Bangla: The history of a language

Syed Ashraf Ali

Language is the dress of thought. It is this language which enables human beings not only to communicate with each other, but also to give vent to feelings and emotions, and express or record thoughts and ideas, dreams and desires. Wherever there are men, there is language. Language has always accompanied man in his slow and difficult climb to higher civilization. Without language for communication, there would be little or no science, religion, commerce, art, literature, and philosophy.No wonder Webster claimed, "Language was the immediate gift of God."

We, the Bangladeshis, are grateful to Benign Providence that He has, in His infinite Mercy, blessed us with a language which not only has a great tradition behind but also occupies a unique place in the annals of history. We are really proud that Amor Ekushey, the Red Letter Day in the history of language, the well-spring of our deepest emotions about our cultural heritage and the harbinger of all our hard struggles, has been singled out of the 4000 plus mother languages and blessed with the unique honour of the International Mother Language Day.

Bangla, the blood of our blood and the bone of our bone, is no ordinary language. The heartthrob of more than 140 million Bangladeshis, Bangla indeed is no language of common rank or trifling merit. It is a language capable of expressing the finest modulations of thoughts and feelings, never failing to respond to the ever-changing play of life, a literature worthy to be taught in any university in the world a language which, in the words of the great Maestro Tagore, “belongs to the procession of life, making constant adjustments with surprises, exploring unknown shrines of reality along its path of pilgrimage to a future which is as different from the past as the tree from the seed.

Bangla also occupies a unique prestigious place in the annals of civilization simply because it is the only language in the world for the recognition of which people have smilingly embraced bullets and shuffled off the mortal coil, the only language on this globe for the legitimate and rightful status of which people have braved the bitterest ordeals, have faced the gravest trials and tribulations, have unhesitatingly accepted the cold and cruel kiss of death, the only language on earth the struggle for which has helped a nation achieve an independent and sovereign state. No language on the clay of this cold star can boast of such unparalleled devotion, dedication and sacrifice from those speaking it.

The renowned Mahastan Plaque discovered by Baru Fakir in 1931, considered by some as the earliest evidence of "primitive" Bangla (the famous Charya-Charya Binischaya is, however, almost universally accepted as the earliest available specimen of Bengali literature), testifies to the fact that Bangla is no newborn baby in the cradle of languages. Although it originates from the Eastern Prakrit group of the Indo-Aryan family of languages, its history dates back to the Aryan days. Some scholars even go to the extent of claiming that the emperor Ashoka, and even Lord Buddha, occasionally used a certain type of Bangla "Lipi" while communicating with their subjects and disciples in the eastern regions of this subcontinent.(Incidentally, a research-paper written by Dr. Mohammed Rezaul Karim, published in "Itihas" edited by Profs.Wakil Ahmed and Habiba Khatun, in 2007 AD, claimed that the first inscription in Bangla was made by Mohammed Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1205 when a bi-lingual coin was issued in Gour with the words "Gosur Bijoy" inscribed on it in Devnagri script.)

In the pre-Aryan days the people living in Bengal were of Dravidian, Mongolian, Bhot-Chin or Kolomboda origin. They used to speak in Dravidian, Bhot-Chin or Munda languages.

It was in Gupta era that Bengal had first contact with the Aryan civilization. But before any intimate or effective acquaintance could be established with the Aryan civilization, the Pal kings turned Bengal into one of the citadels of Buddhism. The Aryans realised that the first step to pollute or cripple a culture is to destroy or distort its language. As a result of systematic oppression by the Sanskrit and Prakrit speaking people the innocent indigenous inhabitants of Bengal started forgetting their languages. But Sanskrit was no effective spoken language, almost everything it had at the time was in black and white. So a section of the people started speaking in a particular type of Prakrit known as Gouriya-Prakrit. The Gouriya-Prakrit being used by the non-Aryans, Dravidians, Kot-Chins, Mundas and Kols took a distorted form and many a word from their dialects had slow but steady access into it. Slowly and silently this distorted form of Gouriya-Prakrit (Gouriya Apabhramsa) gave birth to ancient Bengali language. But the people who used to speak in this ancient form of Bangla were looked down upon as an inferior caste by the Aryans. It was claimed that anyone who spoke in this 'disgraceful' dialect of the untouchables would inevitably go to hell. It is really unfortunate that although Bengal reached the peak of glory in almost every domain of thought during the reign of Gopal Dev and his descendants, who ruled over this part of subcontinent for more than three hundred years, the Bangla language could not make any remarkable progress. The reason was plain and simple - the then Hindu society always despised and hated this 'ignominious dialect of the untouchables'. Written form of Bengali was yet to come.

