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A fluid frontier

  • Published at 12:01 am October 22nd, 2016
A fluid frontier

In the great struggle undertaken by the Mughal regime in Dhaka to establish firm control over most of the lands that are now those of Bangladesh, a continuous and substantial part of the warfare appears to have been played out on water and land around today’s district of Kishoreganj.

Established as an administrative district only as recently as 1984, for the most part on the northern bank of the once great Brahamputra river, known, now, as the “Old Brahmaputra,” which is reduced, seasonally, mostly to a mere trickle through verdant farmlands, it is strewn with the evidence of an extraordinarily rich history and heritage.

Even today, these lands, in some ways, may be considered to mark the frontier between traditionally Bengali Bangladesh, and the unique phenomenon that is Sylhet, replete with a population sometimes referred to, or, perhaps, referring to themselves, as “Londonis.” Certainly, plenty of citizens thereabouts might not  consider themselves altogether Bengali?

Visitors to these northeastern lands of Bangladesh may well be struck by the proliferation of the often semi-ruinous, decades, even centuries old palaces, mansions, mosques, temples, and fortresses in Kishoreganj, and the contrast, moving further north and east, of modern palaces and mansions of the elite of today’s “Londonis,” in the lands of Sylhet.

For the Mughals, at least, there were certainly times when the Brahmaputra waters represented a frontier; it was, perhaps, only Mir Jumla’s advance, seeking out Aurangzeb’s brother, Shah Suja, who was rumoured to have fled his refuge in Arakan, and headed up into the lands of Tripura and Assam, that real warfare reached further north.

Certainly, in what we might reasonably describe as that titanic struggle for control of the very valuable trading lands of Bihar, Orissa, and Bengal -- which we now know contained ample supplies of the  vital gunpowder, so essential to one of the famous “Gunpowder Empires” -- warfare reached the waters of the great Brahmaputra, and, at times, well beyond.

As they wrestled with the “12 resisters,” the Baro Bhuiyans, the resistance of Isa Khan, the son of a Hindu convert to Islam, proved more enduring and determined, even than that of the hugely resourced Hindu Pratapaditya of Jessore.

Ralph Fitch, the British merchant visiting the area at the time, noted the difficulty of the Mughal army, much based on cavalry, pinning down the resistance forces to battle in the waterlogged and swampy lands.

As any visitor, even today, to the Brahmaputra waters, north of where they now merge with those of the great Jamuna, will attest, the waters must have been of formidable width and depth in earlier centuries and millennia

It seems that, when Isa Khan abandoned his Sonargaon base and retreated to the fortress on the north bank of Brahmaputra, Akbar’s forces willingly came to terms with him.

He occupied a north bank fort, which has remained the family home of his successors ever since.

Since the great river had been an access for trade with the Himalayan territories, and well beyond into China, the great cities of the Chinese Empire, as well as those of the Tibetan Empire, no doubt the pickings from taxation of such trade were considerable. As any visitor, even today, to the Bramaputra waters, north of where they now merge with those of the great Jamuna, will attest, diminished though they are by considerable extraction throughout northern India, the waters must have been of formidable width and depth in earlier centuries and millennia.

So wide, and deep, in fact, that, although today it is almost inconceivable, the river in the late 16th century saw at least one major naval engagement with more than 500 cannon-mounted crafts involved.

In fact, the pattern of change of rule over centuries and even millennia over these territories on the northern bank of the great Brahmaputra, the “Southern Silk Road” between the oceans and empires and kingdoms of the Himalayas and beyond, underlines its history as a fluid frontier.

Perhaps it represented, too, something of a frontier for centuries of the Islamic rule that was established over most of the lands of Bengal in the early 13th century, those that are a significant part of today’s Bangladesh.

The noted significance of both Sanatana and Loukik Islam in today’s Kishoreganj, the former closely associated with both Buddhist and Hindu influence, and the latter with some forms of Animist tradition might suggest a degree of fusion that may reasonably be associated with porous religious, as well as political, frontiers.

From the earliest periods of Mughal rule, whilst there was resistance within Bengal itself, characterised, of course, especially by Isa Khan, himself the child of “religious fusion,” these north eastern lands were fought over constantly.

The Kingdoms of Jaintia, the remains of a great palace of that kingdom  stand until today just north of Sylhet, at Jaintiapur, with evidence of its animist traditions, and of Kachari and Manipur, with their Garo and Khasi citizens, acted as sometimes a bulwark, sometimes a “Trojan Horse,” as far as the Mughals were concerned.

And battles, both on the vast waters of the Brahmaputra and on land, were fought over the ensuing century to contain, or conquer, the great Ahom Kingdom of the fertile and wealthy valley of the Brahmaputra as it reached toward the Himalayas.

We will, probably, never know the fate of the great Shah Suja, the brother of the sixth Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb. But it appears that Aurangzeb himself believed, or feared, the tales of his flight from Arakan to the lands of Manipur, perhaps to the Ahom Kingdom itself.

But Mir Jumla’s military adventure into Assam suggest that he was taking no chances with this fragile frontier of the enormously valuable trading lands to their south and west, the lands of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, through which flowed a major part of the trading wealth of his regime.

Like most troubled, frontier lands, Kishoreganj still holds its own wealth of fortress defences; in Kishoreganj, especially, Jangalbari, to which Isa Khan eventually retreated and, for the remaining years of his life, established a point as far as which the Mughal military could expect to triumph.

The evidence of earlier kingdoms remains, perhaps, still to be explored, but there seems little doubt that a city, known as Egarosindur, like that of Wari Bateshwar, further south on the banks of the great river has -- with only fairly cursory exploration in the 1930s and again in more recent years -- revealed archaeological evidence of both occupation, and almost certainly, trade from as early as 1,000 BCE.

There seems, in fact, little doubt that the rich, fertile soils of this valley of the Brahmaputra were a significant part of the ancient history of trade and commerce through these lands of Bangladesh. The wealth of ancient sites certainly supports that view -- areas such as neighbouring Habiganj, as well as Kishoreganj itself, are rich in mansions and palaces, temples and mosques, centuries old, appear also to justify it.

How long the Brahmaputra remained the great route of trade towards the Himalayas is unclear, but that the Portuguese are believed to have built a trading post and residences in Kishoreganj during the troubled times towards the end of the Sultanate period certainly suggests that it remained a significant place of trade, probably through, at least, the late 16th century.

From the time of the arrival of the Mughals it may well be that the significance reduced, until, of course, the massive route change of the Brahmaputra waters late in the 18th or early in the 19th century, by which time, international trade along its course, would probably have been mostly to the south of the Himalayas.

The orientation of wealth and power of the Mughals was, of course, probably always towards the Indus, their origins; although, clearly, protecting the massive wealth generated in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa remained a priority.

Wealth from the Himalayas and beyond, that had, doubtless, diminished with the growth of maritime Chinese trade, and the stabilisation of the central Asian trade routes under the protection of the great empires of central Asia and Middle East.

The rich history and heritage of these unique lands of Bangladesh beyond what is left of the great, ancient waters of the Brahmaputra continues to evolve. The direct descendants of Isa Khan still occupy his fortified home, as, no doubt, do also some others of the zamindari, who, like his descendants, may now be considered home-grown, or those of the successful bidders in more recent times.

A unique, and extraordinary heritage now, for the most part, the far side of marshland, and a trickle of what were once frontier waters of lands, much contested and fought over, through centuries, fluid, militarily, politically, commercially, and environmentally.

Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.