4. Economy, Society, and Culture
These people [the Bengalis] owe all their tranquility and prosperity to themselves, for its source lies in their devotion to agriculture, whereby a land originally covered with jungle has been reclaimed by their unremitting toil in tilling and planting.
The Political Economy of the Sultanate
The advent of Indo-Turkish rule fundamentally altered Bengal’s physical and social landscape. In the mid fourteenth century, for example, the visiting Chinese merchant Wang Ta-yüan noted that the agrarian frontier had pushed far into the delta’s hinterland, transforming formerly forested areas into fields of rice paddy (see chapter epigraph above). It was under Muslim rule, too, that Bengal’s economy first became thoroughly monetized. Now it is true that kings of the Chandra dynasty (ca. 825–1035) had minted silver coins, and that from the ninth or tenth century at least the delta’s southeastern corner had been integrated into a wider Indian Ocean economy. But in Pala or Sena times, the major part of the delta is not known to have used metal coinage at all. By contrast, from the thirteenth century to the seventeenth, the Muslim rulers’ silver coin, the tanka, circulated uninterrupted throughout the region.
In fact, the sequence of local conquests and bulges in the money supply suggests that Indo-Turkish rulers were driven into Bengal’s hinterland, at least in part, by their thirst for uncoined silver. Each new conquest on Bengal’s southern, eastern, or northern frontiers was followed by an expansion in the volume of silver coinage in circulation, the victors minting tankas from the accumulated silver stocks of defeated Hindu kingdoms. Sultan Rukn al-Din Kaikaus’s conquest of southeastern Bengal in 1291 was followed by a substantial inflow of bullion, for example, which was quickly converted to coinage. The conquest of the Sonargaon region in eastern Bengal by Sultan Fakhr al-Din Mubarak Shah (r. 1338–49) was also followed by increases in the silver supply. The same was true of Sultan Sikandar’s 1358 conquests in Kamrup, or northern Bengal. The supply of coined silver leveled off during the late fourteenth century, but in 1420, when Sultan Jalal al-Din Muhammad reconquered much of eastern Bengal after an unsuccessful rebellion there, stocks of silver coinage again soared. So did they in 1494 when Sultan ‘Ala al-Din Husain Shah reconquered Kamrup in northern Bengal.
In addition to silver coined from the booty of defeated kingdoms in the region, substantial quantities of treasure were imported in exchange for goods locally manufactured for export. As early as 1415 we hear of Chinese trade missions bringing gold and silver into the delta, in addition to satins, silks, and porcelain. A decade later another Chinese visitor remarked that long-distance merchants in Bengal settled their accounts with tankas. The pattern continued throughout the next century. “Silver and Gold,” wrote the Venetian traveler Cesare Federici in 1569, “from Pegu [Burma] they carrie to Bengala, and no other kind of Merchandize.” The monetization of Bengal’s economy and its integration with markets throughout the Indian Ocean greatly stimulated the region’s export-manufacturing sector. Although textiles were already prominent among locally manufactured goods at the dawn of the Muslim encounter in the tenth century, the volume and variety of textiles produced and exported increased dramatically after the conquest. In the late thirteenth century, Marco Polo noted the commercial importance of Bengali cotton, and in 1345 Ibn Battuta admired the fine muslin cloth he found there. Between 1415 and 1432 Chinese diplomats wrote of Bengal’s production of fine cotton cloths (muslins), rugs, veils of various colors, gauzes (Pers., shāna-bāf), material for turbans, embroidered silk, and brocaded taffetas. A century later Ludovico di Varthema, who was in Gaur between 1503 and 1508, noted: “Fifty ships are laden every year in this place with cotton and silk stuffs. These same stuffs go through all Turkey, through Syria, through Persia, through Arabia Felix, through Ethiopia, and through all India.” A few years later Tome Pires described the export of Bengali textiles to ports in the eastern half of the Indian Ocean. Clearly, Bengal had become a major center of Asian trade and manufacture.
Ashrāf and Non-Ashrāf Society
Bengal’s Muslim society from the thirteenth century through the sixteenth was overwhelmingly urban, concentrated in the sultanate’s successive capital cities—Lakhnauti from 1204, Pandua from about 1342, and Gaur from about 1432—and in the provincial towns of Satgaon, Sonargaon, and Chittagong. Although new garrison towns regularly sprang up in the interior, as the numismatic and epigraphic evidence shows (see map 2), the preeminence of the capital cities was assured, since members of the provincial nobility, regardless of where their land assignments were located, had to maintain residences there. Gaur, especially, was by all accounts a splendid city (see figs. 14 and 15). “One of the best that I had hitherto seen,” wrote Ludovico di Varthema in the early sixteenth century, when it had attained a population of forty thousand. In 1521 a visiting Portuguese described the city as
very big, stretching for four leagues along the river and, it is said, extending so far inland that houses are still found beyond six leagues.…The town is situated on a large plain which is flat like the whole of the surrounding area. The streets and lanes are paved with brick like the Lisbon New Street. The market is everywhere and everything—food and other goods alike—is in plentiful supply and very cheap. The streets and cross-lanes are so full of people that [it] is impossible to move and it has reached the point where the high noblemen have taken to being preceded along the road to the palace by men carrying bamboo sticks to push people out of the way.
