1. Bengal under the Sultans
1. Before the Turkish Conquest
[The Sylhet region of East Bengal] was outside the pale of human habitation, where there is no distinction between natural and artificial, infested by wild animals and poisonous reptiles, and covered with forest out-growths.
Bengal in Prehistory
Physically, the Bengal delta is a flat, low-lying floodplain in the shape of a great horseshoe, its open part facing the Bay of Bengal to the south. Surrounding its rim to the west, north, and east are disconnected hill systems, out of which flow some of the largest rivers in southern Asia—the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna. Wending their way slowly over the delta’s flat midsection, these rivers and their tributaries deposit immense loads of sand and soil, which over millennia have gradually built up the delta’s land area, pushing its southern edge ever deeper into the bay. In historical times, the rivers have been natural arteries of communication and transportation, and they have defined Bengal’s physical and ancient cultural subregions—Varendra, the Bhagirathi-Hooghly basin, Vanga, Samatata, and Harikela (see map 1).
Map 1. Cultural regions of early Bengal
The delta was no social vacuum when Turkish cavalrymen entered it in the thirteenth century. In fact, it had been inhabited long before the earliest appearance of dated inscriptions in the third century B.C. In ancient North Bengal, Pundra (or Pundranagara, “city of the Pundras”), identifiable with Mahasthan in today’s Bogra District, owed its name to a non-Aryan tribe mentioned in late Vedic literature. Similarly, the Raḍha and Suhma peoples, described as wild and churlish tribes in Jain literature of the third century B.C., gave their names to western and southwestern Bengal respectively, as the Vanga peoples did to central and eastern Bengal. Archaeological evidence confirms that already in the second millennium B.C., rice-cultivating communities inhabited West Bengal’s Burdwan District. By the eleventh century B.C., peoples in this area were living in systematically aligned houses, using elaborate human cemeteries, and making copper ornaments and fine black-and-red pottery. By the early part of the first millennium B.C., they had developed weapons made of iron, probably smelted locally alongside copper. Rather than permanent field agriculture, which would come later, these peoples appear to have practiced shifting cultivation; having burned patches of forest, they prepared the soil with hoes, seeded dry rice and small millets by broadcast or with dibbling sticks, and harvested crops with stone blades, which have been found at excavated sites. These communities could very well have been speakers of “Proto-Munda,” the Austroasiatic ancestor of the modern Munda languages, for there is linguistic evidence that at least as early as 1500 B.C., Proto-Munda speakers had evolved “a subsistence agriculture which produced or at least knew grain—in particular rice, two or three millets, and at least three legumes.”
In the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., dramatic changes that would permanently alter Bengal’s cultural history took place to the immediate west of the delta, in the middle Gangetic Plain, where the practice of shifting cultivation gradually gave way to settled farming, first on unbunded permanent fields and later on bunded, irrigated fields. Moreover, whereas the earlier forms of rice production could have been managed by single families, the shift to wet rice production on permanent fields required substantial increases in labor inputs, the use of draft animals, some sort of irrigation technology, and an enhanced degree of communal cooperation. As the middle Gangetic Plain receives over fifty inches of rainfall annually, over double that of the semi-arid Punjab, the establishment of permanent rice-growing operations also required the clearing of the marshes and thick monsoon forests that had formerly covered the area. Iron axes, which began to appear there around 500 B.C., proved far more efficient than stone tools for this purpose. Iron plowshares, which also began to appear in the middle Ganges region about this time, were a great improvement over wooden shares and vastly increased agricultural productivity in this region’s typically hard alluvial soil. The adoption of the technique of transplanting rice seedings, a decisive step in the transition from primitive to advanced rice cultivation, also occurred in the middle Ganges zone around 500 B.C.
Early Indo-Aryan Influence in Bengal
These changes were accompanied by the intrusion of immigrants from the north and west, the Indo-Aryans, who brought with them a vast corpus of Sanskrit sacred literature. Their migration into the Gangetic Plain is also associated with the appearance of new pottery styles. Both kinds of data show a gradual eastward shift in centers of Indo-Aryan cultural production: from the twelfth century B.C. their civilization flourished in the East Punjab and Haryana area (Kuru), from the tenth to the eighth centuries in the western U. P. area (Panchala), and from the seventh to the sixth centuries B.C. in the eastern U. P. and northern Bihar region (Videha). Literature produced toward the end of this migratory process reveals a hierarchically ordered society headed by a hereditary priesthood, the Brahmans, and sustained by an ideology of ritual purity and pollution that conferred a pure status on Indo-Aryans while stigmatizing non-Aryans as impure “barbarians” (mleccha). This conceptual distinction gave rise to a moving cultural frontier between “clean” Indo-Aryans who hailed from points to the west, and “unclean” Mlecchas already inhabiting regions in the path of the Indo-Aryan advance. One sees this frontier reflected in a late Vedic text recording the eastward movement of an Indo-Aryan king and Agni, the Vedic god of fire. In this legend, Agni refuses to cross the Gandak River in Bihar since the areas to the east—eastern Bihar and Bengal—were considered ritually unfit for the performance of Vedic sacrifices. Other texts even prescribe elaborate expiatory rites for the purification of Indo-Aryans who had visited these ritually polluted regions.
Despite such taboos, however, Indo-Aryan groups gradually settled the upper, the middle, and finally the lower Ganges region, retroactively justifying each movement by pushing further eastward the frontier separating themselves from tribes they considered ritually unclean. As this occurred, both Indo-Aryans and the indigenous communities with which they came into contact underwent considerable culture change. For example, in the semi-arid Punjab the early Indo-Aryans had been organized into lineages led by patrilineal chiefs and had combined pastoralism with wheat and barley agriculture. Their descendants in the middle Ganges region were organized into kingdoms, however, and had adopted a sedentary life based on the cultivation of wet rice. Moreover, although the indigenous peoples of the middle and lower Ganges were regarded as unclean barbarians, Indo-Aryan immigrants merged with the agrarian society already established in these regions and vigorously took up the expansion of rice agriculture in what had formerly been forest or marshland. Thus the same Vedic text that gives an ideological explanation for why Videha (northern Bihar) had not previously been settled—that is, because the god Agni deemed it ritually unfit for sacrifices—also provides a material explanation for why it was deemed fit for settlement “now”: namely, that “formerly it had been too marshy and unfit for agriculture.” The Indo-Aryans’ adoption of peasant agriculture is also seen in the assimilation into their vocabulary of non-Aryan words for agricultural implements, notably the term for “plow” (lāṅgala), which is Austroasiatic in origin.
By 500 B.C. a broad ideological framework had evolved that served to integrate kin groups of the two cultures into a single, hierarchically structured social system. In the course of their transition to sedentary life, the migrants also acquired a consciousness of private property and of political territory, onto which their earlier lineage identities were displaced. This, in turn, led to the appearance of state systems, together with monarchal government, coinage, a script, systems of revenue extraction, standing armies, and, emerging very rapidly between ca. 500 and 300 B.C., cities. Initially, these sweeping developments led to several centuries of rivalry and warfare between the newly emerged kingdoms of the middle Gangetic region. Ultimately, they led to the appearance of India’s first empire, the Mauryan (321–181 B.C.).
All these developments proved momentous for Bengal. In the first place, since the Mauryas’ political base was located in Magadha, immediately west of the delta, Bengal lay on the cutting edge of the eastward advance of Indo-Aryan civilization. Thus the tribes of Bengal certainly encountered Indo-Aryan culture in the context of the growth of this empire, and probably during the several centuries of turmoil preceding the rise of the Mauryas. The same pottery associated with the diffusion of Indo-Aryan speakers throughout northern India between 500 and 200 B.C.—Northern Black Polished ware—now began to appear at various sites in the western Bengal delta. It was in Mauryan times, too, that urban civilization first appeared in Bengal. Pundra (or Pundranagara), a city named after the powerful non-Aryan people inhabiting the delta’s northwestern quadrant, Varendra, became the capital of the Mauryas’ easternmost province. A limestone tablet inscribed in Aśokan Brahmi script, datable to the third century B.C., records an imperial edict ordering the governor of this region to distribute food grains to people afflicted by a famine. This suggests that by this time the cultural ecology of at least the Varendra region had evolved from shifting cultivation with hoe and dibble stick to a higher-yielding peasant agriculture based on the use of the plow, draft animals, and transplanting techniques.
Contact between Indo-Aryan civilization and the delta region coincided not only with the rise of an imperial state but also with that of Buddhism, which from the third century B.C. to the seventh or eighth century A.D. experienced the most expansive and vital phase of its career in India. In contrast to the hierarchical vision of Brahmanism, with its pretensions to social exclusion and ritual purity, an egalitarian and universalist ethic permitted Buddhists to expand over great distances and establish wide, horizontal networks of trade among ethnically diverse peoples. This ethic also suited Buddhism to large, cross-cultural political systems, or empires. Aśoka (ca. 273–236 B.C.), India’s first great emperor and the third ruler of the Mauryan dynasty, established the religion as an imperial cult. Positive evidence of the advance of Buddhism in Bengal, however, is not found until the second century B.C., when the great stupa at Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh) included Bengalis in its lists of supporters. In the second or third century A.D., an inscription at Nagarjunakhonda (Andhra Pradesh) mentioned Bengal as an important Buddhist region, and in A.D. 405–11, a visiting Chinese pilgrim counted twenty-two Buddhist monasteries in the city of Tamralipti (Tamluk) in southwestern Bengal, at that time eastern India’s principal seaport.
Yet Buddhism in eastern India, as it evolved into an imperial cult patronized by traders and administrators, became detached from its roots in non-Aryan society. Rather than Buddhists, it was Brahman priests who, despite taboos about residing in “unclean” lands to the east, seized the initiative in settling amidst Bengal’s indigenous peoples from at least the fifth century A.D. on. What perhaps made immigrant Brahmans acceptable to non-Aryan society was the agricultural knowledge they offered, since the technological and social conditions requisite for the transition to peasant agriculture, already established in Magadha, had not yet appeared in the delta prior to the Mauryan age. All of this contributed to a long-term process—well under way in the fifth century A.D. but still far from complete by the thirteenth—by which indigenous communities of primitive cultivators became incorporated into a socially stratified agrarian society based on wet rice production.
In the middle of the eighth century, large, regionally based imperial systems emerged in Bengal, some of them patronizing Buddhism, others a revitalized Brahmanism. The first and most durable of these was the powerful Pala Empire (ca. 750–1161), founded by a warrior and fervent Buddhist named Gopala. From their core region of Varendra and Magadha, the early kings of this dynasty extended their sway far up the Gangetic Plain, even reaching Kanauj under their greatest dynast, Dharmapala (775–812). It was about this time, too, that a regional economy began to emerge in Bengal. In 851 the Arab geographer Ibn Khurdadhbih wrote that he had personally seen samples of the cotton textiles produced in Pala domains, which he praised for their unparalleled beauty and fineness.
A century later another Arab geographer, Mas‘udi (d. 956), recorded the earliest-known notice of Muslims residing in Bengal. Evidently long-distance traders involved in the overseas export of locally produced textiles, these were probably Arabs or Persians residing not in Pala domains but in Samatata, in the southeastern delta, then ruled by another Bengali Buddhist dynasty, the Chandras (ca. 825–1035). What makes this likely is that kings of this dynasty, although much inferior to the Palas in power, and never contenders for supremacy over all of India like their larger neighbors to the west, were linked with Indian Ocean commerce through their control of the delta’s most active seaports. Moreover, while the Palas used cowrie shells for settling commercial transactions, the Chandras maintained a silver coinage that was more conducive for participation in international trade.
Under the patronage of the Palas and various dynasties in Samatata, Buddhism received a tremendous lift in its international fortunes, expanding throughout maritime Asia as India’s imperial cult par excellence. Dharmapala himself patronized the construction of two monumental shrine-monastery complexes—Vikramaśila in eastern Bihar, and Paharpur in Bengal’s Rajshahi district—and between the sixth and eleventh centuries, royal patrons in Samatata supported another one, the Salban Vihara at Lalmai. As commercially expansive states rose in eastern India from the eighth century on, Buddhism as a state cult spread into neighboring lands—in particular to Tibet, Burma, Cambodia, and Java—where monumental Buddhist shrines appear to have been modeled on prototypes developed in Bengal and Bihar. At the same time, Pala control over Magadha, the land of the historical Buddha, served to enhance that dynasty’s prestige as the supreme patrons of the Buddhist religion.
Mas‘udi’s remark about Muslims residing in Pala domains is significant in the context of these commercially and politically expansive Buddhist states, for by the tenth century, when Bengali textiles were being absorbed into wider Indian Ocean commercial networks, two trade diasporas overlapped one another in the delta region. One, extending eastward from the Arabian Sea, was dominated by Muslim Arabs or Persians; the other, extending eastward from the Bay of Bengal, by Buddhist Bengalis. The earliest presence of Islamic civilization in Bengal resulted from the overlapping of these two diasporas.
The Rise of Early Medieval Hindu Culture
Even while Indo-Buddhist civilization expanded and flourished overseas, however, Buddhist institutions were steadily declining in eastern India. Since Buddhists there had left life-cycle rites in the hands of Brahman priests, Buddhist monastic establishments, so central for the religion’s institutional survival, became disconnected from the laity and fatally dependent on court patronage for their support. To be sure, some Bengali dynasties continued to patronize Buddhist institutions almost to the time of the Muslim conquest. But from as early as the seventh century, Brahmanism, already the more vital tradition at the popular level, enjoyed increasing court patronage at the expense of Buddhist institutions. By the eleventh century even the Palas, earlier such enthusiastic patrons of Buddhism, had begun favoring the cults of two gods that had emerged as the most important in the newly reformed Brahmanical religion—Śiva and Vishnu.
These trends are seen most clearly in the later Bengali dynasties—the Varmans (ca. 1075–1150) and especially the Senas (ca. 1097–1223), who dominated all of Bengal at the time of the Muslim conquest. The kings of the Sena dynasty were descended from a warrior caste that had migrated in the eleventh century from South India (Karnataka) to the Bhagirathi-Hooghly region, where they took up service under the Palas. As Pala power declined, eventually evaporating early in the twelfth century, the Senas first declared their independence from their former overlords, then consolidated their base in the Bhagirathi-Hooghly area, and finally moved into the eastern hinterland, where they dislodged the Varmans from their capital at Vikrampur. Moreover, since the Senas had brought from the south a fierce devotion to Hindu culture (especially Śaivism), their victorious arms were accompanied everywhere in Bengal by the establishment of royally sponsored Hindu cults. As a result, by the end of the eleventh century, the epicenter of civilization and power in eastern India had shifted from Bihar to Bengal, while royal patronage had shifted from a primarily Buddhist to a primarily Hindu orientation. These shifts are especially evident in the artistic record of the period.
Behind these political developments worked deeper religious changes, occurring throughout India, that served to structure the Hindu religion as it evolved in medieval times and to distinguish it from its Vedic and Brahmanical antecedents. As Ronald Inden has argued, the ancient Vedic sacrificial cult (ca. 1000–ca. 300 B.C.) experienced two major historical transformations. The first occurred in the third century B.C., when the Mauryan emperor Aśoka established Buddhism as his imperial religion. At that time the Vedic sacrifice, which was perceived by Buddhists as violent and selfish, was replaced by gift-giving (dāna) in the form either of offerings to Buddhist monks by the laity or of gifts of land bestowed on Buddhist institutions by Buddhist rulers. In response to these developments, Brahman priests began reorienting their own professional activities from performing bloody animal sacrifices to conducting domestic life-cycle rites for non-Brahman householders. At the same time, they too became recipients of gifts in the form of land donated by householders or local elites, as began occurring in Bengal from the fifth century A.D. This first transformation of the Vedic sacrifice did not, however, cause a rupture between Buddhism and Brahmanism. In fact, the two religions coexisted quite comfortably, the former operating at the imperial center, the latter at the regional periphery.
The second transformation of the Vedic sacrifice occurred in the seventh and eighth centuries, when chieftains and rulers began building separate shrines for the images of deities. The regenerative cosmic sacrifice of Vedic religion, which Buddhists had already transformed into rites of gift-giving to monks, was now transformed into a new ceremony, that of the “Great Gift” (mahādāna), which consisted of a king’s honoring a patron god by installing an image of him in a monumental temple. These ideas crystallized toward the end of the eighth century, when, except for the Buddhist Palas, the major dynasties vying for supremacy over all of India—the Pratiharas of the north, the Rashtrakutas of the Deccan, and the Pandyas and Pallavas of the south—all established centralized state cults focusing on Hindu image worship. Instead of worshiping Vedic gods in a general or collective sense, each dynasty now patronized a single deity (usually Vishnu or śiva), understood as that dynasty’s cosmic overlord, whose earthly representative was the gift-giving king. These conceptions were physically expressed in monumental and elaborately carved temples that, like Buddhist stupas, were conceptually descended from the Vedic sacrificial fire altar. Brahmans, meanwhile, evolved into something much grander than domestic priests who merely tended to the life-cycle rituals of their non-Brahman patrons. Now, in addition to performing such services, they became integrated into the ritual life of Hindu courts, where they officiated at the kings’ “Great Gift” and other state rituals.
Copper-plate inscriptions issued from the tenth through the twelfth centuries show how these ideas penetrated the courts of Bengal. Detailed lists of state officers found in inscriptions of the major dynasties of the post-tenth-century period—Pala, Chandra, Varman, and Sena—all show an elaboration of centralized state systems, increasing social stratification, and bureaucratic specialization. Moreover, donations in land became at this time a purely royal prerogative, while the donations themselves (at least those in the northern and western delta) consisted of plots of agricultural land whose monetary yields were known and specified, indicating a rather thorough peasantization of society. And, except in the case of Samatata, recipients of these grants were Brahmans who received land not only for performing domestic rituals, as had been the case in earlier periods, but for performing courtly rituals. Indeed, the granting of land to Brahmans who officiated at court rituals had become a kingly duty, a necessary component of the state’s ideological legitimacy.
In these centuries, then, the ideology of medieval Hindu kingship became fully elaborated in the delta. The earliest Sena kings, it is true, had justified their establishment of power in terms of their victorious conquests, and in this respect they differed little from their own conquerors, the Turks of the early Delhi sultanate. Yet the Senas’ political theory was based on a religious cosmology fundamentally different from that of their Muslim conquerors. In the Islamic conception, the line separating the human and superhuman domains was stark and unbridgeable; neither humans nor superhumans freely moved or could move from one domain to the other. In the Sena conception, however, as in medieval Hindu thought generally, the line between human and superhuman was indistinct. Since it was the king’s performance of royally sponsored rituals that served to uphold dharma—that is, cosmic, natural, and human order as understood in classical Indian thought—movement between the two domains could be actuated by the intervention of the king’s ritual behavior. “He was never tired of offering sacrifices,” one inscription boasts of Vijaya Sena (ca. 1095–1158),
By ritually bringing about “an interchange of the inhabitants of heaven and earth,” the king symbolically erased the distinction between the human and superhuman domains. Like Hindu kings elsewhere in eleventh- and twelfth-century India, the Senas projected their vision of the cosmos and their own proper place in it through the medium of architecture, specifically the monumental royal temple. By replicating cosmic order in the medium of stone monuments, in which they placed an image of their patron overlord, and by placing themselves and their temples at the center of the earthly stage, these kings mimicked the manner in which their patron overlord presided over cosmic order. Thus Vijaya Sena proclaimed:
and through his power Dharma [dharma], though she had become one-legged in the course of time, could move about on the earth, quickly taking the help of the rows of sacrificial pillars. That sacrificer [the king] calling down the immortals from the slopes of [the cosmic mountain] Meru full of the enemies killed by himself, brought about an interchange of the inhabitants of heaven and earth. (For) by (the construction of) lofty “houses of gods” (i.e. temples) and by (the excavation of) extensive lakes the areas of both heaven and earth were reduced and thus they were made similar to one another.
The Sena kings also expressed their kingly authority by performing the “Great Gift” ceremony in honor of their patron overlord, who under the last pre-conquest king, Lakshmana Sena, was Vishnu. Although this great god was the ritualized recipient of the “Great Gift,” its effective recipients were officiating Brahman priests.
[The king] built a lofty edifice of Pradyumneśvara, the wings, and plinth and the main structure of which occupied the several quarters, and the middle and the uppermost parts stretched over the great oceanlike space—(it is) the midday mountain of the rising and setting Sun who touches the Eastern and Western mountains, the supporting pillar of the house which is the three worlds and the one that remains of the mountains.… If the creator would make a jar, turning on the wheel of the earth Sumeru like a lump of clay, then that would be an object with which could be compared the golden jar placed by him (i.e., the king) on (the top of) this (temple).
The Diffusion of Bengali Hindu Civilization
By the time of the Muslim conquest, then, the official cult of a cosmic overlord, monumental state temples, and royally patronized Brahman priests had all emerged as central components of the Senas’ religious and political ideology. It was not the case, however, that by that time early Indo-Aryan civilization and its later Hindu offshoot had penetrated all quarters of the Bengal delta evenly. Rather, the evidence indicates that Bengal’s northwestern and western subregions were far more deeply influenced by Indo-Aryan and Hindu civilization than was the eastern delta, which remained relatively less peasantized and less Hinduized. This is seen, for example, in pre-thirteenth-century land use and settlement patterns. A seventh-century grant of land on the far eastern edge of the delta, in modern Sylhet, describes the donated territory as lying “outside the pale of human habitation, where there is no distinction between natural and artificial; infested by wild animals and poisonous reptiles, and covered with forest out-growths.” In such regions, grants of uncultivated land were typically made in favor of groups of Brahmans or to Buddhist monasteries with a view to colonizing the land and bringing it into cultivation. One plate issued by a tenth-century Chandra king granted an enormous area of some one thousand square miles in Sylhet to the residents of eight monasteries; it also settled about six thousand Brahmans on the land.
But in the west the situation was different. In the Bhagirathi-Hooghly region, most land grants were made to individual Brahmans and were typically small in size. After the ninth century, royal donations in this area aimed not at pioneering new settlements but at supporting Brahmans on lands already brought under the plow. These grants typically gave detailed measurements of arable fields, specified their revenue yields, and instructed villagers to pay their taxes in cash and kind to the donees. Such terms and conditions point to a far greater intensity of rice cultivation, a higher degree of peasantization, and a greater population density in the Bhagirathi-Hooghly region than was the case in the relatively remote and more forested eastern delta.
Differences between east and west are also seen in patterns of urbanization. Using archaeological data, Barrie Morrison has made comparative calculations of the total area of ancient Bengal’s six principal royal palaces.
The four largest of these were located in cities of Varendra, or northwestern Bengal, whereas the palace sites of Vikrampur and Devaparvata, located in the east and southeast (at Lalmai) respectively (see map 1), were many times smaller. In part, this reflects the political importance of Varendra, always a potential player in struggles over the heartland of Indo-Aryan civilization owing to its contiguity with neighboring Magadha and the middle Gangetic Plain. Yet the data on palace size also indicate a greater degree of urbanization and a higher population density in the delta’s northwestern sector than was the case in the south and east. With larger cities, too, went greater occupational specialization and social stratification, for in Bengal as in ancient Magadha, the core areas of Indo-Aryan civilization spread with the advance of city life.
Pundranagara 22,555,000 sq. ft. Pandua 13,186,800 sq. ft. Gaur 10,000,000 sq. ft. Kotivarsha 2,700,000 sq. ft. Vikrampur 810,000 sq. ft. Devaparvata (at Lalmai) 360,000 sq. ft.
There are several reasons for the greater penetration of Indo-Aryan culture in the western delta than in the east. One has to do with persistent facts of climate. Moving down the Gangetic Plain, the monsoon rainfall increases as the delta is approached, and within the delta it continues to increase as one crosses to its eastern side. The Bhagirathi-Hooghly region, comprising most of today’s West Bengal, gets about fifty-five inches of rain annually, whereas central and eastern Bengal get between sixty and ninety-five inches, with the mouth of the Meghna receiving from one hundred to one hundred and twenty and eastern Sylhet about one hundred and fifty inches. If this climatic pattern held in ancient times, the density of vegetation in the deltaic hinterland, formerly covered with thick forests, mainly of śāl (Shorea robusta), would have increased as one moved eastward. Cutting it would have required much more labor and organization, even with the aid of iron implements, than in the less densely forested westerly regions.
Also at work here were patterns of Brahman immigration to and within Bengal. West Bengal was geographically contiguous to the upper and middle Gangetic zone, long established as the heartland of Indo-Aryan civilization. Hence, when from the ninth century an increasing number of scholarly and ritually pure Brahmans migrated from this area into Bengal, most received fertile lands in the western delta. On the other hand recipients of lands further to the east, in the modern Comilla and Chittagong area, tended to be local Brahmans or migrants from neighboring parts of the delta. This suggests an eastward-sloping gradient of ritual status, with higher rank associated with the north and west, and lower rank with the less-settled east.
Finally, the different degree of Aryanization in the eastern and western delta was related to ancient Bengal’s sacred geography, and in particular to the association of the Ganges River with Brahmanically defined ritual purity. This river was already endowed with great sanctity when Indo-Aryans entered the delta, and for centuries thereafter Hindus made pilgrimage sites of towns along its banks in western Bengal—for example, Navadwip, Katwa, Tribeni, Kalighat, and Ganga Sagar. With reference to the eastern delta, on the other hand, the geographer S. C. Majumdar notes that “no such sanctity attaches to the Padma below the Bhagirathi offtake nor is there any place of pilgrimage on her banks.” This was because from prehistoric times through the main period of Brahman settlement in the delta, the principal channel of the Ganges flowed down the delta’s westernmost corridor through what is now the Bhagirathi-Hooghly channel. It did not divert eastward into the Padma until the sixteenth century, long after the Turkish conquest. As a result, the river’s sanctity lingered on in West Bengal—even today the Bhagirathi-Hooghly River is sometimes called the Adi-Ganga, or “original Ganges”—while the eastern two-thirds of the delta, cut off from the Ganges during the formative period of Bengal’s encounter with Indo-Aryan civilization, remained symbolically disconnected from Upper India, the heartland of Indo-Aryan sanctity and mythology.
By the thirteenth century, then, most of Bengal west of the Karatoya and along the Bhagirathi-Hooghly plain had become settled by an agrarian population well integrated with the Hindu social and political values espoused by the Sena royal house. There, too, indigenous tribes had become rather well assimilated into a Brahman-ordered social hierarchy. But in the vast stretches of the central, eastern, and northeastern delta, the diffusion of Indo-Aryan civilization was far less advanced. In the Dhaka area, the city of Vikrampur, though an important administrative center, from which nearly all of Bengal’s copper-plate inscriptions were issued in the tenth through twelfth centuries, shrank before its neighbors to the west in both size and sacredness. And in the extreme southeast, the impressive urban complex at Lalmai-Mainamati, with its distinctive artistic tradition, its extensive history of Buddhist patronage, and its cash-nexus economy, appears somewhat disconnected from the Gangetic culture to the west, looking outward to wider Indian Ocean commercial networks.
In sum, although the eastern delta had certainly begun to be peasantized, especially along the valleys of the larger river systems, such as at Vikrampur and Lalmai, the process had not advanced there to the extent that it had in the west and northwest of Bengal. East of the Karatoya and south of the Padma lay a forested and marshy hinterland, inhabited mainly by non-Aryan tribes not yet integrated into the agrarian system that had already revolutionized Magadha and most of western Bengal. As a result, in 1204, when Muhammad Bakhtiyar’s Turkish cavalry captured the western Sena city of Nudiya, it was to this eastern hinterland that King Lakshmana Sena and his retainers fled. It was also in this region that subsequent generations of pioneers would concentrate their energies as Bengal’s economic and cultural frontiers continued to migrate eastward.
