The Glorious History of the Independent Sultanate of Bengal

Bangladesh may be a small country in South Asia, but it has rich history. Despite having small land, people of that country always tried to remain independent which we can also see in the state system ruled by monarchs. Before achieving independence from Pakistan in 1971, many rulers from different parts of the world tried to suppress and rule this country. Among them, the Bengal Sultanate was the most remarkable. In this article, I have talked about the glorious period of Bengal Sultanate.

The Bengal Sultanate was a Muslim state in Bengal during medieval period. Islamic rule was introduced in Bangladesh by Bakhtiar Khilji, the founder of Muslim rule in Bengal, after he took over the Indian subcontinent. Under his kingship, Bengal was included as a province of the Delhi Sultanate. Bangladesh was under the Delhi Sultanate from the early thirteenth century to mid fourteenth century. In the mid fourteenth century, Afghan Sultan, Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah, conquered almost the entire region of Bengal and united them. His rule started the independent Sultanate era in Bangladesh. That is why, he is called the founder of the earliest independent Muslim sultanate in Bengal. Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah, whose capital was at Sonargaon, also became the first Muslim ruler to take over the possession of the port city Chittagong in 1340. He reigned from 1338 to 1349.

The independent Pathan Sultans ruled Bengal for the next two hundred years. Though these Pathan Sultans were foreigners, they were able to establish a close relationship with the land and people. One of the notable sultans was Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah, the founder of Ilyas Shah Dynasty. Under his rule, the independent Sultanate of Bengal became more consolidated as the leading military power in the eastern subcontinent and saw massive expansion. In 1352, he declared himself as the Sultan of Bengal and took the title of “Shah-i-Bangalah”. He played a vital role in separating the Bengal Sultanate from the Delhi Sultanate, setting three capitals in Gaur, Pandua and Sonargaon. One year later, Firuz Shah Tughluq, the Sultan of Delhi, set an attack against him, but he failed to bring the country under the control of Delhi Sultanate. As a result, the war ended with a peace treaty between them. He can be portrayed as the Bengal equivalent of Alexander or Napoleon. He died in 1358 after sixteen years of his reign.

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Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah’s dynasty comprised of his successors, such as Sikandar Shah (son), GhiyasuddinAzam Shah (grandson), ruled Bengal for 125 years. During their time of rule, the Bengal Sultanate not only witnessed the extension of its terrain, but also emerged as one of the top political, economic and military powers in the subcontinent. However, this glorious period did not last long. Ilyas Shah dynasty became weaker, which let the rebellion to rise. Hindu zamindar, Raja Ganesha, took this advantage and became the ruler of Bengal. Soon after he became the ruler of territory, he began tormenting the Muslim people. In that circumstance, a Sufi living in Pandua sought intervention from Ibrahim Sharqi of Jaunpur Sultanate. Being frightened, Ganesha went to the saint and begged him to approach to Ibrahim Sharqi to withdraw his troops from Bengal. The later part is more or less known to the people. The saint accepted the proposal when Ganesha agreed to convert his son, Jadu, to Islam and put him on the throne.

In 1414, Jadu or Yadu was renamed Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah and took the throne after a revolution which thrown out the Ilyas Shah dynasty. He ruled Bengal for 16 years in two phases. The first phase lasted only one year from 1415 to 1416. He was then dethroned by his father and was reconverted to Hinduism. After his father’s demise, he once again changed his religion to Islam and began ruling his second phase from 1418 to 1433. He declared himself as a caliph of Islam. He was a good leader. At the time of his dominion, Arakan came under Bengal authority, resulting the formation of Bengali Muslims settlement in Arakan. It had huge impact on the Buddhist rulers and economy in Arakan. Local Buddhist rulers took Islamic titles while coins portrayed Burmese script on one side and Arabic script on another side.

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However, the Ilyas Shah dynasty came to the power again in 1435. Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah ruled the Sultanate for 24 years and expanded its territory, especially towards Northeast India. After his death, his son, Rukunuddin Barbak Shah, came to the throne. He was honest, generous, learned and wise Sultan. He showed special favors to Abyssinian slaves (????? ????????). For this reason, he appointed a large number of Abyssinians who later assumed the power and ruled the kingdom. After his death, palace coups became regular phenomenon. Ilyas Shah dynasty came to an end after the death of Fateh Shah.

