Medieval Mark-U City of Arakan
People from the Ra-khin countries are called Ra-khin-ye – or the Rohingya. In vernacular Bengali, we had learnt of the place as the Arakan Valleys that lie to the east of Bangladesh – beyond the southern hilly walls of Chittagong. We had surmised that the Arakan must have been a great melting pot of Buddhism, Islam and the tribes. Buddhist and Muslim rulers had lorded over those climes across the medieval times. The ancient past lies buried in totemic prehistory.
One might ask – how did we learn about this? As any high school student who has had Bangla as the first language in either of the two Bengals would attest – from ‘History of Literature’! It is indeed impossible to learn about medieval Bangla literature without learning about the great Rohingya poets and their poetries. Let us turn the clock by four hundred years.
In early 17th century, the Rohingya climes had Buddhist kings. It was also called the Kingdom of Mrauk U. According to the ‘History of Buddhism in India’ of Lama Taranatha (1575-1634) , the ruler of the Rakhine countries – as of AD 1608 – was a Buddhist king named Chandravahana – literally, the Moon Rider! His father, Balasundara, had lorded over bigger climes – bringing many countries of ancient Ko-Ki – as Tibetans called Myanmar & Kamboja collectively in those days – under his scepter. Other than the land of the Rohingyas, he also held, in sway the land of the Chakmas – as Taranatha attests. Two of Balasundara’s sons – Chandravahana – the Moon Rider and Ativahana – the Superlative Rider – ruled over the climes of the Rohingya and the Chakma people respectively. Had this Balasundara, who is also accredited with the spread of the Mantra-Vehicle Buddhism across vast stretches of Myanmar, foreseen the plight of the subjects of these climes four centuries down the line – one wonders if he would have smiled or frowned.
For, besmirched by the power-mongering necessities of kingdoms, Buddhism had begun to lose its much avowed ‘karuna’. Rabindranath Tagore’s short story ‘Dalia’ is based on a king-tale from the Rakhine countries – where two princesses were put inside a sealed room and left there to die – for such was the manner in which death penalties were executed at behest of the medieval Buddhist kings of Arakan whose religion forbade bloodshed.
The jaati ways endogamy preached by the Hindus, too, had made deep inroads into Buddhist thoughts. Thus, even the Tibetan historian from the 17th century can recall only the Sanskritised names of the kings – forgetting their indigenous ones. The Buddhist kings of 17th century Arakan valley – in whose courts had flourished the great Rohingya poets – too – had taken to the mixed but heavily Sanskritic & Indo-Aryan Bangla language – shunning their own indigenous ones. Thus, we find the son and successor of the Moon Rider king of medieval Arakan Valley, Thiri Thu Thamma (AD 1622-1638), shunning his indigenous name and taking up a Sanskritised Bengali one Sri Sudharma – in all official accounts. The Buddhist kings of those climes considered Bengali as a ‘sacred’ language. Thus, the people, over time, began to lose their indigenous speeches to the aggressive entry of Bengali as the dominant language and culture. This, today, has become the very reason why the Rakhine countries bleed.
The Arakan valley, in the 17th century, was indeed a melting pot of many cultures. The Rakhinye kingdom had fought for independent sovereign identity against the sultans from the Hossain Shahi dynasty of medieval Bengal across the last one century. In fact, from around three and a half centuries between AD 1429 & AD 1785, the Kingdom of Mrauk U held fort as a sovereign entity.
Nonetheless Islamic influences had begun to come in ever since the Sufi Pir Shah Jalal from Persia, a contemporary to Hazarat Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusru, believed by many to be the 28th descendent of Prophet Mohammed – had come preaching in the hills of & vales Sylhet that touch the north-western crown of this medieval Bengali-Buddhist kingdom of the Rohingya people.
Between 1429 & 1531, the Mrauk U kingdom had become a vassal state to the Hossain Shahi sultans of Gour-Bengal. Since then onwards, the place had deep seated Islamic influence. Many among the royal officials, the nobility, the army, as well as many ordinary citizens – had, by then taken to Islam. Two of the greatest Rohingya court-poets who enriched Bangla literature with their ballads bore Muslim names: Daulat Kazi and Syed Alaol
Come, let us look at their lives, times & works:
Daulat Qazi (1600-1638) was Sufi. So was his patron Ashraf Khan – a commander in the army of king Thiri Thu Thamma. Daulat had given his patron the epithet – the Eye-Jewel of among the Laskar-fighters.
