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.