Within class and beyond
Beyond symbols and sentiments
Adages and bachans in Bangla
Globalization, language and Ekushey
Ekushey - towards secular democracy
Making Ekushey meaningful to the young
Intimations of Ekushey
Our pride, our sorrow, our joy
The elitist Ekushey
Rediscovering Ekushey February
Bangabandhu and Language Movement
Incipient nationalism and freedom
My first Ekushey
Bangla and Muslim era in India
Dhirendranath Datta: Glimpses of a life
A generation united and untied
The unforgettable
A privilege and a responsibility
Remembering Ekushey
It's a different February
Reflections on 21st February
When memory sweeps across history


Bangla and Muslim era in India

Syed Ashraf Ali

Language was the immediate gift of good" -- that is what Webster claimed, and Bangla, the blood of our blood and the bone of our bone, is no ordinary language.

Bangla occupies a unique place in the annals of civilisation simply because it is the only language in the world for the recognition of which people have smilingly embraced bullets, the only language on this globe for the legitimate and rightful status of which people have braved the bitterest ordeals, the only language on earth the struggle for which has helped a nation achieve an independent and sovereign state. No wonder Amar Ekushey, the well-spring of our deepest emotions about our cultural heritage and the harbinger of all our hard struggles, has been singled out of the 4000 mother languages and blessed with the unique honour of being celebrated on International Mother Language Day.

The renowned Mahasthan Plaque discovered by Baru Fakir in 1931, considered by some as the earliest evidence of "primitive" Bangla (the famous Charya-Charya Binischaya is, however, almost universally accepted as the earliest available specimen of Bengali literature), testifies to the fact that Bangla is no newborn baby in the cradle of languages. Although it originates from the Eastern Prakrit group of the Indo-Aryan family of languages, its history dates back to the Aryan days. Some scholars even go to the extent of claiming that the emperor Ashoka, and even Lord Buddha, occasionally used a certain type of Bangla 'Lipi' while communicating with their subjects and disciples in the eastern regions of this subcontinent.

In the pre-Aryan days the people living in Bengal were of Dravidian, Mongolian, Bhot-Chin or Kolomboda origin. They used to speak in Dravidian, Bhot-Chin or Munda languages. It was in Gupta era that Bengal had its first contact with Aryan civilisation. But before any intimate or effective acquaintance could be established with the Aryan civilisation, the Pal kings turned Bengal into one of the citadels of Buddhism. The Aryans realised that the first step to pollute or cripple a culture is to destroy or distort its language. As a result of systematic oppression by the Sanskrit and Prakrit speaking people, the innocent indigenous inhabitants of Bengal started forgetting their languages. But Sanskrit was no effective spoken language, almost everything it had at the time was in black and white. So a section of the people started speaking in a particular type of Prakrit known as Gouriya-Prakrit. The Gouriya-Prakrit being used by the non-Aryans, Dravidians, Mundas and Kols took a distorted form.

Slowly and silently this distorted form of Gouriya-Prakrit (Gouriya-Apabhramsa) gave birth to the ancient Bengali language. But the people who used to speak in this ancient form of Bangla were looked down upon as an inferior caste by the Aryans. It was claimed that anyone who spoke in this 'disgraceful' dialect of the untouchables would inevitably go to hell. It is really unfortunate that although Bengal reached the peak of glory in almost every domain of thought during the reign of Gopal Dev and his descendants, who ruled over this part of the subcontinent for more than three hundred years, the Bangla language could not make any remarkable progress. The written form of Bengali was yet to come.

After the Pals came the Sens who ruled over Bengal for nearly one hundred years. To them also Bangla was the language of the untouchables.

It was the conquest of Bengal by the Muslims in 1201 AD which ushered in a new era for Bangla, providing it a congenial environment and proper facilities to thrive into a major language. When the Muslims first conquered Bengal there was hardly any Bengali literature worth the name. Nor was the language cultivated by the educated class. The language of the Charya-Charya Binischaya, now referred to as Charyapads, comprising 47 poems making a total of some 480 lines, according to competent sources, was 'but poor fragments of the literature' which owed its origin 'chiefly to earnestness of Tantrik Buddhists for popularising their creed and which was just evolving out of Laukika.' Whatever might be the exact date of the Charyapads it is generally recognised by scholars that no vernacular language could have found a scope for free literary expression under the Brahmanical system which preceded the coming of the Muslims and which interdicted the study of any but the Sanskrit language. A well-known Sanskrit Sloka (couplet) states that if a person hears 'the stories of Ashtadash Puranas or of the Ramayana recited in Bengali, he will be thrown into the hell called Raurava.' Bangla, 'the language of the untouchables', would have surely been nipped in the bud had there been no patronage from Muslim kings like Sikander Shah, Hussain, Shah, Barbak Shah and Paragol Khan.

