In our previous chapter, we traced our lineage all the way from the dawn of men till the Sena Dynasty in 1200 AD. We noted the arrival of the Aryans quite a long time after the influx of humans in this region; we talked about the janapadas of 700 BC, the Mauryan Dynasty and Mohasthangarh along with its own timeline from 300 BC. We then jumped to the rule of Shashanka in 7th century AD and also noted the chaotic times of the Matsayanyam that followed. Finally we talked about the establishment of Paharpur during the Pal Dynasty in approximately 800 AD and the religious tolerance it once heralded and we ended with note of Sena Dynasty, the last Hindu dynasty of our land. From there, we continue our story.
the Advent of Islam and the City of Rebellion
Under orders from Qutubuddin Aibak, a Turk, Bakhtiar Khilji had first entered Bengal in 1204 and it is said that he entered Bengal riding a horse with such speed that most of his men had a very tough time caching up to him. Brave and reckless fellow I must say. With Bakhtiar Khilji came the spread of Islam in our lands and along with that came the habit of killing each for the throne – the lust for power and luxury. Khilji had first captured Nadia which was the temporary capital of King Laksman Sen of the Sena Dynasty. Khilji took Laksman Sen by surprise and expanded his territory for two years until he got greedy and went to conquer Tibet where he got thrashed. While he was away, the killings for power had already begun and when he came back he was put to death by Ali Mardan Khilji in Devkot. Some however say that he simply died of fever, but I like the other story better. Seriously though, how he died is still a debate.
For six years from 1206 till 1212, the chaotic killings for power commenced until finally Iwaz Khilji took control and expanded and consolidated the Muslim rule in Bangal in a planned and proper way. As such, generally he is accredited to be the first notable ruler of Muslim Bengal. Iwaz died in 1227 and for over a hundred years Bengal was loosely controlled by rulers from Delhi. This period is known as the Delhi Sultanate period. While out of fear, some people of Bengal did accept the Delhi rulers and did pay taxes to them, out of courage and anger many rebelled, and they rebelled non-stop. The rebellion became so farfetched that some, trying to establish power, even issued coins and had the khutba during Friday prayers read in their own names. I personally think is the ancestral period of the lunacy of the hartals of our time, but you can always think otherwise. The rebellions however earned Bengal a cool title. The land soon came to be known as Balgampur, meaning the city of rebellion.
Reign of the Independent Sultanate, Flourishing Literature and United Bengal
Once again, from amid the chaos a new dynasty was established. Fakruddin Mukarak Shah inaugurated the Ilyas Shahi Dynasty which lasted for about 150 years with a 20 year gap in between when a Hindu ruler named Raja Ganesh tried to step back in power. This was a period when Bangla literature flourished and local people were also involved in the administration. Most important of all however, hitherto the land encompassing Bengal was not known by any unitary name. Only at this point did it earn itself a name and an acknowledgment – Banglalah.
Fakruddin Mukarak Shah was followed by Shamshuddin Ilyas Shah who is famously known as Shah-i-Bangalah as he united the territories of Bengal under the name of Bangalah. This period saw development of the land in various aspects including economic, cultural, architectural and social. It was Shamshuddin Ilyas Shah who had conquered the famous port city of Sonargaon (previously known the Subarnagrama or the ‘Golden Village’) which was under the Hindu rule during Sena Dynasty. Sonargaon then became an important administrative center of the period.
Note than even during this time, the people of Bengal were all not Muslims; hence the Shahi reign was over people of another faith. Yet their popularity was renowned and they were noted for their tolerance and enlightenment. Truly this was a period of proper change and evolution in the mind set of the people of our land.
Ilyas Shahi Dynasty was followed by another Independent Sultanate rule founded by Alauddin Husain Shah in 1494 – the Husain Shahi Dynasty. During this time territories such as Assam, Chittagong Tippera we annexed. Development of the land continued and trade with the Europeans was at its peak during this time. Historians generally acknowledge this as the formative period of Bengal history. Intesrestingly although Islam played a dominant role in the lives of people, other practices such as Vaisnavism, Tantricism, Manasa, Nath and Dharma cults as well as Sufism were well in existence and tolerated. If only such religious tolerance existed in today’s time. The Independent Sultanate period lasted till 1538 AD when the Afghan galloped their way into the picture.
the Afghans, the Mughals and the Bara Buiyans
The Afghans had long before entered the Bengal or more appropriately Bangalah premises and were not strangers in the land. The proud and hot blooded person that they were it was just a matter of time before they tried to usurp power. That happened under the guidance of Sher Shah in 1539 and it was during this time when the famous Ksumba mosque, made entirely out of stone, was constructed. Interestingly the mosque, a place that is supposed to herald impartiality, had an upper second floor only for high officials. This reflects the rising inequality and social stratum of the time.
