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.