1. Situated in the northwestern delta north of the Padma River, Varendra included the territories now constituting the districts of Malda, Pabna, Rajshahi, Bogra, Dinajpur, and Rangpur. The Bhagirathi-Hooghly basin included several ancient cultural subregions—Suhma, Vardhamana, Raḍha, and Gauḍa—corresponding to the modern districts of Midnapur, Howrah, Hooghly, Burdwan, Birbhum, and Mur-shidabad. Ancient Vanga, or Central Bengal, included the area corresponding tothe modern districts of Dhaka, Faridpur, Jessore, Bakarganj, Khulna, Nadia, andTwenty-four Parganas. Samatata included the hilly region east of the Meghna River in the southeastern delta, corresponding to modern Comilla, Noakhali, and Chittagong. Harikela referred to the delta’s northeastern hinterland, including modern Mymensingh and Sylhet. On the ancient subregions of Bengal, see Barrie M. Morrison, Political Centers and Cultural Regions in Early Bengal (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1970), esp. ch. 4, and Susan L. Huntington, The “Pala-Sena” Schools of Sculpture (Leiden: Brill, 1984), 171. For a discussion of Bengal’s physical subregions, see O. H. K. Spate and A. T. A. Learmonth, India and Pakistan: A General and Regional Geography, 3d ed. (London: Methuen, 1967), 571–73. [BACK]
2. Aitareya Brāhmaṇa 7.6, cited in S. K. Chatterji, Origin and Development of the Bengali Language (Calcutta: University of Calcutta Press, 1926), 1: 62. [BACK]
3. These include the Āyāraṃa Sutta and Gaina Sūtras, cited in Chatterji, Origin and Development, 1: 71. [BACK]
4. Chatterji, Origin and Development, 1: 67. [BACK]
5. P. C. Das Gupta, The Excavations at Pandu Rajar Dhibi (Calcutta: Directorate of Archaeology, West Bengal, 1964), 14, 18, 22, 24, 31. The site is located on the southern side of the Ajay River, six miles from Bhedia. The archaeological record reveals prehistoric rice-cultivating communities living all along the middle Gangetic Plain. Excavations in the Belan Valley south of Allahabad have found peoples cultivating rice (Oryza sativa) as early as the middle of the seventh millennium B.C., which is the earliest-known evidence of rice cultivation in the world. G. R. Sharma and D. Mandal, Excavations at Mahagara, 1977–78 (a Neolithic Settlement in the Belan Valley), vol. 6 of Archaeology of the Vindhyas and the Ganga Valley, ed. G. R. Sharma (Allahabad: University of Allahabad, 1980), 23, 27, 30. [BACK]
6. Ram Sharan Sharma, Material Culture and Social Formations in Ancient India (New Delhi: Macmillan India, 1983), 118. [BACK]
7. See Arlene R. K. Zide and Norman H. Zide, “Proto-Munda Cultural Vocabulary: Evidence for Early Agriculture,” in Austroasiatic Studies, ed. Philip N. Jenner, Laurence C. Thompson, and Stanley Starosta, pt. 2 (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1976), 1324. The authors show that Munda terms for uncooked, husked rice (Oryza sativa) have clear cognates in the language’s sister Austroasiatic branch, Mon-Khmer. They also conclude that “the agricultural technology included implements which presuppose the knowledge and use of such grains and legumes as food, since, the specific and consistent meanings for ‘husking pestle’ and ‘mortar’ go back, at least in one item, to Proto-Austroasiatic.” [BACK]
8. Te-Tzu Chang, “The Impact of Rice on Human Civilization and Population Expansion,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 12, no. 1 (1987): 65. [BACK]
9. Spate and Learmonth, India and Pakistan, 47. [BACK]
10. Romila Thapar, From Lineage to State: Social Formations in the Mid-First Millennium B.C. in the Ganga Valley (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1984), 68. Although fire could have been used for clearing forests of their cover, permanent field agriculture required the removal of tree stumps, for which the use of iron axes and spades would have been necessary. Sharma, Material Culture, 92. [BACK]
11. Sharma, Material Culture, 92–96. [BACK]
12. Ibid., 96–99. [BACK]
13. Michael Witzel, “On the Localisation of Vedic Texts and Schools,” in India and the Ancient World: History, Trade and Culture before A.D. 650, ed. Gilbert Pollet (Leuven: Departement Oriëntalistiek, 1987), 173–213; and id., “Tracing the Vedic Dialects,” in Dialectes dans les littératures Indo-Aryennes, ed. Colette Caillat (Paris: Collège de France, Institut de civilisation indienne, 1989), 97–265. [BACK]
14. Romila Thapar, “The Image of the Barbarian in Early India,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 13, no. 4 (October 1971): 417. The text is the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa. [BACK]
15. These include the Mārkaṇdeya Purāṇa and the Yajṅavalkya Smṛti 3.292. Cited in Thapar, “Image,” 417. [BACK]
16. For example, the eastern frontier of Indo-Aryan country in the ṛg Veda was the Yamuna River; in the Paippalāda Saṁhitā, it was Kasi (Benares region); in the Saunakīya Saṁhitā, it was Anga (eastern Bihar); and in the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa (7.18), it was Pundra, or northern Bengal. See Witzel, “Localisation,” 176, 187. [BACK]
17. Today modern Bengali, an Indo-Aryan language, is surrounded on all sides by a number of non-Indo-Aryan language groups—Austroasiatic, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan—suggesting that over the past several millennia the non-Indo-Aryan speakers of the delta proper gradually lost their former linguistic identities, while those inhabiting the surrounding hills retained theirs. On the other hand, the survival of non-Indo-Aryan influences in modern standard Bengali points to the long process of mutual acculturation that occurred between Indo-Aryans and non-Indo-Aryans in the delta itself. Such influences include a high frequency of retroflex consonants, an absence of grammatical gender, and initial-syllable word stress. As M. H. Klaiman observes, “descendants of non-Bengali tribals of a few centuries past now comprise the bulk of Bengali speakers. In other words, the vast majority of the Bengali linguistic community today represents present or former inhabitants of the previously uncultivated and culturally unassimilated tracts of eastern Bengal.” M. H. Klaiman, “Bengali,” in The World’s Major Languages, ed. Bernard Comrie (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 499, 511. See also Chatterji, Origin and Development, 1: 79, 154; and F. B. J. Kuiper, “Sources of the Nahali Vocabulary,” in Studies in Comparative Austroasiatic Linguistics, ed. Norman H. Zide (Hague: Mouton, 1966), 64. For a map showing the modern distribution of the Bengali and non-Indo-Aryan languages in the delta region, see Joseph E. Schwartzberg, ed., A Historical Atlas of South Asia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 100. [BACK]
18. Cited in Witzel, “Localisation,” 195. [BACK]
19. Colin P. Masica, “Aryan and Non-Aryan Elements in North Indian Agriculture,” in Aryan and Non-Aryan in India, ed. Madhav M. Deshpande and Peter E. Hook (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1979), 132. [BACK]
20. This is not to say that anything resembling today’s caste system suddenly appeared at this early date, although the ideological antecedents for that system are clearly visible in this framework. [BACK]
21. See Thapar, From Lineage to State, chs. 2 and 3. Some of the new cities and states included Campa of Anga, Rajghat of Kasi, Rajgir of Magadha, and Kausambi of Vatsa. It has been suggested that the new urbanized areas appeared so suddenly because of competition among former Indo-Aryan lineage groups for wealth and power, which in turn created a need for centralized political systems that could sustain war efforts. See George Erdosy, “The Origin of Cities in the Ganges Valley,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 28, no. 1 (February 1985): 96–103. [BACK]
22. Northern Black Polished ware has been discovered in Chandraketugar in the Twenty-four Parganas, Tamluk in Midnapur, Bangarh and Gaur in Malda, Mahasthan in Bogra, and Khadar Pather Mound and Sitakot in Dinajpur. See Clarence Maloney, “Bangladesh and Its People in Prehistory,” Journal of the Institute of Bangladesh Studies 2 (1977): 17. [BACK]
23. Ramaranjan Mukherji and Sachindra Kumar Maity, Corpus of Bengal Inscriptions Bearing on History and Civilization of Bengal (Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1967), 39–40. [BACK]
24. Gayatri Sen Majumdar, Buddhism in Ancient Bengal (Calcutta: Navana, 1983), 11. [BACK]
25. R. C. Majumdar, History of Ancient Bengal (Calcutta: G. Bharadwaj & Co., 1971), 522–23. See Schwartzberg, ed., Historical Atlas, 18, 19. [BACK]
26. Puspa Niyogi, Brahmanic Settlements in Different Subdivisions of Ancient Bengal (Calcutta: R. K. Maitra, 1967), 4, 19–20. [BACK]
27. As D. D. Kosambi noted, Brahman rituals were accompanied by “a practical calendar, fair meteorology, and sound-working knowledge of agricultural technique unknown to primitive tribal groups which never went beyond the digging-stock or hoe.” D. D. Kosambi, “The Basis of Ancient Indian History,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 75, pt. 1 (1955): 36. See also ibid., pt. 4, 236n. Kosambi was the first to observe that “the major historical change in ancient India was not between dynasties but in the advance of agrarian village settlements over tribal lands, metamorphosing tribesmen into peasant cultivators or guild craftsmen.” Ibid., 38. [BACK]
28. A similar process has been noted for neighboring Assam. Analyzing inscriptions of the fifth to thirteenth centuries, Nayanjot Lahiri notes “an irresistible correlation between the peasant economy and the principles involved in the caste structure in Assam. There is no group of tribesmen in this region which has not involved itself in the caste structure in some form or the other after the adoption of wet rice cultivation. In the process of detribalisation and their inclusion in the traditional Hindu fold the Brahmins were extremely significant. Detribalization involved, among other things, a renunciation of tribal forms of worship and the acceptance of traditional Hindu gods and goddesses.” Nayanjot Lahiri, “Landholding and Peasantry in the Brahmaputra Valley c. 5th-13th centuries A.D.,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 33, no. 2 (June 1990): 166. [BACK]
29. Although most Pala copper plates from ca. 750 to ca. 950 were issued from Magadha in modern Bihar, literary sources place the dynasty’s original home in Varendra, over which the Palas continued to exercise authority until the mid twelfth century. Majumdar, History of Ancient Bengal, 99, 159. [BACK]
30. Ahbar as-Sin wa l-Hind: Relations de la Chine et de l’Inde, trans. Jean Sauvaget (Paris: Société d’édition “Les Belles Lettres,” 1948), 13. [BACK]
31. Mas‘udi, Les Prairies d’or [Murūj al-dhahab], trans. Barbier de Meynard and Pavet de Courteille, corrected by Charles Pellat (Paris: Société asiatique, 1962), 1: 155. “Dans le royaume du Dharma [i.e., Pala], les transactions commerciales se font avec des cauris (wada‘), qui sont la monnaie du pays. On y trouve le bois d’aigle (‘ūd), l’or et l’argent; on y fabrique des étoffes d’une finesse et d’une délicatesse inégalées. Les Indiens mangent sa [i.e., the elephant’s] chair, et ils sont imités par les Musulmans qui habitent ce pays, parce qu’il est de la même espèce que les boeufs et les buffles.” [BACK]
32. Sauvaget, Ahbar as-Sin wa l-Hind, 13; Mas‘udi, Prairies 1: 155. [BACK]
33. M. R. Tarafdar, “Trade and Society in Early Medieval Bengal,” Indian Historical Review 4, no. 2 (January 1978): 277. The evidence for Chandra coinage is based on a horde of about 200 silver coins discovered at Mainamati “in a level,” writes A. H. Dani, “which clearly belongs to the time of the Buddhist Chandra rulers of East Bengal, who had their capital at Vikramapura.” The mint-place given on some of these coins is Pattikera, the name of a village still extant in Comilla District. See Dani, “Coins of the Chandra Kings of East Bengal,” Journal of the Numismatic Society of India 24 (1962): 141; Abdul Momin Chowdhury, Dynastic History of Bengal, c. 750–1200 A.D. (Dacca: Asiatic Society of Pakistan, 1967), 163 and n.5. See also Bela Lahiri, “A Survey of the Pre-Muhammadan Coins of Bengal,” Journal of the Varendra Research Museum 7 (1981–82): 77–84. [BACK]
34. Frederick M. Asher, The Art of Eastern India, 300–800 (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1980), 91. [BACK]
35. Barrie M. Morrison, Lalmai, a Cultural Center of Early Bengal: An Archaeological Report and Historical Analysis (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974), 27. For a discussion of Buddhist civilization in ancient Samatata, see Puspa Niyogi, “Buddhism in the Mainamati-Lalmai Region (with Reference to the Land Grants of S. E. Bengal),” Journal of the Varendra Research Museum 7 (1981–82): 99–109. [BACK]
36. Haroun er Rashid, “Some Possible Influences from Bengal and Bihar on Early Ankor Art and Literature,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh 22, no. 1 (April 1977): 9–19. [BACK]
37. For example, Dharmapala’s son Devapala (812–50) received an envoy from the Buddhist king of Srivijaya in Java-Sumatra, who requested the Pala king to grant a permanent endowment to a Buddhist monastery at Nalanda. Similarly, during the reign of Ramapala (1072–1126), the ruler of the Pagan Empire in Burma, Kyansittha (d. ca. 1112), sent a considerable quantity of jewels by ship to Magadha for the purpose of restoring the Buddhist shrines in Bodh Gaya. Hirananda Shastri, “The Nalanda Copper-Plate of Devapaladeva,” Epigraphia Indica 17 (1924): 311–17. Janice Stargardt, “Burma’s Economic and Diplomatic Relations with India and China from Early Medieval Sources,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 14, no.1 (April 1971): 57. [BACK]
38. On the Arab trade diaspora, traceable in the Indian Ocean to the first century A.D. and especially evident by the tenth century, see André Wink, Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World, vol. 1: Early Medieval India and the Expansion of Islam, 7th-11th Centuries (Leiden: Brill, 1990), 65–86. [BACK]
39. Notes by Chinese pilgrims in Bengal attest to the drop in the number of Buddhist monasteries there, and also to the emergence of Brahmanic temples. Writing in the early fifth century, Fa-hsien counted twenty-two monasteries in Tamralipti. Two centuries later, Hsüan-tsang counted just ten monasteries there, compared with fifty Brahmanic temples. By 685, the number of monasteries in Tamralipti had dropped to just five or six, as recorded by the pilgrim I-Ching. A similar pattern held in North Bengal (Varendra), where Hsüan-tsang counted twenty monasteries and a hundred Brahmanic temples, and in southeast Bengal (Samatata), where he counted thirty monasteries and a hundred temples. The decline in court patronage of monasteries might not have been so serious, however, had there been a fervent and supportive Bengali Buddhist laity. But what is conspicuously absent in the history of East Indian Buddhism as recorded by Taranatha, a Tibetan monk who wrote in 1608, is any evidence of popular enthusiasm for the religion. Rather, the author seems to have identified the fate of Buddhism with that of its great monasteries. The withdrawal of court patronage for such institutions thus proved fatal for the religion generally. See Chinese Accounts of India: Translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang, trans. Samuel Beal (Calcutta: Susil Gupta, 1958), 4: 403, 407, 408; A Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago (A.D. 671–695) by I-Ching, trans. J. Takakasu (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1966), xxxiii; and Taranatha’s History of Buddhism in India, ed. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya (Calcutta: K. P. Bagchi & Co., 1980), xiii-xiv. [BACK]
40. Huntington, “Pala-Sena” Schools, 179, 201. Most of the art patronized by Pala kings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was Brahmanic in subject matter, with Vaishnava themes outnumbering the rest three to one. Ibid., 155. [BACK]
41. H. C. Ray, The Dynastic History of Northern India (Early Medieval Period), 2d ed. (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1973), 1: 354–58. [BACK]
42. Huntington, “Pala-Sena” Schools, 179, 201. [BACK]
43. Ronald Inden, “The Ceremony of the Great Gift (Mahādāna): Structure and Historical Context in Indian Ritual and Society,” in Marc Gaborieau and Alice Thorner, Asie du sud: Traditions et changements (Paris: Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1979), 131–36. [BACK]
44. Ibid., 133. [BACK]
45. Ibid., 134. See also Ronald Inden, “Hierarchies of Kings in Early Medieval India,” Contributions to Indian Sociology 15, nos. 1–2 (1981): esp. 121–25. [BACK]
46. Swapna Bhattacharya, Landschenkungen und staatliche Entwicklung im frühmittelalterlichten Bengalen (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1985), 165. [BACK]
47. Morrison, Political Centers, 108. [BACK]
48. See Nani Gopal Majumdar, Inscriptions of Bengal, vol. 3 (Rajshahi: Varendra Research Society, 1929), 52–53. [BACK]
49. Ibid., 54. [BACK]
50. Today, unfortunately, only a few architectural fragments remain of what must have been a magnificent edifice, situated at Deopara some seven miles northwest of Rajshahi town, on a road leading to Godagari. Ibid., 42, 54–55. [BACK]
51. Thus we read that Lakshmana Sena had made a donation of cultivated, tax-free lands “as fee for the ceremony of the Great Gift in which a golden horse and chariot were given away, on this auspicious day, after duly touching water and in the name of the illustrious god Narayana [Vishnu], for the merit and fame of my parents as well as myself, for as long as the moon, sun and the earth endure, according to the principle of Bhumichchhidra [tax-exempt status], to Iśvaradevaśarmman, who officiated as the Acharya [priest] in the ‘Great Gift of gold horse and chariot.” ’ Ibid., 104. [BACK]
52. Cited in Niyogi, Brahmanic Settlements, 41. [BACK]
53. Bhattacharya, Landschenkungen, 168. [BACK]
54. Morrison, Political Centers, 98. [BACK]
55. Ibid., 17, 99. Bhattacharya, Landschenkungen, 168. [BACK]
56. Morrison, Lalmai, 124. [BACK]
57. Spate and Learmonth, India and Pakistan, 575. [BACK]
58. Ibid., 63; Anil Rawat, “Life, Forests and Plant Sciences in Ancient India,” in History of Forestry in India, ed. Ajay S. Rawat (New Delhi: Indus Publishing Co., 1991), 246. [BACK]
59. Bhattacharya, Landschenkungen, 167–68. [BACK]
60. The Ganges cult is of great antiquity, and the associations of water with life, fertility, and the Goddess are traceable to the Indus Valley civilization. We know from the Arthaśāstra (4.3), composed between the fourth century B.C. and the third century A.D., that prayers were offered to the Ganges as a remedy for drought. By the sixth century, figures of the goddess Ganga figured prominently as guardians on temples of the Gupta dynasty (ca. 300–550 A.D.). Steven G. Darian, The Ganges in Myth and History (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1978), 88. [BACK]
61. S. C. Majumdar, Rivers of the Bengal Delta (Calcutta: University of Calcutta Press, 1942), 66. See also Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj, Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), 36–37, 81; Schwartzberg, ed., Historical Atlas, 34. [BACK]
62. Asher, Art of Eastern India, 99. Huntington, “Pala-Sena” Schools, 200. [BACK]
2. The Articulation of Political Authority
The world is a garden, whose gardener is the state.
We arrived before the Sultan. He was seated on a large gilt sofa covered with different-sized cushions, all of which were embedded with a smattering of precious stones and small pearls. We greeted him according to the custom of the country—hands crossed on our chests and heads as low as possible.
The geographic expansion of Muslim power in premodern Bengal is easy enough to reconstruct. In any given area of the delta, as in the premodern Muslim world generally, the erection of mosques, shrines, colleges, or other buildings, civil or military, usually presupposed control by a Muslim state. Epigraphic data testifying to the construction of such buildings thus form one kind of evidence for political expansion. The same is true of coinage. Since reigning kings jealously claimed the right to strike coins as a token of their sovereignty, the growth of mint towns also reflects the expanding territorial reach of Muslim states. These two kinds of sources, epigraphic and numismatic, thus permit a visual reconstruction of the growth of Muslim political authority in Bengal through time and space, as depicted in map 2.
It is more challenging, however, to reconstruct the changing meaning of that authority, both to the rulers and to the subject population. All political behavior derives its meaning through the prism of culture. Equally, invocations of political symbols most effectively confer authority on rulers when they and their subjects share a common political culture. But what happened in the cases of “conquest dynasties,” as in Bengal, where the conquering class was of a culture fundamentally different from that of the subject population? How did rulers in such circumstances remain in effective control without resorting to the indefinite and prohibitively costly use of coercive force? To raise these questions is to suggest that the political frontier in Bengal may be understood not only as a moving line of garrisons, mint towns, and architectural monuments. Also involved was the more subtle matter of accommodation, or the lack of it, between a ruling class and a subject population that, as of 1204, adhered to fundamentally different notions of legitimate political authority. The transformation of these concepts of legitimacy over time—their divergence from or convergence with one another—constitutes a political frontier far less tangible than a military picket line, but one ultimately more vital to understanding the dynamics of Bengal’s premodern history.
Perso-Islamic Conceptions of Political Authority, Eleventh-Thirteenth Centuries
By the time Muhammad Bakhtiyar conquered northwestern Bengal in 1204, Islamic political thought had already evolved a good deal from its earlier vision of a centralized, universal Arab caliphate. In that vision the caliph was the “successor” (Ar., khalīfa) to the Prophet Muhammad as the combined spiritual and administrative leader of the worldwide community of Muslims. In principle, too, the caliphal state, ruled from Baghdad since A.D. 750, was merely the political expression of the worldwide Islamic community. But by the tenth century that state had begun shrinking, not only in its territorial reach, but, more significantly, in its capacity to provide unified political-spiritual leadership. This was accompanied, between the ninth and eleventh centuries, by the movement of clans, tribes, and whole confederations of Turkish-speaking peoples from Inner Asia to the caliphate’s eastern provinces. Coming as military slave-soldiers recruited to shore up the flagging caliphal state, as migrating pastoral nomads, or as armed invaders, these Turks settled in Khurasan, the great area embracing today’s northeastern Iran, western Afghanistan, and Central Asia south of the Oxus River. As Baghdad’s central authority slackened, Turkish military might provided the military basis for new dynasties—some Iranian, some Turkish—that established themselves as de facto rulers in Khurasan.
Map 2a. 1204–1342: governors, Balbani rulers, Shams al-Din Firuz, and sucessors (1204–81; 1281–1300;1301–22; 1322–42)
Map 2b. 1342–1433: Ilyas Shahi and Reaja Ganesh dynasties (1342–1414; 1415–33)
Map 2c. 1433–1538: restored Ilyas Shahis, Abyssynian kings, and Hussain Shahis (1433–86; 1486–93; 1493–1538)
Map 2d. 1539–1760: Afghans and Mughals (1538–75; 1575–1760)
Important cultural changes coincided with these demographic and political developments. Khurasan was not only Inner Asia’s gateway to the Iranian Plateau and the Indian subcontinent. It was also the principal region where Iran’s rich civilization, largely submerged in the early centuries of Arab-Islamic rule, was being revitalized in ways that creatively synthesized Persian and Arab Islamic cultures. The product, Perso-Islamic civilization, was in turn lavishly patronized by the several dynasties that arose in this area—notably the Tahirids, the Saffarids, the Samanids, and the Ghaznavids—at a time when Baghdad’s authority in its eastern domains was progressively weakening. Although themselves ethnic Turks, the Ghaznavids (962–1186) promoted the revival of Persian language and culture by attracting to their regional courts the brightest “stars” on the Persian literary scene, such as Iran’s great epic poet Firdausi (d. 1020). Ghaznavid rulers used the Persian language for public purposes, adopted Persian court etiquette, and enthusiastically promoted the Persian aesthetic vision as projected in art, calligraphy, architecture, and handicrafts. They also accepted the fiction of having been “appointed” by the reigning Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. Indeed, as recent Muslim converts themselves, Turkish soldiers in Ghaznavid service became avid partisans, defenders, and promoters of Sunni Islam.
It was the Ghaznavids, too, who first carried Perso-Islamic civilization to India. Pressed from behind by the Seljuqs, a more powerful Turkish confederation, to whom in 1040 they lost any claim to Khurasan, Ghaznavid armies pushed ever eastward toward the subcontinent—first to eastern Afghanistan, and finally to Lahore in the Punjab. Toward the end of the twelfth century, however, the Ghaznavids were themselves overrun by another Turkish confederation, the chiefs of Ghur, located in the hills of central Afghanistan. In 1186 Muhammad Ghuri seized Lahore, extinguished Ghaznavid power there, and seven years later established Muslim rule in Delhi. A decade after that, Muhammad Bakhtiyar, operating in Ghurid service, swept down the lower Gangetic Plain and into Bengal.
The political ideas inherited by Muhammad Bakhtiyar and his Turkish followers had already crystallized in Khurasan during the several centuries preceding their entry into Bengal in 1204. This was a period when Iranian jurists struggled to reconcile the classical theory of the unitary caliphal state with the reality of upstart Turkish groups that had seized control over the eastern domains of the declining Abbasid empire. What emerged was a revised theory of kingship that, although preserving the principle that caliphal authority encompassed both spiritual and political affairs, justified a de facto separation of church and state. Whereas religious authority continued to reside with the caliph in Baghdad, political and administrative authority was invested in those who wielded the sword. Endeavoring to make the best of a bad situation, the greatest theologian of the time, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), concluded that any government was lawful so long as its ruler, or sulṭān, made formal acknowledgement of the caliph’s theoretical authority in his domain. A sultan could do this, Ghazali maintained, by including the reigning caliph’s name in public prayers (khuṭba) and on his minted coins (sikka). In short, a sultan’s authority rested, not on any sort of divine appointment or ethnic inheritance, but on his ability to maintain state security and public order.
In this way pre-Islamic Persian ideals of kingship—especially those focusing on society’s inherent need for a strong monarch and, reciprocally, on the monarch’s duty to rule with justice—were assimilated by the sultanates that sprang up within the caliphate’s eastern domains. One of the clearest statements of this political vision was given by Fakhr al-Din Razi (d. 1209) of Herat, a celebrated Iranian scholar and jurist who served several Khurasani princes, in particular those of the Ghurid dynasty of Turks. Inasmuch as Razi was at the height of his public career when his own patrons conquered North India (1193) and Bengal (1204) and had even been sent once on a mission to northwestern India himself (ca. 1184), it is probable that his political thought was familiar to the Ghurid conquerors of Bengal. Certainly, Razi and Muhammad Bakhtiyar inherited a shared tradition of political beliefs and symbols current in thirteenth-century Khurasan and the Perso-Islamic world generally. In his Jāmi‘ al-‘ulūm Razi formulated the following propositions:
Far from mere platitudes about how kings ought to behave, these propositions present a unified theory of a society’s moral, political, and economic basis—a worldview at once integrated, symmetrical, and closed. One notes in particular the omission of any reference to God; it is royal justice, not the Deity, that binds together the entire structure. Islamic Law, though included in the system, appears as little more than a prop to the sultanate. And the caliph, though implicit in the scheme, is not mentioned at all.
The world is a garden, whose gardener is the state [dawlat]; The state is the sultan whose guardian is the Law [sharī‘a]; The Law is a policy, which is protected by the kingdom [mulk]; The kingdom is a city, brought into being by the army [lashkar]; The army is made secure by wealth [māl]; Wealth is gathered from the subjects [ra‘īyat]; The subjects are made servants by justice [‘adl]; Justice is the axis of the prosperity of the world [‘ālam].
This ideology of monarchal absolutism was not, however, the only vision of worldly authority inherited by Muhammad Bakhtiyar and his Muslim contemporaries. By the thirteenth century there had also appeared in Perso-Islamic culture an enormous lore, written and oral, that focused on the spiritual and worldly authority of Sufis, or Muslim holy men. Their authority sometimes paralleled, and sometimes opposed, that of the courts of kings. For Turks, moreover, Sufi models of authority were especially vivid, since Central Asian Sufis had been instrumental in converting Turkish tribes to Islam shortly before their migrations from Central Asia into Khurasan, Afghanistan, and India. This model of authority is seen in the oldest Persian treatise on Sufism, the Kashf al-maḥjūb of ‘Ali Hujwiri (d. ca. 1072). Written in Lahore in Ghaznavid times and subsequently read widely in India, this treatise summarized Sufi doctrines and practices as understood in the eastern Muslim world in the eleventh century. It also served to shape the contours of Sufism as a complete system of Islamic piety, especially in the Indo-Muslim world. Writing on the place of Sufi saints in the Muslim universe, Hujwiri asserted that God “has made the Saints the governors of the universe; they have become entirely devoted to His business, and have ceased to follow their sensual affections. Through the blessing of their advent the rain falls from heaven, and through the purity of their lives the plants spring up from the earth, and through their spiritual influence the Moslems gain victories over the unbelievers.”
Such a vision, in which all things in God’s creation are dependent on a hierarchy of saints, would appear irreconcilable with the courtly vision of the independent sultan and his dependent “herd,” the people. And indeed there is a long history of conflict between these two visions of authority. Yet it is also true that the discourse of authority found in Sufi traditions often overlapped and even converged with that found in courtly traditions. For example, both Sufi and courtly literatures stressed the need to establish authority over a wilāyat, or a territorially defined region. The Arabic term walī, meaning “one who establishes a wilāyat,” meant in one tradition “governor” or “ruler” and in the other “saint” or “friend of God.” Again, in courtly discourse the Persian term shāh meant “king”; yet Sufis used it as the title of a powerful saint. In the same way, in royal discourse the dargāh referred to the court of a king, while for Sufis it referred to the shrine of a powerful saint. And as a symbol of legitimate authoritythe royal crown (tāj) used in the coronation ceremonies of kings closely paralleled the Sufi’s turban (dastār), used in rituals of succession to Sufi leadership.
These considerations would suggest that in the Perso-Islamic world of this period sultans did not exercise sole authority, or even ultimate authority. They certainly possessed effective power, reinforced by all the pomp and glitter inherited from their pre-Islamic Persian imperial legacy. Courtly sentiments like that expressed by Razi—“The world is a garden, whose gardener is the state”—indeed saw the world as a mere plaything of the state—that is, the sultan. Yet in a view running counter to this, both historical and Sufi works repeatedly hinted that temporal rulers had only been entrusted with a temporary lease of power through the grace (baraka) of this or that Muslim saint. For, it was suggested, since such saints possessed a special nearness to God, in reality it was they, and not princes or kings, who had the better claim as God’s representatives on earth. In the opinion of their followers, such powerful saints could even make or unmake kings and kingdoms. So, while sultans formally acknowledged the caliph as the font of their authority, many people, and sometimes sultans too, looked to spiritually powerful Sufis for the ultimate source of that authority. From a village perspective, after all, kings or caliphs were as politically abstract as they were geographically distant; and after the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258, caliphs all but ceased to exist even in name. Sufi saints, by contrast, were by definition luminous, vivid, and very much near at hand.
Thus, by the thirteenth century, when Bengal was conquered by Muslim Turks, sultans and Sufis had both inherited models of authority that, though embedded in a shared pool of symbols, made quite different assumptions about the world and the place that God, kings, and saints occupied in it. Moreover, both models differed radically from the ideas of political legitimacy current among the Hindu population formerly ruled by kings of the conquered Sena dynasty. For in Islamic cosmology, as communicated, for example, in Muslim Bengali coinage, the human and superhuman domains were sharply distinct, with both the sultanate and the caliphate occupying a political space beneath the ultimate authority of God, who alone occupied the superhuman world. Consequently the sultan’s proper role, in theory at least, was limited to merely implementing the shari‘a, Sacred Law. On the other hand, Sena ideology posited no such rigid barrier between human and superhuman domains; movement between the two was not only possible but achievable through a king’s ritual behavior. And far from being under an abstract Sacred Law, the Senas understood religion itself, or dharma, as dependent on the king’s ritual performances. Hence the Senas had not seen themselves as implementing divine order; they sought rather to replicate that order on earth, and even to summon down the gods to reside in royally sponsored temples.
How, then, did people subscribing to these contrasting political ideologies come to terms with one another once it was understood that Muhammad Bakhtiyar and his successors intended to remain in Bengal?
A Province of the Delhi Sultanate, 1204–1342
The only near-contemporary account of Muhammad Bakhtiyar’s 1204 capture of the Sena capital is that of the chronicler Minhaj al-Siraj, who visited Bengal forty years after the event and personally collected oral traditions concerning it. “After Muhammad Bakhtiyar possessed himself of that territory,” wrote Minhaj,
The passage clearly reveals the conquerors’ notion of the proper instruments of political legitimacy: reciting the Friday sermon, striking coins, and raising monuments for the informal intelligentsia of Sufis and the formal intelligentsia of scholars, or ‘ulamā.
he left the city of Nudiah in desolation, and the place which is (now) Lakhnauti he made the seat of government. He brought the different parts of the territory under his sway, and instituted therein, in every part, the reading of the khutbah, and the coining of money; and, through his praiseworthy endeavours, and those of his Amirs, masjids [mosques], colleges, and monasteries (for Dervishes), were founded in those parts.
Both their coins and their monuments reveal how the rulers viewed themselves and wished to be viewed by others. Both, moreover, were directed at several different audiences simultaneously. One of these consisted of the conquered Hindus of Bengal, who, having never heard a khuṭba, seen a Muslim coin, or set foot in a mosque, were initially in no position to accord legitimate authority either to these symbols or to their sponsors. But for a second audience—the Muslim world generally, and more immediately, the rulers of the Delhi sultanate, the parent kingdom from which Bengal’s new ruling class sprang—the khuṭba, the coins, and the building projects possessed great meaning. It is important to bear in mind these different audiences when “reading” the political propaganda of Bengal’s Muslim rulers.
Fig. 1. Gold coin of Muhammad Bakhtiar, struck in A.H. 601 (A.D. 1204–5) in Bengal in the name of Sultan Muhammad Ghuri. Obverse and reverse. Photo by Charles Rand, Smithsonian Institution.
Militarily, Muhammad Bakhtiyar’s conquest was a blitzkrieg; his cavalry of some ten thousand horsemen had utterly overwhelmed a local population unaccustomed to mounted warfare. After the conquest, Bakhtiyar and his successors continued to hold a constant and vivid symbol of their power—their heavy cavalry—before the defeated Bengalis. In the year 1204–5 (601 A.H.), Bakhtiyar himself struck a gold coin in the name of his overlord in Delhi, Sultan Muhammad Ghuri, with one side depicting a Turkish cavalryman charging at full gallop and holding a mace in hand (fig. 1). Beneath this bold emblem appeared the phrase Gauḍa vijaye, “On the conquest of Gaur” (i.e., Bengal), inscribed not in Arabic but in Sanskrit. On the death of the Delhi sultan six years later, the governor of Bengal, ‘Ali Mardan, declared his independence from North India and began issuing silver coins that also bore a horseman image (fig. 2). And when Delhi reestablished its sway over Bengal, coins minted there in the name of Sultan Iltutmish (1210–35) continued to bear the image of the horseman (fig. 3). For neither Muhammad Bakhtiyar, ‘Ali Mardan, nor Sultan Iltutmish was there any question of seeking legitimacy within the framework of Bengali Hindu culture or of establishing any sense of continuity with the defeated Sena kingdom. Instead, the new rulers aimed at communicating a message of brute force. As Peter Hardy aptly puts it, referring to the imposition of early Indo-Turkish rule generally, “Muslim rulers were there in northern India as rulers because they were there—and they were there because they had won.”
Fig. 2. Silver coin of ‘Ali Mardan (ca. 1208–13), commemorating the conquest of Bengal in A.H. Ramazan 600 (A.D. May 1204). Obverse only.
Fig. 3. Silver coin of Sultan Iltumish (1210–35), struck in Bengal. Obverse only.
