Bengal Sultanate

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Sultanate of Bengal
Shahi Bangla

শাহী বাংলা
1352–1576
A Portuguese Miller Atlas map from 1519 showing the cities of the Ganges Delta under the Bengal Sultanate
A Portuguese Miller Atlas map from 1519 showing the cities of the Ganges Delta under the Bengal Sultanate
StatusSultanate
CapitalPandua (1352-1450)
Sonargaon (1390-1411)[note 1][1]
Gaur (1450-1565)
Tandah (1565-1576)
Common languagesPersian, Bengali (official)
Arabic (religious)
Religion
Islam (official)
GovernmentAbsolute monarchy
History 
• Unification of Bengal
1352
• Mughal invasion
1576
CurrencyTanka
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Delhi Sultanate
Mughal Empire
Kingdom of Mrauk U
Suri Empire
Baro-Bhuyan
Today part ofBangladesh
India
Myanmar

The Sultanate of Bengal, (also known as the Bengal Sultanate; Bengali Sultanate,[2] Bangalah (Persian: بنگالهBangālah, Bengali: বাঙ্গালা/বঙ্গালা) and Shahi Bangalah (Persian: شاهی بنگالهShāhī Bangālah, Bengali: শাহী বাঙ্গলা)),[3] was an empire and the sovereign power[4][5][6] of Bengal for much of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. It had a circle of vassal states, including Odisha in the southwest, Arakan in the southeast,[7] and Tripura in the east.[8] In 1494, the Bengal Sultanate reached the peak of its territorial growth with control over Kamrup and Kamata. It was known as one of the major trading nations of the medieval world.[8] During the 16th-century, Bengal suffered two major defeats by the Suri Empire and the Mughal Empire.

The Bengal Sultanate was a Sunni Muslim monarchy with Indo-Turkish, Arab, Habshi and Bengali Muslim elites.[9] The pre-Islamic Bengali Hindu community continued to play an important role in government, the military, land ownership and the arts. While Bengali was the most widely spoken language, Persian was used as an official, diplomatic and commercial language. The capital cities of Pandua and Gaur were adorned with stately medieval buildings.[10] Other cities included "mint towns" which produced the taka. Prominent cities included the river port of Sonargaon, the Mosque City of Bagerhat, and the seaports of Chittagong and Satgaon. The Bengal Sultanate was connected to states in Asia, Africa, the Indian Ocean, and Europe through maritime links and overland trade routes. The Bengal Sultanate was a major trading center on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. It attracted immigrants and traders from different parts of the world. Bengali ships and merchants traded across the region, including in Malacca, China, and the Maldives.

The Bengal Sultanate was described by contemporary European and Chinese visitors as a relatively prosperous kingdom. Due to the abundance of goods in Bengal, the region was described as the "richest country to trade with". The Bengal Sultanate left a strong architectural legacy. Buildings from the period show foreign influences merged into a distinct Bengali style.[9] The Bengal Sultanate was also the largest and most prestigious authority among the independent medieval Muslim-ruled states in the history of Bengal.[11]

History[edit]

Background (13th and 14th centuries)[edit]

Bengal was gradually absorbed into the Delhi Sultanate during the 1200s. It began with Bakhtiar Khilji's conquest of Gauda between 1202 and 1204 during the reign of Muhammad of Ghor. The Delhi Sultan Iltumish declared Bengal as a province of Delhi in 1225. The Delhi Sultans attempted to govern Bengal through appointed governors. But Delhi could not succeed given the considerable overland distance with Bengal. Ambitious governors rebelled and ruled as independent rulers until being suppressed militarily by the Delhi Sultanate. However, there were capable rulers among the rebels, including Yuzbak Shah (1257), Tughral Khan (1271-1282), and Shamsuddin Firoz Shah (1301-1322). The latter achieved the Conquest of Sylhet and established a strong administration in eastern and south-western Bengal. In 1325, the Delhi Sultan Ghiyath al-Din Tughluq reorganized the province into three administrative regions, with Sonargaon ruling eastern Bengal; Gauda ruling northern Bengal; and Satgaon ruling southern Bengal. Even this arrangement broke down. By 1338, the three administrative regions had separatist Sultans, including Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah in Sonargaon; Alauddin Ali Shah in Gauda, and Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah in Satgaon.[12] Fakhruddin conquered Chittagong in 1340 and was succeeded by his son Ikhtiyaruddin Ghazi Shah in 1349. Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah (or just Ilyas Shah) defeated Alauddin Ali Shah and secured control of Gauda. He then defeated Ikhtiyaruddin of Sonargaon. By 1352, Ilyas Shah emerged victorious among the Bengali triad.

