The Early Mughal Experience in Bengal, 1574–1610
But seizing the capital and possessing the land were two different matters. While Mun‘im Khan and Raja Todar Mal, Akbar’s finance minister, were in Tanda reorganizing the revenue administration of the newly conquered province, thousands of Afghans melted into the forested Bengali hinterland, where for the next forty years they continued to hold out against the new regime. There they attracted a host of dissidents, including Muslim and Hindu zamīndārs, Portuguese renegades, and tribal chieftains, all of whom perceived the Chaghatai Turks from Upper India as foreigners and usurpers.
From Abu’l-fazl’s imperial perspective, however, the years after 1574 were devoted to clearing the delta of “the weeds and rubbish of opposition” khas-o-khāshāk-i mukhālif). Having seized Tanda, the Mughal victors pursued the Afghans in four directions: north to Ghoraghat, south to Satgaon, east to Sonargaon, and southeast into Fatehabad (present-day Faridpur town). These initial campaigns witnessed several pitched battles of great scope and bloodshed, in particular the battle of Tukaroi in southern Midnapur District (March 3, 1575), in which Todar Mal and Mun‘im Khan achieved a stunning victory over Sultan Daud Khan. On this occasion the Mughals resorted to terror tactics, filling eight lofty minarets with the skulls of their slain enemies “as a warning to spectators.” Actually, though, the use of such violence was exceptional. With their cavalry bogged down in unfamiliar jungle terrain and their troops close to deserting from lack of interest in fighting so far from home, the Mughals relied more on bribery, cajolery, diplomacy, impressive displays of military power, and sowing the seeds of dissension within enemy ranks than upon the application of brute force.
Such a policy was not only expedient. It also accorded with Akbar’s theory of imperial sovereignty, which, as in traditional Indian political thought, aimed not at annihilating adversaries but at humbling them into recognizing the single, overarching sovereignty of the victorious monarch. Hence on April 12, 1575, there was great celebration in the Mughal camp when Sultan Daud Khan, finally perceiving the futility of continued resistance, appeared before Mun‘im Khan and partook of a formal “banquet of reconciliation.” Here was a political rite, a ritual of incorporation, in which symbolism was everything. Displaying warm affection, the Mughal general advanced to the edge of the carpet laid out in a ceremonial tent specially arranged for the occasion. There he greeted the defeated king. Daud ungirded his sword and set it aside. Mun‘im Khan then presented the Afghan with a Mughal sword, an embroidered belt, and a cloak. Whether or not the cloak had actually been worn by Akbar, by donning it Daud Khan became ritually “incorporated” into the body of the emperor—a political rite the Bengali ruler would well have understood, since his predecessors on the throne of Gaur had followed the same practice. Adorned with Mughal regalia, Daud then turned his face in the direction of Akbar’s capital in Fatehpur Sikri and solemnly prostrated himself. His independence formally ended, Daud and his kingdom were now bound to the emperor.
Several events, however, prevented the new province’s smooth integration into the Mughal domain. Soon after returning to northern Bengal from Tukaroi, Mun‘im Khan transferred the seat of government from Tanda, capital of Bengal since the time of Sulaiman Karrani (1565), back to the ancient city of Gaur. The decision proved catastrophic, for a shift in the main course of the Ganges River had turned the river’s formerly swift channels into stagnant backwaters, making them breeding grounds for easily communicable diseases. As a result, in the months after April 1575 a devastating plague carried away thousands of Mughal officers and soldiers, not to mention untold thousands of civilians. “The thought of death took hold of everyone,” wrote Abu’l-fazl, as the plague’s devastation swiftly cut into the morale of officers and troops. Many of these became altogether disgusted with Bengal and began thinking only of gathering their belongings and leaving. We have no figures on how many died during the plague of 1575, or how many left the country. But coming as it did at the very dawn of the Mughal encounter with Bengal, a critical moment in the formation of Mughal perceptions of the delta, this catastrophe surely contributed to the stereotype, soon accepted throughout the imperial service, that Bengal was a hostile and foreign land—a place in which perhaps to endure temporary duty but certainly not somewhere to reside permanently. In the minds of Mughal officers from North India this view persisted for centuries, adding to the profound sense of alienation from the delta province that subsequent generations of ashrāf Muslims would nurture down to modern times.
It was in this melancholy atmosphere, in October 1575, that Mun‘im Khan died. The infighting among Mughal officers that followed the governor’s death encouraged Daud Khan, the last independent sultan of Bengal, to reconsider his submission to Akbar and regroup his scattered Afghan forces for a second try at dislodging the Mughals from the delta. In these circumstances, Akbar appointed another decorated Mughal commander, Khan Jahan, to take charge of the newly won province. Accompanied by the veteran Raja Todar Mal, the new governor reached the restored capital of Tanda in November, and in the following July met Daud’s forces along the banks of the Padma River in central Bengal. Again the Afghans suffered a crushing military reversal. Their finest field commander was killed in action, and Daud himself, his horse stuck in the monsoon’s muddy quagmire, was taken alive. This time the Mughals were ruthless with their quarry. Having determined that Daud should be “relieved of the burden of his head,” Khan Jahan had the ex-king decapitated and his body fixed to a gibbet in Tanda; the head he sent to Akbar as a trophy. A smooth transition to imperial domination now seemed more certain than ever.