Such reliance on naked power, or at least on its image, is also seen in the earliest surviving Muslim Bengali monuments. Notable in this respect is the tower (mīnār) of Chhota Pandua, in southwestern Bengal near Calcutta (fig. 4). Built toward the end of the thirteenth century, when Turkish power was still being consolidated in that part of the delta, the tower of Chhota Pandua doubtless served the usual ritual purpose of calling the faithful to prayer, inasmuch as it is situated near a mosque. But its height and form suggest that it also served the political purpose of announcing victory over a conquered people. Precedents for such a monument, moreover, already existed in the Turkish architectural tradition. Bengal’s earliest surviving mosques also convey the spirit of an alien ruling class simply transplanted to the delta from elsewhere. Constructed (or restored) in 1298 in Tribeni, a formerly important center of Hindu civilization in southwest Bengal, the mosque of Zafar Khan (fig. 5) appears to replicate the aesthetic vision of early Indo-Turkish architecture as represented, for example, in the Begumpur mosque in Delhi (ca. 1343). Clues to the circumstances surrounding the construction (or restoration) of the mosque are found in its dedicatory inscription:
Zafar Khan’s claims to have destroyed “the obdurate among infidels” gains some credence from the mosque’s inscription tablet, itself carved from materials of old ruined Hindu temples, while the mutilated figures of Hindu deities are found in the stone used in the monument proper. Near Zafar Khan’s mosque stands another structure, built in 1313, which is said to be his tomb; its doorways were similarly reused from an earlier pre-Islamic monument, and embedded randomly on its exterior base are sculpted panels bearing Vaishnava subject matter.
Zafar Khan, the lion of lions, has appeared By conquering the towns of India in every expedition, and by restoring the decayed charitable institutions. And he has destroyed the obdurate among infidels with his sword and spear, and lavished the treasures of his wealth in (helping) the miserable.
Fig. 4. Minar of Chhota Pandua (late thirteenth century).
Fig. 5. Mosque of Zafar Khan Ghazi, Tribeni (1298).
How was the articulation of these political symbols received by the several “audiences” to whom they were directed? As late as thirty years after the conquest, pockets of Sena authority continued to survive in the forests beyond the reach of Turkish garrisons. Whenever Turkish forces were out of sight, petty chieftains with miniature, mobile courts would appear before the people in their full sovereign garb—riding elephants in ivory-adorned canopies, wearing bejeweled turbans of white silk, and surrounded by armed retainers—in an apparent effort to continue receiving tribute and administering justice as they had done before. In 1236 a Tibetan Buddhist pilgrim recorded being accosted by two Turkish soldiers on a ferryboat while crossing the Ganges in Bihar. When the soldiers demanded gold of him, the pilgrim audaciously replied that he would report them to the local raja, a threat that so provoked the Turks’ wrath as nearly to cost him his life. Clearly, after three decades of alien rule, people continued to view the Hindu raja as the legitimate dispenser of justice.
If Muslim coins and the architecture of this period projected to the subject Bengali population an image of unbridled power, they projected very different messages to the parent Delhi sultanate, and beyond that, the larger Muslim world. Throughout the thirteenth century, governors of Bengal tried whenever possible to assert their independence from the parent dynasty in Delhi, and each such attempt was accompanied by bold attempts to situate themselves within the larger political cosmology of Islam. For example, when the self-declared sultan Ghiyath al-Din ‘Iwaz asserted his independence from Delhi in 1213, he attempted to legitimize his position by going over the head of the Delhi sultan and proclaiming himself the right-hand defender (nāṣir) of the supreme Islamic authority on earth, the caliph in Baghdad. This marked the first time any ruler in India had asserted a direct claim to association with the wellspring of Islamic legitimacy, and it prompted Iltutmish, the Delhi sultan, not only to invade and reannex Bengal but to upstage the Bengal ruler in the matter of caliphal support. After his armies defeated Ghiyath al-Din in 1227, Iltutmish arranged to receive robes of honor from Caliph al-Nasir in Baghdad, one of which he sent to Bengal with a red canopy of state. There it was formally bestowed upon Iltutmish’s own son, who was still in Lakhnauti, having just had the erstwhile independent king of Bengal beheaded. By having the investiture ceremony enacted in the capital city of the defeated sultan of Bengal, Iltutmish vividly dramatized his own prior claims to caliphal legitimacy. For the time being, the delta was politically reunitedwith North India, and for the next thirty years Delhi appointed to Bengal governors who styled themselves merely “king of the kings of the East” (mālik-i mulūk al-sharq).
But Delhi was distant, and throughout the thirteenth century the temptation to throw off this allegiance proved irresistible, especially as the imperial rulers were chronically preoccupied with repelling Mongol threats from the Iranian Plateau. So governors rebelled, and each brief assertion of independence was followed by their adoption of ever more exalted titles on their coins and public monuments. In 1281 Sultan Ghiyath al-Din Balban, the powerful sovereign of Delhi, ruthlessly stamped out one revolt by hunting down his rebel governor and publicly executing him. Yet within a week of Balban’s death in 1287, his own son, Bughra Khan, whom the father had left behind as his new governor, declared his independence. Bughra’s son, who ascended the Bengal throne as Rukn al-Din Kaikaus (1291–1300), then boldly styled himself on one mosque “the great Sultan, master of the necks of nations, the king of the kings of Turks and Persians, the lord of the crown, and the seal,” as well as “the right hand of the viceregent of God”—that is, “helper of the caliph.” On another mosque he even styled himself the “shadow of God” (z̄ill Allah), an exalted title derived from ancient Persian imperial usage.
Exasperated with the wayward province, Delhi for several decades ceased mounting the massive military offensives necessary to keep it within its grip. In fact, the actions of Sultan Jalal al-Din Khalaji (r. 1290–96) betray something more than mere indifference toward the delta. A contemporary historian recorded that on one occasion the sultan rounded up about a thousand criminals (“thugs”) and “gave orders for them to be put into boats and to be conveyed into the Lower country to the neighbourhood of Lakhnauti, where they were to be set free. The thags would thus have to dwell about Lakhnauti, and would not trouble the neighbourhood (of Dehli) any more.” Within a century of its conquest, then, Bengal had passed from being the crown jewel of the empire, whose conquest had occasioned the minting of gold commemorative coins, to a dumping ground for Delhi’s social undesirables. Already we discern here the seeds of a North Indian chauvinism toward the delta that would become more manifest in the aftermath of the Mughal conquest in the late sixteenth century.
The Early Bengal Sultanate, 1342–ca. 1400
In 1258 Mongol armies under the command of Hülegü Khan sacked Baghdad and executed the reigning caliph, al-Musta‘sim, thereby formally extinguishing the ultimate font of Islamic political legitimacy. Nonetheless, for a half century after this disaster, coins struck in India continued to invoke the phrase “in the time of the caliph, al-Musta‘sim,” suggesting the inability of Indo-Muslim rulers to conceive of any legitimizing authority other than that stemming from the titular Abbasid caliph. But finally, in 1320, Qutb al-Din Mubarak, the Delhi sultan, broke from tradition and boldly declared himself to be the caliph of Islam. Although the title did not stick, and was in fact harshly received, the principle was now established that Islam could have multiple caliphs, and that they could reside even outside the Arab world. This revolution in Islamic political thinking occurred just about the time when Bengal again asserted its independence from the Delhi sultanate. In 1342 a powerful noble, Shams al-Din Ilyas Shah (1342–57), wrested Bengal free from Delhi’s grip and established the first of several dynasties that remained independent from North India for the next two and a half centuries. The break with Delhi was marked by a shift of the Ilyas Shahi capital from Lakhnauti, the provincial capital throughout the age of Delhi’s hegemony, to the new site of Pandua, located some twenty miles to the north.
Initially, Delhi did not allow Bengal’s assertions of independence to go unchallenged. In 1353 Sultan Firuz Tughluq took an enormous army down the Ganges to punish the breakaway kingdom. Although Firuz slew up to 180,000 Bengalis and even temporarily dislodged Shams al-Din Ilyas Shah from his capital at Pandua, he failed to reannex the delta. Six years later, Firuz made another attempt to restore the delta to Delhi’s authority, but he was again rebuffed, this time by Shams al-Din’s son and successor, Sikandar Shah (r. 1357–89). These inconclusive invasions of Bengal, and the successful tactics of the two Bengali kings to elude the North Indian imperialists by fading into the interior, finally persuaded Firuz and his successors of the futility of trying to hold onto the distant province. After 1359 Bengal was left undisturbed by North Indian armies for nearly two centuries.
In reality, the emergence of the independent Ilyas Shahi dynasty represented the political expression of a long-present cultural autonomy. In the late thirteenth century, Marco Polo made mention of “Bangala,” a place he had apparently heard of from his Muslim informants, and which he understood as being a region distinct from India, for he described it as “tolerably close to India” and its people as “wretched Idolaters” who spoke “a peculiar language.” Our first indigenous reference to “Bengal” appears in the mid fourteenth century, when the historian Shams-i Siraj ‘Afif referred to Shams al-Din Ilyas Shah (1342–57) as the “sultan of the Bengalis” and the “king of Bengal.” The coins of this ruler, and the architecture of his son and successor, clearly reflect the new mood of independence. Shams al-Din’s coins are inscribed:
Here the sultan not only proclaims an association with the caliphate but lays claim to imperial glory, calling himself “the second Alexander.” Though perhaps not measuring up to the accomplishments of Alexander the Great, Shams al-Din certainly did a creditable job of “world-conquering” in the politically dense theater of fourteenth-century India: in addition to resisting repeated invasions from Delhi, he defeated a host of neighboring Hindu rajas, namely those of Champaran, Tirhut, Kathmandu, Jajnagar, and Kamrup (corresponding to modern Bihar, Nepal,Orissa, and Assam).
[Obverse]:The just sultan, Shams al-dunya va al-din, Abu’l Muzaffar, Ilyas Shah, the Sultan. [Reverse:] The second Alexander, the right hand of the caliphate, the defender (or helper) of the Commander of the Faithful.
The most spectacular evidence of the dynasty’s imperial pretensions is seen in a single monument built by the founder’s son and successor, Sultan Sikandar (r. 1357–89). This is the famous Adina mosque, completed in 1375 in the Ilyas Shahi capital of Pandua (figs. 6 and 7). Although its builders reused a good deal of carved stone from pre-conquest monuments, the mosque does not appear to have been intended to convey a message of political subjugation to the region’s non-Muslims, who in any event would not have used the structure. In fact, stylistic motifs in the mosque’s prayer niches reveal the builders’ successful adaptation, and even appreciation, of late Pala-Sena art. The imposing monument is also likely to have been a statement directed at Sikandar’s more distant Muslim audience, his former overlords in Delhi, now bitter rivals. Having successfully defended his kingdom from Sultan Firuz’s armies, Sikandar projected his claims of power and independence by erecting a monument greater in size than any edifice built by his North Indian rivals. Measuring 565 by 317 feet externally, and with an immense courtyard (445 by 168 feet) surrounded by a screen of arches and 370 domed bays, the Adina mosque easily surpassed Delhi’s Begumpur mosque, the principal mosque of Firuz Tughluq (1351–88), in size. In fact, the Adina remains the largest mosque ever built in the Indian subcontinent.
Fig. 6. Interior of Adina Mosque, Pandua (1375). Interior facing western wall, showing collapsed barrel vault. Photo by Catherine Asher.
Fig. 7. Exterior of Adina Mosque, Pandua (1375). Exterior of western wall, showing fac^lade of barrel vault.
Fig. 8. Taq-i Kisra, Ctesiphon (near Baghdad, third century A.D.). Façade in the late nineteenth century. From Arthur Upham Pope, A Survey of Persian Art (Ashiya, Japan: Jay Glück, 1964), vol. 7, pl. 149. Reprinted by permission of Jay Glück.
Its style, moreover, signals a sharp break from the Delhi-based architectural tradition. The western, or Mecca-facing, side of the mosque projects a distinctly imperial mood, reminiscent of the grand style of pre-Islamic Iran. This wall is a huge multistoried screen, whose exterior surfaces utilize alternating recesses and projections, both horizontally and vertically, to produce a shadowing effect. Whereas such a wall has no clear antecedent in Indo-Islamic architecture, it does recall the external façade of the famous Taq-i Kisra palace of Ctesiphon (third century A.D.), the most imposing architectural expression of Persian imperialism in Sasanian times (A.D. 225–641) (fig. 8). Even more revealing in this respect is the design of the mosque’s central nave. Whereas the sanctuary of the Tughluqs’ Begumpur mosque in Delhi was covered with a dome—a feature carried over, together with the four-iwan scheme, from Seljuq Iran (1037–1157) to India in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—that of the Adina mosque is covered with a barrel vault. Never before used on a monumental scale anywhere in India, this architectural device divided the whole structure into two halves, as did the great barrel vault of the Taq-i Kisra. The mosque thus departed decisively from Delhi’s architectural tradition, while drawing on the much earlier tradition of Sasanian Iran. We know that generations of Iranian architects and rulers had considered the Sasanian Taq-i Kisra palace to be the acme of visual grandiosity and splendor, and a model to be consciously imitated. Thus Sikandar was at least an heir, if not a conscious imitator, of this tradition.
Fig. 9. Royal balcony of Adina Mosque, Pandua (1375). Royal balcony, interior.
The interior of the Adina mosque also projects an aura of imperial majesty. To the immediate north of the central sanctuary is a raised platform, the so-called “king’s throne” (bādshāh kā takht), which enabled the sultan and his entourage to pray at a height elevated above the common people (fig. 9). And, while the latter entered the mosque from a gate in the mosque’s southeast corner, the “king’s throne” could be reached only through a private entranceway that passed through the western wall. This entire doorway was evidently stripped from some pre-Muslim structure, as can be seen by the defaced Buddhist or Hindu image in its lintel (fig. 10). As if the mosque’s imperial architecture did not speak for itself, Sultan Sikandar ordered the following words inscribed on its western facade:
One word of praise for God, mentioned in passing, and the rest for the sultan!
In the reign of the exalted Sultan, the wisest, the most just, the most liberal and most perfect of the Sultans of Arabia and Persia, who trust in the assistance of the Merciful Allah, Abul Mujahid Sikandar Shah the Sultan, son of Ilyas Shah, the Sultan. May his reign be perpetuated till the Day of Promise (Resurrection).
Both the coinage and the architecture of the early Ilyas Shahi kings, then, indicate a strategy of political legitimization fundamentally different from that of their predecessors. Whereas the governors of thirteenth-century Bengal had merely transplanted Delhi’s architectural tradition to the delta, the sultans, having wrested their autonomy from Delhi, asserted their claims of legitimacy by placing state ideology alternately on pan-Islamic and imperial bases. If Sultan Sikandar’s architecture and Sultan Shams al-Din’s coinage reflect an imperial strategy of legitimation, we see the pan-Islamic approach in the latter’s claimed association with the caliph, and in the lavish patronage of the holiest shrines of Islam by Sikandar’s son and successor, Sultan Ghiyath al-Din A‘zam Shah (r. 1389–1410), who sponsored the construction of Islamic colleges (madrasas) in both Mecca and Medina.
Fig. 10. Adina Mosque, Pandua (1375). Lintel over royal doorway of Adina Mosque, Pandua (1375)
Moreover, although the Bengal sultans continued to inscribe most of their monuments and coins in Arabic, from the mid fourteenth century on, they began articulating their claims to political authority in Perso-Islamic terms. They employed Persianized royal paraphernalia, adopted an elaborate court ceremony modeled on the Sasanian imperial tradition, employed a hierarchical bureaucracy, and promoted Islam as a state-sponsored religion, a point vividly and continuously revealed on state coinage. Foreign dignitaries who visited Pandua at its height in the early fifteenth century remarked on a court ceremony that we can recognize as distinctly Persian. “The dwelling of the King,” wrote a Ming Chinese ambassador in 1415,
Clearly dazzled by the ceremony of Pandua’s royal court, the ambassador continued: “Two men bearing silver staffs and with turbaned heads came to usher (us) in. When (we) had taken five steps forward (we) made salutation. On reaching the middle (of the hall) they halted and two other men with gold staffs led us forward with some ceremony as previously. The King having returned our salutations, kotowed before the Imperial Mandate, raised it to his head, then opened and read it. The imperial gifts were all spread out on carpets in the audience hall.” The ambassador was then treated to a sumptuous banquet, after which the sultan “bestowed on the envoys gold basins, gold girdles, gold flagons, and gold bowls.” The peacock feathers, the umbrellas, the files of foot soldiers, the throne inlaid with precious stones, the lavish use of gold—all of these point unmistakably to the kind of paraphernalia typically associated with Perso-Islamic and even Sasanian royalty. Only the presence of elephants recalls the ceremony of traditional Indian courts.
is all of bricks set in mortar, the flight of steps leading up to it is high and broad. The halls are flat-roofed and white-washed inside. The inner doors are of triple thickness and of nine panels. In the audience hall all the pillars are plated with brass ornamented with figures of flowers and animals, carved and polished. To the right and left are long verandahs on which were drawn up (on the occasion of our audience) over a thousand men in shining armour, and on horseback outside, filling the courtyard, were long ranks of (our) Chinese (soldiers) in shining helmets and coats of mail, with spears, swords, bows and arrows, looking martial and lusty. To the right and the left of the King were hundreds of peacock feather umbrellas and before the hall were some hundreds of soldiers mounted on elephants. The king sat cross-legged in the principal hall on a high throne inlaid with precious stones and a two-edged sword lay across his lap.
Whether appealing to mainly Islamic symbols of authority, as was typically the case from 1213 to 1342, or to imperial Persian symbols of authority, as was typically the case from 1342 on, the Muslim ruling class sought the basis of its political legitimacy in symbols originating outside the area over which they ruled. No more were Bengal’s rulers, like the early governors, content with declaring themselves merely first among “kings of the East.” On the Adina mosque, Sultan Sikandar proclaimed that he was the most perfect among kings of Arabia and Persia, not even mentioning those of the Indian subcontinent, where he was actually ruling. In the same spirit his son and successor, Sultan Ghiyath al-Din A‘zam Shah, tried without success to persuade Hafiz, the great poet of Shiraz, to come and adorn his court at Pandua. The political and cultural referents of these kings lay, not in Delhi or Central Asia, but much further to the west—in Mecca, Medina, Shiraz, and ancient Ctesiphon.
The Rise of Raja Ganesh (ca. 1400–1421)
Protracted over many decades, this campaign of self-legitimization by references external to Bengal was bound to have its effect on that other audience to which the Muslim regime addressed itself—the Bengali population, and especially the Hindu landholding elites whose cooperation was essential for the kingdom’s administration. Tensions between the Indo-Turkish ruling class and Hindu Bengali society surfaced toward the end of the fourteenth century when Sufis of the Chishti and Firdausi orders, who vehemently championed a reformed and purified Islam, insisted that the state’s foreign and Islamic identity not be diluted by admitting Bengalis into the ruling class. In 1397 Maulana Muzaffar Shams Balkhi (d. 1400), a Sufi of the Firdausi order, complained in a letter to Sultan Ghiyath al-Din A‘zam Shah:
But such things did happen; indeed, they had to. Bengali nobles constituted a proud and experienced class of administrators who knew the land, the people, and the way local government had traditionally been managed. Even if the Indo-Turkish ruling class had wanted to recruit foreign administrators from Upper India or the Middle East, Bengal’s physical isolation from those areas, together with its political isolation from North India, dictated that powerful Hindu Bengali nobles be maintained in positions of local authority. Muzaffar Shams’s protest is itself evidence that such had been the policy.
The vanquished unbelievers with heads hanging down, exercise their power and authority to administer the lands which belong to them. But they have also been appointed (executive) officers over the Muslims in the lands of Islam, and they impose their orders on them. Such things should not happen.
In short, though the sultanate aligned itself ideologically with the Middle East, it was rooted politically in Bengal. This fundamental contradiction shaped the most severe domestic crisis the sultanate faced, an upheaval focusing on the rise of a remarkable noble named Raja Ganesh. Described in a contemporary letter as “a landholder of four hundred years’ standing”chahār ṣad sāla zamīndār), this noble was evidently descended from a ruling family prominent since Pala and Sena times. By the opening of the fifteenth century, Raja Ganesh seems to have wielded effective control over the rich lands running along the Ganges between modern Rajshahi and Pabna. He definitely belonged to that class of men to whom Muzaffar Shams referred when he wrote in 1397 of “vanquished unbelievers” exercising political authority over the Muslims of Bengal.
After Ghiyath al-Din’s death in 1410, tensions between Turks and Bengalis considerably intensified, and during the second decade of the fifteenth century, the crisis passed quite beyond the government’s control. According to the historian Muhammad Qasim Firishta (d. 1623), Raja Ganesh “attained to great power and predominance” during the reign of Sultan Shihab al-Din (1411–14), at which time the Bengali noble became the “master of the treasury and the kingdom.” When the sultan died, he wrote, Ganesh, “raising aloft the banner of kingship, seized the throne and ruled for three years and several months.” But the historian Nizam al-Din Ahmad (d. 1594) makes no mention of Raja Ganesh having actually usurped the throne, recording only that when Sultan Shihab al-Din Bayazid Shah died, “a zamīndār [landholder] of the name of Kans [Ganesh] acquired power and dominion over the country of Bangala,” and that his “period of power [muddat-i istīlā’] lasted seven years.” The only contemporary references to this episode are by Arab chroniclers, who evidently derived their information from pilgrims or other travelers who had journeyed from Bengal to Arabia. Affirming that the throne had passed from Ghiyath al-Din A‘zam Shah to his son Saif al-Din (1410–11), the chroniclers relate that the latter’s slave rebelled against Raja Ganesh, captured him, and seized control of the kingdom. But then, the chroniclers stated, the son of Raja Ganesh revolted against the usurper, converted to Islam under the adopted name Muhammad Jalal al-Din, and then himself mounted the throne as sultan of Bengal.
A continuous run of coins minted by Muslim rulers in Bengal indicates that during the height of the turmoil, from 1410 to 1417, Muslim kings continued to hold de jure authority in the delta. This being the case, Nizam al-Din’s statement that Raja Ganesh had acquired dominion in the kingdom suggests that the Bengali noble at this time ruled but did not reign, preferring to govern Bengal through a succession of Muslim puppets. Yet Ganesh evidently exerted overwhelming influence over these puppet sultans, for the contemporary Arab chroniclers, and later Firishta too, mistook his de facto rule for de jure sovereignty. In 1415, he took the even bolder step of getting his own son—according to a later source, a lad only twelve years old, named Jadu—installed on the throne of Bengal. Now Raja Ganesh, backed by other Bengali nobles, ruled as regent for his own son.
Despite Raja Ganesh’s audacious maneuverings, however, the old guard of Turkish nobles prevented him and his supporters from upsetting the symbolic structure upon which the kingdom’s political ideology had rested for over two centuries. For Ganesh’s son Jadu did not reign as a Hindu raja; nor was he installed with any of the appropriate symbols of Hindu kingship. Rather, in what appears to have been a compromise formula worked out between political brokers for the Bengali and Turkish factions, he converted to Islam, was renamed Sultan Jalal al-Din Muhammad, and was then allowed to reign as a Muslim king. Immediately upon his accession to power in 1415, the new sultan minted coins in his Islamic name. That these coins were issued simultaneously from Pandua and the provincial cities of Chittagong, Sonargaon, and Satgaon suggests a calculated attempt by Raja Ganesh to ensure the acceptance of his son’s accession to power as legitimate over all of Bengal.
If the Muslim nobility, succumbing to political reality, acquiesced and even participated in these new arrangements, the capital’s defenders of Islamic piety, the Sufis, reacted with shock and outrage. “How exalted is God!” exclaimed the most eminent of these, Shaikh Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam:
Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam even wrote a letter to Ibrahim Sharqi, the sultan of neighboring Jaunpur, imploring him to invade the delta and rid Bengal of the usurping Raja Ganesh. “Why are you sitting calm and happy on your throne,” demanded the Sufi, “when the abode of faith of Islam has been reduced to such a condition! Arise and come to the aid of religion, for it is obligatory for you who are possessed of resources.” Chronicling the years 1415–20, a Chinese source mentions that a kingdom to the west of Bengal had indeed invaded the delta, but desisted when placated with gold and money. Although Central Asian and Arakanese traditions record somewhat different outcomes of Sultan Ibrahim’s invasion, it is nonetheless clear that the sultan of Jaunpur failed to “liberate” the delta for “Islam” as Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam had hoped.
How exalted is God! He has bestowed, without apparent reasons, the robe of faith on the lad of an infidel and installed him on the throne of the kingdom over his friends. Infidelity has gained predominance and the kingdom of Islam has been spoiled.
Who knows what Divine wisdom ordains
And what is fated for what individual existence?...
Alas, woe to me, the sun of Islam has become obscured and the moon of religion has become eclipsed.
With the capital preoccupied with both internal turmoil and foreign invasion, remnants of various pre-Muslim ruling houses seized the moment to assert their independence from Turkish rule and to reconquer a vast stretch of the eastern and southern delta. For the single year A.H. 820, corresponding to A.D. February 1417-February 1418, no sultanate coins are known to have been issued anywhere in Bengal. On the other hand two successive Hindu kings, Danuja Marddana Deva and his son Mahendra Deva, minted coins during precisely that period from Chittagong, Sonargaon, and “Pāndunagara,” an apparent reference to Chhota Pandua in southwestern Bengal. These kings appear to have been descendants of the Deva dynasty of kings of Chandradwip, a kingdom centered in what is now the Barisal area of southeastern Bengal, which had controlled a large area between Sonargaon and Chittagong in the thirteenth century. But Danuja Marddana’s and Mahendra’s bid to restore the kingdom met with only brief success. In 1418 Sultan Jalal al-Din began issuing coins from what is now Faridpur, indicating that the forces of Raja Ganesh had managed to establish the sultanate’s authority in the heart of the southeastern delta. Similar coins issued from Sonargaon and Satgaon in that same year, and from Chittagong in 1420, point to the dramatic reassertion of the sultanate’s authority throughout the delta.
Although the revolt was snuffed out within a year or so, the coinage issued by its leaders tells us much of its ideological basis and of the religious sentiments then prevailing in the Bengal hinterland. On the obverse side of their coins, the Deva kings inscribed the Sanskrit phrase “Śrī Caṇḍī Caraṇa Parāyaṇa,” or “devoted to the feet of Goddess Chandi.” The phrase corroborates the evidence of writings produced somewhat later that celebrate Chandi as a prominent folk deity and depict her as the protectress of Bengali kingship. Yet, while reflecting a distinct memory of Hindu kingship, these same coins indicate the extent to which Islamic conceptions of political authority had by this time diffused throughout the delta. The inscriptions of the Deva coins are enclosed within various designs—single squares, double squares, plain circles, scalloped circles, triangular rayed circles, squares within circles, or hexagons—all of which had been firmly established in the numismatic tradition of Bengal’s Indo-Turkish rulers. This suggests that, even while proclaiming the restoration of Hindu Bengali rule, leaders of the independence movement had to employ Indo-Turkish numismatic formulae to appear legitimate to the general population.
The Raja Ganesh period was a turning point in Bengali history. First, it proved that despite the objections of influential members of the Muslim elite, Bengali Hindus would henceforth be formally integrated into the sultanate’s ruling structure. In fact, the political integration of non-Muslims had begun long before the rise of Raja Ganesh, whose own behavior suggests their loyalty to the idea of the sultanate. Immediately upon dealing with the invasion by Sultan Ibrahim of Jaunpur, Ganesh turned his attention to quashing the Deva movements in southern and eastern Bengal, demonstrating his refusal to support explicitly Hindu restorations anywhere in the delta. Only by merging his interests with those of the kingdom as a whole, and by tempering his own power with a policy of conciliation with the powerful Indo-Turkish classes of the capital, did Raja Ganesh retain political influence. Second, the Ganesh episode made telling points respecting the waning power of Hindu political symbolism in the delta. In the capital city, Raja Ganesh did not and could not raise his son to the throne as a Hindu; the future Sultan Jalal al-Din could reign only as a Muslim. As a Sufi source later put it, “In order to be sultan, he became Muslim” (“Az ḥasb-i sulṭān Musalmān gasht”). In the country’s interior, on the other hand, a rebellion raised in the name of Chandi had demonstrated the continued popular association of that goddess with royalty. Yet even here the trappings of Islamic political legitimacy, though not yet its substance, had sunk deep roots, as the coins proclaiming the protection of the goddess were modeled after those of the Bengal sultans. At both royal and popular levels, Bengalis were gradually accommodating themselves to Muslim rule.
Sultan Jalal al-Din Muhammad (1415–32) and His Political Ideology
Surrounded by rebellious Hindus in the interior and by alarmed members of the Muslim elite in the capital, how did the boy-king and Muslim convert Sultan Jalal al-Din assert his own claims to the throne? First, he reversed the policy of his Hindu father respecting the highly influential circle of Chishti Sufis in the capital. Sufi sources, naturally partial to the cause of the shaikhs, depict Raja Ganesh as having systematically persecuted the Sufis of Pandua, even arranging for the murder of one of their next of kin. But Sultan Jalal al-Din broke with this policy by submitting himself to the personal guidance of Pandua’s leading Chishti, Shaikh Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam. Given the young king’s tender age at the time of his accession, it is likely that he had been entrusted to the religious care of the venerable Chishti saint as part of a compromise that Raja Ganesh and influential Indo-Turkish nobles worked out as their price for accepting Ganesh’s son as king. In any event, prominent members of the Chishti order clearly emerged as the principal legitimizers of Islamic authority in Bengal, a role they would continue to play for the remainder of the independent sultanate period, and through the Mughal period as well.
Second, the new monarch sought to legitimize his rule by publicly displaying his credentials as a devout and correct Muslim. Contemporary Arab sources hold that upon his conversion to Islam, Jalal al-Din adopted the Hanafi legal tradition and rebuilt the mosques demolished by his father. Between 1428 and 1431 he also supported the construction of a religious college in Mecca and established close ties with Sultan Ashraf Barsbay, the Mamluk ruler of Egypt. Having plied the latter with gifts, Jalal al-Din requested in return a letter of recognition from the Egyptian sultan, he being the most prestigious Muslim ruler in the Islamic heartlands and the custodian of a remnant line of the Abbasid caliphs. The Mamluk sultan complied with the request, sending the Bengal sultan a robe of honor as well as the letter of recognition. Jalal al-Din also reintroduced on his coins the Muslim confession of faith, which had disappeared from Bengal’s coins for several centuries, since the time of Ghiyath al-Din ‘Iwaz (r. 1213–27). In fact, he went a good deal further. Perhaps because he could not inscribe on his monuments and coins the usual self-legitimizing formula, “sultan, son of the sultan,” in 1427 the king, now a mature man with twelve years’ ruling experience, had himself described in one inscription as “the most exalted of the great sultans, the caliph of Allah in the universe.” Having tested the reception of his bold statement on a single mosque, he took the bolder step three years later of including “the caliph of Allah” as one of his titles on his coins. For a convert to the religion to claim for himself the loftiest title in the Sunni Muslim world—second only to the Prophet himself—was indeed a monumental leap.
Even while strenuously asserting his credentials as a correct Muslim, Jalal al-Din inaugurated a two-century age when the ruling house sought to ground itself in local culture. Reflected in coinage, in patterns of court patronage, in language, in literature, and in architecture, this was by far the most important legacy of Sultan Jalal al-Din’s seventeen-year reign. Several undated issues of his silver coins and a huge commemorative silver coin struck in Pandua in 1421 not only lack the Muslim confession of faith but bear the stylized figure of a lion (fig. 11). The numismatist G. S. Farid has explained this unusual motif by arguing that the latter coin—which at 105 grams in weight and 6.7 centimeters in width is perhaps the largest and heaviest coin ever struck in India—was minted for presentation to the emperor of China by Chinese ambassadors and soldiers residing at the Bengal court during the early fifteenth century. Chinese chronicles do indeed record that the Bengal sultans presented silver coins to members of their Bengal mission. But this hypothesis would not explain why the same lion motif is found on the ordinary silver coinage minted by the same sultan. An alternative explanation has been offered by A. H. Dani, who draws attention to Tripura, a small Hindu hill kingdom that managed to maintain a precarious independence on the extreme eastern edge of the delta throughout the sultanate and Mughal periods. Noting that this kingdom depicted lions on its coins, Dani suggests that in addition to reconquering southern Bengal, Jalal al-Din may also have conquered Tripura, or parts of it, and issued this style of coinage in order to gain the support of its people. However, since the earliest known lion-stamped coin minted by the independent rajas of Tripura did not appear until 1464, or thirty-two years after the death of Sultan Jalal al-Din, the sultan could not have been following the established custom of that kingdom.