Foreigners were much impressed by the wealth of long-distance merchants residing in the sultanate’s capitals. In 1415 a Chinese envoy wrote of men in Pandua who “wear a white cotton turban and a long white cotton shirt. On their feet they wear low sheep-skin shoes with gold thread. The smarter ones think it the correct thing to have designs on them. Everyone of them is engaged in business, the value of which may be ten thousand pieces of gold.” Around 1508, Varthema found in Gaur “the richest merchants I have ever met with.” Ten years later, Duarte Barbosa also described wealthy Arabs, Iranians, Abyssinians, and “Indians” of Gaur. “The respectable Moors,” he wrote,
Fig. 14. Dakhil Darwaza from within the citadel of Gaur (ca. 1433–59)
Fig. 15. Riuned ramparts of the citadel of Gaur, looking east from the top of the Dakhil Darwaza.
The nobles and merchants described above formed part of the Muslim elite, or ashrāf, which also included urban Sufis, religious officials (‘ulamā), and foreign-born soldiers and administrators. In fact, foreign origin, even if only of one’s ancestors, formed an important, if not defining, element of ashrāf identity. Writing around 1495, the poet Vipra Das referred to the Muslim preachers (mullās) and judges (qāẓīs) of Satgaon as “Saiyids,” “Mughals,” and “Pathans”—that is, men claiming an Arab, Central Asian, or Afghan origin. About a century later the poet Mukundaram (fl. 1590), like Vipra Das a native of the southwestern delta, described urban Muslims as men who had immigrated from points west of Bengal. Religious sentiment also inclined ashrāf Muslims to look westward. In 1505 the patron of a mosque in Sonargaon proudly counted himself as one “who has made a pilgrimage to Macca and Madina, and has visited the two foot-prints of the Prophet.” Similarly, a 1567 inscription on the congregational mosque in Old Malda compared it with the holy shrine in Mecca, referring to Malda’s house of worship as the “second Ka‘aba” (thānī ka‘aba). For the devout, phrases such as these served to mitigate the great distance separating Bengal from Islam’s holiest shrines in Arabia, tenuously linked to the delta by a long and dangerous sea voyage.
walk about clad in white cotton smocks, very thin, which come down to their ankles, and beneath these they have girdles of cloth, and over them silk scarves; they carry in their girdles daggers garnished with silver and gold, according to the rank of the person who carries them.…They are luxurious, eat well and spend freely, and have many other extravagancies as well. They bathe often in great tanks which they have in their houses. Every one has three or four wives or as many as he can maintain.
Prominent among the ashrāf were judges, or qāẓīs, who possessed sufficient expertise in Islamic Law to arbitrate disputes involving fellow Muslims. Below them in status were the mullās, the ubiquitous ordinary preachers and the least-educated members of the Muslim establishment. An inscription on the congregational mosque at Satgaon, dated 1529, hints at how these two members of the ashrāf interrelated:
This suggests that the court relied on the qāẓīs, together with governors, to curb what it considered the mullās’ fraudulent ways—in this case, a tendency to defraud public endowments. Qāẓīs were also the most visible representatives of royal authority vis-à-vis non-Muslims, since they were charged with maintaining public order generally. In the early sixteenth century, for example, when the devotees of a Hindu cult caused a public disturbance with their ecstatic singing in the West Bengal town of Nadia, local Muslims complained to the town’s qāẓī. Although the judge excused that particular violation of public order, he warned that he would punish future infractions by confiscating the property of violators.
Because the body of mullās and landholders (arbāb) will be cursed by God if they defraud public endowments, it is binding and necessary that governors and qāẓīs prevent such frauds, so that on the Day of Judgment they will not be seized for their oppressions.
Socially distinct from the ashrāf were Muslim urban artisans who formed part of Bengal’s growing industrial proletariat. Their organization into separate, endogamous communities (jāti) with distinctive occupations paralleled the organization of Hindu society in the southwestern delta, and suggests their origins in that society. Mukundaram mentions fifteen Muslim jātis in a list of communities inhabiting an idealized Bengali city of his day—weavers (jolā), livestock herders (mukeri), cake sellers (piṭhāri), fishmongers (kābāṛi), converts from the local population (garasāl), loom makers (sānākār), circumcisers (hājām), bow makers (tirakar), papermakers (kāgajī), wandering holy men (kalandar), tailors (darji), weavers of thick cord (benaṭā), dyers (rangrej), users of hoes (hālān), and beef sellers (kasāi). So thoroughly were these groups integrated with Bengali society that by the late sixteenth century, when Mukundaram was writing, it was impossible to conceive of a city that did not have, alongside a long list of Hindu jātis, a full complement of Muslim artisan groups.