After the Pals came the Sens who ruled over Bengal for nearly one hundred years. To them also Bangla was the language of the untouchables.

It was the conquest of Bengal by the Muslims in 1201 AD which ushered in a new era for Bangla, providing it a congenial environment and proper facilities to thrive into a major language. When the Muslims first conquered Bengal there was hardly any Bengali literature worth the name. Nor was the language cultivated by the educated class. The language of the Charya-Charya Binischaya, now referred to as Charyapads, comprising 47 poems making a total of some 480 lines, according to competent sources, was "but poor fragments of the literature" which owed its origin "chiefly to earnestness of Tantrik Buddhists for popularizing their creed and which was just evolving out of Laukika".

Whatever might be the exact date of the Charyapads it is generally recognized by scholars that no vernacular language could have found a scope for free literary expression under the Brahmanical system which preceded the coming of the Muslims and which interdicted the study of any but the Sanskrit language. A well-known Sanskrit Sloka (couplet) states that if a person hears "the stories of Ashtadash Puranas or of the Ramayana recited in Bengali, he will be thrown into the hell called Raurava" Bangla, "the language of the untouchables" would have surely been nipped in the bud had there been no patronage from the Muslim kings like Sikander Shah, Hussain Shah, Yusuf Shah, Barbak Shah and Paragol Khan.

One of the most important results of the establishment of Muslim rule was the break-up of the Brahmanical monopoly of knowledge and literary activities and a general freeing of the Hindu intellect from the bondage of caste system. The Muslims could not be expected to make any distinction between Brahmins and non-Brahmins in any legitimate sphere of activity, all of them being equally eligible for acquiring knowledge and official positions according to merit. The Muslims not only welcomed Bangla with an open heart but they literally gave a new birth to this hitherto neglected language. By 1350 AD Muslims had united different regions of Bengal and started becoming patrons of Bengali language and literature, thus providing an impetus to new literary productions in Bengali.

Blessed with the royal patronage the swelling waves of Bangla started reaching every nook and corner of Bengal. It reached the high and the low, the rich and the poor and played a dominant role in every sphere of activity and in every domain of thought. Hindus and Muslims alike welcomed the royal patronage and enjoyed its benefits with all their heart. Ramaya Pundit eulogized in unequivocal terms the Muslim conquest of Bengal as a heavenly bliss. In Niranjaner Rushma, a section of his Shunnya Purana, the Muslims are portrayed as Religious Incarnate releasing people from the tyranny and oppression of the Brahmins and the Sen rulers. No wonder, Promatha Chowdhury has unhesitatingly admitted : "Bangla literature had its genesis in the Muslim era." Dinesh Chandra Sen further corroborates : “We are led to believe that when the powerful Moslem sovereigns of Bengal granted this recognition to the vernacular literature in their own courts, Hindu Rajas naturally followed the suit.” (History of Bengali Language and Literature)

The renowned historian Dr. Muhammad Mohar Ali gives a vivid description of the commendable Muslim patronage of Bangla : "The first notable literary production in Bengali was a translation of the Ramayana by poet Krittivas during the first quarter of the 15th century, most probably during the reign of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Shah (1415-1431). The poet praises the Gauda ruler for his patronage and also states that the work was commissioned by him. The next notable work was by poet Maladhar Vasu, an inhabitant of village Kulin in Murshidabad district. He lived during the time of Sultan Yusuf Shah (1474-1482). Under the latter's patronage the poet composed his Srikrishna-Vijaya on the basis of the 10th and 11th chapters of Bhagavad-Gita. The poet also received the title of Gunraj Khan either from Barbak Shah or from Yusuf Shah. The poet takes care to state that he composed the work because the Sudras, the lowest caste of the Hindus, were not allowed to read the Puranas in their originals. Some other poets also flourished during the Ilyas Shahi period.

