Charismatic Pioneers on the Agrarian Frontier
The advance of wet rice agriculture into formerly forested regions is one of the oldest themes of Bengali history. Wang Ta-yüan, the Chinese merchant who visited the delta in 1349–50, observed that the Bengalis “owe all their tranquility and prosperity to themselves, for its source lies in their devotion to agriculture, whereby a land originally covered with jungle has been reclaimed by their unremitting toil in tilling and planting.…The riches and integrity of its people surpass, perhaps, those of Ch’iu-chiang (Palembang) and equal those of Chao-wa (Java).”
Although peoples of the delta had been transforming forested lands to rice fields long before the coming of Muslims, what was new from at least the sixteenth century on was the association of Muslim holy men (pīr), or charismatic persons popularly identified as such, with forest clearing and land reclamation. In popular memory, some of these men swelled into vivid mythico-historical figures, saints whose lives served as metaphors for the expansion of both religion and agriculture. They have endured precisely because, in the collective folk memory, their careers captured and telescoped a complex historical socioreligious process whereby a land originally forested and non-Muslim became arable and predominantly Muslim. Let us begin by examining twentieth-century narratives and work our way back through the nineteenth, eighteenth, and seventeenth centuries to the sixteenth century, the earliest period to which traditions of pioneering holy men in Bengal can confidently be dated.
According to oral narratives collected in the 1980s, a certain Mehr ‘Ali is said to have come to the jungles of Jessore from the Deccan in the early Mughal period, accompanied by his sister and another companion. Having arrived in a settlement now named after him, Mehrpur, this holy man assisted the local population in clearing the jungle and in making possible the cultivation of wet rice. In Murarbond, in the Habiganj region of Sylhet District, Shah Saiyid Nasir al-Din is said to have come from the Middle East in the Mughal period and instructed the local population in clearing the land and planting rice; before him, the land had been jungle. He also taught them the rudiments of Islam. In Pail, several miles from Habiganj, stands the shrine of another pioneer holy man who is said to have come from the Middle East and taught the local people the techniques of rice farming and the fundamentals of Islam. Later, his sons settled in what are now the Comilla and Sylhet districts, where they did the same. In Pingla, Midnapur District, a Muslim holy man named Khondkar Shah ‘Ala is said to have founded a settlement on land donated by Sultan Taj Khan Karrani (r. 1564–65), who instructed the pīr to let a horse roam from dawn to noon, with the understanding that the enclosed area would be his spiritual and terrestrial domain for life. Arriving and settling in the area with his family, Khondkar Shah cleared the area of its forests with the help of the local people, whom he converted to Islam. Both during and after his lifetime the community honored him as their pīr.
The gazetteer for Khulna District, compiled in 1908, reports that in the early twentieth century parts of the Sundarban forests were still identified with the charismatic authority of Muslim holy men. In 1898 James Wise wrote of Zindah Ghazi, a legendary protector of woodcutters and boatmen all over the eastern delta, who was “believed to reside deep in the jungle, to ride about on tigers, and to keep them so subservient to his will that they dare not touch a human being without his express commands.” In 1833 another British officer, Francis Buchanan, noted that pīrs and tigers of Dinajpur District usually inhabited the same tracts of the woods:
The earliest European notice of the symbiotic relationship between the delta’s tigers and its Muslim holy men, or their tombs, dates to 1670.
As these animals seldom attack man in this district, the Pir is generally allowed by persons of both religions to have restrained the natural ferocity of the beast, or, as it is more usually said, has given the tiger no order to kill man. The tiger and Faquirs [holy men] are therefore on a very good footing, and the latter…assures the people that he [the tiger] is perfectly harmless toward all such as respect the saint, and make him offerings.
