The Religious Gentry of Sylhet
Located in Bengal’s northeastern corner, Sylhet, like Chittagong, was densely forested at the time of its conquest by Muslims. A royal grant of the mid seventh century had described parts of this region as “outside the pale of human habitation, where there is no distinction between natural and artificial; infested by wild animals and poisonous reptiles, and covered with forest out-growths.” Many of the southern tracts of what are now Sylhet and Mymensingh districts were inundated with water and inhabited by communities of non-Aryan fishermen, prominently the Kaivartas. In fact, the central and southwestern part of present-day Sylhet District once formed part of a huge lake. But from the late tenth century to the early twelfth, a dynasty of semi-independent Hindu kings emerged to rule over the principality of śrihatta in the northern part of the district. Its most powerful king, Govinda-Kesava (fl. ca. 1050), built a lofty Krishna temple of stone in his capital city—probably identifiable with the north and northeastern part of Sylhet town—where he amassed a force of “innumerable” war boats, infantry, cavalry, and elephants. Yet the process of Brahmanization had by this time made little headway among the native communities (Kaivarta, Das, Nomo) in the region’s forested and marshy hinterland.
By the time Ibn Battuta visited Sylhet in 1345, some forty years after the Turkish conquest of the region, the large river valleys had become settled by a stable and flourishing Hindu population. “Along the banks of the (Meghna) river,” recalled the Moroccan traveler,
For the next several centuries little is known of Muslim rule in Sylhet, a distant frontier town, which throughout the sultanate period did not even possess a mint. When Akbar conquered western Bengal in the late sixteenth century, the hilly and forested tracts of southern Sylhet District became a refuge area for Afghan chieftains fleeing advancing Mughal armies. Even after the Mughals annexed Sylhet in 1612, the region seems to have remained Bengal’s “Wild East,” as we hear only sporadic reports of a Mughal presence there.
to the right as well as to the left, there are water wheels, gardens and villages such as those along the banks of the Nile in Egypt. The inhabitants of Habanq [ten miles south of Habiganj] are infidels under protection (dhimma) from whom half of the crops which they produce is taken; besides, they have to perform certain duties. For fifteen days we sailed down the river passing through villages and orchards as though we were going through a mart.
From 1660 on, however, there is clear evidence of the agrarian growth that was quietly taking place in the region. Tables 7 and 8, which summarize the grants approved by the Sylhet faujdār’s office between 1660 and 1760, indicate the amount of jungle area transferred from state to private hands in this period. Although only one of the twenty-six faujdārs in this period was a Hindu, a significant share of government patronage was extended to Hindu institutions. Indeed, the brahmottar, a tax-free land grant to a Brahman as a reward for his sanctity or learning, constituted the largest category of transfer, each one averaging 22.9 acres in size. As in Chittagong, it was not the Mughal authorities in the Sylhet headquarters who initiated these grants; Mughal faujdārs in Sylhet only confirmed agreements already concluded between local zamīndārs and Sylhet’s religious gentry. For example, a 1721 sanad confirmed a document previously drawn up by local zamīndārs who had donated 39 acres (10 qulbas) of jungle lands to a certain Mahadev Bhatacharjee, a Brahman (zunnārdār) “possessing consummate skills in the Hindu sciences.” Most brahmottar grants were justified in terms of the Brahman’s poverty and his reputed mastery of Hindu knowledge.
