| Site home | 

< Previous  |  Main contents  |  Section contents | Next >

[[ Other sections:  || Archaeology|| Architecture||  Arts and Crafts||  Cultural history||  || Folklore||  || Indigenous||  || Language & Literature||  || Living traditions||  || State & Culture  ]] 







The year 1204 CE is a turning point in the history of Bengal. It marked the end of a

rule of almost 1500 years of Hindu-Buddhist kingship, sometime obscure, sometime

conjectural and sometime known. The new era beginning with the year started by the

conquest of Nudia, a camp city (jayaskandavara) of the last ruling Sena dynasty, by

Ikhliyanddin Bakhtiyar Khalji, a lieutenant of Qutubuddin Aibak, the first ruler of the

Mamluk dynasty in Delhi. Himself of a type of adventurer and fortune-seeker than a

regular general Bakhtiyar by a careful strategy burst upon the gates of Nudia all on a

sudden and occupied it. The old ruler Laksmansena fled towards Vikrampur, another

camp city of the Senas in Vanga where they survived for a few years more.

Ikhtiyaruddin was an outsider, a Muslim of Turkish birth, who brought with him a new

people, new ideas, and a legacy of new culture and society, completely of foreign

origin. It was this new change coupled with the beginning of a new wider contact with

the west that brought the history of Bengal to it’s new dimension. The history is now

not only local with relations to neighbours, but also international with the entrance of

a people from central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, Arabia and Abyssinia. It is in this

context that the history of Bengal from this time must have to be looked upon.

Researchers are fortunate that Islamic History was born ‘in the full light of history’.

By the time the Muslims established their rule in Delhi Muslim historiography already

attained it’s maturity. Not only did the writings of historians of independent thought

were in abundance, but official historiography at the instance of the ruling sultans also

came in. It is this official historical writings which were favourite with the rulers of

the eastern lands. This historical tradition came to India with the rulers of Ghazna and

Ghor who by their incursions and conquests prepared a threshold for a permanent

footing on Indian soil. The first of the historical writings under the patronage of the

first dynastic rule, viz, the Mamluks, was Minhajuddin Sirajuddin Jujzani’s Tabaqat­

i-Nasiri which devoted a complete chapter on the conquest of Bengal by Bakhtiyar

Khalji. It was not strictly an official writing commissioned by the ruling Sultan but

may be said to be a semi-official narrative dedicated to the reigning monarch at Delhi Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud (and hence Nasiri) obviously to get his support and


The Chhota Sona

patronage. Minhaj visited Bengal when Malik Yuzuddin Tughril was the governor of





















km. 1 2 3km.




ll"i..ii"'ll.,ll. PANDUA

(Showing its geographical to the of Malda, Nimasarai & English Bazar, the northern of the city of Gaur, well to the

M.3il'li::lii'll!:il & Kalindi rivers).



FOOT PATIIS _ _ ••••• .



s '5 !J

.s G'

.s G'

.s G'


. ""4:)




5 0



Lakhnauti (1233-1244 CE), only a few years after Bakhtiyar’s conquest. It was therefore a first hand information for the beginning of the Muslim rule in Bengal, followed by others from Delhi during the whole Sultanate period. The writings of these historians are an important source (although sometimes prejudicial against the independent Bengal rulers for understandable reasons) for the history of Bengal. These literary sources, including those of contemporary foreign accounts in Arabic and Persian, and in Chinese and European languages were strengthened with the gradual discovery of hoards of coins and inscriptions from different archaeological sites and personal possessions, surviving architectural monuments, the writings of the Sufis and vernacular literature. The local writings although rare must have been there as is evidenced by the mention of a number of Persian manuscripts in the Riaz-us- Salatin an early 19th century writings by Ghulam Husain Salim, and the discovery of a number of Bengali texts by modern researchers. All these sources give a fairly good picture of Sultanate Bengal making it possible to construct it’s history with a reasonable amount of authencity, specially from the establishment of the independent dynastic rule from the middle of the fourteenth century.

