Because of her geographical proximity with the south-eastern parts of Bengal, Arakan developed both political and cultural ties with Bengalis. Major Muslim settlements developed along the rivers of Lemru, Mingen, Kaladan, Mayu and Naaf.
Its courts and royalties patronized Bengali literature. Some of the best known classical Bengali poets (Alaol, Dawlat Qazi, Mardan) came from Arakan. Its capital city essentially became the breeding ground for Bengali literature in the 17th century. This Mrauk-U period also came to be known as the ‘Golden Age’ in the history of Arakan.
It is also worth mentioning here that as a result of rather lax administrative control of Chittagong by the Mughal and Afghan rulers, and the intermittent rebellion by the Sultans of Bengal against the central government in Delhi, the territory was lost to Arakan between 1580 and 1666 CE. So the ties between Chittagong and Arakan were no less striking than those visible today in places like Texas and California with Mexico.
In their masterpiece work "Arakan Rajsabhay Bangala Sahitya,” Abdul Karim Shahitya Visarad and Dr. Enamul Haq wrote, "The way Bangali flourished in the court of the 17th century Arakan, nothing of that sort is found in its [Bengal’s] own soil. It is surprising that during the exile of Bengali language in Arakan, it was greatly appreciated by the Muslim courtiers of the Arakanese kings and the Muslim poets of East Bengal, especially those of the [greater] Chittagong Division.”
These scholars further wrote, “The study of Bengali literature that the Muslim initiated reached perfection under the aegis of the courtiers of the Roshang kings.
It is needless to say that the Kings’ Court of Roshang got filled up with Muslim influence long before this. From the beginning of the 15th century AD the Kings’ Court of Roshang by luck was compelled to heartily receive the Muslim influence…
…. [T]he powerful intrusion of the Muslim influence that penetrated into the Kings’ Court of Roshang in the fifteenth century AD grew all the more in the following centuries. This influence gradually grew so strong that it reached the highest point in the seventeenth century. The Bengali literature in this century shows the full picture of the Muslim influence in the King’s Court of Roshang.”
How can this piece of history about flourishing Bengali literature and the presence of Muslim courtiers and subjects in Arakan be ignored by any objective analyst?
Nor should one forget that when the Mughal Prince Shah Shuja, the Governor of Bengal (1639-59), chose to take asylum in 1660 CE instead of submitting to the authority of Aurangzeb – the new Mughal Emperor, he chose Arakan, which already had many high ranking Muslims serving the king of Arakan. He was accompanied by his family members and retinues, which included hundreds of bodyguards. Upon arrival, however, the Mughal Prince was betrayed by the Arakanese king Sanda Sudamma. While there are competing accounts as to what had ultimately happened to the fate of the Prince, including one account that suggests that Shah Shuja and his family members were treacherously murdered (and another that suggests that he was able to flee to Manipur with some of his retinues), there is little doubt that many of his guards who were attacked savagely by the Maghs of Arakan fled to the nearby jungle. Some of the surviving guards were later made royal archers and bodyguards serving the Arakanese king.
Their descendants, known as the Kamans or Kamanchis (bowman), are to be found settled mostly in Rambree Island. Some of the followers of Shah Shuja escaped the persecution of Maghs and crossed to Burma. The king of Ava settled them in Ramethin, Shwebo, Maydu and Meiktila. Their descendants can be found today at these places.
There was yet another kind of interaction between the Kingdom of Arakan with its eastern neighbor Bengal, beginning in the 17th century, when gaining strength, the kings of Arakan would allow the plunder of Bengal, and Bengali captives – tens of thousands - would be brought to work as slaves in Arakan. When the Portuguese moved to the Bay of Bengal, they were allowed to set up their military posts in Arakan. In return, the Portuguese aided the Rakhine Maghs in their piracy in Bengal, terrorizing its people and harassing the Mughal forces. The joint Magh-Portuguese marauding expeditions into Bengal continued well after they were routed out of Chittagong in 1666 by Shaista Khan, the Mughal Viceroy (Subedar) of Bengal and his son General Bujurg Umid Khan. Taking captives, most of whom were Muslims, forcing them into slavery was an important part of those raids.
Manrique, a Portuguese priest who visited Bengal and Arakan and who spent six years in the Augustinian Church at Dianga (Deang, near Chittagong town) was himself a witness to such Magh-Portuguese piratical raids. He wrote, “They usually made there general attacks three or four times in the year, irrespective of minor raids which went on most of the year, so that during the five years I spent in the kingdom of Arracan, some eighteen thousand people came to the ports of Dianga and Angarcale.”
As can be seen from Manrique’s account, the number of those captives was not small, and was in excess of 3,000 per year, and continued for well over a century of piracy. This is further evidenced by the fact that when the Chittagong fort fell into the hands of the Mughals, 10,000 Bengali (both Muslim and Hindu) captives got liberty and they went to their homes. While the Portuguese pirates sold their captives and/or forcibly baptized them into Christianity, the Magh pirates forced theirs into slave labors in the paddy fields along the Kaladan River (the river was named after these Kalas). So these captives also helped in increasing the Muslim population of Arakan. The descendants of these captives mostly reside now in Kyauktaw and Mrohaung Townships of Arakan.