Moreover, these groups constituted the earliest-known class of Bengali Muslims. Fully five of them—the weavers, loom makers, tailors, weavers of thick ribbon, and dyers—were linked to the growing textile industry, and were probably recruited from amongst existing Hindu castes already engaged in these trades, or from amongst former agriculturalists or unskilled laborers responding to labor demands created by the expanding industry. Government demand appears to have brought into existence still other groups of Muslim artisans. The bow makers, for example, provided weaponry for the kingdom’s armed forces, while papermakers would have met both the bureaucracy’s appetite for files and the Muslim religious elite’s demand for books. In fact, nearly half of the Muslim jātis listed by Mukundaram bore Perso-Arabic names, suggesting that they had come into being only after the Turkish conquest.
Hindu Society—Responses to the Conquest
The advent of Indo-Turkish rule meant an abrupt end to official patronage for those Brahmans who had served the Sena government as ritual priests, astrologers, ministers, advisors, or financial officers. Doubtless, many of these fled into the eastern hinterland along with the Sena household in 1204, or soon thereafter. In time, however, most Brahmans moved from an initial position of disdain for the new political order to one of uneasy accommodation with it. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the predominant view was that government employment was perfectly possible as long as one did not engage in marital relations with Mlecchas (“polluted outsiders”). For, ultimately, the Brahmans and the higher Muslim officers of the sultanate needed each other: the former were historically conditioned to look to a ruling class for patronage and livelihood, while the latter required the administrative talents that Brahmans had traditionally monopolized. Hence, while the period before 1415 witnessed few instances of Brahmans serving the sultanate, the picture changed dramatically after the Raja Ganesh revolution. That chieftain’s own converted son, Sultan Jalal al-Din Muhammad, signaled the change by honoring Brahman poets. By the reign of Sultan ‘Ala al-Din Husain Shah, many Brahmans had taken service in the court.
Serving the sultanate proved far less traumatic for the Kayasthas, who had been the dominant landholding caste prior to the conquest and who continued in this role under Muslim rule. Indeed, after the conquest, the Kayasthas absorbed remnants of Bengal’s old ruling dynasties—the Sena, Pala, Chandra, Varman, and so on—and in this way became the region’s surrogate Kshatriya or “warrior” class. Judging from the correspondence of Maulana Muzaffar Shams Balkhi, who in 1397 complained bitterly of the power enjoyed by Hindus, it seems that Muslim rulers had from a very early time confirmed the Kayasthas in their ancient role as landholders and political intermediaries.
Looking at Bengal’s Hindu society as a whole, it seems likely that the caste system—far from being the ancient and unchanging essence of Indian civilization as supposed by generations of Orientalists—emerged into something resembling its modern form only in the period 1200–1500. Central to this process, as Ronald Inden has argued, was the collapse of Hindu kingship. Before the Turkish conquest, the Sena king had maintained order by distributing wealth and by judging between socially high and low in the context of his court and its rituals. With the dissolution of Hindu kingship that followed the Turkish conquest, however, these functions appear to have been displaced onto society at large. Hindu social order was now maintained by the enforcing of group endogamy, the regulation of marriage by “caste” councils, and the keeping of genealogies by specialists. In the western delta, one sees the result of these processes in the detailed list of Hindu communities mentioned by the poet Mukundaram, who describes a hierarchy of four tiers of occupationally differentiated endogamous groups (jāti). The first tier included Brahmans, Kayasthas, and Baidyas, or traditional healers. The second included productive classes such as cultivators, herders, iron smiths, potters, weavers, gardeners, barbers, candy makers, spice merchants, brass smiths, gold merchants, and so on. These were followed by a third tier composed of the ritually less pure castes: fishermen, oil pressers, woodcutters, launderers, tailors, molasses makers, carpenters, ferrymen, and beggars. At the very end of the list, compelled to live outside the poet’s imaginary city, were the grass cutters, leatherworkers, prostitutes, and Dom tribals, who were scavengers and sweepers.
Hindu Religion—the Śiva-Śākta Complex
As elsewhere in India, there arose in Bengal a need to harmonize Vedic religion, which focused on male deities, with indigenous Indian cults, in which female deities dominated. One way this was accomplished was in the context of the orthodox śaiva cult, which before the Turkish conquest had been presided over by Brahmans and lavishly patronized by Hindu kings such as the early Senas, for whom śiva was the kingdom’s cosmic overlord. The cosmic reunion of śiva and śakti—that is, pure consciousness, corresponding to the male principle; and pure energy, corresponding to the female principle—was typically concretized in aniconic symbols placed in temples, access to which was controlled by Brahman priests. However, this state-supported cult declined when Indo-Turkish conquerors withdrew the royal patronage on which such public cults depended.
