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Bengali Literature in the Kings Court of Arakan
Dr. Muhammad Enamul Huq (M.A., Ph. D) and Sahitya-sagar Abdul Karim Sahitya Visarad

Arakan Rajsabhay Bangala Sahitya

(1600 - 1700 AD)*

Bengali Literature in the Kings’ Court of Arakan

By Dr. Muhammad Enamul Huq (M.A., Ph. D) and Sahitya-sagar Abdul Karim Sahitya Visarad

Translated from Bengali by: Mating Sein Pru**

Chapter I

The Kings’ Court of Arakan***

The inhabitants of Arakan [thereafter written as Arakan]Δ 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), Govinda Das (1537/1525 -1612), 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 AD 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 AD. 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 AD), Abu Jaidul Hasan (contemporary of Sulaiman), Ibnu Khuradba (died 912 AD), Al-Masudi (died 956 AD), Ibnu Howkal (wrote his travelogue in 976 AD), 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 AD) 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 AD. 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 AD Roshang King, Sulataing Chandra (951- 957 AD) 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 AD) 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 AD the Kings’ Court of Roshang by luck was compelled to heartily receive the Muslim influence. Roshang king Meng-tsau-mwun (1404 -1434 AD) (known as Narameikhla in the Burmese histor13) after ascended the throne in 1404 AD 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 AD). Minkaung with a strength of 30,000 troops attacked Roshang and defeated Mang Saw Mwan in 1406 AD. 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) 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 AD. Meanwhile there was a rebellion in Gaur; King Ganesh (1409 -1414 AD) 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 AD) 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 AD. 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 AD16. 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) 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 AD), though independent is known as “Ali Khan”20

More could be seen:

Buddhist name

Muslim name

Reigning period

Basawpyu Kalim Shah21 1459 - 82 AD
Mengbeng=(Min-bin) Sultan22 1531 - 53
Meng-Phalaung Sikandar Shah23 1571 - 1593
Meng-Radza-gyi Salim Shah24 1593 - 1612
Meng-Kha-moung Husain Shah25 1612 - 1622
Thiri-thu-dhamma *Illegible Persian name26 1622 - 1638
Narapadigyi * =do=27 1638 - 1645

It can be seen from the above list that from 1434 to 1645 AD, 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.

In short, the powerful intrusion of the Muslim influence that penetrated into the Kings’ Court of Roshang in the fifteenth century AD grew all the more in the following centuries. This influence gradually grew so strong that it reached the highest point in the seventeenth century. The Bengali literature in this century shows the full picture of the Muslim influence in the King’s Court of Roshang. The picture of the Muslim influence on the King’s Court of Arakan portrayed in the Bengali literature has been presented below.

In the King’s Court of Roshang during seventeenth century there were Muslim courtiers who appointed their own poets to uplift Bengali literature, the names of those Roshang Kings are as follows:

Arakanese Name Name as adopted in Bengali literature Reigning period
Thniri thu-dhamma Raja Sri Sudharmma Raja 1622-1638 AD
Min Sani x 1638 (28 days)
Narabadigyi Nripatigiri, Nripagiri 1638 - 1645
Thado = Thado Mintar Cadehu, Chado Umadar 1645 – 1652
Sanda Thudhamma Chandra Sudharmma 1652 - 1684

Roshang King, Thiri thu-dhamma Raja (1622 -1638 AD) was as greatly powerful as his father, Meng Kha Moung or Husain Shah (1612 -1622 AD). He also used Muslim name as his father; unluckily that has not been deciphered. He ruled a vast area from Dhaka to Pegu28. During his rule, Poet Daulat Qazi, with orders from Ashraf Khan, while living in King’s Court of Roshang, started witting the incomplete epic poem, “Satî Mainâ29. The lineage, Dhamma [religion], religious practice, great power and justice of King Thiri thu-dhamma has been testified by Daulat Qazi as follows:

“To the east of the river Karnafuli there is a palace,
Roshang City by name - like the Heaven.
There rules the glorious king of Magadha descent a follower of
the Buddha,
Name being Sri Sudhamma Raja, renown for his justice.
His power is like the morning sun, famous in the world,
Grooms the subjects like his own children.
Reveres the Lord [Buddha] and purely religious,
One's sins are forgiven when one sees his feet....
Whoever extols the pious, famous and just king –
His poverty vanishes though born poor he is.
If by virtue of good deeds
One can see the King’s face –
From hell (he's) delivered to heaven
A life of success.
Justice and peace prevail across the land
One needs not fear another, all (are) fairly treated
If the ants rejoice over honey-woods
The elephant doesn’t cross them fearing the King.
Whoever hears and extols that virtue
His poverty vanishes though born poor he be.

