Baro Bhuiyan: Delaying The Mughals’ Bengal Dream

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The Mughals were a formidable force in the subcontinent but did you know that a confederacy of Afghan and Bengali chieftains managed to foil their ambitions in Bengal for over 40 years? Catch the story of the Baro-Bhuiyan and their forgotten role in the history of Bengal.

Across the centuries, there have been many kingdoms and rulers who have slipped between the pages of history, and into obscurity. One such fascinating political entity were the Baro-Bhuiyan or chieftains of Bengal, who held out against the Mughals for four decades. These chieftains, many of Afghan ancestry, fought the mighty Mughals in the 16th century CE and checked the expansion of the Mughal Empire into Central and Eastern Bengal for nearly half a century.

The Baro-Bhuiyan of Bengal – not to be confused with the Baro-Bhuiyan of Assam – were one of the most troublesome local rulers that Mughal Emperors Akbar and Jahangir had to deal with. This is their story.

Who Were The Baro-Bhuiyan?

The term ‘Baro-Bhuiyan’ refers to local chiefs and zamindars who became independent from the fledgling Sur Empire (1538-1556 CE) established by Sher Shah Suri and, later, the last dynasty of the Bengal Sultanate - the Karrani Dynasty – after its defeat by the Mughals in 1576 CE.

‘Baro’ refers to the number ‘12’ and ‘Bhuiyan’ roughly translates to ‘local chief’ or zamindar. Although sources such as Abul Fazl’s Akbarnama and Mirza Nathan’s Baharistan-i-Ghaybi mention 12 local chiefs or Baro Bhuiyan, there were likely many more, spread across the riverine province.

These local chiefs and zamindars soon took control of the strategically important province of Bengal. This region stretched from Odisha in the south, to the Koch Kingdom of Assam in the north and to the Arakan Kingdom to the east in Burma.

While they ruled as individual chieftains often independent of each other, they also formed alliances to deal with external threats, such as that from the Mughals. Often, smaller chieftains would come under the hegemony of a larger and more powerful chief, which would help rally the other chieftains and galvanise resistance against the invading Mughals.

Exodus of Afghans Into Bengal

In the mid-15th century CE, Afghans had replaced the Turks as the Delhi Sultanate‘s ruling class. But in 1526 CE, another Turk from Central Asia, Babur, defeated the last Afghan ruling house – the Lodi Dynasty – in Delhi and established his own house. These were the Indo-Timurids or the Mughals. This led to a mass exodus of Afghan elites, nobles, aristocrats and others, down the Gangetic plain, into Bihar and Bengal, where they first established themselves as warrior chieftains.

Historian Richard M Eaton writes in his book The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760 (1993), that many of the warrior chieftains, who later came to be known as ‘Baro Bhuyian’, were descendants of the Afghan elites who fled the Mughal conquest.

The 1530s saw the rise of one of the most powerful Afghan chieftains, Sher Khan, who later styled himself as ‘Sher Shah’ (popularly known as Sher Shah Suri) and established the Sur Empire after defeating Mughal Emperor Humayun in the Battle of Chausa (1539 CE). His descendants ruled this Empire for the next 16 years, during which time Bengal was ruled as a province.

The Mughals returned to power after Humayun took back Delhi from Sher Shah‘s successors. Once again, large numbers of Afghans from North India sought refuge in Bengal, then ruled by remnants of the house of Sher Shah, and after 1564 CE by the house of another Afghan leader, Taj Khan Karrani. All this while, these remnants of the former Afghan ruling elite prevented Mughal expansion into Bengal, although they were ultimately unsuccessful.

Ascendency of the Mughals in Bengal

By the 1560s CE, Mughal power rested in the capable hands of Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605 CE), who had begun expanding all over North India. At the time, Bengal was ruled by the Karrani dynasty (1564-1576 CE), of Afghan ancestry. However, the province had fallen into political turmoil and chaos, which presented the Mughals a perfect opportunity to bring Bengal under their suzerainty. Due to its fertile land and thriving trade, Bengal was one of the richest regions in India, and the Mughals were very keen to lay their hands on it.

The rule of the Karrani dynasty in Bengal was threatened when Sultan Sulaiman Khan Karrani died in 1572 CE, triggering a self-destructive fratricide. This created a political void that the Mughals could not resist exploiting. The period between 1572 and 1576 CE saw numerous battles between the forces of Mughal commander Hussain Quli Beg or Khan Jahan, accompanied by Raja Todar Mal, and the last Sultan of Bengal, Daud Khan Karrani.

