The Northern Frontier: Resistance to Imperial Authority
To the north, following the Brahmaputra River upstream, where it makes its great bend eastward toward the plains of Assam, Mughal officers encountered peoples who responded very differently to the imposition of imperial rule. In their efforts to dominate this region, the Mughals followed in the footsteps of earlier Muslim governors and sultans, who had made repeated invasions of the region, with results ranging from temporary success to utter catastrophe. Bordering Mughal Bengal to the north was Kuch Bihar, which stretched from the Karatoya River to the Brahmaputra and Sankosh rivers. East of Kuch Bihar lay Kamrup, which extended along the banks of the Brahmaputra to the Bar Nadi River, the frontier of the kingdom of Assam.
Kuch Bihar was more than a political frontier. The “Pani Kuch” peoples had for long lived along the fringes of Indo-Aryan civilization: they dwelt in forests, cultivated by hoe, drank rice beer, were matrilineal and matrilocal, and spoke a language distinct from Bengali. From at least the sixteenth century on, however, Brahmanical culture had been making inroads into their society. In the early decades of that century there appeared a dynasty of Kuch kings descended from Haria Mandal, a village headman whose son, Bisu, had put together a powerful confederation of Kuch tribes. Having established supremacy from the Karatoya to the Bar Nadi, Bisu adopted the title of “raja” and proclaimed himself king of the region. On his death around 1555, Bisu’s son Nara Narayan (d. 1586) succeeded to the throne, and he, like his father, avidly patronized Sanskritic culture.
The emergence of a Kuch kingdom was accompanied by the adoption of fictive genealogies appropriate for an upwardly mobile tribal dynasty. Thus the humble headman Haria Mandal and his twelve Kuch family heads were said to have been sons of twelve fugitive Kshatriya princes who had settled in the hills of Kamrup and intermarried with women belonging to the Mech tribe. Linked thereby with the uppermost rungs of the Hindu social hierarchy, the dynasty now sought linkage with the Hindu divine hierarchy, accomplished by the myth that Bisu’s mother had been miraculously impregnated by śiva. These legends thus established Bisu as the son of a major Hindu god and the grandson of a Kshatriya warrior. Not surprisingly, Bisu lavishly patronized the North Indian Brahman priests who were evidently responsible for furnishing the king with his illustrious genealogies. Here, then, was a familiar process: tribes aspiring to access to economic power and political domination employed Puranic mythology to link themselves with the ritually clean gods and castes of Brahmanical culture. For millennia this had been a route of upward mobility for India’s indigenous tribes living on the fringes of Brahmanical society, and the vehicle for their integration into caste society.
From the sixteenth century on, the Kuch religious system also absorbed considerable Brahmanical content. Formerly, native priests called “kolitas ” had officiated at ritual sacrifices to the sun, the moon, the stars, and to various gods associated with local forests, hills, and rivers. They employed no images in worshiping their pantheon of deities, headed by a supreme god named Rishi, married to a goddess named Jogo. By the sixteenth century, however, neighboring Brahmans had begun informing the Kuch people that the deities they called Rishi and Jogo were in fact identical with śiva and his wife Parvati. This identification of local divinities with Hindu divinities validated by Sanskrit lore and supported by Brahman priests proved crucial in the Kuch adoption of a Brahmanic worldview and social system. At the same time, the Kuch priests, whose status had initially been threatened by the Brahmans introduced by Bisu, reestablished themselves by adopting Brahmanical ritual functions. Under their direction the entire society gradually became “Sanskritized,” and by 1810 Kuch peasants would be calling themselves “pure Sudras.”
Kuch society consisted of a number of clan-based tribes loosely organized around a king to whom local landholders owed fealty, and to whom their subordinate clansmen owed tribute. This tribute was paid not in cash or crops but in corvée labor, a system apparently modeled after the practice of the Ahom kings in neighboring Assam. Peasants known as pāīks belonged to units of four cultivators and owed service to the king in turn by rotation within these units. A peasant would render his services to the king for a period of one year while the other three members of his unit looked after the land, so that every peasant served the king one year in four. Unlike that of Bengal proper, then, the Kuch political economy was not monetized. Never lastingly integrated into the Bengal sultanate, its population had never evolved the institutional mechanisms of land-revenue extraction long prevalent in western deltaic Bengal. Nor was its peasantry organized into endogamous and hierarchically arranged castes like West Bengal’s stratified social order. In fact, it was only in the sixteenth century that Kuch society had moved from hoe to plow, adopting with it the sedentary life associated with the cultivation of wet rice.