Early Bengal Sultanate (14th and 15th centuries)[edit]

Ruins of Adina Mosque, the largest mosque in the Indian subcontinent, in Pandua, the first capital of the Bengal Sultanate
The 14th-century tomb of Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah in Sonargaon

Ilyas Shah established his capital in Pandua. He unified the delta of Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers into the Sultanate of Bengal. Ilyas Shah waged wars and raids against several city-states and kingdoms in the eastern subcontinent. He conquered eastern Bengal and northern Bihar. He led the first Muslim army into Nepal, raided the Kathmandu Valley, and returned to Bengal with treasures.[13] He controlled an area stretching from Assam in the east to Varanasi in the west.[12] In 1353, Ilyas Shah was defeated by Delhi Sultan Firuz Shah Tughluq in the Siege of Ekdala Fort during the Bengal Sultanate-Delhi Sultanate War. Bengal agreed to pay a tribute to the Delhi Sultan. Despite losing control of many conquered areas, Ilyas Shah remained in firm control of Bengal.[12]

Ilyas Shah founded the Indo-Turkic Ilyas Shahi dynasty which ruled Bengal for fifteen decades. His son and successor Sikandar Shah defeated Delhi Sultan Firuz Shah Tughluq during the second Siege of Ekdala Fort in 1359. A peace treaty was signed between Delhi and Bengal, with the former recognizing the independence of the latter. Firuz Shah Tughluq gave a golden crown estimated to be worth 80,000 taka to Sikandar Shah. The peace treaty ensured Bengal's independence for two centuries.[14]

Sikandar Shah's reign lasted for three decades. The Adina Mosque was built during his reign. The mosque's design was based on the Great Mosque of Damascus- a style used during the introduction of Islam in new areas. During this time, much of the agricultural land was controlled by Hindu zamindars, which caused tensions with Muslim taluqdars.[15]

Bengal became the eastern frontier kingdom among medieval Islamic states.[16] In the 14th-century, Islamic kingdoms stretched from Muslim Spain in the west to the Indian subcontinent in the east. The Islamic kingdoms had multiethnic elites. Persian and Arabic were used alongside local languages. Persian was used as a diplomatic and commercial language. Arabic was the liturgical language of the clergy. In Bengal, the Bengali language became a court language and was the main vernacular language under Muslim rule.[17]

The third Sultan Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah began expanding Bengal's influence abroad. He began to send embassies to Ming China, which continued as a tradition during the reigns of his successors. Ghiyasuddin also sponsored construction projects in Arabia. He exchanged letters and poetry with the Persian poet Hafez.[18] The Bengal Sultans pledged nominal allegiance to the Abbasid Caliphate in Cairo. The coins of the Bengal Sultans often bore the name of the contemporary Abbasid Caliph.[19] Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah held his court in the central Bengali city of Sonargaon, in addition to Pandua. The travel accounts of Chinese envoys state that the Sultan lived in a palace near the river port of Sonargaon. The river port had shipping links to China, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. In 1406, Ma Huan found Sonargaon as a large metropolis. Other Chinese envoys provided descriptions of a fortified walled city. Sonargaon was a center of Sufi education and Persian literature. Sultan Ghiyasuddin invited Hafez to settle in Sonargaon. The institutions founded by Abu Tawwama during the Delhi Sultanate were maintained by his successors in the Bengal Sultanate, including the Sufi preachers Saiyid Ibrahim Danishmand, Saiyid Arif Billah Muhammad Kamel, Saiyid Muhammad Yusuf and others.[20]

Nativist revolution (15th century)[edit]

Map of Asia in 1415 showing Bengal and other regional states
The Indian subcontinent in 1525, with Bengal in the east

During the early 15th-century, the Ilyas Shahi rule was challenged by Raja Ganesha, a powerful Hindu landowner, who managed to place his son (a convert to Islam), Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah, on the throne. Jalaluddin had a relatively short-lived but significant reign, during which he helped an Arakanese king to achieve the Reconquest of Arakan. Jalaluddin established control over Fatehabad.[21] Jalaluddin also promoted more native Bengali elements into the architecture and governance of the sultanate. Jalaluddin was initially loyal to the Abbasid Caliph but later declared himself as the Caliph in a sign of Bengali Muslim independence.[22] The Ilyas Shahi dynasty was restored in 1432.

Nine kings ruled Bengal from Pandua over the course of ten decades. They built palaces, forts, bridges, mosques, and mausoleums.[23] Chinese envoy Ma Huan described the city at the time in his travel accounts, which state that "the city walls are very imposing, the bazaars well-arranged, the shops side by side, the pillars in orderly rows, they are full of every kind of goods". Pandua was an export center for cloth and wine. At least six varieties of fine muslin and four types of wine were found in Pandua. High-quality paper was produced from the bark of Pandua's mulberry trees.[24] Sultan Mahmud Shah of Bengal shifted the capital from Pandua to Gaur in 1450. One of the probable reasons behind the move was a change in the course of nearby rivers.[25]

The reign of Mahmud Shah witnessed greater control over the Sundarbans. The governor of the Sundarbans, Khan Jahan Ali, built the mint town of Khalifatabad.[26] Like many other officials, Khan Jahan had settled in Bengal after Timur's sack of Delhi. During the reign of Rukunuddin Barbak Shah, the Kingdom of Mrauk U conquered Chittagong. The late 1480s saw four usurper Sultans from the Abyssinian mercenary corps. Tensions between different Muslim communities often affected the sultanate.[15]

Regional empire (15th and 16th centuries)[edit]