Fig. 11. Large commemorative silver coin of Sultan Jalal al-Din Muhammad, struck in 1421. Actual size (6.7 cm in diameter).
On the other hand, one may see the motif of a lion—some species of which are indigenous to India—as a more generalized symbol of political authority in eastern Bengal, not limited to the rajas of Tripura. When the kings of Tripura began striking their own lion-motif coins from 1464 on, they did so as patrons of the Goddess manifested as Durga, whose vehicle (vāhana) is a lion. Since the lion is also the vehicle of the Goddess as Chandi, in whose name a reconstituted Deva dynasty had unsuccessfully rebelled in 1416–18, the sultan possibly intended his lion-motif coins to appeal to deeply rooted sentiments that focused on Goddess-worship generally. Nor did he attempt to disguise his identity as the son of a Hindu chieftain, but instead proclaimed his paternity in Arabic letters, affirming himself to be bin Kans Rāo, “son of Raja Ganesh.”
Sultan Jalal al-Din, then, was sending different messages to different constituencies in his kingdom. To Muslims, he portrayed himself as the model of a pious sultan, reviving inscription of the Muslim creed on his coinage and even making a claim, unprecedented in Bengal, to be the caliph of Allah. To Hindus, meanwhile, his coins proclaimed a sovereign who was the son of a Hindu king; moreover, they bore an image that, without actually naming Chandi or Durga, would have struck responsive chords among devotees of the Goddess. He also patronized Sanskritic culture by publicly demonstrating his appreciation for scholars steeped in classical Brahmanic scholarship. What is more significant, a contemporary Chinese traveler reported that although Persian was understood by some in the court, the language in universal use there was Bengali. This points to the waning, although certainly not yet the disappearance, of the sort of foreign mentality that the Muslim ruling class in Bengal had exhibited since its arrival over two centuries earlier. It also points to the survival, and now the triumph, of local Bengali culture at the highest level of official society.
Fig. 12. Eklakhi Mausoleum, Pandua (ca. 1432).
The new mood is seen most vividly in the architecture that appeared in the kingdom immediately after the Raja Ganesh episode. Abandoning Middle Eastern or North Indian traditions of religious architecture, Bengali mosques from the reign of Sultan Jalal al-Din on adopted purely indigenous motifs and structural traits. Although not itself a mosque, the Eklakhi mausoleum in Pandua (fig. 12), believed to be the sultan’s own mausoleum, became the prototype for the subsequent Bengali-style mosque. Here we find all the hallmarks of the new style: square shape, single dome, exclusive use of brick construction in both exterior and interior, massive walls, engaged octagonal corner towers, curved cornice, and extensive terra-cotta ornamentation. The last-mentioned feature, a Bengali tradition dating from at least the eighth century A.D., as in the Buddhist shrine at Paharpur, was now fully reestablished, as witnessed in the façade above the Eklakhi’s lintel. A mature example of the new style is seen in the Lattan mosque at Gaur, built ca. 1493–1519 (fig. 13).
Fig. 13. Lattan Mosque, Gaur (ca. 1493–1519).
Whence came the inspiration for this style of mosque? One source was the familiar thatched bamboo hut found everywhere in the villages of Bengal. Their curved roofs, formed by the natural bend of the bamboo structure under the weight of the thatching, were translated into brick for the first time in the Eklakhi mausoleum, with its gently curved cornice. Thereafter until the end of the sultanate, the thatched hut motif became an essential ingredient of Bengali architecture, whether public or private, Hindu or Muslim. The art historian Perween Hasan has suggested still another indigenous source for the Bengali mosque. By comparing sultanate mosques with Buddhist monuments in Burma dating from the eighth to eleventh centuries, together with surviving evidence of Buddhist architecture in pre-twelfth-century Bengal, Hasan has come to the conclusion that Bengal’s Buddhist temple tradition directly contributed to the revival of the square, brick Bengali mosque in the fifteenth century. Drawing on elements derived both from the rural Bengali thatched hut and from the pre-Islamic Buddhist temple, then, these structures reflect an essentially nativist movement, an effort to express an Islamic institution in locally familiar terms. This style of royal culture became so fixed that it persisted despite the restoration of the old Ilyas Shahi dynasty in 1433, and despite the drastic changes in the social composition of the ruling class that took place during the century following Jalal al-Din’s death in 1432.
The Indigenization of Royal Authority, 1433–1538
The fifty years after Jalal al-Din’s death saw the restoration of the old Ilyas Shahi house and, in a curious throwback to the earliest days of Turkish rule in North India, the appearance of the institution of military slavery. In the 1460s and 1470s, however, instead of Central Asian Turks, black slaves (ḥabashī) from Abyssinia in East Africa were recruited for military and civil service. But the influence of these men grew with their numbers, and in time they subverted the very purpose for which they had been imported. In 1486 a coup d’état ended the Ilyas Shahi dynasty for good, plunging the sultanate into seven stormy years of palace intrigues and assassinations as slave after slave attempted to seize the reins of power. Ultimately, ‘Ala al-Din Husain, a Meccan Arab who had risen to the office of chief minister under an Abyssinian royal patron, emerged triumphant in another palace coup, which launched the last important ruling house of independent Bengal, the Husain Shahi dynasty.
The reigns of Sultan ‘Ala al-Din Husain Shah (1493–1519) and his son Nasir al-Din Nusrat Shah (1519–32) are generally regarded as the “golden age” of the Bengal sultanate. In Husain Shah’s reign, for example, Bengali Hindus participated in government to a considerable degree: his chief minister (vazīr), his chief of bodyguards, his master of the mint, his governor of Chittagong, his private physician, and his private secretary (dabīr-i khāṣ) were all Bengali Hindus. In terms of its physical power and territorial extent, too, this was the sultanate’s high tide. In the second year of his reign, 1494, Sultan Husain Shah extended the kingdom’s northern frontiers, invading and annexing both Kuch Bihar (“Kamata”) and western Assam (“Kamrup”). Writing around 1515, Tome Pires estimated this monarch’s armed forces at a hundred thousand cavalrymen. “He fights with heathen kings, great lords and greater than he,” wrote the Portuguese official, “but because the king of Bengal is nearer to the sea, he is more practised in war, and he prevails over them.” The king thus managed to make a circle of vassals of his neighbors: Orissa to the southwest, Arakan to the southeast, and Tripura to the east.
But the palmy days of independent Bengal were numbered. Even as the Husain Shahi dynasty was taking root, Babur, a brilliant Timurid prince, was rising to prominence in Central Asia and Afghanistan. In 1526, resolving to make a bid for empire in North India, Babur led his cavalry and cannon through the Khyber Pass and overthrew the Lodi dynasty of Afghans, the last rulers of a vastly shrunken and decayed Delhi sultanate. As a result of this triumph, defeated Afghans moved down the Gangetic plain and into the Bengal delta, where they were hospitably received by Nasir al-Din Nusrat Shah. Thus the span of a century from the death of Jalal al-Din Muhammad (d. 1432) to that of Nasir al-Din Nusrat Shah (d. 1532) witnessed a wholesale transformation of Bengal’s political fabric. In the reign of the former sultan, descendants of old Turkish families had still formed the kingdom’s dominant ruling group. But in the following century the scope of Bengali participation at all levels of government continually widened, while the throne itself passed from Indo-Turks, to East Africans, to an Arab house, and, finally, to Afghans.
How did these changes affect the articulation of state authority? Within the precincts of the court, to be sure, a self-consciously Persian model of political authority was maintained to the end of the sultanate. A member of a Portuguese mission sent to Nasir al-Din’s court in 1521—the earliest-known European mission to Bengal—vividly describes the projection of royal power during his trip to the capital. Ushered into the sultan’s court, the writer passed by three hundred bare-chested soldiers bearing swords and round shields, and the same number of archers, on whose shields were painted golden lions with black claws. “We arrived before the place’s second gate and were searched as we had been at the first,” continues the mission’s anonymous interpreter.
The polo field at the heart of the court, the royal dais raised on sandalwood columns, the roof adorned with gilded carvings of birds and heavenly bodies, and the ceremonial etiquette before the sultan—all clearly indicate the survival of Persian political symbols at the sultanate’s ritual center. Indeed, this description of the court at Gaur closely compares with that of the court of Pandua given by a Chinese ambassador (see pp. 47—49) a century earlier.
We passed through nine such gates and were searched each time. Beyond the last gate we saw an esplanade as vast as one and a half arena[s] and which seemed to be wider than it was long. Twelve horsemen were playing polo there. At one end there was a large platform mounted on thick sandal-wood supports. The roof supports were thinner and were covered in carvings of foliage and small gilded birds. The gilt ceiling was also carved and depicted the moon, the sun and a host of stars, all gilded.
We arrived before the Sultan. He was seated on a large gilt sofa covered with different-sized cushions, all of which were embedded with a smattering of precious stones and small pearls. We greeted him according to the custom of the country—hands crossed on our chests and heads as low as possible.
But this political symbolism seems to have been intended for internal use only, as if the court were only reminding itself of its Persian political inheritance. Publicly, the later sultans placed a much greater emphasis on merging their interests with local society and culture, as in their public displays of lavish generosity. Wrote the Portuguese diplomat just cited:
While a foreign dignitary was permitted to see a Persianized court with gilded ceilings and sandalwood posts, the common people saw cartloads of cooked rice “and other fruits of the earth.”
I saw one hundred and fifty cartloads of cooked rice, large quantities of bread, rape, onions, bananas and other fruits of the earth. There were fifty other carts filled with boiled and roasted cows and sheep as well as plenty of cooked fish. All this was to be given to the poor. After the food had been distributed, money was given out, the whole to the value of six hundred thousand of our tangas.…I was totally amazed; it had to be seen to be believed. The money was thrown from the top of a platform into a crowd of about four or five thousand people.
It was in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, too, that state-sponsored mosques built in native styles proliferated throughout the delta (see table 1). The court also lent vigorous support to Bengali language and literature. Already in the early fifteenth century, the Chinese traveler Ma Huan observed that Bengali was “the language in universal use.” By the second half of the same century, the court was patronizing Bengali literary works as well as Persian romance literature. Sultan Rukn al-Din Barbak (r. 1459–74) patronized the writing of the śrī Kṛṣṇa-Vijaya by Maladhara Basu, and under ‘Ala al-Din Husain Shah (1493–1519) and Nasir al-Din Nusrat Shah (1519–32), the court patronized the writing of the Manasā-Vijaya by Vipra Das, the Padma-Purāṇa by Vijaya Gupta, the Kṛṣṇa-Maṅgala by Yasoraj Khan, and translations (from Sanskrit) of portions of the great epic Mahābhārata by Vijaya Pandita and Kavindra Parameśvara. Sultan Mahmud Shah (1532–38) even dedicated a bridge using a Sanskrit inscription written in Bengali characters, and dated according to the Hindu calendar.
|Sources: Shamsud-Din Ahmed, ed. and trans., Inscriptions of Bengal (Rajshahi: Varendra Research Museum, 1960), 4: 317–38; Qeyamuddin Ahmad, Corpus of Arabic and Persian Inscriptions of Bihar (Patna: K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute, 1973); A. H. Dani, Muslim Architecture in Bengal (Dacca: Asiatic Society of Pakistan, 1961), 194–95; Epigraphia Indica, Arabic and Persian Supplement, 1965: 24; id., 1975: 34–36; Journal of the Asiatic Society of Pakistan 2 (1957); id., 11, no. 2 (1966): 143–51; id., 12, no. 2 (1967): 296–303; Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh 28, no. 2 (1983): 83–95; Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 6, nos. 1–2 (1964): 15–16; Journal of the Varendra Research Museum 2 (1973): 67–70; id., 4 (1975–76): 63–69, 71–80; id., 6 (1980–81): 101–8; id., 7 (1981–82): 184; Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 30, no. 3 (1973): 589; Mohammad Yusuf Siddiq, Arabic and Persian Texts of the Islamic Inscriptions of Bengal (Watertown, Mass.: South Asia Press, 1991), 4–123.|
In short, apart from the Persianized political ritual that survived within the court itself, from the early fifteenth century on, the sultanate articulated its authority through Bengali media. This resulted partly from reassessments made in the wake of the upheavals of the Raja Ganesh period and partly from sustained isolation from North India, which compelled rulers to base their claims of political legitimacy in terms that would attract local support. But royal patronage of Bengali culture was selective in nature. With the apparent aim of broadening the roots of its authority, the court patronized folk architecture as opposed to classical Indian styles, popular literature written in Bengali rather than Sanskrit texts, and Vaishnava Bengali officials instead of śākta Brahmans. At the same time, Islamic symbolism assumed a measurably lower posture in the projection of state authority. Political pragmatism seems to have dictated the most public of all royal deeds, the minting of coins. Sultan Nasir al-Din Nusrat Shah described himself as “the sultan, son of the sultan, Nasir al-Din Nusrat Shah, the sultan, son of Husain Shah, the sultan.” Gone was the bombast of earlier periods, and gone too were references to Greek conquerors or Arab caliphs. Nasir al-Din Nusrat Shah was sultan simply because his father had been; no further justification was deemed necessary. Secure in power, these kings now presented themselves to all Bengalis as indigenous rulers.
It seems, moreover, that this was how contemporary Hindu poets perceived them. In a 1494 work glorifying the goddess Manasa, the poet Vijaya Gupta wove into his opening stanzas praises of the sultan of Bengal that would have flattered any classical Indian raja:
Similarly, in his śrī Caitanya Bhāgavat composed in the 1540s, Vrindavan Das refers to the Bengal king as rāja, never using the Arabo-Persian terms shāh or sulṭān. And in the early 1550s another Vaishnava poet, Jayananda, refers in his Caitanya-Maṅgala to the Muslim ruler not only as rāja but as iśvara (“god”), and even as Indra, the Vedic king of the gods. The use of such titles signals a distinctly Bengali validation of the sultan’s authority.
Sultan Husain Raja, nurturer of the world: In war he is invincible; for his opponents he is Yama [god of death]. In his charity he is like Kalpataru [a fabled wish-yielding tree]. In his beauty he is like Kama [god of love]. His subjects enjoy happiness under his rule.
In 1629, shortly after the Mughal conquest of Bengal, and still within living memory of the sultanate, the Augustinian friar Sebastião Manrique visited Bengal and remarked that some of its Muslim kings had been in the habit of sending for water from Ganga Sagar, the ancient holy site where the old Ganges (the modern Hooghly) emptied into the Bay of Bengal. Like Hindu sovereigns of the region, he wrote, these kings would wash themselves in that holy water during ceremonies connected with their installation. This isolated reference, if narrated accurately to the European friar, would suggest that balancing the Persian symbols that pervaded their private audiences, the later sultans observed explicitly Indian rites during their coronations, events that were very public and symbolically charged. Contemporary poetic references to these kings as rāja or iśvara should not, then, be dismissed as mere hyperbole. They had become Bengali kings.
Having dislodged a Hindu dynasty in Bengal, the earliest Muslim rulers made no attempt on their coins to assert legitimate authority over their conquered subjects, displaying instead a show of coercive power. Their earliest architecture reveals an immigrant people still looking over their shoulders to distant Delhi. In the course of the thirteenth century, however, political rivalry with Delhi compelled Bengal’s rulers to adopt a posture of strenuous religious orthodoxy vis-à-vis their former overlords. This they did by associating themselves with the font of all Islamic legitimacy, the office of the caliph in Baghdad. After gaining independence from Delhi in the mid fourteenth century, the sultans of Bengal added to this posture a projection of Persian imperial ideology, reflected in the “Second Alexander” numismatic formula and in Sikandar’s grandiose and majestic Adina mosque.
By the early fifteenth century, however, too much emphasis upon either foreign basis of legitimacy—Islamic or imperial Persian—provoked a crisis of confidence among those powerful Bengali nobles upon whose continued political support the minority Muslim ruling class ultimately depended. That crisis, manifested in Raja Ganesh’s rise to all but legal sovereignty, in turn provoked a crisis of confidence among the chief Muslim literati, the Sufi elite of the time. These tensions were partially resolved by the conversion of Raja Ganesh’s son, Sultan Jalal al-Din, and the latter’s attempt to patronize each of the kingdom’s principal constituencies—pious Muslims, Sufis of the Chishti order, and devotees of the Goddess—on a separate, piecemeal basis.
But a comprehensive political ideology appealing to all Bengalis only appeared with the restored Ilyas Shahi dynasty and its successors. By evolving a stable, mainly secular modus vivendi with Bengali society and culture, in which mutually satisfactory patron-client relations became politically institutionalized, and in which the state systematically patronized the culture of the subject population, the later Bengal sultanate approximated what Marshall Hodgson has called a “military patronage state.” Dropping all references to external sources of authority, the coins of the later sultans relied instead on a secular dynastic formula of legitimate succession: so-and-so was sultan because his father had been one. And in their public architecture, these kings yielded so much to Bengali conceptions of form and medium that, as the art historian Percy Brown observes, “the country, originally possessed by the invaders, now possessed them.”
1. Here it is useful to distinguish between the terms authority and power. Max Weber defined the latter as “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests.” By analyzing the articulation of culturally contextualized political symbols, the present chapter focuses on what Weber understood as the basis “on which this probability rests”—that is, political authority. Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, ed. and trans. A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 152. [BACK]
2. Marilyn Robinson Waldman, Toward a Theory of Historical Narrative: A Case Study in Perso-Islamicate Historiography (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988), 30. [BACK]
3. Ann K. S. Lambton, State and Government in Medieval Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 106–29. See also Erwin I. J. Rosenthal, Political Thought in Medieval Islam: An Introductory Outline (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 42–43. [BACK]
4. Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092), the Iranian prime minister to the Seljuq sultans, even counseled his Turkish patrons to establish an elaborate network of state spies. His great work, the Siyāsat-nāma (“Book of Government”), represents the efforts of an experienced Persian administrator to assimilate the new Turkish rulers into the autocratic tradition of pre-Muslim Persian kingship. See The Book of Government, or Rules for Kings: The Siyar al-Muluk or Siyasat-nama of Nizam al-Mulk, trans. Hubert Darke, 2d ed. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978). [BACK]
5. A good discussion of these ideas may be found in A. K. S. Lambton, “Justice in the Medieval Persian Theory of Kingship,” Studia Islamica 17 (1962): 91–119. See also Waldman, Toward a Theory, 99; A Mirror for Princes: “The Qābūs Nāma” by Kai Kā’ūs ibn Iskandr, Prince of Gurgān, trans. Reuben Levy (New York: Dutton, 1951), 213; and Cornell H. Fleischer, “Royal Authority, Dynastic Cyclism, and ‘Ibn Khaldūnism’ in Sixteenth-Century Ottoman Letters,” Journal of Asian and African Studies 18 (1983): 201–3. [BACK]
6. Fakhr al-Din Razi, Jāmi‘ al-‘ulūm, ed. Muhammad Khan Malik al-Kuttab (Bombay, A.H. 1323 [A.D. 1905]), 207. In the “Mirror for Princes” literary genre so popular in Razi’s day, such maxims were often attributed to Alexander the Great. [BACK]
7. See W. Barthold, Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion, 3d ed. (London: Luzac, 1968), 160, 255, 376; J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 51–54. [BACK]
8. ‘Ali Hujwiri, The Kashf al-mahjub, trans. Reynold A. Nicholson, 2d ed. (reprint, London: Luzac, 1970), 213. [BACK]
9. Simon Digby, “The Sufi Shaikh as a Source of Authority in Mediaeval India,” in Puruṣārtha, vol. 9, Islam et société en Asie du sud, ed. Marc Gaborieau (Paris: Ecole des Hautes études en sciences sociales, 1986), 62. [BACK]
10. The date of conquest, although not specified by Minhaj, can be inferred from numismatic evidence. In the year 601 A.H., corresponding to A.D. 1204–5, the conqueror himself issued a gold coin (fig. 1) bearing the legend Gauḍa vijaye, “On the conquest of Gaur” (i.e., Bengal). But the date A.H. 601 stamped on this coin evidently refers to the coin’s date of issue and not to the date of conquest. For, several years after the conquest, the governor of the province, ‘Ali Mardan, declared his independence from Delhi and began issuing coins in his own name, one of which was dated Ramazan 600 A.H., or May 1204 A.D. (fig. 2). Since ‘Ali Mardan did not declare his sovereignty until 1210, the date on the coin was evidently intended to refer to the date of conquest, and not to the coin’s issue date. This interpretation is further supported by the exactness of the coin’s date—Ramazan 600. As Indo-Muslim coins were normally stamped only with the year of issue and not the month, such precision would seem to refer to an extraodinary event, which the conquest of Bengal certainly was. See John Deyell, Living without Silver: The Monetary History of Early Medieval North India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990), 364, coin no. 298. [BACK]
11. Minhaj-ud-Din Abu’l-‘Umar-i-‘Usman, ṭabaḳāt-i-Nāṣirī: A General History of the Muhammadan Dynasties of Asia, Including Hindustan (810–1260), trans. H. G. Raverty (Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1881; reprint, New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corp., 1970), 1: 559–60. [BACK]
12. Bakhtiyar’s band of two hundred cavalrymen, with which he surprised Lakshmana Sena in Nudiya, was but an advance detachment from his main force of ten thousand. [BACK]
13. Nicholas W. Lowick, “The Horseman Type of Bengal and the Question of Commemorative Issues,” Journal of the Numismatic Society of India 35 (1973): 196–208; P. L. Gupta, “Nagari Legend on Horseman Tankah of Muhammad bin Sam,” ibid.: 209–12. See too P. L. Gupta, “On the Date of the Horseman Type Coin of Muhammad bin Sam,” ibid. 38 (1976): 81–87. [BACK]
14. G. S. Farid, “Hitherto Unknown Silver Tankah of Sultan Alauddin Ali Mardan Khilji, 607–610 A.H.,” Journal of the Asiatic Society 18, nos. 1–4 (1976): 104–6. According to Farid, this coin is dated 610 A.H. (1213–14 A.D.). But the coin published by him, depicted in figure 2, is worn on the place where the date is normally given. Another copy of the same coin reproduced by John Deyell clearly reveals the coin’s date as Ramazan 600 A.H., a date evidently referring to the date of the Turkish conquest of Bengal. See Deyell, Living without Silver, 364, coin no. 298. [BACK]
15. Lowick, “Horseman Type,” 200. [BACK]
16. Peter Hardy, “The Growth of Authority over a Conquered Political Elite: The Early Delhi Sultanate as a Possible Case Study,” in Kingship and Authority in South Asia, ed. J. F. Richards (Madison: South Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin, 1978), 207. [BACK]
17. Examples include the mīnār of Bahram Shah in Ghazni (early twelfth century), the mīnār of Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad in Jam, located on Afghanistan’s Hari Rud River (late twelfth century), and, closest in time and place to Bengal, the Qutb Minar of Delhi (1200–1215), the stupendous and imposing tower that was the first monument built by the Turks on their establishment of permanent rule in North India. [BACK]
18. Shamsud-Din Ahmed, ed. and trans., Inscriptions of Bengal, vol. 4 (Rajshahi: Varendra Research Museum, 1960), 20. [BACK]
19. Ibid., 19. [BACK]
20. Catherine B. Asher, “Inventory of Key Monuments,” in The Islamic Heritage of Bengal, ed. George Michell (Paris: UNESCO, 1984), 136. The basalt pillars of Chhota Pandua’s Bari Mosque, most likely dating to the early fourteenth century, were simply reused from pre-Islamic structures; they still bear traces of Hindu or Buddhist images. Ibid., 52. [BACK]
21. George Roerich, trans., Biography of Dharmasvamin (Chag lo-tsa-ba Chos-rje-dpal), a Tibetan Monk Pilgrim (Patna: K. P. Jawaswal Research Institute, 1959), 64–65. [BACK]
22. Ibid., 98. [BACK]
23. See Abdul Karim, Corpus of the Muslim Coins of Bengal, down to A.D. 1538, Asiatic Society of Pakistan Publication No. 6 (Dacca: Asiatic Society of Pakistan, 1960), 18. [BACK]
24. Minhaj-ud-Din ‘Usman, ṭabaḳāt-i-Nāṣirī, trans. Raverty, 1: 629–30. [BACK]
25. Shamsud-Din Ahmed, ed. and trans., Inscriptions, 4: 7–8. [BACK]
26. Ibid., 14–15, 17–18. [BACK]
27. Zia al-Din Barani, Tārīkh-i Fīrūz Shāhī, in The History of India as Told by Its Own Historians, trans. and ed. H. M. Elliot and John Dowson (Allahabad: Kitab Mahal, 1964), 3: 141. This is the earliest record of the use of the word thug. [BACK]
28. Shams-i Siraj ‘Afif, Tārīkh-i Fīrūz Shāhī, in The History of India as Told by Its Own Historians, trans. and ed. H. M. Elliot and John Dowson (Allahabad: Kitab Mahal, 1964), 3: 297, 303–12. [BACK]
29. The Book of Ser Marco Polo, trans. and ed. Henry Yule and Henri Cordier, 3d ed. (Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1975), 2: 115. [BACK]
30. ‘Afif, Tārīkh, in Elliot and Dowson, History of India, 3:295, 296. [BACK]
31. Karim, Corpus, 42. [BACK]
32. Naseem Ahmed Banerji, “The Mihrabs in the Adina Mosque at Pandua, India: Evidence of the Reuse of Pala-Sena Remains” (paper read at the twenty-first conference on South Asia, University of Wisconsin, Madison, November 6–8, 1992). [BACK]
33. Asher, “Inventory,” 109–10. See also Yolande Crowe, “Reflections on the Adina Mosque at Pandua,” in The Islamic Heritage of Bengal, ed. George Mitchell (Paris: UNESCO, 1984), 157. These figures compare with the Begumpur mosque’s outer measurements of 328 feet on a side, courtyard measurements of 284 by 273 feet, and a total of 105 domed bays. See Anthony Welch and Howard Crane, “The Tughluqs: Master Builders of the Delhi Sultanate,” Muqarnas 1 (1983): 130–31. [BACK]
34. As Percy Brown notes, the monument resembled “the forum of some ancient classical city rather than a self-contained Muslim house of prayer, with the high vaulted sanctuary on the western side simulating an imperial approach in the form of a majestic triumphal archway.” Brown, Indian Architecture, Islamic Period, 5th ed. (Bombay: D. B. Taraporevala, 1968), 36. [BACK]
35. See Tsukinowa Tokifusa, “The Influence of Seljuq Architecture on the Earliest Mosques of the Delhi Sultanate Period in India,” Acta Asiatica 43 (1982): 37–60. [BACK]
36. Just over fifty years before construction of the Adina mosque, the Ilkhanid prince ‘Ali Shah had built his Jami‘ mosque in Tabriz with a barrel vault that in width actually surpassed that of the Taq-i Kisra. Since contemporary observers compared the Tabriz mosque with the Taq-i Kisra, it is clear that the great Sasanian palace was on the minds of fourteenth-century Iranians. Donald N. Wilber, The Architecture of Islamic Iran: The Il Khanid Period (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), 146–47. [BACK]
37. A similar structure is found in the Jami‘ mosque of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, which the Mughal emperor Jahangir (1605–27) described as a caged-in stone platform used by the king and his intimates and courtiers “on account of the crowding of people.” Jahangir, Tūzuk-i-Jahāngīrī, trans. Alexander Rodgers and Henry Beveridge, 2d ed., 2 vols in 1 (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1968), 1: 425. [BACK]
38. Shamsud-Din Ahmed, ed. and trans., Inscriptions, 4: 38. [BACK]
39. Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Inbā’ al-ghumr bi-anbā al-‘umr (Cairo: Al-Majlis al-A‘lā li-l-Shu’ūn al-Islāmīyah, 1969), 2: 496; Muhammad Sakhavi, Al-Zau’ al-lāmi‘ li-ahl al-qarn al-tāsi‘ (Beirut: Maktabat al-Hayat, 1966), 2: 313. See also Ziauddin Desai, “Some New Data Regarding the Pre-Mughal Muslim Rulers of Bengal,” Islamic Culture 32 (1958): 199–200. [BACK]
40. W. W. Rockhill, “Notes on the Relations and Trade of China with the Eastern Archipelago and the Coast of the Indian Ocean during the Fourteenth Century,” T’oung Pao 16, pt. 2 (1915): 441–42. The first few decades of the fifteenth century witnessed China’s brief but significant maritime diaspora under the early Ming dynasty. During two of the seven great expeditions the Ming court sent into the Indian Ocean, Chinese officials, traveling via Chittagong and Sonargaon, reached the Bengali capitals of Pandua (1415) and Gaur (1432). [BACK]
41. Ibid., 442. [BACK]
42. M. I. Borah, “An Account of the Immigration of Persian Poets into Bengal,” Dacca University Studies 1 (November 1935): 144. [BACK]
43. Muzaffar Shams Balkhi, Maktūbāt-i Muz̄affar Shams Balkhī (Persian MS., Acc. no. 1859, Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, Patna), letter 163, p. 509. See also S. H. Askari, “The Correspondence of Two Fourteenth-Century Sufi Saints of Bihar with the Contemporary Sovereigns of Delhi and Bengal,” Journal of the Bihar Research Society 42, no. 2 (1956): 187. Askari’s translation. [BACK]
44. Shaikh Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam, Maktūbāt-i Shaikh Nūr Quṭb-i ‘ālam (Persian MS., Subhan Allah no. 297671/18, Maulana Azad Library, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh), letter 9, p. 68. See also Abdul Karim, “Nur Qutb ‘Alam’s Letter on the Ascendancy of Ganesa,” in Muhammad Enamul Haq, Abdul Karim Sahitya-Visarad Commemoration Volume (Dacca: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 1972), 338. [BACK]
45. The best treatment of the revolution is found in the study of Ahmad Hasan Dani, “The House of Raja Ganesa of Bengal,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal: Letters 18, no. 2 (1952): 121–70. [BACK]
46. Muhammad Qasim Firishta, Tārīkh-i Firishta (Lucknow: Nawal Kishore, 1864–65), 2: 297. [BACK]
47. Khwajah Nizamuddin Ahmad, The ṭabaqāt-i-Akbarī, trans. Brajendranath De, ed. Baini Prasad (Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1931–39), 3, pt. 1: 430–31; text, ed., B. De and M. Hidayat Hosein (Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1931–35), 3: 265. [BACK]
48. See Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Inbā’, 2: 496; 3: 532. See also Muhammad Sakhawi, Al-Zau’, 8: 280. [BACK]
49. See Karim, Corpus, 70–73. [BACK]
50. Ghulam Hussain Salim, Riyāzu-s-Salātīn: A History of Bengal, trans. Abdus Salam (Delhi: Idarah-i Adabiyat-i Delli, 1903), 115. [BACK]
51. This outcome is suggested by Firishta’s statement that after Raja Ganesh’s son had declared his intention to become Muslim, but before he assumed the throne, the kingdom’s nobles unanimously declared, “We follow the king in worldly affairs, but have nothing to do with religion” (“Jamī‘ ahl-i ḥall va ‘aqd muttafiq shuda, goftand: mā tābi‘-i pādshāh-īm dar umūr-i dunyawī, ba mażhab va dīn kārī nīst ”). Firishta, Tārīkh-i Firishta, 2: 297. [BACK]
52. Shaikh Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam, Maktūbāt, letter 9, p. 69. See also Abdul Karim, “Nur Qutb ‘Alam’s Letter,” 342–43. Karim’s translation. [BACK]
53. Portions of this letter were reproduced in the correspondence of the contemporary shaikh, Ashraf Jahangir Simnani. See Ashraf Jahangir Simnani, Maktūbāt-i ashrafī (Persian MS. no. 27, Aligarh Muslim University History Department, Aligarh), letter 45, fol. 139a. See also S. H. Askari, “New Light on Rajah Ganesh and Sultan Ibrahim Sharqi of Jaunpur from Contemporary Correspondence of Two Muslim Saints,” Bengal Past and Present 57 (1948): 34. Askari’s translation. [BACK]