He had written a ballad based on yet another folk ballad. An ancient poet, Miyan Sadhan, from the faraway western climes of Rajasthan, had had scripted those folk ballads down in the Theth-Gohari language. The script by Miyan Sadhan was titled – “Mayank Sat”. It was the sad, beautiful tale of Lore & Chandrani, alias Moyna the suttee. People from medieval Mithila, across the medieval centuries, had sung, danced & enacted these tales as Lorika – the songs of Lore. These ballad-tales were also popular among the Ahir people of southern Bihar. Thus flowed the music, the poetry and the tales across medieval, folk and bhakti-sufi literatures of the subcontinent and beyond.
Rohingya poet Daulat Qazi had assimilated and translated these tales into Bangla – thus recreating them as original works. He had two working titles for the manuscript – Suttte Moyna – or Moyna the Chaste & Lore Chandrani – or, Lore & the Moon’s Daughter. He died before he could complete the work. Another Rohingya poet Alaol had, a few decades after Daulat’s death, completed the final one thirds of the work.
Someday, when we stop looking at the Rohingya people as either refugees or terrorists, shall we learn, together, of these stories that their histories share with those of so many communities of the Indian subcontinent and beyond – from Rajasthan to Kamboja. For tonight, let us flow with the a little bit of the verses penned by these Rohingya Sufi poets:
This is from a portion where Daulat Qazi shows how, during the rainy months, the sad heroine of the tale – Moyna – pines for her beloved who has gone far away:
In the second month of the rains
Moyna feels happy – it would rain on –
Many moods tinge her mind
Water flows all over the earth
It is dark like night all the time
The newlyweds play wild games of love
The skies turn green
The fields turn green
Green are the ten sides
And green is the daylight
Streaks of lightning play with clouds
Wild lovers make love
The nights – strong, dark and terrific
Games and waves go by, as do the colours and the plays
In the second month of the rains
Waves of the seasons reveal themselves
How do I cross the river without Hori?
Fast flows the ocean and it roars
Winds blow reckless
Fires of parting rise four times higher…
Sad since birth you are, King’s Daughter,
In vain do you take his name
Know this, that, loving good people with all heart,
is like a garland that becomes new every moment
Soldier-Hero-Jewel brightens the world
Another sample of medieval Bangla poetry penned by Rohingya Sufi Daulat Qazi who had gone to the Arakans from his birthplace at Chittagong –
Niranjan – the Colourless Emptiness –
Creates humans – as priceless jewels
There is none like the humans
In the Three Worlds
Without humans, there is no mind,
No knowing, no signs
Without humans, there are no holy books
Humans are the utmost gods –
Humans perform all rituals & worship
Seeking utmost Wisdoms
Humans are the divinity, sublime; humans are god and the gods
Without human beings, there is no one to divide the universe, the gods and the religions
Alaol (1597-1673) had a turbulent childhood. He was kidnapped by Portuguese pirates who had begun to establish settlements along the coasts of Bengal and Myanmar by the first years of the 17th century[i]. Shortly, he was sold to the Mrauk U kingdom, then under the rule of its last king Sanda Thudhamma (1658-1684) – noted in contemporary Aryan texts as Sri Chandra Sudharma. Other accounts, including those penned by Syed Alaol himself, indicate that, faced by poverty, he had joined the army of the Mrauk U kings. Soon, King Sanda got to know of his poetic talents. He began to translate many texts of Islamic tales and philosophies from Farsi & Arabic. This included a ballad-tale on Alexander – ‘Secundernama’ and the romantic epic the Seven Beauties alias Haft Paykar (translated AD 1660) – from their original Farsi texts written by Nizami of Ganja in the early 11th centuries.