During the Hussain Shahi period a number of important poets like Vijayagupta, Vipradas Piplai, Yasoraj Khan, Kavindra Parameshwara and Srikara Nandi composed their works. Early in Hussain Shah's reign (1493-1519) Vijayagupta composed his Padma Purana (most probably in 1494-95), while Vipradas Piplai wrote the Manasamangala, an epic on the snake cult, about the same time. Also during the same reign Yasoraj Khan composed his Srikrishna-Vijaya. Kavindra Parameshwara received the patronage of Hussain Shah's general and Chittagong governor Paragal Khan and at his instance translated a part of the Mahabharata into Bengali. A number of Sanskrit works like Haricharita Krishnalila, Udbhava-Sandesh, Gitabali, Nilmani, etc. by various poets were also composed during the time and under the patronage of Hussain Shah. His son and successor Nusrat Shah (1519-1532) was an equally enthusiastic patron of learning and literature. His Chittagong governor Chhuti Khan, son of Paragal Khan, patronized poet Srikar Nandi who translated the Asvamedha Parva of the Mahabharata under his orders. Nusrat Shah himself sponsored another translation of the Mahabharata, but that work has not hitherto come to light. Another poet, Dvija Sridhara, composed an epic named Vidyasundra under the patronage of prince Firuz Shah, Nusrat Shah's son." (Muhammad Mohar Ali, History of the Muslims of Bengal, Riyadh, 1985, Pp.856-858).

The Muslim rulers indeed made every effort to patronize Bangla. Baru Chandidas of Srikrishna-Kirtan was blessed with a royal invitation to sing at the court of Gaur. Maladhar Vasu of Srikrishna-Vijaya could complete his works with much-needed royal patronage for seven years from Sultan Barbak Shah. Krittivas also had the unique distinction of being personally garlanded by the Sultan himself. None indeed can deny the fact that the patronage of the Muslim kings was the most effective and greatest factor in Bangla's transition from the spoken stage to the written one. Mention may be made in this connection that Bengal had also numerous Muslim writers in those days. Great personalities like Muhammad Sagir of Yusuf-Zuleikha fame wrote fearlessly and freely ignoring totally the hoodwink of the then orthodox Mullahs. Syed Sultan, Haji Muhammad, Sheikh Mutalib and Abdunnabi also openly advocated the cause of Bangla. In the thirteenth century the illustrious father of Hazrat Nur Kutubul Alam, who migrated to Bengal from Punjab, even went to the extent of affixing the title Bangalee to his name and he was known all over Bengal as Sheikh Alaul Huq Bangalee.

And it was the Muslim poet Abdul Hakim who was the first litterateur to criticize in writing the nefarious activities of the Bangla-haters as far back as 17th century. He had the courage and conviction to urge the enemies of Bangla either to change their attitude or to leave Bengal for good. The people of Bengal had indeed started struggling for the legitimate rights and recognition of their mother tongue - a struggle which continued for centuries, and being rejuvenated by the historic Ekushey, culminated in the very birth of an independent and sovereign state known as Bangladesh. As we celebrate and mourn on Amor Ekushey, a spark of light, indefinable and beautitully etched in the mind, which links the sadness scrawled on the Shaheed Minar with the poignancy of the National Memorial in Savar, none can afford to forget even for a moment that this red letter day, tinged with the sacred blood of martyrs like Barkat, Salam, Jabbar and Rafique, owes its very sustenance and nourishment to the glorious patronage of the Muslim era in Bengal.

Syed Ashraf Ali is former Director General, Islamic Foundation Bangladesh.

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