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Bengali Literature in the Kings’ Court of Arakan (1600 – 1700 A.D)

 Category: Culture, History  Published: 1 January 2020  Tags: Arakan KingdomRohingya |  Download


The inhabitants of Arakan [thereafter written as Arakan] are generally known as “Mag” or “Magh”1 in Bengal. The Arakanese [Rakhaing/ Rakhine] people of Mongoloid race do not identify themselves as such; they are not even acquainted with this name. No doubt, the Bengalis being inexperienced with ethnology wrongfully call them as “Magh”2. But there is good reason to name some of the ancient Arakanese (who are called as Rajbanshi [Rajbangsi/Rajvamsi] and live in the southern parts of Chittagong) as “Magh”. Their ancestors are supposed to have migrated to Arakan from “Magadha” and for some time ruled there. For this reason they may have called both as “Rajbangshi” and “Magh”. These “Rajbangshi” from Chittagong and Arakan were racially Aryan and clan “Mag” or “Magh”3. Later since their [Rajbangshi] causes were inseparably mingled with that of Arakan as a whole, all the Arakanese people were generally identified as “Magh”.

These “Magh””or Arakanese are not known to the Bengalis for their fame. Till now the Bengalis utter the name of “Magh” with fear and displeasure. In Bengali collocation “Magher Muluk” [land/country/ kingdom of the Maghs] is very familiar. In the 15th and 16th centuries AD the “Maghs” or Arakanese as pirates caused severe disturbances in the coastal districts of Bengal, though three centuries has passed, the Bengalis sacrificed their lives and riches, till now they have not forgotten the oppressor and pirate “Maghs”. Though we know the “Magh” by their bad name, our introduction to another side of the “Maghs” today would at least help us to partially remove the ill reputation.

When in the period between the middle of the 16th and the end of the 17th century AD, parts of the west and north Bengal were full of the Vaishnavite literature, the famous Vaishnavite poets including Narahari Sarkar (1478 -1540 A.D.), Govinda Das (1537/1525 -1612 A.D.), Gyandas (born 1530), Jadunandan Das (born 1537), Premdas and Kavi Shekhar -were busy dealing on the love story of Radha-Krishna, and their works were filled with the charming syntax of Vaishnavite passions and other side of the Bengali literature was banished from the scene, the Bengali literature took refuge in the distant hills of Arakan. The Bengali literature was received with honour in the Kings’ Court of the “Magh” who are known to the Bengalis as barbarians, uncivilised and pirates. The Bengali literary goddess-Banga Bharati, no less liked the green woods and hilly landscape of Arakan. The way Bangali flourished in the court of the 17th century Arakan, nothing of that sort is found in its [Bengal’s] own soil. It is surprising that during the exile of Bengali language in Arakan, it was greatly appreciated by the Muslim courtiers of the Arakanese kings and the Muslim poets of East Bengal, especially those of the [greater] Chittagong Division. Later we will see the Bengali language received new form and inspiration from the Muslim poets in the Kings’ Court of Arakan. To properly understand the development of the Bengali literature in the hands of foreigners of a foreign land we need to know first the Arakanese history of the 17th century and Muslim influence on it. With this aim in mind we have introduced the following short history of Arakan and the Muslim influence on it.

The province east of [greater] Chittagong district that we call “Arakan” today was not known to the Arakanese by this name. They used to call the country as “Rakhaing”4 ? [and also Rakhine]. The word is derived from Sanskrit “Rakkha” and Pali “Yakkha”; the Buddhists called the indigenous inhabitants by this name before conquering Lanka or Ceylon; it seems that the Indian Aryans used to call the Arakanese as “Dravid” and “Mangal” [Mongol] people by their names before they were converted to Buddhists; even now, though the Arakanese mean the word “Rakhaing” as doitya [demon] or râkhasa [cannibal, mythically one of a non-Aryan anthropophagous race of India]; they do not hesitate to name their land as “Rakhaing-tainggyi” or the land of demons.5

During the 17th century A.D. when Muslim in Arakan nurtured Bengali Literature, the Muslim poets of that time identified the country as “Roshang” [npp: Roshang] (corrupt Bengali for “Rakhaing”) [later ‘Rohang’ has been coined to identify another community with different (non-Buddhist) faith]. Therefore, they did not create this name, “Roshang” but it is the ancient name of Arakan. For this reason we prefer to call Arakan as “Roshang” and in fact we have used this name throughout the book.

The Muslim influence in Roshang and modern Chattagram [Chittagong] has been noticeable from ancient times. The Arab traders established trade link with the East Indies in the eighth and ninth century A.D. During this time Chittagong, the lone seaport of East India, became the resting place and colony of the Arabs. We know from the accounts of the ancient Arab travellers and geologists6 including Sulaiman (living in 851 A.D), Abu Jaidul Hasan (contemporary of Sulaiman), Ibnu Khuradba (died 912 A.D.), Al-Masudi (died 956 A.D.), Ibnu Howkal (wrote his travelogue in 976 A.D.), Al-Idrisi (born last half of 11th century) that the Arab traders became active in the area between Arakan and the eastern bank of the Meghna River. We can also learn about this from the Roshang national history: when Roshang King, Maha Taing Chandra (788 – 810 A.D.) was ruling in the 9th century, some ship wrecked Muslim traders were washed ashore on “Ronbee” or “Ramree” Island. When they were taken to the Arakanese king, the king ordered them to live in the village (countryside) in his country7. Other historians8 also recognised the fact that Islam and its influence developed in Arakan in the 9th and 10th century A.D. From this period of time {After the tenth century the country was professedly Buddhist, notwithstanding the spread of Mahomedanism which reached Achin in 206 and dotted} the coast from Assam to Malay with the curious masques known as Buddermokan reverenced by the Buddhists and China-men as well as Mahomedans9. The Arabic influence increased to such a large extent in Chittagong during mid 10th century AD that a small Muslim kingdom was established in this region, and the ruler of the kingdom was called “Sultan”. Possibly the area from the east bank of the Meghna River to the Naf [npp: Nâf] was under this “Sultan”. We can know about the presence of this “Sultan” in the Roshang national history. {Cont: p-4.) In 953 A.D. Roshang King, Sulataing Chandra (951- 957 A.D.) crossed his border into Bangla (Bengal) and defeated the “Thuratan” (Arakanese corrupt form of Sultan), and as a symbol of victory setup a stone victory pillar at a place called “Chaikta-gong” and returned home at the request of the courtiers and friends10. This Chaik-ta-gong was the last border of his victory, since according to Roshang national history – “Chaik-ta-gong” means “war should not be raised”11. Many surmise that the modem name of Chittagong district originated from “Chaik-ta-gong”12.