However, his magnum opus is Padmavati – based on the tale of Queen Padmini of Chittor. This, too, is a work of translation, published in AD 1646. The original is the much celebrated Padumavati, written in AD 1540, in the Awadhi language and the Nasta-liiq script by sufi poet Malik Mohammad Jaysi.
In Alaol’s Bangla Padmaboti we see Persian music mingle with Bangla ‘p(n)achali’ folk music styles. Sufi visions mingle with those of the ancient Sravaka-s and medieval Mahayana, Mantra-yana and Tantra-yana visions – each informed by people’s wisdoms from climes far and wide – from Tibet to far reaches of the subcontinent and Ceylon to those from the far southern Cambodian climes. Let us see a sample of poetry that thus came from the Rohingyas in the 17th century – from Alaol’s Padmaboti –
Ah my life pierces
I stay awake and dream – no more am I on earth
Know not what destiny awaits beyond these karmic sins
I find the touchstone – and then I lose it by mistake
Whom do I tell these tales that sadden my mind?
It shall pain my friends – that pain shall kill me too
Days and nights of sadness stretch beyond epochs and eras
How do I bear with the pain? I suffer like fish without water
For what great Jeeu – life – lies in the holy-pot (GhawT)
The heart is hard stone – no sorrow makes it break
Recalling the wisdom and welfare of the great sage Moses
Humble Alaol sings of the sadness of parting
There is no Bhava without love
There is no Rasa without love
Everything visible in the three worlds
Lies tamed by love
Whosever heart bears saplings of love
becomes free – becomes God of Love
Beholding eyebrows furl in frown
All the snakes wonder and ponder
And slip down to Rasatala – further depths of the netherworlds
In garden-waters hide the deer that played
Those eyes that the wagtail-birds had sung paeans about
Has its lashes & corners reddened by dark collyrium now
Buddhist kings from medieval Myanmar used to encourage translations of such Sufi tales and ballads – even those from faraway Persian climes. Today, things are very different in the subcontinent as they are across Myanmar and across the world. As these sufi poetry of the Rohingya attest – it is not so that there has only been war & conflict between cultures & civilizations. Be it the Buddhist ones or the Abrahamic ones or the totemic ones or even the Hindu ones – these had also informed, enriched and breathed life into all the composite and ever-flowing cultures of each other.
The cultures of the Rakhine valleys, like those of its neighbouring Chittangong & Syllhet – reveal such breathtaking amalgamation of Sufi, Buddhism, Hinduism & tribality. This informs much of the much revered treasures of Bangla folk music – be it the Bhawaiya ox-shepherding songs of the multi-totem Rajbanshi people – also known as Songs of the Winds – or ancient lores on how the Gadh-Govindi kings with their hugh sub-Himalayan hill-fortresses, having taken to Hinduism despite much denigration from the Ganga-belt & even the Rarh-belt Brahmans – even among whom the former sniggered at the latter as ‘inferior races’. And yet, as tales of these once-totemic caste name Patro/Patra (Leaf) people of those lands say, when the Sufi faith was brought in to such sub-Himalayan climes by Shah Jalal of Persia and his 360 murids, the Fotress-Govinda kings went back to their totemic chietfaindoms across the Jaintiya Hills shared by India, Bangladesh & Myanmar today – where property and ownership were not encouraged as community practices. Thus, the individual identities of such chiefs, having emerged from their ancient tribality, mingled into their totemic collectives once again. Thus, Khalji generals chasing those Gadh-Govindi chiefs – those known in history as Brahmnas oppressed even by Ballala Sena (1160–1179) – down, no trace could be found beyond the caves and tunnels of the Jayanti hills that separate the mainland subcontinent from the sub-Himalayan climes of the Mon-Khmer speaking people. There was a reason why the Khalji generals had begun chasing the then Brahminisied Gadh-Govindi kings. In all overzealousness to propagate caste-hatred – the Govindi Kings had conducted at least two beef lynchings – once by killing a boy and his father for bovine sacrificing on occasion of the boy’s birthday and killing a newlywed couple and many of their family members for the same ‘crime’ at their wedding. All these were also the times of when Alauddin Khalji was lording over Delhi (AD 1296-1316)[ii].
