The Rise of Chittagong’s Religious Gentry
By supporting frontier mosques and shrines, Mughal authorities in Chittagong established ties with political systems that functioned at a very local level. This was logical, for it was on the frontier itself, and not in district offices in Chittagong city, far less at the provincial or imperial levels, that the manpower and organization requisite for the arduous task of clearing the thickly wooded interior were to be found. The government did no more than legitimate and support an enterprise whose initiative was located at the grass roots. A 1798 survey, undertaken several decades after the English East India Company had occupied Bengal, is suggestive of how the Chittagong hinterland was reduced to the plow in Mughal times. “The following process for clearing new land is that here adopted by the Bengalese,” wrote Francis Buchanan:
It is clear, first, that the initiative for clearing the land lay with local men of enterprise, and not with the government. Second, we see the role played by cash money advanced to laborers by the zamīndār, or primary landholder. And third, we find the equally important role played by “some local man of some consequence,” who, having acquired a grant of uncleared land, apportioned it among laborers, who in turn became shareholders beneath him.
A man of some consequence, a diwan, a phausdar [faujdār], or the like, gets a grant of some uncleared district. Different persons, who have a little stock, apply to him for pottahs [pāṭṭā] or leases, of certain portions, and in clearing their portions these men are often assisted by the Zemeendar, or possessor of the original grant, with a little money, as a temporary support. But this money becomes a debt which they are obliged to repay when they are able.
In the cold season the operation commences by cutting down the bushes and smaller trees. After drying a few days these are burned and at the commencement of the rains the ground is ploughed, as well as the strength of the cattle and the resistance of the roots will admit. Rice is then sown, and a small crop is produced. The sirdar [sardār] or overseer, and three labourers, are supposed to be able to perform this operation with eight kanays [i.e., 3.2 acres] of ground. The second year’s operation consists in cutting down the greater part of the large trees, in burning them, and digging out the roots of the bushes and underwood, from the remains of which, after the first year’s ploughing, many shoots have then formed. The ground is again sown at the beginning of the rains, and yields a better crop. One sirdar and two labourers are reckoned equal to the performance of this work, on eight kanays [kānī].
In the third year the operation is concluded by again cutting down such brushwood as may have shot up, and by digging out and burning all the roots of the large trees that have been felled. The same number of persons are employed as in the second year. The ground in the fourth year is reckoned perfectly clear, and pays the usual rent. For the first three years nothing is exacted. Two men and two bullocks are reckoned equal to the cultivation of eight kanays, which here are the usual extent of one grist’s possession. All over Chittagong the cow is employed with the plough as well as the bullock.
If we apply to data from the early eighteenth century the same mechanisms that Buchanan described at the end of that century, the categories used in Mughal sanads become readily intelligible. The “local man of some consequence” mentioned by Buchanan in 1798 corresponds to the man named in the Mughal sanads who organized local labor into work gangs to clear the forest and commence cultivation. The documents do not identify where these “men of consequence” came from, though the titles that occasionally accompany their proper names provide clues to their social origins. These included, in order of frequency, shaikh (23), chaudhurī (11), khwāndkār (9), ḥājī (8), ta‘alluqdār (7), shāh (4), faqīr (4), saiyid (3), darvīsh (3), and khān (3). The twenty-one men identified as chaudhurī, ta‘alluqdār, and khān were evidently members of the rural landholding aristocracy before they acquired these grants, and in all likelihood they built or supported mosques or shrines as a means of obtaining tax-free rights to their lands. The rest were associated with either formal or informal Islam. The largest category, “shaikh,” could have referred either to informal holy men or to members of the ‘ulamā. Those styled khwāndkār, a Persian term meaning generally “one who reads,” were originally associated with public Qur’an reading. ḥājīs were men who had performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, and saiyids were those claiming genealogical descent from the Prophet Muhammad. The remainder of the titles—shāh, faqīr, and darvīsh—all refer to pīrs, or holy men.