Both before and after the conquest, numerous popular cults dedicated to various manifestations of the Goddess also flourished. Celebrated in a literary genre called maṅgala-kāvya, these cults thrived among those groups least touched by Indo-Aryan culture and least integrated into the hierarchic scheme of social organization as promoted by Brahmans. They were also among the oldest, the most vibrant, and the most authentically Bengali religious traditions in the delta. In their earliest form, Goddess cults seem to have sprung from ancient female domestic rites not presided over by Brahman priests, as in the cult of the snake goddess Manasa, whose core story was anciently recited by women and for women as a component of their domestic rites. But throughout the period 1200–1600 and doubtless for some time earlier, Brahman ideologues sought to appropriate such cults by identifying female divine power in all its manifestations with the śakti, or pure energy, which is the counterpart of the Brahmanical god śiva. Thus śiva was understood as son to Dharma; husband to Chandi/Durga, Kali/Ganga, and śitala; father to Manasa and Neto; guru/father to various Nath saints; master/father to Daksin Ray; and father-in-law to Sasthi. Noting these relationships, W. L. Smith aptly describes śiva as “the hub around which the Bengali divine hierarchy revolves.” But these folk deities experienced varying degrees of accommodation with Brahmanical orthodoxy, ranging from a rather complete incorporation into the Hindu pantheon, with full benefits of Brahmanical patronage, to a more marginal place within that pantheon, with only hesitant acceptance by Brahmans.
Extending at least to A.D. 1000, with its core myths and rituals dating from the period 500–1000, if not earlier, the cult of the snake goddess Manasa was well established by the time of the Turkish conquest. Yet this cult, having first emerged among low-ranked tribals of Burdwan, failed to achieve full acceptance in Brahmanic literature, and it was to some extent resisted by orthodox śaivas. Nor did Manasa enjoy a satisfactory connection with śiva. Like other folk deities, she had a kin tie with the great god—in her case as a daughter—but she could never compete with deities identified as śiva’s wife, such as her principal rival, the goddess Chandi. The cult’s struggle to gain full acceptance is evident in its central myth. Having already gained a following among ritually low-ranking communities like fishermen and cowherds, Manasa was convinced that she could win universal human devotion only through gaining the submission of Chando, an upper-caste merchant and fervent devotee of śiva. Although Chando initially despised Manasa and viewed her as one of inferior status, he ultimately (though reluctantly) recognized Manasa’s popularity and submitted to her cult. The story thus suggests a steadily widening circle of the cult’s social basis: from cowherds to fishermen, to farmers, to upper-class women, to upper-class men, and finally to Brahman priests.
If the Manasa cult enjoyed only a limited or reluctant acceptance among Bengal’s upper castes in our period, it fared much better among the masses, especially in the delta’s less-Aryanized east. In 1540 the poet Vrindavan Das, though himself not devoted to any of the Goddess cults, affirmed their popularity when he wrote:
Relief images of stone preserved in the Chittagong University Museum can be confidently identified with the goddess Manasa. Two of these stand several feet in height and depict the deity with a hood of seven snakes over her head, her left hand holding another snake, and her principal iconographic symbol, a sacred pot, at her feet (figs. 16 and 17). The appearance of such votive images, evidently intended for installation in simple, thatched shrines dedicated to her worship, marked an important step in the progression of the Manasa cult from a domestic rite to an established cult, complete with officiating priests, even though these may not have been Brahmans.
All “religious” people know this only:
They sing the song of Maṅgal Caṇḍī at the jāgaran [the last night of the festival for the goddess Chandi],
With pomp some give pūjā to Viṣahari [Manasa],
And another puts on a puppet show at great expense.
Fig. 16. Stone sculpture of the goddess Manasa . Chittagong University Museum, no. 657.
Fig. 17. Stone sculpture of the goddess Manasa. Chittagong University Museum, no. 659.
Enjoying far more support among Brahmans, and at the mass level perhaps the widest support of any cult in the premodern Bengali pantheon, was the cult of the goddess Chandi. Like her rival Manasa, Chandi was a forest goddess whose cult had sprung up from the delta’s aboriginal society. But Chandi’s identification as the wife of the great god śiva rendered her more mild and generous than the nasty, manipulative Manasa. Moreover, though Chandi’s cultic literature is also very ancient, it appeared in written form only in the late sultanate period, the best-known text being Mukundaram’s Caṇḍī-Maṅgala (ca. 1590). Perhaps because the written versions of the myth appeared so late in the cult’s evolution, Chandi emerges in Mukundaram’s work as rather well integrated into the Indo-Aryan pantheon and with Brahmanic values. She is portrayed, for example, as having put an end to the primordial chaos prevailing at a time before gods and Brahmans imposed order on earth. Furthermore, she not only protects all the animals of the woods, but presides over their hierarchic ranking in a scheme exactly mirroring the ideal human society as seen from the Brahmanical perspective. And finally, her protection of the animals is conditioned on their renunciation of mutual violence, for society is to accord with the norms of dharma, or righteous law.