Based on traditions collected in 1857, Wise also wrote of Mubarra Ghazi, a legendary pīr identified with clearing the Sundarban forests of Twenty-four Parganas. This saint, he wrote, “is said to have been a faqir, who reclaimed the jungle tracts along the left bank of the river Hooghly, and each villager has an altar dedicated to him. No one will enter the forest, and no crew will sail through the district, without first of all making offerings to one of the shrines. The faqirs residing in these pestilential forests, claiming to be lineally descended from the Ghazi, indicate with pieces of wood, called Sang, the exact limits within which the forest is to be cut.” By appealing to the saint’s authority for delimiting the areas in the forest to be cut, men claiming descent from Mubarra Ghazi continued to acknowledge the saint’s religious sovereignty in this part of the delta.
Another nineteenth-century narrative concerns the career of Khan Jahan (d. 1459), the patron saint of Bagerhat in Khulna, near the edge of the Sundarban forests. The inscription on his tomb identifies this man as “Ulugh Khan-i ‘Azam Khan Jahan,” suggesting he was an ethnic Turk (“Ulugh”) and a high-ranking officer (“Khan-i ‘Azam”) in the Bengal sultanate. His remembered accomplishments include clearing the local jungle preparatory to rice cultivation, converting the local population to Islam, and constructing many roads and mosques in the area. According to local traditions collected in 1870, he had come to the region
Khan Jahan was clearly an effective leader, since superior organizational skills and abundant manpower were necessary for transforming the region’s formerly thick jungle into rice fields: the land had to be embanked along streams in order to keep the salt water out, the forest had to be cleared, tanks had to be dug for water supply and storage, and huts had to be built for the workers. When these tasks were accomplished, rice had to be planted immediately, lest a reed jungle soon return. These were all arduous operations, made more difficult by the ever-present dangers of tigers and fevers. Khan Jahan also turned his men to stupendous works of architecture. Surveys have credited him with having built over fifty monuments around Bagerhat, while oral traditions claim for him 360 mosques and as many large tanks. Some 126 tanks in Bara Bazar, ten miles north of Jessore town, are also attributed to him, as is the construction of numerous roads in the Bagerhat region. The unparalleled masterpiece of the Bagerhat complex is the Saithgumbad mosque, which, with its sixty-seven domes and measurements of 157 by 106 feet, is even today the largest mosque in Bangladesh. In short, Khan Jahan is remembered, not just as a forest pioneer, but as a civilization builder in the widest sense.
to reclaim and cultivate the lands in the Sundarbans, which were at that time waste and covered with forest. He obtained from the emperor, or from the king of Gaur, a jaghir [revenue assignment] of these lands, and in accordance with it established himself on them. The tradition of his cutcherry site [court] in both places corresponds with this view of his position, and the fact of his undertaking such large works—works which involve the necessity of supporting quite an army of laborers—also points to his position as receiver of the rents, or chief of the cultivation of the soil.…After he had lived a long time as a great zamindar, he withdrew himself from worldly affairs and dwelt as a faqir.
From eighteenth-century British revenue accounts, we learn of Pir ‘Umar Shah, the patron saint of Ambarabad in Noakhali District. This man, after whom the region was named, is said to have come to the jungles of Noakhali from Iran in the early 1700s and to have “lived there in his boat working miracles and making multitudes of converts by whom the wastes were gradually reclaimed.” The area cleared by Pir ‘Umar Shah and his local followers covered about 175 square miles of land, which Mughal authorities in 1734 declared a separate pargana, their basic territorial unit of administration. Some thirty years later, control over revenue collection in Bengal passed to the British, who described the area as virgin forest recently cleared and brought into cultivation for the first time by a number of small landholders called jangal-burī ta‘alluqdārs, or “jungle-cutting landholders.” These landholders claimed that they had originally been independent of any governmental authority, and only later had “requested” Mughal authorities to appoint collectors, or zamīndārs, to manage the collection of their revenue due to the state. The first two collectors were the sons of Pir ‘Umar Shah, the man who had converted the local people to Islam and organized them for the purpose of clearing the jungle. The ta‘alluqdārs allowed both sons a share of the revenue of several of their villages, and in 1734 one of them, Aman Allah, built a mosque in the town of Bazra, five miles north of Begamgunj. Mughal authority and Islamic institutions thus reached the Noakhali interior at roughly the same time.