54. P. C. Bagchi, “Political Relations between Bengal and China in the Pathan Period,” Visva-Bharati Annals 1 (1945): 103–4. [BACK]
55. Around 1442 a diplomat in the service of Shah Rukh, the Timurid ruler of Herat (1405–47), wrote that his master had intervened in the Bengal-Jaunpur crisis at the request of the sultan of Bengal, “directing the ruler of Jaunpur to abstain from attacking the King of Bengal, or to take the consequences upon himself. To which intimation the ruler of Jaunpur was obedient, and desisted from his attacks upon Bengal.” ‘Abd al-Razzaq, Matla‘ al-sa‘dain, in The History of India as Told by Its Own Historians, trans. and ed. H. M. Elliot and John Dowson (Allahabad: Kitab Mahal, 1964), 4: 99. On the other hand, a contemporary Arakanese tradition recorded that the forces of Raja Ganesh, then firmly in control of Pandua, had defeated Sultan Ibrahim of Jaunpur in battle. According to this tradition, one of the kings of Arakan, who had been given refuge in Pandua after having been defeated by a Burman monarch in 1406, gave Raja Ganesh the military advice that enabled the Bengalis to defeat Sultan Ibrahim of Jaunpur. A. P. Phayre, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 13 (1844): 44–46, cited in Dani, “House,” 135–37. See also A. P. Phayre, History of Burma (London: Trubner, 1884), 78. [BACK]
56. The coins were dated Saka Era 1339 and 1340, corresponding to April 1416 to April 1418. The most thorough examination of the identity and chronology of these two kings is found in Dani, “House,” 145–53. Dani links the two kings to the Deva dynasty of kings of Chandradwip in the Barisal area of the southeastern delta on the basis of the testimony of later oral and literary sources that identify Mahendra Deva as the son of Danuja Marddana Deva. As to the identification of “Pāndunagara,” since the Deva kings never controlled North Bengal, it is most likely that they attempted to recover from the sultanate only those lands previously under their control, in which case the “Pāndunagara” on their coins would refer not to Hazrat Pandua, the capital, located in northern Bengal, but to the provincial town Chhota Pandua, located in the southwestern delta near the site of modern Calcutta. [BACK]
57. Dani, “House,” 152–53. [BACK]
58. Ibid., 145. [BACK]
59. Karim, Corpus, table 2, facing 163. [BACK]
60. Ibid., 191–93. [BACK]
61. See France Bhattacharya, “La Déesse et le royaume selon le KālaketuUpākhyāna du Caṇḍī Maṅgala,” in Puruṣārtha, vol. 5, Autour de la déesse hindoue, ed. Madeleine Biardeau (Paris: Ecole des Hautes études en sciences sociales, 1981), 17–53. [BACK]
62. Karim, Corpus, 191–93 and plates 1–6. [BACK]
63. Firishta explicitly mentions Ganesh’s conciliatory policies toward the Indo-Turkish classes in Pandua. “Although Raja Ganesh was not a Muslim,” he wrote, “he mixed freely with them and had so much love for them that some Muslims, witnessing to his faith in Islam, wanted to bury him in the Islamic manner.” Fi-rishta, Tārīkh-i Firishta, 2: 297. [BACK]
64. Mirāt al-asrār (Persian MS. no. 204, Khuda Bakhsh Library, Patna; compiled in 1654 by ‘Abd al-Rahman Chishti, copied in 1806), fol. 517a-b. This interpretation is corroborated by the historian Nizam al-Din Ahmad (d. 1594), who records that Raja Ganesh’s son, “owing to his love of rule, became a Muslim, naming himself Sultan Jalal al-Din” (“Pisar-i ū ba-wāsiṭa-yi ḥubb-i riyāsat Musalmān shuda, Sulṭān Jalāl al-Dīn nām-i khūd nihād ”). Nizamuddin Ahmad, ṭabiqāt-i Akbarī, text, 3: 266. [BACK]
65. Mirāt al-asrār, fol. 517a. See also Askari, “New Light,” 37; Karim, “Nur Qutb ‘Alam’s Letter,” 336–37. [BACK]
66. Not only did Jalal al-Din and his son and successor Ahmad become disciples of Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam, but, the Mirāt al-asrār informs us, from then until 1532, twelve more sultans of various ethnic backgrounds ascended the Bengali throne, all of whom were disciples of the line of Chishti shaikhs established in Pandua by Shaikh ‘Ala al-Haq (ibid., fol. 517b). [BACK]
67. Some later historians understood his efforts in this direction as outright bigotry. But there is no contempoary evidence to support the contention—first voiced in the late eighteenth century by Ghulam Hussain Salim and repeated in the late nineteenth century by influential British authorities like James Wise—that Jalal al-Din pursued a policy of forcibly converting his fellow Bengalis to Islam. See Salim, Riyāzu-s-Salātīn, 118; Wise, “Muhammadans of Eastern Bengal,” 29. [BACK]
68. Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Inbā’, 2: 497; 3: 532; and Muhammad Sakhawi, Al-Zau’, 8: 280. See also Ziauddin Desai, “Some New Data Regarding the Pre-Mughal Muslim Rulers of Bengal,” Islamic Culture 32 (1958): 204. [BACK]
69. Karim, Corpus, 77. [BACK]
70. “al-Sultān al-a‘z̄am al-mu‘az̄z̄amīn khalīfat Allah ‘alī al-makūnīn Jalāl al-Dunyā w’al-Dīn.” Shamsud-Din Ahmed, ed. and trans., Inscriptions, 4: 45. This appeared on the mosque of Mandra, in Dhaka District. [BACK]
71. Karim, Corpus, 170. Abdul Karim has argued that Jalal al-Din’s use of the inflated title Khalīfat al-Allah was “a political stunt to unite the people against his rival Sultan Ibrahim Sharqi of Jaunpur” (ibid., 176). But this hypothesis is untenable, since the Bengal king did not introduce the formula until 1427, and Sultan Ibrahim does not appear to have threatened Bengal after 1420. [BACK]
72. When the Ilyas Shahi dynasty was restored to power in 1433, its kings, who were Muslims by birth, went further still and styled themselves “the caliph of Allah by proof and testimony” (khalīfat Allah bi’l-ḥujjat wa’l-burhān). By the fifteenth century the symbolism of the caliphate had been exploited so wildly that its potential for conferring legitimacy on its users seems to have diminished nearly to the vanishing point. Almost anybody could now claim not only association with the caliph, but identity as the caliph, and even to have “proof and testimony” of the fact. It had become a hollow claim. See Abdul Karim, “ ‘Khalifat Allah’ Titlein the Coins of Bengal Sultans,” Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society 8, no. 1 (January 1960): 29. [BACK]
73. Karim, Corpus, 78, 80, pl. 7, no. 1. Another copy of this coin is in the possession of G. S. Farid of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta; see Farid, “Rare Lion-Coins of Jalaluddin Mohammad Shah of Bengal Including a Unique Hexagonal Variety,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 16, nos. 1–4 (1974): 151–54. [BACK]
74. See G. S. Farid, “A New and Unique Ten Tankah Commemorative Coin of Jalaluddin Mohammad Shah of Bengal (818–837 A.H.),” Journal of the Numismatic Society of India 38 (1976): 88–95. The coin itself is in Farid’s personal collection, Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta. [BACK]
75. See Fei Hsin, Hsing ch’a shéng lan (“Description of the Stary Raft”), in W. W. Rockhill, “Notes on the Relations,” T’oung Pao, 16, pt. 2, sec. 4 (1915): 442. [BACK]
76. On Tripura, see D. C. Sircar, Some Epigraphical Records of the Medieval Period from Eastern India (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1979), 95–96. [BACK]
77. The only coins of this type so far discovered were found in Dhaka District, which is adjacent to Tripura. Dani, “House,” 164. [BACK]
78. A. N. Lahiri, “Tripura Coins of Iconographic Interest,” Journal of the Numismatic Society 29 (1967): 73–75. Somewhat later, beginning with the coinage of Vijayamānika (ca. 1532–ca. 1563), they minted coins bearing a trident (triśūla), unambiguously associated with the god śiva, depicted at the back of the lion. Later, in 1600, King Yaśodharamānikya began issuing coins with an image of the flute-playing Krishna, with a gopi girl on either side of him, depicted above the image of the lion and trident. This shift toward Vaishnava sentiment in Tripura followed a similar evolution among non-Muslims in Bengal proper. See pp. 109–12. [BACK]
79. On the smaller coins, he used the Persianized form, bin Kans Shāh, or “son of Ganesh Shah.” See Karim, Corpus, 78. These inscriptional legends also point to Raja Ganesh’s renown and even public acceptance, for no sovereign would have linked himself in this way with a hated tyrant. [BACK]
80. For example, he bestowed six titles on Brhaspati, a deeply learned man of the time, and sponsored a special ceremony when conferring on him the title of “Rāyamukuta.” Chintaharan Chakravarti, “Muslim Patronage to Sanskrit Learning,” in B. C. Law Volume, ed. D. R. Bhandarkar et al., pt. 2 (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1946), 177. [BACK]
81. Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan: “The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores,” trans. J. V.G. Mills (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 161. [BACK]
82. Hitesranjan Sanyal, “Religious Architecture in Bengal (15th–17th Centuries): A Study of the Major Trends,” Indian History Congress, Proceedings, 32d session (1970), 1: 416. Ahmad Hasan Dani, Muslim Architecture in Bengal, Asiatic Society of Pakistan Publication No. 7 (Dacca: Asiatic Society of Pakistan, 1961), 22. [BACK]
83. Dani, Muslim Architecture, 26. Perween Hasan, “Sultanate Mosques and Continuity in Bengal Architecture,” Muqarnas 6 (1989): 62. [BACK]
84. “Although no mosque ever adopted the typical Hindu rekhā or pirha towers of the Pāla period, nor any temple adopt [sic] the exterior form of the Islamic dome, both drew freely on local architectural tradition, so that in spite of widely differing functions, temple and mosque achieve a certain affinity of design,” writes David McCutchion, who pioneered the study of vernacular architecture in premodern Bengal. McCutchion, “Hindu-Muslim Continuities in Bengal,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Pakistan 13, no. 3 (December 1968): 241. [BACK]
85. See Hasan, “Sultanate Mosques,” 63–66, 69. [BACK]
86. Ziauddin Desai, “Some New Data Regarding the Pre-Mughal Muslim Rulers of Bengal,” Islamic Culture 32 (1958): 204. [BACK]
87. Firishta, Tārīkh, 2: 298. [BACK]
88. The last ruler of the Ilyas Shahi dynasty, Sultan Jalal al-Din Fath Shah (1481–1486), “applied the whip of justice to palace eunuchs and Abyssinian slaves who had been gathering in numbers during the reigns of Barbak Shah and Yusuf Shah, and who had achieved the zenith of self-confidence and committed unimaginable [acts of] immoderation,” Firishta notes. Ibid., 2: 299. [BACK]
89. Ibid., 299, 301. [BACK]
90. This characterization began with the historian Nizam al-Din Ahmad, who in 1594 wrote glowingly of ‘Ala al-Din Husain Shah as “an intelligent and able man,” who “summoned learned, great and pious men from different parts of the kingdom, and showed kindness to them. He made very great efforts and exertions for enriching and improving the condition of the country. Owing to the auspiciousness of his laudable morals, and pleasing virtues he performed the duties of sovereignty for long years; and all his life was passed in pleasure and enjoyment.” Nizamuddin Ahmad, ṭabaqāt-i Akbarī, text, 3: 270; trans., B. De, 3, pt. 1: 443. [BACK]
91. Jadunath Sarkar, ed., The History of Bengal, vol. 2, Muslim Period, 1200–1757 (1947; Patna: Janaki Prakashan, 1977), 151–2. There is no record of how sixteenth-century Sufis, whose predecessors had decried the appointment of Hindus to high office, felt about these developments. [BACK]
92. Simon Digby, “The Fate of Daniyal, Prince of Bengal, in the Light of an Unpublished Inscription,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 36, no. 3 (1973): 593–601. [BACK]
93. Tome Pires, Suma Oriental of Tome Pires, trans. A. Cortesão, 2 vols. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1944), 1: 89. [BACK]
94. “The rich things there are in Bengal,” continues Pires, “are made in these kingdoms, and because they cannot live without the sea, they obey [the Bengal sultan], because he allows them an outlet for their merchandise.” Ibid., 89–90. [BACK]
95. Nusrat Shah not only endowed these Afghan refugees with lands and towns; he also married the daughter of Sultan Ibrahim Lodi, recently defeated by Babur. Firishta, Tārīkh, 2: 302. [BACK]
96. Voyage dans les deltas du Gange et de l’Irraouaddy: Relation portugaise anonyme (1521), trans. and ed. Genevieve Bouchon and Luis Filipe Thomaz (Paris: Centre culturel portugais, 1988), 321–22. [BACK]
97. The Husain Shahi sultans also patronized Persian miniature painting traditions. Twenty-six miniature paintings illustrating a copy of Jami’s Yūsuf and Zulaykhā were apparently produced under the patronage of Sultan ‘Ala al-din Husain Shah in 1507—8. There is also an illustrated copy of part of Nizami’s Sikandar-nāma, dated 1531–32 and dedicated to Sultan Nasir al-Din Nusrat Shah. See Norah M. Titley, Persian Miniature Painting and Its Influence on the Art of Turkey and India (London: British Library, 1983), 179, 182–83; Robert Skelton, “The Iskandar Nama of Nusrat Shah,” in Indian Painting: Mughal and Rajput and a Sultanate Manuscript, ed. Toby Falk, Ellen Smart, and Robert Skelton (London: P. and D. Colnaghi, 1978), 144. Although the subject matter of these works is purely Persian, certain architectural details depicted in the illustrations appear to be identical with the distinctive features of the Bengali mosque as discussed above—namely, cusped arches, brickwork alternating with polychrome tiles, terra-cotta tiles, and pro-jecting eaves with brackets. See Jeremiah P. Losty, The Art of the Book in India (London: British Library, 1982), 68. [BACK]
98. Voyage dans les deltas du Gange, 327. [BACK]
99. Rockhill, “Notes on the Relations,” 437. [BACK]
100. Niharranjan Ray, “Mediaeval Bengali Culture,” Visva-Bharati Quarterly 11, no. 2 (August-October 1945): 54; Md. Enamul Haq, Muslim Bengali Literature (Karachi: Pakistan Publications, 1957), 38–39. [BACK]
101. Shamsud-Din Ahmed, ed. and trans., Inscriptions, 4: 236–37. [BACK]
102. Karim, Corpus, 118. From the accession of Nasir al-Din’s son to the end of Bengal’s independent monarchy, the inscriptions on both coins and mosques consist of the simple formula “the sultan, son of the sultan.” See Ibid., 238, 244, 249. [BACK]
103. Vijaya Gupta, Padma-Purāṇa, ed. Jayanta Kumar Dasgupta (Calcutta: University of Calcutta Press, 1962), 8. [BACK]
104. J. T. O’Connell, “Vaisnava Perceptions of Muslims in Sixteenth-Century Bengal,” in Islamic Society and Culture: Essays in Honour of Professor Aziz Ahmad, ed. Milton Israel and N. K. Wagle (New Delhi: Manohar, 1983), 298–302. [BACK]
105. Sebastião Manrique, Travels of Fray Sebastien Manrique, 1629–1643, trans. E. Luard and H. Hosten (Oxford: Hakluyt Society, 1927), 1: 77. [BACK]
106. Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 3: 25–27. [BACK]
107. Percy Brown, Indian Architecture, Islamic Period, 5th ed. (Bombay: D. B. Taraporevala, 1968), 38. [BACK]
3. Early Sufis of the Delta
In the country of Bengal, not to speak of the cities, there is no town and no village where holy saints did not come and settle down.
The Question of Sufis and Frontier Warfare
Bengal’s earliest sustained contact with Islamic civilization occurred in the context of the geopolitical convulsions that had driven large numbers of Turkish-speaking groups from Central Asia into the Iranian plateau and India. Whether as military slaves, as adventurers, or as refugees fleeing before the Mongol advance, Turks gravitated not only to the older centers of the Islamic world—Baghdad, Cairo, Samarkand—but also to its fringes, including Bengal. Immigrant groups were often led by a man called alp or alp-eren, identified as “the heroic figure of old Turkic saga, the warrior-adventurer whose exploits alone justified his way of life.” Migrating Turks also grouped themselves into Islamic mystical fraternities typically organized around Sufi leaders who combined the characteristics of the “heroic figure of old Turkic saga,” the alp, and the pre-Islamic Turkish shaman—that is, a charismatic holy man believed to possess magical powers and to have intimate contact with the unseen world. It happened, moreover, that the strict authority structure that had evolved for transmitting Islamic mystical knowledge from master (murshid) to disciple (murīd) proved remarkably well suited for binding retainers to charismatic leaders. This, too, lent force to the Turkish drive to the Bengal frontier.
The earliest-known Muslim inscription in Bengal concerns a group of such immigrant Sufis. Written on a stone tablet found in Birbhum District and dated July 29, 1221, just seventeen years after Muhammad Bakhtiyar’s conquest, the inscription records the construction of a Sufi lodge (khānaqāh) by a man described as a faqīr—that is, a Sufi—and the son of a native of Maragha in northwestern Iran. The building was not meant for this faqīr alone, but for a group of Sufis (ahl-i ṣuffa) “who all the while abide in the presence of the Exalted Allah and occupy themselves in the remembrance of the Exalted Allah.” The tablet appears to have been part of a pre-Islamic edifice before it was put to use for the khānaqāh, for on its reverse side is a Sanskrit inscription mentioning the victorious conquests made in this part of the delta by a subordinate of Nayapala, Pala king from ca. A.D. 1035 to 1050. The inscription refers to a large number of Hindu temples in this region, and, despite the Buddhist orientation of the Pala kings, it identifies this subordinate ruler as a devotee of Brahmanic gods. Thus the two sides of the same tablet speak suggestively of the complex cultural history of this part of the delta: Brahmanism had flourished and was even patronized by a state whose official cult was Buddhism; on the other hand, the earliest-known representatives of Islam in this area appear to us in the context of the demolished ruins of Bengal’s pre-Muslim past.
But were these men themselves temple-destroying iconoclasts? Can we think of them as ghāzīs—that is, men who waged religious war against non-Muslims? Such, indeed, is the perspective of much Orientalist scholarship. In the 1930s the German Orientalist Paul Wittek propounded the thesis that the Turkish drive westward across Anatolia at the expense of Byzantine Greek civilization had been propelled by an ethos of Islamic holy war, or jihād, against infidels. Although this thesis subsequently became established in Middle Eastern historiography, recent scholarship has shown that it suffers from lack of contemporary evidence. Instead, as Rudi Lindner has argued, the association of a holy war ethic with the early rise of Ottoman power was the work of ideologues writing several centuries after the events they described. What they wrote, according to Lindner, amounted to an “ex post facto purification of early Ottoman deeds, [speaking] more of later propaganda than of early history.”
A similar historiographical pattern is found in Bengal. While it is true that Persian biographies often depict early Sufi holy men of Bengal as pious warriors waging war against the infidel, such biographies were not contemporary with those Sufis. Take, for example, the case of Shaikh Jalal al-Din Tabrizi (d. 1244–45), one of the earliest-known Sufis of Bengal. The earliest notice of him appears in the Siyar al-‘ārifīn, a compendium of Sufi biographies compiled around 1530–36, three centuries after the shaikh’s lifetime. According to this account, after initially studying Sufism in his native Tabriz (in northwestern Iran), Jalal al-Din Tabrizi left around 1228 for Baghdad, where he studied for seven years with the renowned mystic Shaikh Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi. When the latter died in 1235, Jalal al-Din Tabrizi traveled to India and, not finding a warm welcome in the court of Delhi, eventually moved on to Lakhnauti, then the remote provincial capital of Bengal. There he remained until his death ten years later. “When he went to Bengal,” the account records,
Since no contemporary evidence shows that he or any other Sufi in Bengal actually indulged in the destruction of temples, it is probable that as with Turkish Sufis in contemporary Anatolia, later biographers reworked Jalal al-Din Tabrizi’s career for the purpose of expressing their own vision of how the past ought to have happened. For such biographers, the shaikh’s alleged destruction of a Hindu temple, his conversion of the local population, and his raising a Sufi hospice on the temple site all defined for later generations his imagined role as one who had made a decisive break between Bengal’s Hindu past and its Muslim future.
all the population there came to him and became his disciples. There he built a hospice and a public kitchen, and bought several gardens and lands as an endowment for the kitchen. These increased. There was also there a (river) port called Deva Mahal, where an infidel had built a temple at great cost. The shaikh destroyed that temple and in its place constructed a (Sufi) rest-house [takya]. There, he made many infidels into Muslims. Today [i.e., 1530–36], his holy tomb is located at the very site of that temple, and half the income of that port is dedicated to the upkeep of the public kitchen there.
Much the same hagiographical reconstruction was given the career of Shah Jalal Mujarrad (d. 1346), Bengal’s best-known Muslim saint. His biography was first recorded in the mid sixteenth century by a certain Shaikh ‘Ali (d. ca. 1562), a descendant of one of Shah Jalal’s companions. Once again we note a gap of several centuries between the life of the saint and that of his earliest biographer. According to this account, Shah Jalal had been born in Turkestan, where he became a spiritual disciple of Saiyid Ahmad Yasawi, one of the founders of the Central Asian Sufi tradition. The account then casts the shaikh’s expedition to India in the framework of holy war, mentioning both his (lesser) war against the infidel and his (greater) war against the lower self. “One day,” the biographer recorded, Shah Jalal
It is true that the notion of two “strivings” (jihād)—one against the unbeliever and the other against one’s lower soul—had been current in the Perso-Islamic world for several centuries before Shah Jalal’s lifetime. But a fuller reading of the text suggests other motives for the shaikh’s journey to Bengal. After reaching the Indian subcontinent, he and his band of followers are said to have drifted to Sylhet, on the easternmost edge of the Bengal delta. “In these far-flung campaigns,” the narrative continued, “they had no means of subsistence, except the booty, but they lived in splendour. Whenever any valley or cattle were acquired, they were charged with the responsibility of propagation and teaching of Islam. In short, [Shah Jalal] reached Sirhat (Sylhet), one of the areas of the province of Bengal, with 313 persons. [After defeating the ruler of the area] all the region fell into the hands of the conquerors of the spiritual and the material worlds. Shaikh [Jalal] Mujarrad, making a portion for everybody, made it their allowance and permitted them to get married.”
represented to his bright-souled pīr [i.e., Ahmad Yasawi] that his ambition was that just as with the guidance of the master he had achieved a certain amount of success in the Higher (spiritual) jihād, similarly with the help of his object-fulfilling courage he should achieve the desire of his heart in the Lesser (material) jihād, and wherever there may be a Dār-ul-ḥarb [i.e., Land of non-Islam], in attempting its conquest he may attain the rank of a ghāzī or a shahīd [martyr]. The revered pīr accepted his request and sent 700 of his senior fortunate disciples…along with him. Wherever they had a fight with the enemies, they unfurled the banner of victory.
Written so long after the events it describes, this account has a certain paradigmatic quality. Like Shaikh Jalal al-Din Tabrizi, Shah Jalal is presented as having brought about a break between Bengal’s Hindu past and its Muslim future, and to this end a parallel is drawn between the career of the saint and that of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad. The number of companions said to have accompanied Shah Jalal to Bengal, 313, corresponds precisely to the number of companions who are thought to have accompanied the Prophet Muhammad at the Battle of Badr in A.D. 624, the first major battle in Muhammad’s career and a crucial event in launching Islam as a world religion. The story thus has an obvious ideological drive to it.
But other aspects of the narrative are more suggestive of Bengal’s social atmosphere at the time of the conquest. References to “far-flung campaigns” where Shah Jalal’s warrior-disciples “had no means of subsistence, except the booty” suggest the truly nomadic base of these Turkish freebooters, and, incidentally, refute the claim (made in the same narrative) that Shah Jalal’s principal motive for coming to Bengal was religious in nature. In fact, reference to his having made “a portion for everybody” suggests the sort of behavior befitting a tribal chieftain vis-à-vis his pastoral retainers, while the reference to his permitting them to marry suggests a process by which mobile bands of unmarried nomads—Shah Jalal’s own title mujarrad means “bachelor”—settled down as propertied groups rooted in local society. Moreover, the Persian text records that Shah Jalal had ordered his followers to become kadkhudā, a word that can mean either “householder” or “landlord.” Not having brought wives and families with them, his companions evidently married local women and, settling on the land, gradually became integrated with local society. All of this paralleled the early Ottoman experience. At the same time that Shah Jalal’s nomadic followers were settling down in eastern Bengal, companions of Osman (d. 1326), the founder of the Ottoman dynasty, were also passing from a pastoral to a sedentary life in northwestern Anatolia.
Fortunately, we are in a position to compare the later, hagiographic account of Shah Jalal’s career with two independent non-hagiographic sources. The first is an inscription from Sylhet town, dated 1512–13, from which we learn that it was a certain Sikandar Khan Ghazi, and not the shaikh, who had actually conquered the town, and that this occurred in the year 1303–4. The second is a contemporary account from the pen of the famous Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta (d. 1377), who personally met Shah Jalal in 1345. The shaikh was quite an old man by then and sufficiently renowned throughout the Muslim world that the great world traveler made a considerable detour—he had been sailing from South India to China—in order to visit him. Traveling by boat up the Meghna and Surma rivers, Ibn Battuta spent three days as Shah Jalal’s guest in his mountain cave near Sylhet town. As the Moroccan later recalled,
One would like to know more about the religious culture of these people prior to their conversion to Islam. The fragmentary evidence of Ibn Battuta’s account suggests that they were indigenous peoples who had had little formal contact with literate representatives of Brahmanism or Buddhism, for the Moroccan visitor elsewhere describes the inhabitants of the East Bengal hills as “noted for their devotion to and practice of magic and witchcraft.” The remark seems to distinguish these people from the agrarian society of the Surma plains below the hills of Sylhet, a society Ibn Battuta unambiguously identifies as Hindu. It is thus possible that in Shah Jalal these hill people had their first intense exposure to a formal, literate religious tradition.
This shaikh was one of the great saints and one of the unique personalities. He had to his credit miracles (karāmat) well known to the public as well as great deeds, and he was a man of hoary age.…The inhabitants of these mountains had embraced Islam at his hands, and for this reason he stayed amidst them.
In sum, the more contemporary evidence of Sufis on Bengal’s political frontier portrays men who had entered the delta not as holy warriors but as pious mystics or freebooting settlers operating under the authority of charismatic leaders. No contemporary source endows them with the ideology of holy war; nor is there contemporary evidence that they slew non-Muslims or destroyed non-Muslim monuments. No Sufi of Bengal—and for that matter no Bengali sultan, whether in inscriptions or on coins—is known to have styled himself ghāzī. Such ideas only appear in hagiographical accounts written several centuries after the conquest. In particular, it seems that biographers and hagiographers of the sixteenth century consciously (or perhaps unconsciously) projected backward in time an ideology of conquest and conversion that had become prevalent in their own day. As part of that process, they refashioned the careers of holy men of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries so as to fit within the framework of that ideology.
Bengali Sufis and Hindu Thought
From the beginning of the Indo-Turkish encounter with Bengal, one section of Muslims sought to integrate into their religious lives elements of the esoteric practices of local yogis, together with the cosmologies that underpinned those practices. Contemporary Muslims perceived northern Bengal generally, and especially Kamrup, lying between the Brahmaputra River and the hills of Bhutan, as a fabulous and mysterious place inhabited by expert practitioners of the occult, of yoga, and of magic. During his visit to Sylhet, Ibn Battuta noted that “the inhabitants of these mountains . are noted for their devotion to and practice of magic and witchcraft.” Around 1595 the great Mughal administrative manual ā’īn-i Akbarī described the inhabitants of Kamrup as “addicted to the practice of magic [jādūgarī].” Some twenty-five years later a Mughal officer serving in northern Bengal described the Khuntaghat region, in western Kamrup, as “notorious for magic and sorcery.” And in 1662–63 another Mughal chronicler, referring to the entire Assam region, of which Kamrup is the western part, remarked that “the people of India have come to look upon the Assamese as sorcerers, and use the word ‘Assam’ in such formulas as dispel witchcraft.”
Since Sufis were especially concerned with apprehending transcendent reality unmediated by priests or other worldly institutions, it is not surprising that they, among Muslims, were most attracted to the yogi traditions of Kamrup. Within the very first decade of the Turkish conquest, there began to circulate in the delta Persian and Arabic translations of a Sanskrit manual on tantric yoga entitled Amṛtakuṇḍa (“The Pool of Nectar”). According to the translated versions, the Sanskrit text had been composed by a Brahman yogi of Kamrup who had converted to Islam and presented the work to the chief qāẓī, or judge, of Lakhnauti, Rukn al-Din Samarqandi (d. 1218). The latter, in turn, is said to have made the first translations of the work into Arabic and Persian. While this last point is uncertain, there is no doubt that for the following five hundred years the Amṛtakuṇḍa, through its repeated translations into Arabic and Persian, circulated widely among Sufis of Bengal, and even throughout India. The North Indian Sufi Shaikh ‘Abd al-Quddus Gangohi (d. 1537) is known to have absorbed the yogic ideas of the Amṛtakuṇḍa and to have taught them to his own disciples. In the mid seventeenth century, the Kashmiri author Muhsin Fani recorded that he had seen a Persian translation of the Amṛtakuṇḍa, and in the same century the Anatolian Sufi scholar Muhammad al-Misri (d. 1694) cited the Amṛtakuṇḍa as an important book for the study of yogic practices, noting that in India such practices had become partly integrated with Sufism.
In both its Persian and Arabic translations, the Amṛtakuṇḍa survives as a manual of tantric yoga, with the first of its ten chapters affirming the characteristically tantric correspondence between parts of the human body and parts of the macrocosm, “where all that is large in the world discovers itself in the small.” In the mid sixteenth century, there appeared in Gujarat a Persian recension of the Amṛtakuṇḍa under the title Baḥr al-ḥayāṭ, attributed to the great Shattari shaikh Muhammad Ghauth of Gwalior (d. 1563). A prologue to this version, written by a disciple of the shaikh, records how these yogic ideas were thought to have entered the Bengali Sufi tradition:
The exchange between the yogi and the qāẓī cited here appears to have been modeled on a passage in the Qur’an (17:85), in which God tells the Prophet Muhammad: “They [the Jews] will ask thee concerning the Spirit. Say: the Spirit is by command of my Lord.” By putting into the mouth of a yogi words that in the Qur’an were those of the Jews of Muhammad’s day, the author of this recension apparently intended to make the yogi’s exchange comprehensible to a Muslim audience.
This wonderful and strange book is named Amṛtakuṇḍa in the Indian language [i.e., Sanskrit]. This means “Water of Life,” and the reason for the appearance of this book among the Muslims is as follows. When Sultan ‘Ala al-Din [i.e., ‘Ali Mardan] conquered Bengal and Islam became manifest there, news of these events reached the ears of a certain gentleman of the esteemed learned class in Kamrup. His name was Kama, and he was a master of the science of yoga.
