Sonargaon

CHAPTER III

It is hard to realize that this was once the capital of kings. At first glance, with its trim rice-fields and patches of jungle growth, it might have been in the beginning as it is now, peaceful, thriving, and content, undisturbed by the noise and clamor of passing events in the world beyond. Strangely little of all that is past has survived. Today the ancient kingdom of Sonargaon is but a collection of insignificant villages. Scattered here and there over the land, they still cling faithfully round some battered and time-worn memory of the past. Gone are the retainers of kings and princes, the marts of merchants, and the camps of armies: gone the stir of great events and the busy hum of life. Generation after generation has passed away to whom its stirring history has been but as a tale that is told, and the humble cultivator today lives and dies on the very scene of its former greatness, careless and ignorant of its long forgotten past.

From the banks of the Lakhiya, the Meghna and the Ishamutti on the east and south and west, the kingdom of Sonargaon stretched seventy miles away to the north, where the Brahmaputra, fickle in its course, then flowed from west to east. Enclosed thus like an island in the midst of the great rivers, it was admirably fitted for defense. But it was in the south, in the angle formed by the Meghna and the old bed of the Brahmaputra, that the chief centre of interest lay. Here, in what are now the villages of Aminpur, Pannam, Goaldi, and Moghrapara, the ruler of the day placed his headquarters. Sonargaon was apparently the name given to the whole district, and also particularly to the place where for the time being the king held court. Further afield all over the district there are the remains of a past civilization. Huge tanks and mounds and mosques survive, and the ruins of many forts, thrown up to defend the frontiers from attack, which in their day played their part in the history of Sonargaon.

It was to this land, well fitted for defence, that the descendants of the last Hindu kings of Bengal fled before the advance of the victorious Muslim armies. Here, undisturbed, they continued to rule for well nigh a hundred years after the Muslims had conquered Central Bengal. Bukhtiyar Khiliji lived but three years to enjoy his triumph, and throughout that time he was fully occupied with his ambitious schemes for the conquest of Tibet. The Sen Kings made no attempt to repel the Muslim invader and regain their lost position. Without a struggle they gave way before a stronger than themselves. Living peacefully in Sonargaon they constituted no political danger, and the earliest Muslim rulers attempted to impose upon them but the slightest form of control. Busy with their own schemes far away in their capital of Gaur, they asked nothing more from them than a payment of tribute and a formal acknowledgment of their dependence. Dispossessed of all political authority, they soon sank to the position of mere zemindars and local magnates, and their final disappearance from the stage which they had so long occupied was not long delayed. With Danuj Eoy, grandson of Lakshman Sen, the end came. It was in the days of the Viceroy Tughril Khan, who, from a Tartar slave of the Emperor Balin, had by his wonderful ability and address risen to be Governor of Bengal. But success and advancement had so inflamed his ambition that neither gratitude nor prudence restrained him from open rebellion against his master. Fresh from his latest triumph in Tipperah, whence he had returned laden with immense treasure borne by a train of a hundred captive elephants, he[1] out that the Emperor was dead, and, assuming all the insignia of royalty, proclaimed himself independent King of Bengal. But the Emperor, enraged at this treachery of his former slave, raised an army and set out against him with all dispatch. Panic seems to have seized Tughril Khan as his master approached, and, collecting all the wealth on which he could lay hands, he fled with a huge train of elephants and a picked company of troops towards the east, intending to take refuge in the last resort in Tipperah, where he had recently achieved so great a triumph. Following in his wake, the Emperor Balin reached Sonargaon. It had been a long and difficult march across the hot bare plains of Upper India, through Behar and the Teliagharia Pass, and down the great rivers of Bengal, an undertaking not to be lightly entered upon. It was an historic occasion for Eastern Bengal. Never before had an Emperor of Delhi visited this eastern frontier of the empire, and Danuj Eoy, trembling at his approach, pursued the traditional policy of his race and offered no resistance. Setting out from Pannam, where he had placed his capital, he met the Emperor as he entered Sonargaon, and, giving in his allegiance, offered his help against the rebel Viceroy. Shortly afterwards the imperial troops came up with those of Tughril Khan and won a great victory on the banks of the Meghna. There is a tradition that Tughril Khan himself, attempting to escape across the river into Tipperah, was taken captive and spent the remainder of his days in prison in Sonargaon.

The shadow of imperial affairs had at length fallen across the ancient Hindu kingdom of Sonargaon, and from this time onwards, during the next three centuries, it became the headquarters of Muslim rule in Eastern Bengal. The Sen Rajas quietly disappear from its annals, making a tame and spiritless exit after their long centuries of kingship. Almost every trace of their rule was speedily obliterated by the new Muslim governors, who everywhere lost no time in transforming the Hindu capitals well nigh out of recognition and imparting to them a new character of their own. Hindu temples were ruthlessly pulled down that the stones might be used to build mosques wherein the faithful might worship, and on the site of the forts and palaces of the Hindu kings rose the far grander and more imposing buildings of the Muslim conquerors. The Sen and Pal kings had proved themselves great builders of temples and palaces, as there is sufficient evidence elsewhere to show, yet so completely has the Muslim obliterated the traces of their rule in Sonargaon that only one Hindu building survives. Under the shadow of the official residence of the Imperial Karori, the Muslim tax-gatherer, whose descendants still live close by, it stands, a building of no architectural distinction, and interesting only as the solitary survival of centuries of Hindu rule. Known as the Jhikoti, it is formed of concrete with elongated dome-shaped roof, its walls pierced with numerous openings. Until recently it was used as a meeting-place for worship by the Hindus of the surrounding villages, but now it stands deserted and neglected, moss-grown and falling to decay, yet having survived to see the passing of the Muslim empire in Sonargaon and the strange revenges that time takes.