This was just the time, however, when a serious rebellion broke out within Akbar’s imperial service. A year before the conquest of Bengal, the emperor had required his manṣabdārs—the Mughal corps of military officials—to brand and present for imperial review the precise number of horses, with cavalrymen, that they were paid to maintain. He also centralized the empire’s fiscal basis by ordering that land revenues be placed under the direct control of the central government instead of at the disposal of the manṣabdārs. Such exertions of central authority naturally provoked resentment among many officials. Worse, the emperor’s policy of shipping disaffected manṣabdārs to Bengal had the effect of concentrating potential rebels in a region distant from Delhi and legendary for its tradition of resisting central authority. In 1579, rebellion duly broke out. Led by Baba Khan Qaqshal and Ma‘sum Khan Kabuli, a manṣabdār who had come from Bihar to join the Bengal revolt, the rebels seized and plundered the official fortress in Tanda, executed Akbar’s hapless governor, and set up a “revolutionary government” amongst themselves. Hindu zamīndārs in both the southeastern and the southwestern delta swiftly threw off their allegiance to the Mughals, while other disaffected manṣabdārs in Bihar joined the movement in Bengal. For two years the delta passed completely beyond imperial authority, until 1582–83, when Akbar’s application of overwhelming force eventually quashed the revolt. Only one high-ranking Mughal officer would remain at large, the unrepentant Ma‘sum Khan Kabuli, who led a bitter fight against Mughal authority down to his death seventeen years later.
In 1583, when the turmoil within the imperial corps had subsided, the imperialists once again turned their attention to suppressing various indigenous resistance movements. These, however, were no longer concentrated in the northwest, the site of Muslim power since 1204, but in East Bengal generally, the vast region known to the Mughals as “Bhati.” Wrote Abu’l-fazl, “The tract of country on the east called Bhati is reckoned a part of this province.” Yet in another passage he treated “Bangala” and “Bhati” as mutually exclusive regions, the distinctive feature of the latter beingits topography: the word bhāṭi simply means “downstream direction.” “Bhati,” wrote Abu’l-fazl, “is a low country and has received this name because Bengal is higher. It is nearly 400 kos in length from east to west and about 300 kos from north to south. East of this country are the ocean and the country of Habsha. West is the hill country where are the houses of the Kahin tribe. South is Tanda. North also the ocean and the terminations of the hill country of Tibet.” As used by the Mughals in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, “Bhati” included the entire delta east of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly corridor. In fact, since its western boundary extended from Tanda down to present-day southwestern Khulna District, the frontier between Mughal “Bhati” and “Bangala” approximated the present frontier between Bangladesh and West Bengal. Hence the modern distinction between East and West Bengal dates at least from early Mughal times.
Anti-Mughal resistance now coalesced around a remarkable Bengali Muslim chieftain, ‘Isa Khan, whose seat of government lay deep within the delta’s eastern riverine tracts in the town of Katrabo near the ancient city of Sonargaon. In 1586 Ralph Fitch, a merchant then exploring the possibilities of opening up trade between England and India, traveled through Bengal’s eastern districts and wrote, “They be all hereabout Rebels against the King Zebaldin Echebar [Jalal al-Din Akbar]: for here are so many Rivers and Ilands, that they flee from one to another, whereby his Horsemen cannot prevaile against them. The chiefe King of all these Countries is called Isacan [‘Isa Khan], and he is chiefe of all the other Kings, and is a great friend to all Christians.” Fitch’s “other Kings” were the “twelve chieftains” (Beng., bāra bhūyān) recorded in other European accounts and celebrated in Bengali lore. In December 1600 the annual letter of the Jesuit Mission in Goa, commenting on the Mughal drive against Bengal’s former Afghan rulers, stated:
All twelve chieftains, now subordinate to ‘Isa Khan, had been former governors of the Bengal sultanate.
Twelve princes, however, called Boyones [bhūyān] who governed twelve provinces in the late King’s name, escaped from this massacre. These united against the Mongols [sic], and hitherto, thanks to their alliance, each maintains himself in his dominions. Very rich and disposing of strong forces, they bear themselves as Kings, chiefly he of Siripur [Sripur], also called Cadaray [Kedar Rai], and he of Chandecan [Raja Pratapaditya of Jessore], but most of all the Mansondolin [“Masnad-i ‘ālī,” title of ‘Isa Khan]. The Patanes [Afghans], being scattered above, are subject to the Boyones.
