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Jasmine, the Silk Road, and Bangladesh today

  • Published at 06:40 pm March 4th, 2016
Jasmine, the Silk Road, and Bangladesh today

The “etymology” of plants, it appears, may well be able to tell us more about human development, migrations, and trade than even archeology, is often able to do.

The fertile soils and the climatic environment of Bangladesh seem to have been in the distant past the source rather than the recipient of “migrating” plant life.

From rice to sugar, tea to cotton, mangoes to mulberry bushes, and many more over centuries, even millennia -- many of the internationally, most valued of plants may all have been carried by traders across the world from the hills and plains of Bangladesh.

When online references to origins of anything, from plants, to peoples, faith groups, and writing, include mentions of “north-east India,” and even “foothills of Himalayas,” -- it is not unreasonable to suppose, both that the references are uploaded by Indian sources, shy to identify modern political realities, and that those north-east lands of traditional, ancient “India,” may well not be referring to the lands of modern India; but rather, to the forests and foothills that are also, today, a part of the lands of Bangladesh.

Nations that emerge, socially and politically, from more considerable, historic, origins, like many of the previously “Soviet” nations emerging from “Russia,” regularly suffer a fate similar to that of Bangladesh, still lurking in historical references as, “India.” A case in point would be that ubiquitous floral temptation for olfactory senses across today’s world, but originating from South Asia, the jasmine.

The name may be said to be of Persian origin, deriving from the word, “yasmin,” meaning fragrant flower. The shrub is supposed to have originated in “the foothills of the Himalayas,” the last ripples of which reach as far, through Bangladesh. It is believed, from archeological evidence, to have reached Egypt by 1,000 BCE, with Mesopotamia and Persia as the route by which it is said to have reached there.

This, of course, could well reflect on a much earlier age of international trade from the Ganges area, to the Middle East, and Mediterranean lands, than presently appreciated from documentary evidence.

Writers on the history of the shrub, which we know achieved enormous international popularity from an early period in modern history, appear to make the usual assumption that, in fact, it originated in China, and was then traded along “the Silk Road” to the west. As with silk, that assumption probably arises because of early Chinese records that have survived. But it is debatable whether Sanskrit, the earliest known written language and as a flourishing centre of international trade at the heart of Bangladesh, might not tell a somewhat different story.

We continue to ignore, firstly, the fact that there is growing evidence of trade from the Ganges basin/delta, together with a considerable part of the famous Ganges basin into China, possibly as much as 10,000 years ago.

And that the first of the so-called “Silk Road” trading routes was, almost certainly, one that exploited the tradition of “water, the highway of the ancient world,” the Southern Silk Road, down the Brahmaputra, and through the Ganges Delta.

Certainly, jasmine is recorded, from those earliest times, as a focus of Chinese horticulture, especially for pleasure, as well as for refreshment, when combined with tea. The history of “pleasure gardens,” is, indeed, around the world, a very ancient one -- and across millennia, jasmine is commonly recorded as an essential of many. In Babylon, in ancient Mesopotamia, the earliest of recorded gardens -- cultivation of plants for pleasure -- is probably that great wonder of the ancient world called “The Hanging Gardens.”

Those, 4,000 year old gardens may well have included the jasmine, to enhance the olfactory pleasures. Given the common associations of the Mesopotamian and subsequent Persian associations with the shrub, such inclusion seems highly likely. In which case, with the common acceptance by plant specialists, of its true origins, we may well wish to contemplate just how and when, it reached there.

Throughout subsequent developments of human civilisation to the north, and the west, gardening became a well established practice.

Egyptian gardens, then Greek and Roman, are all recorded in both written and even visual heritage; indeed, Egyptian archeology can even offer a model of a garden recovered as a funerary offering from a tomb dated to about 2,000BCE. Curiously, whilst both Egyptians and Roman cultures boasted about private gardens for the wealthy, the Greeks only developed them for common pleasures, in locations such as temples. Another of the signs, perhaps, of the true birth-place of democracy?

Whether contemporary Bangladesh, in such as the deltaic lands of the Kingdom of Gangaridai, undoubtedly the source of many rare horticultural pleasures, we have, at present, no means of knowing.

Whilst symbolism was, perhaps, the most vital component of the development of gardens in both China and Japan, we cannot, reasonably, doubt the early inclusion of jasmine in those of China, and, from the late centuries before the Common Era. We cannot, either, doubt that such plants as jasmine will have been high on the list of plants of desire for garden designers and developers in Japan.

Whilst gardens, and the artistry of their design clearly evolved in northern Europe, unsurprisingly, at the time of the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was not until the late 16th and early 17th century in Europe that sophisticated garden design and development came to be, and we were able to give names and faces to their architects and designers.

Names such as Andre la Notre, the gardener to King Louis the 14th and John Tradescant, the elder gardener to Robert Cecil, Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth -- in particular, brought to the English garden, some of its greatest forms and content. Gardens that were to influence those of the Empire, across the world; including, somewhat ironically, designs of the gardens of Zamindari palaces across the lands of Bangladesh.

Through much history and heritage, the sweet fragrance of the jasmine was, as it continues to be, a significant contributor, courtesy, no doubt, of the great Silk Road trading routes, which emerged through the lands of today’s Bangladesh. 

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