Settlement in Bengal

Settlement in Bengal (Early Period) Human settlements in Bengal have an antiquated history. The present vegetation cover and the landscape indicate several millennia of human activity and interference, and they have derived their character from the pattern of human settlements and agriculture. The land elevation pattern of Bengal acted as an important factor in the initial stage of settlement development in the area, since the greater part of the riverine, wet and low-lying plains must originally have consisted of forest and marshes and were infested with killer animals throughout the prehistoric period. Even in the historical past, a major part of the area was initially unsuitable for human occupation. As late as the Mughal period, much of the Gangetic plain was under forest, and human occupation was quite slow to penetrate into such lands. Thus, relatively older and elevated areas were considered to be the places of early human occupancy in Bengal. Tertiary Hills (66 to 2 million years before with an average height of 300m above mean sea level- MSL) and the Pleistocene Terrace (2 to 0.1 million years before and an average 1.5 to 6 m higher than the level of the lands formed in the Recent Age, it is even 15 to 30 m higher than the MSL on the western part of the barind tract) were possibly relatively accessible to human occupancy in the first stage of settlement development.

The archaeological and anthropogeographic evidence in Bangladesh and the adjacent areas in India indicate the validity of this supposition. The evidence of the existence of human habitation in the lower and upper Palaeolithic age has been discovered in the Chhotanagpur plateau, Rajmahal Hills and the Himalayan-Shillong system. These places are adjacent to Bengal. The evidence of early human occupation in Bangladesh dating back to the Pleistocene Age has been discovered in Comilla and the chittagong hill tracts. The lalmai hills of Comilla are part of Pleistocene Terrace and the Chittagong Hill Districts are of Tertiary Age.

In the second phase, with the development of agriculture in the area, the river system, the most characteristic physical feature of Bengal played a dominating role in the development and expansion of settlement. Major pockets of human settlement existed along the fertile valleys of agricultural value. There is evidence of some sporadic settlement in the Gangetic plain in a number of river valleys throughout the ancient period. River valleys along the natural levees have the most agricultural potential because of the regular renewal of soil there, and human occupancy followed the natural levees. In the past, rivers were the main modes of communication. Some renowned commercial and port cities like Gange and tamralipti were located on the bank of the river ganges and the Bhagirathi respectively. The sudden shift of the course of rivers and drying up of river channels caused the death or decline of many settlements.

The movement of the Palaeolithic people from northern India towards the east took place over the Bengal delta to Burma, Indo-China, the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia, the Pacific islands and even to northern Australia. This happened with the lowering of temperature all over the world following the southward advancement of the ice sheet during the Pleistocene period. During this southward movement some might have settled on the elevated areas of the bengal basin since the wooded low-lying hills of the north would probably have been much easier to clear than the marshy jungles of the plains. Similarity of archaeological findings of the upper Palaeolithic culture of Kalimpong with those of China and southeast Asia suggest that some people may have moved into this part from Tibet and the adjoining areas of China.

Available evidence indicates that during the Pleistocene period Palaeolithic culture was present in the older and the low mountainous areas in and around the region now forming Bangladesh. It also seems that the Barind Terrace may have been one of the few places where settlements first developed. The south was either marshy or estuarine and deeply forested and unfit for human habitation for long. Other areas of ancient settlements were in southwestern Chittagong and the Lalmai Hills.

Settlements have been most unstable as a result of channel shifting of the Ganges-Brahmaputra systems. However, it is assumed that fairly old and built-up settlements developed in ancient times in areas now known as the Moribund Delta, due mainly to their agricultural potential and related economic reasons. But the actual period of the development of human settlements in this part of the country is very difficult to ascertain.

The dated history of Bengal began only from 326 BC with the mention of warriors of the gangaridai who were ready to resist a possible onslaught by Alexander. There was probably some kind of organised social and political life in Bengal for many centuries before this notable event. The first reference to the country is in early Vedic literature. Before the entry of the Aryans into the northwestern part of this subcontinent (about 1000 BC), a number of population groups were living in the Bengal Basin, including the areas now forming Bangladesh. The Aryans occupying the upper Ganges Basin came in contact with a population group whom they called the 'Nishadas', meaning wild people. They presumably were the aborigines of the area now forming Bangladesh. A dominant part of this group belonged to the so-called Proto-Australoid group known as the 'Veddoid'. There were sub-groups or part of the population living in the South Asian subcontinent. Some belonged to the Baric division of the Sino-Tibetan and the Tibeto-Burman, mostly having settlements along the hilly regions of Bengal.

Different factors influenced the spread of human occupancy and settlement distribution in this region. As indicated earlier, initially Bengal was an isolated and sparsely settled landmass. The western highland and the forest cover the tidal forest in the south, and the innumerable rivers discouraged mass human migration into this area for a long time. Even the Aryans who had a dryland nomadic culture were initially least interested in entering this area of tropical wetland. Further, the Himalayan range in the north and northeast protected this part of the subcontinent from mass migration.