After a period of instability, Alauddin Hussain Shah gained control of Bengal in 1494 when he was prime minister. As Sultan, Hussain Shah ruled till 1519. The dynasty he founded reigned till 1538. Muslims and Hindus jointly served in the royal administration during the Hussain Shahi dynasty. This era is often regarded as the golden age of the Bengal Sultanate, in which Bengali territory included areas of Arakan, Orissa, Tripura, and Assam.[15] Alauddin Hussain Shah conquered large parts of Assam during the Bengal Sultanate-Kamata Kingdom War. He overthrew the Hindu Khen dynasty. Alauddin also restored Bengali sovereignty in Chittagong and northern Arakan after the Bengal Sultanate–Kingdom of Mrauk U War of 1512–1516. Hussain Shah minted coins with the proclamation "conqueror of Kamrupa, Kamata, Jajnagar and Orissa".[27] According to an inscription in Sonargaon from 1513, Hussain Shah annexed large parts of the Twipra Kingdom.[28] The Pratapgarh Kingdom came under Bengali suzerainty.[29][30] Hussain also waged several campaigns against the Gajapati rulers of Orissa and secured control of northern Orissa.[31] Under Hussain Shah's successors Nasiruddin Nasrat Shah and Alauddin Firuz Shah II, Bengali territory extended up to Nagaon in the Brahmaputra Valley. In the west, Bengali territory surpassed Bihar and extended up to Saran in Jaunpur during the Hussain Shahi dynasty. The Sultan of Jaunpur took refuge in Bengal after an invasion by the Lodi dynasty of Delhi. The Delhi Sultan attacked Bengal in pursuit of the Jaunpur Sultan. Unable to make any gains, the Delhi Sultan returned home after concluding a peace treaty with Bengal.[32]

Embassies from Portuguese India frequented Bengal after the landing of Vasco Da Gama in the principality of Calicut.[33] Individual Portuguese merchants are recorded to have lived in the Bengal Sultanate's capital of Gaur. Portuguese politics played out in Gaur as a reflection of contradictions in contemporary Portugal.[33] The Portuguese provided vivid descriptions of Gaur. They compared the affluence of Gaur with Lisbon. The city included a citadel, a royal palace and durbar, mosques, houses for the rich, and bustling bazaars. Portuguese historian Castenhada de Lopez described the houses of Gaur as being one-storeyed with ornamental floor tiles, courtyards, and gardens. Gaur was the center of regional politics. The Sultan of Bengal gave permission for establishing the Portuguese settlement in Chittagong. During the period of the Iberian Union, there was no official Portuguese sovereignty over Chittagong. The Portuguese trading post was dominated by pirates who allied with the Arakanese against Bengal.

Babur crossing the Son River. The river was the boundary of the Bengal Sultanate during the Karrani dynasty

Decline (16th century)[edit]

The absorption of Bengal into the Mughal Empire was a gradual process. It began with the defeat of Bengali forces under Sultan Nasiruddin Nasrat Shah by the first Mughal ruler Babur at the Battle of Ghaghra. The second Mughal ruler Humayun occupied the Bengali capital of Gaur during the invasion of Sher Shah Suri against both the Mughals and Bengal Sultans. Humayun later took refuge in the Safavid Empire in Persia. Sher Shah Suri succeeded in conquering Bengal and began renovating the Grand Trunk Road.[34] The Suri government appointed successive governors to administer Bengal. The third governor Muhammad Khan Sur declared independence after the death of Islam Shah Suri. Muhammad Khan ended the interrupting period of Delhi's rule and re-established the Bengal Sultanate.

The Pashtun Karrani dynasty was the last ruling dynasty of the sultanate. According to the Riyaz-us-Salatin, Sultan Sulaiman Khan Karrani shifted the capital from Gaur to Tanda in 1565.[35] Sulaiman Khan Karrani annexed large parts of Orissa. During his reign, Bengali territory extended from Koch Bihar in the north to Puri in the south and from the Son River in the west to the Brahmaputra River in the east. The Mughals became determined to bring an end to Bengali imperialism. The Battle of Tukaroi in Orissa saw Mughal forces led by Akbar overwhelm Bengali forces led by the last Sultan Daud Khan Karrani, resulting in the Treaty of Cuttack. Mughal rule formally began with the Battle of Raj Mahal when the last reigning Sultan of Bengal was defeated by the forces of Akbar. The Mughal province of Bengal Subah was created. The eastern deltaic Bhati region remained outside of Mughal control until being absorbed in the early 17th-century. The delta was controlled by a confederation of twelve aristocrats of the former sultanate, who became known as the Twelve Bhuiyans. Their leader was Isa Khan, a former nobleman of the sultanate. The confederation was made up of petty kingdoms. The Mughal government eventually suppressed the remnants of the sultanate in the Bhati area and brought all of Bengal under full Mughal control.

Administration and military[edit]

Silver coin of Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah with a lion inscription

The Bengal Sultanate was an absolute monarchy. The Ilyas Shahi dynasty cultivated a Persianate society. It reflected the pre-Muslim Persian tradition of monarchy and statecraft. The courts of the capital cities sanctified the Sultan, used Persianised royal paraphernalia, adopted an elaborate court ceremony modeled on the Sasanian imperial paradigm, employed a hierarchical bureaucracy, and maintained Islam as the state religion. The rise of Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah saw more native elements inducted in the courts.[36] The Hussain Shahi dynasty employed many Hindus in the government and promoted a form of religious pluralism.[37]

Mint Towns[edit]

Extent of the Bengal Sultanate under Alauddin Hussain Shah in 1500

The Mint Towns were an important feature of the Bengal Sultanate. The towns included royal capitals and provincial capitals where Taka coins were minted. The coins illustrate the economy, distribution of administrative centres, and the rise and fall of urban centres within the Bengal Sultanate. With the expansion of the empire, the number of mint towns increased gradually. The following is a partial listing of Mint Towns.[38]