The last year of the thirteenth century marks the opening of a new era in the history of Sonargaon. In that year the Emperor Alia Uddin divided the government of Bengal into two parts, and appointed Bahadur Khan to be governor of the eastern portion, with his capital at Sonargaon. For the next three hundred years it remained, with varying fortunes, the seat of the Muslim government in Eastern Bengal. It was a troublous period that was opening for the newly formed province. Events succeeded one another with startling rapidity. Situated on the easternmost limits of the empire, it had all the advantages and disadvantages of a frontier province. Free from immediate control, Viceroy after Viceroy was tempted to throw off his allegiance and proclaim his independence. Time and again the empire, beset on every side, was forced to relax its hold. To the people these things mattered not at all. They were content to sit by, unmoved spectators of the drama, yet perhaps not without a touch of humor, as they watched their rulers fall out and war continually among themselves. Still, though these contests interested them but little, in other directions the mass of the people felt to the full the advantage and disadvantage of their position on the frontier of the empire. On the one hand Eastern Bengal enjoyed an immunity from strife and bloodshed unknown in the lands that lay nearer the heart of the empire, where great issues were constantly at stake, and vast armies for ever passed to and fro, leaving ruin and desolation in their wake. Though the lot of the cultivator in Eastern Bengal was by no means a secure one, yet he suffered comparatively little from these human locusts. It was no easy country for the transport of troops, and the armies that came this way to subdue some rebellious Viceroy, or to attempt the conquest of Assam, wandered little afield from certain well-defined highways, keeping always close to the great rivers. Delhi was far off, and the journey down through Oude, Behar, and Bengal, was beset with difficulties and a matter of many days. Sonargaon, set in a circle of great rivers, was inaccessible by road for a great part of the year, and well fitted by nature to defy attack. It was a foolhardy general who lingered in Eastern Bengal as the cold weather drew to an end. Annually the rivers rose and swept the invader out of the land, or, cutting off his retreat, left him at the mercy of the enemy. But, on the other hand, Sonargaon suffered to the full the disadvantages of a frontier province. Beyond, away to the east, lived the Mughs and Arracanese, and the unknown tribes of further Kamrup and of the jungle lands at the foot of the Himalayas to the north. Its eastern boundaries ill-defined, the province suffered terrible things at the hands of these wild tribes, freebooters and marauders by natural instinct. To the peaceful inhabitants of Eastern Bengal the Mughs close at hand were a constant source of terror. Sailing up the rivers, they robbed and plundered and laid waste whole villages along the banks. Allied in later days with the Portuguese, who taught them better seamanship, they became so great a menace that a new capital of Bengal was founded nearer the easternmost limits of the empire to protect the province from their depredations.

The first governor of Eastern Bengal under the new régime was not slow to take advantage of the opportunity his position on the outskirts of the empire offered. The Emperor Balin’s march from Delhi to Sonargaon was still fresh in men’s minds, but it had been a marvellous feat, and Bahadur Khan might well regard it as an event beyond the common that would not soon occur again. The death of the Emperor Alia Uddin and the accession of the dissolute Prince Mubarik Shah occasioned a great weakening of imperial authority, and in the years that followed Bahadur Shah gradually threw off his allegiance and at last boldly proclaimed his independence. Assuming the white umbrella and all the insignia of royalty that an Eastern monarch loves, he ordered the coin to be stamped with his name, and for over a quarter of a century ruled undisturbed in his kingdom of Sonargaon. Of the passing of those years, with all the varied incidents that must have filled them, history and legend have little to relate. They must remain forever a book that fate has closed.

But again a turn in the wheel of fate, and a strong hand was once more at the helm of imperial affairs. The Emperor Tughlag, hearing complaints from Sonargaon that ‘the Emirs and magistrates were exercising great cruelties and injustice towards the inhabitants,’ set out to visit the Eastern Province and call Bahadur Khan at last to account for his insubordination and misdeeds. Again an Emperor of Delhi entered Sonargaon, and again the governor went out to meet him and offer his submission. For Bahadur Khan, during his long rule, had not succeeded in winning the fidelity of his army or the devotion of his courtiers, and, deserted by all in the hour of need, he cast himself upon the mercy of the Emperor. He was finally pardoned, but only on resigning all his wealth and offices and attending the Emperor to grace his triumphal return to Delhi. To this humiliation came the first Muslim Viceroy in Sonargaon who strove for independence.