The location of Nudia, the over-run camp city of Laksmansena by Ikhtiaruddin, has not yet been identified with certainty. According to some it could be the Navadvip or Nadia of modern time, and according to others the Nauda of Rajshahi. The possibility tilts towards the former or a place nearer to it for the simple reason that it was nearer to Jharkhand, the southern Bihar, through which Ikhtiyaruddin marched towards the camp city. The permanent capital was at Laksmanavati or Gauda which must have been in an impregnable position because of it’s being the central capital defended by river on the west and high defensive wall on the other sidesa general characteristic of earlier fort and city buildings. Since we hear of at least there capital cities as mentioned above, it is likely that Nudia was in the center of the southern part of the Sena Kingdom as Vikrampur was in the centre of the east. Being on the southern part Nudia as a subsidiary capital or a provincial metropolis bore the brunt of the first attack which must have been made by the Turkish hordes after a careful thought and intelligence reports. After subjugating the area Ikhtiaruddin marched towards the north, and interestingly enough carefully avoiding the central capital occupied Bangarh or Deokot to the north, possibly the site of another camp-city. Thus by conquering the south, and north through the west Ikhtiaruddin eventually overran Laksmanavati, the central capital of the Senas, establishing thereby the permanent Muslim rule on the soil of Bengal. Much is not heard about Ikhtiaruddin after his ascendancy except that he ruled over the Gauda area of the Senas almost independently of the sultan of Delhi establishing thereon masjids, madrasas and khanqas. Ikhtiaruddin thus became the first Muslim ruler of Bengal ushering a new period of political and cultural history, not however altogether different but bringing a syncretistic shape which has become the hallmark of the history of Bengal ever since.

Period of the Dependent Governors (1204-1339 CE)

The history of Bengal from 1204 to the foundation of the independent dynasty by Haji Iliyas Shah in 1339 is known as the period of Dependent Governors, dependent to the authority of the Delhi sultans. This dependency, however, was only in name. Bengal being far away from the central capital and being criss-crossed by the river system of Brahmaputra-Ganges deltic land, easily defendable, was a fertile soil for the ambitious governors to rebel and declare independence. The rebellion was so common and frequent that the Delhi sultan was constantly in a state of worry about this balghakpur (rebellious land), mentioned in Delhi chronicles. Beside the distance and the riverine nature of the province, the factional struggle for power between the comrade-in-arm who conquered Bengal, between the Mamluks of different sultans with their different tribal affiliations, and the power strife for mustering support in the land against the Delhi sultans were so rampant that there could be no better contributing factor for this state of affairs in the province. Of the many governors who ruled Bengal during the period of more than a century quite a few of them are known to have declared independence, and one a silahdar (armour bearer) carved out an independent state for himself in the eastern part of the province with his capital at Sonargaon. He was Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah, scornfully nick-named ‘Fakhra’ by the Delhi historians, who ruled the eastern half from 1338 to 1348, it seems, with ability. Although he was unsuccessful to occupy Lakhnauati (the Persian version of Laksmanavati) and Satgaon to become the undisputed ruler of whole Bengal, he was successful in occupying Chittagong, the port city to come under the Muslims for the first time. By the middle of the 14th century, thus, almost the entire Bengal was within the suzerainty of the Muslim Sultanate through the Bengal governors. But visibly a total province, in reality Bengal was a split state, ruled by different governors independently by a show of allegiance only which could be thrown away by anyone who could prove his worth. This was exactly the state of affairs in 1339 when Bengal was ruled by three noblemen Lakhnauti by Alauddin Ali Shah, Satgaon by Azam ul-Mulk Izzuddin Yahya, and Sonargoan by Tatar Khan titled Bahram Khan whose armour bearer was Fakhruddin, later Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah. The situation was certainly fluid. The need of the hour thus was an abler man and a leader who could unite all the three divisions of the province into a single unit. The time found such a man in Haji Iliyas, a brother of Alauddin Ali Shah. Haji Iliyas killed the brother at Lakhnauti, declared himself independent and took the royal title of Shamsuddin Iliyas Shah after a total secession of the province from the Sultanate of Delhi. This was a difficult task. But Iliyas Shah did it within three years of time, and by 1342 he was the Shah-i-Bangalah or Shah-i- Bangalian, a title which shows his total commitment not only to his independence but to the people of Bengal as a whole.