In order to debate with the Muslim ‘ulamā [scholars] he arrived in the city of Lakhnauti, and on a Friday he entered the Congregational Mosque. A number of Muslims showed him to a group of ‘ulamā, and they in turn pointed him to the assembly of Qazi Rukn al-Din Samarqandi. So he went to this group and asked: “Whom do you worship?” They replied, “We worship the Faultless God.” To his question “Who is your leader?” they replied, “Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah.” He said, “What has your leader said about the Spirit [rūḥ]?” They replied, “God the All-nourishing has commanded (that there be) the Spirit.” He said, “In truth, I too have found this same thing in books that are subtle and committed to memory.”
Then that man converted to Islam and busied himself in acquiring religious knowledge, and he soon thereafter became a scholar (muftī). After that he wrote and presented this book to Qazi Rukn al-Din Tamami [Samarqandi]. The latter translated it from the Indian language into Arabic in a book of thirty chapters, and somebody else translated it into Persian in a book of ten chapters.…And when Hazrat Ghauth al-Din himself went to Kamrup he necessarily spent several years in studying this science.…The name of this book is Baḥr al-ḥayāṭ.
A second prologue to the Baḥr al-ḥayāṭ established a framework within which a text on yoga could be accommodated within the rich body of classical Sufi lore. In it, the translator tells of once being in a country whose king summoned him and ordered that he undertake a great journey to a distant but fabulous realm. The king reminded the traveler that they were joined together by a covenant and that they would meet again at the end of the traveler’s voyage. Then the translator/traveler describes the hardships he endured while on his journey: the two seas (the soul and nature), the seven mountains, the four passes, the three stations filled with dangers, and the path narrower than the eye of an ant. Ultimately, he reached the promised land, where he found a shaikh who mirrored or echoed each of his own moves and words. Realizing that the man was but his own reflection, the traveler remembered his covenant with his master, to whom he was now led. The story’s climax is reached in the traveler’s epiphanic self-discovery: “I found the king and minister in myself.” The dominant motifs of this second prologue—the traveler, the arduous path with its temptations and dangers, and the ultimate realization that the goal is identified with the seeker—all show the influence of Sufi notions current in the thirteenth-century Perso-Islamic world. The placement of the yogic text immediately after this prologue suggests that the esoteric practices described therein constitute, in effect, the means to achieving the mystical goals stated in the second prologue.
Although some scholars have regarded the Baḥr al-ḥayāṭ as a work of religious syncretism, this judgment is difficult to sustain if by syncretism one means the production of a new synthesis out of two or more antithetical elements. Rather, the work consists of two independent and self-contained worldviews placed alongside one another—a technical manual of yoga preceded by a Sufi allegory—with later editors or translators going to some lengths to stress their points of coincidence. Although Islamic terms and superhuman agencies are generously sprinkled through the main text, allusions to Islamic lore serve ultimately to buttress or illustrate thoroughly Indian concepts. Here, at least, yoga and Sufi ideas resisted true fusion.
Nonetheless the book’s popularity illustrates the Sufis’ considerable fascination with the esoteric practices of Bengal’s indigenous culture. The renowned Shattari saint Shaikh Muhammad Ghauth even traveled from Gwalior in Upper India to Kamrup in order to study the esoteric knowledge that Muslims had identified with that region. In doing so he was following a tradition of Sufis of the Shattari order, whose founder, Shah ‘Abd Allah Shattari (d. 1485), included Bengal on his journey from Central Asia through India. Although one cannot establish a continuous intellectual tradition between Bengali Muslims of the thirteenth century and the Shattari Sufis of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the association of the Baḥr al-ḥayāṭ both with Rukn al-Din Samarqandi in the former century and with Shaikh Muhammad Ghauth in the latter century suggests the likelihood of its continued use in Bengal during the intervening period.
Sufis of the Capital
The principal carriers of the Islamic literary and intellectual tradition in the Bengal sultanate were groups of distinguished and influential Sufis who resided in the successive capital cities of Lakhnauti (from 1204), Pandua (from ca. 1342), and Gaur (from ca. 1432). Most of these men belonged to organized Sufi brotherhoods—especially the Suhrawardi, the Firdausi, and the Chishti orders—and what we know of them can be ascertained mainly from their extant letters and biographical accounts. The urban Sufis about whom we have the most information are clustered in the early sultanate period, from the founding of the independent Ilyas Shahi dynasty at Pandua in 1342 to the end of the Raja Ganesh revolution in 1415.
The political roles played by Sufis in Bengal’s capital were shaped by ideas of Sufi authority that had already evolved in the contemporary Persian-speaking world. We have already referred to the central place that Sufi traditions assigned to powerful saints, a sentiment captured in ‘Ali Hujwiri’s statement that God had “made the Saints the governors of the universe.” Being in theory closer to God than warring princes could ever hope to be, Muslim saints staked a moral claim as God’s representatives on earth. In this view, princely rulers possessed no natural right to earthly power, but had only been entrusted with a temporary lease on such power through the grace of some Muslim saint. This perspective perhaps explains why in Indo-Muslim history we so often find Sufis predicting who would attain political office, and for how long they would hold it. For behind the explicit act of “prediction” lay the implicit act of appointment—that is, of a Sufi’s entrusting his wilāyat, or earthly domain, to a prince. For example, the fourteenth-century historian Shams-i Siraj ‘Afif recorded that before his rise to royal stature, the future Sultan Ghiyath al-Din Tughluq, founder of the Tughluq dynasty of Delhi (1321–1398), had been one of many local notables attracted to the spiritual power of the grandson of the famous Chishti Sufi Shaikh Farid al-Din Ganj-i Shakar (d. 1265). The governor made frequent visits to the holy man’s lodge in the Punjab, and on one occasion brought along his son and nephew, the future sultans Muhammad bin Tughluq and Firuz Tughluq. All three were given turbans by the saint and told that each was destined to rule India. The length of each turban, moreover, exactly corresponded to the number of years each would reign. In this anecdote one may discern the seeds of the complex pattern of mutual patronage between shaikhs of the Chishti order and one of the mightiest empires in India’s history.
Similar traditions circulated in Bengal concerning the foundation of independent Muslim rule there. In 1243–44 the historian Minhaj al-Siraj visited Lakhnauti, where he recorded the following anecdote. Before embarking for India, the future sultan of Bengal Ghiyath al-Din ‘Iwaz (1213–27) was once traveling with his laden donkey along a dusty road in Afghanistan. There he came upon two dervishes clothed in ragged cloaks. When the two asked the future ruler whether he had any food, the latter replied that he did and took the load down from the donkey’s back. Spreading his garments on the ground, he offered the dervishes whatever victuals he had. After they had eaten, the grateful dervishes remarked to each other that such kindness should not go unrewarded. Turning to their benefactor, they said, “Go thou to Hindustan, for that place, which is the extreme (point) of Muhammadanism, we have given unto thee.” At once the future sultan gathered together his family and set out for India “in accord with the intimation of those two Darweshes.” In the Perso-Islamic cultural universe of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Bengal really did in some sense “belong” to those two dervishes, that they might “entrust” it to a kind stranger.
In Bengal as in North India, the connection between political fortune and spiritual blessing is most evident in the early history of the Chishti order, the order to which the most ascendant shaikhs of early-fourteenth-century Delhi belonged. “Anybody who was anyone,” as Simon Digby puts it, visited the lodge of Delhi’s most eminent shaikh of the time, Nizam al-Din Auliya (d. 1325). Indeed, the two principal Persian poets of the early fourteenth century, Amir Khusrau and Amir Hasan, together with the sultanate’s leading contemporary historian, Zia al-Din Barani, were all spiritual disciples of this shaikh. Since Delhi at this time happened to be the capital of a vital and expanding empire, it is not surprising that the literary, cultural, and institutional traditions of that city—together with the shaikhs and institutions of its dominant Sufi order—expanded along with Khalaji and Tughluq arms to the far corners of India, including Bengal.
But there was a deeper reason why Indo-Muslim courts patronized Chishti shaikhs. By the fourteenth century, when other Sufi orders in India still looked to Central Asia or the Middle East as their spiritual home, the Chishtis, with their major shrines located within the Indian subcontinent, had become thoroughly indigenized. Seeking to establish their legitimacy both as Muslims and as Indians, Indo-Muslim rulers therefore turned to prominent shaikhs of this order for blessings and support. For the same reason, leading Chishti shaikhs dispersed from Shaikh Nizam al-Din’s lodge to all parts of the empire and often enjoyed the patronage of provincial rulers. Conversely, many young Indian-born Muslims journeyed from all over India to live in or near that shaikh’s lodge, later to return to their native lands, where they would establish daughter Chishti lodges and enjoy the patronage of local rulers (see table 2).
Table 2. Leading Chishti Sufis of Bengal
The first Bengal-born Muslim known to have studied with Shaikh Nizam al-Din was Akhi Siraj al-Din (d. 1357), who journeyed to Delhi as a young man. Having distinguished himself at the Sufi lodge of the renowned shaikh, Siraj al-Din received a certificate of succession and so thoroughly associated himself with the North Indian Chishti tradition that he was given the epithet “āyina-yi Hindūstān,” or “Mirror of Hindustan.” Returning to Bengal some time before 1325, when his master died, he inducted others into the Chishti discipline, his foremost pupil being another Bengal-born Muslim, Shaikh ‘Ala al-Haq (d. 1398). But unlike his own teacher, who had no known dealings with royalty, Shaikh ‘Ala al-Haq was destined to play a special role in the political history of Muslim Bengal. In fact, the earliest-known monument built by the founder of Bengal’s longest-lived dynasty, the Ilyas Shahi line of kings (1342–1486), was dedicated to this shaikh. On a mosque built in 1342 in what is now part of Calcutta, Shams al-Din Ilyas Shah praised the Sufi as “the benevolent and revered saint (Shaikh) whose acts of virtue are attractive and sublime, inspired by Allah, may He illuminate his heart with the light of divine perception and faith, and he is the guide to the religion of the Glorious, ‘Alaul-Haqqmay…his piety last long.”
The importance of this inscription derives from its political context. Shams al-Din Ilyas Shah, an ambitious and politically astute newcomer to the delta, was just then launching a bid for independence from Delhi, evidently using southwestern Bengal as his power base. The imperial governor of nearby Satgaon having recently died, Shams al-Din, aware that Delhi was convulsed by the various crises provoked by the eccentric Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq, seized the moment to attain provincewide power. As his earliest-known coin was minted at Pandua in A.D. 1342–43 (A.H. 743), Shams al-Din’s ascendancy exactly synchronizes with the dedication of this mosque and his patronage of Shaikh ‘Ala al-Haq. Moreover, the patronage of the two men was mutual, since Shaikh ‘Ala al-Haq, attaching himself to this rising political star, adopted Shams al-Din as a recipient of his teachings and blessings. This early connection cemented an alliance between government and prominent Chishti shaikhs that would last for the duration of Muslim rule in Bengal.
Not all alliances between Sufis and sultans were initiated by would-be rulers seeking to broaden their political bases. Some Sufis were drawn to the court out of a fervent desire to advance the cause of Islam as they understood it, and to augment the welfare of Muslims in the realm. We see this in the correspondence between Muzaffar Shams Balkhi (d. 1400) and Sultan Ghiyath al-Din A‘zam Shah (r. 1389–1410). An immigrant from Central Asia, Muzaffar had left his native Balkh for Delhi, where he taught at the college of Firuz Shah Tughluq. But the man’s restless spirit led him to Bihar city, where, after meeting and becoming the disciple of the great Firdausi shaikh Sharaf al-Din Maneri (d. 1381), he experienced a major change in life-orientation. Abandoning his pride in scholarship, Muzaffar subjected himself to various austerities and distributed all his worldly possessions in charity. He also made several pilgrimages to Mecca, where he once stayed for four years, teaching lessons in ḥadīth scholarship. His extant letters reveal him not as an ecstatic, quiescent, or contemplative sort, but as committed to imposing his understanding of the Prophet’s religious vision on the here-and-now world, a man inclined to scrutinize human society by scriptural standards and, finding it wanting, to transform it so as to meet those standards. In the sultan of Bengal, the Sufi found an outlet for these impulses.
Muzaffar Shams first seems to have become concerned about tutoring Sultan Ghiyath al-Din while waiting in Pandua for official permission to embark on a trip from Chittagong to Mecca. “The four months of the ship season are ahead of us,” he wrote; “there are eight months still left; during all this while I have spent my life as a guest in the auspicious threshold of your majesty, may not your exaltation lessen.” Although the Sufi politely described himself as a mere “guest” of the sultan, it is evident that he felt himself entrusted with a higher calling. “In my opinion,” he wrote the king,
Who, here, is patronizing whom? The Sufi’s reference to the sultan as his “son” signals a clear inversion of the usual relationship between a patrimonial king and his subjects. Nor would the Sufi give the king privileged access to his personal correspondence; to see it the monarch had first to secure permission from a third party. Muzaffar Balkhi also reminded the king that although Sultan Firuz Tughluq of Delhi had repeatedly requested letters and spiritual guidance from Muzaffar’s own master, Shaikh Sharaf al-Din Maneri, the latter had refused to oblige him, choosing instead to correspond with Sultan Sikandar of Bengal, Ghiyath al-Din’s father. “You,” he noted pointedly, “have had the effects and legacy of those blessings on yourself.” In short, Muzaffar felt that he and his own master had been doing the Bengal sultans a favor by bestowing their blessings and advice on them instead of on the sultans of Delhi.
by the gifts of God, the cherisher of mankind, you have developed a capacity of looking at the inside of things of the pure faith and the understanding of things of manifold signification. It appears that my heart would be opened out to you. A pious inspired man, Abdul Malik, has been a recipient of my letters[,] which might form a volume. It may be at Pandua or at Muazzamabad, but I don’t remember where it exactly is. Oh, my son, get the permission and go through its contents. Something of my inward part may be opened out to you. You are the second person on whom I have poured out my secret (mystic) thoughts. It behooves you not to disclose these to anyone else.
In addition to his recommendations concerning Islamic piety—for example, on the need to suppress innovation not prescribed by the Shari‘a, or to enforce the payment of alms by Muslims—Muzaffar cautioned the king against placing non-Muslims in positions of authority. “The substance of what has come in the tradition and commentaries,” wrote the shaikh, “is this”:
The Sufi thus saw in Islamic Law a clear course of action the sultan should take in order to avert certain disaster. For in Bengal’s affairs Muzaffar Shams discerned more than just a political crisis. Referring to Timur’s recent sacking of Delhi (A.D. 1398, or A.H. 801), which marked the eclipse of the once-mighty Tughluq empire, he wrote: “The eighth century has passed out, and the signs of the coming Resurrection are increasingly visible. An Empire like that of Delhi with all its expanse and abundance, spiritual and physical comfort, peace and tranquility, has turned upside down (is in a topsy-turvy condition). Infidelity has now come to hold the field; the condition of other countries is no better. Now is the time, and this is the opportunity.” His gaze riveted on scripture, Muzaffar saw a palpable link between worldly decay and the Day of Judgment, heralded by that decay. Only by removing infidelity could Muslims forestall an otherwise inevitable cosmic process. And since the sultan had the power to stamp out infidelity by suppressing non-Muslims in a kingdom originally established by Muslims, the Sufi saw the sultan as capable of playing a pivotal role in implementing what he understood as God’s will in that process.
“Oh believers, don’t make strangers, that is infidels, your confidential favourites and ministers of state.” They say that they don’t allow any to approach or come near to them and become favourite courtiers; but it was done evidently and for expedience and worldly exigency of the Sultanate that they are entrusted with some affairs. To this the reply is that according to God it is neither expediency nor exigency but the reverse of it, that is an evil and pernicious thing.…Don’t entrust a work into the hands of infidels by reason of which they would become a walī (Governor-ruler or superior) over the Musalmans, exercise their authority in their affairs, and impose their command over them. As God says in the Quran, “It is not proper for a believer to trust an infidel as his friend and walī, and those who do so have no place in the estimation of God.” Hear God and be devout and pious; very severe warnings have come in the Kitab (holy book) and traditions against the appointment of infidels as a ruler over the believers.
It was shaikhs of the Chishti order, however, who by the early fifteenth century had emerged as the principal spokesmen for a Muslim communal perspective in Bengal. If Shaikh ‘Ala al-Haq had risen to prominence with the ascending fortunes of the founder of the Ilyas Shahi dynasty, his son and successor, Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam (d. 1459), presided over Bengal’s Chishti tradition when Ilyas Shahi fortunes had sunk to their lowest point—the period of Raja Ganesh’s domination over the Ilyas Shahi throne. According to Sufi sources, Raja Ganesh even persecuted Chishti shaikhs, banishing Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam’s own son, Shaikh Anwar, to Sonargaon, and plotting the death of the son of another Chishti shaikh, Husain Dhukkarposh. In these circumstances, as noted in Chapter 2, the shaikh implored Sultan Ibrahim Sharqi of Jaunpur to invade Bengal and remove the “menace” of Raja Ganesh. The following passage shows the extent to which the Chishtis of Bengal had come to identify the fortunes of Islam with the political fortunes of the Ilyas Shahi dynasty. “After a period of three hundred years,” wrote the Sufi, “the Islamic land of Bengal—the place of mortals, the kingdom of the end of the seven heavens—has been overwhelmed and put to the run by the darkness of infidels and the power of unbelievers.” The shaikh elaborated this point using the Sufi and Qur’anic metaphor of light:
The lamp of the Islamic religion and of true guidance Which had [formerly] brightened every corner with its light, Has been extinguished by the wind of unbelief blown by Raja Ganesh. Splendor from envy of the victorious news, The lamp of [the celebrated preacher, Abu’l-Husain] Nuri, and the candle of [the Shi‘a martyr] Husain Have all been extinguished by the might of swords and the power of this thing in view. What does one call the lamp and candle of men Whose nature is devoid of virility [lit., has eaten camphor]? When the abode of faith and Islam has fallen into such a fate, Why are you sitting happily on your throne? Arise, come and defend the religion, For it is incumbent upon you, O king, possessed of power and capacity.
While publicly clamoring for military intervention, privately, in a letter to his exiled son, Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam brooded over the theological implications of Raja Ganesh’s appearance in Bengali history. To the anguished Sufi, it seemed that God had not been heeding the supplication of the very people to whom the Qur’an had promised divine favor and protection. “Infidelity,” he wrote,
But the fortunes of Bengali Muslims did not ebb as the shaikh had feared. Once the stormy period of Raja Ganesh had subsided, his converted son resumed the patronage of the Chishti establishment, reconfirming the Chishti-court alliance that had been established between Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam’s father and the dynasty’s founder. Both Sultan Jalal al-Din and his son and successor Ahmad (r. 1432–33) became disciples of Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam himself, and twelve succeeding sultans down to the year 1532 enlisted themselves as disciples of the descendants of Shaikh ‘Ala al-Haq. By the end of the fifteenth century, the tomb of Shaikh Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam in Pandua had become in effect a state shrine to which Sultan ‘Ala al-Din Husain Shah (r. 1493–1519) made annual pilgrimages.
has gained predominance and the kingdom of Islam has been spoiled.…Neither the devotion and the worship of the votaries of God proved helpful to them nor the unbelief of the infidels fettered their steps. Neither worship and devotion does any good to His Holy Divine Majesty, nor does infidelity do any harm to Him. Alas! Alas! O, how painful! With one gesture and freak of independence he caused the consumption of so many souls, the destruction of so many lives, and shedding of so much of bitter tears. Alas, woe to me, the sun of Islam has become obscured and the moon of religion has become eclipsed.
Despite the mutual patronage and even dependency between Bengal’s Sufis and its rulers, one also detects an undercurrent of friction between the two. Occasionally erupting into open hostility, this friction derived from the radical distinction made in Islam between dīn and dunyā, “religion” and “the world.” Withdrawn from worldly affairs and living in a state of poverty, self-denial, and remembrance of God, the Sufi recluse was in theory dramatically opposed by the ruler-administrator, glittering in his wealth and utterly immersed in worldly affairs. Sufis who rejected the world made much of their refusal to consort with “worldly” people—including above all royalty. Conversely, rulers sometimes suspected their Sufi allies, or even feared having around them such popular, charismatic leaders who might conceivably stir up the mob to riot or rebellion.
Here we may consider an inscription of Sultan Sikandar Ilyas Shah, dated 1363, in which the king dedicated a dome he had built for the shrine of a saint named Maulana ‘Ata. Although the shaikh may have been the king’s contemporary, Maulana ‘Ata was more likely an earlier holy man whose shrine had become the focus of an important cult by the time the inscription was recorded. “In this dome,” the inscription reads,
While outwardly acclaiming the greatness of Maulana ‘Ata, Sultan Sikandar was also asserting his own claims to closeness to God, styling himself the one in whose name “the pearls of prayer have been strung,” and “the Shadow of God on Earth.” And by referring to this shrine as a copy (nuskha) of the heavens, the sultan drew attention to parallels between God’s creative activity and his own. For if it had been God’s creative act to adorn the seven heavens with lamps (maṣābīḥ), that is, stars, it was Sultan Sikandar’s creative act to adorn the earth with a tomb for the lamp (sirāj) of Truth, Law, and Faith, that is, Maulana ‘Ata. Implicitly, then, had it not been for the munificence of Sultan Sikandar, Maulana ‘Ata would have remained shrouded in obscurity.
which has been founded by ‘Ata, may the sanctuary of both worlds remain. May the angels recite for its durability, till the day of resurrection: “We have built over you seven solid heavens” [Qur’an 78:12].
By the grace of (the builder of) the seven wonderful porticos “who hath created seven heavens, one above another” [Qur’an 67:3], may His names be glorified; the building of this lofty dome was completed. (Verily it) is the copy of a vault (lit., shell) of the roof of Glory, (referred in this verse) “And we have adorned the heaven of the world” (lit., lamps) [Qur’an 67:5]. (This lofty dome) in the sacred shrine of the chief of the saints, the unequaled among enquirers, the lamp of Truth, Law and Faith, Maulana ‘Ata, may the High Allah bless him with His favours in both worlds; (was built) by order of the lord of the age and the time, the causer of justice and benevolence, the defender of towns, the pastor of people, the just, learned and great monarch, the shadow of Allah on the world, distinguished by the grace of the Merciful, Abu’l Mujahid Sikandar Shah, son of Ilyas Shah, the Sultan, may Allah perpetuate his kingdom.
The king of the world Sikandar Shah, in whose name the pearls of prayer have been strung; regarding him they have said, “May Allah illuminate his rank,” and regarding him they have prayed “May Allah perpetuate his kingdom.”
Royal distrust of or aversion to Sufis, even those of the Chishti order, is seen in other ways. Although Shams al-Din Ilyas Shah had patronized a prominent Chishti shaikh while establishing a new dynasty, the king’s son and successor, Sultan Sikandar, was suspicious of the disciples of his father’s saintly patron. He was especially suspicious of the most eminent of these, Shaikh ‘Ala al-Haq, whose shrine complex had become in Sikandar’s day a major nexus for economic transactions, redistributing amongst the city’s poor large sums of money received in the form of pious donations. Alarmed at the Sufi’s substantial expenditure on the urban populace, Sikandar declared: “My treasure is in the hands of your father [the kingdom’s Treasurer]; [yet] you are giving away as much as he spends.” Evidently jealous of the shaikh’s wealth and influence, the king banished the Sufi to Sonargaon.
Bengal’s Sufis and sultans, then, were fatefully connected by ties of mutual attraction and repulsion. Generally, when they were first establishing themselves politically, and especially when launching new dynasties, rulers actively sought the legitimacy powerful saints might lend them. Sultan Ghiyath al-Din ‘Iwaz’s earliest chronicler situated the launching of Bengal’s first independent dynasty (1213) in the context of the grace, or baraka, of two simple dervishes in Afghanistan. And in 1342, when Sultan Shams al-Din Ilyas Shah launched the longest-lived dynasty in Muslim Bengal, he did so with the blessings of a renowned scion of the prestigious Chishti line. Struck by the awesome spiritual powers people attributed to charismatic shaikhs, or believing that their own lease on power was somehow extended by such forceful men, new Muslim kings sought their favor, built lodges or mausolea for them, or made public pilgrimages to their tombs. Conversely, some Sufis sought royal patronage out of their own reformist impulses to bring “the world” (dunyā) into proper alignment with their understanding of the dictates of normative “religion” (dīn).
On the other hand, once dynasties were securely entrenched in power, some kings no longer considered it necessary to call upon the charismatic authority of holy men to legitimate their rule. In fact, the wealth and influence of charismatic shaikhs were sometimes seen as potential threats to royal authority. Sikandar Ilyas Shah only begrudgingly patronized a saint on whose mausoleum he heaped more praise on himself than on the saint. And he actually banished the most eminent shaikh of the day from his capital when he felt his authority rivaled. Only after the death of Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam in the mid fifteenth century, when Sufism’s intellectually vibrant tradition was replaced by a politically innocuous tomb-cult, did the state once again wholeheartedly ally itself with the Chishti tradition.