Thus the Mughal army sent to conquer Kuch Bihar and Kamrup confronted a society very different from that of the Bengal delta. Satisfied that he had subdued the “twelve chieftains” of Bengal proper, Islam Khan in early 1613 sent into Kuch Bihar an army of five thousand musketeers, over a thousand cavalrymen, four hundred war boats equipped with large cannon, and three hundred state elephants, with Rs. 700,000 for expenses. This was the first important expedition in which the recently defeated chieftains of Bhati participated, fighting now on the side of their new masters and patrons. Reaching Dhubri, an important Kuch fortress on the western banks of the Brahmaputra, the Mughal forces settled into a three-month siege against a hostile population. Mughal forces eventually prevailed, pursuing the Kuch to their capital of Gilah, and driving the Kuch raja, Parikshit Narayan, out of the country altogether. Having entered the capital city, which they triumphantly renamed “Jahangirabad,” the imperialists annexed Kuch Bihar to Mughal Bengal and pursued the former king across the Sankosh and Manas rivers into Kamrup. There the fugitive raja at last submitted to Mughal authority and was sent off to Dhaka in order, as Mirza Nathan put it, “to learn the court etiquettes.”
By July 1613 both Kuch Bihar and Kamrup had been annexed and brought under Mughal fiscal administration. The land was divided into twenty revenue circles, taxes were levied on the peasantry, and imperial agents (kurūrī) were sent out to collect the newly imposed land revenue. Some revenue circles were given to revenue farmers (mustājir) with whom the government contracted for stipulated amounts of revenue to be remitted to Dhaka. Soon the Mughals sent a new revenue officer to Jahangirabad, Mir Safi, who introduced further changes in the revenue assessment and demanded that the local militia, or pāīks, be paid salaries out of the general land tax. In this way a corvée militia intended for the service of a local king was transformed into a salaried army under the authority of a distant governor. Moreover, the army was supported by additional revenue burdens placed on a peasantry unfamiliar with a monetized economy. To make matters worse, Mughal revenue farmers, having contracted to pay the government at agreed levels of revenue, further squeezed the peasantry for their own profit by raising taxes within their revenue circles.
The entire Kuch political economy now fundamentally shaken, and with no king to articulate the considerable resentment caused by these changes, a series of violent peasant rebellions erupted throughout Kuch Bihar and Kamrup. In 1614 peasant rebels overpowered the Mughal garrison at Rangamati and besieged the regional headquarters at Gilah. Mughal forces responded by relieving Gilah, recovering Rangamati, and establishing garrisons in eastern Kamrup, between the Manas and Bar Nadi rivers. Around August-September 1615 they launched a full-scale invasion of Assam, at which point insurgents in eastern Kamrup seized the Mughal garrison of Dhamdhama. There, Kuch rebels made a bold bid for independence under the leadership of a peasant named Sanatan, probably the hereditary leader of a number of pāīks. Sanatan communicated four demands to the besieging Mughal forces: that the revenue collector sent to Kamrup be punished for his oppression, that all Mughal taxes be remitted for a full year, that the imperial army withdraw from Kamrup, and that “the allowance of the pāīks should be given to them direct and not made an addition to revenue due to government.” In response, the Mughals expressed willingness to appease the rebels by dismissing Mir Safi, the oppressive collector. But they were not willing to rescind the new system of taxation they had introduced; nor were they willing to restore the former status of the pāīks. At this impasse Sanatan, seizing the symbols of Hindu political authority, proclaimed himself “raja” of the area. Mughal commanders, deploying their overwhelming superiority in manpower and firepower, now doggedly mowed down Sanatan’s fortified stockades, killed a thousand rebels, and ultimately compelled Sanatan to flee for his life.
In this way, Bengal’s northern frontier region was forcibly subjugated to imperial authority. Accompanied as it was by a drastic break in the region’s former political economy, the conquest sharply contrasted with the orderly transition to Mughal power in western Bengal. In Kuch Bihar and Kamrup a monetized economy replaced a non-monetized one; a distant governor replaced a local king; and an armed militia paid from a general tax levied on the whole peasantry replaced a corvée militia paid by a system of customary service to a king. These disruptions explain the widespread and popular resistance to the imposition of Mughal authority, reflected in the support given Sanatan’s warriors by several thousand villagers, who brought rations for their besieged comrades in the garrison.
Finally, the advance of the plow over the hoe in Kuch society, a change already in progress before the Mughals’ arrival, seems to have been identified with the advance of Hindu culture and the Bengali language from the plains, and not with Islamic culture or the Mughal administration. “At this time,” wrote Buchanan-Hamilton with reference to this period, “the nation had in general betaken themselves to the plough, and the Kolitas [traditional priests] could read the Bengalese language, and that seemsat least to have been in frequent use.” In short, by the early seventeenth century the Sanskritization of Kuch society had progressed to such an extent that the Mughal conquest, by posing a broadside threat to that society, not only ensured the survival of Brahmanic culture on Bengal’s northern frontier, but evidently strengthened it.