In this way the religion of Islam spread and the Muslim influence slowly extended from the eastern bank of the Meghna to Roshang Kingdom in the 8th and 9th centuries. From the travelogues of the Egyptian traveller to India, Ibn Batuta (14th century A.D.) and from the accounts of the Portuguese pirates in the 16th century, the influence of the “Moors” or Arabs was waxing till then. So it is evident that long before the Muslim race was established in Bengal in the 13th century, Islam reached to this remote region of Bengal. A conclusion may easily be drawn that after the establishment in Bengal, Islam further spread in the region. That is why Bengali literature was for the first time cultivated among the Muslim of the region. Since the 15th century onwards the Muslims of this region began to engage themselves in the study of Bengali, that is, began to write books in Bengali, of which we have lots of proofs.

The study of Bengali literature that the Muslim initiated reached perfection under the aegis of the courtiers of the Roshang kings. It is needless to say that the Kings’ Court of Roshang got filled up with Muslim influence long before this. From the beginning of the 15th century A.D. the Kings’ Court of Roshang by luck was compelled to heartily receive the Muslim influence. Roshang king Meng-tsau-mwun (1404 -1434 A.D.) (known as Narameikhla in the Burmese histor13) after ascended the throne in 1404 A.D. forcibly gained possession of a lady named Tsau-bongyo, the sister of the chief called Anan-thiu. The brother, determined on revenge, went to the king [court] of Ava Meng-tshwai=Minhkaung (1401-1422 A.D.). Minkaung with a strength of 30,000 troops attacked Roshang and defeated Mang Saw Mwan in 1406 A.D.

Mang Saw Mwan fled and took refuge under the Sultan of Gaur14 [also written as Gaud by some historians]. At that time Sultan Shamsuddin II (1406 -1409 A.D.) of Ilyas Shahi lineage was ruling Gaur. He cordially received Roshang King Mang Saw Mwan and granted him asylum. The Roshang King lived there for twenty-four years till 1430 A.D. Meanwhile there was a rebellion in Gaur; King Ganesh (1409 -1414 A.D.) occupied the throne of Gaur; Sultan Ibrahim Shah Sharki of Jounpur attacked Bengal to oust King Ganesh. Probably the Roshang King assisted the Sultan of Gaur during the rebellion15. After the revolt, Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah (1414-1431 A.D.) ascended the throne of Gaur; peace was established. Jalaluddin Muhanunad Shah sent a general, Wali Khan (Ulu-Kheng in Roshang history) with Mang Saw Mwan to regain Arakan in 1430 A.D. Wali Khan betrayed his trust and joined with an Arakanese feudal lord. Tsenka [or Tse-u-ka according to Phayre] and imprisoned Mang Saw Mwan. Roshang King tactfully escaped and fled to Bengal; again the Sultan sent two more generals with the Roshang King to regain Arakan. The two generals killed the traitor Wali Khan and reinstated Mang Saw Mwan to the throne of Roshang in 1430 A.D.16 The Roshang king got back his kingdom but became tributary to the Sultan of Gaur17. His Mahomedan followers built Sandihkan mosque at Mrohaung18 [Mrauk-U].

Mang Saw Mwan or Narameikhla (1430 -1434 A.D.) by regaining his lost kingdom remained tributary to Gaur for four years. Thereafter it is common for the kings, though Buddhists, to use Mahomedan designations in addition to their own names, and even to issue medallions bearing the [Islamic] kalima, [the Mahomeden confession of faith] in Persian script …19 .

Narameikhla may have introduced and supported the practice as a tributary to Muslims; but history testifies that though the kings after him were independent, they did not gave up the practice. That is why we see Narameikhla’s Brother Meng Khari (1434 -1459 A.D.), though independent is known as “Ali Khan”20

It can be seen from the below list that from 1434 to 1645 A.D., for a period of about two hundred years, the independent Arakanese Kings used Muslim names in their coins. There was no good relation at all between the Kings of Arakan and the Muslim forces of Bengal during these two centuries. But they followed Muslim traditions and culture at home. The reason is: [that] the Arakanese Kings could not be free from the influence of the Muslim civilisation, politics and cultures, which is superior to theirs. We can learn from the seventeenth century Bengali literature – though the relation between the Arakanese Kings and Bengal Muslim royal-powers was not at all good, they did not show any sign of hostility towards the Muslim community but in its place they nurtured sincere admiration. For this reason they entrusted the chief administrative posts of the government departments including that of the defence to the Muslims.