Thursday, May 17, 2012

Missing Links in Arakan History

Satyendra Nath Ghoshal

One of the most glorious periods of Bengali literature was the seventeenth century, though unfortunately, it has escaped the attention of many careless historians; at any rate, little justice seems to have been done to this golden age. I have called it a golden age not so much because of the excellence of literary qualities in the works of this period which also are assuredly worthy of recognition, but for two other strong rounds. The first, is that not a single writer of Bengali literature from the earliest period down to the end of the late medieval period, save and except the poets of the seventeenth century, of whom I am about to speak, has ever cared or dared to let us have a glimpse of the contemporary historical background for reasons left to our guess.  Secondly, the works of all the poets of the old and medieval periods, except those of the century under reference, are invariably connected with unnecessary divine or religious sentiments.In fact, poetry divorced from one religious aspect or another was, to all intents and purposes, unknown. All early poets, who were orthodox Hindus, wrote in strict unison with this tradition, and the practice went on in a highly mono- tonous line without curb or respite.  It may be noted here that even when a love story like one based on the well-known episode of Vidya and Sundar was composed in the later years, the same had to be fitted into a religious frame-work where the motif was artificially made to be the eulogy of some god or goddess.
It redounds to the credit of the Muslim poets of Bengali literature that this annoying monotony of handling good plots was broken. It was they who went off the beaten track and not only confined their attention to the motif of the story,but narrated their own environments, including the historical back-ground, so boldly and frankly, that the past history of certain reigns  or  rulers  is  possible  to  he  reconstructed  on  the  basis of such narratives.  Not that they have not erred, particularly when they themselves refer to traditions or hearsays, but in so far as contemporary pictures are concerned they are seldom found guilty of exaggeration or distortions.
The romantic Bengali literature, free from the fetters of religion and religious sentiments, began in the hands of the Muslim poets, and its developing period may be roughly taken to be some fifty years between 1622 and 1672.  From a detailed study of this brief period in the history of secular romance in Bengali literature it is not only possible to corroborate some of the facts about Arakan  but  also  throw  a  new  light  on  the  reigns of some of the kings of this country in this period.
Of the principal Bengali poets who happen to be the torch-bearers in the literary field of this period. I have selected in this short paper only two, Daulat Kazi and Alaol, both Sufi Muslims.   Sheer chance seems to have carried both these Bengali poets to Arakan where in the kings' courts they composed their poems in the seventeenth century and have left clear records of the reigning monarchs and their deeds.
The earlier of the two poets named above is Daulat Kazi who has to his credit only one book known as Sati Mayna-O-Lora Candrani 1 and that too was left incomplete by the poet as he was cut off by the cruel hands of death in the midst of his work.This great work of Daulat begins with a graphic picture of the capital of Arakan, of the king and his chief minister, and of the people of the country in general. I would like to mention here a grave omission of history in that of this chief minister whose name is Ashraf Khan and in whose able hands, according to Daulat, the reins of monarchy were entrusted for the major period of the king's reign, history betrays no knowledge.
The capital of Arakan in this time has been referred to as Rosanga by both the poets. This Rosanga may he an attempt at sanskritization of the word Mrohaung 2 by which name the capital was known for about four hundred years since the time of king Narameikhla (1433 A.D.).3 Daulat K.azi wrote his poem in the court of the Arakan king Thiri-thu-dhamma (1632-1638), referred to by the poet as Sri Sudharma which also seems to be a result of sanskritization.
