Saptagram: A Port that Ran Aground

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    Not very far to the north of Kolkata is a little town known as Adi Saptagram. Today, it is no more than a provincial town but in its heyday, Saptagram or ‘Satgaon’, as it was then called, was one of the most important cities in Bengal, and one of the region’s chief ports.

    Cities in Bengal have risen and fallen with changes in the course of its fickle rivers, and this is what scripted the story of Satgaon. The city’s benefactor: the Saraswati River, a distributary of the Bhagirathi or the Hooghly, but a lifeline that all but dried up by the 17th century CE. Satgaon emerged as the biggest port in Eastern India after the port of Tamralipti, or Tamluk, south of Satgaon, went into decline after the 10th century CE, possibly due to the silting up of the Rupnarayan River or a change in its course.

    The name ‘Saptagram’ or ‘Satgaon’ refers to the seven villages of Basudevpur, Bansberia, Khamarpura, Debanandapur, Shibpur, Krishnapur and Trishbigha, founded by the sons of the Rishi-King Pryavanta of Kannauj, writes historian J J Campos in his History of the Portuguese in Bengal. The legend is that, disillusioned with a life of luxury in the palace, these seven sons set out in search of a quiet place where they could meditate. When they came to Tribeni, just north-east of Satgaon, they settled down to a hermit’s life in nearby villages. Trishbigha has been designated as ‘Adi Saptagram’, or the core area of Saptagram, and the town has a railway station by the same name.

    Satgaon’s golden age is said to have started during Mauryan rule (4th – 2nd BCE), when it was a flourishing port which traded with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Fine Bengal textiles were in high demand in the West and were Bengal’s chief export. Archaeological digs in and around the area have revealed pottery shards and tiles which are said to be of Roman origin.

    One of the earliest Western maps of the region was created by the ancient astronomer, geographer, and mathematician Ptolemy (2nd century CE). Ptolemy’s tenth map of Asia portrays India and South Asia, and although the map is nothing like modern maps, it contains a large amount of detail. The map identifies not just the Ganges, but also the Diamouna River (Yamuna) and the city of Palibothra (Pataliputra), which was the capital of the Maurya Empire.

    The map goes on to identify the port of Tamalites (Tamralipti), which corresponds to present-day Tamluk. However, Ptolemy in his book Geographia also identifies a city by the name of Ganges Regia. While no corresponding modern city has ever been identified, many contend that Ganges Regia or ‘Gange’ is Satgaon, although Chandraketugarh is also a strong contender.

    Under the Pala Empire (8th – 12th CE) and the Sena Empire (11th – 12th CE), Satgaon remained a major hub of international trade. The Pala Empire enjoyed good trade connections with the Middle East and South-East Asia. Arab merchant and geographer, Ibn Khordadbeh, mentions that a dhoti made of the finest Bengal cotton could pass through a finger ring!

    Numismatic evidence shows that the notoriously whimsical Muhammad bin Tughlaq (r. 1325-51 CE), Sultan of Delhi, had established a mint at Satgaon and the first coins from that mint rolled out in 1328 CE. Silver was becoming increasingly scarce in Delhi at this point, but silver coins continued to be minted at Satgaon, and since there were no silver mines in the vicinity, it is assumed that all the silver was coming through overseas commerce.

    By the early-14th century CE, Satgaon had become one of three city-states in Bengal under the Delhi Sultanate, the other two being Gaur in North Bengal and Sonargaon in East Bengal. When the local governor of Satgaon, Izuddin Yahya, died in 1338 CE, his deputy, Shamsuddin Ilyas, proclaimed himself the independent Sultan of Satgaon. After defeating Alauddin Ali Shah of Gaur and Ikhtiyaruddin Ghazi Shah of Sonargaon, he founded the Ilyas Shahi Dynasty (1342 – 1487 CE) and established the independent Sultanate of Bengal (1342 – 1576 CE).

    In 1350 CE, Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta, visited Satgaon and found it to be a prosperous town. While in Satgaon, Battuta became aware of the saint Shah Jalal, after whom Dhaka’s international airport is named, and decided to pay him a visit.

