Field Notes | History & Culture

The vihara’s minaret

Shahi Jama Masjid in Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh, which has inscriptions from the 16th century. Photo: A.M. Faruqui

Shahi Jama Masjid in Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh, which has inscriptions from the 16th century. Photo: A.M. Faruqui  

A Sanskrit inscription dedicated to Allah as protector of a vihara sheds light on the pluralistic past of Bengal

Allahabhattarakasvamijansitavihara. It’s a single word, a Sanskrit compound, that gives us a glimpse into medieval life that resonates with relevance in contemporary India. It refers to a vihara, obviously a religious complex, protected by the divinity Allahabhattarakasvami. The term Allaha is clearly the Sanskritisation of Allah. The two Sanskrit honorifics bhattaraka and svami are suffixed to Allaha, implying veneration.

This word comes in a seven-line inscription found in Bangladesh that dates back to the reign of Bhojavarman (c. AD 1137-1145), a king of the Varman dynasty, who ruled in Vanga (the present Dhaka-Bikrampur-Faridpur tract) with Vikramapura as the capital. And this is the earliest known evidence of a shrine associated with Islam in Bengal, showing the advent of Muslims in the region much before the Turkish conquest in AD 1205.

The Sujanagar inscription from 12th century Bengal. Photo: Special arrangement

The Sujanagar inscription from 12th century Bengal. Photo: Special arrangement  

Discovered in 1964 in Sujanagar in what was then East Pakistan (now in Munshiganj Upazilla of Bangladesh), this particular inscription is in the collection of the Bangladesh National Museum at Dhaka. The inscription was first translated in 2010 by the late Shariful Islam, but it was in 2019 that Ryosuke Furui, a University of Tokyo expert on ancient Bengal and its epigraphic wealth, rendered a fresh reading and an improved translation (in the journal Pratna Samiksha, vol. X).

During his seventh regnal year (AD 1145), Bhojavarman endorsed a monetary donation in the form of cowries to this religious institution.

The word vihara usually stands for a Buddhist monastery, which often contained shrines, educational facilities and residences for monks and others.

Applied to Allah or Allahabhattarakasvami, it probably connotes a mosque and its associated structures, including — according to Furui — a madrasa-like institution.

High-ranking contributor

The inscription says the initiative for this patronage came from Bhojavarman’s subordinate and intermediary ruler (mahasamanta) Avudeva, son (suta) of Hasi. The name Avu is a Sanskritisation of the Arabic name Abu. A high-ranking functionary, his name is suffixed with deva, literally god, but actually a regular honorific for important personages.

The name Hasi, father of Avu, could have been based on the Arabic word Hashim or Asif. Hasi figures as a panchakulika. This designation is rarely encountered in inscriptions from Bengal but is found in Gujarat for a body of merchants and artisans, usually located in a city or commercial centre. This prompted Furui to consider Hasi to be a merchant connected with the local administration in Vikramapura. His son Avudeva rose to a higher administrative position.

As a tool for explaining the past, empirical study is crucial. The dependence on Brahmanical normative texts in Sanskrit leaves an impression, mostly inaccurate, that early India can be perceived through the prism of the Vedas, Dharmasastras and Puranas: that is, the sruti-smriti tradition. Yet, there is an impressive corpus of inscribed documentation (mostly on stone and copper plates, sometimes on pottery shards) from this period. Nearly four decades ago, D.C. Sircar, the doyen of Indian epigraphy, counted more than 84,000 such inscribed documents. These include royal and administrative records, documents of donation by individuals and groups, and label inscriptions accompanying divine images. Since these inscriptions mostly record events, they are descriptive evidence, while the Dharmasastra texts are essentially prescriptive.

Capturing the times

Inscriptions present voices from a past otherwise not audible in didactic texts. These inscriptions, more accurate by dating and provenance than texts, are also of infinite value in capturing the social, economic and cultural situations of remote times. Like other branches of history, epigraphy too is a specialist’s job and open to multiple readings of the same texts by different experts.

Bhojavarman is also known from his other inscription, a land grant record in copper plate dated in his fifth regnal year, showing that like his two predecessors Harivarman and Samalavarman, he too was a devout Vaishnava ruler. He was a local monarch, ruling merely over a sub-region of ancient Bengal. Yet, he looms large in cultural history by accommodating diversity of faiths in his realm. In fact, two Buddhist manuscripts were prepared during the reign of the Vaishnava Varman rulers.

Cultural plurality was thus a lived experience in Vanga under the Varmans. The Varman patronage of Buddhism implies their familiarity with viharas. That is why an Islamic institution was called a vihara in the 12th-century inscription.

Arabic and Persian script

Avudeva’s monetary donation to the vihara of Allahabhattarakasvami had the assent (anumatya) of all the kinsmen (jnatinam) of the non-local people (paradesikas) in the area; as worshippers of Allahabhattarakasvami, they were Muslims, probably from overseas. A large number of Arabic and Persian texts speak of the port of Samandar, identified with Chittagong in Bangladesh.

The patronage given to the earliest known Islamic shrine in Bengal thus illuminates the presence of a Muslim diaspora in ancient Vanga. This diaspora was accommodated by a host society that was steeped in Brahmanical bhakti cults and familiar with Buddhist practices. The advent of the worshippers of Allah in 12th-century coastal Bengal was evidently not through conquest but by commerce. Thanks to Furui’s insightful reading and translation of this fascinating document, the heritage of cultural plurality in the subcontinent is further established.

This grant is not unique. A mid-ninth century inscription from Kerala records similar grants of land by the Chera king Kulasekhara to a Syrian Christian church. A Jewish settlement similarly received patronage in Kerala around AD 1000. The coastal town of Somanatha in Kathiawad perhaps offers the most emblematic illustration of cultural plurality. In 1264, an elaborate Sanskrit inscription (with an accompanying, but synoptic, text in Arabic), says that a mosque (Mijigiti, Sanskritised form of Masjid) was built at Somanatha by a devout Muslim shipowner (nakhuda), Nur-uddin Firuz (Sanskritised as Noradina Piroja), hailing from Hormuz.

The procurement of land for the mosque was upheld by Saiva Pasupata acharya presiding over the local town council, endorsed by the provincial authority, and finally approved by the Chaulukya ruler Vaghela Arjunadeva. The inscription opens with a salutation (Om namostute) to Allah. Allah is described by four stunning attributes: Visvarupa (Universal), Visvanatha (Lord of the Universe), Sunyarupa (Formless or Aniconic) and Lakshya yet Alakshya (Visible but Formless).

Once a temple, the Asthana-e-Moula Ali dargah in old Pallavaram, Chennai, where some of the earliest inscriptions of Madras were found. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Once a temple, the Asthana-e-Moula Ali dargah in old Pallavaram, Chennai, where some of the earliest inscriptions of Madras were found. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam  

These inscriptions clearly show that there were few attempts at ‘othering’ any diasporic groups, including Muslims, by local host societies in the subcontinent. Neither was there any compulsion to reduce cultural diversities into a ‘melting pot’. It underlines the long-drawn Indic practice of promoting cultural plurality. Which is why one cannot but be alarmed by the attempts to erase this heritage by the current proponents of religious nationalism, hate ideology and majoritarian politics. What Bhojavarman practised in 12th-century Bengal needs to be embraced and multiplied for the very sustenance of the idea of India.

The writer was Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, and is now Visiting Scholar, Department of History, University of California.

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 6:41:39 PM |

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