It was during the reign of the Afghans when the Mughals first entered Bengal, not too long after in 1576. The Afghan ruler of the time was Daud Karrani and he was defeated in the decisive battle of Rajmahal in Bihar by the hands of Mughal subhadar (ruler of province) Khan Jahan, who was under the Mughal Emperor Akbar, the Great. The Mughals finally made their first step in Bengal. The newcomers were not however accepted easily. You would think that after so much killing and bloodshed and struggles over power, change of rulers would be a thing of the past for the common people. Nope, not in this land!
The bara-buiyans were local territorial landholders and them, along with rajas and zamindars continued their revolt against the Mughals until crushed. The most important and interesting of the bara-buiyans was Isa Khan. Quoting a famous incident, in 1578 Khan Jahan invaded the Bhati region, ie, East Bengal and camped at Bhawal. At this point two other Afghan chieftains broke their alliance with Isa Khan and offered allegiance to the Mughals. Isa Khan stood defiant and a large Mughal naval force was sent against him. A fierce engagement took place at Kastul, now in Kishoreganj district. Despite Isa’s initial retreat, the Mughal army took to flight after being severely defeated by Isa Khan’s reprisal attack along with his allies, Majlis Dilawar and Majlis Pratap. Consequently Khan Jahan, utterly ruined, was compelled to leave, Isa Khan proved to be a formidable obstacle against Mughal expansion.
This however did not last long and all resistance was eventually subdued by another Mughal subhadar by the name of Islam Khan Chisti during the reign of Emperor Jahangir in 1612. That is when all of Bengal (except Chittagong) was under the Mughal control.
Introduction of the British and the Battle that was Lost in Greed
The Mughal reign saw the coming and going of many subhadars although none of the emperors actually came and permanently settled in Bengal. The Lalbagh Fort was built during this time by subhadar Mohammad Azam in 1678. Shaista Khan is another famous subhadar who earned his fame in Bengal by annexing Chittagong. The Magh king of Arakan with the aid of Portuguese pirates used to attack the coastal regions, looted property and enslaved the men, women and children. Shaista Khan conquered the region and actually saved the people from the Arakanese raids.
The fall of the Mughals in the region actually began in 1698 when Emperor Aurangazeb’s grandson, Prince Mohammad Azimuddin was the subhadar. In lieu of cash gift (no it was not as a gift to doctor for healing his wife), he first permitted the East India Company (EIC) to start their trading business. It was also during his time that Dhaka lost its glory of being the capital of Mughal Bengal due to a quarrel between Azimuddin and the powerful nawab Murshid Quli Khan, who was in fact at that point the de facto ruler of Bengal. This affected the circumstances greatly.
Beginning of a New History
It took only about half a century for the EIC to establish their rule in Bengal after the deciding battle of Plassey in 1757. At that point Sirajuddaulah was the nawab of Bengal. The story of the treachery of Mir Jafar, army commander of Sirajuddaulah is well known and I need not go in much details. The objective of EIC was the expansion of their trading in this region for solely economic benefit. One can blame the mercantilist’s spool of thought for this rise in material greed.
The battle of Plassey is another important event that deserves to be covered separately. The loss of this battle caused the British reign in Bengal for over 200 years. Although they were the lesser evil of the colonists, this period saw a continuation of the transfer of power from the eastern world to the western world. If demanded by the readers, I will continue this series and include the historical dialogues from the battle of Plassey in 1757 and the various resistances from below against the British since then in Part III. Comments, feedback, love letters, hate mail and amendments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope you enjoyed reading this series as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Illustrations by Bhoomika Partap and Ehsanur Raza Ronny
(taken from the documentary Finding Bangladesh 01 – http://www.findingbangladesh.com).