Karrani’s forces were decisively defeated in the Battle of Rajmahal on 12th July 1576 CE, where Daud Khan was captured and executed. His death spelt the end of the Bengal Sultanate and Bengal became a subah or province of the Mughal Empire.

Revolting Against The Mughals

Although Bengal became one of the 15 provinces of the Empire in 1576 CE, the Mughals didn’t establish complete control over the province until around 40 years later. They had captured Tanda (near Teliagarh, in present-day Jharkhand), the capital of Bengal at the time, but bringing the hinterland under their control was a challenge. As they consolidated their gains and began reorganising the administration of the newly conquered province, thousands of Afghans melted into the forested Bengali hinterland, where for the next four decades they continued to hold out against the new regime. There, they attracted a host of dissidents, including Muslim and Hindu zamindars and tribal chieftains, all of whom perceived the Mughals as foreigners and usurpers.

Rebellion against Mughal authority erupted in 1579 CE. Rebels seized and plundered the fortress in Tanda, executed Akbar‘s governor there, and set up a revolutionary government among themselves. Hindu zamindars in both the south-eastern and the south-western delta swiftly shrugged off their allegiance to the Mughals, while other disaffected mansabdars in Bihar joined the movement in Bengal.

For two years, the interior of Bengal (the southern Delta region) was completely beyond imperial authority, until 1582-83 CE, when Akbar used overwhelming force to crush the revolt. This region has been referred to as ‘Bhati’ by contemporary sources such as Abul Fazl’s Akbarnama. The word simply means ‘downstream direction’ and refers to the lowlands of Eastern Dhaka and Mymensingh, along with parts of Tripura and Sylhet.

The reputation of Bengal as one of the most stable, prosperous and profitable provinces of the later Mughal era was in sharp contrast to the unruly and independent landscape that the early Mughals had so much difficulty dealing with. The terrain, although flat, was difficult to traverse due to the many rivers that flowed through it, and its rivulets posed a significant challenge to the Mughal cavalry trying to penetrate deep into the delta region.

Mughal governors posted here had great difficulty holding the ground they had gained due to constant raids and counter-attacks by the still independent chieftains. This affected the administration as taxes couldn’t be collected effectively and law and order couldn’t be established. The situation was a far cry from the efficient bureaucracy and administration that would ultimately replace the chaos in Bengal during the reigns of Emperors Jahangir (r. 1605-1627 CE) and Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1658 CE).

Identifying the Baro-Bhuiyan

Mughal texts such as the Ain-i-Akbari, Akbarnama and Baharistan-i-Ghaibi give us the names of many Baro-Bhuiyan who came to control this region. Bangladeshi Historian Abdul Karim has named a few of them in his book History of Bengal: Mughal Period (1992) – Isa Khan of Sarail, Khwaja Usman Khan Lohani of Mymensingh (present-day North Bangladesh), Raja Kedar Ray of Bikrampur, the Ghazi family of North Dhaka and Raja Pratapaditya of Jessore, among others.

Let’s focus on the most prominent one – Isa Khan of Sarail – who became legendary for his tenacious defence against the Mughals for almost 20 years, as leader of the Baro-Bhuiyan of Bengal.

A Ruler In His Own Right

Isa Khan was born in Sarail, in today’s Eastern Bangladesh. He had Rajput ancestry through his grandfather, who was a Diwan under Sultan Ghiyasuddin Mahmud of Bengal. His father later inherited this post and converted to Islam. Isa had a tough childhood and was even sold as a slave to Iranian traders after his father was defeated in battle.

With the help of his uncle, he regained his freedom and acquired the zamindari of Sarail. He was soon employed in Sultan Daud Khan Karrani’s service during the early 1570s CE. After Karrani’s defeat by the Mughal army in Rajmahal in 1576 CE, Isa Khan began running his domain almost independently. Realising that he wouldn’t be able to confront the next Mughal assault alone, he developed an alliance or confederacy with neighbouring zamindars and Afghan commanders.

