Written by Alamgir M. Serajuddin
The Arakanese were a daring and turbulent people, a terror at once to themselves and to their neighbours. They fought among themselves and changed masters at will. Peace at home under a strong ruler signaled danger for neighbours, especially the undefended frontier districts of Bengal.
Skilled in sea and riverine warfare, they plundered, tortured and enslaved numerous inhabitants of the Gangetic delta. Their cruelty, comparable only to that of bargi marauders of later days, was a byword in Bengal. Shihabuddin Talish thus described it: "They carried off the Hindus and Muslims, male and female, great and small, few and many that they could seize, pierced the palms of their hands, passed thin canes through the holes and threw them one above another under the deck of their ships3." Yet, their association with Bengal was not an unmitigated evil. It had a positive and bright side too.
In one of those unhappy periods of internal anarchy and dissension in the history of Arakan4, one of the rulers, Mong-saw-mwan, driven out of the country, took asylum at the court of the Bengal Sultan Ghiasuddin Azam Shah in 1406 AD. After years of exile he regained his throne with the aid of Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah in 1430 AD. The grateful king readily entered into a tributary relationship with the Bengal sultan5. The event turned out to be momentous. The Arakanese king had stayed long enough in Bengal to benefit from her superior culture. On his homeward journey he was accompanied by a host of Bengali adventures, fortune hunters and admirers. While the king moulded his court on Bengal's model, his Muslim followers built the Sandikhin mosque at Mrohaung6. The expatriate Bengalis found employment in the king's civil and military establishments. Their rank was swelled by fresh arrivals and still later by Shah Shuja's followers who escaped slaughter at the hands of the Arakanese in 1661 and were retained as archers of the guard by the king; and some of them rose to very high positions in the court. Towards the end of the 17th century these Muslim soldiers of fortune commanded enormous power and influence and deposed and set up kings at will7. They burnt the palace in 1692 and for the next twenty years were the undisputed masters of Arakan8.
One concomitant of the settlement of a sizeable number of Bengalis in the capital of Arakan was the cultivation of Bengali literature and culture; and the 17th century was its heyday. The influential Bengali officers of the king patronised Bengali poets flourished under them. The Arakanese people, tribal and backward, would not easily be influenced by this expatriate culture. It is also not known to what extent, if at all, did the successors of Mong-saw-mwan, brought up and living in their own primitive society, respond to this cultural challenge. There is hardly any evidence to show that the Arakanese kings themselves patronised the poets and commissioned them to compose literary works for them. If the distressed prince Shuja had found the table manners of Sandathudamma who was revered as a very able and noble king, to be so repulsive as to keep aloof from him10 at his peril, then the Arakanese kings may hardly be said to have been much impressed by Muslim manners, customs and culture. In all probability the cultivation of Bengali literature and culture was confined to the Bengali element in the court and the capital.
Assumption of Muslim names and titles by some Arakanese kings11 and issuing coins in Arabic script containing these names and Bengal into the Arakan court. It is said that Mong-saw-mwan undertook to assume a Muslim name and strike coins bearing the kalima as a tributary. His successors threw off the yoke of Bengal but submitted to far superior culture, civilisation, statecraft, manners and customs of the Muslims and continued the practice.13 Bisveswar Bhattacharya sums up the position thus: "As the Mohammedan influence was predominant, the Arakanese kings, though Buddhist in religion, became somewhat Mahomedanised in their ideas- so much so that for a long time henceforward they used in addition to their own earlier names, Mohammedan designations and even used medallions bearing the kalima in the Persian script."14 But, a study of these coins will tell a different story.
The Arakanese had issued symbolical coins without dates and names of kings as early as the 8th century AD., if not earlier.15 Legendary coins with dates and names of rulers were not known to them and there is no doubt that they borrowed the concept from Bengal.16 One legendary coin of Mong-raza-gri (1593-1612 AD.) containing his Muslim name Salim Shah, now preserved in the Chittagong university Museum, has been published by Professor A. Karim.17 The legend in Arakanese script on the obverse of the coin reads: "963 [1601 AD.]. Lord of the White Elephant, Lord of Men and Land, Salim Shah". The upper part of the reverse having Arabic script reads: "Lord of the White Elephant, and the Just King Salim Shah Sultan" and the lower part containing Bengali described the obverse of three similar coins of Mong-raza-gri, Mong-hka-maung and Thiri-thu-damma bearing the Maghi (Arakanese) dates 963/1601 AD., 974/1612 AD. and 984/1622 AD. and their Muslim names.18 He could not decipher the Arabic and Bengali inscriptions on the three coins and took them to bear "illegible Persian and Nagri inscription".19