Pir ‘Umar Shah must have established contact with the people of Noakhali before 1734, for that was when Mughal authorities organized the region he settled into a pargana, by definition a district capable of producing revenue. Although the men who cleared the forests claimed to have “requested” government-appointed revenue collectors, it is more likely that by 1734 they were forced to come to terms with Mughal power in that part of Noakhali, and that the provincial government, recognizing the sons of Pir ‘Umar Shah as persons of local influence on their southeastern frontier, found it expedient to rely on them for purposes of revenue collection. Thus, as the state incorporated these forest-dwelling peoples within its political orbit, the charismatic authority of the pīr became routinized into the bureaucratic authority of the pīr’s two sons, now transformed into government collectors.
Legends of pioneering pīrs can be found in Bengali literature of the seventeenth century. The epic poem Rāy-Maṅgala, composed by Krishnaram Das in 1686, concerns a conflict between a tiger god named Daksin Ray and a Muslim named Badi‘ Ghazi Khan. As the former name means “King of the South,” or Lower Bengal, the tiger god was evidently understood as a sovereign deity of the Sundarban forest generally, whereas Badi‘ Ghazi Khan likely represents a personified memory of the penetration of these same forests by Muslim pioneers. Although the encounter between these two was initially hostile, the conflict was ultimately resolved in compromise: the tiger god would continue to exercise authority over the whole of Lower Bengal, yet people would show respect to Badi‘ Ghazi Khan by worshiping his burial spot, marked by a symbol of the tiger god’s head. In this, way Badi‘ Ghazi Khan, probably the legendary residue of some sanctified pioneer like Khan Jahan or Pir ‘Umar Shah, was remembered as having established the cult of Islam in the Sundarban forests.
It was also in the seventeenth century that traditions concerning Bengal’s most famous Muslim saint, Shah Jalal Mujarrad (d. 1346) of Sylhet, became transformed in ways approximating present-day oral accounts. We have seen in Chapter 3 that the earliest written record of Shah Jalal’s life, composed in the mid 1500s, identified the saint as a Turk sent to India by a Central Asian pīr for the purpose of waging war against the infidel. Later hagiographical traditions, however, substantially reinterpreted his career. The Suhail-i Yaman, a biography compiled in the mid nineteenth century, but based on manuscripts dating to the seventeenth century, identifies the saint not as a Turk from Turkestan sent to India by a Central Asian Sufi but as an Arab from Yemen sent to India by a Sufi master in Mecca. Giving him a clump of soil, the master instructed Shah Jalal to wander through the world until he found a place whose soil exactly corresponded to it. Only after he had reached Bengal and assisted in the defeat of the raja of Sylhet did he discover that the soil there exactly matched his clump. He therefore selected the mound of earth he had tested as the site of his khānaqāh, or Sufi hospice. An almost identical version of this story is found in oral traditions recounted in the 1970s by villagers of Pabna District, nearly two hundred miles west of Sylhet in the central delta. When asked about the Islamization of Bengal, they responded with the story of Shah Jalal and his clump of soil, maintaining that one of the reasons Islam had flourished in the delta was that the soil had been right for Shah Jalal’s message. Thus, if sixteenth-century biographers depicted Shah Jalal as a holy warrior, and used his career as a vehicle for explaining the political transition from Hindu Bengal to Muslim Bengal, traditions dating from the seventeenth century saw Shah Jalal through the prism of agrarian piety, and viewed the saint as representing Bengal’s transition not only from pre-Islam to Islam, but from a pre-agrarian to an agrarian economy.
