Bangla: a historical overview

Syed Ashraf Ali

Language”, claims O.W. Holmes, “is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.” No wonder, language occupies a very important place in the life of a man. It is language which makes it possible for men to communicate with each other. It is language which enables a human being to give vent to his or her feelings and emotions, thoughts and ideas, dreams and desires, Wherever there are men, there is language. Even the members of the simplest tribal community speak a language. Language indeed has accompanied man in his slow and difficult climb to higher civilization. Had there been no language, there would be little or no science, no religion, no commerce, no art, no literature and no philosophy - the very civilization would perhaps be full of emptiness.

In our world of nearly five thousand languages Bangla, the heartthrob of each and every Bangladeshi, occupies a very commanding and respectable position. We Bangladeshis have every reason to feel proud that February 21 has been earmarked by UNESCO as the International Mother Language Day. Barkat, Salam, Rafique, Jabbar of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) created history when they made supreme and unprecedented sacrifice on February21, 1952. Very few of us know that Sunil Sircar, Sukomol Purakaistha, Kumud Das, Chandicharan, Tarani Debnath, Hitesh Biswas, Sachindra Pal, Kamal Bhattacharya, Kanai Neogi, Virendra Sutradhar and Satyendra Kumar Dev emulated the noble ideals and re-enacted the glorious feat of Barkat et al in India (Shilchar, Assam) on 19 May, 1961. No other language on earth can boast of such daring and unparalleled sacrifice in the annals of civilization. As the Bangladeshi martyrs were the pioneers, the red letter day 21 February is now celebrated with befitting honour as the International Mother Language Day all over the world.

Bangla it is a language which, in the words of 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.” No wonder this great language has a long and chequered history behind.

Although the famous Charya-Charya Binischaya is almost universally accepted as the earliest available specimen of Bengali literature, some historians claim that the renowned Mahastan Plaque discovered by Baru Fakir in 1931 is the earliest evidence of “Primitive” Bangla. It testifies to the fact that the history of Bengali, originating from the Eastern Prakrit Group of Indo-Aryan family of Languages, dates back to the Aryan days. Some scholars even go to the extent of claiming that the great emperor Ashoka, and even Lord Buddha (Peace be upon him), occasionally used a certain type of Bangla “Lipi” while communicating with their subjects and disciples in the eastern region of the subcontinent. A research-paper written by Dr.Mohammed Rezaul Karim (published in “Itihas” edited by Profs. Wakil Ahmed and Habiba Khatun in 2007 AD), however, 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 “Gour Bijoy” inscribed on it in Devnagri script.

The exact origin of the word Bangla (or Bengal), the cradle of Bengali language, is not known though it is believed to be derived from the Dravidianspeaking tribe Bang/ Banga that settled in the area around 1000. B. C. Other accounts speculate that the name is derived from Vanga (or Bongo) which came from the Austric word Bonga. meaning the Sun god. Some Muslim accounts, however, refer to Bong, a son of Hind. Hind, according to those claims, was a son of Ham who was a son of the holy Prophet Noah (peace be upon him). It was Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah (1342 1357) who took the title Shah- e- Bangla and united the whole region under one government.

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 realized 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 both the Bangla language and the people who used to speak in this ancient form of Bangla were looked down upon as an inferior caste by the Aryans.

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. Bangla, "the language of the untouchables" would have surely been nipped in the bud had there been no patronage from Muslim kings like Sikander Ilyas Shah, Hussain Shah, Yusuf Shah, Barbak Shah, Paragol Khan et al.

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)

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 Gour. 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 very boldly 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 call to struggle fearlessly, an urge that the ominous dark be supplemented by the radiant happiness of the substantial kind, no Bangla-speaking person can forget even for a moment that the language Barkat, Salam, Jabbar, Rafique and many others sacrificed their precious lives for owes its sustenance and nourishment to the whole-hearted support and unparalleled patronage of the tolerant and liberal Muslim rulers of Bengal.

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