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The Alexander of Bangladesh

  • Published at 12:01 am October 8th, 2016
  • Last updated at 02:12 pm October 8th, 2016
The Alexander of Bangladesh

The famous Macedonian king, Alexander, may well have been the first of the name to impact upon the peoples of the lands that are now those of Bangladesh.

However, his famous name has endured in these lands for two-and-a-half thousand years.

In its Asian variation, Sikander, it remains a common name, especially in the lands east of Dhaka, where the Khilji, and other refugees from Afghanistan and thereabouts settled in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The peoples of Central Asia who, although regular raiders into the increasingly affluent lands south of the Himalayas for centuries, finally removed more permanently to those lands in the face of the advance of the Mongol hordes that swept across Asia from early in the 13th century.

Like the Khiji, who arrived in these lands that are now Bangladesh early in the 13th century, many of these “Afghans” were, in fact, descendants of soldiers of Alexander’s Grecian army, that he left in many of the domains that he had conquered, as he withdrew; the advance of his army turned into retreat by fear of the waters of the mighty Ganges, and the might of the men of Gangaridai, of the lands that are now Bangladesh, on the eastern bank.

Originating, many of them, from the areas of today’s Afghanistan, where, even today, the common practice of “bacha baazi,” relationships between men and boys, appears to reflect a somewhat debased version of those Greek origins for which the Greeks are legendarily famous.

Settling, it seems, with their main base somewhere around the top of the deltaic waters of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna, in the ancient centre of Sonargaon, perhaps close to today’s famous Panam City, probably at the now small community of Mograpara, where their influence apparently endured for centuries.

What became known as the period of the Sultanate rulers of the northern Indian sub-continent, saw the settlement of brutal, ruthless regimes, especially in Delhi, and also in the lands that were to become known as Bengal.

The first of those to settle in Bengal appear to have decided that the wealth generated by trade could be most readily acquired by locating themselves to where the great source of local wealth, all ancient routes of international trade and commerce, reached the sea.

There is circumstantial and archaeological evidence that Mograpara may well have been where they established themselves.

And it is probably no accident that the regimes based there were able, regularly, to mount successful rebuttals to challenges from Delhi; wealth generated from trade can buy a lot of troops.

For much of that very troubled Sultanate period, Bengal was ruled by independent Nawabs. This independence may well, also, have owed a great deal to the wealth of trade generated through Bengal -- an affluence that was, eventually, in the 16th century, to cause the Mughal dynasty to wrestle for about 50 years to gain control of it.

Indeed, the sixth Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, is, famously, said to have referred to Bengal as “the paradise of nations” for its wealth and trade.

Sikander was the second ruler of the Ilyas Shah dynasty and his reign of 32 years was by far the most enduring of them all; but even he died at the hand of his own son

But, to describe those centuries as “troubled” would be to underestimate the regular episodes of internecine strife between rulers, their servants, their families, their friends, and even their slaves.

Few regimes endured, and most ended violently. Indeed, few of the rulers of that period of “independent” rulers lasted more than five years, and many of them, far less.

Sikander was the second ruler of the Ilyas Shah dynasty and his reign of 32 years was by far the most enduring of them all; but even he died at the hand of his own son.

“The exalted Sultan, the wisest, the most just, the most liberal and most perfect of the Sultans of Arabia, Persia, and India,” succeeded his father, Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah, to the throne in 1358.

His father had migrated from troubled Delhi to serve with the ruler of Saptagram, one of the smaller, independent “Sultanates” of what was to become Bengal, close to the Hoogley River, Izzuddin Yahya.

In 1338, on the death of Yahya, evidently without heirs, he took over the rule, and then commenced a struggle with the rulers of the other great “Bengali,” territories of Lakhnauti (Padua/Gauda), and Sonargaon.

Finally, in 1352, he became ruler of, effectively, lands that are today’s Bengal, a territory Sikander inherited six years later, in 1358.

Shamsuddin has gone down in the history of the sub-continent as “the second Alexander, the right hand of the caliphate, the defender of the Commander of the faithful,” -- an inscription from Gauda, that is now in the British Museum in London, described him.

His military campaigns were considered, at the time, to be “world conquering.” The claim may seem, today, a trifle hyperbolic; however, his expeditions that not only secured Gauda/Pandua and Sonargaon also took him into Nepal, Orissa, and Assam.

The Bengal Sultanate he established has been described as “one of the leading diplomatic, economic, and military powers in the sub-continent of his time.”

The Sultanate became, it is said, although religiously tolerant, a destination for migrants from across the Islamic world that had, over the previous century, been engulfed by the Mongol hordes.

We have, already, read in the journal of the great Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta, of the sophistication of Sonargaon in 1346, when he visited it in the reign of Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah, credited as the founder of the independent Sultanate ruled from Sonargaon.

It is not, therefore, hard to see the Sultanate that Shamsuddin built and bequeathed to his son as something of a triumph of Islamic rule in the caliphate tradition, in the sub-continent.

In 1359, in the process of consolidating his father’s legacy of lands and influence, he firmly established his own independence by defeating the Tughlag Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad bin Tughlaq, a feat that has already been achieved by his father in establishing the Sultanate of Bengal. The Tughlaq army is said to have comprised 80,000 cavalry, a large infantry, and nearly 500 elephants.

In its time, that caliphate was surely one of the most advanced and civilised places in the world, that stood ready to defend itself, but pursued cultural development for preference

However, the 32 years of his rule was, in fact, characterised more by the peace and security he brought to the territories wrested by his father, and by his own architectural and artistic achievements. Amongst them was not only such as the famous Adina Mosque in Gauda/Padua, close to today’s border between India and Bangladesh, but also, in all probability, the famous palace described in the journal of the visits to the then Nawab in Sonargaon, of Zheng He, the great Chinese Admiral, made early in the 15th century.

He is also credited with a construction at Dinajpur, known as the “vault at Ganagarampur.” in Mograpara, which many believe to have been the site of the palace at Sonargoan -- also the site of the tomb of his son, Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah -- there still stands a somewhat mysterious building that could, also, probably only reasonably be described as a “vault.”

However, the reign that had commenced with war, resolved, interestingly enough, it appears, more by diplomacy than direct conflict.

In 1389, Ghiyasuddin, the eldest of his 18 sons, raised a rebellion against him, no doubt, like so many eldest sons of monarchs across the world, through the centuries, tired of waiting for the power. Seizing the territories of Sonargaon and Satgaon, the entire lands so skilfully built by Shamshuddin descended into conflagration. This was a conflict diplomacy could not resolve. In a battle fought at Goalpara, near Pandua, Sikander was killed, and Ghiyasuddin succeeded him.

Somehow, one modern description of him as a “liberal, scholarly, and peaceful” man has about it, given the circumstances and period of his reign, an air of improbability, and is not easy to reconcile with the lives of most such rulers of the time and region, or, indeed, with his own military achievements.

However, arguably, his rule represented something of an inheritance, rather than from Genghis Khan, from the great days of the Baghdad Caliphate.

In its time, that caliphate was surely one of the most advanced and civilised places in the world, that stood ready to defend itself, but pursued cultural development for preference, in much the same way as the early rulers, at least, of the Ilyas Shah dynasty sought for their Bengali empire.

It is not hard to see, in the history of Sikander, his father, and his son, shadows from the life of the great Alexander, in terms of military achievement and culture, but also the shadows of patricide.

But perhaps no other 30 years in the history of the lands that are now those of Bangladesh have ever quite matched those of the rule of Bangladesh’s own Sikander.

Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.