1. Rudi Paul Lindner, Nomads and Ottomans in Medieval Anatolia (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1983), 24. See also Gerald Clauson, Etymological Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth Century Turkish (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 128. [BACK]
2. Z. A. Desai, “An Early Thirteenth-Century Inscription from West Bengal,” Epigraphia Indica, Arabic and Persian Supplement (1975): 6–12. The inscription was found in the village of Siwan, in Bolpur Thana of Birbhum District. [BACK]
3. D. C. Sircar, “New Light on the Reign of Nayapala,” Bangladesh Itihas Parishad: Third History Congress, Proceedings (Dacca: Bangladesh Itihas Parishad , 1973): 36–43. [BACK]
4. Lindner, Nomads and Ottomans, 1–38; R. C. Jennings, “Some Thoughts on the Gazi Thesis,” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 76 (1986): 151–61. [BACK]
5. Lindner, Nomads and Ottomans, 7. See also Rudi Paul Lindner, “Stimulus and Justification in Early Ottoman History,” in Greek Orthodox Theological Review 27, nos. 2–3 (Summer-Fall 1982): 207–24. [BACK]
6. Maulana Jamali, Siyar al-‘ārifīn (Delhi: Matba‘ Rizvi, 1893), 164–69. [BACK]
7. Ibid., 171. [BACK]
8. The account of Shaikh ‘Ali was later reproduced in the well-known hagiography Gulzār-i abrār, compiled ca. 1613, the relevant extracts of which were published by S. M. Ikram, “An Unnoticed Account of Shaikh Jalal of Sylhet,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Pakistan 2 (1957): 63–68. Since Ahmad Yasawi died in 1166, Shah Jalal’s own spiritual master must have been an unidentified intermediary between Yasawi and Shah Jalal. [BACK]
9. Ibid., 66. Ikram’s translation. [BACK]
10. The oldest Persian treatise on Sufism, the Kashf al-maḥjūb by ‘Ali Hujwiri (d. ca. 1072), composed in Lahore, had already elaborated Sufi ideas on the two kinds of jihād. See The Kashf al-mahjub, trans. Reynold A. Nicholson, 2d ed. (reprint, London: Luzac, 1970), 201. [BACK]
11. Ikram, “Unnoticed Account,” 66. [BACK]
12. The Persian original, compiled in 1613 by Muhammad Ghauthi b. Hasan b. Musa Shattari, reads: “Shaikh Mujarrad hama-rā hiṣṣa sākhtawa har yak-rā dastūrī-yi kadkhudā shudan nīz bar dād .” Gulzār-i abrār (Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta, Persian MS. 259), fol. 41a. The Persian version published by Ikram mistakenly reads: “…wa har yak-rā dastūrī ki khudā shudan nīz bar dād, ” which would mean, “…and he gave an order that each of them also become God”(!) Ikram, “Unnoticed Account,” 65. [BACK]
13. Lindner argues that “the pastoral Ottomans followed their own economic self-interest, that is, they settled because they made a much better and more secure living as landlords or cultivators in Bithynia.” Moreover, “a given area used for cultivation, if it is as fertile as Bithynia, can support a much larger population than it can if used as pasture alone. The yield, in calories, of a plot of good land used for crops is much higher than the ultimate yield if that land is merely grazed.” Lindner, Nomads and Ottomans, 30. The same arguments would apply to the Bengal delta, where the economic value of a plot of land in rice paddy is considerably greater than if it were used for pasture. [BACK]
14. Shamsud-Din Ahmed, ed. and trans., Inscriptions, 4: 25. Shah Jalal’s fame at the time of this inscription is evident from its opening lines, which honor “the exalted Shaikh of Shaikhs, the revered Shaikh Jalal, the ascetic, son of Muhammad.” It is not clear to what building in Sylhet the inscription, currently preserved in the Dhaka Museum, was originally affixed. [BACK]
15. Ibn Battuta, The Rehla of Ibn Battuta, trans. Mahdi Husain (Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1953), 238–39. [BACK]
16. Ibid., 237–38. [BACK]
17. “The inhabitants of Habanq [near Habiganj] are infidels under protection (dhimma) from whom half of the crops which they produce is taken.” Ibid., 241. [BACK]
18. Ibid., 237–38. [BACK]
19. Abu’l-fazl ‘Allami, ā’īn-i Akbarī (Lucknow: Nawal Kishor, 1869), 2: 74. Vol. 1 trans. H. Blochmann, ed. D. C. Phillott; vols. 2 and 3 trans. H. S. Jarrett, ed. Jadunath Sarkar, 3d ed. (New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corp., 1978), 2: 130. [BACK]
20. Mirza Nathan, Bahāristān-i ghaibī, Persian MS., Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, Sup. Pers. 252, fol. 146b; trans. M. I. Borah as Bahāristān-i-ghaybī: A History of the Mughal Wars in Assam, Cooch Behar, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa during the reigns of Jahāngīr and Shāhjahān, by Mīrza Nathan (Gauhati: Government of Assam, 1936), 1: 273. [BACK]
21. Shihab al-Din Talish, Fatḥiyah-i ‘ibriyah, in H. Blochmann, “Koch Bihar, Koch Hajo, and Assam in the 16th and 17th Centuries, According to the Akbarnamah, the Padshahnamah, and the Fathiyah i ‘Ibriyah,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 41, no. 1 (1872): 79. [BACK]
22. For notices on Rukn al-Din Samarqandi, see Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1960), 1: 434–35. For a discussion of the problems of identifying the translators of the Amṛtakuṇḍa, see Yusuf Husain, “Haud al-hayat : La Versionarabe de l’Amratkund,” Journal asiatique 113 (October-December 1928): 292–95. [BACK]
23. Although there are no known copies of the original Sanskrit work, there are many translations in Islamic languages, indicating the enormous influence this work had in and beyond Bengal. Islamic Culture 21 (1947): 191–92 refers to a Persian manuscript version of the text, entitled Baḥr al-ḥayāṭ, preserved in the library of Pir Muhammad Shah in Ahmedabad, Gujarat (No. 223). Another Persian copy of this work is in the India Office Library, London (Persian MS. No. 2002). A third manuscript copy is in the Ganj Bakhsh Library, Rawalpindi (MS. No. 6298). A fourth, dating to the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, and containing twenty-one illustrations of yogic postures, is in the library of A. Chester Beatty in Dublin; see Thomas A. Arnold, The Library of A. Chester Beatty: A Catalogue of the Indian Miniatures, revised and ed. J. V.S. Wilkinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1936), 1: 80–81, 3: 98. According to the Islamic Culture article cited above (p. 192), an edition of the Persian Baḥr al-ḥayāṭ was published in Madras in 1892–93. Arabic translations of the Amṛtakuṇḍa are entitled ḥauẓ al-ḥayāṭ, and five of those preserved in European libraries were compared and analyzed by Yusuf Husain in his article “Haud al-hayat : La Version arabe,” to which the author appended an Arabic version of the text. Carl Ernst, who is now preparing for publication a critical edition of the Arabic text, together with an annotated translation and monographic introduction, has identified forty manuscript copies of Arabic translations, seventeen of which are in Istanbul. Turkish translations began appearing in the mid eighteenth century, and one was published in 1910–11. A nineteenth-century Urdu translation survives in a manuscript in Hyderabad, India. See Carl W. Ernst, trans., The Arabic Version of “The Pool of the Water of Life” (Amṛtakuṇḍa), forthcoming. [BACK]
24. S. A.A. Rizvi, A History of Sufism in India (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1978), 1: 335. [BACK]
25. Muhsin Fani, Dabistān-i maẓāhib, ed. Nazir Ashraf and W. B. Bayley (Calcutta, 1809), 224. [BACK]
26. Husain, “Haud al-hayat : La Version arabe,” 294. [BACK]
27. The Gulzār al-abrār, compiled around 1613, or just fifty years after the death of Shaikh Muhammad Ghauth, mentions a translation (from the Arabic to Persian) of the Baḥr al-ḥayāṭ as among the written works of the great saint of Gwalior. See Muhammad Ghauthi Shattari Mandawi, Gulzār-i abrār, Urdu trans. by Fazl Ahmad Jiwari (Lahore: Islamic Book Foundation, 1975), 300. [BACK]
28. Islamic Culture 21 (1947), 191–92. The Persian extract published in Islamic Culture was taken from a manuscript copy of the Baḥr al-ḥayāṭ in the library of Pir Muhammad Shah of Ahmadabad (No. 223). See also the copy in the India Office Library, Persian MS. 2002, fols. 2a-3a, in which the yogi’s name is given as Kanama. [BACK]
29. Baḥr al-ḥayāṭ (India Office Library, London, Persian MS. 2002), fols. 3a-6b. [BACK]
30. In particular, they recall the classic statement of the Sufi path, The Conference of the Birds, or Manṭiq al-ṭayr, composed by Farid al-Din ‘Attar (d. 1220). In fact, since both ‘Attar and Shaikh Rukn al-Din Samarqandi, perhaps the first translator of the Amṛtakuṇḍa, were contemporaries in Khurasan toward the end of the twelfth century, it is possible that the latter was familiar with ‘Attar’s mystical philosophy. Certainly, both were steeped in the same Perso-Islamic literary and religious culture. On the other hand, it is possible that this second prologue was written not by Samarqandi but by Muhammad Ghauth three centuries later, since we know that the latter retranslated the work into Persian. Carl Ernst, following the views of Henry Corbin, has argued that the frame story was ultimately derived from the “Hymn of the Pearl,” found in the gnostic Acts of Thomas. See Ernst, Arabic Version (forthcoming), and Henry Corbin, “Pour une morphologie de la spiritualité Shī‘ite,” Eranos-Jahrbuch 1960 (Zurich: Rhein-Verlag, 1961), 29: 102–7. [BACK]
31. Yusuf Husain, among others, has argued for the work’s syncretic nature. See Husain, “Haud al-hayat : La Version arabe,” 292. [BACK]
32. For example, in a passage in which proper breathing technique is compared with the way a foetus breathes in its mother’s womb, the foetus is identified with al-Khiẓr, a popular saint in Islamic lore, associated with water and eternal life. Again, where such techniques are compared with the way a fish breathes in water without swallowing it, the fish is identified with the one that swallowed the Prophet Jonah. And the seven Sanskrit mantras associated with the seven spinal nerve centers are all identified with Arabic names of God, so that, for example, hūm is translated as Yā rabb (“O Lord”), and aum is translated Yā qadīm (“O Ancient One”). These were not so much “translations” as they were attempts at finding functional equivalents between yogic words of spiritual power and the names of God as used by the Sufis. See Yusuf Husain, “Haud al-hayat : La Version arabe,” 300, and Ernst, Arabic Version (forthcoming). [BACK]
33. While in Bengal, Shah ‘Abd Allah made a spiritual disciple of Shaikh Muhammad ‘Ala, who enthusiastically propagated the Shattari order in the delta, and whose own spiritual successor, Shaikh Zuhur Baba Haji Hamid (d. 1524), was the spiritual master of Shaikh Muhammad Ghauth. Rizvi, History of Sufism in India, 2: 153–55. Muhammad Ghauth’s elder brother, Shaikh Bahlul, also resided in Bengal after having arrived with the first Mughal invasion in 1538. Jahangir, Tūzuk-i Jahāngīrī 2: 63. [BACK]
34. Around 1414 the Chishti shaikh Ashraf Jahangir Simnani stated that seventy disciples of Shaikh Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi (d. 1144) had been buried in Devgaon (site not identified), and that other Sufis of the Suhrawardi order, together with followers of Shaikh Jalal al-Din Tabrizi (see above), were buried in Mahisantosh and Deotala, both near Pandua. “In short,” he noted, “in the country of Bengal, not to speak of the cities, there is no town and no village where holy saints did not come and settle down.” Shaikh Ashraf Jahangir Simnani, Maktūbāt-i ashrafī, Aligarh Muslim University History Department, Aligarh, Persian MS. no. 27, letter 45, fols. 139b–140a. See also S. H. Askari, “New Light on Rajah Ganesh and Sultan Ibrahim Sharqi of Jaunpur from Contemporary Correspondence of Two Muslim Saints,” Bengal Past and Present 57 (1948): 35. [BACK]
35. Shams-i Siraj ‘Afif, Tārīkh-i Fīrūz Shāhī, ed. Maulavi Vilayat Husain. (Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1891), 27–28. [BACK]
36. Since Sultan Ghiyath al-Din ‘Iwaz had died only seventeen years before Minhaj’s visit, it is probable that this story had been in circulation in the Bengali capital soon after, and perhaps during, the king’s reign. [BACK]
37. Minhaj-ud-Din ‘Usman, ṭabakāt-i-Nāṣirī, 1: 581. [BACK]
38. Simon Digby, “The Sufi Shaikh as a Source of Authority in Mediaeval India,” in Puruṣārtha, vol. 9: Islam et société en Asie du sud, ed. Marc Gaborieau (Paris: Ecole des Hautes études en sciences sociales, 1986), 68–69. Even when Bengal was independent of Delhi, prominent shaikhs of this order maintained close institutional links with North India—a circumstance that led A. B.M. Habibullah to describe the Chishtis of Bengal as a sort of “fifth column” for the Delhi sultanate. A. B.M. Habibullah, review of Abdul Karim, Social History of the Muslims in Bengal, in Journal of the Asiatic Society of Pakistan 5 (1960): 216–17. [BACK]
39. ‘Abd al-Rahman Chishti, Mirāt al-asrār, fol. 514a. [BACK]
40. Indeed, Akhi Siraj endeavored to break his more highborn disciples of their aristocratic ways. In the case of ‘Ala al-Haq, whose father was a prominent migrant from Lahore and the treasurer of Bengal’s provincial government, Siraj taught his disciple to humble himself by walking with a hot cauldron on his head through the quarter of Lakhnauti where his family lived. Akhbār al-akhyār, comp. ‘Abd al-Haq Muhaddis Dihlavi (Deoband, U. P.: Kitab Khana-yi Rahimia, 1915–16), 149. In 1357 Akhi Siraj died and was buried in a suburb of Lakhnauti. Alexander Cunningham identified his tomb and shrine with a high mound in “Sadullahpur,” near the northeast corner of the Sagar Dighi tank. Cunningham, “Report of a Tour in Bihar and Bengal in 1879–80 from Patna to Sunargaon,” in Archaeological Survey of India, Report 15 (Calcutta, 1882): 70. [BACK]
41. Shamsud-Din Ahmed, ed. and trans., Inscriptions, 4: 31–33. The editor himself found the stone with this inscription “while strolling through the eastern suburb of Calcutta, early in 1939.” He was told that around 1900 the stone had been picked up from a ruined mosque in the neighborhood. [BACK]
42. Ibid., 32. [BACK]
43. Karim, Corpus, 47. [BACK]
44. S. H. Askari, Maktub and Malfuz Literature as a Source of Socio-PoliticalHistory (Patna: Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, 1981), 22. [BACK]
45. Muzaffar Shams Balkhi, Maktūbāt-i Muz̄affar Shams Balkhī (Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, Patna, Persian MS., Acc. no. 1859), letter 148, p. 448. Partially translated by S. H. Askari in Maktub and Malfuz Literature, 16. Askari’s translation. [BACK]
46. The Sufi then advised the sultan that whenever he was confronted with an important concern, he should notify the Sufi of it by sending either a letter or a messenger to Mecca. Balkhi, Maktūbāt, letter 163, p. 493. See also Askari, Maktub and Malfuz Literature, 19. Askari’s translation. [BACK]
47. Balkhi, Maktūbāt, letter 163, p. 503. See also Askari, Maktub and Malfuz Literature, 21. Askari’s translation. [BACK]
48. Also at work here was a keen rivalry between two major Sufi orders for royal patronage—the Chishtis, who were dominant in Delhi, and the Firdausis, who under Shaikh Sharaf al-Din Maneri’s leadership were dominant in Bihar. In this correspondence, the Firdausis were clearly making a bid for patronage from the kings of Bengal. For the Firdausi-Chishti rivalry, see Digby, “Sufi Shaikh as a Source,” 65–67. [BACK]
49. Balkhi, Maktūbāt, letter 165, p. 495. See also Askari, Maktub and Malfuz Literature, 20. [BACK]
50. Balkhi, Maktūbāt, letter 165, pp. 508–9. See also Askari, Maktub and Malfuz Literature, 22. Askari’s translation. [BACK]
51. Balkhi, Maktūbāt, letter 165, p. 502. See also Askari, Maktub and Malfuz Literature, 21. Askari’s translation. [BACK]
52. The traditional date of Shaikh Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam’s death is 818 A.H. (1415–16 A.D.), as recorded in the Mirāt al-asrār (fol. 603b). But this date conflicts with the same work’s statement that the shaikh was the spiritual teacher of Sultan Ahmad, who ruled in 1432–33 (ibid., fol. 517b). Moreover, an inscription at the kitchen of Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam’s shrine in Pandua honors “Our revered master, the Teacher of Imams, the Proof of the congregation, the Sun of the Faith, the Testimony of Islam and of the Muslims, who bestowed advantages upon the poor and the indigent, the Guide of saints and of such as wish to be guided.” The inscription gives the death of this unnamed saint, who is evidently Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam, as 28 Zi’l-Hajj, 863, or 1459 A.D. (see Dani, “House of Raja Ganesh,” 139–40). The shaikh’s surviving writings attest to the vitality of Chishti thought and traditions in the capital city at this time. A surviving mystical work of his is the Mu’nis al-fuqarā’ (Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta, Persian MS. No. 466). We also have his letters, the Maktūbāt-i Shaikh Nūr Qutb-i ‘ālam (Indian National Archives, New Delhi, Persian MS., Or. MS. No. 332, and Maulana Azad Library, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, Subhan Allah No. 297671/18). [BACK]
53. ‘Abd al-Rahman Chishti, Mirāt-i asrār, fol. 517a. See also Askari, “New Light,” 37; Abdul Karim, “Nur Qutb Alam’s Letter on the Ascendancy of Ganesa,” in Abdul Karim Sahitya-Visarad Commemoration Volume, ed. Muhammad Enamul Haq (Dacca: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 1972), 336–37. [BACK]
54. Quoted by Shaikh Ashraf Jahangir Simnani in his Maktūbāt-i ashrafī, letter no. 45, fol. 139a. [BACK]
55. Shaikh Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam, Maktūbāt-i Shaikh Nūr Quṭb-i ‘ālam (Maulana Azad Library, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, Persian MS., Subhan Allah No. 297671/18), letter no. 9, p. 60. See also Abdul Karim, “Nur Qutb Alam’s Letter,” 342–43. Karim’s translation. These sentiments, like those found in the correspondence of Muzaffar Shams Balkhi, suggest that the words and actions of Pandua’s shaikhs were motivated by a genuine concern with advancing the cause of Islamic piety in Bengal, and not, as Jadunath Sarkar has suggested, by a narrow desire to safeguard their own economic and political interests. In referring to a “vast horde of unruly and ambitious disciples of the Shaikhs and Muslim monks, whose wealth and power had lately begun to overshadow the civil power,” Sarkar depicts these men as little more than parasites who preyed upon ageing or weak rulers, and compares their position “to that of the Buddhist monks to whom the Emperor Asoka gave away all his State treasure in his dotage.” Sarkar, ed., History of Bengal, 2: 126, 127. [BACK]
56. ‘Abd al-Rahman Chishti, Mirāt al-asrār, fols. 517a-b. [BACK]
57. Nizamuddin Ahmad, Tabaqāt-i Akbarī, text, 3: 270; trans. B. De, 3, pt. 1, 443. [BACK]
58. For a discussion of these issues, see Digby, “Sufi Shaikh as a Source of Authority,” esp. 63–69. [BACK]
59. The shrine is in the ancient Muslim garrison city of Devikot, located in modern West Dinajpur District some 33 miles northeast of Sikandar’s capital at Pandua. From the language of the inscription, it would appear that Sikandar was patronizing the construction only of the dome and not of the shrine itself, which in turn suggests the existence of a cult focused on a long-deceased saint. Three other inscriptions were fixed to the wall of this shrine, one of which, dated 1297, referred to the construction in that year of a mosque by Sultan Rukn al-Din Kaikaus. Another, dated 1493, stated that “the construction of this mosque was made during the time of the renowned saint, the chief of the holy men, Makhdum Maulana ‘Ata, may Allah make his ashes fragrant and may He make Paradise his resting place.” If the latter inscription refers to the same mosque referred to in the 1297 inscription—and this is not absolutely certain—then Maulana ‘Ata would have been alive about sixty years before Sultan Sikandar ascended the throne. Shamsud-Din Ahmed, ed. and trans., Inscriptions, 4: 15–18, 143–44. [BACK]
60. Ibid., 34–35. Italicized words are from the Qur’an. [BACK]
61. Moreover, disciples from throughout the region and beyond came to study at the lodge of Shaikh ‘Ala al-Haq, the most prominent being Ashraf Jahangir Simnani, an immigrant from Central Asia whose letters form a major hagiographical source for this period. Although his Maktūbāt-i ashrāfī has never been published, manuscript copies are available in the Aligarh Muslim University History Department (MS. No. 27) and the British Library (Or. MS. No. 267). [BACK]
62. ‘Abd al-Rahman Chishti, Mirāt al-asrār, fols. 515b-516a. ‘Ala al-Haq’s exile lasted for only several years, after which he was allowed to return to the capital, where he outlived the sultan by nine years. His experience compares with that of Maulana Ashraf al-Din Tawwama, a scholar and Sufi who had migrated from Bukhara to Delhi in the early fourteenth century, and who was exiled to Sonargaon by the Delhi court after having acquired an immense following among the city’s masses. See Shaikh Shu‘aib Firdausi, comp., Manāqib al-asfiyā (Calcutta: Nur al-Afaq, 1895), 131. [BACK]
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]
5. Mass Conversion to Islam: Theories and Protagonists
The most interesting fact revealed by the census of 1872 was the enormous host of Muhammadans resident in Lower Bengal—not massed around the old capitals, but in the alluvial plains of the Delta.
Four Conventional Theories of Islamization in India
Theories purporting to explain the growth of Islam in India may be reduced to four basic modes of reasoning. Each is inadequate. The first of these, which I shall call the Immigration theory, is not really a theory of conversion at all since it views Islamization in terms of the diffusion not of belief but of peoples. In this view, the bulk of India’s Muslims are descended from other Muslims who had either migrated overland from the Iranian plateau or sailed across the Arabian Sea. Although some such process no doubt contributed to the Islamization of those areas of South Asia that are geographically contiguous with the Iranian plateau or the Arabian Sea, this argument cannot, for reasons to be discussed below, be used to explain mass Islamization in Bengal.
The oldest theory of Islamization in India, which I shall call the Religion of the Sword thesis, stresses the role of military force in the diffusion of Islam in India and elsewhere. Dating at least from the time of the Crusades, this idea received big boosts during the nineteenth century, the high tide of European imperial domination over Muslim peoples, and subsequently in the context of the worldwide Islamic reform movements of the late twentieth century. Its general tone is captured in the way many nineteenth- and twentieth-century Orientalists explained the rise of Islam in seventh-century Arabia, as illustrated in these lurid lines penned in 1898 by Sir William Muir:
In the end, though, after the thundering hooves have passed and the dust has settled, in attempting to explain the Arab conquests, Muir leaves us with little of substance. Rather, he simply asserts the Arabs’ fondness for the “scent of war,” their love of “rapine,” and the promise of “a damsel or two.” Muir’s vision of a militant, resurgent Islam gone berserk reflected, in addition to old European associations of Islam with war and sex, colonial fears that Europe’s own Muslim subjects might, in just such a locustlike manner, rise up in revolt and drive the Europeans back to Europe. SirWilliam, after all, was himself a senior British official in colonial India,as well as an aggressive activist for the Christian missionary movementthere.
It was the scent of war that now turned the sullen temper of the Arab tribes into eager loyalty.…Warrior after warrior, column after column, whole tribes in endless succession with their women and children, issued forth to fight. And ever, at the marvelous tale of cities conquered; of rapine rich beyond compute; of maidens parted on the very field of battle “to every man a damsel or two”…fresh tribes arose and went. Onward and still onward, like swarms from the hive, or flights of locusts darkening the land, tribe after tribe issued forth and hastening northward, spread in great masses to the East and to the West.
If colonial officials could imagine that the reason for the rise of Islam was its inherently militant nature, they had little difficulty explaining its extension in India in similar terms. Yet as Peter Hardy has observed, those who argued that Indian Muslims were forcibly converted have generally failed to define either force or conversion, leaving one to presume that a society can and will alter its religious identity simply because it has a sword at its neck. Precisely how this mechanism worked, either in theoretical or in practical terms, has never, however, been satisfactorily explained. Moreover, proponents of this theory seem to have confused conversion to the Islamic religion with the extension of Turko-Iranian rule in North India between 1200 and 1760, a confusion probably originating in too literal a translation of primary Persian accounts narrating the “Islamic” conquest of India. As Yohanan Friedmann has observed, in these accounts one frequently meets with such ambiguous phrases as “they submitted to Islam” (“iṭā‘at-i Islām numūdand”), or “they came under submission to Islam” (“dar iṭā‘at-i Islām āmadand”), in which “Islam” might mean either the religion, the Muslim state, or the “army of Islam.” But a contextual reading of such passages usually favors one of the latter two interpretations, especially as these same sources often refer to Indo-Turkish armies as the lashkar-i Islām, or “army of Islam,” and not the lashkar-i Turkān, or “army of Turks.” In other words, it was the Indo-Muslim state, and, more explicitly, its military arm, to which people were said to have submitted, and not the Islamic faith.
Nor does the theory fit the religious geography of South Asia. If Islamization had ever been a function of military or political force, one would expect that those areas exposed most intensively and over the longest period to rule by Muslim dynasties—that is, those that were most fully exposed to the “sword”—would today contain the greatest number of Muslims. Yet the opposite is the case, as those regions where the most dramatic Islamization occurred, such as eastern Bengal or western Punjab, lay on the fringes of Indo-Muslim rule, where the “sword” was weakest, and where brute force could have exerted the least influence. In such regions the first accurate census reports put the Muslim population at between 70 and 90 percent of the total, whereas in the heartland of Muslim rule in the upper Gangetic Plain—the domain of the Delhi Fort and the Taj Mahal, where Muslim regimes had ruled the most intensively and for the longest period of time—the Muslim population ranged from only 10 to 15 percent. In other words, in the subcontinent as a whole there is an inverse relationship between the degree of Muslim political penetration and the degree of Islamization. Even within Bengal this principle holds true. As the 1901 Census of India put it:
Indeed, it has even been proposed that, far from promoting the cause of Islamization, the proximity of Muslim political power in some cases actually hindered it. According to S. L. Sharma and R. N. Srivastava, Mughal persecution of the nominally converted Meo community of Rajasthan had the effect, not of strengthening the Meos’ Islamic identity, but of reinforcing their resistance to Islam.
None of these [eastern] districts contains any of the places famous as the head-quarters of Muhammadan rulers. Dacca was the residence of the Nawab for about a hundred years, but it contains a smaller proportion of Muslims than any of the surrounding districts, except Faridpur. Malda and Murshidabad contain the old capitals, which were the center of Musalman rule for nearly four and a half centuries, and yet the Muslims form a smaller proportion of the population than they do in the adjacent districts of Dinajpur, Rajshahi, and Nadia.
A third theory commonly advanced to explain Islamization in India is what I call the Religion of Patronage theory. This is the view that Indians of the premodern period converted to Islam in order to receive some non-religious favor from the ruling class—relief from taxes, promotion in the bureaucracy, and so forth. This theory has always found favor with Western-trained secular social scientists who see any religion as a dependent variable of some non-religious agency, in particular an assumed desire for social improvement or prestige. Many instances in Indian history would appear to support this theory. In the early fourteenth century, Ibn Battuta reported that Indians presented themselves as new converts to the Khalaji sultans, who in turn rewarded them with robes of honor according to their rank. According to nineteenth-century censuses, many landholding families of Upper India had declared themselves Muslims in order to escape imprisonment for nonpayment of revenue, or to keep ancestral lands in the family. The theory might even be stretched to include groups employed by Muslim rulers that assimilated much Islamic culture even if they did not formally convert. The Kayasthas and Khatris of the Gangetic Plain, the Parasnis of Maharashtra, and the Amils of Sind all cultivated Islamic culture while meeting the government’s need for clerks and administrative servants, a process that Aziz Ahmad once compared with nineteenth- and twentieth-century “Westernization.” The acculturation of captured soldiers or slaves perhaps formed another dimension of this process. Severed from their families, and with no permanent sociocultural ties to their native homes, these men not surprisingly fell into the cultural orbit of their patrons.
Although this thesis might help explain the relatively low incidence of Islamization in India’s political heartland, it cannot explain the massive conversions that took place along the political fringe—as in Punjab or Bengal. Political patronage, like the influence of the sword, would have decreased rather than increased as one moved away from the centers of that patronage. What we need is some theory that can explain the phenomenon of mass Islamization on the periphery of Muslim power and not just in the heartland, and among millions of peasant cultivators and not just among urban elites.
To this end a fourth theory, which I call the Religion of Social Liberation thesis, is generally pressed into service. Created by British ethnographers and historians, elaborated by many Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals, and subscribed to by countless journalists and historians of South Asia, especially Muslims, this theory has for long been the most widely accepted explanation of Islamization in the subcontinent. The theory postulates a Hindu caste system that is unchanging through time and rigidly discriminatory against its own lower orders. For centuries, it is said, the latter suffered under the crushing burden of oppressive and tyrannical high-caste Hindus, especially Brahmans. Then, when Islam “arrived” in the Indian subcontinent, carrying its liberating message of social equality as preached (in most versions of the theory) by Sufi shaikhs, these same oppressed castes, seeking to escape the yoke of Brahmanic oppression and aware of a social equality hitherto denied them, “converted” to Islam en masse.
It can be seen that by juxtaposing what it perceives as the inherent justice of Islam and the inherent wickedness of Hindu society, the Religion of Social Liberation theory identifies motives for conversion that are, from a Muslim perspective, eminently praiseworthy. The problem, however, is that no evidence can be found in support of the theory. Moreover, it is profoundly illogical. First, by attributing present-day values to peoples of the past, it reads history backward. Before their contact with Muslims, India’s lower castes are thought to have possessed, almost as though familiar with the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Thomas Jefferson, some innate notion of the fundamental equality of all humankind denied them by an oppressive Brahmanic tyranny. In fact, however, in thinking about Islam in relation to Indian religions, premodern Muslim intellectuals did not stress their religion’s ideal of social equality as opposed to Hindu inequality, but rather Islamic monotheism as opposed to Hindu polytheism. That is, their frame of reference for comparing these two civilizations was theological, not social. In fact, the idea that Islam fosters social equality (as opposed to religious equality) seems to be a recent notion, dating only from the period of the Enlightenment, and more particularly from the legacy of the French Revolution among nineteenth-century Muslim reformers.
Second, even if Indians did believe in the fundamental equality of mankind, and even if Islam had been presented to them as an ideology of social equality—though both propositions appear to be false—there is abundant evidence that Indian communities failed, upon Islamization, to improve their status in the social hierarchy. On the contrary, most simply carried into Muslim society the same birth-ascribed rank that they had formerly known in Hindu society. This is especially true of Bengal. As James Wise observed in 1883: “In other parts of India menial work is performed by outcast Hindus; but in Bengal any repulsive or offensive occupation devolves on the Muhammadan. The Beldar [scavenger, and remover of carcasses] is to the Muhammadan village what the Bhuinmali is to the Hindu, and it is not improbable that his ancestors belonged to this vile caste.”
Finally, as with the Sword and Patronage theories, the Religion of Social Liberation theory is refuted by the facts of geography. In 1872, when the earliest reliable census was taken, the highest concentrations of Muslims were found in eastern Bengal, western Punjab, the Northwest Frontier region, and Baluchistan. What is striking about those areas is not only that they lay far from the center of Muslim political power but that their indigenous populations had not yet, at the time of their contact with Islam, been fully integrated into either the Hindu or the Buddhist social system. In Bengal, Muslim converts were drawn mainly from Rajbansi, Pod, Chandal, Kuch, and other indigenous groups that had been only lightly exposed to Brahmanic culture, and in Punjab the same was true of the various Jat clans that eventually formed the bulk of the Muslim community.
But this is hardly surprising. The Baudhāyana-Dharmasūtra, a late Vedic text (fifth-sixth centuries B.C.) reflecting the values of self-styled “clean” castes, divided the subcontinent into three concentric circles, each one containing distinct sociocultural communities. The first of these, Aryavarta, or the Aryan homeland, corresponded to the Upper Ganges-Jumna region of north-central India; there lived the “purest” heirs to Brahmanic tradition, people styling themselves highborn and ritually clean. The second circle contained an outer belt (Avanti, Anga-Magadha, Saurastra, Daksinapatha, Upavrt, and Sindhu-Sauvira) corresponding to Malwa, East and Central Bihar, Gujarat, the Deccan, and Sind. These regions lay within the pale of Indo-Aryan settlement, but they were inhabited by people “of mixed origin” who did not enjoy the same degree of ritual purity as those of the first region. And the third concentric circle contained those outer regions inhabited by “unclean” tribes considered so far beyond the pale that penances were prescribed for those who visited such places. Peoples living in this third circle included the Arattas of Punjab, the Sauviras of southern Punjab and Sind, the Pundras of North Bengal, and the Vangas of central and East Bengal.
Now, the theory of Social Liberation assumes the prior existence of a highly stratified Hindu social order presided over by an entrenched and oppressive Brahman community. If the theory were valid, then, the greatest incidence of conversion to Islam should logically have occurred in those areas where Brahmanic social order was most deeply entrenched—namely, in the core region of Aryavarta. Conversely, Islam should have foundits fewest adherents in those areas having the least exposure to Brah-manic civilization, that is, along the periphery or beyond the pale of that civilization, in the outermost of the three concentric circles cited in the Baudhāyana-Dharmasūtra. But it is precisely in that outer circle—the area roughly coinciding with the areas included in the original (1947) state of Pakistan, with its eastern and western wings—that the vast majority of South Asian Muslims reside. The modern, pre-Partition distribution of South Asian Muslims thus indicates an outcome precisely opposite to the one predicted by the theory—namely, the less the prior exposure to Brahmanic civilization, the greater the incidence of subsequent Islamization. If the aboriginal peoples inhabiting India’s “periphery” had never been fully absorbed in a Brahman-ordered society in the first place, the matter of their escaping an oppressive Hindu social order cannot arise logically, just as it did not arise empirically.
Theories of Islamization in Bengal
It was relatively late in their experience in Bengal that Englishmen became aware of the full extent of the province’s Muslim population. With British activity centered on Calcutta, in the predominantly Hindu southwest, colonial officials through most of the nineteenth century perceived Bengal’s eastern districts as a vast and rather remote hinterland, with whose cultural profile they were largely unfamiliar. They were consequently astonished when the first official census of the province, that of 1872, showed Muslims totaling 70 percent and more in the Chittagong, Noakhali, Pabna, and Rajshahi districts, and over 80 percent in Bogra (see map 3). Writing in 1894, James Wise, a government official with considerable experience in the province, wrote that “the most interesting fact revealed by the census of 1872 was the enormous host of Muhammadans resident in Lower Bengal—not massed around the old capitals, but in the alluvial plains of the Delta.” He went on to observe that “the history of the spread of the Muhammadan faith in Lower and Eastern Bengal is a subject of such vast importance at the present day as to merit a careful and minute examination.”
The subject certainly was examined. The census of 1872 touched off a heated debate that lasted the rest of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Its opening salvo was fired by the compiler of the census report itself, Henry Beverley. Noting the apparent incongruity of masses of Muslims turning up in regions far from the ancient centers of Muslim domination, Beverley concluded that “the existence of Muhammadans in Bengal is not due so much to the introduction of Mughul blood into the country as to the conversion of the former inhabitants for whom a rigid system of caste discipline rendered Hinduism intolerable.” In short, he rejected the Immigration theory and instead sketched out an early version of the Social Liberation theory. Henceforth this theory would dominate British thinking about Islamization in the province, and eventually most Muslims would subscribe to it as well.
Map 3. Distribution of Muslim population in Benghal, 1872
But Beverley’s interpretation did not go unchallenged. Soon after the publication of the 1872 census findings, a respectable Muslim gentleman of Mymensingh District, Abu A. Ghuznavi, submitted a report to the Collector of his district strenuously opposing Beverley’s argument that mass conversion had taken place. Ghuznavi proposed instead that “the majority of the modern Mahomedans are not the descendants of Chandals and Kaibartas but are of foreign extraction, though in many cases it may be of more or less remote degree.” In favor of his argument, Ghuznavi cited Arab migration before the Turkish conquest, land grants made by Sultan Husain Shah to foreigners, the dispersion of Afghans “in every hamlet” after the Mughal conquest, the greater fertility of Muslims owing to their practices of polygamy and widow remarriage, their greater longevity, and the absence among Muslims of a caste system or institutionalized celibacy. Although he conceded that there had been “some” conversions, Ghuznavi insisted that they had not been among low-caste Hindus. “Why should we speak of conversion of low-caste Hindus only?” he asked, “Why should we forget the Musalman Rajput diwans of different districts and notably of Maimensing.…Similarly, there are Mozumdars of Sylhet, Raja Sahebs of Faridpore, Gangulies of Bikrampore, and a host of others.”
Ghuznavi was here outlining the Immigration theory of Islamization, the view favored by ashrāf classes throughout India. To the extent that local conversions took place at all, Ghuznavi argued, they came not from the despised low castes, but from the upper orders of Hindu society. At the turn of the twentieth century, claims were indeed made that in the Mughal period some members of Bengal’s landed elite and even of the priestly caste had converted to Islam. The rajas of Kharagpur (in Midnapur District), defeated by one of Akbar’s generals, were said to have accepted Islam as the condition for retaining their family estates; Raja Purdil Singh of Parsouni in Darbhanga, in northern Bihar, became a Muslim by way of expiation after having rebelled against the Mughal emperor; the Muslim dīwān families of pargana Sarail in Tippera, and of Haibatnagar and Jungalbari in Mymensingh, had formerly been Brahmans; and the Pathans of Majhouli in Darbhanga sprang from the family of the raja of Narhan. These instances, however, could have accounted for only a tiny fraction of the total Muslim population and cannot explain the appearance of the millions of Muslim peasant cultivators recorded in the census figures.
