By the time James Rennell in the 1770’s, working out of Dhaka, finished surveying all the many rivers of Bengal, most of them had changed course, thus showing as much indifference to cartography as to any other form of human presumption.
Rennell’s beautifully wrought maps, paid for by John Company, survive to this day but, for all his work, are nothing to go by. But then neither do you want to go by the even more wilful and demonic roads that these days the people of Bangladesh have taken to as an alternative to their rivers.
The rivers themselves, among the greatest and longest in the world and fed by countless tributaries, are at their mightiest as they sweep through, and sometimes over, Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the fashion that has grown up for roads has taken away their traffic. The loss is the people’s since, for all the dexterity of the drivers, the roads are horribly congested and dangerous.
Travelling on most of the roads in Bangladesh, you might be forgiven for believing you are crossing the sand-stormed Sahara and that the enticing palm trees and green paddy fields intermittently glimpsed on either side of the highway are mirages of non-existent oases.
The broken roads all converge like the spokes of a cycle-rickshaw wheel on the centre of the country. A contemporary urban myth, perhaps put about by the Sundarban goddess Bonbibi, has it that the people from all the rural areas of Bangladesh, with their fish and their rice, their fruits, their timber and their bricks, wanting to preserve their lovely jungle villages, swept all their dust and detritus up into a big heap in the centre of the country and that’s how Dhaka came to be.
Evidently, many of the sweepers never got back to their villages for you can still see so many of them squeezed in the constricting coils of the capital, its rivers and lakes infilled with ever greater piles of dust. Even here, however, the riverine characteristics of the countryside survive. Thousands of poorly-paid rickshaw-drivers in their colourfully-decorated cycles twist and turn every second with millimetres to spare between banks of buses and motor-cycles. Those are the rivers speaking.
Hills are fixed, of course, in a way that quicksilver rivers are not: they stand in solid order. Or do they? Some decades on from Rennell’s meandering courses, Alexander Cunningham, the engineer son of a visionary Scottish poet, developed a passion for rediscovering its Buddhist heritage to the Subcontinent. He marched through the Indian plains with the quaint idea in his head that grassy knolls might not be hills at all but stupas.
Bangladeshi landowners in the northwestern part of the country were not at all happy when General Cunningham threatened to requisition their perfectly serviceable hills for the quixotic purpose of excavating them. Unfortunately for them, the enthusiastic Cunningham had by this time established the Archaeological Survey of India and used the full might of the British Empire to get his own way.
The result is that we have Paharpur which, as its name suggests, ought to be a hill but is these days the site of a stupa, not quite so well preserved and astounding as Angkor Wat or Borobodur perhaps, but its immense looming shape still wonderful to savour, especially when standing in a rose garden under the moon and stars after a long, dusty, desperate journey from Dhaka.
Do not underestimate the ability of the local villagers, however, to deal with intruders in whatever form they come, British, Bangladeshi or brute beast. Kindly taken to look at a second archaeological site at the delightful jungle village of Dwipganj, the Halud Vihara, we discovered the ingenious villagers had once again liberated their hill. The vihara, apart from its useful flight of steps, is grassed over and used to graze sheep. Dung-cakes are stacked against its sides and clothes laid out to dry under the sun on what had once been its topknot chhatri or umbrella.
The sign General Cunningham’s successors vainly put up declaring that the hill was a protected monument could not have been read anyway being written in a foreign, or for that matter any, language. It is now used as a wicket and the boys who bat and bowl hereabouts are as dexterous as a rickshaw-driver, their movements as sinuous as a river.
John Drew has lived on both sides of the Himalayas.