In his place the Emperor appointed Bhiram Khan, and for fourteen years he ruled, it is said, with singular wisdom and equity. But again the book of the chronicles of the Kings of Bengal is silent. Nothing is recorded of his reign. On his death, in 1338, the first of a long series of palace revolutions disturbed the peace of Sonargaon. It was a scramble for the throne, and the prize went to the strongest. Fakiruddin, who had been armour-bearer to Bhiram Khan, finally triumphed, and not only succeeded in seizing the governorship of the province, but with consummate effrontery declared himself independent of imperial authority, assuming the exalted title of Sultan Sikunder. The usurper, however, was not left long in undisturbed possession. Events moved fast, and it was an exciting drama that was played out in Sonargaon during the two-and-a-half years of Fakiruddin’s brief reign. The Emperor, hearing of the violence and disorder that had followed the death of Bhiram Khan, sent orders to Khudder Khan, the Viceroy of Gaur, to proceed with all haste to Sonargaon and bring the usurper to swift justice. In the battle that ensued Fakiruddin was defeated, but refusing to despair he escaped from the field, fleeing into the jungle with a few devoted followers, there to await the turn of events. His chance was not long in coming. Khudder Khan, having taken possession of Sonargaon, at once loyally prepared to send to Delhi the large amount of treasure that he had discovered there. Fakiruddin, fully informed of all that was taking place, learned with dismay of the proposed dispersal of the treasure which he had himself accumulated. With this treasure would depart his last hope of regaining the province, and he conceived a bold design to obtain possession of it. Sending emissaries secretly to Khudder Khan’s own troops, he made them promises that if they would kill their leader and assist in restoring to him his kingdom he would distribute the whole of the treasure among them. The soldiers, mercenaries willing to fight for the highest bidder, grew wild with cupidity at this chance of sudden wealth, and having on a fixed day assassinated Khudder Khan they marched to join their new leader, who lay in hiding close by. Fakiruddin at once made a triumphal entry into his capital, and, being still dependent on the troops who had so recently become his allies, he was forced to keep his promise, and all the treasure was distributed among them.

For the moment the triumph of Fakiruddin was complete. Khudder Khan, the Viceroy of Gaur, having been slain, he proudly proclaimed himself king of all Bengal, and, ordering the coin to be stamped with his name, threw defiance at the Emperor’s wrath. But his triumph was short-lived. Not content with the kingdom of Sonargaon, his soaring ambition led him to dream of yet greater conquests. But Fakiruddin was no general. He had won his way solely by intrigue and his ready wit. On the field he showed neither generalship nor the power to inspire condense in others, and, realizing this, he sent his favorite slave, Mukless Khan, in charge of the great expedition that he fitted out to take possession of Gaur. But though Mukless Khan had made a reputation as a leader, his troops proved no match for the army which Ali Mubarik, the new Viceroy of Gaur, led out against him, and he suffered a crushing defeat, himself being slain in the battle. Ali Mubarik, at the Emperor’s orders, followed up this success by invading Sonargaon, and Fakiruddin, again defeated, was captured as he fled from the field. In his capital, which had witnessed the many dramatic events of his brief reign, the final curtain was rung down on his meteoric career. He met with a brutal death at the hands of his conqueror, and his body was flung contemptuously out of the gate of the city which he had entered in triumph so short a time before. His career was typical of the rapid turns of the wheel of fate in Muslim days in Bengal. Starting from the lowest rung in the ladder, he attained, by the most unscrupulous means, to wealth and power. A brief period of prosperity, then another more powerful than he arose, and his place knew him no more.

But Ali Mubarik, the latest conqueror of Sonargaon, enjoyed even a briefer spell of power than Fakiruddin. After a reign of only a year and five months he was assassinated by his own foster brother, Ilyas Khaji, who immediately took possession of the kingdom. It is strange to read in the old Muslim chronicles that the perpetrator of this treacherous act was of a mild and generous disposition, ‘a man much respected and beloved by the people.’ So constantly had fratricide, intrigue, and murder paved the way to empire that they had come to be but lightly regarded as the natural accompaniment of each new king’s accession, and thus the memory of Uyas Khaji, whose reign was inaugurated by the treacherous murder of his foster-brother, remains as that of one of the most just and honorable kings who ever reigned in Sonargaon. Assuming the high title of Shamsuddin, he ruled the whole of Bengal for ten years, undisturbed by any interference from the imperial authority at Delhi. Then again the strong hand gathered together the reins of empire, and strove to bring the outlying provinces back to their obedience.

The Emperor Ferose Shah was not the man to brook lightly the insubordination of rebellious Viceroys. The unchecked ambition of a Viceroy had proved too often the ruin of an empire, and the reports that reached Delhi of the wealth and strength of Shamsuddin roused deep suspicion in the mind of Ferose Shah. Resolving to be first in the field, he set out with a large army to reduce the Eastern Province to submission. On his approach Shamsuddin fell back upon Ekdala on the Banar river, which he deemed the strongest fortress in all Sonargaon. Built by the Pal kings in days gone by, it had been neglected since their disappearance after the Muslim invasion, but Shamsuddin, recognizing that its situation would be well nigh impregnable against attack, hastily restored it and staked his kingdom upon its strength. The ruins of the fort that can still be traced show how admirably it was designed for defense. The river, three hundred yards wide and in some places forty feet deep, itself affords sufficient protection along its front. Here the banks, unlike those of most rivers in India, rise abruptly out of the stream, showing, when the river is low, like a solid wall of masonry that it was well nigh impossible to scale. Like a crescent on the river’s bank runs the outer wall of the fort, some two miles in circuit, with a broad moat surrounding it on the further side. Within this outer circle can still be traced the lines of a second defense, the citadel, with walls and bastions. Beyond, the country rises in hilly ridges, intersected by innumerable small ravines, and covered with low shrub jungle. The imperial army soon discovered to its cost the strength of the enemy’s position. For twenty-two days the Emperor Ferose Shah invested it without success. Even the small triumph that followed was due to accident. Determining to change his plan of attack, he withdrew his troops to reform his[2] encampment at another point. Had the movement been designed as a stratagem to draw the enemy from his entrenchment, it could have met with no greater success. Shamsuddin, mistaking it for a retreat, hastily sallied out to the attack. But the Emperor, though baffled in his attempts to take the fort, was by no means vanquished, and he met the sortie with such vigor that Shamsuddin was forced to seek shelter again ignominiously within the fort, leaving in the hands of his enemies no fewer than forty-four elephants, his umbrella, and all the insignia of royalty.