Whatever their origins, these men played central roles in transforming the jungle to paddy, in introducing Mughal and Islamic culture into the forests, and in integrating forest communities into that culture. They were also entrepreneurs, arranging on the one hand to get necessary authorization from a local zamīndār to clear the forest, while on the other hand arranging with local laborers to work the land as shareholders. These latter persons, who in Buchanan’s account were lease-holding cultivators, correspond to the “dependents” (vā bastigān) named in the Mughal sanads. And finally, at the top of the local structure, both Buchanan’s account and the Persian documents mention the zamīndār, or the primary landholder from whom the organizer of field operations acquired the right to commence clearing.
From Buchanan’s account it appears that by 1798 the Islamization and peasantization of the native peoples of Chittagong’s uplands had made little progress, for he describes the tribal peoples of the Sitakund mountains in northern Chittagong as still practicing shifting, or jhūm, cultivation, growing cotton, dry rice, ginger, “and several other plants which they sell to the Bengalese in return for salt, fish, earthen ware, and iron.” He also noted among these peoples some worship of śiva. Nor had Mughal or European notions of property rights yet extended to these still-forested lands. “The woods,” Buchanan wrote, “are not considered as property; for every ryot [cultivator] may go into them and cut whatever timber he wants.” We may contrast this attitude with the keen sense of proprietorship among Mughal grantees. In 1734, for example, the servants of the shrine of a certain Shah Pir received over sixty acres of jungle in Satkania Thana in order to maintain the shrine and meet the expenses of travelers. Some time later, the shrine’s trustee [mutawallī] filed a complaint in the court of the local qāẓī alleging that a certain Tej Singh had unlawfully established a market on the lands belonging to the shrine and insisting that the market be removed. To the Mughals, settling the frontier entailed the establishment of legally defined notions of property backed by state power.
If the agrarian frontier had not yet reached the Chittagong highlands by the end of the eighteenth century, in the low country Buchanan noted that natural forest lands had recently been replaced by cultivated fields. “The stumps of trees still remaining on several of those [valleys] which I today passed,” he wrote referring to southern Satkania Thana, “show how lately they have been cleared.” Or again, referring to northern Chakaria Thana: “It is only 13 or 14 years since the upper part of this valley began to be cultivated. New land is still taking in, and the stumps of trees remain everywhere in the fields.” The domain of field agriculture ended only in the extreme south, for he remarked that “the whole country to the south [of the Ramu River] is an immense forest, utterly impenetrable without the assistance of a hatchet.”
Buchanan also observed “that most of the new cultivated lands belong to Hindoos, who by acting as officers about the Courts of the Judges and collectors, and by possessing greater…economy than the Mohammedans, are very fast rooting these out. The great body of the people, however, in the province of Chittagong, is still composed of the Mohammedan persuasion.” The latter observation was later confirmed in the earliest (1872) census, which showed Muslims comprising 78.2 percent of Satkania Thana and 78 percent of Cox’s Bazar Subdivision, in which both Chakaria and Ramu Thanas are located. As to Buchanan’s remarks about Hindus, in Chittagong as in Dhaka and Bakarganj, the apex of the social hierarchy was dominated by absentee Hindu zamīndārs. Although these played a key role in the task of land reclamation, their lines of patronage did not lie with the cultivators below, but with the ruling class above—those in “the Courts of the Judges and collectors.” Once having acquired their zamīndārī rights, these men adopted the ritual style of kings vis-à-vis their agricultural tenants, for Buchanan went on to add, referring to Bengal generally, that “every Hindoo Zemeendar of the least note is called a Rajah, and every such person by his ryots and servants is commonly called Maha-raj, or the Great Prince.…As a zemeendar the Rajah is amenable to our courts, but within his own country he is absolute, and possesses the uncontrolled power of life and death.”
