An Earthly Paradise: Trade, Politics and Culture in Early Modern Bengal [First ed.] 9780367497880, 9781003048299

This collection of articles on varied facets of early modern Bengal showcases cutting edge work in the field and hopes t

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An Earthly Paradise: Trade, Politics and Culture in Early Modern Bengal [First ed.]
 9780367497880, 9781003048299

Table of contents :
Half Title
Title Page
Copyright Page
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Introduction: Early Modern Bengal
2: Trails of Travellers: Descriptions of an Early Modern Region in Some European Accounts
Chapter 3: Marauders of the Sundarbans and the Role of the Island of Sagor, 1600-1800
4: Beyond the Company and its Commerce: Reviewing the Presence of the VOC in Mughal Bengal, 1600-1700
5: The Ostend Company’s Worlds: Courtly Interactions and Local Life in Eighteenth-century Bengal
6: The Organization and Operation of the French East India Company in Bengal
7: Imaging of Courtly Life: Bengal Nizamat in Eighteenth-century Murshidabad Paintings
8: Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal: A Dilemma of Boundaries
9: Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State in Early Colonial Bengal with Special Reference to Salt
10: The Books of Religion: Things, Persons, and Consumption Practices in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-century Bengal
11: Two British Colonies in a Comparative Perspective: Georgia, Bengal and the Colonial Production of Raw Silk, 1730-1830
12: Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence: Exploring the Processes of Textual Transposition in the Prologue of Alaol’s Padmabati
13: Representation of Women in the Mangalkavyas
14: Bengal Vaishnavism: Early Years and Organization
15: The Sannyasi-Fakir, Chuar and Rangpore Rebellion(s): Resistance, Violence and ‘Banditry’, 1770-1800
16: Iconophilia?: Art, Colonial Collecting and Missionary Activity in India
List of Contributors

Citation preview


This collection of articles on varied facets of early modern Bengal showcases cutting edge work in the field and hopes to encourage new research. The essays explore the trading networks, religious traditions, artistic and literary patronage, and politico-cultural practices that emerged in roughly sixteenth-eighteenth centuries. Using a wide array of sources, the contributors to this volume, coming from diverse academic affiliations,and including many young researchers, have attempted to address various historiographical ‘black holes’ bringing in new material and interpretations. Early modern Bengal’s history tends to get overshadowed by the later developments of the nineteenth century. What this assortment of articles highlights is that this period needs to be studied afresh, and in depth. The region underwent rapid transformations as it got politically integrated with Northern India and its empires and economically with extensive global economic networks. Combined with its unique geography, the trajectory of this region in all spheres manifest an almost constant interplay of local and extra-local forces – be it in literature, art, economic domain, political and religious cultures – and considerable enterprise and ingenuity. Thus, a variety of themes – including travel accounts, Portuguese and Arakanese presence, early Dutch, French, Ostend companies’ forays into the region, artistic production in the Nizamat and later collections of art and missionaries, the English company state’s intrusions in local economy in salt and raw silk production and indigenous reactions and rebellions, consumption practices related to religious activities, circulation and translation of texts, representation of women in vernacular writings, and organization of religious traditions – have been analysed in this volume, with a wide ranging introduction tying up the themes to the broader historiographical issues and contexts. The collection will be an invaluable reference tool for students and scholars of history, especially of early modern India. Raziuddin Aquil is Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Delhi. He was previously Fellow in History, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. His most recent book is Lovers of God: Sufism and the Politics of Islam in Medieval India (Manohar). Tilottama Mukherjee teaches in the Department of History, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is the author of Political Culture and Economy in Eighteenth-Century Bengal: Networks of Exchange, Consumption and Communication (Orient Blackswan).


Trade, Politics and Culture in Early Modern Bengal





First published 2020 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN and by Routledge 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2020 selection and editorial matter, Raziuddin Aquil and Tilottama Mukherjee ; individual chapters, the contributors; and Manohar Publishers & Distributors The right of Raziuddin Aquil and Tilottama Mukherjee to be identified as the authors of the editorial material, and of the authors for their individual chapters, has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. Print edition not for sale in South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan or Bhutan) British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A catalog record for this book has been requested ISBN: 978-0-367-49788-0 (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-003-04829-9 (ebk) Typeset in Minion Pro 11/13 by Ravi Shanker, Delhi 110 095