The sixteenth century is the earliest firm horizon for the appearance of pioneering shaikhs in either Persian or Bengali sources. Composed in the Burdwan region around 1590, at the dawn of Mughal rule in Bengal, Mukundaram’s Caṇḍī-Maṅgala celebrates the goddess Chandi and her human agent, the hunter Kalaketu. As noted above, the goddess entrusted Kalaketu with temporal sovereignty over her forest kingdom on the condition that he, as king, renounce the violent career of hunting and bring peace on earth by promoting her cult. To this end Kalaketu was enjoined to oversee the clearing of the jungle and to establish there an ideal city whose population would cultivate the land and worship the king’s divine benefactor, Chandi. Just as the goddess extended her protection to the king, so also Kalaketu extended his protection to the peasants, to whose chiefs he gave golden earrings, symbolizing his intermediary role between them and the goddess. To assist the beginnings of agriculture, Kalaketu promised not to collect any revenue for six years. Moreover, he gave each cultivator a document (pāṭṭā) recognizing his tenure, and specified that payment of taxes, when collected, would be based on the number of plows. Attracted by such favorable terms and promises, peasants and other rural castes representing the full complement of Bengali society as Mukundaram saw it, emerged in the new forest kingdom and took an oath of loyalty to the king by accepting a piece of betel from his mouth.
Mukundaram’s poem can thus be read as a grand epic dramatizing the process of civilization-building in the Bengal delta, and specifically, the push of agrarian civilization into formerly forested lands. It is true that the model of royal authority that informed Mukundaram’s work is unambiguously Hindu. The king, Kalaketu, was both a devotee of the forest goddess Chandi and a Hindu raja in the medieval (i.e., post-eighth-century) sense, while the peasant cultivators in the poem showed their allegiance to the king by accepting betel nut from his mouth, an act drawing directly on the common Hindu ritual expressing devotion to a deity, the pūjā ceremony. Yet it was Muslims who were the principal pioneers responsible for clearing the forest, making it possible for both the city and its rice fields to flourish. “The Great Hero [Kalaketu] is clearing the forest,” wrote the poet,
Muslim pioneers are here unambiguously associated with important processes taking place in the poet’s time—the clearing of forests and the establishment of local markets. Moreover, the Muslims involved in forest-clearing operations are said to have come from the west, suggesting origins in Upper India or beyond, in contrast to the aboriginals (“the Das people”) who came from the north and the harvesters who came from the south—that is, from within the delta. Far surpassing the other pioneers in point of numbers, the twenty-two thousand Muslims were led by one “Zafar Mian,” evidently the chieftain or the organizer of the Muslim work force. It is also significant that members of that force of laborers chanted the name of a pīr, quite possibly that of Zafar Mian himself. In sum, while the poem cannot be read as an eyewitness historical narrative, we know that its author drew the themes of his poem from the culture of his own day. Even if there had been no historical “Zafar Mian,” the poet was clearly familiar with the theme of thousands of Muslims attacking the forest under the leadership of charismatic pīrs.
Hearing the news, outsiders came from various lands. The Hero then bought and distributed among them Heavy knives [kāṭh-dā], axes [kuṭhār], battle-axes [ṭāngī], and pikes [bān]. From the north came the Das (people), One hundred of them advanced. They were struck with wonder on seeing the Hero, Who distributed betel nut to each of them. From the south came the harvesters Five hundred of them under one organizer. From the west came Zafar Mian, Together with twenty-two thousand men. Sulaimani beads in their hands, They chanted the names of their pīr and the Prophet [pegambar]. Having cleared the forest They established markets. Hundreds and hundreds of foreigners Ate and entered the forest. Hearing the sound of the ax, Tigers became apprehensive and ran away, roaring.