As for architecture, the total period of 138 years of the Dependent Governors is not worthy of note. Although from literary and inscriptional references it is evident that structures like mosques, madrasas, khanqas, bridges and unspecified imarats were constructed, the number is too scanty to compare with the Independent Sultanate from

the time of the Iliyas Shahis. The reason is not far to seek. The instability of the government at Lakhnauti due to power struggle, coupled with the frequent transfer of the capital between Deokot, Lakhnauti and Pandua the latter being founded towards the beginning of the fourteenth century, and the frequent declaration of independence by the governors made it almost impossible to concentrate on cultural or benevolent pursuits. It must have to be noted that during this period at least 32 rulers governed the province with an average of a little more than four years time. In cases, as for example Mahammad Shiran Khalji (1206-07) and Husamuddin Iwaz Khalji (1207-08) the immediate successors of Ikhtiaruddin Bukhtiyar Khalji, ruled each only for a few months. The longest period of 21 years rule by Sultan Shamsuddin Firuz Shah (1301­

22) and the second longest before him by Ghiyasuddin Iwaz Khalji (1212-27) were exceptions, and in these cases Firuz Shah is credited with a number of constructions including the city of Pandua, henceforward known as Pandua-Firuzabad, and Iwaz Khalji by the construction of the fort of Basankot with a jami‘ and other mosques within it, and ‘a beautiful mosque, a madrasa and a caravanserai’ at Lakhnauti. The other constructions of the period, it seems, were made not by the governors as much as were by the warrior-saints, the ghazis and sufis as they were called. The ghazis performed two fold functions: one they showered blessings to the governors who believed in their super-natural powers, and two in times of necessity they led wars along with their disciple-masters against the adversaries. In fact it appears that while the governors wrangled amongst themselves for the throne they left the internal peace- pursuits to the ghazis who taking advantage of the caste system not only converted the downtrodden locals to Islam but also used them along with the Muslim migrants against the enemies on the borders. This was the practice since the beginning of Islam in the seventh century CE. The warrior-saints were stationed on the borders in camps, and only occasionally in built-forts known as ribats. The camps and the ribats were a strong volunteer garrison against the outsides and internal peace breakers. It is to be noted that most of the known saints in Bengal were posted on the frontiers at the time of the expansion of the territory, and further they were all ghazis from the central Asian Perso-Turkish or Syrian areas, the original home of these volunteers. In the context it must have to be remembered that the Ottoman state grew out of the Seljuq ghazis who frequently raided against the Byzantines, and other non-Muslim pagans. The names Zafar Khan Ghazi, Shah Sultan Mahisawar, Shaikh Safiuddin, Baba Adam Shahid, Zalaluddin Tabrizi, Shah Sultan Rumi, Khan Jahan Ali, Makhdum Jahanian Jahangosht amongst tens of others are indicative of their Turkish or Persian origin. They had all their khanqas the abodes round which their activities concentrated. The khanqas as is known from the sources were an important structure type in Bengal. But they must have been unassuming and comparable to the simple and austere life of the saints. It is likely that these khanqas, mosques and madrasas of early time were built mostly of undurable materials and techniques of local origin and occasionally of make-shift arrangements inadequate for enduring a longer period of life. Hence is this gap.

The Rise of the Iliyas Shahis (1339-1414 CE)