Shahzada Barbak who killed his former master Fateh Shah established the Habshi dynasty in Bengal kingdom. They played a very important role in Bengal politics. They ruled the empire for seven years from 1487 to 1494. The last Sultan of this dynasty was Muzaffar Shah who was killed by the rebels led by his own wazir Sayyid Husain, who succeeded him as Alauddin Husain Shah.

However, Bengal Sultanate remained independent till 1538. But Sher Shah Suri, the Afghan Sur Empire, seized the entire nation between 1539 and 1554. With the change of political power, Bengal became a part of Mughal Empire under the emperor Akbar Khan. It was not an easy task as Mughal troops had to defeat the Twelve Bhuyan landlords.

Distinguished features of Bengal Sultanate:

During Bengal Sultanate era, some important revolutionary work took place, such as issuing coin, massive improvement of Bengali literature, classification of government work, opening an administrative unit named Iqta. Justice towards the subjects was ensured by creating the provincial administrative post, muqta (also called governor). At that time, ordinary people of Bengal would get government assistance very easily. In addition, huge numbers of mosques, madrasas and Khanqahs were built. The primary education of current Bangladesh can be traced back to 800 years ago during the Sultanate era. Muslim rulers established maktabs alongside the mosques. Generally Sultan’s son became sultan, according to state law of Bangladesh. But to become Sultan, one needed the support of aristocrats and high-rank officials. No one could become sultan without their support. Bengali literature flourished at this time. Though literatures written in that time were of Sanskrit, Krittivasi Ramayan (?????????? ???????) was first translated into Bengali Sanskrit by Krittibas Ojha during the time of Rukunuddin Barbak Shah.

During the period of Bengal Sultanate, administration system was very strong. There was rule of law in the country, and it was possible to retain the situation because of economic and cultural prosperity. Fertile land was the main resource. Agricultural work could be easily done here. Farmers would grow crops here without much hardship. Sugarcane was also cultivated during that time. Molasses and sugar were made from sugarcane juice and these were exported abroad. Large wooden seagoing boats were made in Bangladesh so that people from Bangladesh would go to distant countries to do business. A large number of silk was produced in Bangladesh. Silk cloths were sold in overseas markets. For these reasons, Bangladesh became the center of trade.

Like most of the Persian empires, Bengal also depended heavily on slave armies imported from Turks and Abyssinians. The Turks were recruited to build the Kingdom’s defense force while Abyssinians were employed as royal guards. The entire military force was divided into four parts- cavalry, Gajarohi (a man or soldier who mounted on an elephant), infantry and navy. Infantry soldiers were called ‘pike’. A team was made with ten cavaliers. It was known as ‘Khel’. The leader of the Khel was called ‘Shar-i-Khel’. The chief of the Bengal armada was called Mir-Bahar. Gajabahini (troop of men who mounted on elephants) of Bengal was quite famous. The title of the person who was in charge of soldiers’ salary was Wazir-e-Lashkar. Bengal soldiers learned using artillery from the Portuguese. They used artillery in the war against the Mughal Empire Babur. After failing to conquer the Bengal, Babur did a peace treaty with Nasrat Shah. The founder of Mughal Empire praised Nasrat Shah in his autobiography.

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In this period, variations in the architectural style of the mosques of Bangladesh appeared. A distinct and indigenous Bengali architecture got mixed with Islamic architecture. So, it is clear that local traditions became merged with Persian and Byzantium traditions and their influences are visible in the infrastructures made at that time. The most distinctive feature was multiple and single domed mosque with the use of terracotta and stone ornamentation. The mosque city of Bagerhat- Sixty dome mosque, Nine Dome Mosque, Singara Mosque, Ronvijoypur Mosque, Chuna Khola Mosque, mihrab of Bagha Mosque in Rajshahi, a sultan’s tomb in Sonargaon are some examples of Muslim architectures of the Bengal Sultanate.

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