As a final literary illustration of Islamization and agrarian expansion, we may examine the legendary career of Shaikh Jalal al-Din Tabrizi, the patron saint of Pandua in the northwestern delta. In Chapter 3, we saw that early Persian hagiographies identify this saint as a holy warrior and a destroyer of temples. But a quite different view of Shaikh Tabrizi is found in an extraordinary Sanskrit text, Sekaśubhodayā. Although the events described in this work are set in the period immediately prior to the Turkish conquest, and although its author purports to have been the minister of Lakshmana Sena, the Hindu king defeated by the Turks in 1204, the composition of the text as we have it dates from the sixteenth century. This means that the composition of the Sekaśubhodayā, like that of Mukundaram’s Caṇḍī-Maṅgala, was contemporary with the early consolidation of Mughal power in the delta. Like Mukundaram’s and Krishnaram Das’s poems, this too belongs to the maṅgala-kāvya genre of premodern Bengali literature, a genre that typically glorified a particular deity and promised the deity’s followers bountiful auspiciousness in return for their devotion. The hero of the Sekaśubhodayā is not a traditional Bengali deity, however, but Shaikh Jalal al-Din Tabrizi himself.
The account makes Shaikh Tabrizi a native not of Tabriz in Iran but of the kingdom of “Aṭṭāva”—perhaps identifiable with ancient āṭavya, in present-day Mandia District, Madhya Pradesh—and relates that the holy man had been ordered by the “Great Person” (pradhānpuruṣa, i.e., God) to go to “the eastern country,” where he would meet Raja Lakshmana Sena, known for his hostility to Muslims. The account thus fixes Shaikh Tabrizi’s career in Bengal at a time before the Turkish conquest. Giving him an amulet, a pot of water, a staff (Ar., ‘aṣā), a pair of shoes with which to walk on fire or water, and the necklaces of two celestial nymphs, the “Great Person” charged Shaikh Tabrizi with the task of building a “house of God” (devasadana), or mosque, in Lakshmana Sena’s kingdom. After traveling to “the eastern country” the shaikh, wearing his magical shoes, reached the banks of the Ganges in the Sena capital city.
The two having met, the shaikh questioned the validity of the king’s title “ruler of the earth” and challenged the Hindu monarch to cause a nearby heron to release a fish caught in its bill. When the king declined, the shaikh merely glanced at the bird, which at once dropped the fish. Seeing this, the astonished Lakshmana Sena asked for the shaikh’s grace (prasād), and from then on remained a steadfast devotee of Shaikh Tabrizi, who assured him, “As long as I am (here) you have nothing to fear.” Meanwhile the shaikh proceeded to win over the city’s populace by performing a variety of miracles, such as subduing three tigers that had threatened the son of a washerman, reviving a dead man, and rescuing a ship caught in a gale.
Bowing low his head to the (river) goddess after muttering “Ganga, Ganga,” the king saw him in the west, (walking) over water. He, wearing black clothes, stalwart, engaged in putting on a turban and looking about, was approaching the king quicker and quicker.…The king said: “I have indeed seen a wondrous act: (a man) rising up from the stream and walking on water. His person appears shining with the glow of penance.”
It is when Shaikh Tabrizi sets out to build a mosque, to be located in the ancient Hindu political center of Pandua, that the story takes on special interest. Having first cleared the selected mosque site of demons, the shaikh consecrates the area by offering handfuls of holy water in turn to the “Great Person,” to Sunrise Mount in the east, to the Himalayas to the north, to his parents, to the people of the world, to any king who will honor him, to anyone in the village who will honor him, and to those who desire money and children. For his part, Lakshmana Sena donates forest land for the site of the mosque and orders masons to contribute their labor toward building it. This done, Shaikh Tabrizi “invited people from the country and had them settled in that land.” Thus we see a division of labor between the Muslim holy man and the Hindu monarch: the former performs magical and ritual feats appropriate for establishing the mosque, while the latter discharges the kingly functions of donating forest land and mobilizing a labor force. It is significant that the shaikh is made to play the central role in the land’s transition from forest to paddy; it is he, and not the monarch, who invites people to settle the formerly forested land.