|Shah ‘Alam (1707–1712)||1||—||—||—||—||—||—|
|Farrukh Siyar (1713–1719)||—||—||—||—||2||—||—|
|Muhammad Shah (1719–1748)||337||54||2||3||22||55||39|
|Ahmad Shah (1748–1754)||91||27||1||1||6||35||13|
|‘Alamgir II (1754–1759)||95||25||1||—||3||38||20|
|Note: The original sources give these figures in units of qulba, Arabic for “plow,” equal in area to the Bengali hāl, also “plow.” In Mughal Sylhet, a qulba was equal to 12 kedār, one kedār to 4 poyā, one poyā to 3 jaṣṭi, one jaṣṭi to one square kāhaṇ, one kāhaṇ to 2 nal, and one nal to 6.25 dasta. With one dasta equal to 21.625 inches, and with 43,560 square feet equal to one acre, one qulba works out to 3.9 acres. See Kamalakanta Gupta, śrīhaṭer Bhūmi o Rājasva Babasthā (Sylhet: śrīhaṭ Sāhitya Pariṣad, 1966), 26.|
|Shah ‘Alam (1707–1712)||39||—||—||—||75||—||—|
|Farrukh Siyar (1713–1719)||—||—||—||—||42.9||—||—|
|Muhammad Shah (1719–1748)||6,146.4||2,593.5||7.8||35.1||429||9,429.3||1,053|
|Ahmad Shah (1748–1754)||2,741.7||889.2||3.9||3.9||140.4||12,987||608.4|
|‘Alamgir II (1754–1759)||3,143.4||1,205.1||15.6||—||132.6||8,455.2||1,579.5|
The second most common type of grant to Hindus or Hindu institutions was the devottar, a tax-free transfer made over to the caretakers of a Hindu temple or image. One such grant, dated December 8, 1720, reads:
The Mughals of Sylhet also patronized Vaishnavas through grants called vishnottar, and śaivas through grants called śivottar. In 1725, for example, the government granted four qulbas (15.6 acres) of jungle and a house to Govind Das, a Vaishnava holy man (bairāgī) described as “worthy of honor,” mustaḥaqq-i wājibu’r-ri‘āyat, an Arabo-Persian phrase that would have befitted any accomplished Muslim scholar or Sufi.
In the home of Madhu Das Sen, a resident of Chakla Sylhet, there is an adorned image (thākur). But because of a lack of means to perform the worship of the deity, in order to provide for the Brahman priests [pūjārī] there, and for the welfare of this illustrious place, it is requested that 70 qulbas [273 acres] of jungle lands lying outside the revenue register be given to Ram Das Sen as a devottar. The area having been brought under cultivation, its produce will support the aforesaid place and its Brahman priests.
Grants called chirāghī were intended to support the shrines of Muslim saints. In some cases, local revenue officials merely confirmed land transfers originally made by local zamīndārs. In others, pioneers requested government sanction to clear jungle with a view to using the land’s harvests to support a shrine. Still another category, madad-i ma‘āsh, were personal, tax-free grants typically awarded to men who had already founded mosques, as was the case with the sanads of Chittagong. In one such grant, a certain Shaikh Muhammad built a mosque in the forest but declared his inability to support its prayer-leader (churgar), preacher, and caller to prayer, or to pay its other expenses. On July 25, 1749, the Sylhet government responded by bestowing 390 acres (100 qulbas) of jungle “for the expenses of Shaikh Muhammad’s mosque and house, together with his children.” The earliest-known grant made to the servants of the shrine of the famous Shah Jalal in Sylhet city was also a madad-i ma‘āsh. Dated August 11, 1663, this document granted 78.2 acres (20 qulbas) of jungle to the devotees at the shrine. Henceforth, from the reign of Aurangzeb (1658–1707) through that of ‘Alamgir II (1754–59), devotees of the shrine continued to receive Mughal patronage.
It is known that in 1672–73 the conservative emperor Aurangzeb ordered that all madad-i ma‘āsh granted to Hindus be repossessed, with future such grants reserved for Muslims only. But Delhi, as the old Persian proverb went, “was still far away.” During the emperor’s reign, Mughal officers in Sylhet issued more madad-i ma‘āsh to Hindus after the 1672–73 order than before that date. Still, as is seen in table 7, the Hindu share of these grants steadily decreased in proportion to the Muslim share clear down to the reign of ‘Alamgir II, when 38 of 41 madad-i ma‘āsh grants were issued to Muslims. Moreover, for all reigns combined, such grants given to Muslims averaged nine times the size of those given to Hindus—170.1 acres and 26.2 acres respectively.
