported. Other fruits of Bengal in great demand included Amba (mango), Ananas (pineapple), myrobalans, limes, and ginger.
6. Compared to Egypt, Bengal falls behind in wheat production. However, even this yield of wheat was used to make inexpensive sea-biscuits, which were supplied to English, Dutch and Portuguese ships.
7. The daily diet of the common people included four varieties of vegetables, rice, and butter, all of which came at dirt cheap prices.
8. Non-vegetarians enjoyed a similar culinary fare for a trifling: one rupee fetched more than twenty fowls, and varying quantities of geese, ducks, goats, pigs, and fish were available at truly inexpensive prices. Indeed, pigs were so cheap that the “Portuguese live almost entirely upon pork.”
9. Commodity trade flourished on an unparalleled scale. Clothing occupied the central place in this trade. Bengal was the world’s warehouse for cotton of all varieties: fine, coarse, white, coloured, and dyed. For a significant period, the Dutch (known then as the Hollanders) had an export monopoly on cotton and silk to Japan and Europe. Other huge European business houses stationed in Bengal supplied clothing to Persia, Syria, Malta, and Lebanon. The Dutch also had a huge silk factory in Kaseem Bazaar, which supplied finished products to a vast network of accredited merchants and traders. Apart from clothing, spice trade—a primary reason why Europe desperately struggled to find a sea route to India—was a substantial revenue-generator for Bengal. In this, Bengal was the global hub of Saltpeter (potassium nitrate), which was exported to Europe and South East Asia. Other spices included the best of pepper, lac, opium, wax, civet, long pepper and various medicinal drugs.
As we have seen in the previous part of this series, Bengal was among the world leaders in rice production and export. A brilliant riverine network was the primary mode of transportation of tons of rice. River stations originating along the Ganga in Bengal carried it to Patna. The Bengal coastline had a direct link to Machilipattanam and other ports along the Coromandel Coast.
Patna (which was then part of the Bengal country) was akin to the national treasure chest of saltpetre. Chapra, now in Bihar, was home to enormous salt refineries, and a 25 mile-radius surrounding Patna exploded with salt factories built by the Dutch, Portuguese and the British, sending out a "prodigious" quantities "down the Ganges."
Indeed, Bernier’s vivid account of Bengal (spelled Bengale) makes for truly delightful reading. Constraints of space prohibit me from providing fuller details. However, some takeaways are noteworthy.
Describing the procedure of making ghee, this is what Bernier says:
It is precisely this entirely homegrown knowledge and genius that we have lost in the ongoing mad rush towards an ill-defined economic development whose ultimate goals are unclear.
Ghee remained a huge money-spinner in the export market of Bengal even at the turn of the 20th century when British imperialism was at its peak. Here are some quarterly trade figures.
It is a measure of the pathetic lack of our civilizational self-confidence and the continued psycho-cultural slavery that today, ghee has almost been made into a prohibited substance in “independent” India based on nothing but a West-induced shame over questionable standards of beauty and health. Yet, all milk derivatives in Sanatana Bharatavarsha continue to be treated as offerings to the Deity during say, Abhishekam or other sacred rituals. More than anything else, this sanctity is what preserved our cattle for countless centuries.
Bernier’s other important observation relates to how significant sections of European settlers in Bengal didn’t want to return from this land of bounty and abundance. And how, “Christians driven from their different settlements by the Dutch” sought asylum in Bengal, the “fertile kingdom.”
Bengal had also earned a superb distinction in the other, rather endearing area of self-induced intoxication: the manufacture of an astonishing variety of alcohol. Made in Bengal liquor was a highly coveted drink by the Europeans living there. This reached such epidemic proportions that the captains of British and Dutch ships gave strict orders to their crew, rationing the use of Bengali liquor. Bouleponges was especially favoured because it was exceptionally potent but “most hurtful to body and health.” It was basically arrack, distilled from molasses, mixed with lime juice, water and nutmeg. The name Bouleponges is derived from the name of the vessel it was brewed in. Even today, the German name for punch is Bowle, derived from Bouleponges. To round off this alcoholic detour, Bernier concludes that Bengal arrack was “held in great repute in those days.” It was vastly superior to its spirit-in-rival made in Goa. It can be said without exaggeration that the galaxy of sailor-made diversity of punch of the 18th and 19th century Europeans owes much to Bengal.
And so, a thoroughly, Bengal-enamoured Bernier is compelled to cite a proverb popular among the Portuguese, Dutch, and the British:
Given what we have seen so far, and we’ve seen just a tiny slice, who would want to leave a paradise that endlessly kept giving?
But then, it is one thing to read the description of say, the Vidyarthi Bhavan by a foreigner and entirely another to read it written by an Indian in his own language. No matter how good or honest it is, a foreign account cannot by definition be intimate, purposeful, and endearing. These qualities can only come from the proverbial fragrance and spirit of the Sanatana soil.
One such rare but splendidly fragrant account of Bengal is available in the Sanskrit work, Girvanapadamanjari authored by Dhundiraja, mentioned in the previous part of this essay series. Dhundhiraja was Francois Bernier’s contemporary, originally a Maharashtrian Sanskrit scholar who penned his magnificent work in Benares.
We’ll see what he says about Bengal in the next part.
To be continued
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