Reforming his troops, the Emperor continued the siege. Little is recorded of the days that followed. Only one legend lifts the veil as the armies face one another across the ramparts of the fort, uncertain as yet of the result. In the neighborhood, it is said, there lived a saint named Raja Biyabani, to whom Shamsuddin was much attached. During the siege the saint died, and Shamsuddin, anxious to pay the last tribute of respect to his friend, disguised himself as a fakir and attended the funeral ceremonies outside the fort. Then, seized with the whim as he returned, he passed on into the enemy’s camp and solemnly made his obeisance to the Emperor himself, returning to his fort unrecognized and unmolested.

For many days the imperial troops lay before the walls of Ekdala, unable to break down its magnificent defense. Already the rivers were rising and the rains were at hand. Soon retreat would be well nigh impossible, and the Emperor had no desire to be caught so far from the imperial city and forced to wait the abating of the rains in the enemy’s country. Bather than this he finally acknowledged himself beaten, and, accepting the vague promise of an annual tribute from Shamsuddin, he raised the siege and returned to Delhi. Three years later the Emperor Ferose Shah, distracted by other cares, was reduced to granting to Shamsuddin a definite treaty formally acknowledging the independence of Bengal.

Full of honors, and after a uniformly successful reign of sixteen years, Shamsuddin died in 1358. No sooner did the Emperor Ferose Shah hear of his old enemy’s death than he made preparations to restore the imperial authority in Bengal. But in Sekunder Shah, the son of Shamsuddin, he found an enemy no less determined and adroit, and the fort of Ekdala as impregnable as before. Sekunder Shah, on the approach of the imperial forces, following his father’s prudent example, shut himself up in this safe retreat, and though Ferose Shah invested it again with a greater army than before, he was forced, after a long and fruitless siege, once more to acknowledge his defeat. Thus twice had the fort of Ekdala baffled and defied the power of the empire. For the second time Ferose Shah withdrew, taking with him a present of forty-eight elephants and a sum of money with which Sekunder Shah regarded the independence of his kingdom as cheaply bought.

Then for a few brief years there was peace. Sekunder Shah, busy with his schemes for rebuilding Pandua, where he had fixed his capital, was content with the independence he had won. But, successful abroad, his last years were clouded by domestic strife. It was the old story of intrigue to secure the succession, of plot and counterplot among the courtiers and the women of the palace. Sekunder Shah had married two wives, by the first of whom he had seventeen children, by the second only one son, Ghyasuddin. But this one son was loved by his father more than all the children of his first wife. The latter, in consequence, regarded Ghyasuddin with hatred and suspicion as the rival of her own sons for the succession. Having obtained the king’s ear, she endeavored to set him against his favorite son, saying that he was plotting not only against her sons, but against his own father’s life, and advising the king to avert the mischief he intended, ‘either by sending him to prison, or, by depriving the pupils of his eyes of their visual powers, rendering him incapable of effecting his flagitious schemes.’ Although Sekunder Shah indignantly rejected this horrible suggestion, Ghyasuddin, afraid of his stepmother’s influence, fled to Sonargaon and, collecting an army, openly defied his father. Sekunder Shah, enraged at this ungrateful conduct of his favorite son, set out against him, and the armies came face to face at Goalpara. Ghyasuddin had given strict orders to his troops before the battle that not a hair of his father’s head was to be injured, but in the midst of the fight news came to him that Sekunder Shah had been mortally wounded. Hastening to his side, Ghyasuddin wept bitter tears of repentance and implored his father’s forgiveness. The dying monarch, raising his hand in blessing, let it fall upon his son’s head, murmuring ‘My kingdom has passed. May thine[?] arise and live forever.’

Scarcely had the breath left his father’s body when Ghyasuddin, relinquishing the last offices of the dead to others, hastened to Pandua to secure the throne. Arrived there, he perpetrated one of the most revolting deeds that has ever stained the accession even of a king of Bengal. Partly out of revenge for the hostility of his stepmother, partly to rid himself of rivals for the throne, he ordered the eyes of all his stepbrothers to be torn out and sent on a salver to their mother. Yet this same Ghyasuddin, it is recorded, was a mild and just ruler, and legends survive of him that make him a very Solomon for wisdom and judgment. The character of an Oriental is full of contradictions and surprises, yet it is strange to find such a story as the following told of one who could he guilty of such cruelty and injustice towards his own flesh and blood. It is related that one day while practicing with the bow he accidentally wounded a boy, the only son of his mother, who was a widow. The woman, ignorant of the king’s identity, went and complained to the Kazi, demanding justice. The Kazi, perceiving who it was who had wounded her son, was torn between his desire to do justice and his fear of the king. But, fearing God more than the king, he finally sent a messenger to summon Ghyasuddin to his court. The latter, on receiving the summons, immediately arose and, concealing a short sword beneath his cloak, repaired to the court of the Kazi. There, showing him no especial respect, the Kazi ordered him to compensate the woman for the injury done to her. The king complied, and, giving her a large sum of money, sent her away content. Then, the case being disposed of, the Kazi descended from his seat and prostrated himself at the king’s feet. But Ghyasuddin, raising him up, showed him the sword which he carried beneath his cloak, and said: ‘Kazi, in obedience to your commands as the expounder of the sacred law, I came instantly at your summons to your tribunal, but if I had found that you deviated in the smallest degree from its ordinances, I swear that with this sword I would have taken off your head.’ Then the Kazi, laying his hand upon the scourge which hung in the court, replied: ‘I also swear by the Almighty God that if you had not complied with the injunctions of the law, this scourge should have been laid upon your back as upon that of any other criminal.’ The king, pleased to find justice so impartially administered in his kingdom, handsomely rewarded the Kazi, and raised him to great honor.