According to historian Professor Abdul Karim, “In the 17th century the Muslims thronged the capital Mrohaung and they were present in the miniature courts of ministers and other great Muslim officers of the kingdom. An idea of their presence is available in the writings of Muslim poets like Alaol who wrote that people from various countries and belonging to various groups came to Arakan to be under the care of Arakanese king. The Portuguese Padre Fray Sebastien Manrique visited Arakan and stayed for some time; he was also present in the coronation ceremony of the Arakanese king held on 23 January 1635. He gives a description of the coronation procession and says that of the several contingents of army that took part in the coronation, one contingent wholly comprised of Muslim soldiers, let by a Muslim officer called Lashkar Wazir. The leader rode on Iraqi horse, and the contingent comprised of six hundred soldiers. In other contingent, led by Arakanese commanders also there were Muslim soldiers. This evidence of Sebastien Manrique combined with the fact that there were several Muslim ministers in Arakan gives a good picture of the presence of the Muslim in Arakan in the 17th century. The influence of the Muslim officers over the king of Arakan is also evident from the episodes mentioned by Sebastien Manrique.”
The Muslims of Arakan, therefore, are an amalgam of new migrants - Shaikhs, Syeds, Qazis, Mollahs, Alims, Fakirs, Arabs, Rumis (Turks), Moghuls, Pathans - from various parts of the Muslim world that settled during and before the Mrauk-U dynasty, including the captives (the so-called Kolas) brought in from various parts of Bengal and India, and the indigenous Muslims (the children of Bhumiputras who had converted to Islam over the centuries). They created the genesis of what we call the Rohingya Muslims. To put it succinctly: the Rohingya Muslims are the descendants of the indigenous 'Kalas' that either converted or mixed with the Muslim settlers/travelers/Sufis (including Arab/Persian merchants, traders) to the region, the non-returning soldiers who came to restore Narameikhla to the throne of Arakan, the unwilling captives and others that called Arakan their ancestral home. Hence, the Rohingya Muslims are not an ethnic group, which developed from one tribal group affiliation or single racial stock, but are an ethnic group that developed from different stocks of people.
As already demonstrated, the conversion of these indigenous people to Islam has been no different than what has happened throughout history in the last 14 centuries along the coastal regions from Mozambique to Malacca. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the Rohingyas of Arakan while having some similarities in matters of physical features, and borrowing religious, linguistic and cultural heritage with their neighbors to the west would develop their own distinct identity, albeit a hybrid or mosaic one. They are neither Chittagonians nor are they Bengalis [Bangladeshis].
The Rohingya Muslims - the ‘Musulman Arakanese’ - as Anthony Irwin noted, ‘are quite unlike any other product of India or Burma that I have seen.’ Similarly, Moshe Yeager noted, “There is very little common – except common religion – between the Rohingyas of Arakan and the Indian Muslims of Rangoon or Burmese Muslims…”
While their ancestral territory would later be colonized by the Tibeto-Burman Buddhists - the ancestors of today’s Rakhines - whose cultural ties have been towards the east, it is the strength of their group character that the Rohingyas of Arakan were able to retain their linguistic and genealogical ties to the soil. After all, the Rakhines are genetically, culturally and linguistically closer to the Burmans (of Burma). On the other hand, as Dr. Yegar noted ‘the Rohingyas preserved their own heritage from the impact of the Buddhist environment, not only as far as their religion is concerned, but also in … their culture.’
As the children of the indigenous people of Arakan, the Rohingyas have as much right, if not more, as the Rakhine Buddhists, to identify themselves with the name that they prefer to describe them. If the late-coming Tibeto-Burman admixture has no problem in calling itself the Rakhaing of Arakan, no outsider (and surely not its abuser) has any right to either define the Rohingya maliciously or deny the same privilege in self-identifying itself.
To call these indigenous people of Arakan -- who identify themselves as the Rohingyas in Burma – “unwanted guests” is like calling the Native Americans unwanted refugees who had settled in America after the Europeans. As much as no massacre of yesteryears and ghettoization of the Native Americans today in designated American Indian Reservation camps can obliterate their genuine right, place, history and identity, no propaganda and government or non-government sponsored pogroms can erase the rightful identity of the Rohingya people of Burma. They are the children of the soil of Arakan.
************ To be continued *********
[Dr Siddiqui’s book - The Forgotten Rohingya: Their Struggle for Human Rights in Burma – is available from Amazon.com]
Part 1: http://www.asiantribune.com/news/2011/09/18/letter-america-muslim-identi...
Part 2: http://www.asiantribune.com/news/2011/09/25/letter-america-muslim-identi...
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