In sum, the structure of land tenure as described in 1798 consisted of three tiers beneath Chittagong’s chief revenue officer. At the apex was the zamīndār, aloof from the actual process of forest clearing or field agriculture, typically Hindu, and given to the ceremonial style of a petty raja. Next was Buchanan’s “local man of some consequence,” the pivotal figure who secured from the zamīndār a grant to clear jungle land and hired laborers to accomplish the task. This would be either a member of the religious gentry itself or a petty landholder who supported a religious institution to obtain tax-free status. Typically enterprising entrepreneurs, and usually Muslim, these were the men who mobilized local manpower and oversaw clearing operations. Finally, there was the mass of laborers, who after four years of clearing forest lands were ready to begin regular field agriculture. It is significant that Buchanan describes the inhabitants of the uncleared jungle as non-Muslim tribal peoples who practiced some form of śiva worship, whereas the cultivators of lands already cleared he describes as Muslims. This suggests that peasantization and Islamization proceeded hand in hand among the peoples of Chittagong’s arable low country.
There were three discernible means by which the religious gentry acquired their land rights: donation, purchase, and pioneering. The first method corresponds to what Buchanan found at the end of the eighteenth century, when men produced documents showing that some legitimate local authority had donated land to them. Described in Mughal documents as sardār (chieftain), chaudhurī (headman), or most frequently zamīndār (landholder), the Muslims among these authorities were most likely descendants of the Mughal troopers who had accompanied Buzurg Umid Khan’s expedition to Chittagong in 1666. The Hindus among them were probably descendants of the clerks or revenue agents who had also accompanied that expedition and, in a manner described by Buchanan for the late eighteenth century, used their proximity to the governing authorities to get new lands made over to them in their own names. By authorizing a petitioner to clear the jungle and build a mosque or shrine, these local authorities became patrons of the petitioners named in the sanads. It is also evident that by the mid eighteenth century the patronage system had not hardened along communal lines: some Hindu chaudhurīs patronized mosques and some Muslim chaudhurīs patronized temples. As early as 1705, at the close of Aurangzeb’s long and turbulent reign, Thakur Chand, a Hindu chaudhurī in Fatikchari Thana, donated 17.5 acres of jungle land for the construction and support of a village mosque built by a local qāẓī. In 1740 Manohar and Jagdish, two Hindu chaudhurīs in Rauzan Thana, donated 76.8 acres to Shikur Muhammad Pahlawan to cover the expenses of a mosque the latter had built in the forest. Conversely, in 1740 Mir Ibrahim, a Muslim chaudhurī in Rangunia Thana, donated 3.2 acres to a certain Mukundaram in the way of a devottar, a tax-free land grant for the support of a temple or image.
Acquisition by donation generally involved a Muslim pioneer with a religious title like “shaikh” going into the jungle and, having secured a document of authorization from a local chieftain, building a mosque or shrine with local labor. The document attested that the chieftain had donated a certain portion of undeveloped jungle land to the shaikh. The latter would then produce this document to local Mughal authorities in a formal request for legal recognition of tenurial rights over jungle lands that he either proposed to bring under cultivation in order to support those institutions, or that he had already brought under cultivation. After investigating to verify the petitioner’s claim, the Chittagong revenue authorities would issue a sanad in the name of the chief revenue officer of Chittagong sarkār and bearing the seal of the reigning Mughal emperor, thereby extending government recognition of the petitioner’s trusteeship (tauliyat) of the institution and the lands supporting it. In this process the petitioner moved from de facto to de jure landholdership, enjoying the rights to the produce of the land subject to his support of the institution specified in the sanad. Actually, chieftains who in this way donated portions of their jungle territory to such shaikhs were adhering to an ancient model of Indian patronage. In Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu contexts laymen had gained religious merit by donating lands to monastic or Brahmanic establishments, a practice that served to reinforce the cultural bonds between donating clients and receiving patrons.