Isa Khan was a shrewd leader and he established good relations with the Kings of neighbouring Tripura and Kamarupa. By the early 1580s CE, he set up his stronghold deep in the Gangetic delta’s eastern tracts, in the town of Katrabo near the city of Sonargaon, south-east of present-day Dhaka. He declared himself as ruler of the Bhati region in 1581-82 CE and took the title of 'Masnad-i-Ala'.

Until 1586 CE, Isa Khan and his allies were constantly engaged in warfare with the Mughal Subahdar of Bengal, Shahbaz Khan, sent by Emperor Akbar, and each time the Mughals were crushed. Isa Khan and his allies used the riverine terrain to their advantage, by using a small but effective navy. By 1586 CE, not only had Isa Khan become the leader of the Baro-Bhuiyan but now the Mughals were forced to recognise him as the Zamindar of Bhati. And, for the next decade or so, there were no wars between Isa Khan and the Mughals.

But that didn’t stop Akbar from trying to establish total control over the province. In 1594 CE, Akbar sent one of his most trusted generals to Bengal as its new Subahdar, Raja Man Singh, to deal with Isa Khan and his allies and bring Bengal under Mughal rule once and for all. Man Singh led a vast army into the region in late 1595 CE. On seeing this, neighbouring chieftains like Kedar Rai and Patkunwar Narain, chose to fight alongside Isa Khan rather than submit to the Mughals.

Final Showdown With The Mughals

Between 1595 and late-1597 CE, Isa Khan was busy rekindling old alliances and was soon joined by the forces of Ma’sum Khan Kabuli, a defector from the Mughal camp who had fought for them years ago. By this time, the situation had become desperate. The Mughals had learnt lessons from their previous naval defeats and were now joined by a huge naval force, along with their army. The army could now be ferried and moved around more effectively in the riverine terrain.

The Mughal forces led by Man Singh's son Durjan Singh achieved some success initially, even attacking Isa Khan’s capital in Katrabo, near Sonargaon. However, in a fierce battle, not far from Sonargaon, the Mughal navy was surrounded by the Baro-Bhuiyan navy and was decisively defeated.

The Baro-Bhuiyan prevailed yet again, against a superior land and naval force, against all odds. The Mughals suffered heavily and Durjan Singh was killed in battle. Many Mughal commanders and soldiers were taken captive by Isa Khan. This marked the high point of conflict between Isa Khan and the Mughals until his death in 1599 CE.

Fall of the Baro-Bhuiyan

The power of the Baro-Bhuiyan would never be the same after Isa Khan’s death. Leaderless and divided, the remaining chiefs struggled to contain Mughal expansion when Man Singh shifted his capital to Dhaka. More centrally located, it made things easier for Man Singh to crush the remaining chieftains.

Between 1599 CE and 1603 CE, Man Singh defeated Isa Khan’s son, Daud, and his Afghan loyalists. He also defeated Kedar Ray of Bikrampur, who died in battle and drove Khwaja Usman Khan Lohani, the most powerful of the remaining Afghan chieftains, into the jungles of Mymensingh.

After Jahangir became the next Mughal Emperor, the last bastions of Baro-Bhuiyan resistance were that of Khwaja Usman Khan Lohani and Raja Pratapaditya of Jessore. They kept further Mughal incursions at bay to the best of their ability. However, their dominions ultimately fell to the Mughals when Ala al-Din Islam Shah was appointed the new military commander in the province in 1608 CE. By 1612 CE, both chieftains were defeated and there was no remaining resistance to Mughal rule in Bengal.

Thus ended the saga of resistance against the Mughals in Bengal. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the Baro-Bhuiyan were able to give the mighty Mughals much grief as they kept them at bay for almost 40 years. Apart from being in and out of conflict with the Mughals, the lands ruled by the Baro-Bhuiyan were still prosperous, with trade networks spread far and wide. The port of Sonargaon, Isa Khan’s stronghold, was the centre of the Muslin trade in Bengal.

Sonargaon is also home to some of the most breathtaking buildings from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and it showcases the rich legacy of these rulers. The stories and exploits of the Baro-Bhuiyan also survive in local folk tales and ballads. Although very few works have recorded them in English, many books have been written about them in Bengali, both in India and Bangladesh, like Banglar Baro Bhuiya O Maharaj Pratapaditya by Kamal Choudhury (2004).

With history often being misrepresented for political gain, it is imperative that the Baro-Bhuiyan do not fade into obscurity and that we remember their role in Bengal’s glorious past.

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