Meanwhile, in the final decades of the nineteenth century, a consensus on the Islamization issue began to emerge in British official circles. Here we may examine the work of James Wise, a veteran official who had served ten years as civil surgeon in Dhaka, and who elaborated his views in an important article entitled “The Muhammadans of Eastern Bengal” (1894). Wise opened by dismissing the Immigration theory favored by ashrāf spokesmen like Ghuznavi. “In Muhammadan histories,” he noted, “no mention is made of any large Muhammadan immigration from Upper India, and we know that in the reign of Akbar the climate of Bengal was considered so uncongenial to the Mughal invaders, that an order to proceed thither was regarded as a sentence of banishment.” Wise then offered a number of arguments to explain how and why ethnic Bengalis became Muslims. First, he invoked the Religion of the Sword thesis, citing without evidence the “enthusiastic soldiers who, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, spread the faith of Islam among the timid races of Bengal, made forcible conversions by the sword, and, penetrating the dense forests of the Eastern frontier, planted the crescent in the villages of Silhet.” He also accepted the view that the Chittagong region had been colonized by Arab merchants. The latter, he argued, again without citing evidence, carried on an extensive trade along the Chittagong coast, where they “disseminated their religious ideas among the people.” Furthermore, he suggested, captured slaves from the villages of eastern Bengal might have swelled the ranks of the Muslim population, since desperate and impoverished families would have been driven to sell their children to Muslims as slaves. He also suggested that Hindus might have converted “as the only means of escaping punishment for murder, or adultery, as this step was considered full atonement for either crime.” All of this was conjecture.
Wise’s central argument, however, was the one that would achieve widest currency in government circles. “When the Muhammadan armies poured into Bengal,” he wrote,
This is as vigorous a statement of the Social Liberation thesis as can be found anywhere, and contains all the essential elements of that theory: the a priori presence of a highly stratified Hindu social order, an exploited class of menial outcasts, an oppressive class of Brahmans, and an understanding of Islam as an ideology of social egalitarianism that would be “joyfully” embraced by the masses.
it is hard to believe that they were not welcomed by the hewers of wood and drawers of water, and that many a despairing Chandal and Kaibartta joyfully embraced a religion that proclaimed the equality of all men, and which was the religion of the race keeping in subjection their former oppressors. Hinduism had prohibited the outcast from residing in the same village as the twice-born Brahman, had forced him to perform the most menial and repulsive occupations, and had virtually treated him as an animal undeserving of any pity; but Islam announced that the poor, as well as the rich, the slave and his master, the peasant and the prince, were of equal value in the eyes of God. Above all, the Brahman held out no hopes of a future world to the most virtuous helot, while the Mulla not only proffered assurances of felicity in this world, but of an indefeasible inheritance in the next.
But Bengal’s ashrāf Muslims did not accept such reasoning. Even if inclined to agree with Wise’s characterization of Brahmans as cruel oppressors, they would not agree that the majority of the Muslims of Bengal were indigenous to the delta. So in 1895, the year after the publication of Wise’s essay, Khondkar Fuzli Rubbee published his The Origin of the Musalmans of Bengal. Like his predecessor Abu Ghuznavi, Rubbee denied “that the natives of this country, either from compulsion or free will, were converted to Islam, in any appreciable number at a time.” Rather, he asserted, “the ancestors of the present Musalmans of this country were certainly those Musalmans who came here from foreign parts during the rule of the former sovereigns.” In fact, Rubbee viewed the delta’s geographic isolation as evidence for this process, arguing that the region “always enjoyed immunity from foreign invasions, and consequently it formed a great asylum for the Musulmans.” Rubbee did not explain why the same natural frontiers that had protected Muslims from foreign invaders failed to protect Bengalis from Muslim invaders. Presumably he did not consider Muslims to have been invaders, but merely immigrant settlers.
Rubbee also cited numerous charitable grants (aima) to “venerable Muslims” in Bengal, suggesting that these became the bases of foreign settlement. “With regard to the three ancient divisions of Bengal,” he wrote, “namely Rarh [the southwest], Barind [the north], and Bang [the east], Aimas are to be found mostly in Rarh, less in Barind, and rarely in Bang.” But the difficulty with this reasoning is that the majority of the Muslims were found in the very areas where, according to Rubbee, there were the fewest charitable grants. The author also had difficulty explaining how one of the largest peasant populations in the world could have been descended from high-born immigrants who refused to cultivate the soil. They took to agriculture, he speculated, when “their resources failed them,” or when those among them who were soldiers failed to obtain military employment. Subsequently, when agricultural productivity improved and internal peace and security prevailed in Bengal, these classes of Muslim cultivators naturally multiplied.
The publication of Rubbee’s book was soon followed by the controversial 1901 Census of India, which restated the position to which Ghuznavi and Rubbee had reacted. In his report in this census, E. A. Gait concluded that probably nine-tenths of those returning themselves as “Shekhs”—the typical response of Muslim Bengali cultivators when asked their caste—were of local origin. Gait doubted that any significant migration of Muslim settlers had taken place even within Bengal, much less from beyond the delta. Observing that Muslim settlers generally sought the higher levels of land near the old capitals, he reasoned that “they would never willingly have taken up their residence in the rice swamps of Noakhali, Bogra and Backergunge.”
Gait’s most important contribution to the ongoing debate was his observation that in Bengal high Muslim populations correlated with the simplest social organization—that is, with the least elaboration of castes. Noting the affinities of the Muslims of the east with indigenous Pod and Chandal communities, and those of the north with indigenous Rajbansi and Kuch communities, Gait remarked that “the proportion of Hindus of other castes in these parts of the country is, and always has been, very small. The main castes are the Rajbansis (including Koches) in North Bengal, and the Chandals and other castes of non-Aryan origin in East Bengal.” This observation might have led to a breakthrough in the fuzzy and tendentious thinking that had theretofore characterized the debate. For it follows that where there was little caste elaboration, there was little Brahmanic dominance, and hence little oppression of outcasts. And without such oppression, the Social Liberation theory collapses, since the “lower orders” would not have had an entrenched, Brahman-ordered society against which to rebel.
But Gait did not follow up on the implications of his own observation; indeed, he offered no coherent theory of Islamization at all, apart from stating that the vast majority of Muslims were of local origin. But since they were published in the authoritative Census of India, even these views carried weight. Soon they were replicated in the Settlement Reports and the widely influential Bengal District Gazetteers that began appearing in the early twentieth century. For example, the gazetteer for Noakhali District (1911) stated that the “vast majority of the Shekhs [i.e., Muslim cultivators] and lower sections of the community are descended from the aboriginal races of the district,” meaning, primarily, the Chandals.Similarly, the Settlement Report of Bogra and Pabna districts (1930)traced the Muslim communities of those districts to “Hindus convertedat a comparatively recent date,” and stated that the majority of thepopulation were “descendants of the aboriginals of North Bengal, theKoches.”
In the decade before 1947, three anthropological studies produced data corroborating the consensus view in official circles. Although differing in methodology, sampling techniques, and regions studied within the delta, they all agreed that the masses of Bengali Muslims were descended from indigenous communities and not from outsiders. In the first of them, conducted in the Twenty-four Parganas District in 1938, Eileen Macfarlane concluded that “the blood-group data of the Muhammadans of Budge Budge show clearly that these peoples are descended from lower caste Hindu converts, as held by local traditions, and the proportion remains almost the same as among their present-day Hindu neighbors.” Three years later, B. K. Chatterji and A. K. Mitra made another study of blood-group distributions comparing not only low-caste Bengali Hindus with rural Muslims, again in the Twenty-four Parganas District, but also the latter with both urban Muslims and non-Bengali Muslims. This study found an affinity between rural Muslims and their low-caste Hindu neighbors, the Mahisyas and Bagdis, and further concluded that urban Bengali Muslims were serologically closer to the distant Pathans of India’s Northwest Frontier than they were to rural Bengali Muslims, lending substance to the urban Muslims’ claims of their own descent from foreign immigrants to Bengal.
Finally, in 1960, D. N. Majumdar and C. R. Rao published a study based on data collected in both East and West Bengal in 1945, just prior to the massive population shifts that followed partition of the province in 1947. Using stature, frontal breadth, and nasal height in defining group divergences, these investigators concluded that “we should look among the tribal and scheduled caste Non-Muslim groups of Bengal for a possible origin of the Muslim population in Bengal.…The serological data obtained from the Muslim population of Bengal (pre-Partition) tends to the same view, viz., the dissociation of the Bengali Muslims from those outside India, and even from the Shias and Sunnis of Uttar Pradesh. This indicates the local origin of the Muslims, if blood group evidence has any meaning at all.” The authors also found that in terms of the more important anthropometric indicators (head length and breadth, nasal length and breadth), East Bengal groups, both Muslim and non-Muslim, differed fundamentally from West Bengalis. This last finding would diminish the historical significance even of internal migration from western to eastern Bengal.
In the early twentieth century, as the Indian nationalist movement gathered momentum, and especially after the founding of the Muslim League in 1906, when the drive for a separate Muslim “homeland” in British India began to gather strength, arguments for or against the various theories of Islamization became more heated. Indian nationalists tended to sidestep the issue altogether, since any recognition of foreign origin of a large segment of the Indian community, or of past Islamization among that community, would have weakened the nationalist position concerning the fundamental unity and homogeneity of all Indian peoples. Nor was it easy for Hindus to embrace the thesis favored by Muslim intellectuals, the Religion of Social Liberation argument, since it placed high-caste Hindus in the unsavory role of oppressors.
For many Muslims, on the other hand, the issue of a separate Muslim community on the Indian subcontinent was fundamental, since it formed the historical justification for the future state of Pakistan. This made it difficult to relinquish the Immigration thesis entirely, even though, so far as Bengal is concerned, considerable ethnographic data had shown that the ancestors of the Muslim masses had been indigenous to the delta long before the thirteenth century. This led some to embrace a hybrid theory that combined elements of both the Immigration theory and the Religion of Social Liberation thesis. In this view, ashrāf immigrants had settled the land and become naturalized Bengalis, while at the same time masses of ethnic Bengalis were attracted to the egalitarian ethic of Islam. As this mutual accommodation was said to have obliterated social differences between the ashrāf and the masses, the theory became ideologically convenient for post–1947 Muslim governments, which naturally sought to stress the unity of all Muslims residing within their borders.
Historiographically, the legacies of the colonial era and the independence movement were to polarize Hindus and Muslims into exclusive and even hostile categories, to project these categories into the past, and to read premodern Bengali history in terms of a struggle between them. Here is a lurid portrayal of the Turkish conquest penned in 1963 by the reputed linguist and historian of Bengali language S. K. Chatterji:
And here is how the well-known Indian Bengali historian R. C. Majumdar, writing in 1973, described the growth of Islam in premodern Bengal:
The conquest of Bengal by these ruthless foreigners was like a terrible hurricane which swept over the country, when a peace-loving people were subjected to all imaginable terrors and torments—wholesale massacres, pillages, abduction and enslavement of men and women, destruction of temples, palaces, images and libraries, and forcible conversion. The Muslim Turks, like the Spanish Catholic conquistadores in Mexico and Peru and elsewhere in America, sought to destroy the culture and religion of the land as the handiwork of Satan.
Implicit in Chatterji’s overheated rhetoric, and explicit in Majumdar’s military imagery of forts and gates, is the presumption that religions themselves are timeless essences—closed, self-contained, and mutually exclusive. Although such an ahistorical and normative conception is not confined to the modern age, it has become especially widespread in the twentieth century. From the Partition of Bengal (1905) down to the razing of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in nearby Uttar Pradesh (1992), colonial and post-colonial politicians have encouraged and effectively exploited the idea. Nor have historians been immune to this essentialist conception of religion, which Chatterji and Majumdar simply projected backward in time and displaced onto Bengal’s premodern history.
The Hindu and Muslim communities resembled two strong walled forts, standing side by side, each of which had only one gate,—that of exit in the case of the Hindus, and that for entrance in the case of the Muslims. Even for the slightest deviation from the rules of touch and purity the Hindus were cast out of society, with no chance of re-entry, and once they entered the fort of Islam the door of exit for the new-comer was forever barred. This, together with forcible conversion, and voluntary acceptance of Islam by temptation of material gain or benefit, rarely by conviction, resulted in the steady flow of the Hindus to the fold of Islam, which constitutes the most important change in the Hindu society during the middle age.
The Appearance of a Bengali Muslim Peasantry
What is striking about the historiography of Islamization in Bengal is that so few advocates of any of the theories discussed above—Immigration, Sword, Patronage, Social Liberation—grounded their theories on original evidence. Nor did they attempt to establish exactly when and where Islam first became a mass religion. Inasmuch as any coherent historical reconstruction must be based on established facts of geography and chronology, before we can explain mass conversion to Islam, we must first establish, in as precise terms as possible, exactly when and where the Bengali Muslim peasant community first emerged.
As to the direction from which Islamic influence first reached the delta, a glance at a map of the Indian Ocean might suggest a maritime connec- tion with the Middle East. It is true that Arab geographers such as Sulaiman Tajir (d. 851), Ibn Khurdadbhih (d. ca. 850), Mas‘udi (d. 956), and Idrisi (d. ca. 1150), were familiar with Bengal, and that one of these,Mas‘udi, actually mentions Muslims—evidently long-distance maritimemerchants—living there in the tenth century. The tradition of local coinage in southeastern Bengal during the Chandra dynasty (ca. 825–1035), and the discovery of Abbasid coins in the Lalmai region, further point to this region’s economic integration with the wider world of the Indian Ocean at a time when Arab Muslims dominated that ocean’s trade. However, study of the global distribution of the four legal traditions in Sunni Islam—Hanafi, Shafi‘i, Maliki, and Hanbali—suggests that Islamization did not occur by way of the seas. In the Islamic world generally, converted populations have tended to adopt the school of law adhered to by the carriers of Islam in their region. From the tenth century on, the Shafi‘i school was dominant in southern and western Arabia, the region of the peninsula most firmly tied into Indian Ocean trade. In the succeeding centuries, coastal East Africa, India’s Malabar coast, and island Southeast Asia all underwent Islamization through commercial contact with Shafi‘i Arabs. And by 1500 all these regions adhered to the Shafi‘i legal tradition. Had Bengal, too, been Islamized by the predominantly Shafi‘i seafaring Arabs, or by other maritime Muslims in touch with such Arabs, one might expect the Muslims of Bengal also to have followed the Shafi‘i school. But by 1500 and thereafter, Bengali Muslims were mainly Hanafi, then as now the dominant legal tradition among inland Muslims living further up the Gangetic Plain and throughout Central Asia. This clearly points to a northwestern, overland origin of Bengal’s Islamization.
But when and how did this happen? Despite claims that the masses of Bengali Muslims originated in the very distant past, such a proposition finds no support in the primary source materials, not, at least, so far as concerns the peasantry, who comprise the great bulk of the population. With but one exception, pre-sixteenth-century foreign references to Muslims in Bengal mention only immigrant or urban Muslims—that is, ashrāf society. The exception is the account of Ibn Battuta, who traveled to Sylhet to meet the renowned saint Shah Jalal in 1345. The famed Arab traveler later recorded that “the inhabitants of these mountains had embraced Islam at his [Shah Jalal’s] hands, and for this reason he stayed amidst them.” But it is not at all clear that Ibn Battuta was referring here to a peasant population. It was, as he said, the inhabitants of the mountains, not those of the plains, that accepted Islam through the agency of Shah Jalal. These hill folk probably practiced shifting cultivation, for he seems to have distinguished this population from the peasants of the lowlands who practiced wet rice cultivation, whom he clearly identified as Hindus.
The next foreigner who noticed Muslims in Bengal was the Chinese official Ma Huan, who reached the delta in 1433, some ninety years after Ibn Battuta. At this time Raja Ganesh’s turbulent political intrusion had just subsided, and Sultan Jalal al-Din Muhammad had begun patronizing an Islamic culture heavily influenced by its Bengali environment. The Chinese traveler saw a dense and prosperous population during his travels from Chittagong to Sonargaon to Pandua. But his only comments as to the people’s ethnic or religious identity were written in the context of Pandua, where he observed that “the king’s palace and the large and small palaces of the nobility and temples, are all in the city. They are Musalmans.” The only Muslims the foreigner mentioned were city-dwellers, not peasants.
In the early sixteenth century, following Vasco da Gama’s maritime voyage to India in 1498, we get the first European accounts of Bengal and its peoples. But again, so far as concerns the delta’s Muslims, these writers appear to have been aware only of an urban, and not a rural population. Referring to Gaur, which he claimed to have visited sometime between 1503 and 1508, Ludovico di Varthema wrote that “this city was one of the best that I had hitherto seen, and has a very great realm,” adding that the sultan’s entire army, two hundred thousand men, were Muslims. Writing between 1512 and 1515, evidently on the basis of reports from merchants or ship captains who had visited Bengal, Tome Pires remarked that the king “is a very faithful Mohammedan” and that “the kings of this kingdom turned Mohammedan three hundred years ago.” But Pires makes no reference to the religion of the population at large.
Pires’s contemporary Duarte Barbosa, whose writings on Bengal were also based on travelers’ accounts and not direct observation, has much to say about the “respectable Moors” of Gaur, whom he describes as walking about “clad in white cotton smocks with their cloth girdles, silk scarves, and daggers garnished with silver and gold.” His references to their eating well, their free-wheeling spending, and to their “many other extravagances” clearly point to wealthy urban merchants and not to rural society. Indeed, Barbosa speaks of Gaur as a city inhabited by white men, with its “strangers from many lands such as Arabs, Persians, Abexis and Indians.” Yet he also makes the important remark that “the Heathen of these parts daily become Moors to gain the favour of their rulers”—the only contemporary evidence that would appear to support the Political Patronagetheory of Islamization. But since he never mentions Muslims except in the context of the capital city, Barbosa appears to have been referring to the Islamization not of peasants but of those Hindu artisan castes that other sources associated with the sultanate’s urban proletariat.
So far as concerns the countryside, it is only from the late sixteenth century, and in particular after the Mughal conquest (1574), that we have solid evidence of a Muslim peasant population anywhere in Bengal. The earliest reference is that of the Venetian traveler Cesare Federici, who in 1567 noted that the entire population of Sondwip, a large island in Bengal’s southeastern corner opposite Chittagong, was Muslim, and that it had its own Muslim “king.” Federici was also struck by the agricultural development of Sondwip, which he judged “the fertilest Iland in all the world.” In April 1599, not long after Federici’s visit, a Jesuit missionary named Francis Fernandez traveled up the channel of East Bengal’s Meghna River on an evangelizing tour, carefully noting the customs of the local people and evaluating the prospects of converting them to Christianity. Reaching the rural districts near Narayanganj in southeastern Dhaka District, Fernandez recorded that “I started examining whether there were any chances of propagating the Christian religion, but I found that the people are nearly all Mahometans.” This is the earliest unambiguous reference to a Muslim peasantry in the heart of the delta proper.
Several seventeenth-century European travelers made similar observations respecting the appearance of Muslims in the Bengali countryside, and noted that Islam was a very recent movement, dating only from the Mughal conquest. Writing in 1629, by which time Mughal power had become firmly established in the delta, the Augustinian friar Sebastião Manrique says: “In the early days, all the kingdoms of Bengala followed heathen cults, as the greater part and even now most of them do to this day. Except some, however, who since this region became subject to the Mogol Empire, have abandoned the heathen faith, and the more difficult road to hell to follow the wider and easier road which is that of the Alcoran [Qur’an].” In 1666 the French traveler Jean de Thevenot made much the same point—as well as exhibiting the same anti-Muslim bias, typical among seventeenth-century Europeans:
Like Manrique, Thevenot understood Bengal’s pre-Mughal period as pre-Muslim, and believed that Islam had become dominant in Bengal only after the Mughal conquest, which had occurred somewhat less than a century before he was writing. It is significant, too, that Europeans observed concentrations of Muslim peasants only in the eastern half of the delta, and not in the older, already Hinduized western sector. For in 1699, exactly a century after Fernandez encountered Muslims in the rural Dhaka region, another Jesuit, Father Martin, S. J., who so far as we know traveled only in the Hooghly region of west Bengal, noted that “nearly the whole country is given to idolatry.”
The Country [i.e., Bengal] was kept in far better order under the Patan Kings, (I mean) before the Mahometans and Moguls were Masters of it, because then they had Uniformity in Religion. It has been found by experience, that disorder came into it with Mahometanism, and that diversity of Religions hath there caused corruption in Manners.
Other contemporary data confirm Manrique’s and Thevenot’s general point that Islamization did not appear among the masses until after the Mughal conquest. The earliest Persian source touching on this matter dates from 1638, when the Mughal governor of Bengal, Islam Khan Mashhadi, complained to the raja of Arakan about Portuguese raiding of the Noakhali coast. There, the governor wrote, the Portuguese had been committing “depredations on the Muslim masses.” In the 1660s another Mughal source, the ‘ālamgīr-nāma by Kazim b. Muhammad Amin, stated that most of the peasants of Ghoraghat, or what is now the Rangpur region of northern Bengal, were Muslims.
If large numbers of rural Muslims were not observed until as late as the end of the sixteenth century or afterward, we face a paradox—namely, that mass Islamization occurred under a regime, the Mughals, that as a matter of policy showed no interest in proselytizing on behalf of the Islamic faith. Ruling over a vast empire built upon a bottom-heavy agrarian base, Mughal officials were primarily interested in enhancing agricultural productivity by extracting as much of the surplus wealth of the land as they could, and in using that wealth to the political end of creating loyal clients at every level of administration. Although there were always conservative ‘ulamā who insisted on the emperors’ “duty” to convert the Hindu “infidels” to Islam, such a policy was not in fact implemented in Bengal, even during the reign of the conservative emperor Aurangzeb (1658–1707).
Our attention must therefore turn to the Mughal period in Bengal. Was it merely coincidence that the bulk of the delta’s peasant Muslim population emerged after the advent of Mughal rule, or did deeper forces link these two phenomena?
1. William Muir, The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall (London, 1898; reprint, Beirut: Khayats, 1963), 45. [BACK]
2. Richard M. Eaton, Islamic History as Global History (Washington, D. C.: American Historical Association, 1990), 13. [BACK]
3. Peter Hardy, “Modern European and Muslim Explanations of Conversion to Islam in South Asia: A Preliminary Survey of the Literature,” in Conversion to Islam, ed. Nehemia Levtzion (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1979), 78. [BACK]
4. See Yohanan Friedmann, “A Contribution to the Early History of Islam in India,” in Studies in Memory of Gaston Wiet, ed. Myrian Rosen-Ayalon (Jerusalem: Institute of Asian and African Studies, 1977), 322. [BACK]
5. Census of India, 1901, vol. 6, The Lower Provinces of Bengal and Their Feudatories (Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press, 1902), 156. [BACK]
6. See S. R. Sharma and R. N. Srivastava, “Institutional Resistance to Induced Islamization in a Convert Community—an Empiric Study in Sociology of Religion,” Sociological Bulletin 16, no. 1 (March 1967): 77. [BACK]
7. Ibn Battuta, Rehla, trans Mahdi Hussain, 46. [BACK]
8. Hardy, “Modern European and Muslim Explanations,” 80–81. [BACK]
9. Aziz Ahmad, Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 105. [BACK]
10. Beyond India, one thinks of the janissaries of the contemporary Ottoman Empire, who had been Christian youths conscripted in the Balkans before they were Turkified and Islamized by their imperial patrons. [BACK]
11. See Yohanan Friedmann, “Medieval Muslim Views of Indian Religions,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 95 (1975): 214–21. [BACK]
12. See Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939 (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 75–79, 99, 138, 155–56, 162, 164–70, 173, 182, 238; Bernard Lewis, “The Impact of the French Revolution on Turkey: Some Notes on the Transmission of Ideas,” Journal of World History 1, no. 1 (July 1953): 105–25. [BACK]
13. See, e.g., Caste and Social Stratification among the Muslims, ed. Imtiaz Ahmed (Delhi: Manohar Book Service, 1973). [BACK]
14. James Wise, Notes on the Races, Castes and Traders of Eastern Bengal, 2 vols. (London: Harrison & Sons, 1883), 1: 40. [BACK]
15. See Richard M. Eaton, “The Political and Religious Authority of the Shrine of Baba Farid,” in Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam, ed. Barbara D. Metcalf (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 333–56. [BACK]
16. Baudhāyana-Dharmasūtra I.1.9–14, in Georg Bühler, trans., Sacred Laws of the Aryas as Taught in the Schools of Apastamba, Gautama, Vasishtha, and Baudhayana, part 2, Vasishtha and Baudhayana, vol. 14 of Sacred Books of the East, ed. F. Max Müller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1882), 147–48. See also History of Bengal, ed. R. C. Majumdar, 2d ed. (Dacca: University of Dacca, 1963), 8, 290. [BACK]
17. H. Beverley, Report on the Census of Bengal, 1872 (Calcutta: Secretariat Press, 1872), 12–15. [BACK]
18. James Wise, “The Muhammadans of Eastern Bengal,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 63 (1894): 28. [BACK]
19. Beverley, Report, 132. [BACK]
20. Abu A. Ghuznavi, “Notes on the Origin, Social and Religious Divisions and Other Matters Touching on the Mahomedans of Bengal and Having Special Reference to the District of Maimensing” (India Office Library, London, European MSS., E 295., vol. 17 [n.d.]), 3. [BACK]
21. Ibid., 4–12. [BACK]
22. Ibid., 14. [BACK]
23. E. A. Gait, “The Muhammadans of Bengal,” in Census of India, 1901, vol. 6, The Lower Provinces of Bengal and Their Feudatories, pt. 1, “Report” (Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press, 1902), 170. [BACK]
24. Wise, “Muhammadans of Eastern Bengal,” 28–63. [BACK]
25. Ibid., 29. Moreover, he added, viceroys and nobles governing Bengal generally left the inhospitable province after having amassed as much wealth as they could, “while only a few officers and private soldiers, having married into native families, remained and settled in their new homes.” [BACK]
26. Ibid., 28–30. [BACK]
27. Ibid., 32. [BACK]
28. Khondkar Fuzli Rubbee, The Origin of the Musalmans of Bengal (1895; 2d ed., Dacca: Society for Pakistan Studies, 1970), 40–41. [BACK]
29. Ibid., 43. [BACK]
30. Ibid., 17. [BACK]
31. Ibid., 59. [BACK]
32. Ibid., 87–94. [BACK]
33. Gait, “Muhammadans,” in Census of India, 1901, 6: 169. [BACK]
34. Ibid., 166. [BACK]
35. Ibid., 169. [BACK]
36. J. E. Webster, East Bengal and Assam District Gazetteers: Noakhali (Allahabad: Pioneer Press, 1911), 39. [BACK]
37. D. MacPherson, Final Report on the Survey and Settlement Operations in the Districts of Pabna and Bogra, 1920–29 (Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, 1930), 31, 32. [BACK]
38. Eileen W. E. Macfarlane, “Blood-Group Distribution in India with Special Reference to Bengal,” Journal of Genetics 36, no. 2 (July 1938): 230, 232. [BACK]
39. B. K. Chatterji and A. K. Mitra, “Blood Group Distributions of the Bengalis and Their Comparison with Other Indian Races and Castes,” Indian Culture 8 (1941–42): 197, 201, 202. [BACK]
40. D. N. Majumdar and C. R. Rao, Race Elements in Bengal (Calcutta: Asia Publishing House, 1960), 96, 98, 114. [BACK]
41. Ibid., 96. [BACK]
42. An exception to this was Niharranjan Ray, who wrote in 1945: “To some of the lower grades of Hindus, Islam with its more democratic appeal in the social plane and a simpler code of tenets on the religious, along with the easy temptation of favours at the dispersal of the ruling class and their proselytising zeal, opened up an inviting vista, while to a limited number at least it proved to be a haven from religious and social persecution by the upper classes.” Ray, “Medieval Bengali Culture,” 49. [BACK]
43. This thesis was articulated by one of the most influential Bengali historians of the post-independence period, Abdul Karim, who wrote: “The facts that the Muslims settled in this country, learnt the local language, lived in harmony with the local people, accepted local wives, adopted various professions suited to their genius, and that in their dietary system and dwelling houses they depended on materials locally available, bear out that they considered Bengal as their homeland. Side by side they adhered to the Islamic religious principles and built religious institutions of their own. There is, therefore, good ground to suggest that a Bengali Muslim society already passed its formative stage, took a definite shape, and breathed a new spirit of tolerance, equality and universal love in the country so much so that large masses accepted Islam and even the then Hinduism was deeply affected as traceable in some of the elements of the Chaitanya movement.” Karim, Social History, 210–11. For a recent restatement of the Immigration theory, combined with a measure of the Social Liberation thesis, see Muhammad Mohar Ali, History of the Muslims in Bengal (Riyadh: Imam Muhammad Ibn Sa‘ud Islamic University, 1985), 1B: 750–88. [BACK]
44. Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Languages and Literatures of Modern India (Calcutta: Bengal Publishers, 1963), 160–61. [BACK]
45. R. C. Majumdar, History of Medieval Bengal (Calcutta: G. Bharadwaj & Co., 1973), 196–97. [BACK]
46. Actually, Majumdar saw himself as only correcting what he felt to be an unwarranted view of communal unity put forward by Indian nationalists caught up in the independence movement. “Since the beginning of the struggle for freedom of India,” he wrote, “the complete Hindu-Muslim unity was regarded as an indispensable factor for its success. As a result of this view, there has been a deliberate attempt to re-write the history of India by considerably toning down, if not altogether effacing from pages of history, the whole episode of the bigotry and intolerance shown by the Muslim rulers towards Hindu religion.” Ibid., vi. [BACK]
47. The History of India as Told by Its Own Historians, trans. and ed. H. M. Elliot and John Dowson (Allahabad: Kitab Mahal, 1964), 1: 5, 13–14, 25, 90. Mas‘udi, Prairies d’or, 1: 155. [BACK]
48. F. A. Khan, Mainamati (Karachi, 1963), 25–27. Cited in Tarafdar, “Trade and Society,” 277. [BACK]
49. See Francis Robinson, Atlas of the Islamic World since 1500 (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1982), 29. [BACK]
50. Ibn Battuta, Rehla, 239. [BACK]
51. Ibid., 241. [BACK]
52. Ma Huan in P. C. Bagchi, “Political Relations,” 117. [BACK]
53. Ludovico di Varthema, Travels, 211. [BACK]
54. Tome Pires, Suma Oriental, 89. Pires does, however, speak of tributary “heathen” kings such as the raja of Tripura. His remark that the kings of Bengal had “turned Mohammedan” in the early thirteenth century is curious, for it suggests that he understood kingship in Bengal as an unbroken succession from the Sena, or pre-Turkish, days to his own. Could it be that Pires was unaware of the foreign origin of Bengal’s Turkish, Afghan, and Arab kings? Evidently the Husain Shahi court had so thoroughly assimilated Bengali culture that the Portuguese official detected no trace of foreignness in either the court or its monarch, seeing instead an unbroken Bengali dynasty that had converted to Islam three hundred years earlier. [BACK]
55. Duarte Barbosa, Book of Duarte Barbosa, 135–39, 147. [BACK]
56. Ibid., 148. [BACK]
57. Federici, “Extracts,” 137. [BACK]
58. H. Hosten, “Jesuit Letters from Bengal, Arakan and Burma (1599–1600),” Bengal Past and Present 30 (1925): 59. [BACK]
59. Manrique, Travels 1: 67. Emphasis mine. [BACK]
60. Surendranath Sen, ed., Indian Travels of Thevenot and Careri (New Delhi: National Archives, 1949), 96. [BACK]
61. M. L. Aimé-Martin, ed., Lettres édifiantes et curieuses concernant l’Asie,l’Afrique et l’Amérique (Paris: Société du Panthéon littéraire, 1843), 2: 258. H.Hosten, “The Earliest Recorded Episcopal Visitation of Bengal, 1712–1715,”Bengal Past and Present 6 (1910): 217. [BACK]
62. S. H. Askari, “The Mughal-Magh Relations Down to the Time of Islam Khan Mashhadi,” in Indian History Congress, Proceedings, 22d session, Gauhati, 1959 (Bombay: Indian History Congress, 1960), 210. [BACK]
63. “Jam‘ī kathīr az ṣaghīr o kabīr-i ra‘āyā-yi ānjā ki akthar Musalmān būdand.” Munshi Amin Kazim b. Muhammad Amin, ‘ālamgīr-nāma, ed. Khadim Husain and ‘Abd al-Hai (Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1868), 677. [BACK]