  1. Lakhnauti
  2. Sonargaon
  3. Ghiaspur (Mymensingh)
  4. Satgaon
  5. Firuzabad (Pandua)
  6. Shahr-i-Naw (Pandua)
  7. Muzzamabad (Sonargaon)
  8. Jannatabad (Lakhnauti)
  9. Fathabad (Faridpur)
  10. Chatgaon (Chittagong)
  11. Rotaspur (Bihar)
  12. Mahmudabad (Jessore and Nadia)
  13. Barbakaabad (Dinajpur)
  14. Muzaffarabad (Pandua)
  15. Muahmmadabad
  16. Husaynabad (24 Parganas)
  17. Chandrabad (Murshidabad)
  18. Nusratabad (Bogra and Rangpur)
  19. Khalifatabad (Bagerhat)
  20. Badarpur (Bagerhat)
  21. Sharifabad (Birbhum)
  22. Tandah (Malda)

Vassal states[edit]

Vassal states were a number of tributary states and protectorates on the periphery of the Bengal Sultanate under the suzerainty of the Sultan of Bengal. Direct control was not established over these territories for various reasons. Vassal states had Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist rulers. The following illustrates the most notable vassal states.

Arakan[edit]

Coinage from Arakan during its vassalage to the Bengal Sultanate

In the southeast, Arakan was a prominent vassal of the Bengal Sultanate. In 1430, the Bengal Sultanate restored the Arakanese throne in Mrauk U after driving out Burmese invaders who came from Bagan. Arakan paid tributes to the Sultan of Bengal for a sustained period, with the timeframe ranging between estimates of a century or a few decades.[39][7] Arakanese rulers replicated the Sultan's governing techniques, including adopting the title of Shah and minting coins in Arabic and Bengali inscriptions. A close cultural and commercial relationship developed across the Bay of Bengal.[40] Eventually, Arakan asserted its independence. The Kingdom of Mrauk U became a formidable coastal power.

Chandradwip[edit]

Coinage from Chandradwip, a vassal of the Bengal Sultanate

In southern Bengal, the island of Chandradwip hosted remnants of the pre-Islamic Hindu Deva dynasty. The kingdom was a vassal state of the Bengal Sultanate until the reign of the Hussain Shahi dynasty, when it was formally annexed by the sultanate.[41][42]

Pratapgarh[edit]

In the northeastern Barak Valley, the ruler Bazid of the Pratapgarh Kingdom declared himself as a Sultan on par with the Bengali Sultan. This invited the retribution of Alauddin Hussain Shah, who dispatched Surwar Khan (a convert to Islam from Hinduism) to suppress the newly formed sultanate in Pratapgarh. Bazid was defeated and agreed to pay a tribute to the Sultan of Bengal. Bazid also relinquished his claims over Sylhet.[43][44]

Tripura[edit]

In the east, Tripura was vital to Bengal for the supply of gold, silver and other commodities. Tripura had coarse gold mines and mountain trade networks linked to the Far East. In 1464, the Sultan of Bengal helped Ratna Manikya assume the Tripuri throne. Tripura was a prominent vassal of Bengal.[45][46][32]

Orissa[edit]

In the southwest, Orissa was prominent in the military history of the Bengal Sultanate. The first Bengali Sultan Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah defeated the rulers of Orissa and extended his realm up to Chilika Lake. He raided Jajpur and Cuttack. Ilyas Shah returned to Bengal with plunders from Orissa, including 44 elephants.[47] During the reign of Alauddin Hussain Shah, Orissa was a vassal state of Bengal.[48][32] Northern Orissa was directly ruled by Bengal. During the Karrani dynasty, Orissa was the scene of the Battle of Tukaroi and the Treaty of Cuttack between the Mughals and Bengal Sultanate in 1575.

Military campaigns[edit]

Bengali Sultan Daud Khan Karrani receives a robe of honour from Mughal general Munim Khan

The Sultans had a well-organised army, including cavalry, artillery, infantry and war elephants; and a navy. Due to the riverine geography and climate, it was not feasible to use cavalry throughout the year in Bengal. The cavalry was probably the weakest component of the Bengal Sultanate's army, as the horses had to be imported from foreign countries. The artillery was an important section. Portuguese historian João de Barros opined that the military supremacy of Bengal over Arakan and Tripura was due to its efficient artillery. The artillery used cannons and guns of various sizes.[49] The paiks formed the vital part of the Bengal infantry during this period. There were occasions when the paiks also tackled political situations. The particular battle array of the foot-soldiers who used bows, arrows and guns attracted the attention of Babur.[49]

War elephants played an important part in the Bengal army. Apart from carrying war materials, elephants were also used for the movement of the armed personnel. In riverine Bengal the usefulness of elephants, though very slow, could not be minimised. The navy was of prime necessity in riverine Bengal. In fact, the cavalry could ensure the hold over this country for a period of six months whereas the boats backed by the paiks could command supremacy over the other half of the year. Since the time of Iwaz Khalji, who first organised a naval force in Islamic Bengal, the war boats played an important role in the political affairs of the country. The chief of the admiralty had various responsibilities, including shipbuilding, river transport, to fit out strong boats for transporting war elephants; to recruit seamen; to patrol the rivers and to collect tolls at ghats. The efficiency of the navy eroded during the Hussain Shahi dynasty. The Sultans also built forts, including temporary mud walled forts.[49]

Akbar leads his army into battle against Daud Khan Karrani, the last Sultan of Bengal

Bengal-Delhi Wars[edit]

In 1353, the Sultan of Delhi attacked the newly formed Bengal Sultanate. After the siege of Ekdala Fort, Bengal agreed to pay a tribute to the Sultan of Delhi. In 1359, Delhi again invaded Bengal after the previous peace treaty collapsed. However, negotiations ultimately resulted in a new treaty in which Delhi recognized the independence of Bengal.[50] The Bengal Sultans also received support from South Indian allies. During the 16th century, the Lodi dynasty of Delhi again attacked Bengal in pursuit of the Sultan of Jaunpur. The Lodis eventually agreed to a peace treaty with Bengal.