The rise of Iliyas Shah and the foundation of a dynastic rule by him opened a new chapter for the history of Bengal. It was from his time that Bengal saw a unified rule from the capital Lakhnauti where he enthroned himself. So long the province consisted of three loosely units of Lakhnauti, Satgaon and Sonargaon, but now it is a strong centralised area ruled at first from Lakhnauti, and soon from Pandua the would be permanent capital of the early Iliyas Shahis. Pandua was considered strategically more important– a safer place of refuge against any external invasion. Iliyas Shah thought it wise that to be a sovereign king he would have to depend more on the locals than on the traditional and unsure nobility from Delhi and migrants. In order to cope with the situation, although sources are not clear about it, he must have created a larger unit of paiks out of local elements and a new nobility which became his more dependable support. The time was not far when he had the opportunity to test his new creations with Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq who attacked Pandua in 1353 thereby allowing him to escape with his entire retinue and pikes into Ekdala fort considered to be in present Dinajpur District. Ekdala was impregnable as it was built within a double enclosure of water giving it a spectacle of an island, the Jajair-i-Ekdala. Firuz Shah sieged, waited, gave battles, but eventually tired and exhausted because of the hide and seek policies of Iliyas Shah retired to Delhi. This gave Iliyas a stimulus, and in an opportune moment sought diplomatic relations with the Delhi Sultan sending him presents which at once was taken as a recognition by Firuz Shah. Not much is known about Iliyas Shah after these incidents except that Firuz Shah tried again to regain control of Pandua, but failed. Holding a rival court of the eastern limits of the Tughlaq empire, Iliyas Shah naturally was not considered a worthy subject of narration by Delhi historians who stigmatized him as bhangi and a leper. Despite the paucity of information the achievement of Iliyas Shah may be considered as a great success compared to the difficulties he had to overcome. His greatness rests not only on his creations of a vast sovereign state stretching from Orissia in the West to Sylhet in the east but also on his new thought of vernacularizing the state affairs a characteristic feature which dominated the Bengal Sultanate for the next two hundred years ushering a new period of identity and consciousness.

The period of the successors of Iliyas Shah, four in number, are not as eventful as that of his reign. But his immediate successor, the son Sekander Shah, enjoyed almost a peaceful reign of three decades to 1389 in which time his greatest achievement was the creation of a great mosque, comparable to the size of the great mosque of Damascus, and the Jami Masjid of Isfahan. This was the Adina Masjid at his capital city Pandua later on styled as Hazrat Pandua which at once marked his challenge to the Sultanate of Delhi placing his power and prestige at par with all other great contemporary Islamic rulers of the world. It was obviously not acceptable to the Delhi Sultan who in vain however made several attempts to conquer Bengal but remained

satisfied at the end by concluding a treaty of friendship. Sekander Shah is credited with the building of a number of other monuments both at Pandua and Lakhnauti, but very few of them now remain except the grand mosque symbolizing the beginning of the great architectural tradition which the Bengal Sultans left for posterity. Sekander’s son Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah is known to have established relations with the ruler of Persia thus bringing Bengal to the comity of nations, now outside to the boundary of the Indian sub-continent. That the relation was there even during the time of Sikander Shah is evidenced by the Arab and Persian characteristics of the Adina Masjid to be dealt with in a fuller detail in the following chapters.

The House of Raja Ganesh (1414-1436 CE)

Between Alauddin Firuz Shah (1414) the last sultan of the four immediate successors of Iliyas Shah and the restoration of the dynasty under Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah in 1436, there lies a period of 22 years, when a family of Hindu origin but subsequently Islamized reigned over Bengal. The period known in history as the intervening Hindu period was inaugurated by a Hindu baron of North Bengal named Ganesh who after the death of the former seized the throne in his own name. But his death within a period of four years of his accession brought his son Jadu to the Sultanate in 1418. On his accession Jadu at his own will was converted to Islam and assumed the title of Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah. Jalaluddin’s reign is recorded in history as a peaceful one when Bengal grew in ‘wealth and population’. He is credited with the transfer of the capital from Pandua to Gaur where he constructed ‘a mosque, two tanks and a serai’ none of which seems to exist today. A medium-size congregational mosque probably of his own time however survives today at Muazzampur in Dhaka. But his reign is enormously important from the point of view of the construction of his own mausoleum known as the Eklakhi Tomb. This building not only represents the earliest of the tomb types of Bengal, but also contains some novel features– the curvilinear form of roof with bamboo form of corner-towers which henceforward became a dominant feature of the Muslim architecture in Bengal. The process of absorbing local elements which started in the preceding period is now fully visible in the hut-curve and corner post of a Bengali thatched house, now translated in brick work turning it to a model for future building activities, be it a tomb, a mosque or otherwise. This is a great contribution to the process of appropriating local elements in cultural identity which through acceleration from now on assumed a definable proportion in the time of the later Iliyas Shahis and Husayn Shahis, the most glorious periods of the independent Sultanate history of Bengal. The acceptance of the title of Khalifat Allah by Jalaluddin is a further impetus to the succeeding rulers for vindicating their power and strength as independent sultans both at home and abroad.