The king also had vast number of soldiers and navy. The poet writes:

White, red, black- elephants of every hue
The sky is covered with colourful flags.
Millions of soldiers, and countless horses,
Who can tell the number of [war] boats?”

The “Laskar Uzir” or “War Secretary” was a Muslim – Ashraf Khan by name. He [the poet] wrote his poem by the order of Ashraf Khan. He was King’s trusted favourite person. The King felt relieved by entrusting all the state craft to him. The Queen also consider him to be more “worth and profoundly learned” than her own son30. This shows how much “authority, influence and control” the “Laskar Uzir” wielded in Arakan. In fact he ran the country and was the supreme authority. No wonder, the influence and circumstances of the Muslims would flourish in such a country. Actually it was so. Countless number of Sheikhs, Syeds, Qazis, Mollahs, Alims, Fakirs, Arabians, Rumis, Moghuls, Pathans import to Arakan and Ashraf Khan took the responsibility to give accommodation in Roshang and service to them; he built mosques and dug ponds in many places. People who left their countries, people living abroad, travellers and merchants from Ashin (Achi, Ache?), Kuchin (Cochi), Maslipettan (Macilipatan) to Mecca- Medina praised his love of own nation and religion31.

“Laskar Uzir” Ashraf Khan hailed from Chittagong. The remnants of his building at Charia village of Hathazari thana [in Chittagong district] can be seen even today. A pond in the village also carries his memories32. It can be heard that there are a number of monuments attributed to him in different places of Chittagong. Amongst them a large pond at Kadalpur village of Raozan thana is still renown as “Laskar Uzir’s Pond”33.

The influence and power of the Muslims that was established in the King’s Court of Roshang increased day by day without any sign of lessening. For this reason we can see that the chief poets of Roshang kingdom [when vacant] were not filled without the Muslims. The Muslims were without doubt skilled statesmanship. Or else the highest ranks in the Court would not been filled up by Muslims.

In 1638 AD Roshang King, Thiri thu-dhamma was assassinated. His son, Min Sani just after the twenty-eighth days of his incumbency and the Roshang throne was rendered vacant. The next King Narapadigyi (1638 - 1645 AD) was a minister of King Thiri thudhamma. After Min Sani, the Queen called on a meeting and put Narapadigyi [Narapatigri in Arakanese writing] in the throne.

The Arakanese Kings gave up Muslim names from his time onwards; there is no Persian script in coins he stamped in 1638 AD34. It is not right to guess that the Muslim influence died out in Roshang since his reign. From the last year of King Thiri-thu-dhamma’s rule 1638 AD to the last year of Narapadigyi’s (1638 -1645) extending these seven years saw a number of political strife and dissension in Arakan as a result Chittagong slipped out of Arakan kingdom in 1638 AD. That year the “Magh” ruler [governor] of Chittagong, Mengre i.e War-chief = commander-in-chief was compelled to hand over Chittagang to Islam Khan, representative of the Moghul Raj [empire]; this Mengre is renown as “Mukut Ray” in the Bengal history35. It is likely that the use of Persian language was banished from Arakanese coins for these political reasons36.

Successor to the throne, Thado, Thado Mintar [Thado Mindara], was the son of King Narapadigyi’s brother. He ruled from 1645 to 1652 AD. During Thado Mintar’s (Chado Umadar in Bengali) reign the great epic poet Alaol wrote “Padmavati” - his epic poem37. It is surprising, Alaol mentioned Thado Mintar as Narapadigyi’s son in his work38. Perhaps he did not know the real fact, or else, who knows history has not made a mistake by mentioning Thado Mintar as the nephew of Narapadigyi?

However, we know39 from Alaol that the War Minister of Narapadigyi was Alaol’s first protector and Muslim40 Magan Thaku'r’s father, “Sri Bara Thakur”. During Sri Bara Thakur’s lifetime, his son “Magan” was holding the post of a minister. King Narapadigyi trusted and loved Magan Thakur so much that, at the hour of his death he left his only daughter under Magan’s custody. When this princess became the principal queen of Thado Mintar, she entrusted the post of the Roshang King’s Chief Minister to Magan Thakur realising the guardianship she enjoyed in childhood41. From this we know that though the Persian script was no more used in the coins since Nerapadigyi, the Muslim influences in Roshang did not diminish.