Bengal-Jaunpur War[edit]

The Jaunpur Sultanate attacked Bengal during the 15th-century. With diplomatic help from Ming China and the Timurid ruler of Herat, Bengal fended off the Jaunpuri invasion.[51][52]

Campaigns in Assam[edit]

The Brahmaputra Valley was often subjected to Bengali invasions. During the Hussain Shahi dynasty, Bengali control over Assam reached its zenith. Alauddin Hussain Shah overthrew the Hindu Khen dynasty during a war against the Kamata Kingdom. Eventually, the Ahom kingdom re-asserted Assamese independence.

Campaigns in Arakan[edit]

The Bengal Sultanate defeated Burmese forces in Arakan and restored the Arakanese throne in 1430. Later, Bengal and Arakan fought several wars for control of Chittagong. Arakan asserted its independence as a coastal power. During the Hussain Shahi dynasty, Bengali sovereignty was restored in Chittagong and northern Arakan. However, the Arakanese allied with Portuguese pirates to reduce Bengali control over Chittagong.

Sher Shah Suri's invasion[edit]

Bengal was overwhelmed during the pan-Indian invasion of Sher Shah Suri and became part of the Suri Empire. The invasion prompted the Mughal Empire to occupy parts of Bengal. Both the Mughals and Bengal Sultanate were overrun by the Suri forces. Bengal regained its independence after Suri governors rebelled and re-established the sultanate.

Bengal-Mughal Wars[edit]

The first Mughal emperor Babur turned his sights on Bengal after the Battle of Panipat in 1526. At the Battle of Ghaghra in 1529, Bengal reached a peace treaty with Babur. During the invasion of Sher Shah Suri, the second Mughal emperor Humayun occupied Gaur. The third Mughal emperor Akbar launched a war against Bengal at the Battle of Tukaroi in 1575. Akbar finally defeated the last Sultan of Bengal at the Battle of Raj Mahal in 1576.

Economy[edit]

Maritime links of the Bengal sultanate
The baghlah was a type of ship widely used by traders in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea

The economy of the Bengal Sultanate inherited earlier aspects of the Delhi Sultanate, including mint towns, a salaried bureaucracy and the jagirdar system of land ownership. The production of silver coins inscribed with the name of the Sultan of Bengal was a mark of Bengali sovereignty.[53] Bengal was more successful in perpetuating purely silver coinage than Delhi and other contemporary Asian and European governments. There were three sources of silver. The first source was the leftover silver reserve of previous kingdoms. The second source was the tribute payments of subordinate kingdoms which were paid in silver bullion. The third source was during military campaigns when Bengali forces sacked neighboring states.[54]

The apparent vibrancy of the Bengal economy in the beginning of the 15th-century is attributed to the end of tribute payments to Delhi, which ceased after Bengali independence and stopped the outflow of wealth. Ma Huan's testimony of a flourishing shipbuilding industry was part of the evidence that Bengal enjoyed significant seaborne trade. The expansion of muslin production, sericulture and the emergence of several other crafts were indicated in Ma Huan's list of items exported from Bengal to China. Bengali shipping co-existed with Chinese shipping until the latter withdrew from the Indian Ocean in the mid-15th-century. The testimony of European travelers such as Ludovico di Varthema, Duarte Barbosa and Tomé Pires attest to the presence of a large number of wealthy Bengali merchants and shipowners in Malacca.[55] Bengal was also an entrepot. For example, horses were imported into Bengal and re-exported to China.[56]

A vigorous riverine shipbuilding tradition existed in Bengal. The shipbuilding tradition is evidenced in the sultanate's naval campaigns in the Ganges delta. The trade between Bengal and the Maldives, based on rice and cowry shells, was probably done on Arab-style baghlah ships. Chinese accounts point to Bengali ships being prominent in Southeast Asian waters. A vessel from Bengal, probably owned by the Sultan of Bengal, could accommodate three tribute missions- from Bengal, Brunei and Sumatra- and was evidently the only vessel capable of such a task. Bengali ships were the largest vessels plying in those decades in Southeast Asian waters.[57]

All large business transactions were done in terms of silver taka. Smaller purchases involved shell currency. One silver coin was worth 10,250 cowry shells. Bengal relied on shiploads of cowry shell imports from the Maldives. Due to the fertile land, there was an abundance of agricultural commodities, including bananas, jackfruits, pomegranate, sugarcane, and honey. Native crops included rice and sesame. Vegetables included ginger, mustard, onions, and garlic among others. There were four types of wines, including coconut, rice, tarry and kajang. Bengali streets were well provided with eating establishments, drinking houses and bathhouses. At least six varieties of fine muslin cloth existed. Silk fabrics were also abundant. Pearls, rugs and ghee were other important products. The finest variety of paper was made in Bengal from the bark of mulberry trees. The high quality of paper was compared with the lightweight white muslin cloth.[58]

Europeans referred to Bengal as "the richest country to trade with".[59] Bengal was the eastern pole of Islamic India. Like the Gujarat Sultanate in the western coast of India, Bengal in the east was open to the sea and accumulated profits from trade. Bengal also followed the prosperous Malabar Coast of southern India in becoming a center for re-exports.[56] Merchants from around the world began to trade in the Bay of Bengal. Cotton textile exports were a unique aspect of the Bengali economy. Marco Polo noted Bengal's prominence in the textile trade.[60][61] In 1569, Venetian explorer Caesar Frederick wrote about how merchants from Pegu in Burma traded in silver and gold with Bengalis.[60] Overland trade routes such as the Grand Trunk Road connected Bengal to northern India, Central Asia and the Middle East.