Now, the coronation of Thiri-thu-dhamma was, according to history, deferred for twelve years, in pursuance of an astrological prediction that the king would die within a year of his coronation,4 and this is also corroborated by Daulat. In this context the poet writes that “the great king (Sri Sudharma ) knowing that his life would come to an end, transferred the rule of the kingdom to  the hands  of his minister Ashraf Khan."5 The king Thiri-thu-dhamma had, according to history, a Pali title of honour, "Lord of the White Elephant, Lord of the Red Elephant”,as is proved by numismatic  evidence.6 This title of  the king has also been referred to by Daulat in the following way:
“The great mad elephant Airavat having seen the glory and fame of Sudharma submitted to his feet in while and red.” 7
A lengthy description of  Rosanga, the  capital of Arakan, in all  its pomp and grandeur, is found in Daulat's work thus:
"On the eastern side of the river Karnaphuli is the city of Rorsanga.8 King Sudharma, a very image of virtue, and in prowess, like the morning Sun, is renowned in the world. Hs looks after his subjects as though they were his sons.  .. ...Five hundred elephants carry on his command.  The entire kingdom is in peace and no one is envious of another.. .....'Nobody is in distress and all the people are happy through the grace of the king....The king made Ashraf Khan his chief minister and the commander of his army .......One day king Sudharma......went on an expedition (hunting), into the forest with his army. Elephants of diverse colours were with him.  Flags of various colours covered the sky.  Thousands and thousands of soldiers and horses, without a limit to their number, also followed (him).  The glory of the king's boat was beyond measure.  ........The boat could cover in one day a journey of ten days.  .........The dazzling boat gave out a luster of lightning.  Its pillars were of emerald and the roof was of silver.   ........Its stem with a gold peacock looked wonderful....... The king (thus) reached the forest......with him was Ashraf Khan and other ministers……. The soldiers pitched their respective tents and lived happily in these. Variousmusical instruments were played.......The courtesans sang and dance sweetly,…..The king with his army  stayed there for four months.......Then the chief minister returned to his court with the permission of the king.9 Men of various nationalities joined him. When Sri (sic) Ashraf Khan sat in court, the pick of the Mughals and the Pathans, numerous Hindus both native and foreign, countless Brahmins, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras also sat in rows......Sriyukta (Sic) Ahraph Khan was the chief minister and was like the moon full in its sixteen parts.He daily read books and heard recitals from books on moral teachings, poetry, sastras, all full of diverse rasas  ( i. e., poetic sentiments)".10
Part two
The second great Bengali poet of the court of Arakan after Daulat Kazi was known as Alaol who wrote six hooks in all, of which, the first is his masterpiece, Padmavati, which is an adaptation rather than a translation of the famous work, Padmavat of Malik Muhammad Jayasi.11
Alaol's Padmavati was composed in the court of Arakan during the reign of Thado Mintar (1645-1652), at the request of his chief minister, Magana Thakur, who is said to be a poet himself; though his identity is still shrouded in mystery.12 Alaol pictures him as a very important personage in Arakan court also suggesting that his relation with the royal family was most intimate.
After the death of the Arakan king, Narapatigyi (1638-1645) in 1645, his son, Thado Mintar, succeeded to the throne "in his prime of youth", 13 though it seems that the rule of the kingdom virtually vested in Magana through the queent dowager.14 Magana's influence continued even for   the first ten years of the reign of the Arakan king Sandothudhamma (1652-16SI) till Magana’s probable death in 1658.15
It should be pointed out in this context that history betrays not a vestige of knowledge of the existence of Magana and shows a very poor acquaintance with Thado Mintar and his reign. Alaol, on the other hand,not only gives a very important place to Magana in the court of Arakan, but has   waxed eloquent over the young king  Thado Mintar and his reign. The Bengali poet has given a very vivid pen-picture of the king, and has graphically described his capital, palace and court where wealth and mirth were in plenty. Thus from Alaol we have: 
". . . The king sat on his throne in all his royal splendour while people from all parts of the world poured down into the capital... The king's army and navy were strong and vast, the very sight of which struck terror into the heart of the enemy. His hunting expeditions were gigantic in size and character, and there was an unreserved extravagance of' pomp and splendour everywhere.”16