The myth’s story line also illustrates the post-eighth-century Hindu conception of the interrelationship of religion and politics. In a world where both deities and kings seek to enlarge their circles of authority, a deity “entrusts” earthly sovereignty to an appointed king on condition that he propagate and promote that deity’s cult in human society. Craving human devotion like most Indian deities, Chandi embarks on a project designed to establish a royal kingdom on earth. Here the narrative focuses on a low-caste hunter named Kalaketu, to whom the goddess assigns the sovereignty of her forest kingdom. In return for this, the hunter must renounce the hunt, build and populate a city in the forest, and construct a glorious temple dedicated to her, in this way propagating Chandi’s cult among humans. All this underscores the goddess’s fundamentally political role, seen in the dual sovereignty that she and her human protégé exercise over the forest kingdom. As Chandi’s earthly representative, Kalaketu rules on behalf of that goddess, behind whom stands the kingdom’s cosmic overlord—her spouse, śiva. Yet, for all her dharmic trappings and her trucking with the highest gods of the Indo-Aryan pantheon, Chandi remains of the forest—that dark domain of jungle beasts and non-Aryan tribes—and not of the city, the proper domain of Brahmans and their ritual performances. Moreover, Chandi’s protégé Kalaketu is a hunter who pursues a violent and unclean livelihood typical of Bengal’s indigenous tribes, amongst whom the myth had originally evolved. No amount of Brahmanical revision could disguise the underlying association of both goddess and king with non-Aryan, indigenous Bengali culture.
It is worth recalling that the only known nativist rebellion mounted against the sultanate was waged in the name of Chandi, this thoroughly Bengali goddess and protectress of the forest. Dated A.D. 1417—18 and minted in Chittagong, Sonargaon, and Chhota Pandua—that is, the delta’s forested southern and eastern hinterland—the coins of Danuja Marddana Deva and his son Mahendra Deva bore the Sanskrit legend śrī Caṇḍī Caraṇa Parāyaṇa, “devoted to the feet of Goddess Chandi.” Inasmuch as armed insurrection against established political authority is always serious business, we may be sure that rebel leaders would have invoked only such supernatural assistance as was judged most powerful and most likely to respond to human entreaties. Chandi’s appearance on the Deva kings’ coins during this rebellion clearly attests to her widespread popularity, and to belief in her protective power.
Hindu Religion—the Vaishnava Complex
From epigraphic, artistic, and literary evidence—notably the Sanskrit poem Gīta Govinda, composed by the thirteenth-century poet Jayadeva—we know that the Vishnu cult had been gaining royal favor immediately prior to the Turkish conquest. During the first several centuries of Turkish rule, however, this public cult, like that of śiva, suffered from the withdrawal of state patronage. It next appeared in deltaic Bengal as a popular devotional movement unmediated by priestly rituals or court patronage, and marked by the appearance of vernacular literature glorifying the various incarnations of Vishnu. Sometime in the fifteenth century, Kirtivas Pundit made a Bengali translation of the Rāmāyaṇa, the famous epic of Rama. Yet what ultimately won over the mainstream of Bengali Vaishnavas was Vishnu’s incarnation, not as Rama, but as Krishna—the naughty child-god, the slayer of the snake king Kaliya, the seducer of the pastoral Gopi women, and especially, the lover of Radha. The popularization of a new Krishna literature can be attributed, in part, to patronage by the Muslim court at Gaur. Between 1473 and 1480, the Kayastha poet Maladhara Basu composed his śrī Kṛṣṇa-Vijaya, “The Triumph of Lord Krishna,” under the patronage of Sultan Rukn al-Din Barbak (r. 1459–74). Somewhat later, Sultan ‘Ala al-Din Husain Shah (r. 1493–1519) patronized composition by Yasoraj Khan of the Kṛṣṇa-Maṅgala, now lost. The most famous early poem of the Krishna story was the śrī Kṛṣṇa-Kīrtan. Composed by Chandi Das, probably in the fifteenth century, this work explores the devious tactics deployed by the lusty young Krishna in winning the love of the cowherdess Radha. Once won, Radha’s passionate love for the divine Krishna became the central motif of Bengali devotionalism, or bhakti.
The movement crystallized around a single, charismatic personality who appeared in West Bengal early in the sixteenth century—the saint and mystic Chaitanya (d. 1533). Born a Brahman in 1486, Chaitanya began his career studying and teaching at Nadia, then a bastion of Brahmanical learning, but in 1508 he met a devotee of Krishna while on a trip in Bihar, and his life took a decisive turn. Once initiated into the cult, Chaitanya renounced his former life for that of an ecstatic worshiper of Vishnu manifested as Krishna. Upon returning to Bengal he became the center of a group of devotees who established a tradition of devotional worship through enraptured dance and songs (kīrtan) praising Krishna. The practice soon became a public one, as Chaitanya and his followers took to parading through the streets of Nadia shouting the name of God in moods of raptured devotion. Although officers of the sultanate placed curbs on the cult’s ecstatic excesses when they disturbed the public peace, the true adversaries of the growing neo-Vaishnava movement were neither local Muslims nor the court at Gaur—which actually patronized Vaishnava literature—but Brahman supporters of the cults of Chandi and Manasa. First, in their view, the Vaishnava custom of communal song, the kīrtan, not only disturbed the peace but lacked scriptural authority. Second, Chaitanya had identified himself with God (“Gaurhari”). Third, he had usurped from Brahmans their monopoly over the use of mantras , or sacred oral formulae. And finally, his cult was charged with having attracted followers from amongst the lower classes, a point hinting at the social basis of the leading Hindu sects in this period. Since Goddess cults enjoyed broad popular support, the śākta Brahmans, as patrons of those cults, viewed the lower classes as their own natural constituency, even though they were sometimes ambivalent about extending their support to such cults. Chaitanya’s movement thus threatened to cut into their pool of religious clients.