Foreign relations[edit]

The Bengal Sultanate had robust foreign relations. Records show that the Bengal Sultanate exchanged embassies with states in China, Europe, Africa, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Diplomatic allies helped Bengal to fend off invasions from neighbouring kingdoms. For example, the Timurid ruler of Herat and the Ming emperor of China helped bring an end to the Bengal Sultanate-Jaunpur Sultanate War. Bengal was also active in regional diplomacy. For example, the ship of the Bengali embassy to China also transported the envoys of Brunei and Aceh (Sumatra) to China.[57] Bengal gave consent to envoys from Portuguese India for setting up Portuguese trading posts in coastal areas.[62] Other European visitors included Niccolo De Conti, Ludovico di Varthema and Caeser Fredrick from the Republic of Venice and Bologna.[63][64]

In the Islamic world, the sultanate pledged allegiance to the contemporary Abbasid Caliphate, which was at the time held by the Mamluk Sultan of Cairo. The Abbasid caliph was still considered to be the symbolic leader of Sunni Islam at the time, despite dwindling territory under direct caliphate rule. For the Bengali Sultans, relations with the caliphate provided legitimacy among the Muslim clergy. For example, the converted Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah received recognition from Al-Mu'tadid II, which strengthened Jalaluddin's legitimacy in the eyes of the clergy.[65] Many coins minted by the Bengal Sultanate bore the names of both the Bengali Sultans and the Abbasid Caliphs.[66]

The giraffe gifted by Bengal to China in 1414

Sultan Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah sponsored the construction of madrasas (Islamic theological schools) in the pilgrimage cities of Makkah and Madinah.[67] The schools became known as the Ghiyasia Madrasa and Banjaliah Madrasa. Taqi al-Din al-Fasi, a contemporary Arab scholar, was a teacher at the madrasa in Makkah. The madrasa in Madinah was built at a place called Husn al-Atiq near the Prophet's Mosque.[68] Several other Bengali Sultans also sponsored madrasas in the Hejaz.[65]

In Africa, Sultan Ashraf Barsbay of Egypt sent the Bengali Sultan a robe of honour and a letter of recognition.[69] There are also records of envoys from the East African city-state of Malindi being hosted in the Bengali court.[70] Animals constituted a significant part of tributes in medieval courts.[71] The East African envoys brought giraffes, which were also noticed by the Chinese envoys in Bengal.[70] In Central Asia, there are records of contacts between Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah and Sultan Shahrukh Mirza of the Timurid Empire. In Southeast Asia, European accounts refer to the presence of a large number of Bengali merchants in the Malacca Sultanate. The merchants were wealthy shipowners. It is yet to be ascertained whether these merchants had a significant role in the Sultan's court.[55] Ship-owning merchants were often royal envoys.[72] Contacts between Bengal and the Sultanates of Brunei and Aceh are recorded in Chinese accounts.[57]

Within the subcontinent, Bengal had both tense and peaceful relations with the Delhi Sultanate and the Jaunpur Sultanate. The Delhi Sultanate initially received tributes from the Bengal Sultanate between 1353 and 1359. Tributes stopped after a war and peace treaty in 1359. Sultan Ghiyasuddin Azam sent envoys to the neighboring Jaunpur Sultanate. He sent elephants as gifts to Sultan Malik Sarwar Khwajah-i-Jahan.[73] The two sultanates fought a war between 1415 and 1420. The end of the war brought a long period of peace between the neighbouring states. In 1494, the Jaunpuri Sultan Hussain Shah Sharqi was given refuge in Bengal after being defeated by the Lodi dynasty of Delhi.[74]

On the coastline of the Bay of Bengal, the Bengal Sultanate became influential in the control of Arakan. Min Saw Mon, a deposed Arakanese king, fled to Bengal after a Burmese invasion. With the support of Bengali forces led by a Pashtun general, he regained control of his country during the Reconquest of Arakan. The restored Arakanese realm became a vassal state of Bengal. A war with Arakan in 1459 led to the defeat of Bengali Sultan Rukunuddin Barbak Shah. The Arakanese developed an alliance with Portuguese Chittagong against Bengal. Despite achieving independence from the Sultans of Bengal, the Arakanese kings continued to fashion themselves after the Bengali Sultans by copying clothes, coins, titles and administrative techniques. Bengali Muslim influence on Arakan lasted for 350 years.[75] In the Indian Ocean, the Bengal Sultanate was involved in trading with the Maldives where Bengali rice was exchanged for Maldivian shell currency.