Foreword by p.j. marshall




1. Introduction: Early Modern Bengal raziuddin aquil


2. Trails of Travellers: Descriptions of an Early Modern Region in Some European Accounts tilottama mukherjee


3. Marauders of the Sundarbans and the Role of the Island of Sagor, 1600-1800 gargi chattopadhyay


4. Beyond the Company and its Commerce: Reviewing the Presence of the VOC in Mughal Bengal, 1600-1700 byapti sur


5. The Ostend Company’s Worlds: Courtly Interactions and Local Life in Eighteenth-century Bengal wim de winter


6. The Organization and Operation of the French East India Company in Bengal sandip munshi


7. Imaging of Courtly Life: Bengal Nizamat in Eighteenth-century Murshidabad Paintings mrinalini sil




8. Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal: A Dilemma of Boundaries arijita manna


9. Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State in Early Colonial Bengal with Special Reference to Salt sayako kanda


10. The Books of Religion: Things, Persons, and Consumption Practices in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-century Bengal samuel wright


11. Two British Colonies in a Comparative Perspective: Georgia, Bengal and the Colonial Production of Raw Silk, 1730-1830 roberto davini


12. Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence: Exploring the Processes of Textual Transposition in the Prologue of Alaol’s Padmabati anwesha sengupta


13. Representation of Women in the Mangalkavyas swarnali biswas


14. Bengal Vaishnavism: Early Years and Organization ananya roy choudhury


15. The Sannyasi-Fakir, Chuar and Rangpore Rebellion(s): Resistance, Violence and ‘Banditry’, 1770-1800 amrita sengupta


16. Iconophilia?: Art, Colonial Collecting and Missionary Activity in India natasha eaton


List of Contributors





However ill-deserved, the invitation to write a Foreword to this most distinguished collection is a very great honour. It is also an opportunity for someone who for more than fifty years has been a student of the historiography of Bengal as well as being a marginal contributor to it, to reflect on where we were in the 1960s, when I first began to engage with it, and where we are now as shown by this volume. Some generalizations can be hazarded about the study in the 1960s of the early modern history of Bengal. It was largely under­ taken by people, mostly male, who were born and brought up in Bengal, even if many of them had gained doctorates overseas, overwhelmingly in Britain. A BA from Presidency College, where the inspirational teaching of men like Susobhan Sarkar drew the brightest to history, followed by an MA at Calcutta University under the direction of N.K. Sinha, and an Oxford, Cambridge or SOAS doctorate was a common path. A cohort went to SOAS from what was then East Pakistan. As was generally the case at that time, disciplinary boundaries were fairly rigid. Social sciences, such as sociology or anthropology, were only just beginning to impinge overtly on history. The study of literature and language, and, there­ fore, of sources in Bengali, was mostly confined to departments of Bengali separate from history departments. What were deemed to be works of art were the concern of scholars like William and Mildred Archer, who were specialists in the history of art. Dr Sinha encouraged students to study the role of continental Euro­ pean countries in India’s trade. Tapan Raychaudhuri’s book on the Dutch in Coromandel came out in 1962 and in 1967, Ashin Das Gupta published Malabar in Asian Trade, the first of his studies of India’s place in the trade of the Indian Ocean. But the attention



of historians in the 1960s was heavily focused on the new British regime, whose vast body of records was readily accessible in the West Bengal Archives or the then India Office Library in London. Many works illuminated the ways in which the regime imposed its institutions, above all its systems of extracting revenue, and its commercial priorities on a supposedly inert Bengal, usually, it was generally assumed, to the detriment of the great mass of its population. Cultural history, as in works such as A.F. Salahuddin Ahmed’s Social Ideas and Social Change in Bengal, was mostly con­ cerned with the responses of Bengali intellectuals to the West and, hence, with the origins of the Bengal Renaissance. The briefest glance through the contents or the notes on con­ tributors to this volume shows that the situation in 2018 is very different and that few of these generalizations would now apply. This is, of course, no more than a statement of fact; it is not a judge­ ment. Current preoccupations are certainly different from those of the past, but whether current historical writing is better can only be a matter of opinion. The work of the sixteen scholars who have contributed to this volume, a number of them at the beginning of their academic careers is of a very high level. Their work reflects new worldwide trends in what is now a truly globalized historical profession. This does not mean that the scholars who were shaping Bengal’s early modern history in the very different conditions of the 1960s were not also pioneers with very major achievements to their credit. What this volume most obviously suggests is that while people from Bengal still seem to predominate in writings on the early modern history of Bengal, they no longer have a virtual monopoly. European, Japanese and American scholars also contribute. Male dominance has given way to a clear female majority, ten out of six­ teen: a welcome trend. Educational backgrounds and affiliations are now very varied. A number of scholars are studying for their doctorates or have had them awarded in Kolkata (notably Jadav­ pur) or in Delhi. Britain is no longer the major overseas source of higher degrees, although the present dominance of the United States for those who go abroad for their doctorates is not reflected in the list of contributors.