Despite initial Brahman attempts to resist the movement, and later to control it by incorporating it into a broader Brahmanical framework, Vaishnavism managed to carve out and maintain for itself an autonomous identity in the delta’s religious landscape. By emphasizing non-Brahman inclusiveness as opposed to high-caste exclusiveness, the practice of devotion rather than ritual, and the use of Bengali rather than Sanskrit, the movement posed a real alternative to the Brahman-supported śaiva movement, with its ties to various Goddess cults. Devotional and hagiographical literature composed in the sixteenth century dramatized the assurance of salvation through love of Krishna and fixed the historical Chaitanya as one who was at least divinely inspired, if not identified with both Krishna and his lover Radha. Even during his lifetime, Chaitanya had been deified by enthusiastic devotees, and by the end of the century, when his name was included among those of the gods praised in the introductory lines of contemporary poems, his divinity seems to have been widely accepted.
Vaishnava piety spread dramatically across Bengali Hindu society. In his idealized image of a Bengali kingdom the poet Mukundaram included Vaishnavas among the city’s Brahmans, referring to them as homesteaders who engaged in devotional singing, or as prosperous city-dwellers living amidst beautiful Vishnu temples adorned with golden spires and fluttering flags. This suggests that by the late sixteenth century, while the ecstatic spirit of Chaitanya’s devotional movement was still vibrant, the upper castes had already begun to ally themselves with the movement, in the process redefining it along orthodox lines. In subsequent centuries, Vaishnava piety, though originating in cities, would make deep inroads among Bengal’s Hindu artisan and cultivating castes. By 1893 James Wise could write, “It may be said with perfect truth that Vaishnavism, in one or another of its diverse forms, to the exclusion of Saivism and all other [Hindu] creeds, is the faith professed by the agricultural, artizan, and fisher tribes of Bengal.”
In sum, Hindu society in the sultanate period was dominated by two principal religious orientations—the various Goddess cults and Vaishnava devotionalism—with Brahmans endeavoring to appropriate both. In terms of geographical reach, the Vaishnava movement appears to have been centered in western Bengal, whereas the cults dedicated to the Goddess prevailed throughout the delta, especially in the south and the east, where rebellious Hindu political movements rose up in the name of Chandi. Although the public śiva cult never recovered from the withdrawal of court patronage that followed the Turkish conquest, its śākta Brahman patrons eventually succeeded in grafting the high god to indigenous cults, and especially to that focusing on the goddess Chandi. Similarly, Vaishnava Brahmans in time managed to check the unrestrained emotionalism of Chaitanya’s movement.
It was in the context of these religious currents that Islamic devotionalism became a force in its own right in the Bengal delta. Thus far we have seen Muslims as rulers, soldiers, Sufis, merchants, administrators, or judges. But we have not yet seen them in the role of the ordinary cultivators who came to pervade the modern Bengali countryside. Indeed, Bengali Muslim cultivators would eventually form the basis of one of the largest Muslim communities on earth. This raises the question of Islamization, and the contested issue of conversion to Islam.
