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17 March, 2016 00:00 00 AM

Silk Road and Muslin Road

Dhaka Muslin was in great demand in the international markets. It was exported to the Egyptian, Roman and Chinese empires. It was a choice of the royals and aristocrats of those empires
Faruque Hasan
Silk Road and Muslin Road

Today people across the world thank that the famous ancient Silk Road, which started from Xian (Chang'an) – the ancient capital of China and ended at Antioch on the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey, is the oldest overland trade route between Asia and Europe. In fact, the overland trade route between Asia and Europe, which started from Dhaka (Bangladesh) and ended at Antioch, is older than the Silk Road. This route may be called the Muslin Road. The Grand Trunk Road is a part of this road. The Muslin Road and the Silk Road overlapped each other from Afghanistan to onward.
This Muslin Road had opened the way for economic, political and cultural interchange between Asia and Europe before the Silk Road did.
The trade route from Xian through Khotan, Kashgar – two cities in Xingjian (East Turkmen), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), Heart (Afghanistan), Tehran (Iran), Mosul (Iraq) to Antioch coined as Silk Road by the German Historian Ferdinand von Richthofen only in the 18th century; because one of the main merchandises of this route was the silk from China.
In the beginning, one of the main merchandises of the Muslin Road stretching between Dhaka and Antioch via Zariaspa or Balkh (Bactria) in Afghanistan, Teheran, Mosul, was the Dhaka Muslin – the finest cotton fabric used to be produced only in Dhaka and in some surrounding places of it. The finest sort of muslin was made of special type of cotton, known as phuti, grown only at certain places on the banks of river Brahmaputra whose last part flows through Bangladesh.
When the Xian-Antioch trade route came into being, silk fabric became, as mentioned earlier, one of the main merchandises of this caravan highway. The modern Western historians have mistakenly meddled between muslin and silk because of muslin was as smooth as silk.
During the ancient time, not only cotton textile of Dhaka, the other fabrics exported to Europe from Gujarat, Golconda, Machilipatnam etc of India were also called muslin by the European merchants of the past. These textiles used to go to Europe by Dhaka-Antioch caravan highway. Ptolemy (90 – 168 AD), the Greco-Egyptian historian, mentioned in his book, Geography (the Geographia), that Dhaka Muslin was the best of all Muslins.
The ancient Muslin Road from Dhaka via Delhi (India), Lahore (Pakistan), Balkh, Tehran, Mosul, Aleppo (Syria) to Antioch was a combination of road and waterways. The South Asian part of the road, which was known as the Garand Trunk Road during the British Period, was originally called as ‘Uttara Path’ or ‘Uttarapatha’ (North Road). It is said that Uttara Path was constructed in the 3rd Century BC by the Mauryan emperor, Chandragupta Maurya (340 BC – 298 BC). The caravan highway, Uttara Path, started from Pataliputra (Patna) in Bihar, the capital of the Maurya Empire, on the banks of the Ganges; and via Texila (Pakistan) it went up to Zariaspa (Balkh) in Afghanistan.  Dhaka was connected to this road by River Ganges. From Balkh, the caravan highway proceeded towards the Middle East through Herat, Teheran, Tabriz, Mosul etc to Antioch.
Emperor Chandragupta was the illegitimate son of Dhanananda (Agrammes), the king/emperor of Gangaridai (ancient Bangladesh), by one of his concubines; though some historians dispute this assumption. According to Ptolemy, Dhanananda’s empire was extended up to the east bank of River Bias in Punjab.
Most probably, Chandragupta impro­ved and upgraded the Uttara Path, which existed before his time; in as much as overland trade between South Asia and Europe is much older than his reign.
The Chinese part of the Xian-Antioch trade route became active during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). And the Central Asian sections of the trade routes were expanded around 114 BC by that dynasty. We can see that the Uttara Path/Grand Trunk Road is much older than the Chinese part and the Central Asian parts of the Silk Road. Near Zariaspa or Balkh, the Chinese-Central Asia trade route conversed with the older Uttara Path trade route and proceeded toward Antioch with it.
There was an overland trade route between Bangladesh and China from, perhaps, as early as 9th Century BCE. The route came from China to the bank of Brahmaputra through Sikkim. A sea trade route also connected the Brahmaputra banks (Bangladesh) with China through Malacca Strait. The Brahmaputra ends at Sonargaon (Dhaka). Due to this trade route, the Chinese used to know about muslin. The ancient Chinese travelers mentioned about muslin in their writings.
In the 16th century AD, Emperor Sher Shah built the road connecting Patna (ancient Pataliputra) with Sonargaon (Dhaka) via Benapole – one of the present day border crossing points between Bangladesh and India. At that time, the road from Sonargaon to Balkh became known as “Sarak-e-Azam’ (Great Road) or Badshahi Sarak (Imperial Road). The Mogul prince, Shah Shuja, the son of Emperor Shah Jahan (1594 –1666 AD) extended the Badshahi Sarak up to Arakan (Rakhaine State) in modern day Myanmar via Chittagong and Teknaf. During the British Period of India, the Uttara Path up to Sonargaon became known as Grand Trunk Road; and the road between Sonargaon to Arakan, as Trunk Road. The highway (Grand Trunk Road plus Trunk Road) covers a distance of over 2,500 kilometers.