It is also interesting to note that   Alaol mentions Thado Mintar as the “Lord of the Red and White Elephant” which precisely agrees with this king's appellation as found in his coins.17
Of the other very interesting points touched by Alaol one is that, with Narapatigyi  (Nrpagtha  in  Alaol) on the throne (in 1638), the direct dynasty of Minbin (1531-1553) became extinct 18 which  is  historically  true because this Narapatigyi, who was but a paramour of Natshinme, the chief queen of Thiri-thu dhamma was in no way connected with the royal family. According to the Bengali poet, Narapatigyi had a son and a daughter of whom the son, whose name was Thado Mintar, succeeded to the throne. Now history betrays not the least of knowledge of the existence of this daughter, and calls Thado Mintar a nephew (brother's son) of Narapatigyi.19
Part three
From the historical point of view not a single literary work of old or medieval Bengali literature can compare with the work of Alaol in importance. For instance, the Sayaphul Muluk Badiojjamal 20 another voluminous poetical work based on the famous story of the same name in the Arabian Nights contains perhaps a unique historical record in the sense that it contains clear details about Shah Shuja’s 21 last phase of life of which history seems to hold a vague notion only.22
It is well known that Shah Shuja, defeated and driven by Aurangzeb, came to Arakan some time after May 12, 1660. According to Alaol, he was rather warmly received on his arrival by the then reigning monarch Sandothudhamma (1652-1684), referred to by Alaol as Sri Candra Sudharma.  Our poet who was in Arakan at that time, as clearly stated by himself in the work under reference, became, by a strange turn of circumstances, intimate with this fugitive prince of Delhi, but was soon to regret this. There is clear evidence, particularly in Alaol's Sayaphul Muluk Badiojjamal, that Shuja came into the disfavour of this famous monarch of Arakan not long after his arrival and was mercilessly slaughtered with all his retinue.23The Arakan king did not stop there,but severely dealt with Shuja's friends and associates too. The unfortunate Bengali poet, on the false and malicious report of a man, named Mirza, presumably a person of the local secret service bureau of that time, was also tried for treason and had to serve a prison sentence.
Unfortunately Alaol is not very clear as to why the Arakan king, having given a hospitable berth to Shah Shuja was all on a sudden so annoyed with him as to destroy him ultimately.The relevant lines, which can be read between, are as follows:
"....It was by chance that I had come to the city of Rosanga.... Subsequently the great king Shuja came there... He had difference with the king of Rosanga, and Shuja's downfall came....All the Muslims who stood by his side gave their lives in the hands of the Lord of Rosanga. There was a royal officer (presumably of the secret service) whose name was Mirza.  He reported to the king that I ( i. e. Alaol ) was  also  guilty of  treason. I had already difference with this man and seizing this opportunity he fulfilled his object. The king (of Arakan,), not knowing the conspiracy of this wicked man (against Alaol), threw me into prison in fury. In the long last, when the king knew everything, he grabbed this wicked man and punished him severely.....This villain met his death  on the stake  spoiling many (innocent) lives....I was put in prison for no fault of mine....” 24
It is evident that  the  lines  quoted  above  do  not  clearly indicate any concrete  charge against  Shuja  beyond a  probable charge of treason. Even if the charge brought against Shuja were treason, neither the poet was, nor his readers are, convinced whether the charge itself was false and cooked up, or real. It appears to me that the poet had a lurking suspicion in his mind that Shuja was also a victim of some intrigue or conspiracy hatched by or at the direction of the said villain Mirza.  This conjecture also explains why the king subsequently sentenced this fellow to die on the stake, may be, out of repentance for his action against Shah Shuja. To me this appears to be a very probable explanation of the king's hasty action against Shuja and his subsequent acts. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain why a person responsible for exposing a major treasonous plot and saving the king,so to say,should in return be imprisoned,tried and sentenced to a cruel death.  Alaol's readers may also be inclined to make a further guess that Mir Jumla who is known to have pursued Shuja as far as Arakan on Aurangzeb's order bribed this Mirza so as to accuse Shuja falsely and destroy him.