One of the most important results of Muslim rule was the break-up of the Brahmanical monopoly of knowledge and literary activities and a general freeing of the Hindu intellect from the bondage of the caste system. The Muslims could not be expected to make any distinction between Brahmins and non-Brahmins in any legitimate sphere of activity, all of them being equally eligible for acquiring knowledge and official positions according to merit. The Muslims not only welcomed Bangla with open hearts but they literally gave a new birth to this hitherto neglected language. By 1350 AD Muslims had united different regions of Bengal and started becoming patrons of Bengali language and literature, thus providing an impetus to new literary productions in Bengali. Blessed with royal patronage, the swelling waves of Bangla started reaching every nook and corner of Bengal. It reached the high and the low, the rich and the poor and played a dominant role in every sphere of activity and in every domain of thought. Hindus and Muslims alike welcomed the royal patronage and enjoyed its benefits. Ramaya Pundit eulogised in unequivocal terms the Muslim conquest of Bengal as a heavenly bliss. In Niranjaner Rushma, a section of his Shunnya Purana, the Muslims are portrayed as Religion Incarnate releasing people from the tyranny and oppression of the Brahmins and the Sen rulers. No wonder, Promatha Chowdhury has unhesitatingly admitted: 'Bangla literature had its genesis in the Muslim era.'

Dr Muhammad Mohar Ali gives a vivid description of the commendable Muslim patronage of Bangla: 'The first notable literary production in Bengali was a translation of the Ramayana by poet Krittivas during the first quarter of the 15th century, most probably during the reign of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Shah (1415-1431). The poet praises the Gauda ruler for his patronage and also states that the work was commissioned by him. The next notable work was by poet Maladhar Vasu, an inhabitant of village Kulin in Murshidabad district. He lived during the time of Sultan Yusuf Shah (1474-1482). Under the latter's patronage the poet composed his Srikrishna Vijaya on the basis of the 10th and 11th chapters of Bhagavad-Gita. The poet also received the title of Gunraj Khan either from Barbak Shah or from Yusuf Shah. The poet takes care to state that he composed the work because the Sudras, the lowest caste of the Hindus, were not allowed to read the Puranas in their originals. Some other poets also flourished during the Ilyas Shahi period.

During the Hussain Shah period a number of important poets like Vijayagupta, Vipradas Piplai, Yasoraj Khan, Kavindra Parameshwara and Srikara Nandi composed their works. Early in Hussain Shah's reign (1493-1519) Vijayagupta composed his Padma Purana (most probably in 1494-95), while Vipradas Piplai wrote the Manasamangala, an epic on the snake cult, about the same time. Also during the same reign Yasoraj Khan composed his Srikrishna-Vijaya. Kavindra Parameshwara received the patronage of Hussain Shah's general and Chittagong governor Paragol Khan and at his instance translated a part of the Mahabharata into Bengali. A number of Sanskrit works like Haricharita Krishnalila, Udbhava-Sandesh, Gitabali, Nilmani, etc. by various poets were also composed during the time and under the patronage of Hussain Shah. His son and successor Nusrat Shah (1519-1532) was an equally enthusiastic patron of learning and literature. His Chittagong governor Chhuti Khan, son of Paragal Khan, patronised poet Srikar Nandi who translated the Asvamedha Parva of the Mahabharata under his orders. Nusrat Shah himself sponsored another translation of the Mahabharata, but that work has not hitherto come to light. Another poet, Dvija Sridhara, composed an epic named Vidyasundra under the patronage of prince Firuz Shah, Nusrat Shah's son." (Muhammad Mohar Ali, History of the Muslims of Bengal, Riyadh, 1985, Pp. 856-858).

The Muslim rulers indeed made every effort to patronise Bangla. Baru Chandidas of Srikrishna-Kirtan was blessed with a royal invitation to sing at the court of Gaur. Maladhar Vasu of Srikrishna-Vijaya could complete his works with much-needed royal patronage for seven years from Sultan Barbak Shah. Krittivas also had the unique distinction of being personally garlanded by the Sultan himself. None indeed can deny the fact that the patronage of the Muslim Kings was the most effective and greatest factor in Bangla's transition from the spoken stage to the written one. Mention may be made in this connection that Bengal had also numerous Muslim writers in those days. Great personalities like Muhammad Sagir of Yusuf-Zuleikha fame wrote fearlessly and freely ignoring totally the hoodwink of the then orthodox Mullahs. Syed Sultan, Haji Muhammad, Sheikh Mutalib and Abdunnabi also openly advocated the cause of Bangla. In the thirteenth century the illustrious father of Havrat Nur Kutubul Alam, who migrated to Bengal from Punjab, even went to the extent of affixing the title Bangalee to his name and he was known all over Bengal as Sheikh Alaul Huq Bangalee.

And it was the Muslim poet Abdul Hakim who was the first litterateur to criticise in writing the nefarious activities of the Bangla-haters as far back as 17th century. He had the courage and conviction to urge the enemies of Bangla either to change their attitude or to leave Bengal for good.

Syed Ashraf Ali is former director general, Islamic Foundation.

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