Disciplinary boundaries have largely broken down. Many con­ tributors use social science concepts. The volume includes what would have been regarded in the past as literary studies. Tilottama Mukherjee (Chapter 2) engages with European travel literature ‘not only for the information they contain but rather also as critical documents of historical understanding and imagination’. Chapters 12 and 13 (Anwesha Sengupta and Swarnali Biswas, respectively) elucidate specific Bengali texts. Samuel Wright (Chapter 10) uses accounts of expenditure on religious ceremonies ‘to explore the ways in which the relationship between religious consumption practices and the market was constituted’. Visual images are widely cited as historical evidence and two studies, Mrinalini Sil on Mur­ shidabad paintings (Chapter 7) and Natasha Eaton on Colonial Collecting (Chapter 16), explore questions of patronage, and the display and interpretation of objects in depth. Interest in European companies operating in Bengal continues. There are three essays on them: Byapti Sur on the Dutch (Chapter 4), Wim De Winter on the Ostend Company (Chapter 5), and Sandip Munshi on the French (Chapter 6). But what of the Brit­ ish? They, of course, feature prominently but not nearly as much as they would have done in the 1960s. Issues like the Plassey con­ spiracy or the making of the Permanent Settlement, the subject of Ranajit Guha’s distinguished A Rule of Property for Bengal of 1963, are hardly treated at all, and there is little mention of great personalities such as Robert Clive or Warren Hastings. The latter is dismissed by Natasha Eaton not as an enlightened patron but as a thief who acquired ‘vast numbers of illuminated manuscripts by illicit means’. The British regime is no longer depicted as an allpowerful instrument reshaping Bengal to its own purposes. Two essays on the infamous salt monopoly by Arijita Manna (Chapter 8) and Sayako Kanda (Chapter 9) show that it had only limited effects. It could not prevent smuggling on a large scale. The prefer­ ences of the mass of Bengal consumers rather than the commercial strategies of the East India Company determined what kinds of salt were sold in Bengal. The Company tried to make radical changes in the way that silk was manufactured in Bengal by intro­ ducing techniques perfected in Piedmont in Italy. Roberto Davini



(Chapter 11) shows that the silk produced by the new methods did not attain the required quality and that the Company could neither exclude Indian merchants from competing with it for the services of the silk workers nor hold down the prices which it paid them. Rammohun Roy and his English-knowing contemporaries hardly make an appearance but there is a prolonged exploration of the doctrines of Chaitanya and the rise of Vaishnavism by Ananya Roy Choudhury (Chapter 14). Finally, two essays engage with the much-discussed issue of resistance and disorder. Gargi Chat­ topadhyay (Chapter 3) shows how the British inherited from the Mughals the problem of curbing raids by the Maghs of Arakan in search of slaves in the Sundarbans. After looking at three cases of resistance to the Company’s rule, Amrita Sengupta (Chapter 15) concludes that they did not pose a fundamental challenge to the security of the regime, the implication presumably being that if the Company could not remake Bengal, it could at least ensure its own survival. What this volume clearly demonstrates is that the early modern history of Bengal is now studied by a much wider range of people from a much greater diversity of institutions throughout the world than was the case in the 1960s. It, therefore, reflects trends that are general among the global historical community. The great political and economic narratives of subjection and impoverishment are presumably taken for granted. They have given way to a mass of highly suggestive insights into the trade, politics and culture of Bengal, which show that whatever the outside pressures may have been, the Bengali people made their own history. This rich collec­ tion leaves no doubt that the historiography of Bengal is currently in very capable hands. P.J. Marshall


This rich collection of essays on early modern Bengal is a part of a series of edited volumes that Manohar, New Delhi, has started to bring out. Covering the history of medieval and early modern India from the eighth to the eighteenth centuries, the series aims to bring to light current research on different aspects of the polity, society, economy, religion and culture. The thematically organized volumes particularly serve as a platform for younger scholars to highlight their research and, thus, reflect current thrusts in the study of the period. Established experts in their specialized fields also join in to share their work and provide perspectives. The geographical limits are the historic Indian subcontinent, corresponding to modern South Asia and the adjoining regions. A recent volume of this series was co-edited with David Curley: Literary and Religious Practices in Medieval and Early Modern India (2016). I am grateful to my co-editor for this volume, Dr Tilottama Mukherjee of Jadavpur University, Kolkata, for collaborating with me in bringing together this diverse collection. It is through her academic connections in Bengal and abroad that several con­ tributors have joined in this project. The volume covers myriad themes in political practices, commercial enterprise and religious traditions in the region of Bengal in the early modern period (sixteenth-eighteenth centuries). The volume not only showcases some of the new research that is happening on the history of early modern Bengal but, I am sure, will also help in generating further interest in this period’s history. The editors would like to thank the contributors for their sus­ tained interest in this volume. They would also like to take this opportunity to express their gratitude to Professor P.J. Marshall