Ghyasuddin was a man of a gay and convivial disposition. He it was who invited the poet Hafiz to visit him at Sonargaon, sending him as a gift some of the exquisite muslins for which his capital was famous; but the poet, although he wrote an ode which is to be found in the ‘Diwan,’ was not sufficiently tempted to undertake the long journey to Eastern Bengal, far removed from the pleasant delights of Shiraz. Ghyasuddin’s favourite wives were poetically named by him the Cypress, the Tulip, and the Eose. Once being near to death, he ordered that, in case of his demise, none but these three should wash his body and prepare it for the last funeral rites. But the king recovered, and the other ladies of the harem had their revenge upon the Cypress, the Tulip, and the Rose for the favor shown them by nicknaming them Ghossalehs, or Washers of the Dead.

The tomb of Ghyasuddin is still to be seen in Sonargaon. On the outskirts of the village of Pannam, it lies sadly ruined and neglected. Yet even in decay it is a striking testimony to Muslim skill. Of dark grey basalt stone, it is elaborately carved, and the intricate arabesque tracery on the sides and corners of the slabs is as perfect today as when it was first executed over five hundred and thirty years ago. The stones lie prone and scattered, the sport of many a storm of wind and rain. Half buried in the earth at their head lies a sandstone pillar, doubtless used as a cheraghdan, where a light was kept burning in the days here yet the memory of this one-time great and famous king of Bengal had faded into the forgotten things of the past.

For almost a century after the death of Ghyasuddin, Sonargaon figures but little in imperial affairs and of local history there is little that has survived. Deserted as a capital for the more famous cities of Gaur and Pandua, the eastern province passed on its uneventful way under the control of local Muslim officials. From this comparatively peaceful period dates the oldest inscription in Sonargaon. Facing a modern mosque in the village of Moghrapara is a small graveyard of nameless graves enclosed within plain brick walls. Let into one of the walls is a large black stone, round which for centuries a curious superstition has lingered even down to the present day. Over the stone was placed a thick coating of lime, and if any theft occurred in the neighborhood all the villagers were summoned before it and, placing their hands upon it, swore their innocence. The belief held that the hand of the thief would stick so tightly to the lime that he would be unable to remove it without great difficulty. The stone is still completely covered with a thick coating of lime, and it was only recently discovered that beneath it is an inscription bearing the name of Jalaluddin Fateh Shah, AH 889 (AD 1484). There is only one older inscription than this in Eastern Bengal, the inscription, dated one year earlier, in the mosque of Baba Adam near Earn pal.

It is not until 1489, a hundred and sixteen years after Ghyasuddin had been laid to rest in Sonargaon, that the chief interest in Bengal once more turns eastwards. Attracted by the fame of the fortress of Ekdala, which had twice so stoutly resisted the attack of the imperial forces, Hossain Shah, on his appointment as Viceroy, fixed his headquarters there. Hossain Shah’s career was typical of the possibilities that awaited the adventurer on the outskirts of empire in early Muslim days. Quitting the deserts of Arabia to seek his fortunes in Hindustan, he was forced at first to accept a subordinate post at the Viceregal Court in Bengal, but being of good birth though an adventurer, he won the daughter of the Kazi of Chandpur in marriage, and by his conspicuous ability rapidly made his way to the front rank. So wisely did he rule as King of Bengal that it is recorded that no insurrection or public disturbance occurred throughout his long reign of twenty-four years. Of Eastern Bengal in his day a brief glimpse is obtained from the pen of a European writer. It was in 1503 that Lewis Vertomannus, a gentleman of Rome, visited Hossain Shah’s kingdom when that monarch was waging war against Orissa. The traveler is astonished at the extent of his dominions and the size of his army, which he declares to have consisted of no less than two hundred thousand footmen and cavalry.

Like all Muslim rulers, Hossain Shah was a great builder. In Sonargaon a mosque still preserves his name. Even amid many things that are old, this mosque is known among the villagers of Goaldi as the Purana Musjid, the Old Mosque. It was a fine building in its day. Sixteen and a half feet square, the four walls as they ascend give place to the eight walls of an octagon. As usual, there are three arched recesses or mihrabs, the centre one formed of dark basaltic stone well cut and ornamented with arabesque work, the two side ones of brick, clear cut and cunningly laid. The sandstone pillars are evidently the plunder of some Hindu shrine, forced from their resting-place to grace the triumph of another faith. Until recent years the call to prayer still rang out from this Purana Musjid of Hossain Shah, but time has told at last even upon its massive structure, and its worshippers, after nearly four hundred years, have deserted it for the modern mosque of Abdul Hamid, a hundred yards away, whence at morning and evening the same call to prayer is heard across the plain.