After the death of Thado Mintar, his son Sanda-thu-dhamma (1652 -1684 AD) ascended the throne. None ruled for so long as he did; for thirty-two years as the longest ruling monarch he decorated the throne of Roshang. It is because he ascended the throne at a very young age. From Alaol’s poem “Saiful Muluk”42 it is known that when he ascended the Roshang throne he had not acquired the skills to run the country yet. Therefore the minor King’s mother ruled as Regent by appointing Magan Thakur as the Chief Minister. Possibly Sanda-thudhamma took over the burden of government before Magan Thakur’s death. After Magan Thakur, Solaiman - another Muslim- filled the position, that is, became the “Prime Minister” (chief counsellor/ courtier of the highest rank) of Roshang King Sanda-thu-dhamma. The treasury and general administration of the country was entrusted to this Muslim chief Minister43. During Sanda-thu-dhamma’s rule the important posts of Roshang kingdom were given to the Muslims. Syed Muhammad was his “war minister” (armed force minister); Alaol got to write “Sapta Paykar” at his order44. Another Muslim named Majlis was “Navaraj” [Nawa-raja -young prince?] in the King’s Court of Arakan; he is known as “Navaraj Majlis”. Alaol translated “Sikandar Nama” - a Persian poem into Bengali by his order”. It seems that the civil and criminal courts were run by the Muslim Qazirs [judges]. It is known that during that period a man by the name of Saud Shah was a Qazi of Roslrang. {Cont: p-12}

“Syed Saud Shah, Qazi of Roshang,
Agreed to [foster] me, finding in me a little learning...”
(Sikandar Nama)

Another person, Sayed Musa, was a minister of Sanda-thu-dhamma. Alaol completed “Saiful Muluk” by his order46.

The degree of the influence and presence of Muslims can easily be guessed in the King’s Court where the Muslims prevailed. Of course, Sanda-thu-dhamma had a high esteem of the Muslims. Serious politics was behind the gruesome assassination of Shah Shuja by the King in 1660 AD. It does not prove the King’s lack of love for the Muslims. Thus we see:

“People from every country, hearing the magnificence of Roshang,
Took shelter under the King.
Arabian, Michiri [Egyptian], Shami, Turkish, Habsi [African], Rumi
Khorachani and Uzbek.
Lahuri, Multani, Sindi, Kashmiri, Dakkhini [Deccanese], Hindi,
Kamrupi [Assamese] and Bangadeshi [Bengali],
Ahopai Khotanchari (?), Karnali, Malayabari,
From Achi, Kuchi47 [Cochi] and Karnataka.
Countless Sheik, Soiyadjada, Moghul, Pathan warriors,
Rajput, Hindu of various nationals.
Avai [Inwa], Burmese, Siam [Thai], Tripura, Kuki to name
How many more should I elaborate.[?]
Armenian, Olandaz [Dutch], Dinemar, Engraj [English],
Castiman and Frangais.
Hipani[c], Almani, Chholdar, Nachhrani,
Many a races including Portuguese.”

The Muslim poets in the Roshang Court, which itself was dominated by Muslim influence, nurtured Bengali literature in the 17th century AD. The outcome of the Bengali literature in Roshang Court was multifaceted and long-lasting. We will try to enumerate it slowly.

Source: Arakanese Research Journal - Vol. 2. - published by Arakanese Research Society of Bangladesh (ARSB) in July, 2005.

The original book was written in Bengali by Dr. Muhhammad Enamul Huq (M.A., Ph. D) and Sahitya-sagar Abdul Karim Sahitya Vasarad. Published by Sahitya-sagar Abdul Karim Sahitya Vasarad, Village: Shuchakradandi, Post: Patiya, Chittagong, Bangladesh (then East Bengal). From Gurudas Chattaopadhyay and SOns, 203/1/1 Cornwallis Street, Kalikata. 1935 AD. Printed at Atindra Nath Chowdhury, Phinix Printing Works, No. 29 Kalidas Singh Lane, Kalikata (India)

Title: Bengali Literature in the Kings Court of Arakan
Author: Dr. Muhammad Enamul Huq (M.A., Ph. D) and Sahitya-sagar Abdul Karim Sahitya Visarad
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Date: 8/30/2006
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