for agreeing to go through an early draft of the manuscript, and writing a short and instructive Foreword, highlighting and contex­ tualizing the progress made in the study of the history of Bengal from the time that he began to do his research many decades ago. The study of history of Bengal tends to get enmeshed in and influenced by the massive transformations which happened in the nineteenth century. In the process, the fascinating history of Bengal of the early modern era gets almost entirely overshadowed and neglected, whereas new research shows there is so much to know about Bengal in relation to what was happening in the Indian subcontinent and globally in this period. The essays in this volume highlight these complexities and connections, hopefully providing pleasure to both academic readers and those interested in this region and period’s history. My introduction to the history of Bengal was through the good offices of the prestigious Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, where I was fortunate to have worked early in my career, even as I started with the assumption that Bengal was a veritable hell on earth with lots of good things in it! Raziuddin Aquil



Early Modern Bengal

Raziuddin Aquil

Following the outstanding prophetic counsel to seek knowledge even in China, the early fourteenth-century Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta, when marching eastward through the Middle East, Iran and Central Asia, was advised to travel to the country of Bengal instead. He was told that it was a country beyond Hindustan and a veritable hell on earth with lots of good things in it. Subsequent centuries witnessed the advent of many European merchants and travellers visiting Bengal to discover its abundance of riches – both natural resources and manufactured items of its enviable enter­ prise. By the end of the seventeenth century, they had come to the firm conclusion, as an English East India Company employee and writer, Alexander Hamilton, did, that Bengal was an earthly para­ dise of a peculiar kind. Its reputation as the wealthiest province of the vast Mughal empire and an important centre in the global trading network of the early modern era attracted many to it. Historians have identified over half a dozen large-scale processes which together constitute the main features of the early modern world during the period from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. The creation of global sea passages augmented the world economy through long-distance maritime and overland routes. The discovery of the route around the Cape of Good Hope espe­ cially connected the world and facilitated long-distance commerce with the faster movement of large ships carrying vast amounts of commodities for international trade (though it was probably


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more dangerous for shipping trade than the Red Sea route, it broke an Egyptian and Venetian monopoly on the spice trade). The world, united by water and, thus, circumnavigable by ships, gave a considerable boost to the global trading network. The period also witnessed the formation of extensive and stable empires or states, whether in Europe (Spanish, French and British, in particular), or the big inter-connected Asian empires of the Ottomans-SafavidsMughals, besides the massive presence of China and Japan as formidable forces in the world economy. The new, sophisticated gunpowder technology was a game-changer in all this, and yet the empire-builders themselves came down from the steppes on their horses as mounted archers or sword-wielding sawars. Besides gunpowder, the diffusion of new technologies, such as the introduction of the printing press and new cash crops (tobacco, cocoa, coffee, etc.) had a transformative potential. The expansion of frontiers and the extension of agriculture – the clearing of for­ ests to reclaim land for cultivation or commercial pastoralism for the mass supply of meat for consumption and hide for the leather industry were important features of this early modern world. Yet, these processes indicate that some areas were going to get severely exploited, creating considerable unrest in the rural sectors even as new regional markets and urban centres proliferated. In general, political stability and economic prosperity led to the doubling of the world population during the period – from 400­ 500 million in 1500 ce to 850-950 million in 1800 ce. Also, even as early initiatives for much of the processes mentioned above came from the Europeans, South Asia was inextricably connected with the early modern system, and Bengal was an important node, start­ ing as a frontier zone to become a significant site of international trade. With the Indian ports being the major hub for facilitating global commerce, the new world bullion came to the subcontinent as enormous profit, making the Indian subcontinent and Bengal a significant beneficiary of the early modern international mercan­ tile enterprise. Further, the connections were not limited to trade alone. Faster travel and transport networks enabled quicker move­ ments of people and the circulation of ideas, including concerns