Like the Syllheti people who had taken to Islam faced beef-lynchings from the marauding and Hinduised Gaudh-Govindi kings, the Kurmi people – bearing ancient totemic history as evinced by their clan/jaati – name that draws from their ancient tortoise totem – faced chicken lynching from the Hindu fiefs and vassals across the eastern subcontinent during the feudal ages – right from the times of the Sena kings[iii].
In strains of Bhawaiya music – “Folklores of the Breezes” – of the indigenous people of north-eastern climes of Bengal and the south-western ones of Assam, flowing across plains of Nepal and the Terais & the Doars – the last two being the terrains and doors that lead to the Himalayas if one approaches from the Gangetic plains – we hear whistles of the Bull-shepherding clans from times when the gotra aggression had not descended among the Rajbongshi people – born, as their collective jaati name affixed by the powerful Sanskritic cultures reveal – into Chieftain-Lineages in ancient times, holding many totems such as that of the bull. Lores and aphorisms hold tales of such songs when bulls and tortoises would be abundant in the frontier climes of the Himalayas – being those Shivalika range mounds and hillocks that dot the boundaries between mainland Bengal and the Himalayan and south-Himalayan climes, fill the air of villages, fields, grazing-grounds and rivers that have all flowed on since far ancient times of community-life.
Across the colonial times, coachmen, while drawing their carriages, would recall songs from their bull-totem shepherd ancestors from grey, forgotten pasts:
O brother driver
How long shall I stare at the roads
(Until) that day (when) the car rolls upstream!
translation from Bhawaiya lyric as in public domain and villagers, speaking of capital-couched urban entertainments, would croon:
Take an anna
and take me to the famous zoo –
the Royal Rangpur Chiriya-khana
-translation from Bhawaiya lyric as in public domain
Women, in collective recollection of Neolithic inheritance as the first farmers & the first priests, would sing on from the huts, barns & shades:
We grind rice with the husking pedal
The wood of the pedals dance
- Translated from Bangla folk song in Bonikbarta e-zine, , from the original Bangla scripted out by Farq-al-Shabir in his article “Bangla-r Baro Gaan”, 2017)
From inside those huts, grandchildren would giggle to their grandmothers crooning folk-riddle tales involving a tortoise scolding a palm-toddy tree from which a fruit had dropped on the shelly back of the hapless creature:
Oh big black chunk of sugar, why did you grind me?
To this the palm-toddy tree would make reply:
My time had come to fall,
why did you seat below me, Baal
(translated from the Bangla version as told by a grandma from dist. Jessore.
Thus, there is always poetry. If we gaze beyond all the clashes of all the cultures – we stare, Sufiesque and Shamanesque, into the horizons of synthesis along the medieval boundaries between the Indian subcontinent and Myanmar through – we find that, beyond the dark clouds of ‘other’-ing, silvery lines of poetry, music and philosophies playing on, like Lalon’s New Moon moonrise on the 27-starred skies:
(i) know not where the moon stays on New-Moon
When the moon rises in the skies –
it stays where it is. Knowing not
the deep meanings of the New Moon
In vein do I roam, counting stars & dates
Oh every month, I see, the fresh young moon
Taking the same form – during the Full Moon Night
& the New Moon one!
Whom do I ask what does this mean?
You, who know, speak how
the mind eases there. The sky
is made of 27 nakshatra – the lunar-mansions –
There Yoga of Swati – Arcturus – the fourth brightest star
Knowing not when that happens,
in vain doth Lalon cry thy name out!
After Lalon, as the cultural front of the post-Fakir rebellion colonial Bengal when the zamindari system was digging its claws in provided relief in faith and music to people from all jaatis and religions in the 18th & 19th centuries was on the wane, its eastern frontiers were being culturally safeguarded from communal disharmony by Hachhon or Ali the King – Hasan-Raja, alias Ali-Raja (1854-1922)
One kaya – body, one chhaya – shadow
These are the only two
One tan – body, one man – mind, one divinity
One Kaya in the Three Worlds, one Avatara
All creatures worship and chant out towards that one Lord
Premananda Simhasana – Premananda Vrindavana – Premananda Amrita-Lahara
The Lion Thorne in joy of love – Vrindavana in joy of love – Ambrosia-waves in joy of love
Premenanda Taru-moola, Premananda Phala-phoola –
Tree-roots in joy of love – Fruits & flowers in joy of love
Premananda Rasa madhukara
Nectar-bees in joy of love!