Historians have focused on Bengal's relations with Ming China during the early 15th-century. For example, Trade and Diplomacy in India-China Relations: A Study of Bengal During the Fifteenth Century chronicles the relationship between the Bengal Sultanate and Ming China.[76] This relationship was also noted by Indian independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru in his book The Discovery of India.[77] Political relations between China and the Indian subcontinent became nonexistent after the decline of Buddhism in India.[78] In the 15th-century, the Bengal Sultanate revived the subcontinent's relations with China through regular contacts. Sultan Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah began sending envoys to the Ming dynasty. He sent ambassadors in 1405, 1408 and 1409.[73] Emperor Yongle of China responded by sending ambassadors to Bengal between 1405 and 1433, including members of the Treasure voyages fleet led by Admiral Zheng He.[79] The exchange of embassies included the gift of an East African giraffe by Sultan Shihabuddin Bayazid Shah to the Chinese emperor in 1414.[71][80][79] China also mediated an end to the Bengal-Jaunpur War after a request from Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah.[65] Ming China considered Bengal to be "rich and civilized" and one of the strongest countries in the entire chain of contacts between China and Asian states during the 15th-century.[81] Sino-Bengali contacts was the main feature of relations between China and the Indian subcontinent during the 15th-century.

Culture and society[edit]

"People of the Kingdom of Bengal", 16th-century Portuguese illustration

Bengali was the most spoken language while Persian was an administrative and commercial language. Men wore white shirts, cotton fabrics of various colors, turbans, sarongs, lungis, dhutis, leather shoes, and belts to wrap their robes on the waist. Women wore cotton saris. Upper-class women wore gold jewelry. There were various classes of artisans, as well as physicians and fortune tellers. There was a class of musicians who would gather by the houses of the rich during dawn and play music; and they would be rewarded with wine, food and money during breakfast hours. Some men would have performances with a chained tiger. The Hindu minority did not eat beef. The streets and markets included bathing areas, eating and drinking places, and dessert shops. Betel nut was offered to guests. The population included royalty, aristocrats, natives and foreigners. Many of the rich built ships and went abroad for trade. Many were agriculturalists. Punishments for breaking the law included expulsion from the kingdom, as well as bamboo flogging.[58]

Bengal received settlers from North India, the Middle East and Central Asia. They included Turks, Afghans, Persians and Arabs.[82] An important migrant community were Persians. Many Persians in Bengal were teachers, lawyers, scholars and clerics.[83] Mercenaries were widely imported for domestic, military and political service. One particular group of mercenaries were the Abyssinians.[36]

Arts[edit]

Literature[edit]

Muslim poets were writing in the Bengali language by the 15th century. By the turn of the 16th century, a vernacular literature based on concepts of Sufism and Islamic cosmology flourished in the region. Bengali Muslim mystic literature was one of the most original in Islamic India.[61]

Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz. The Iranian poet wrote a poem for the Sultan of Bengal
The story of Yusuf and Zuleikha was adapted by Bengali court poet Shah Muhammad Sagir into Yusuf-Zulekha.

And with the three washers [cups of wine], this dispute is going on.

All the parrots [poets] of India have fallen into a sugar shattering situation (become excited)

That this Persian candy [ode], to Bangalah [Bengal] is going on.

-An excerpt of a poem jointly penned by Hafez and Sultan Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah in the 14th century.[84]

With Persian as an official language, Bengal witnessed an influx of Persian scholars, lawyers, teachers and clerics. It was the preferred language of the aristocracy and the Sufis. Thousands of Persian books and manuscripts were published in Bengal. The earliest Persian work compiled in Bengal was a translation of Amrtakunda from Sanskrit by Qadi Ruknu'd-Din Abu Hamid Muhammad bin Muhammad al-'Amidi of Samarqand, a famous Hanafi jurist and Sufi. During the reign of Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah, the city of Sonargaon became an important centre of Persian literature, with many publications of prose and poetry. The period is described as the "golden age of Persian literature in Bengal". Its stature is illustrated by the Sultan's own correspondence with the Persian poet Hafez. When the Sultan invited Hafez to complete an incomplete ghazal by the ruler, the renowned poet responded by acknowledging the grandeur of the king's court and the literary quality of Bengali-Persian poetry.[85]

In the 15th century, the Sufi poet Nur Qutb Alam pioneered Bengali Muslim poetry by establishing the Rikhta tradition, which saw poems written half in Persian and half in colloquial Bengali. The invocation tradition saw Islamic figures replacing the invocation of Hindu gods and goddesses in Bengali texts. The literary romantic tradition saw poems by Shah Muhammad Sagir on Yusuf and Zulaikha, as well as works of Bahram Khan and Sabirid Khan. The Dobhashi culture featured the use of Arabic and Persian words in Bengali texts to illustrate Muslim conquests. Epic poetry included Nabibangsha by Syed Sultan, Janganama by Abdul Hakim and Rasul Bijay by Shah Barid. Sufi literature flourished with a dominant theme of cosmology. Bengali Muslim writers produced translations of numerous Arabic and Persian works, including the Thousand and One Nights and the Shahnameh.[86][87]

Architecture[edit]

Urban architecture[edit]