on how history was sought to be understood in locations as far apart and varied as England, Iran, India and China.1 Viewed from this perspective, the traditional classification or periodization of Indian history, and its narrow scope regarding sources and historiography – as Ancient (Sanskrit), Medieval (Persian) and Modern (English) – no longer hold. Indeed, a vast corpus of vernacular literature has been showing the way. In the context of Bengal, medieval and early modern Bengali literature cover a whole gamut of themes in a variety of genres but historians are still fighting for Persian in their traditional strongholds.2 Thus, Mughal India or Mughal Bengal cannot be seen in its exceptional isolation anymore. Much water has, undoubtedly, flown down the Bengal delta since the publication of Jadunath Sarkar’s edited (1948) classic on medieval Bengal.3 The current volume points to significant strides made in the divergent fields of Bengal’s early modern scholarship in the last two decades or so. Diverse themes in politics, trade and culture are covered using a wide variety of vernacular sources, besides returning to the conventional Euro­ pean Company archival material for fresh substantiation and validation. Indeed, early modern Bengal bore witness to a plurality of developments in various spheres, which requires more discus­ sion. The first five chapters in this volume, in particular, attempt to look at the diversity of Europeans coming into the region and their experiences as travellers and representatives of European companies, and the way in which the latter negotiated with local society to establish themselves with varying degrees of success. As Tilottama Mukherjee has shown in her article, a wide assortment of European travellers passed through Bengal were motivated by various factors. Information about trade seemed to dominate these accounts, though, as Mukherjee argues, the details them­ selves were rather rudimentary in nature, especially in the earlier years. Later accounts did become more voluminous, yet they seemed more like textual route-maps. Through these accounts, they fed information to European traders and companies, among others, as they all geared-up to corner their share in the business


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of profit. Their corporate greed is, indeed, reflected in the con­ demnation of the Bengalis as a capricious and corrupt race, a case, perhaps, of sour grapes for they were not readily duped. An Eng­ lish East India Company employee and writer, John Henry Grose, who probably visited Bengal in 1763, was contemptuous towards other Europeans as well. He condemned the Portuguese for their silly, ridiculous and brutal approach, the Dutch for their unsocial, imperious conduct marked by a keen interest in profit-making, and mocked the deception behind the super-refined politeness of the French. He was satisfied that the English were able to use force to facilitate their commercial enterprise in the East Indies, as they had earned a footing in the Indian subcontinent through the use of arms both in the hinterland and the Indian Ocean. Mukherjee has also drawn attention to an important later account of L. De Grandpre, a French naval officer travelling in 1789-90 when the French power in India was on the decline. Grandpre noticed that the British were cleverly exploiting the Hindu-Muslim disunity and disagreements by keeping each in check by using the other, providing an early reflection on the infamous divide-and-rule pol­ icy of the British, which was more systematically developed and deployed later in colonial India. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the growing city of Calcutta became a must-see stop for the European travellers. Interestingly, many of these voyagers noticed that the flourishing and prosperous land of Bengal was so pleasantly inhabitable that even people born in other countries went to settle there in their old age. The prosperity might have faded but the peaceful post-retirement attractions of Bengal and the city of Calcutta has survived the vagaries of time. Early modern Bengal was, indeed, positioned at an interesting junction. By the time these European accounts started to mention Bengal, the integration of the region into the Mughal empire had already occurred. In the second quarter of the sixteenth century, the Pathan empire-builder, Sher Shah Sur, had made significant strides to conquer Bengal, consolidate his political control and link it with his grand design to use Delhi as the capital of his Pathan empire. His position was clear: Delhi could not be captured and adequately controlled if Bengal was left unconquered. His acciden­



tal death in a gunpowder blast, which was beginning to be used haphazardly, frittered away the attempt to build an empire using both cavalry and gunpowder – comprising two of the formidable military machines deployed in the making of the early modern empires.4 In the process, an early sixteenth-century Bihari-Pathan ambition to conquer Bengal and connect it with a larger all-India empire also fizzled out, though Sher Shah’s compatriots continued to be politically relevant in decades to come. Further, as Gargi Chattopadhyay has shown in this volume (Chapter 3), the Portuguese presence at nodal points along the Bhagirathi, with Sagor island in the Sunderbans marking the jour­ ney’s end, as well as the overshadowing presence of the Arakanese towards the east, contributed to the political turmoil of Bengal. The realization of Mughal ambitions in Chittagong as part of its eastward intrusion in Bengal was indeed doubtful. Though the region was formally incorporated within the Mughal empire in 1576, Mughal control over large parts of the delta was far from secure until the reign of Shah Jahan. Though officially under the Mughals, the flourishing eastern delta was politically in a state of flux as there was hardly any robust monitoring and check on the joint Arakanese-Portuguese forays for capturing workforce to be sold as slaves. One particular group of pirates known as the Magh or Rakhine marauders were especially feared for their daring raids enabled by an enviable ability to cover not only large parts of the littoral but also infiltrate the interior through inter-connected rivers and water channels, using lightly-made and swift-moving boats. These security concerns continued even under the English Company State, with regular communications between officials to introduce armed patrolling vessels along the Bengal coasts to repel river-borne attacks. Thus, as Chattopadhyay notes, the float­ ing Portuguese raiders with no connection with the Estado and partly Buddhist-partly Muslim Maghs, both backed by the king of Arakan, conducted regular slave raiding operations. The captured slaves were sold to the Dutch and other European companies in exchange for porcelain and firearms, besides other items. The Dutch East India Company, or the Verenigde Oost-Indische Com­ pagnie (VOC), had commercial relations not only with Arakan but


