The mists of history swirl around the ancient city of Jessore, considerably thickened by politics, especially religious politics.
Many online histories invariably lead back to the Sultanate; Muslim rulers of the lands that are now Bangladesh. But in fact, of course the significant Hindu population of the lands of today’s southwest Bangladesh marks the likelihood of Hindu majority and rule from an early time.
Certainly we can note the arrival in the mid-15th century in the relatively nearby Bagerhat, of the soldier missionary, Khan Jahan Ali.
It was a location on the fringes of the Sundarban swamplands, where he created a forest of mosques to mark what was probably the most socially and economically advanced community of its time.
The famous “60 dome mosque” remains easily the most conspicuous of the structures of its age in Bangladesh, comparable with such as the great Buddhist relic, Parhapur Vihara in North Bengal, and some of the great Hindu sites.
Various other mosques he also built are magnificent examples of their pre-Mughal age; and the brick road he laid, perhaps the first in these lands, may well have “laid tracks” for much later road building across the country, even to the present day.
Sadly, many of those ancient Hindu sites, neglected, especially in more recent times, and had been targeted by the Pakistan army during the 1971 Liberation War.
There is also no doubting that Jessore had a place, possibly a somewhat unique place, in the pre-Buddhist development of the Jain faith group.
Certainly, the discovery of a rare, at least two millennia old, image of a Jain female “deity,” Mallinath, on the considerable Hindu site at Dhoolgraam, Abhaynagar, may speak volumes for the very early history of both Hindu and Jain -- which is a faith group that evolved from Hindu beliefs with its multitudinous deities, to the monotheism of Jain, and then Buddhism.
There appears -- in fact no getting away from the situation of Jessore -- a major crossroads on the Grand Trunk Road, the great third century BCE route across the sub-continent, originally from the Indus to the Ganges but subsequently in the 16th century CE, extended from Kabul to Chittagong.
Together with its near neighbour, Barisal, both have, in their time, been considerably important centres of trade and commerce in the region.
Whilst we may mark, perhaps one of the most famous “Princes” of Jessore, the famous “zaminder” Pratapitiya, a highly conspicuous resister of the Mughal advance in the late 16th century into Bengal, there is almost certainly a yet to be written story of the thousand or so years before his time.
Fascinating reading it would certainly make.
Pratapitya surrendered finally to the Mughal forces in 1611, and they seized enormous quantities of munitions, betraying the vast wealth that he had undoubtedly been able to expend to prosecute his resistance.
Jessore remains surrounded by clear evidence of its very princely past. The considerable Hindu site at Dhoolgraam, once containing 17 temples, rich in the terracotta work for which Jessore continues to be famous, a craft skill demanding considerable wealthy patronage to survive
At his final defeat by the Mughal forces, as much betrayal of trust by the Mughals as actual comprehensive military defeat, the victors were able to disband a military and naval establishment of close to 100,000 men, including over 50,000 infantry, 10,000 cavalry, and large numbers of archers. Also 2,000 war elephants.
The navy of about 500 craft included Portuguese mercenaries. It is also said that over 45 tons of gunpowder was seized. A princely force, indeed.
His family had held the territory for only one generation, effectively seizing their independent overlordship, following the demise of Daud Khan Karrani, “the last Nawab of Bengal” in 1576, in whose army his father had been a senior officer.
He had been awarded these southern lands with the task of maintaining their security, especially from the Arakanese pirates and the Portuguese renegades. Pratapitya recruited, especially the Portuguese, into his service.
Certainly, his lands comprised, also those of the flourishing port of Barisal -- and the description by Ralph Fitch, the first ever Englishman, a leather merchant known to have visited Bengal, of the ruler he encountered in about 1585/6, would appear to reflect what we may judge of him.
“I came to Bacola (identified as Barisal); the king whereof is a Gentile (Hindu), a man very well disposed and delighted much to shoot a gun.
His country is very great and fruitful, and hath store of rice, much cotton cloth, and cloth of silk.
“The houses be very faire and high builded, the streets large, the people naked, except a little cloth about their waist.
The women wear a great store of silver hoops about their necks and arms, and their legs are ringed with silver and copper, and rings made from elephant teeth.”
Whilst we know that Barisal was already a flourishing port and trading centre -- Jessore, too, as a major link on the Grand Trunk road would probably have displayed similar appearance, wealth and lifestyle. Princely, indeed!
From this description, somewhat at odds perhaps, from that which more recent historians have painted of a fratricide and uncle killer, we glimpse a princely figure, master of wide and wealthy lands, of which the city of Jessore was at the heart.
The lands probably also encompassed those around the early Buddhist centre, developed by Khan Jahan Ali, that were in the far south east of that part of Bangladesh, west of the Ganges delta.
None of these, it seems, were in fact highly ideal lands. Quite apart from both seasonal flooding down the rivers, and cyclonic events that are still experienced, Arakanese pirates disturbed life thereabouts for centuries.
Not for nothing was Arakan recognised as a “pirate Kingdom,” although Pratapitiya also recruited mercenaries from Arakan to swell his military and naval numbers.
Today, Jessore remains surrounded by clear evidence of its very princely past.
The considerable Hindu site at Dhoolgraam, once containing 17 temples, rich in the terracotta work for which Jessore continues to be famous, a craft skill demanding considerable wealthy patronage to survive, even to the present day -- has mostly been destroyed by both the activity of the nearby Bhairab River, and neglect and unwelcome attention of Pakistan soldiery in 1971.
Close by, at the village of Vaatnagar, the remains of 11 temples dedicated to Shiva still reveal something more of that princely past.
On the very outskirts of the modern city, at Chanchra, further testimony of a rich heritage is visible in the restored terracotta magnificence of the great Shiva Temple, close to the remains of a slowly decaying, early 19th century palace, with its associated buildings.
Even today, the great brick, 19th century colonial period, administrative buildings in the city centre mark Jessore as a place of great significance, to princes and peasants alike
What is certain is that the visible heritage that remains and that which has vanished, but of which we know, certainly qualifies Jessore to be regarded as one of the most ancient urban centres in Bangladesh.
Interestingly, activities undoubtedly encouraged also by princely successors to the great Pratapadiya, the first of whom was the Brahman boy -- once in Pratapadiya’s service, Bhavanand Majumdar, who founded the Nadiya Raj family dynasty -- continue to abound around Jessore.
Boat racing continues to be enjoyed in the summer season, and nearby Narail is famous for the Hindu community that fishes the great rivers of the region with the assistance of otters to drive fish into nets.
Both horse racing and bullock cart contests also take place thereabouts; surely, sports of princes, if not kings, or simply farmers.
Although the British, in the mid-19th century, focused on Khulna as the administrative centre of the area -- even today, the great brick, 19th century colonial period, administrative buildings in the city centre mark Jessore as a place of great significance, to princes and peasants alike. And it may well be that time will reveal, yet, more of that rich history.
Although, in 1947, census returns describe a large majority of Hindu occupants of the region, it must be debateable how diverse, in fact, the population was in Pratapitya’s time.
With the very rich history of both Buddhism and Muslim in earlier times, given the characteristic liberality of most regimes of the ages around the growth and maintenance of these great centres of trade, it may well have been very diverse, even from very ancient times.
What is certain is that the lands that were a part of the estates of the great “princes” of Jessore, and the lands around, continue to reveal the wealth of its economic, social, and cultural heritage. Jessore is indeed a princely city of Bangladesh.
Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.