The Bengal that was the Sprawling Economic Garden of the World

The first part of a series narrating the prosperous economic empire of Bengal roughly from the 14th up to the 18th Century
The Bengal that was the Sprawling Economic Garden of the World

Like every pious Islamic bigot, Shaykh Abu Abdullah Muhammad popularly known as Ibn Batuta landed in Chittagong on 9 July 1346 to pay his respects to the super-bigot, the “saint” Shaykh Jalaluddin who had holed up in the mountains of Kamarupa. Ibn Batuta’s bigotry apart, the encyclopedic accounts of his travels during the Delhi Sultanate period offer rich, substantial and eyewitness accounts of the havoc these sultans had wreaked upon Bharatavarsha.

Batuta was immediately enchanted by the Bengal that welcomed him. He had just left Madurai behind, disgusted with the open and frank barbarism of the so-called Madurai Sultanate, and Bengal was an opulent paradise that sent him into raptures. Unimaginable prosperity reigned all around him. True to his chronicler’s nature, he began documenting everything he saw.

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And the portrait he gives us simultaneously stuns and makes us tearful for what Bengal eventually became, now groaning under the mad ministrations of Mamata Banerjee.

During his month-long stay and travel, Bengal completely enamoured him leading him to condemn Egypt in comparison. The sweeping mountains, the generous overflowing rivers, the magnificence of Bhagirathi, tree-lined avenues that emitted soothing shade, and the breath taking cities swept him completely leading him to exhort with great passion:

we sailed down the river for fifteen days passing through villages and orchards as though we were going through a mart. On its banks there are water-wheels, gardens and villages to right and left like those of the Nile in Egypt. Thus while the abundance of the necessaries of life and its soothing scenery made it a very attractive country to live in.

However, Ibn Batuta’s detailed and picturesque description of the economic haven that Bengal was is pertinent to the context of this essay series. The first thing that stunned Batuta was the extensive material abundance of Bengal. Indeed, unlike the post industrialized world of today, Bharatavarsha had always stressed upon and produced material goods on an unrivalled scale and variety. Cash occupied a relatively insignificant part of the economic conception of Bharatavarsha. It is for this reason that daily necessities of life were available for dirt-cheap prices. Indeed even in the early part of the twentieth century, a quarter of a rupee would fetch about 12-16 coconuts. The Bengal that greeted Batuta exhibited this material abundance on a supremely prolific standard.

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Batuta pays glowing tributes to the vast and flourishing agricultural system perennially watered by an elaborate and intricate irrigative network. He was astonished by the abundant availability of rice, which Bengal was justly renowned for, throughout the world, exporting it to Sri Lanka and Maldvies among other countries. Especially, the “parched and flattened rice” was of the highest quality and in great demand. On average, rice costed 11 Paisa per maund (1 Maund= 37.3242 Kilograms).

He provides us a list of these daily commodities along with their prices as the table below shows.

The next foreigner who has left fairly detailed accounts of the economic haven called Bengal was a Chinese interpreter named Ma Huan. He was employed in a Chinese embassy that visited Bengal around 1406. Ma Huan also records the social and daily life of Bengal in greater detail than Ibn Batuta. Here is a brief list that will stun you.

Ma Huan first notes that Bengal was an extensive country, with a thriving economy, and its cities and towns were filled to the brim with an extensive variety and wealth of products. Bengal also had a large population. He observes that it had flourishing maritime trade and commercial links with several foreign countries. This indeed was the continuance of that great Pala legacy: every Pala grant invariably mentions the prowess and strength of the royal naval fleet, and the Gauda (the Bengal region in general) people were known as Samudrashrayaan (those who depended on the sea).

Ma Huan
Ma Huan

More interestingly, Ma Huan also describes the physical appearance, dress and costumes of Bengal. Typically, men shaved their heads and wore white turbans, long, loose robes and tied a broad, coloured handkerchief around waist.

Bengal was also the hub of the clothing industry. A variety of fine cotton fabrics were available in plenty and at cheap prices. The silk industry was at its peak producing handkerchiefs, designer saris, caps embroidered with gold, kurtas, robes, and wedding attire.

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Other items for which the Bengal country was known included painted ware, pots, vessels, basins, cups, steel, guns, knives, and scissors. If that was not enough, Bengal had attained a high degree of expertise in manufacturing paper from the bark of a tree, which was in great demand both in India and outside.

We can now return to some details of specific agricultural produce. Here is another brief list.

Grain, Fruits and Vegetables

Abundance of sesame, all kinds of pulses, millet, ginger, mustard, onions, hemp, quash, brinjals, and scores of vegetables, bananas, jackfruits, mangoes, pomegranates, oranges, limes, sugarcane, white sugar, granulated sugar and various preserved fruits. Fruit candies were in great demand. These apart, Bengal also produced copious amounts of poppy, indigo, tea, jute, mulberry, tobacco, hemp, flax, oilseeds, ginger, chilies, betel nut, and an astonishing variety of “succulent vegetables.”

Ma Huan simply can’t get enough of Bengal. He notes how the “luxuriance of vegetation was unsurpassed, perhaps in any part of the world. It may be called ‘one enormous garden.’ Rice, wheat, other grain…mangoes, plantains and other fruits grew in profusion…Beautiful flowers and gorgeous flowering trees and shrubs grow without care. Timber came from Sundarbans and the base of the Himalayas.”

Industry

Quite naturally, Bengal was also one of the great industrial centres for all these agriculture-based products. Specific industries that swarmed the land included silk production, cultivation of the date-tree, date-sugar, saltpeter, indigo, tea, and various oils. Ma Huan also notes the well-networked fusion of production, labour and retail when he says, “in every village there are carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, potters, and oil sellers.”

Bengal was also a prolific exporter to countries like England, France and China. Chief export items included rice, wheat, food grains, oil-seeds, sugar, tea, saltpeter, hides opium, coal, silt and iron.

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Ma Huan then describes what the Bengal country did for amusement and entertainment: music concerts, dance performances, conjurers and magicians, and public shows of strong men fighting with tigers.

Most importantly, Ma Huan observes that the people were “open and straightforward in their dealings,” a marked contrast with the Arabs who had by then blocked the ancient Silk Route, either demanding extortionate prices to be allowed to trade or conducting unprovoked raids of plunder.

This economic paradise of Bengal continued to thrive despite regular raids and high-handed taxation from the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals. The British East India Company shattered it in one fatal blow, a story we all know quite well.

Apart from Ibn Batuta and Ma Huan, we have a remarkable and detailed picture of this economic powerhouse in a Sanskrit work titled Girvanapadamanjari authored by Dhundiraja, a Maharashtrian scholar of the late 17th and early 18th century. This work paints an even better and much more picturesque and intimate portrait of the social and economic life of the Bengal of his time. Dhundhiraja was a contemporary of Sambhaji Maharaja.

To be continued

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