Raja Ganesh, Brahmin Sultan of Bengal
Father to Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah
This isn't a story about Hindu Muslim politics. It is a story of how power is taken to build a state that is inclusive and accepting of continuity in plurality. This is a history of the Hindu king who forged a successful Islamic kingdom in medieval Bengal.
He lived in the early 1400s, and later sources say Raja Ganesh was a powerful local Brahmin landholder in Bengal whose family had enjoyed prominent status in the delta for over four centuries. In 1410, Raja Ganesh assumed so much power in Bengal that he flamboyantly took control of the state and ruled through four puppet rulers.
His ancestors had seen the rise of the Delhi Sultanate, and the integration and subsequent independence of Bengal from the Sultanate, whose tussle to bring Bengal into its fold, unsuccessfully, has instilled within the Bengali people a sense of local identity, and almost shaped what some call the Bengal Sultanate now.
For some it is that local identity that continues till today, where Bengalis are led by Bengalies who conform to the larger economic structure of a polity however in a Bengali way.
Raja Ganesh in 1415 enthroned his own twelve-year-old son while governing as hakim or regent of Bengal guiding political and economic reforms. Interestingly, Ganesh did not revive the brahmanical model of kinship of an earlier phase of history and rather converted his own son to Islam. He would reign as Jalaluddin Muhammad, with coins issued in his name in the Persianate style of the kings before his father.
This careful choice was forcefully put forward to ingrain within the prevalent state order a larger opportunity for more Hindus to be assimilated into the governing structure of Bengal. When Raja Ganesh was asserting control in 1410, he is said to have faced opposition from an orthodox Sufi order, who opposed a 'convert' king ruling the state in the name of Islam..
Jalal al-Din Muhammed as he grew as a Sultan, began to commit to a future bigger than himself, to build a state that was globally recognised in the larger Islamic world. Jalal al-Din's diplomatic missions to the west brought Bengal global attention including from the Mamluk sultan of Egypt when he patronised a religious college in Mecca and rebuilt mosques destroyed by his father. This clarified his state's assimilation into international networks of wealth and power.
Jalal al-Din proclaimed himself the 'caliph of god in the universe', one of the loftiest titles in the Sunni world according to Richard M. Eaton, writer of the book India in the Persianate Age. In public this king had completely converted to Islam, and become a devout Muslim, who would profess and proclaim Islamic reforms to build an Islamic kingdom, and urge his ministers to convert to Islam.
Nevertheless like other Muslim rulers in the region he built his state as a mix of local and global. The symbols of Persian imperialistic kinship were showcased through material culture but with clear local aesthetics. His court was conducted in the Bengali language, while other sultans across the subcontinent desperately tried to conform to an Iranian finesse. In this way the Sultanate founded by his father's masterstroke found a deeper hook into society and polity.
Architecturally, Bengali mosques adopted local structural elements and motifs such as the single dome brick building and extensive terracotta ornamentations, which borrowed from Bengal's Buddhist shrines and monasteries, like the Somapura Mahavihara in present day Bangladesh.
The Eklakhi, the massive one-domed brick tomb of Jalal al-Din Shah, and of his wife and his son Ahmad Shah.
Artist: Sita Ram (fl. c.1810-1822)
Credit: British Library
Hindu temple beyond a group of thatched houses, Calcutta
Artist: D'Oyly, Sir Charles (1781-1845)
Medium: Pencil on paper
Temple of Lall Deo, Bishnupur.
Photographer: Campbell, Walter
Medium: Photographic print
Jalal al-Din had left a legacy of a successful and syncretic state policy that allowed Hindus in a medieval Islamic state to rise to positions such as chief minister, chief of bodyguards, master of mint, private physicians, etc.
Between 1450-1550 over a 100 state sponsored brick and stone mosques sprung up across the Bengali delta. The court also extended vigorous support to devotional Vaishnav literature in the Bengali language.
A clear departure from Shaiva literature was noticed in Bengal, where folk Bengali literature or Vaiśnava literature was favoured, and the same applied to the appointment of Bengali officials who were preferred over Śakta Brahmins.
During the rule of Raja Ganesh's sons books like Śri Krsna-Vijaya, Manasa Vijaya,Padma-Purana, Krsna-Mangala, and portions of the Mahabharata were patronised, and translated into Bengali.
Meanwhile a building program across the delta saw the reinforcement of folk architecture which was inspired from the thatched bamboo hut found throughout Bengal. Features such as the curved roof of the terracotta mosques and temples in Bengal are based on the natural curve of the bamboo under the weight of the thatching.
To some, this spirit of regionalism gave the people of Bengal confidence in the strength of their own culture and an air of acceptance that all cultures would flourish simultaneously in Bengal.
Raja Ganesh set the stage for continuity rather than revenge. He chose to signal merits in pushing for plurality within state structure rather than imposing one state structure over the other. Most importantly he did not push for his own legacy. It is ironic that lost heroes such as Raja Ganesh in hindsight are celebrated with far greater credibility than leaders who exposed their separationist and ideologically led personal agendas.
Vara'ha Avata'ra, or descent in the Boar
Artist: Creighton, Henry (c.1767 - 1807)
Medium: Aquatint, coloured
Aquatint by Henry Creighton dating to 1817. It shows stone slabs that were taken from the Chota Sona or Small Golden Mosque in Gaur in West Bengal. Most of the monuments in Gaur are bereft of epigraphs, some of which were removed for safekeeping while others were lost to time. The complex past of Gaur is reflected in the fact that much of the building material preserves the reused remains of the sacred places of other faiths. Where an image was to be totally enfolded into a different structure it was left intact. Most monuments that survive in Gaur date to the period after the move of the capital of the Bengal sultanate from nearby Pandua in the mid-fifteenth century