Some members of the religious gentry acquired their tenure by purchasing undeveloped forest from the chieftains or headmen who were its legally recognized holders. In such instances, the transfer of land did not reinforce cultural ties between donors and receivers according to classical models of Indian patronage. On the contrary, the use of cash enabled people to bypass traditional modes of patronage and deal with groups of people of different cultures. For example, in 1725 Shaikh ‘Abd al-Wahhab of pargana Panchkhain in Rauzan Thana purchased 16.4 acres of untaxed and undeveloped jungle land from the pargana headman, Jagdish Chaudhuri, a Hindu. The new owner then donated the land to Muhammad Khan, whose father had built a mosque on it. Here both donation and purchase were operating, as a Hindu landholder had sold jungle land to a Muslim intermediary patron, who in turn donated it to the builder of the mosque. There are also numerous instances of chaudhurīs selling jungle land directly to the trustees of mosques or shrines. In 1748 Shaikh Muhammad Akbar and Muhammad ‘Abbas notified Mughal authorities that they had purchased 38.4 acres from the headmen (chaudhurīs and ta‘alluqdārs) of their locality and had built a mosque there. As more land was necessary to meet the expenses of maintaining the mosque, however, they requested additional jungle land for clearing, preparatory to cultivation, and they were given 19.2 acres for this purpose. Ten years later, Muhammad Sardar of Fotika, Hathazari Thana, notified the Mughal authorities that he had purchased 16 acres of land from the headmen (chaudhurīs) and landholders (zamīndārs) of his pargana in order to support a preacher and prayer-leader, and to meet the expense of celebrating the ‘Id festivals of a mosque and the commemorative festivals (‘urs) for a saint buried in a shrine there. He now wanted government recognition of the tax-free status of these lands.
Such cases suggest how a cash-based economy facilitated the movement of men and resources in the forest, the clearing of land, and the expansion of mosque-centered settlements in formerly forested areas. Silver had, of course, been in widespread circulation as currency in Bengal ever since the Turks had established their rule in the thirteenth century. Already in the late sixteenth century, the poet Mukundaram had linked mobile cash with the process of forest clearing and agricultural operations. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, both European and Asian merchant-investors greatly expanded the volume of money circulating in Bengal, making possible transactions such as the case cited above in which a Hindu chaudhurī sold forest land to Muslims for development. Moreover, the monetization of Bengali society allowed people to attach new meanings to land. What had formerly been a ritual item, appropriate for acquiring religious merit in the context of Buddhist or Brahmanical gifting (dāna), had now become a freely transferable commodity.
The third and most common mode of land acquisition among the grantees was that of men and their dependents clearing the jungle in territories apparently unclaimed by superior zamīndārs. In these cases, land was acquired neither by donation nor by purchase, but by primary settlement by pioneers who claimed, and whose descendants would also claim, a tax-free tenure called jangal-burī maurūthī, or “jungle-cutting inheritance.” Thus we read of a certain Muhammad Sadiq, son of Shaikh Mumin, who informed the Mughal authorities in 1722 that he and his dependents had cleared 57.6 acres of jungle in what is now Rauzan Thana, where they had built a mosque. Noting that the land he held was “occupied by established custom,” Sadiq claimed tenurial rights of jangal-burī maurūthī. Now he requested Mughal confirmation of his claim so that he would be able to support his dependents. In the absence of any superior landholder, Sadiq himself became the de facto zamīndār of this territory.
If the political identity of these pioneers was based on their integration with the Mughal state through ties specified in the grants, their religious identities rested on different footings. Some were local holy men popularly redefined as Muslim holy men, some were Muslim holy men further redefined as Sufis, and still others were popularly accorded a Middle Eastern origin. Some seem to have been the very sort of indigenous Bengali walīs that the native population of the Chittagong hinterland had revered from pre-Muslim times, as noted by Abu’l-fazl. For example, in 1723 and 1733, 25.6 acres of jungle were given to the dependents and local shrine of a “dervish” named Kali Shah, whose name associates him with the goddess Kali. The same is true of a certain Shaikh Kali, who built a mosque in Rauzan Thana in 1760. In 1725 a shrine appeared in Charandip, Boalkhali Thana, in honor of a certain Jangal Pir, whose name identifies him as a holy man of the forest. In such cases, local walīs or saints of the Chittagong forest became integrated into the Mughal religio-political system as petty clients at the bottom of a vast patronage network extending clear to the emperor’s palace in Delhi. Yet their affiliation with mosques and shrines also cast them in the role of representatives of Islamic civilization.