Away in Hindustan great events were pending at the time of Hossain Shah’s death. The empire was passing away from the Afghans, who had held it for so many generations, falling beneath the yoke of the all-conquering Mughals and their great chief Babar. But Babar’s career as Emperor was short, and his death in 1531 was the signal for a brief revival of the Afghans. Once more with lightning rapidity the much-tried province changed hands. Sher Shah, the famous Afghan adventurer, defeating the son of Hossain Shah, secured possession of Bengal, and finally, after a nine years’ struggle, overcame the Emperor Humayon and established himself upon the throne of Delhi.

Sher Shah, triumphant, was careful to avoid the dangers which had been the ruin of so many of his predecessors. As an independent king in Bengal, he himself had proved a menace to the empire, and his first care was to see that no subject of his acquired sufficient power to follow in his footsteps. Partitioning the whole province of Bengal into minor governorships, he arranged that none should be of such importance as to render an attempt at independence possible. So admirably did this plan succeed that in his day there was peace throughout Bengal, so strange and perfect that it was known as the Peace of Sher Shah. Men slept on the highway at night without fear, wrote the chroniclers of the day, such was the terror that Sher Shah had inspired in evildoers. From Sonargaon he built a road as far as the Indus, a distance of three thousand miles, erecting serais at distances of every twenty miles, and digging a well at the end of every kos (two miles). Also along this great highway he erected many mosques, so that those who travelled by it might never be far from the sound of the call to prayer. For the welfare of travelers he planted trees on either side of the road, to give shelter to those that needs must travel in the heat of the day, and fruit-trees to provide them with refreshment by the way. To communicate quickly with all parts of his dominion, horse-posts were established at intervals along the road, so that news might be carried to him quickly, and all rebellion and disturbance quelled at the outset. It was much to accomplish in five short years. ‘It was the will of God,’ he said in his last days, pathetically fingering his white beard, ‘that I should only obtain the empire towards evening. Therefore it behooves me,’ he added, rousing himself from vain regrets, ‘that I be up and doing before night falls.’

It is during this brief revival of Afghan rule that we get a fresh glimpse of Eastern Bengal from the writings of another European traveler. Cæsar Frederick, a Venetian merchant, touring in this part of India in 1565, mentions with astonishment the cheapness of provisions. In Sundeep he notes that he purchased ‘two salted kine for a larine (2s. 6d.), four hogs for the same price, a fat hen for a penny, and other commodities at a like price.’ And yet he naïvely adds that his men said that he paid twice their worth. This abundance and cheapness of provisions seems to have long been characteristic of Eastern Bengal. ‘All ages have spoken of Egypt as the best and fruit fullest part of the world,’ writes Bernier a hundred years later, ‘but as far as I can see by the two voyages I have made to the kingdom of Bengal, I am of opinion that that advantage belongs rather to it than to Egypt.’ Hamilton, speaking of Bengal from personal observation at the end of the seventeenth century, writes that ‘the plenty and cheapness of provisions are here incredible.’ It was a wonderful land, whose richness and abundance neither war, pestilence, nor oppression could destroy.

But, the strong hand of Sher Shah removed, Bengal speedily fell back into the old paths of turbulence and disorder. Sher Shah’s successor once more appointed a governor for the whole of Bengal with fatal results. He and his successors quickly proclaimed their independence, and it was not until the days of the great Akbar, in the reign of Daud Khan, that they were finally reduced. With the death of Daud Khan, in 1576, the long line of Afghan rulers in Bengal comes to an end, nearly four hundred years after Bukhtiyar Khiliji had led the first Muslim army to the conquest of the province.

The Afghans, however, were not the men tamely to accept defeat. Ousted from Central Bengal, they long continued the struggle for independence in the outlying provinces. Sonargaon, in the furthest east, where imperial authority was proverbially weak, offered them a secure retreat, and there, led by the famous Isha Khan, they long made a determined stand. This chief was the grandson of Kalidas Gozdani, a Hindu, who, it is said, delighted in religious controversies, and having been worsted in argument by a learned Muslim , acknowledged his defeat and embraced the faith of Islam.

From the outset Isha Khan’s career had been full of adventure. In his young days, hearing of the fame of the beauty of Sona Bibi, the widowed daughter of Chand Roy, Zemindar of Vikrampur, he determined in spite of all difficulties to win her for his wife. Besides the difference of religion there was the fact that she was a widow, and remarriage for such was contrary to the tenets of her faith. But Isha Khan, not to be denied, carried her off by force, and, pursued by Chand Roy and her indignant relatives, he held her against all odds in the fort of Kalagachhia, where Lakhiya and Meghna meet. Sona Bibi, won by the courage and address of her captor, soon ceased to repine at her lot, and renouncing Hinduism, she embraced her husband’s faith, remaining throughout his life a devoted helpmate, and defending his kingdom against his enemies, her own kith and kin, even after his decease.

