September 13, 2014 Persian perceptions By Tim Steel A closer look at the apparently close historical relationship between present day Iran and Bangladesh The importance of East India Company employees learning the Persian language in the 18th century, underlines both the extensive use of the language in Mughal times in Bangladesh, and also its continuing use in the early period of British administration. It is tempting to wonder whether it was Mughal influence, perpetuated, that, at least until recent times, lies behind the allegations of Arab orientation of the British foreign policy over recent centuries. The Persians have a long history of influence over the lands of the Ganges delta, that are now the lands of Bangladesh. These lands, which, under the Mughals became best known as Bengal, first came under Persian influence with the arrival of the Khilji in the early 13th century. When a soldier of Turkish origin led his men into Nadia, now just into West Bengal, in circa 1204, he drove from power the last of the Brahmanic Sena dynasty, and established Bengal as a province of the Delhi Sultanate. This, we learn from Persian sources, which may not always chime with perceptions in Bangladesh today, were the lands, in which it was the flourishing commerce of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers and their hinterlands which presented the main attraction to the invaders, quickly began to assimilate and learn, “the broad institutional features of mediaeval Iranian world that had evolved under the Abbasids.” The Abbasids represented, perhaps, the height of Islamic tradition, ruling or influencing much of the Islamic world from their Caliphate, of which Baghdad was the capital. Much has been written of the near half millennium of the rule that was brought to an abrupt end by the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols, in 1258. It is reasonable to speculate that the Khilji’s arrival in the lands of the rivers marked their flight from the earliest of the Mongol savaging of most of Central Asia. The “Abbasid influence” included, most importantly, “the pre Muslim Persian tradition of monarchy, and extensive reliance on imported slaves for military, domestic and political service, and a highly commercialised economy.” We know that, although coinage from that period is quite plentiful in Bangladesh, in fact, such means of marking transactions had originated in Bangladeshi lands nearly two thousand years earlier. Punch mark coins from a number of ancient sites, mostly on the banks of rivers are proof of that. These traditions continued, even after the administrators of Bengal, who probably included a number of imported slaves, established a Sultanate, independent of Delhi, in 1342. Although, by early in the 15th century, established Bengalis challenged the imported traditions, we have clear evidence from such as the 1415 visit to the Court at Sonargaon, where, by then, the capital of the lands was clearly well established, between the great trading routes of Ganges and Brahmaputra, effectively controlling much of the native commerce, that the rulers perpetuated some of the influences. Chinese Admiral Zheng He’s embassy vividly describes “characteristically mediaeval Iranian imperial paraphernalia as peacocks feathers, umbrellas, files of mounted and foot soldiers (including the local addition of war elephants), a throne (and regalia) inlaid with precious stones, and lavish displays of gold.” Another Iranian institution was also observed, slave armies, and slave aristocracies. “Domestic slaves were generally castrated Bengalis who were either sold to wealthy Muslim merchants of the capital or given to ruling houses in lieu of land revenue.” It is easy to wonder when the tradition of slavery finally died out in Bangladesh ... if, indeed, it has fully done so, even now. Certainly, the extensive women’s quarters in zaminder palaces suggests a continuing tradition right up, perhaps, until 1947. “For their armies, on the other hand, the Bengal sultans relied on foreign Muslims. In Bengal, as elsewhere in the mediaeval Iranian world, the ruling house failed to develop an imperial aristocracy, requiring the creation of an artificial aristocracy composed of uprooted, foreign elements.” “Initially, these were Turks, imported from upper India, many of whom were recruited ultimately from Central Asia; but by the middle of the 15th century, black Abyssinians were imported through the port of Chittagong.” Finally, we can explain the giraffe that was sent to China! And it seems that Iranian commentary on Bengali history may be just a little misdated! “However, these same palace guards and military slaves, again on the Abbasid and mediaeval Iranian pattern, grew in influence as they grew in numbers, until, in 1486 they managed to overthrow their master and rule in their own names for a period of seven years.” Although this brief spell ended with the establishment of a powerful new dynasty in 1494, the influence of foreign military slaves apparently continued until, finally, in 1576, Akbar secured a Mughal toe hold in Bengal. The, roughly, two centuries, in which Iranian historians identify significant “Persianised” influences in the lands that are now Bangladesh, also saw to advent of another such influence, not valued by the Mongol invaders of most Persian influenced lands, even the invaders who, subsequently converted to Islam. Sufi influences, of course, remain controversial, especially amongst extremists, who, it seems, are less intellectual or emotional. The internalisation of the Islamic spirit has given rise to a distinctive culture, the effects of which, having begun in Abbasid Baghdad, linger still, perhaps most significantly, in the lands of the Ganges delta. Baul tradition, it is believed, owes a great deal to that Abbasid tradition, more so, even, that such dance forms that identify, through such as the dervishes, other strands of Sufiism. Some of that Abbasid tradition, of course, informed much of the culture, too, of the Mughals, where, again, especially the cultural influences bloomed, it might be said, in both architecture, and in the obsession with gem stones; an obsession that reflects in Akbar persuading one of the English traveller, Ralph Fitch’s companions, a London Jeweller, to remain in the Mughal court as a court jeweller in the mid 1580s. This second period of Iranian influence, historians believe, is amply reflected in Bangladesh, and in their commentary, Iranian historians make mention, specifically, of Lalbagh Fort, with its palaces and gardens that owe so much to Persian tradition ... even wall tiles! The Mughal influence is said to have, “led to an influx of administrators, soldiers, literati and Sufis, who identified themselves as ‘men of high extraction.’ Forming a social elite whose descendants dominated Muslim politics in Bengal down to modern times, these men claimed an ancestry in north India, Afghanistan, and especially Iran. One account, written in the 1630s refers specifically to waves of up country migrants who settled in the Mughal provincial capital of Dacca following Akbar’s conquest, and states that most government officials and notables living in Dacca were foreigners whose ancestors, or they themselves, had come from Kashmir, Marshad, Tehran and other Persian centres of tradition.” Most significantly, perhaps, it is noted that many of these migrants were Shia, and that their power came to its height in the first quarter of the 18th century. Here, then, we may distinguish another cause of the defeat of the young Nawab at Plassey. Religious dissention added, since the traditional Sunni Muslim aristocrats had, by then, been driven out of Dacca. “Bengal’s old political elite, who were primarily Afghan,” had been driven, “from the cities into the more remote regions of east and south Bengal, where they established themselves as colonisers and local magnates. Many a village in Bangladesh claims to have been founded by Afghan adventurers rusticated by the Mughal conquest.” There is little doubt that Iran exercised considerable influence in the lands that are now Bangladesh, from the early 13th century up to the real Anglicisation of the early 18th century. And the perspective of Iranian historians offers some very new interpretations of the rich history of the nation of Bangladesh. It may well be reasonable to ask why the Iranians, like the Europeans later, took such an interest in lands, today, commonly regarded as of no particular social, commercial or historic interest. Clearly, they knew a thing or two about its historic riches! Viewed from many perspectives, it may prove easier to appreciate the real richness, its causes and its influences, as the nation of Bangladesh grows in wealth and stature, and influence in the world of the 21st century. The Persian perspective is just one more.