In short, the tendency of Chittagong’s forest-dwelling peoples to follow the teachings of charismatic holy men allowed an outsider to be situated in this category and to find acceptance among the populace as one of their own. Later, the charismatic authority of such foreign holy men became routinized when they or their descendants merged with the revenue bureaucracy as petty landholders, as had happened to the sons of Pir ‘Umar Shah, who became the zamīndārs of the area in Noakhali cleared by their holy man father. The very first grant in the Chittagong collection of sanads illustrates the process. In 1666 Shah Muhammad Barbak Maghribi, whose name associates the saint with northwest Africa, settled in the forests of Chittagong, where he and his followers built a mosque and cleared the 166.4 acres of jungle given by the Mughals for its support. A century later, the descendants of his followers claimed revenue-free rights to the lands on the grounds that they were descended from the original jungle-clearers and thus held a legally recognized form of inheritance (jangal-burī maurūthī). In another instance, in 1717 a Sufi named Shah Lutf Allah Khondkar had been given 108.8 acres in Satkania Thana as personal charity (madad-i ma‘āsh). By 1740 the village founded by him had acquired the name “Mun‘imabad,” or “the benefactor’s cultivated area,” and the descendants of the Sufi’s followers claimed rights to the land on the grounds that their ancestors had originally cleared the jungle. Thus, too, in 1726 a local preacher (khaṭīb) named ‘Abd al-Wahhab Khondkar built a brick mosque in Patiya Thana, and just over a decade later his grandson, ‘Inayat Muhammad, emerged not only as the heir to the lands attached to the mosque but also as the region’s chaudhurī. Such developments illustrate Max Weber’s notion of the “routinization of charismatic authority”: the descendants of persons credited with charismatic religious authority came to assume proprietary rights over the land.
If holy men or their descendants could become landlords, the reverse was also true; such was the malleability of social status on the Bengal frontier. Reversing Weber’s “routinization of charismatic authority,” one also finds a “sanctification of bureaucratic authority,” as enterprising developers or even government officials came to be locally regarded as saints capable of interceding with divine power. We have noted the case of Khan Jahan ‘Ali, the fifteenth-century Turkish officer remembered for clearing the jungles of Khulna and Jessore, later popularly elevated to the positionof one of the great saints of southern Bengal. In Chittagong there is thecase of a certain Shaikh Manik. Described in contemporary sources as the zamīndār of pargana Fathapur, Shaikh Manik in 1715 notified government authorities that he had built a mosque in Paschimpati, Hathazari Thana. Complaining that he had insufficient means to maintain the institution, he appealed for some forest land to cultivate. The state gave him 54.5 acres and recognized him as the mosque’s legitimate trustee. By 1755, forty years after the construction of the mosque, a shrine had been built over the grave of the late Shaikh Manik, and his son, Ja‘far Muhammad, had emerged as the shrine’s manager. By 1755 the shrine had become so institutionalized that—in ways mimicking any bureaucratic government—it had begun issuing documents stamped with its own stylized seal: “Shrine [dargāh] of Shaikh Manik.”
In such cases the vocabulary of popular Sufism stabilized in popular memory those persons who had been instrumental in building new communities. There is no evidence that either Khan Jahan or Shaikh Manik, both of them pioneers and developers, had any acquaintance with, far less mastery of, the intricacies of Islamic mysticism. Nor will their names be found in any of the great pan-Indian hagiographies. Yet from the culture of institutional Sufism came the asymmetric categories of pīr and murīd, or shaikh and disciple, which rendered Sufism a suitable model for channeling authority, distributing patronage, and maintaining discipline—the very requirements appropriate to the business of organizing and mobilizing labor in regions along the cutting edge of state power. It is little wonder that Sufis appeared along East Bengal’s forested frontier.