1. Rockhill, “Notes on the Relations,” 436. The pitch of the state’s land revenue demand is not known for certain. In his “Descriptions of the Barbarians of the Isles,” cited by Rockhill, Wang Ta-Yüan noted in 1349 that the government demanded one-fifth of the total produce in taxes. Just four years later, however, Ibn Battuta wrote that the government claimed one half of the produce of Hindu farmers in the Habiganj region of Sylhet District. It is possible that both observations were correct, and that the higher rate noted by Ibn Battuta represented the claim (jama‘) demanded by the government, whereas the lower rate noted by the Chinese represented the amount of revenue actually collected (ḥāṣil). In any event, it would be wrong to see Bengal’s Muslim rulers as having driven the peasants into the forested hinterland by policies of excessive taxation, since any abandonment of cultivable lands would only have deprived the state of its principal source of wealth. Rather, the state evidently tolerated, and probably encouraged, a moderate and controlled movement of peasants into formerly forested areas. See Rockhill, “Notes on the Relations,” 435; Ibn Battuta, Rehla, 241. [BACK]
2. Silver, which was mined nowhere within the delta itself, had for centuries before the Turkish conquest been imported from the Burma-Yunnan border region where the upper Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, and Irrawady rivers nearly converge. From there it migrated into the delta via overland and river routes leading to the Arakan coast and the upper Brahmaputra Valley. John Deyell, “The China Connection: Problems of Silver Supply in Medieval Bengal,” in Precious Metals in the Later Medieval and Early Modern Worlds, ed. J. F. Richards (Durham, N. C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1983), 207–24. [BACK]
3. Ibid., 214–15. [BACK]
4. See Ibid., chart 2, 227. [BACK]
5. Rockhill, “Notes on the Relations,” 444. [BACK]
6. Ibid., 437. [BACK]
7. Cesare Federici, “Extracts of Master Caesar Frederike his Eighteene Yeers Indian Observations,” in Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes, by Samuel Purchas (1625; Glasgow: James MacLehose & Sons, 1905), 10: 136. [BACK]
8. The Book of Ser Marco Polo, trans. and ed. Yule and Cordier, 2: 115. [BACK]
9. Ibn Battuta, Rehla, 235. [BACK]
10. Rockhill, “Notes on the Relations,” 439–40, 443–44. [BACK]
11. Ludovico di Varthema, The Travels of Ludovico di Varthema A.D. 1503–1508, trans. John W. Jones (Hakluyt Society Publications, 1st ser., no. 32, 1863; reprint, New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.), 212. [BACK]
12. “A junk goes from Bengal to Malacca once a year,” Tome Pires wrote, “and sometimes twice. Each of these carries from eighty to ninety thousand cruzados worth. They bring fine white cloths, seven kinds of sinabafos, three kinds of chautares, beatilhas, beirames and other rich materials. They will bring as many as twenty kinds. They bring steel, very rich bed-canopies, with cut-cloth work in all colours and very beautiful; wall hangings like tapestry. These people sail four or five ships to Malacca and to Pase every year, and this is still done to a large extent. Bengali cloth fetches as high price in Malacca, because it is a merchandise all over the East.” Pires, Suma Oriental, 1: 92. For a discussion of Bengal’s external trade in the sixteenth century, see Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Notes on the Sixteenth-Century Bengal Trade,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 24, no. 3 (1987): 265–89. [BACK]
13. Moreover, on the death of one of these nobles, half of his property reverted to the crown. This also served to concentrate wealth in the hands of the sultan, and hence at the royal capital. Voyage dans les deltas du Gange, 326. [BACK]
14. Varthema, Travels of Ludovico di Varthema, 211. [BACK]
15. Pires, Suma Oriental, 1: 90. By contrast, Satgaon, a principal seaport located north of modern Calcutta, had a population of ten thousand at this time. Ibid., 91. [BACK]
16. Voyage dans les deltas du Gange, 323. [BACK]
17. Rockhill, “Notes on the Relations,” 442–43. [BACK]
18. Varthema, Travels of Ludovico di Varthema, 212. [BACK]
19. Duarte Barbosa, The Book of Duarte Barbosa, trans. M. L. Dames (1921; reprint, Nendoln/Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1967), 2: 135–39, 147–48. [BACK]
20. Cited in Abdul Karim, Social History of the Muslims of Bengal (down to A.D. 1538) (Dacca: Asiatic Society of Pakistan, 1959), 153–54. [BACK]
21. Mukundaram, Kavikaṅkaṇa Caṇḍī, ed. Srikumar Bandyopadhyay and Visvapati Chaudhuri (Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1974), 343–44. As a sociologist remarked, “nobility was determined by immigration from the west in direct proportion to the nearness in point of time and distance in point of land of origin from Bengal to Arabia.” Abdul Majed Khan, “Research about Muslim Aristocracy in East Pakistan,” in P. Bessaignet, ed., Social Research in East Pakistan 2d ed., (Dacca: Asiatic Society of Pakistan, 1964), 22. [BACK]
22. Shamsud-Din Ahmed, ed. and trans., Inscriptions of Bengal, 4: 170–71. [BACK]
23. Ibid., 259. [BACK]
24. Ibid., 225. My translation. [BACK]
25. Krsnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami, śrī Caitanya-Caritāmṛta, ed. and trans. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (New York: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1974), ch. 17, text, 123–128; 3: 323–26. [BACK]
26. Mukundaram, Kavikaṅkaṇa Caṇḍī, 345–46. [BACK]