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also with the Portuguese raiders directly. The VOC also aspired for a favourable relation with the Mughals, seeking to establish them­ selves in the Bengal and the East Indies trade, and break the early Portuguese advantage in their mutually-overlapping commercial sphere. The struggle over control of the Sunderbans, the upper delta and the Bay of Bengal waters was an enduring feature of the early modern Bengal economy, with the Ganga beginning to flow in the Padma channel eastern Bengal became more valuable. The image of the contradictory character of a hell-like earthly paradise recurs in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Euro­ pean accounts of Bengal (as they do in the Mughal chronicles as well), and was condemned for being ruled by the mighty and greedy Muslim rulers, with its poor and slavish subjects, cunning money-grabbing traders, hot and oppressive climate, wild and untamed terrain, and yet with riches ready for plunder. All the commodities sold in the international markets were available in abundance – rice, sugar and cotton textiles of exceptional quality to name a few – which could be cheaply acquired though with some risks involved in travelling through the creeks, channels and rivers, including the holy Ganges. Thus, informed by early Portuguese initiatives and mediations from their base in Hooghly, the Euro­ pean merchant companies aspired to make quick gains operating through the Bengal trade. Much attention has been paid in scholarship and political discourse to the English East India Company because of the political power it would eventually gain to establish a truly colonial regime, something which the Portuguese and other Europeans could not do in Bengal. The boards of directors of other companies, such as the VOC, pretended that their only motive was commercial gain with no interest in territorial aggrandisement. Examining the goals of the VOC and its officials, as well as their relations with the Mughal authorities and local business part­ ners in Bengal, Byapti Sur has illustrated (in Chapter 4) how the Company officials in seventeenth-century Bengal sought to claim their moral authority through various strategies. This included the appropriation of the lifestyle of the Mughal nobility and customs of the local administrative elites, forging personal relations with Mughal administrators in the name of strategic communication,



and masking both by adopting the notion of a Dutch higher moral ground over that of the allegedly unethical Mughal governance in Bengal. Even as the board of directors of the VOC was report­ edly against the Company officials in Bengal ‘going native’ and advised against any formal or informal communication with the Mughal officials, it invested in this lucrative trade network. The Dutch officials based in their Company headquarters in Hooghly and Chinsurah, besides factory sites spread all over Bengal, copied the mercantile ethics, behaviour and lifestyles of the local elite. Thus, as Sur has indicated through textual and visual material, the enthusiasm expressed by the VOC officials in receiving a land grant or robe of honour from the Mughals and the attempts of some of them to stylize themselves as the ‘nabobs’ did reveal their ambition to acquire a ‘more-than-merchant’-like status in Bengal. In some cases, they also broke their contract with the Company to convert to Islam, as in the case of Jan Commelin who, however, reconverted to Christianity, for reasons unknown. As mentioned by Sur, the cemetery of the Company at Chinsurah still stands with numerous graves of the VOC officials bearing small tombs or conical structures seemingly patterned on the Indian-Islamic style instead of the usual flat European gravestones. Indeed, the dominant Mughal culture influenced the conduct and behaviour of the firangi traders, bankers, engineers, merce­ naries and officials of the European Companies in the eighteenth century. Many of them emulated the lifestyle of a Mughal noble with all the sophistication of the refined Indo-Persian culture. This was reflected in their dress and eating habits, their command over Persian and Indic vernaculars, and their particular fondness for Indian mistresses. Some of them also got pompous titles from the Mughal emperor like the other nobles of Irani, Turani or Indian stock, and held miniature courts in their havelis. One such figure was Antoine-Louis Henri de Polier (1741-95), a Franco-Swiss adventurer, military officer, architect and collector of oriental manuscripts in the service of the English East India Company. Though Henri de Polier was compelled to work between 1775 and 1781 for the Nawab of Awadh and the Mughals, the Company could never do away with his services entirely. Like his compatriot