Some interesting and peculiar features of these Bengal coin-types have escaped notice of researchers. In the first place, unlike the Bengal coins with only Arabic legends these coins contain Arakanese, Arabic and Bengali legends. Secondly, they gave the Muslim names and titles of the Arakanese kings but not their Arakanese names. Thirdly, not all the successors of Mong-saw-mwan did take Muslim in 1430 AD. to the conquest of Arakan by the Burmese in 1784 AD. 48 kings20 ruled over Arakan and only nine of them, namely, Mong- Khari/Ali Khan (1434-59), Basawphru/Kalima Shah (1459-82), Kasabadi/Ilyas Shah Sultan (1523-25), Thatasa/Ali Shah (1525-31), Mongbun/Zabuk Shah (1531-53), Mong-hpa-laung/Sikander Shah (1612-22), Mong-raza-gri/Salim Shah (1593-1612), Mong-kha-maung/Hosain Shah (1612-22) and Thiri-thu-damma/Salim Shah (1622-38) are known to have assumed Muslim names and struck Bengal coin-types.21 Finally, these coins issued in Chittagong22 were different from those issued in Arakan. Phayre has described and published coins issued by 15 other Arakanese kings, namely, Nara-pati-gri (1638-45),Tha-do (1645-52), Sanda-thu-damma (1652-84), Wara-dhamma-raza (1685-92), Sanda-wizaya (1710-31), Sanda-thu-riya (1731-34), Nara-pa-wara (1735-37), Madarit (1737-42), Nara-apaya (1742-61), Sanda-payama (1761-64), Apaya (1764-73), Sanda-thu-mana (1773-77), Sanda-thadi-tha (1777-82), Dhammarit (1778?) and Thamada (1782-84).23 The coins were struck in the year of accession of these kings to the throne. Unlike the coins described above these coins certain the same inscription in Arakanese script on the obverse and reverse. They give the Maghi (Arakanese) dates of accession of the kings and their Arakanese names and titles. Until 1652 the king is styled "Lord of the White Elephant, Lord of the Red Elephant" but since that year he is no longer lord of the white and red elephants but "Lord of the Golden Palace" and this style is remained until the fall of the kingdom in 1784. Thus, while the coin of Narapatigri (1638-45) reads: "1000 . Lord of the White Elephant, lord of the Red Elephant, Na-ra-badi-gri", that of thamada, the last king of Arakan (1782-84) merely reads: "1144 . Lord of the Golden Palace, Ma-ha Tha-ma-da Raza."24
Again, Muslim influences rose its height during the long and prosperous reign of king Sandathudamma (1652-84). Yet, he did not take Muslim names and titles and was content with his Arakanese name and coin.25
From what has been stated above it is difficult to accept the view that assumption of Muslim names was the manifestation of Muslim influence in Arakan. Among other things, it does not explain why only 9 out of 48 rulers were won over by the superior Muslim culture. Again, Muslim influences rose its height during the long and prosperous reign of king Sandathudamma (1652-84). Yet, he did not take Muslim names and titles and was content with his Arakanese name and coin.25 In fact, increase of Muslim influence in Arakan coincides with total abandonment of Muslim names and coins. Thirithudamma (1622-38) was the last Arakanese king to take Muslim name and strike coin in Arabic and Bengali scripts. In reassessing the significance of Muslim names and titles we must not lose sight of the fact that the rulers who assumed Muslim names had Chittagong under their possession. Mongsawmwan, though a tributary to the sultan of Bengal, is not known to have assumed Muslim name and issued coins in Arabic script.26 His brother and successor Mong-khari (1434-59) who was the first Arakanese ruler to take a Muslim name defied the authority of Bengal and annexed Ramu to his kingdom.27 His son Basawphru (1459-82) took advantage of the weakness of the Bengal sultan and seized Chittagong.28 Mongbun (1531-53), ruler of great ability, remained Ramu and Chittagong in spite of Tipperan ( Tripuri ) raids.29 It was Munbun who leased to the Portuguese free-booters who took service under his flag the port of Dianga30 and introduced the Maghi era (Arakanese Era, AE.) and Maghi (Arakanese) unit of land measurement in Chittagong.31 Munghpalaung (1571-93) held all Chittagong and part of Noakhali and Tippera (Tripura) too.32 His son and successor Mongrazagri (1593-1612) had Chittagong under his sway and so had Monghkamaung (1612-22) who broke the power of the Portuguese.33 Thirithudamma (1622-38) captured and held Dacca (Dhaka) itself for a short while in 1625 and launched an unsuccessful attack against the Mughal fleet in the Hughli river in 1632 in his bid to conquer Bengal.34
It is so coincidence that only those rulers who had Chittagong under their possession at the time of accession to the throne assumed Muslim names and titles and struck coins in Arabic and Bengali scripts bearing these names and titles. Coins are a symbol of sovereignty and these rulers issued the Bengal coin-types to assert their sovereignty over Chittagong.35 The inhabitants of the conquered district being Hindus and Muslims, they expressed their sovereignty over the district in idioms which would be readily understood by them. Their Bengali subjects easily distinguished them by their Muslim names. Chittagong was a bone of commercial importance. For the small tribal kingdom of Arakan, Chittagong must have been a very valuable and proud possession; and they took strong measures to defend it. We have the evidence of Shihabuddin Talish that every year the king of Arakan sent to Chittagong a hundred ships full of troops, arms and ammunitions under a new commandant and then the ships and troops sent in the previous year returned to Arakan.36 Some trustworthy relative or clansman of the king was appointed lord or governor of Chittagong37 and he held the grand title of Mong-Re, meaning 'Bold Chief". During the reign of Monghpalaung (1571-93) his son Mong-nala was governor of Chittagong.38 Mongrazagri's (1593-1612) first governor was his wise minister and jurist Mahapinnyakyaw,39 second governor his uncle Sinabadi40 and third governor his son Anaporan.41 Mongsawphru, son of Nandabaron, king of Pegu, succeeded Anaporan as governor of Chittagong in 1614.42 Thirithudamma's first governor in Chittagong was a brother43 and so was his last governor Matak Rai. It was Matak Rai who revolted against Thirithudamma's successor Narapatigri in 1638 and handed over Chittagong to the Mughal governor at Dacca.44 The power, prestige and prosperity of the Arakanese people, founded on their occupation of Chittagong and profits of piracy came to an abrupt and inglorious end with the decisive victory of the Mughal over them in 1666 AD.
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