Bengal was divided into a number of natural divisions caused by numerous rivers and levels of land. As such, the broad river interfluve perpetuated many independent kingdoms and settlements. These were isolated for quite a long time, even in the historical past, because of the presence of natural barriers including the existence of dense forests.

The Ganges was the dividing line between the north and south Bengal delta. The Brahmaputra, likewise, used to flow along its older course, east of the present channel (until the late 18th century), and the Barind was linked with the madhupur tract. The karatoya was a big river flowing directly into the bay of bengal. Periplus (68 AD) noted that Karatoya was a mighty river with busy marine traffic. The punarbhaba and Karatoya served as the routes for the silk and muslin trade between Bengal and China. In the southern deltaic part of the country, the lower Ganges and its distributaries played a significant role in the development of human occupancy in subsequent periods.

With the emergence of the padma as the main course of the Ganges, the agricultural and accessibility potentials of this part of the country increased and encouraged people to settle there. But this river was also noted for its devastating effect, causing flood and river erosion that also led to the decline of many settlements. However, most of Jessore, Kushtia and part of Khulna were above flood level and were habitable. It is known that the sundarbans tidal forest extended up to these areas and later shifted southward because of the rising level of land due to southern expansion of the delta building activities by the Ganges as well as the impact of human interference. A group of pre-Aryan people used to live here; later they came to be known as the bagdi. Northern and northeastern Bengal was covered with a dense forest but a good part of it was populated by the primitive hill tribes of lower Assam.

Expansion of human settlement and its distribution pattern in Bengal followed the navigable river channels. The rivers also offered fertile soil for farming and were the main means of communication, facilitating trade and commerce. The major rivers and their sub-basins separated different population groups, and thereby the human settlement units from each other. In ancient times, a number of population groups were living in Bengal, the most notable being the pundra, the vanga and the Suhma. The Pundra and the Vanga were the earliest ancestors of the people settling in Bengal. The earliest reference to the Pundra and the Vanga in post-Rig Vedic literature clearly indicated population-settlement units rather than country, but later these units gave their names to the respective territories under their control. From the name of the tribe Vanga or Banga the name of the area has been derived.

There is evidence of settlement development in cycles depending upon the degree of dominance and physical grandeur of a royal family and/or its religious supremacy and the prospects for farming and commercial activities in a given area. With the decline of religious or economic dominance and adverse physical conditions (ie extensive floods and other natural hazards) the settlements eventually declined or were deserted.

There were 16 Mahajanapadas (mega-settlements) in the whole of India from the 6th to the 4th centuries BC. Banga and Pundravardhana (along with Anga, Kalinga and Sumba) were the two areas that had their locations in the Bengal area. During the reign of Asoka (273-232 BC) and in subsequent Hindu periods, Pundra (the region between Kosi and Karatoya) and Vanga (south and middle Bengal), and the region of south central and east Bengal in the Gupta period (240-570 AD) known as samatata were flourishing populated areas. By the 4th century AD most of the forested plain land of the country was cleared off and by the 5th to 6th centuries settlement expanded in the fertile lowlands of the Sundarbans, Khulna and Bakerganj. But these were abandoned during the 12th-13th centuries because of the shifting of the river channels and also epidemics. In later periods, however, reoccupation of abandoned lands took place. Muslim emperors, particularly Akbar, were keen on the extension of cultivated lands and settlement development on the wastelands. During the reign of Akbar, some parts of Jessore, Noakhali and Faridpur were densely forested areas. From the end of the 15th century to the beginning of the 16th century, the Muslim rulers started agricultural practices in these areas. Pratapaditya' at the end of the 16th century established his kingdom in the Sundarbans area and Jessore. A number of ruins of built-up settlements of this period in the Sundarbans region testify to human occupation in this region.

Expansion of agriculture and extension of new lands created new settlements in the flooded fertile land of east and south Bengal. In subsequent times, settlements in these areas became increasingly dense, and Dhaka and sonargaon developed as the political and economic centres of the whole region. At the beginning of British rule, about 40% to 50% of the total area of Bangladesh was settled, the rest was mainly under forest cover and marshes. The economic and political interests of the colonial power have had a significant impact on interregional population transfer and settlement expansion.

The traditional populated areas such as the river valleys or plain lands were abandoned due to famines, epidemics or social insecurity. As such they were the first to be resettled. In this way much of Bengal was being populated and brought under agriculture by the 1870s. [Sabiha Sultana]

Bibliography RC Dutt, The Economic History of India under Early British Rule, London, 1906; HC Roychoudhury, Physical and historical Geography in RC Majumdar ed, History of Bengal Vol., 1963; A Bakr, Human settlement in the Bengal Basin in relation to geological setting in Journal of the Asiatic Society of Pakistan, 16 (1), 1971.