Alaol has written the longest eulogy in his Sayaphul Muluk Badiojjmal in praise of the Arakan king Sandothudhamma who has been described by the historians also as the greatest king who has ever sat on the throne of Arakan.25 According to our poet the former king or kings of Arakan pale into insignificance in comparison to this king.  In fact, although the poet praised the former king Thado Mintar when he wrote his first work during Thado's reign, he has a somewhat different tone when he begins to extol Sandothudhamma. Here the poet seems to hint some act of the former king for which the people had left the country in panic. A feeling of safety returned with the succession of the new king Sandothudhamma sanskritized into Candra Sudharma by the Bengali poet. The exact words of the poet in this context are these:
"..All those who had gone away to different countries in fear of the former king and had suffered from sorrow and grief, now returned, hearing the greatness of the king Candra Sudharma, and forgot the sorrows of this place which had gone wrong….”26
Now the first pertinent question that assails the minds of Alaol's readers in the light of the above remarks is:
“What exactly does the poet mean by the place, evidently Rosanga, the capital of Arakan, going wrong in Thado's time and what might be the reason behind it?”
Unfortunately for us,the history of Arakan is still far less exhaustive than we would like it to be, not only on a point like  this, but  on numerous other  points which we have already pointed out.27
In the coins of Sandothudhamma we find that his Pali title was “the moon-like righteous king".28 Alaol too clearly refers to this title thus:"The righteousness of the king was bright as the moon".29  Not only this, even Sandothudhamma's very name has been sanskritized by Alaol as Candra Sudharma which  also  means  'righteous as the moon'.  King Sandothudhamma had another appellation too stamped in his coins, "Lord of the Golden Palace".30  This title also finds an echo in Alaol's work thus: ".. (the king’s) castle (is)  made  of gold..".31 In his Sayaphal Muluk Badiojjamal also the poet speaks of this king as ‘hema  nrpa’, i-e-  king of gold, and remarks  that the 'earth is made of gold' in his time.
Among other important facts about Arakan mentioned by Alaol, one is that the kingdom of Arakan was entrusted to the joint rule of the son and the daughter of Thado Mintar after this king's  death,  while  the  widowed queen, loyal  to  her  husband's memory, was passing her days in various  acts of piety.32
Again, the said daughter and Magana Thakur, as already mentioned, had very important roles in the administration of the state, and the good name of the monarch Sandothudhamma,also known to the historians, might have been predominantly due to his chief minister Magana of whose very existence history betrays not the least of knowledge or information.  Another minister Solomon, of this king, who was a fast friend of Magana also figures very prominently in this context in one of  Alaol's works.33 Thus the great Bengali poet Alaol is credited to have supplied many missing links in the reconstruction of Arakan history which, if followed seriously by historians, will   doubtless give a  more complete picture of the reigns of some of the forgotten kings of Arakan, not only of the seventeenth century, but of the prior centuries also.
·         B.S.R.I.B.L  Beginning of Secular Romance in Bengali Literature by Satyendranath Ghoshal
·         C. H. I         Cambridge History of India,
·         H. B. (J)      History of Bengal by Sir Jadunath Sarkar.           
·         H. Bur (H)    History of Burma by G. E.Harvey (1925).
·         I. G. I.         Imperial Gazetteer of India (1908)
·         J.A. S. B.    Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal
·         J .Bur.R. S. Journal of Burmese Research Society
·         P. (Sh.)       Padmavati, ed. by M.Shahidullah (1950).
·         P.(V. A.)     Padmavati, ed. by  V. Agrawalla.
·         P. (S. G.)    Padmavati, ed. by S. N.  Ghoshal.
·         S.M.B         Sayaphul Muluk Badiojjnmal by Alaol.
·         S.M.L.C.     Sati Mayna 0 Lor Candrani  by Daulat Kazi, edited by Satyendranath Ghoshal.