    The Sultans of Bengal were great patrons of religious literature and under them, Hindu religious poetry emerged under the likes of Bipradas Pipilai and Bijay Gupta. Of particular note is the story of the trader Chand Saudagar which Pipilai wrote in his Manasabijay around 1495-96 CE. In the story, Chand Saudagar travels to the sea through a number of villages such as Guptipara, Tribeni, Hooghly and Bhadreswar, all of which exist to this day. Among the towns mentioned in the poem is Satgaon, which Pipilai says is a major port and a town filled with large mansions of rich people.

    It was during the reign of the last Sultan of the Hussain Shahi Dynasty, Ghiyasuddin Mahmud Shah (r. 1533-38 CE), that Europeans arrived at Satgaon. Joao De Silveira was the first Portuguese commander of an expedition to Bengal that reached Chittagong in Eastern Bengal in 1512 CE. Negotiations with Ghiyasuddin Mahmud Shah would prove fruitful and he laid the foundations of a major Portuguese settlement in Chittagong.

    Unfortunately for the Portuguese, they would wind up getting involved in the local politics of the time. The Bengal Sultanate then was being threatened by the Pathans of Bihar, led by the formidable Sher Shah Suri (r. 1540-45 CE). The Portuguese supported Ghiyasuddin Mahmud Shah and although they offered a stubborn resistance to the Pathans, they were defeated and Ghiyasuddin Mahmud Shah’s capital city of Gaur was burnt down by Sher Shah Suri in 1538-39.

    With the fall of Gaur, Chittagong started losing its importance. One of the reasons it had been a major port was because the overland route to the capital began there. Portuguese attention now shifted to Satgaon. The Portuguese had named Chittagong ‘Porto Grande’, meaning ‘great’ or ‘grand port’. They named Satgaon ‘Porto Pequeno’, meaning ‘smaller’ or ‘lesser port’. They had secured permission from Ghiyasuddin Mahmud Shah in 1537, before the fall of Gaur, to establish a trading post in Satgaon. Trading from here would continue until at least until 1622 CE, when the East India Company outpost in Patna reported the arrival of Portuguese boats from Satgaon with goods from South-East Asia.

    However, a shift in the riverine geography of the region had already begun in the 16th century CE. Aniruddha Ray, in the book The Indian Trade At The Asian Frontier, cites an inscription from 1505 CE, stating that Sultan Alauddin Hussain Shah of Bengal was having a bridge built from Satgaon to Tribeni. Ray argues that this is the first sign that the Saraswati stream (it was now no longer a river) to Satgaon was becoming difficult to navigate, probably due to silting. This probably necessitated a shift to Tribeni, which was at the mouth of the river, rather than Satgaon, which was further inland.

    What was in fact happening was that the flow of the river had begun to change, and the majority of its waters were now pouring into the Bhagirathi, which is now the Hooghly River. Traffic to Satgaon began to reduce as big ships found it difficult to get to the port without getting grounded. The Portuguese took to unloading their ships in Betore in Howrah District, and rowing them on smaller boats to Satgaon.

    The last mention of big ships in the port of Satgaon is in the 1560s CE, by traveller Cesare Federici. When French traveller Vincent Le Blanc visited Satgaon in the 1570s, after Mughal Emperor Akbar’s conquest of Bengal, he made no mention of large vessels at the port. The town, inexplicably, remained prosperous even in 1583 CE, according to the report by the English traveller Ralph Fitch.

    When the Portuguese secured permission to trade from Emperor Akbar in 1579 CE, they were allowed to build a settlement in Hooghly, which implies that Satgaon was already in decline. After the Mughal conquest of Hooghly in 1632 CE, the Customs office was transferred from Satgaon to Hooghly, which signalled the fall of the port of Satgaon.

    Today, Saptagram is nothing more than a nondescript, small town in West Bengal. Of the proud trading station, nothing remains save the terracotta mosque of Syed Jamaluddin. A unique example of Bengal’s terracotta mosque architecture, the now roofless structure still contains a stone plaque which records that it was built during the reign of Sultan Nasiruddin Nasrat Shah and was completed in May 1529 CE, by Syed Jamaluddin Hussain, son of Sayyid Fakhruddin, who hailed from the Iranian city of Amol. There is also the sripat or Vaishnava seminary of Uddharan Dutt and Raghunath Das, both disciples of Bengali religious reformer, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. But the port of Satgaon or Saptagram now exists only in the history books.

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