The textile industry of Bangladesh is very old. Some claim, Bengal (Dhaka) Muslin has existed since 700 B.C. Produced in Bangladesh by local skill with locally produced cotton, muslin was the finest fabric ever produced in the world; which attained world-wide fame as the Dhaka Muslin. Kautilya (350 – 275 BCE), the chief advisor to Emperor Chandragupta, mentioned about the fame of the textile industry of Banga (eastern Bangladesh) and Pundranagara (Mahasthangarh in north Bangladesh) in his famous book, Arthasastra – a political treatise. Certainly, it was muslin which was in his mind. In 200 BC, Indian cotton fabric used to be sold in Greece. (Jotindramohon Roy, Dhakar Itihash, p.113). Muslin was mentioned in the book, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written in Greek during the mid-1st century CE by an unknown writer.
Dhaka Muslin was in great demand in the international markets. It was exported to the Egyptian, the Roman and the Chinese empires. It was a choice of the royals and aristocrats of those empires.
During the ancient time, “the costly import of silk was ruining the economy of the Roman Empire, so that the Roman Senate declared its use dishonorable, and banned it to men. The philosopher Seneca still complained that silk-clad women walked as good as naked. Fruitlessly, in AD 273, the Roman emperor, Aurelian, warned: ‘Let us not exchange Roman gold for spiders’ webs.” (Colin Thubron – Shadow of the Silk Road, Chatto & Windus, 2006). The English traveler, Colin Thubron, travelled from Xian to Antioch taking the ancient trade route, and published his travelogue, ‘Shadow of the Silk Road’ in 2006.
“The philosopher Seneca still complained that silk-clad women walked as good as naked” wrote Thubron (mentioned above). Silk is not transparent, but muslin was. There is a story that once the Mogul emperor, Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707 AD), became angry with his daughter for wearing on a see-through dress. He asked her, “Please go and put on some clothe.” The young princess said to her father, she was wrapped in seven layers of muslin fabric. This story explains why philosopher Seneca complained that ‘silk-clad’ (actually muslin-clad) women walked as good as naked.
The British colonial policy destroyed the muslin industry in Bangladesh in the middle of the 19th century. In the later period, like many other Westerners, Colin Thubron, took muslin as silk. He further wrote in the book, “A magic clung about it always. The earliest silk – Indians called it ‘woven wind’ – was sometime sheer as gauze. Lucan described Cleopatra shining before Caesar in transparent lawn silk, ... . In the West, silk was believed woven by fairies, … .” In fact, it used to be said about the Dhaka Muslin that “it is woven by fairies with wind” because of its fineness.
Colin Thubron in his book further wrote, “An Arab merchant in the ninth century was astonished to observe the mole on an imperial eunuch’s chest through five layers of gossamer silk.” The name of this Arab merchant was Suleiman. He wrote in his book, Silsiltu-T Tawarikh, about the (Dhaka) muslin, not about silk, that, “There is a stuff made in his country which is not to be found elsewhere; so fine and delicate is this material that a dress made of it may be passed through a signet-ring. It is made of cotton, and we have seen a piece of it.” (Elliot and Dowson, History of India as told by its own Historians, vol. 1, London, 1867,
Romans for the first time came to know about Chinese silk at one of the Roman-Parthian Wars. At that war, the Roman saw the dazzling battle banners of Parthian army made of silk. Eight years after that war, Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) dazzled the eyes of the spectators of Rome by unfurling silk banners in his processional triumph. That was the first time, the Chinese silk made its inroad into Roman Empire. But muslin had been known to Romans long before silk became known to them.
There is recorded history which says that the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt used muslin to wrap up their mummies.  Egypt’s queen, Cleopatra (70 - 30 BC), met Julius Caesar, in 48 BC, wearing muslin clothe, not silk clothe. The Roman historian Pliny (23-79 AD) referred to Jhanna Muslins used by Roman ladies of high rank in the Imperial Rome. (New Testament by Richard Cooke, page-5). We know that there were different types of Dhaka muslin – Mal mal khash, Sabnam, Jhuna (Jhanna) etc.
In 2014, mainly on Chinese initiative in collaboration with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, “ ‘UNESCO designated 5,000 km stretch of the Silk Road network from Central China to the Zhetsyu Region of Central Asia as a new World Heritage Site called ‘Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor.’ The corridor spans China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. UNESCO expects additional Silk Road corridors to be added in the following years.’ ”
Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan may jointly take an initiative to get the part of the ‘Muslin Road’ (the Grand Trunk Road), which starts from Dhaka and runs across Northern India into Lahore in Pakistan, further up to Balk in Afghanistan, to be declared a World Heritage by UNESCO. And Bangladesh may declare the highway from Teknaf to Benapole via Dhaka a national heritage.

The writer is a tourism consultant and heritage researcher. He may be reached at


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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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