Thus, all down those medieval centuries & millennia of war & peace, right until ripe pre-modernity – we find poetry & music glinting the waves of these cultural. 11 among the 164 poets of Vaishnava ‘Padabali’ literature as listed out by Dinesh Chandra Sen (1866-1939) were Sufi Fakirs. Many among them even sang of Gora, alias, Chaitanya (1486-1534) – a distinctively Hindu power consolidator of medieval Bengal. Thus we find, glinting in the temporal flows of literary history like moonlight does on waves & currents:
Jiu Jiu Mera Man-Chora Gora
Dances all by himself, filled to brim with his own Rasas
Rasa-tatva, or the body-praxis oriented philosophies that encompass all bodily and natural nectars and fluids – the Orient’s answer to the Occident’s alchemy – as binary enthusiasts might exclaim out loud if acquainted with those philosophies – despite having ancient Tantric origins as attested to by the ancient Charyapada poets – had, down the medieval times, become a decidedly Vaishnava praxis. And yet, we see even Sufi poets sing on the same! Thus, the Lalon Fakir sings out & clear:
Come, see the new Bhava brought by Gora
Shaven-headed, donning a blanket, donning a piece of loin-cloth
A host of other poets from the pre-industrial times of eastern Bengal hoist torches of communal love and harmony across the medieval times.
Golden Human has come to room, Oh
Flowing, with devotees, in the waves of love
In the room of Srivasa the Pundit
(- Lal Mamud; Srivasa Pundit, as referred to in this poem, was a Brahmin contemporary to Chaitanyta. Hailing from Syllhet – he had made Vaishnavism and Brahminism mingle and take its present pro-caste, pro-gotra Hindu identity. Syllhet, as a sub-Himalayan border between the mainland subcontinent and the North-east and Myanmar, had, like the climes of the Rohingya people and those of Chittagong, thus, has an intensely syncretic culture. Then again, the same is true, in essence, for all the cultures of the world – except those that kill each other through ceaseless warfare.
Friend Shyam, you calm the mind with nirvana
Without seeing you, on some blessed date, I cannot be
When will you reveal yourself before my moon-like face?
Ill-fated (Radha) I am, my mind trembles in unrest
I die ten times every passing hour, with every punishment
(Mortaza, 17th century AD, Murshidabad)
Lo and Behold medieval Sufi verses weeping with Radha:
Listen, listen O Radha, Goddess,
the Hindus call you Radha, I call you Khoda
But when I call out to you as Radha –
Mullahs and Munshees resist
(Vasana Udaasa, real names and times unknown)
Though in the early 20th century, Dinesh Chandra Sen (1866-1939) had identified eleven Sufi poets, putting their works to taxonomy as those by Sufi-Vaishnava poets, by the mid 20th century[iv], it becomes daylight that more than hundreds of such medieval and early-modern folk-poets from east bengal can also claim such taxonomical inheritances.
Let us not burden our story with more and more and more proper nouns.
Modern times had led to ever-strengthening of barb-wired and bullet-ridden borders and boundaries, cutting the west and east Bengal out as separate political entities. May friends all around keep on learning & teaching wisdoms of communal harmony that shine in the all these poetries written before the times when mechanized and industrialized agriculture became the living reality of people the world over.