The Restored Iliyas Shahi Dynasty (1436-1486 CE)

The restored Iliyas Shahi dynasty represents the longest uninterrupted rule in Gaur- Lakhnauti, and it’s rule of fifty years from 1436 to 1486 represents one of the most

flourishing periods of the history of Bengal. Mahmud Shah, the restorer of the dynasty, was a descendent of Haji Iliyas Shah, and on assumption proved himself ‘a just and liberal sultan under whom the people both young and old, were contended’. No military event finds special mention in the literary accounts of his time, and considering his past occupation in agriculture, his main interest it seems lay in the arts of peace. He himself laid the foundations of the citadel and palace of Gaur which since Jalaluddin’s time had once again become the capital, and embellished it a new with a number of monuments of which a five-arched stone bridge, the Kotwali Darwaza and parts of the massive walls of the fort still survive. The town of Mahmudabad, if identical with the Bara Bazar ruins of Jhinaidah in Bangladesh, as has been suggested by some must also be a proof of peaceful pursuit of his time and his patronage to the art of peace. A large number of inscriptions of his time found all over his kingdom recording the erection of mosques, khanqas, gates, bridges and tombs further testify to the prevailing prosperity of the state, and his enthusiasm. From the same inscriptional sources it appears that his kingdom lay from Bhagalpur in the west to Sylhet in the east, a vast stretch of land surpassed only by the succeeding Husayn Shahi dynasty under Husayn Shah, the greatest of the Bengal Sultanate rulers. Of Nasiruddin Mahmud’s successors Ruknuddin Barbak Shah (1455-74), Shamsuddin Yousuf Shah (1474-81) and Jalaluddin Fath Shah (1481-86), all are described as learned, virtuous and liberal rulers. Barbak Shah was a patron of Bengali literature. The poet Maladhar Basu was honoured by him with the title of Gunaraj Khan, and his son with Satyaraj Khan. The name of the town of Barbakabad probably centring round Mahisontosh now in the Naogaon District of Bangladesh also indicates his love for town building and architecture. The spirit of the time thus initiated by Sultan Iliyas Shah was now reaching gradually towards it’s final fulfilment.

The Abyssinian Rule (1486-1493 CE)

The murder of Fath Shah the last of the restored Iliyas Shahis in 1486 brought the dynasty to it’s close. This was the result of a mistaken policy taken by Barbak Shah. Barbak Shah in order to lessen his dependency on the traditional nobility recruited to the army and the palace a large number of Abyssinian slaves numbering about eight thousand who gradually monopolizing the key positions of the state rose from protectors to masters. The result was inevitable. The Iliyas Shahi dynasty was brought to it’s close by the rising Abyssinians who held powers for the next seven years (1486­ 1493). The Abyssinians are generally regarded in history as usurpers whose reigns have been evaluated as a dark chapter of Bengal history. The progress was impossible due to the constant engagement in conspiracy and power struggle. The only positive work of the time seems to be the erection of the Firuz Minar by the first ruler Saifuddin Firuz. The tower still stands today as a symbol of power and victory of the ruler who is praised by some historians as a kind and benevolent king.

The Husayn Shahi Dynasty (1493-1538 CE) and the End of the Independent Bengal Sultanate (1538-1576 CE)