The text also tells us how the mosque, once built, was managed. The shaikh informed Lakshmana Sena that the institution should be endowed so that it could make a charitable donation of fifty coins a day to all persons, whether kings or beggars. When asked for money for this purpose, the king replied that he did not have the cash, but would donate villages and lands instead. This done, Shaikh Tabrizi acquired a list of settled villages, ordered them surveyed, and had documents prepared fixing their combined revenue at 22,000 (coins). “Then,” continued the text, “the sheikh brought (all men) together and issued documents of settlement.” When this was done, he arranged for the daily distribution of the revenues in charity to indebted persons, travelers, the lowborn, and the poor.
We are not concerned here with recovering the “historical” Shaikh Jalal al-Din Tabrizi. We should rather see the Sekaśubhodayā as revealing the folk process at work: the shaikh’s career is made a metaphor for historical changes experienced by people all over the delta. Above all, the story seeks to make sense of the gradual cultural shift, well under way by the sixteenth century, when the text achieved its present form, from a Bengali Hindu world to a Bengali Muslim world. This was accomplished in part by presenting the new in the guise of the familiar. Even as Shaikh Tabrizi established what was initially an alien cult, he did so within a Hindu conceptual framework: his person shone with “the glow of penance,” or tapah-prabhāb, which in classical Indian thought refers to the power acquired through the practice of ascetic austerities; the “grace” he gave to the king was prasād, the food that a Hindu deity gives a devotee; the shaikh’s consecration of the mosque followed a ritual program consistent with the consecration of a Hindu temple; and the shaikh’s patron deity, “Allah,” although not identified with a Hindu deity, was given the generic and hence portable name pradhānpuruṣa, “Great Person.”
Shorn of the fabulous qualities characteristic of all maṅgala-kāvya literature, the Sekaśubhodayā suggests something of how the Islamic frontier and the agrarian frontier converged in the premodern period. Instead of presenting the shaikh as a holy warrior—at no point in the narrative does he engage the Hindus of Pandua in armed combat—the text seeks to connect the diffusion of Islam with the diffusion of agrarian society. In this respect, several elements in the story are crucial: (1) the shaikh’s charismatic authority and organizational ability, (2) the construction of the mosque, (3) state support of the institution, (4) the shaikh’s initiative in settling forested lands transferred to the institution, and (5) the transformation of formerly forested lands into wealth-producing agrarian communities that would continue to support the mosque. In this way, the poem sketches a model of patronage—a mosque linked economically with the hinterland and politically with the state—that was fundamental to the expansion of Muslim agrarian civilization throughout the delta.
In sum, from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, Bengalis have kept alive memories of charismatic pīrs whose authority rested on three overlapping bases: their connection with the forest, a wild and dangerous domain that they were believed to have subdued; their connection with the supernatural world, a marvelous, powerful realm, with which they were believed to wield continuing influence; and their connection with mosques, which they were believed to have built, thereby institutionalizing the cult of Islam. Whereas the first two bases may or may not have been present in any one pīr, the third was present in nearly all cases, with Shaikh Tabrizi’s mosque at Pandua having established the paradigmatic model.
Moreover, as happened in the case of the sons of Pir ‘Umar Shah of Naokhali, some of these men or their descendants became petty landholders. In cases where religious charisma became transformed into landholding rights, or supplemented such rights, a new class of men emerged—Bengal’s “religious gentry.” Combining piety with land tenure, this class played a decisive role in establishing Islamic institutions in Bengal’s countryside during the Mughal period. Two sorts of data at our disposal reveal the evolution of this class: contemporary Persian records pertaining to land transfers and village surveys of the early twentieth century. The remainder of this chapter will be devoted to examining the latter type of data so far as concerns two districts in the heart of Bengal’s active delta: Bakarganj and Dhaka.