On the death of Daud Khan, Isha Khan fled to Chittagong and thence to Jungalbari, near Haibatnugger, in Mymensingh. So large a body of troops had he gathered together that the Raja of Cooch Behar fled at his approach, and Isha Khan fixed his headquarters there, far removed from the seat of the new Mughal government in Bengal. Thence he gradually extended his kingdom, building forts at Dewanbag, Hajigunj, Egarasindu, Sherpur, and Eangamatti, drawing a ring fence round his capital to protect himself on all sides from attack. So powerful did he become that Akbar finally sent his famous Rajput general Man Singh against him. The story of the meeting of Man Singh and Isha Khan reads like a romance. Advancing to the banks of the Lakhiya, Man Singh encamped at Demra, where a large tank named Gangasagar still marks the site of his halting-place, and marching along the river bank drew near Egarasindu fort, strongly situated on the Brahmaputra, where the forces of Isha Khan lay. Outside its walls a great battle took place. All day the armies strove in deadly combat, and when at last it grew towards evening neither side could claim the victory. Then as night fell, to save further bloodshed on the morrow, Isha Khan sent a messenger to call Man Singh to single combat at dawn to decide the issue. The Rajput general accepted the challenge, but when the moment came, he sent his son-in-law in his stead, and Isha Khan, ignorant of the trick that had been played upon him, fought with him and slew him. Then, finding that he had been deceived, he challenged Man Singh again to combat, and this time the Rajput general himself came to do battle with the Afghan. On horseback the combat took place, and after a long struggle the victory lay with Isha Khan. Thereupon, according to the legend, there ensued a dramatic scene. The Afghan, dismounting, hastened to raise the fallen general from the ground, and each silently clasped the other’s hand in unspoken admiration of his prowess. Suddenly like a whirlwind from the door of her tent, where she had watched the combat, came the wife of Man Singh. Regardless of convention, she flung herself in the abandonment of her grief at the feet of Isha Khan. If her husband returned defeated, she cried, his head would pay the forfeit, for Akbar knew no mercy to the unsuccessful. Was it the wish of Isha Khan to see her widowed and her children fatherless? With a torrent of words she implored the mercy of the conqueror, and Isha Khan, struck with her beauty and moved by her distress, chivalrously consented to accompany Man Singh to Delhi and throw himself upon the Emperor’s clemency. Akbar, knowing him at first only as a rebellious Afghan chief, threw him into prison, but afterwards learning the full story of his courage and generosity, he released him and promoted him to great honor. Giving him the titles of Dewan and Musnad Ali, he appointed him commander-in-chief in Bengal, and gave him twenty two parganas in the neighborhood of his old capital. He returned to Jungalbari and, appointing twelve ministers, he assigned them to different portions of the province to carry on the government in his name. Great prosperity is associated with his reign. In his day, it is said, rice sold at four muns[3] to the rupee, and trade and commerce flourished. His was the strong hand, and during his life the land had rest. After a wise and just rule of many years he died, and was buried at Bukhtarapur, not far from the famous fort at Egarasindu.

His wife, Sona Bibi, survived him, and heroically carried on his great traditions, furnishing almost the sole instance in the history of Sonargaon of a woman publicly taking an active part in political affairs. Isha Khan’s death was the signal for his enemies to sweep down upon his kingdom and wreak the vengeance which they had so often before attempted in vain. Kedar Rai, the Raja of Chandpur, with the Baja of Tipperah, sailed up the Meghna with a great fleet, confident of success now that the great Afghan chief was gone. But they were soon to find that, though Isha Khan was dead, a valiant defender remained to guard his memory and protect his kingdom. Their own kinswoman, the Afghan’s widow, was as vigorous and determined a foe as Isha Khan himself. Entrenched in the fort of Sonakunda on the Lakhiya, she held out stubbornly for many weeks, defying all the forces of her enemies, and at length, when the end drew near, determined that her dead lord’s fort should never surrender to his foes, she ordered it to be burned to the ground, and, perishing in its ashes, made of it her funeral pyre. To this day the memory of Sona Bibi is held in honor on the banks of the Lakhiya.

Once again a glimpse is obtained of Sonargaon from without. It was during the time of Isha Khan that Ralph Fitch, an envoy of Queen Elizabeth to the Emperor of China, visited Eastern Bengal. ‘The chief e king of all these countries,’ he writes, ‘is called Isacan, and he is the chiefe of all the other kings, and is a great friend to all Christians.’ The country he describes as extraordinarily fertile, rice and cotton and silk goods being the chief articles of trade. The inhabitants were rich and prosperous. ‘The women weare great store of silver hoopes about their neckes and armes, and their legs are ringed with silver, copper, and rings made of elephant’s teeth.’ Of Sonargaon itself he gives a general description. ‘Sinnergan,’ he writes, ‘is a towne sixe leagues from Serrepore, where there is the best and finest cloth made of cotton in all India. The houses here, as they be in the most part of India, are very little and covered with strawe, and have a fewe mats round about the walls and the doore to keepe out the Tygers and the Foxes. Many of the people are very rich. Here they will eate no flesh, nor kill no beast: They live of Rice, milke, and fruits. They goe with a little cloth before them, and all the rest of their bodies is naked. Great store of Cotton cloth goeth from hence, and much rice, wherewith they serve all India, Ceylon, Pegu, Malacca, Sumatra, and many other places.’

The fall of Sonakunda was one of the closing scenes in the history of Sonargaon. The Rajas of Chandpur and Tipperah plundered and ravaged far and wide over the whole country to the south, and in their wake came the Mughs, a wild race of pirates and freebooters, whose name soon struck terror among the peaceful cultivators along the banks of all the great rivers of Eastern Bengal. The ancient kingdom of Sonargaon was falling on evil days, and the end drew near. Disorganized and without a leader, the last vestige of unity had vanished, and the land lay an easy prey to the enemies who had so long hovered round its gates. When the Mughs were reinforced by bands of roving Portuguese, expert seamen, who taught their new allies new methods of navigation and attack, they became a menace which the new Mughal government in Bengal could not long overlook, and Islam Khan, quitting Rajmahal, resolved to remove his capital further eastwards, where he might hold them more firmly in check. But Sonargaon, already falling to decay and exposed to the attacks of the Mughs, offered no desirable site, and Islam Khan founded a new capital, more securely situated, across the Lakhiya. On the banks of the Buriganga the great city of Dacca sprang rapidly into being as the capital of all Bengal, and from this time onwards Sonargaon passes out of history almost as completely as if it had never been.

