Bengali literary and folk traditions dating from the sixteenth century are replete with heroes associated with taming the forest, extending the cultivable area, and instituting new religious cults. Typically, these heroes combined holy man piety with the organizational skills necessary for forest clearing and land reclamation; hence they were remembered not only for establishing mosques and shrines but also for mobilizing communities to cut the forests and settle the land. As this happened, people gradually came to venerate these men, who were usually Muslims. In the active delta, then, Islam was introduced as a civilization-building ideology associated both with settling and populating the land and with constructing a transcendent reality consonant with that process.
Enormously important environmental changes lay behind these developments. The main factors contributing to the emergence of new peasant communities in eastern Bengal—colonization, incorporation, and natural population growth—were all related to the shift of the active portion of the delta from the west to the east. First, this shift stimulated colonization of the active delta by migrants coming from the relatively less fertile upper delta or West Bengal, or even from North India and beyond. Second, as this happened, indigenous communities of fishermen and shifting cultivators became incorporated into sedentary communities that focused on the charisma and the organizational abilities of Muslim pioneers. And third, the shift of the delta’s active portion to the south and east contributed to natural population growth, since the initiation or intensification of wet rice cultivation in this region dramatically increased local food supplies. Although East Bengal’s growing fertility was too gradual to be noticed by contemporary observers, it is nonetheless witnessed in revenue demand statistics for the late sixteenth and mid seventeenth centuries, as well as in popular traditions that celebrated the leadership and labors of forest pioneers. The growth of a Muslim peasant society, such a striking development in the post-sixteenth-century eastern delta, thus appears to have been related to larger ecological and demographic forces.
Finally, the cultural and ecological-demographic changes of the post-sixteenth-century period must be seen in the context of the new political environment that accompanied these changes—namely, the advent of Mughal authority in the delta. By a coincidence of some note, the Ganges River completed its eastward shift into the Padma system at the very time—the late sixteenth century—when Mughal power was becoming consolidated in the region. In a sense, then, Mughal authority rode the back of the eastward-moving ecological movement, symbolized by the establishment of the Mughals’ provincial capital in the heart of the active delta. To explore the impact of this new political atmosphere on cultural changes taking place in the region, we may examine contemporary Mughal documents concerning agrarian expansion and religious patronage. Fortunately, extensive Persian documentation of this kind has survived for critical sectors of the delta; it is to these that we turn our attention.