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and friend, Claude Martin, Henri de Polier was able to continue in the Company’s employment despite increasing scepticism towards the French following business rivalries. Though for long denied a rise above the rank of Major in the English Company’s army, he was eventually given the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1782 with permission to stay in Awadh, where he had already created a niche for himself by amassing vast fortunes through private trade, as well as through an association with the Awadh Nawabs. Henri de Polier took on the customs and usages of the Indians with whom he lived for long in Faizabad and Lucknow. He had reportedly acquired a reasonably good command over the Persian language and had an excellent knowledge of Urdu. He maintained a full-fledged house­ hold at Faizabad with his two Indian wives and a couple of sons, living under the care of a trusted Indian servant. In 1788, Henri de Polier left for France after spending thirty years in India. He mar­ ried a European woman in 1791, had children with her and settled down at Rosetti, near Avignon, where he combined his intellectual interest with hosting lavish Asian-style parties.5 In his Persian letters, I‘jaz-i-Arsalani, derived from his Mughal title, Arsalan-i-Jang or the Lion of the Battlefield, Henri de Polier referred to himself as an angrez or Englishman but in his English letters written to the British administration, he had to make a more accurate distinction between Englishmen and Europeans and identified himself with the latter. He adopted the Mughal Persianate lifestyle and, thus, diluted his European identity. His collection of historical texts was typically Mughal in its eclecticism. Like the Mughal literary repositories, Henri de Polier acquired a mix of books on Islamic theology alongside Persian translations of GraecoHellenic works on secular topics. Also, his catalogue reveals that he did not see any contradiction between collecting Persian and Arabic manuscripts of the Qur’an and Prophetic reports (Hadis) and sponsoring the Persian translation of the Mahabharata and other Hindu texts. Thus, his approach was somewhat different from that of contemporaneous British Sanskritists. The early Brit­ ish understanding of Indian society was based mainly on the study of classical Sanskrit texts. This meant that a relatively restricted



intellectual gaze guided their intervention in the eighteenth-cen­ tury book bazaar. They compartmentalized indigenous texts into the Hindu brand (in Sanskrit) and the Islamic variety (in Arabic and Persian). Thus, the British emphasis on Sanskrit learning to know the Hindu religion exclusively was a new and culturally divi­ sive strategy.6 The eighteenth-century figures that the authors in this volume have focused were not exact Henri de Polier replicas, but some of the details suggest that the officials/merchants/merce­ naries straddling the English/European/indigenous, specially elite society, were far from rare. The fact that a number of British administrators/scholars were favourably inclined towards the Mughal-inspired, inclusive intel­ lectual tradition complicates the matter. The intention of someone such as Warren Hastings in knowing the administrative and legal texts of India as well as Islamic art and literary culture was part of the ‘bedding down’ of the Company government in Indian society, and not necessarily always guided by crude lust or greed, though we shall return to these issues again with reference to Natasha Eaton’s excellent article in this volume. Certainly, it cannot be anyone’s case that India would have been a better place as a French colony and yet there is a need to go back to see what happened during the long eighteenth century. Gone are the days when the eighteenth century in Indian history was dismissed as a Dark Age even in serious academic writing. Instead of sweeping generaliza­ tions about the decline of the power and authority of the Mughals leading to anarchy and chaos which was exploited by the rapa­ cious British, researchers in the past few decades have brought to the fore significant new facets of the history of this period. Noted for their empirically rich and analytically sophisticated approach, a plethora of recent studies have considerably revised our under­ standing of the processes of the disintegration of the Mughal empire, economic reconfiguration in regions leading to the rise of smaller polities in the first half of the eighteenth century, and the overall impact of the transition to colonialism by the end of the period. P.J. Marshall suggests that the private trading interests of the officials and the larger security concerns of the Company


