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.