As in Chittagong, the Sylhet grants combined political with economic objectives. A 1753 sanad stated that the considerable area of 4,387.5 acres (1,125 qulbas) of forest were to be “a madad-i ma‘āsh for the prayer-leader and for the expenses of the students and those who come and go, and to the laborers and the good deeds of the organization of Maulavi Muhammad Rabi‘, together with his children.” Three years later another sanad ordered that an area of 975 acres (250 qulbas) of forest lying outside the revenue roll, but capable of being cultivated (jangala-yi khārij-i jam‘, lā’iq al-zirā‘at) was to be issued to the same “organization” (dastgāh), but with important differences. It was to be used
In these documents, Maulavi Muhammad Rabi‘ emerges as a figure of considerable charismatic authority and organizational ability. We do not know the identity of the laborers belonging to his “organization,” but he must have commanded considerable manpower in order to clear and cultivate stretches of forest the size of these two grants—a combined 5,363 acres. That Muhammad Rabi‘’s labor force, his mosque, and the Qur’an school were all to be supported by the harvested crops of the lands suggests that the field laborers were themselves affiliates of these Islamic institutions.
for the purpose of the expenses of a mosque, a house, a Qur’an school, the dependents, those who come and go, and the faqīrs. It is also a madad-i ma‘āsh for the laborers and the good deeds of the organization of Maulavi Muhammad Rabi‘ and his children and dependents.…It is agreed that once the aforesaid land is brought into cultivation, its produce shall be used to support the expenses of the mosque, the Qur’an school, those who come and go, the faqīrs, and his own needs, together with those of his children and dependents, and that he shall busy himself in prayers for the long life of the State.
The founders of new villages in Sylhet, as in East Bengal generally, had an enormous impact in shaping the subsequent religious orientation of local communities. In 1898, a time when the colonization of some of the Sylhet forest was still within living memory, a Muslim gentleman of northern Sylhet recalled that whenever a new village was founded, a temple to the goddess Kali was built if the founding landlord were a śākta Hindu, and a temple to Vishnu if he were a Vaishnava. If the majority of the villages were Vaishnava, they would build a shrine (ākhṛā) to Radha and Krishna. If the area were infested with snakes, the patron deity was the snake goddess Manasa, and if the village were founded by Muslims, a shrine to some Muslim pīr would be established. In other words, grants made out to Hindus or Hindu institutions (brahmottar, devottar, vishnottar, śivottar) tended to integrate local communities into a Hindu-ordered cultural universe, while grants authorizing Muslims to establish schools, mosques, or shrines tended to integrate them into an Islamic-ordered cultural universe. Subsequent demographic patterns evolved from these earlier processes.
In Sylhet, although seventeenth- and eighteenth-century forest grants to Hindus outnumbered those to Muslims, two points offset this difference. First, the state alienated a considerably larger total of forest land to Muslims than to Hindus, as a result of which more indigenous peoples living in areas included in the grants would have been exposed to Muslim than to Hindu institutions. Second, grants made to Muslims often mentioned not only “dependents” of the grantee but also those institutional structures that cleared the forest and maintained the workers’ fixed and continued focus. The grants made out for the dastgāh, or “organization,” of laborers working for Maulavi Muhammad Rabi‘ supported not only the laborers themselves but also the mosque and the Qur’an school that would regularize the links between the laborers and formal Islam. Grants made over to śākta Brahmans or Vaishnava bairāgīs, on the other hand, mentioned neither dependents nor the sort of community-building mechanisms found in the Muslim grants.
Thus Muslim grants explicitly connected state-sponsored public works projects with the establishment of Islamic institutions. In this way, the documented cases cited above confirm the process of religious and agrarian expansion alluded to in premodern Bengali poetry, in traditions collected by the British in eastern Bengal in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in traditions still found in the countryside today. Earlier traditions had celebrated men like Pir ‘Umar Shah, who, having come to Noakhali sometime in the eighteenth century, organized local Bengalis into labor teams and converted them to Islam (see pp. 211–12 above). Stories still circulate of how in Mughal times men came from the Middle East to the Habiganj region, where they organized the local population into groups to cut the jungle and cultivate rice. As such communities acquired an Islamic identity, they conferred on their leaders a sanctified identity appropriate to Islamic civilization, and especially to the culture of institutional Sufism, as witnessed by the growth of shrines over the graves of holy men throughout the Bengal frontier.