Even beyond the eastern climes of Bengal, there is much to learn on communal harmonies. For instance, even from the Chakama people – spoken about as one of the leading jaati-s of the Ko-ki climes – i.e., of Myanmar, Cambodia etc by early 17th century Tibetan Buddhist Lama Taranatha – we find, in the 19th century, a great queen arise from the totemic dynasties of Myanmar. Kalindi (d. 1873). Despite much resistance from caste-enforcers at many levels, she had sought to harmonise Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, the totemic systems and even the ones of industry and business brought from across the Seven Seas. From across the Himalayas had come wisdom from the Land of the Four Sees – garlanding itself through flowers of poetry in the Mon-khmer languages, in the Austric ones brought from the faraway isles & archipelagoes beyond the southern shores Kamboja – to inform these systems of wisdom on syncretic human cultures. Let us dream that many friends from all these lands near and far would bring forth these poetries and music over the years and decades to come – reminding humanity to shun the paths of oppression on which we have our accelerators up today. As
Today people from the Rakhinye kingdoms of the Arakan Valley, alongside Chakmas, the Kurmi people and the many-totemed Rajbansis clans of the eastern Himalayan frontiers of the mainland subcontinent, along with all people from all those from ancient clans that had existed as great sovereigns before the gotra system of the Aryan Brahminical Hindu orders began to tear communities apart – suffer in the hands of greed that capitalism ushers, of pride that ideas of nationalism usher and of communal hatred that religions usher when they become big stakeholders of these power-games.
I do not seek to establish that everything was rosy earlier, on and then, in modern times, tragedies begun to strike. From the accounts of Lama Taranatha, we learn that, ‘during the rule of the four Sena kings, one-half of all the monks & apprentices attached to the Nalanda & other Magadhan monasteries were from the Ko-ki countries’[v]. We know what happened to the Buddhist monasteries & its monks in during the rule of the Hindu Sena kings when the newly re-risen caste-orders had begun to grip societies with some of its most brutal practices such as Kulinism & the suttee. Such conflicts also had deep impacts on the indignity of such climes. Written histories hint at these. Unwritten ones hidden behind folklores & clan-names of indigenous people the world over reveal more.
From the ancient times we learn of the totems. In medieval times, we find sufi court poets to the Buddhist Mrauk U kings flourishing and continuing with the ancient tradition of ‘lotasva’-s or translators translating scripted tales from the Indian subcontinent. We find cultures mix and flow on like rivers of magic through the ancient and medieval times. Even in the 19th CE, we find an indigenous queen from the Chakma Circle consolidating ancient terrains with the help of Mahayana Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, totemism & even Christianity. Sadly, by then, most of Buddhism had lost much of its ancient veins of resistance against racism. In any case, that religion hardly ever had any space either for the nature-faced totemism of the adivasi people or the science-faced materialism of the Charvaka people.
Today, all spaces for people to breathe easy have faded from institutional religions, industrial-capitalist economies and from political agents as companies and nation-states which are but big landowners in the Third World and beyond. The war is thus on us from all fronts now. Today, we see how the nation states, empowered religious orders, big-capital media & even big-capital do-gooders keep themselves busy in their attempts to portray people from the Arakan Valley either as savages & terrorists or as pitiable refugees. They shall not bother to know about the Alaols, the Daulats & the Hachhon-Raja-s. Power has got nothing to do with poetry – except to find itself being browbeaten by the latter someday – let us dream on.
But let us not bide our whiles in idle-dreaming. While learning of cultures of resistance from the Rohingya & the Chakma communities in peril, while learning how the syncretic as well as violent ways of the complex jaati systems with all its Buddhist, Sufi & totemic inheritances work, while learning how to resist the race-wars that wage reckless the world over, we must rise tall & firm in defiant askance. We must ask ourselves the following question:
Do we think that the people through whom flows such rivers of poetry and music from ancient and medieval times be classified as expendables in these mad, extinction-bound wars that grip the human species today?
[i] Banglar Shahityo-Itihash, Sukumar Sen, Sahitya Akademi, 1965
[ii] Srihatter Itibritta, Achyuta Charan Chowdhury, published by Upendra Pal Chowdhury. Calcutta, 1920
[iii] Bangali Hindu-r Varnabhed, Niharranjan Ray, Visva-Bharati, 1945
[iv] Bangla Shahityer Shampurna Itibritta, by Asit Kr. Bandyopadhyaya, Modern Book Agency, Calcutta, 1966
[v] Taranatha’s History of Buddhism in India, translated from Tibetan into English by Lama Chimpa & Alaka Chattopadhyaya, ed. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Motilal Banarsidass, Shimla, 1970
Atindriyo Chkraborty is a poet. http://atindriyo.blogspot.in/ Share this: