Muslim Poets in the Court of Medieval Arakan (1)

Muslim Poets in the Court of Medieval Arakan (1)

By Aman Ullah

One of the prominent features of socio-cultural history of Arakan in the 17th century was the extensive Muslim influence on the Arakan society, which was not an outcome of some sudden occurrences. It was a result of an age-long intercourse between Arakan and Muslim countries that dated back to the period of Arab contacts with Arakan during the reign of Maha-Taing Tsandaya (788-810 AD).

Various historians and scholars have recorded that Islam began to spread from the eastern bank of Meghna to Arakan since eighth and ninth centuries, long before the establishment of a Muslim kingdom in the frontier region. Since then, the influence grew fast and was consolidated fully by the 17th century.

From the writings of Verthema, Caesar Frederick, Ralph Fitch and also Portuguese it appears that in the sea ports of Bengal coast there was important community of Muslim merchants and residents who were mostly Arabs. A fairly large numbers of Muslims had entered Chittagong and had gone to Arakan considerably before Chittagong came under the independent Sultanate of Bengal in 1338. The tempo of Muslims immigrations to Chittagong and Arakan increased after the Pathan occupations of Chittagong in the middle of 14th century.

A close cultural contact between Arakan and Bengal was first made in early in the 15th century when Naremekhla (Sulaiman Shah), the king of Arakan, dispossessed by the king of Burma, came to Bengal and took refuge in the court of Gour (1404). After a sojourn of 24 years he was helped by Jalal Uddin Mohammed Shah, the Bengal Sultan, to regain his throne (1430). During his stay in Bengal the Arakanese king had opportunity to learn and experience many things. Among other things, he has acquainted with Bengali songs, music, language and literature, and introduced them in his own country after he had returned home and to power. Since then the Bengali culture was enduring for many years in the court of Arakan.
The cultivation of Bengali literature attained further development when Arakan power annexed Chittagong. Politically Chittagong was subjugated by Arakan, but culturally it was Arakan, which was greatly influenced by a strong culture and powerful language. A number of competent Bengalis were appointed to high government posts. People of all ranks enjoyed the literary beauty of Bengali works.

One of the foremost factors for the phenomenal growth of Bengali influence, in view of Dr. Enamul Huq of Dhaka University, was the superiority of Bengali Language over the Magh Language. [1] Dr. Sukumar Sen rightly says; ‘from this time Bengali was accepted at the Arakan court as the chief cultural language, mainly because many of high officials of Arakan came from Chittagong and other neighboring territories whose mother tongue was Bengali. [2] The glorious Husian Shahi tradition of cultivation of Bengali literature was not only kept alive but also given an encouraging support by the Arakanese rulers and their influential courtiers. Thus, the Arakanese kings of the 17th century were enthusiastic patrons of Bengali language and literature. Some of them adopted also Bengali names of themselves, such as, Thiri Thu Dhamma (Arakanese pronunciation of Shirisudhrma), Sanda Thu Dhamma (Arakanese pronunciation of Chandra Sudharma). The Bengali immigrations or sojourners in Arakan were almost all Muslims, and the official and ministers too were mostly Bengali Muslims. Muslim influence in the Arakan court was therefore potent, and as happened quite often in the 17th century the kings took Muslim names as well. [3]

Thus the Bengali literature was cultivated extensively in Arakan under the patronage of Arakan rulers who encouraged the growth of Islamic culture and civilization while giving substantial support and privileges to the Muslims and Muslim poets in the field of literary pursuits. Most of the Muslim poets of Arakan were holding high civil and military posts. The most notables were Daulat Qazi, Aloal, Qurashi Magan Thakur, Mardan and AbdulKarim Khondkar.


The earliest known Bengali poet in Arakan was Qazi Daulat or Daulat Qazi. His patron Ashraf Khan was a Laskhar Wazir (Defence Minister) and adviser of Shirisudarma (1622-1638). To popularize the romantic tales then current in West Indian poetry (Rajasthani, Gujrati, Hindi, Avadhi and Bhojpuri), Ashraf had asked to Daulat to render the stories of Lor, Chandrani and
Mai-na into Bengali narrative verse (Panchali). His book was entitled Satimaina Lor Chandrani. The poet says as follows about how he was influenced to write the book:

“Sriyut Ashraf Khan was a great minister, he was like a full moon…….Sitting in the assembly, and he expressed his willingness to hear tales. There were many stories in Arabic and Persian, Gujarati, Gohari and Teth (Gohari and Teth were local languages used in Gohar area bordering West Bengal). He was willing to hear the story of Lorak and Mai-nar Bharati (Satimaina Lor Chandrani) …… The poet Sadhan told the story in Teth Gohari, but these languages are not understood by many people. So wanted that the book should be composed in Panchali, Qazi Daulat felt the intention of the minister and composed Mainar Bharati in Bengali.” [4]

Satimaina was a ballad composed and sung by local bards in Bhojpur area bordering ancient and medieval Bengal. There were such other ballads, which were very popular and entered into East Bengal including Chittagong, and crossed over to Arakan. Two famous compositions were Mulla Daud’s Chandain and Sadhan’s Mainasat. When these ballads were sung in the court of Lashkar Wazir Ashraf Khan, he took interest in the poem and asked Qazi Daulat to write the book in Bengali. So Qazi Daulat’s work was a translation but it was a free translation and thus the poetic talent of the poet was maintained.

The story in brief was as follows: Lor, the king of Gohari married a beautiful princess name Maina or Mainabati. They were living a happy life, when once a yogi showed Lor a picture of another very beautiful lady Chandrani, the princess of Mohari. Chandrani was also married, but her husband was a short fellow and an impotent person, Lor went to Mohari, and began meeting Chandrani in private, but when their illicit connection was known, Chandrani’s husband fought against Lor but was killed. Lor then married Chandrani. In the meantime, in his own kingdom at Gohari, his first wife Maina was living in anguish and sorrow due to his separation, and another person named Saton tried to win over Maina, but failed. Maina remained faithful to her husband Lor. Later Lor came back with Chandrani to his kingdom and joined Maina, thereafter all lived in happiness.

Daulat Qazi took it from the old Rajasthani poem of Sadhan, manuscripts of which have come to light recently. It is divided into three parts. After completing half of the second party the poet died and poet Alaol wrote the remaining one and half part. Daulat Qazi was not only the best among the Muslim poets but also one of the greatest poets among the ancient Bengali poets. His poetic power was extra-ordinary; his sense of art and beauty were sharp and impressive. His power was unparalleled both in Bengali and ‘Brajabuli’. He was the poet who proved that even without the Love-lore of Radha and Khrishna, Brajabuli could be effectively employed in to Bengali. [5]

Brajabuli is an artificial literary language developed in the 16th century. It was created primarily due to the influence of Vidyapati’s lyrics on the love of Radha and Krishna on the Bengali poets of the medieval period. Brajabuli is basically Maithili but its forms are modified to look like Bengali.

Footnotes: –
1. Huq, Mohammed Enamul, Muslim Bengali Literature, Karachi (1957) P. 144
2. Sen, Sukumar, Islami Bangla Sahitya, Bradhaman (1958) P.15
3. Dr. Kornamaya Goswami, Alaol and medieval Bengali music, The Daily Independent, Dhaka (12/03/1997)
4. Arakan Rajsabhaya Bangla Sahitya op. cit., p. 14.
5. Supra note 1. p.146

To be continued:-