In September 1584, ‘Isa Khan delivered a crushing naval defeat to the Mughal governor, and for the next fifteen years, though always careful to accord Akbar his theoretical overlordship whenever it seemed prudent to do so, this “little king” ruled the eastern delta virtually unchecked. His prudence was dictated by the Mughals’ gradual mastery of the sort of naval tactics long used by chieftains of the eastern delta. In February 1586, in fact, imperial commanders pushed all the way through the jungle and riverine tracts to the port of Chittagong, on which occasion the city’s Arakanese ruler sent gifts of elephants to the Mughals. ‘Isa Khan also acted in a conciliatory manner. Yet strikes such as this were essentially raids; throughout this period the Mughals, forced to acknowledge ‘Isa Khan’s status as tributary “zamīndār of Bhati,” were quite unable to consolidate the east under anything like regular administration.
To remedy this situation, Akbar in early 1594 dispatched as governor of Bengal one of his most illustrious generals, the Rajput chieftain Raja Man Singh. After founding Rajmahal as his provincial capital in the delta’s northwestern corner, the new governor led a vast army into Bhati in late 1595. Powerful Hindu chieftains like Kedar Rai, zamīndār of Bhusna in Faridpur District, and Patkunwar Narain, the cousin of the raja of Kuch Bihar, chose refuge with ‘Isa Khan rather than submit to the Mughals. In August 1597, ‘Isa Khan joined forces with Ma‘sum Khan Kabuli, the die-hard Mughal turncoat, and together they engaged Mughal naval forces with their own Bengali war boats in a battle that resulted in another Mughal defeat, in which Raja Man Singh’s own son was killed. But this was the high tide of ‘Isa Khan’s fortunes; two years later he died, apparently of natural causes. Sporadic resistance to Mughal authority nonetheless continued as ‘Isa Khan’s Afghan followers flocked to one of his sons, Daud, while Kedar Rai joined with bands of maritime Arakanese, known as Maghs, who had been plundering Bengali communities far up the Meghna estuary.
In 1602, with a view to thwarting the rebellious ambitions of all these elements, Raja Man Singh established Dhaka as the center of his military operations in the east. Soon it would be Bengal’s premier city. To be sure, the Mughals did not create the city ex nihilo . Since at least the mid fifteenth century, it had been an outpost of Muslim settlers, and one Mughal officer remarked that Dhaka, together with Gaur, Rajmahal, and Ghoraghat, had been among Bengal’s “ancient forts.” Hence it was probably for strategic reasons that, shortly after Mun‘im Khan took charge of the province in 1574, Dhaka was made the headquarters of a thāna (Beng., thānā), or military district, on the Mughals’ far eastern frontier. Yet imperial authority there was still precarious, for in 1584 Dhaka’s thānadār, or military administrator, had been captured and imprisoned by ‘Isa Khan.
By the time Raja Man Singh established himself in Dhaka, however, the balance of power had tipped in the Mughals’ favor. From his new headquarters the governor, exploiting the disarray that followed ‘Isa Khan’s death in 1599, mounted a vigorous campaign against the remaining “twelve chieftains.” First, he worked on the Afghans loyal to ‘Isa Khan’s son Daud, and then, in 1603, on Kedar Rai and the Arakanese. In all these campaigns the governor met with consummate success: he pushed back Daud to Sonargaon, defeated and killed Kedar Rai, expelled the Arakanese from the lower delta, and drove ‘Uthman Khan, the most powerful of the remaining Afghans, into the jungles of Mymensingh. Alluding to the ascendancy of Mughal power in eastern Bengal between 1599 and 1603, Abu’l-fazl wrote that “the Rajah’s mind being now at ease and having committed the thanahs to the charge of able men, he went to Dhaka.” But the governor would not remain in the city for long; in early 1605, he left for Agra to attend to the ailing emperor, whose death was approaching. In that same year, Akbar died and was succeeded by his son, Jahangir.
It was in Jahangir’s reign (1605–27) that the Mughal enterprise in Bengal passed from an ad hoc pursuit of rebels to the establishment of a regular administration. Initially, the new emperor’s efforts to subdue Afghan chieftains proved ineffectual, especially with respect to the redoubtable ‘Uthman Khan, who remained firmly entrenched in Bengal’s easternmost districts. But in May 1608, aiming to crush such elements once and for all, Jahangir appointed as governor ‘Ala al-Din Islam Khan, an extraordinarily able and determined commander. A man about thirty-seven years of age at this time, Islam Khan enjoyed close ties with the emperor—the two had grown up together since childhood as foster-brothers—and possessed remarkable powers of self-discipline. Taking leave of the emperor, he moved down the Gangetic Plain at the head of an immense army of cavalry, artillery, and elephants, and a huge flotilla of war boats. After entering Bengal and pausing in Rajmahal, the army made its way through the jungles of the central delta, subdued rebellious chieftains on both sides of the Ganges-Padma river system, and finally reached Dhaka in 1610.