·         Sh.H.A.(J).  Short History of  Aurangzeb  by Sir Jadunath Sarkar.
·         Sapta Payakar         Published by Habibi Press

  1. Edited by the author of this paper and published by Visva Bharati
  2. Visva Bharati Annals,  vol. X, p. 9.
  3. 'H.Bur.{H),p.140.
  4. Ibid. p. 144;   G. H. 1., IV, p. 479.   The king. of course, died after coronation, though not within the first year, but in the third year of his reign(1638) under suspicious circumstances {H. Bur. (H). p. 139).  These kinds of astrological prediction were rather common in the court, of Arakan in those days. King Narameikhia (1404-1434) had a similar warning which he ignored and died true to the prediction {Ibid). It seems highly probable that such predictions were usually stage-managed consequent upon palace intrigues which so often led to regicides..
  5. S.M. L. C.,  p. 45  :    Also  B. S. R.  1.  B.  L.. p.  13, P. 13-f. n. 4.
  6. J.A. S.B., XV, 1846, p. 234.
  7. S. M. L.C., p. 45.
  8. The relevant line may also be translated as ''There is a city named Rosanga on the eastern side of which is the river Karnaphuli."
  9. Evidently the king was still then uncrowned in consequence of the astrological prediction (supra), and Asraph Khan was virtually in charge of conducting the proceedings of the royal court.
  10. S. M. L. C., pp. 45-48.
  11. One of the greatest poets of the literature of undivided India, who wrote his masterpiece Padmavat in Abadhi language most possibly in course of 927-947A.H.(i.e.1520-100 A.D.)
  12. Alaol, in describing him, has such lines as “devagurubhakta etc," a devotee of the gods and his religious preceptor.
  13. P. (Sh.), p.  16:  P. (S. G.), p.  10.
  14. P. (S. G.) p. 12.
  15. R. S.R.I.R.I, pp.  198-99
  16. P. (sh). pp. 13-18;  p. (S.G.), pp.  7-11.
  17. J. A. S.B., XV, 1846.
  18. P. (S. G.},  p. •;.
  19. It is high time that students of history should pursue this discord between history and contemporary literature, and discover the exact truth.
  20. Its first part was written some time about 1658 and the second part round about 1670:   B. S. R. I. B. L., p. 66.
  21. Brother of Aurangzeb.
  22. Sh.  H.  A.  (J),  P,i.  98-99;  I.  G.  I.,  II,  p.  402.
  23. Shuja met his fatal end some time before, or in the beginning of 1661 [Sh. H. A. (J).  pp. 98- 9].  Alaol clearly states  that Shuja, with all his men, was massacred, though history  does  not seen to be definite as to the exact nature  of his end.
  24. S.M.B., pp. 175-177.
  25. H. Bur.  (H).  p. 145.
  26. S. M. B.. p. 5.  Nothing whatsoever is known to the historians up to this day about this mass exodus in Thado Mintar’s time or about its return during the reign of the next monarch.
  27. Mr.J. Stuart writing in 1923 appealed for 'more light on Arakanese history’:  J. Bur. R. S., XIII, part II, p. 95.
  28. J. A. S. B.. XV, 1846, p. 235.
  29. Portion of Sati Mayna, written by Alaol, p. 105.  It may be mentioned here that Daulat Kazi's unfinished work Sati Mayna 0 Lora Candrani was later on finished by Alaol.
  30. 'J. A. S. B., XV, 1846, p. 235.
  31. Sapta Payakar, p, 7.
  32. S.M.B..p.8.
  33. Ibid., pp.  8-9.

This paper was published in Asiatic Society of Bangladesh Publication # 15, under the name of Abdul Karim Sahitya-Visarad Commemoration Volume, as the title of “ Missing Links in Arakan History” by Satyendra Nath Ghoshal, Head of the Department of Bengal, Benares University, Varanasi 5 and  Edited by Muhammad Enamul Haq, Professor of Bengali, University of Dacca on 1972.

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