Fading enameled bricks on Gumti Gate in Gaur

Cities in the Bengal Sultanate had stately medieval architecture, particularly in the royal capitals of Gaur and Pandua. The Portuguese historian Castenhada de Lopez described houses in Gaur as being one-storeyed with ornamental floor tiles, courtyards and gardens. The city had a citadel, durbar and residences for aristocrats and merchants.[88] The royal palace was divided into three compartments. The first compartment was the royal court. The second was the living quarter of the Sultan. The third was the harem. A high wall enclosed the palace. A moat surrounded the palace on three sides and was connected to the Ganges. The city had canals, bridges, large gateways, and a city wall. Much of Gaur is today in ruins. In Pandua, the Adina Mosque was built on the model of the Great Mosque of Damascus and was the largest mosque in the Indian subcontinent. Pandua also hosts the Eklakhi Mausoleum, which is an example of the fusion of Bengali and Islamic architecture. Bengal roofs began appearing in concrete forms during the Bengal Sultanate in the 15th-century. Urban architecture in the Bengal Sultanate was based on Arab, Bengali, Persian, Indo-Turkish, and Byzantine influences. A glimpse of houses in the Bengal Sultanate can be seen in the Iskandar Nama (Tale of Alexander) published by Sultan Nasiruddin Nasrat Shah.[89]

Mosque architecture[edit]

According to Perween Hasan in a book edited by Oleg Grabar, the mosques of the Bengal Sultanate have several common features, including pointed arches, multiple mihrabs, engaged corner towers, and terracotta and stone decoration.[90] Mosques were either rectangular and multi-domed or square and single-domed. The large number of mosques built during the Bengal Sultanate indicates the rapidity with which the local population converted to Islam. The period between 1450 and 1550 was an intensive mosque building era. These mosques dotted the countryside, ranged from small to medium sizes and were used for daily devotion. Ponds were often located beside a mosque. Arabic inscriptions in the mosques often include the name of the patron or builder. The most commonly cited verse from the Quran in inscriptions was Surah 72 (Al-Jinn).[89] The buildings were made of brick or stone. The brick mosque with terracotta decoration represented a grand structure in the Bengal Sultanate. They were often the gift of a wealthy patron and the fruit of extraordinary effort, which would not be found in every Muslim neighborhood.[89] A mosque city developed near the Sundarbans as a result of the patronization of Governor Khan Jahan Ali.

List of rulers[edit]

Ilyas Shahi dynasty (1342-1414)
Name Reign Notes
Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah 1342–1358 Became the first sole ruler of whole Bengal comprising Sonargaon, Satgaon and Lakhnauti.
Sikandar Shah 1358–1390 Assassinated by his son and successor, Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah
Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah 1390–1411
Saifuddin Hamza Shah 1411–1413
Muhammad Shah bin Hamza Shah 1413 Assassinated by his father's slave Shihabuddin Bayazid Shah on the orders of the landlord of Dinajpur, Raja Ganesha
Shihabuddin Bayazid Shah 1413–1414
Alauddin Firuz Shah I 1414 Son of Shihabuddin Bayazid Shah. Assassinated by Raja Ganesha
House of Raja Ganesha (1414-1435)
Name Reign Notes
Raja Ganesha 1414–1415
Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah 1415–1416 Son of Raja Ganesha and converted into Islam
Raja Ganesha 1416–1418 Second Phase
Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah 1418–1433 Second Phase
Shamsuddin Ahmad Shah 1433–1435
Restored Ilyas Shahi dynasty (1435-1487)
Name Reign Notes
Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah I 1435–1459
Rukunuddin Barbak Shah 1459–1474
Shamsuddin Yusuf Shah 1474–1481
Sikandar Shah II 1481
Jalaluddin Fateh Shah 1481–1487
Habshi rule (1487-1494)
Name Reign Notes
Shahzada Barbak 1487
Saifuddin Firuz Shah 1487–1489
Mahmud Shah II 1489–1490
Shamsuddin Muzaffar Shah 1490–1494
Hussain Shahi dynasty (1494-1538)
Name Reign Notes
Alauddin Hussain Shah 1494–1518
Nasiruddin Nasrat Shah 1518–1533
Alauddin Firuz Shah II 1533
Ghiyasuddin Mahmud Shah 1533–1538
Governors under Suri rule (1539-1554)
Name Reign Notes
Khidr Khan 1539–1541 Declared independence in 1541 and was replaced
Qazi Fazilat 1541–1545
Muhammad Khan Sur 1545–1554 Declared independence upon the death of Islam Shah Suri
Muhammad Shah dynasty (1554-1564)
Name Reign Notes
Muhammad Khan Sur 1554–1555 Declared independence and styled himself as Shamsuddin Muhammad Shah
Ghiyasuddin Bahadur Shah I 1555–1561
Ghiyasuddin Jalal Shah 1561–1563
Ghiyasuddin Bahadur Shah II 1563-1564
Karrani dynasty (1564-1576)
Name Reign Notes
Taj Khan Karrani 1564–1566
Sulaiman Khan Karrani 1566–1572
Bayazid Khan Karrani 1572
Daud Khan Karrani 1572–1576

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Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Sultan Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah held his court in Sonargaon.

Further reading[edit]

  • Yegar, Moshe (2002). Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/Myanmar. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. pp. 23–24. ISBN 978-0-7391-0356-2.
  • Hussain, Syed Ejaz (2003). The Bengal Sultanate: Politics, Economy and Coins, A.D. 1205–1576. Manohar. ISBN 978-81-7304-482-3.
  • The Grammar of Sultanate Mosque in Bengal Architecture, Nujaba Binte Kabir (2012)

Coordinates: 24°52′0″N 88°8′0″E / 24.86667°N 88.13333°E / 24.86667; 88.13333