Scattered over the land, hidden in thick patches of jungle or stranded like things forgotten in the open rice-fields, lie the few memorials of the past that still survive. Great tanks and earthworks alone preserve the memory of the Buddhist kings. The outlines of their forts, wherein the ploughshare has long since replaced the sword, and the cultivator tills the fertile soil, mark where the Afghan fought his last fight for independence, while countless mosques and the tombs of holy men witness to[4] the strength of a great and inspiring faith. Everywhere are to be found the rough mounds of earth or gaclis that mark the resting-places of saints and worthies of a bygone race. In the last days of its greatness, Sonargaon, it is said, swarmed with Pirs and fakirs, religious mendicants, who gathered here from all quarters of India. Of all those whose memory remains, the greatest were the Five Pirs. Who they were, and when they lived and died, has long since been forgotten. That they came from the west is the one vague tradition preserved among those who still worship at their shrines. Only the memory of their sanctity still survives. Unprotected from the storms that sweep the rivers, they lie beneath five mounds of earth raised parallel, a small mosque beside them keeping guard, and rapidly itself falling into decay. Once the Brahmaputra flowed close by them; but the river, ever fickle in its course, has long since changed its bed, and the sacred water no longer washes by their feet. So sacred are these tombs of the Five Pirs still deemed, that even Hindus make reverence as they pass, while Muslims come from great distances to worship at their shrine. Only to two other shrines in Eastern Bengal do Muslims make pilgrimages, to the tomb of Shah Ali Sahib at Mirpur, a few miles north-west of Dacca, and to the darga of Pir Buda Auliya at Chittagong, the patron saint of all Hindu and Muslim  boatmen on the great rivers.

In the small market village of Moghrapara, where once the kings of Sonargaon had their capital, is the tomb of Munna Shah Darwesh. At its foot a lamp is still lighted as darkness closes in, and every Muslim stops to mutter a prayer as he passes by. Close by is the darga of Sheik Muhammad Yasuf, a still more famous Pir. It contains the tombs of himself, his wife and his son, and consists of two elongated dome-roofed buildings, each surmounted by two pinnacles, said to have been once covered with gold, of which all trace has long disappeared. Even the Hindus pay homage at the shrine of Sheik Muhammad Yasuf. If the rayot  is in fear for his crop, he brings a handful of rice. If his child is ill, or his cattle a prey to disease, he lays some small propitiatory offering on the tomb. If the harvest has been plenteous, he gives a bundle of rice straight from the field as a thank-offering. In joy or in sorrow the tomb of the Saint plays its appointed part in the inner life of the people.

Close by is a ruined gateway called the Naubat Khana, where in the days of its prosperity musicians played to announce to fakir and traveler that a place of rest was at hand. The music has long since ceased, but until recently the majestic words of the Koran were still heard in the time-worn building near by, where the old men taught the youth of their race the elements of their religion, repeating in unison the resounding phrases of a great faith.

Many other quaint traditions linger in Sonargaon. Suddenly, in the midst of the jungle, grass grown and neglected, with the water rapidly rising round it, one comes upon the tomb of another Pir. The story is told that Ponkai Diwanah, as he was popularly known, desiring to live a life of righteousness, retired into the forest, where he sat for twelve years absorbed in meditation and unconscious of the lapse of time. When at last he was found by his Chelas, who had long sought for him, he had to be dug out of the mound -which the white ants had raised all round him as he sat and which covered him up to his neck. This legend must have sprung up in comparatively recent years, since men still living say that they knew the son of this famous Pir. Father and son lie buried side by side, and at the head of the former is placed the stone lattice on which he spent his twelve years of meditation.

A short distance away, across the fields, there lies the tomb of Pagla Saheb (Madman), so much venerated by both Hindus and Muslims that parents offer at it the ‘choti ‘or queue of their children when dangerously ill. Why Pagla Saheb was deemed mad one asks in vain. Some say that he went mad from the fervor and intensity of his devotions. Another tradition has it that he vowed vengeance on all thieves, and catching all whom he could, he nailed them to a wall and himself cut off their heads. Then, stringing the heads together like a necklace, he threw them into an adjoining Khal, which has ever since been known as Munda Mala, the Necklace of Heads.

Little else, save legends such as these, has survived the passing of the years in Sonargaon. Its records are few and scanty and its long and varied history, mostly unrecorded, was soon forgotten as the centre of interest passed westwards to the new city rising on the banks of the Buriganga. Deserted and forgotten, it passed out of the realm of history, and none cared to record the annals of a kingdom whose day was done. So Sonargaon slept un-minded, and itself unmindful of its past.

[1] Photography: gave 1A Ferry Boat On The Dullasery. 2 An Earthenware Vessel Used As A Boat On The Brahmaputr. 3 Crossing The Meghna Near Sonargaon

[2] Photography: At Anchor For The Night Near Sonargaon]

[3] Brit wote, maunds

[4] Photography: 1 A Cargo Boat Laden With Jute Leaving Sonargaon, 2 On The Erahmaputra Near The Tomb If The Five Pirs

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