The assassination of the last Habshi ruler Shamsuddin Muzaffar Shah (1490-93) brought to an end of the chaotic order of the state. The man who saved the state out of such a situation was Sayyid Husayn, a man from Arabia and said to be associated with the genealogy of the Prophet, who by dint of merit rose to the position of the chief minister under the murdered Sultan. By his birth position, ‘intelligence, tact and energy’, he not only conquered the mind of the people to become the next sultan but also with their help made the history of the Bengal Sultanate under his dynastic rule the most glorious period of the independent history. Bengal under Husayn Shah constituted the largest ever geographical state extending from Saran and Bihar on the west to Assam, Tippera and Chittagong on the east. Initially he restored peace by disbanding the old paiks, banishing the infamous Abyssinians, raising the old Muslim aristocracy and Hindu nobles almost equally to high offices. He out of strategic consideration transferred his seat of government for the time being from Lakhnauti to a new Ekdala to the north west of the old city and termed it Buzurg Husaynabad, to be distinguished from two other Husaynabads, one of which existed in the modern Murshidabad District, the other in the 24 Parganas. From architectural point of view his reign constituted one of the most glorious epochs comparable to the achievement of the later Iliyas Shahi rulers. His Bara Sona Masjid and Chhota Sona Masjid are regarded as some of the architectural gems of Sultanate creations. Along with material prosperity, the reign of Husayn Shah is also recognized intellectually as a ‘golden age’. Acting on the thought of Iliyas Shah that Bengal was his real home he not only patronized the locals at par with the foreign aristocracy but also encouraged the vernacular literature to create an environment of a new society capable of thinking itself independent and Bengalee. Most of the Bengali works produced during the reign of Husayn Shah is now perished, but the names of Maladhar Basu, Bipradas, Bijoy Gupta and Jasoraj Khan are still remembered with respect as pioneers of Bengali language and literature. In appointing Hindus to high and confidential offices such as Rup and Sanatan as private secretaries, Gopinath Basu as wazir, Mukunda Das as physician, Keshava Chhatri as the chief bodyguard, Anup as the master of the mint, and Gaur Malik as the general of his Tippera expedition, he not only showed the catholicity of his mind at work but also proved that he worked with them as belonging to a country which belonged to all Hindus and Muslims alike. Hence he was styled universally as Nrpati Tilak (crown of the kings) and Jaghat Bhusan (adornment of the universe). To the Hindus he was an incarnation of Krishna. His patronage to Œri Chitanya is proverbial. Professor Habibullah is right when he remarks that ‘Husayn was unlucky in not having an Abul Fazl’, the great chronicler of Mughal emperor Akbar to whom certainly a parallel can be drawn as a unifier and one of the greatest rulers of the time.

The death of Husayn Shah in 1519 brought the glorious period of Bengal to an end. His successors, Nasiruddin Nasrat Shah (1519-31) and Alauddin Firuz Shah (1531­

32) were able to hold the continuation of the legacy left by Husayn. Nasiruddin, like his father, proved himself a great builder as is evidenced by inscriptional records (see chapter 4) and the still extant great Jami at Bagha in Rajshahi. Alauddin Firuz was a great patron of Bengali literature and his keen interest to the subject allowed him to promote Sridhara to compose the versified love story of Vidya-Sundara. Compared to these two rulers the last of the dynasty Ghiyasuddin Mahmud was utterly incompetent allowing himself to debauchery and unnecessary quarrel with the Afghan ruler Sher Shah who as a successful governor of Bihar and a brilliant general not only conquered Bengal but also competed with the Mughals driving the second Mughal emperor Humayun out of the country. Thus ended the glorious epoch of Bengal history bringing it back again under the authority of the westernersthis time the Afghans, first under the successor of Sher Shah Sur from 1538 to 1564, and then under the Karranis from 1564 to 1576. Sher Shah’s contribution was the erection of the Grand Trunk Road from North India to Bengal, and Karranis’ the transfer of the seat of government from Gaur to Tanda, a little to the south of the citadel of Gaur. But the independence of the Afghan rulers was to last only for a few years when in 1576 Munim Khan, the general of Akbar’s eastern command put an end to Bengal’s independence, and brought the country to Delhi’s dependence as a province for the last time for three hundred years giving it back again to a mightier Colonial power, the British from whom the modern period of history is said to have started in India.


The Sultanate ArchitectureHistorical IntroductionGeneral Character of MonumentsInventory of Structure–TypesSecular BuildingsFort and fortificationsMiscellaneous BuildingsReligious BuildingsMosquesTombsMadrasasMonuments Known Through LiteraryConcluding RemarksBibliographyThe Mughal ArchitectureHistorical IntroductionGeneral Character of MonumentsInventory of Structure–TypesSecular BuildingsFort and FortificationsPalacesHammamsKatrasBridgesThe Nimsarai Minar at Old MaldahReligious BuildingsMosquesTombsQadam RasulsThe I‘dgah at DhakaMonuments Known Through LiteraryConcluding RemarksBibliography

[[ Other sections:  || Archaeology|| Architecture||  Arts and Crafts||  Cultural history||  || Folklore||  || Indigenous||  || Language & Literature||  || Living traditions||  || State & Culture  ]]