27. The poet’s description of the Muslim and Hindu communities of the idealized Bengali city of “Gujarat” is discussed in Edward C. Dimock, Jr., and Ronald B. Inden, “The City in Pre-British Bengal,” in Edward C. Dimock, Jr., The Sound of Silent Guns and Other Essays (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989), 121–25. [BACK]
28. Duarte Barbosa, writing in 1518, seems to have had these groups in mind when he mentioned the presence of converted Muslim communities in the capital city of Gaur. See Book of Duarte Barbosa, 2: 148. [BACK]
29. These groups included the hājām (from Ar. ḥajjām), tirakar (from Pers. tīrgar), kāgajī (from Ar.-Pers. kāghażī), kalandar (from Pers. qalandar), darji (from Pers. darzī), rangrej (from Pers. rangrīz), and kasāi (from Ar. qaṣṣāb). [BACK]
30. Ronald B. Inden, Marriage and Rank in Bengali Culture: A History of Caste and Class in Middle-Period Bengal (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), 75–76. [BACK]
31. Around 1595 Abu’l-fazl wrote that most of the Bengal zamīndārs were Kayasthas, and that they had comprised Bengal’s ruling class under the Pala dynasty and even earlier. Abu’l-fazl ‘Allami, ā’īn-i Akbarī (Lucknow ed.), 2: 82, 113; trans., 2: 141, 158–59. [BACK]
32. N. K. Dutt, Origin and Growth of Caste in India (Calcutta: Firma K. L.M., 1965), 2: 58–63, 97. [BACK]
33. Ronald B. Inden, Marriage and Rank, 71–77; id., Imagining India (Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 49–84. [BACK]
34. Mukundaram, Kavikaṅkaṇa Caṇḍī, 355–61. [BACK]
35. William L. Smith, The One-eyed Goddess: A Study of the Manasā-Maṅgal. Oriental Studies, No. 12 (Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell, 1980), 134. [BACK]
36. Ibid., 51. [BACK]
37. Ibid., 132–33. [BACK]
38. As W. L. Smith notes, Chando’s initial objection to the goddess and the nature of his ultimate acceptance of her cult “reflects that of the upper castes—it was qualified, reluctant and done without enthusiasm.” Smith, One-eyed Goddess, 182. [BACK]
39. P. K. Maity, Historical Studies in the Cult of the Goddess Manasā (Calcutta: Punthi Pustak, 1966), 169–82. T. W. Clark, “Evolution of Hinduism in Medieval Bengali Literature: śiva, Caṇḍī, Manasā,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 17, no. 3 (1955): 507–15. [BACK]
40. Vrindavan Das, śrī-śrī Caitanya-Bhāgavat (4th ed., Calcutta, n.d.), 11. Cited in Smith, One-eyed Goddess, 30. Smith’s translation. [BACK]
41. These iconographic features compare with those characterizing a Manasa relief from Birbhum in West Bengal. See Jitendra Nath Banerjea, The Development of Hindu Iconography (Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1956), 350. [BACK]
42. Mild characteristics were generally typical of those female deities who have been more comfortably accommodated in the Brahman-controlled Hindu pantheon. See Lawrence A. Babb, The Divine Hierarchy: Popular Hinduism in Central India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), 221–26. [BACK]
43. An excellent analysis of the Caṇḍī-Maṅgala is found in Bhattacharya, “La Déesse.” See esp. 22–33. [BACK]
44. At one point Kalaketu states, “The king of my kingdom is Mahes Thakur [śiva]; I am its chief minister [mahāpatra], and Chandi its proprietress [adhikārī].” Mukundaram, Kavikaṅkaṇa Caṇḍī, 413. [BACK]
45. Charles Malamoud, “Village et forêt dans l’idéologie de l’Inde brahmanique,” Archives européennes de sociologie 17, no. 1 (1976), 3–14. [BACK]
46. Once he took possession of the kingdom, Kalaketu was to renounce violence against the very animals he had formerly killed, becoming now their protector. In this way the written form of the myth, clearly influenced by Brahmanical revision, attempts to resolve a classical problem of Indian kingship, namely, the king’s ritual impurity arising from his professional obligation to kill. [BACK]
47. Some Vaishnava literature and art nonetheless continued to be locally produced, as in late fifteenth century Vishnupur. See Jeremiah P. Losty, The Art of the Book in India (London: British Library, 1982), 62. [BACK]
48. Sukumar Sen, History of Bengali Literature, 3d ed. (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1979), 63–64. [BACK]
49. Ibid., 66. [BACK]
50. Dusan Zbavitel, Bengali Literature, vol. 9, fasc. 3 of A History of Indian Literature, ed. Jan Gonda (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1976), 149. [BACK]
51. Krsnadasa, śrī Caitanya-Caritāmṛta, trans. Bhaktivedanta, ch. 17, text, 124–28; 3: 324–26. [BACK]
52. Ibid., text, 204–12; 3: 363–66. [BACK]
53. The chief such works are the Caitanya-Bhāgavat by Vrindavan Das, composed ca. 1540; the Caitanya-Maṅgala by Jayananda, composed in the sixteenth century; the Caitanya Maṅgala by Locan Das, composed in the mid sixteenth century; the Gaurāṅga-Vijaya by Curamani Das, composed before 1560, and the Caitanya-Caritāmṛta by Krishna Das, composed ca. 1575–95. Of these, that of Krishna Das is generally considered the most authoritative. See Zbavitel, Bengali Literature, 172–75; Sen, History of Bengali Literature, ch. 8. [BACK]
54. Sen, History of Bengali Literature, 94. [BACK]
55. Mukundaram, Kavikaṅkaṇa Caṇḍī, 348, 350. [BACK]
56. James Wise, “The Hindus of Eastern Bengal,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 62, no. 3 (1893), 8. For the diffusion of Vaishnava piety in post-Chaitanya Bengal, see Ramakanta Chakrabarty, Vaisnavism in Bengal, 1486–1900 (Calcutta: Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar, 1985), 275–304. [BACK]