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compelled the British to intervene in political matters. He also notes that the Company’s intervention did not lead to any sharp break in the economy.7 The period was marked by rapid growth in urban centres and the diffusion of a refined Indo-Muslim culture in the regions where Mughal ‘successor states’ emerged. The ceremonials of the resplendent courts, with conspicuous consumption, were tem­ pered by the presence of mosques and shrines. Sufis and scholars not only tried to check the Mughal decline but also contributed to the consolidation of Muslim power in the regions through their writings and active involvement in political matters. Immense progress was made in the field of Islamic religious and political thought, some strands of which later took the forms of aggres­ sive Wahhabi and Fara’izi resistance to British colonialism. Also, significant progress was made in the development and growth of vernacular literature, even as Persian dominated as the language of elite political discourse. The process of identity formation took divergent trajectories, as did varying indigenous responses to the impact of the colonial encounter. The history of history-writing in India in the past couple of centuries has witnessed assumptions and formulations advanced from a number of standpoints. For instance, in colonial histori­ ography – some strands of which have continued even till recent decades – colonialism was projected as something that was for the benefit of the colonized people; else, they would have remained savage barbarians with no or little sense of history.8 This false assertion conformed with the view that conquerors write history on the body of those they seek to dominate or decimate. This is precisely reflected in the colonial vilification of Muslims of the kind made by William Hunter in his Indian Musalmans.9 Counter­ ing the colonial position and showing that the conquered people eventually survive to tell their own story, various strands of secular nationalist historiography have blamed the British colonial poli­ cies of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century for the mess that the British left behind. Hindu-Muslim conflict, the caste system, economic degradation and a host of other issues are shown as constructed under the British rule. This set of scholar­



ship also plays down the significance of religion in public life, even though it provides fodder for communal hatred and abuse. This is something which is aptly characterized by Neeladri Bhattacharya as ‘predicaments of secular history’.10 Modern European nations continue to live with the biases and stereotypes coming down from the early modern era even as the colonial regime served as the catalyst for a violent break from the past which cannot be justified. A closer look at the cultural history of trading practices involving Indians and Europeans in the period before the British colonial rule reveals that European merchants, agents and mercenaries conformed to both bodily practices of courtly culture demanding submission and also anchored them­ selves in the local social milieu, much as they disliked or, in some cases, even hated it. As with the Dutch case studied by Sur, this was the difficulty faced by the representatives of the little-known jointstock trading entity, the General Imperial India Company (GIC), operating from the port of Ostend, Belgium, and desperately seek­ ing to establish itself in Bengal commerce. Working through the GIC records in the Antwerp City archives, Wim De Winter has illustrated in detail the cultural difficulties and a number of tanta­ lizing violations by the Company’s haughty representatives, which almost sunk its business interests. They survived for a time through local intervention before fizzling out not long after (see Chapter 5 in this volume). The Nawab of Murshidabad, while allowing the GIC representatives to conduct their business, had observed that Europeans were not men of their word as they pretended to be. He expected them to understand the value of courtly ceremoni­ als – whether it be elaborate greetings, taslimat or the offering of betel (paan) – before permissions and announcements regarding commercial transactions were made. Unlike the British or French agents, the GIC representatives arrived late and were seemingly in a hurry or not willing to learn the local cultural norms. De Winter has illustrated how three of them jeopardized the future of the company – Alexander Hume revealed his childish impatience to be denied paan, the sharing of which indicated mature malebonding for a consensus in mutual interests, Jacques-Andre Cobbe showed his frustration by resorting to a fatally-flawed strategy to


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hijack the freight ship of a wealthy Armenian merchant; and his successor, Jan Bos, was advised by the Nawab to learn to respect court ceremonies and refrain from creating any disturbance in the order of things. The GIC was eventually permitted to establish a factory in Banquibazar with an additional base in Kasimbazar, as part of a deal struck by the Armenian merchants of Saidabad and the powerful banker, Jagat Seth. The Europeans were unable to displace the well-entrenched Persian and Armenian merchants as well as Bengali, Gujarati and Hindustani traders, bankers and brokers – together forming the gatekeepers who straddled the interstices of mercantile activ­ ity, military resources and political power.11 De Winter’s chapter provides a cultural history perspective for local-level commercial negotiations and deals for writing a ‘global micro-history’, involv­ ing Europeans (including a mysterious clergyman, Francois de Piedade) with pretensions to high morality, attempting to negotiate with indigenous inhabitants, whom they condemned as the most pernicious people. The latter were mocked for living in houses like pigsties in a country that was otherwise rich and beautiful. For Cobbe, the men were like monkeys and the women too ugly to be engaged as concubines even for a night, the ‘knowledge’ derived by having seen more than 3,000 women bathing naked daily in the Ganges and, thus, confirming the wisdom in the advice given to him back home to avoid the native women. The same sight enrap­ tured others, including travellers from Central Asia.12 Indeed, officers working for other European Companies were more discreet in their utterances and activities, and succeeded because of their ability to adapt well to local conditions. The French East India Company and its officers, for instance, worked in a functional organizational structure. Starting in 1664, under the direct authority of the French crown, its formal organization and management structure came to be established by the time that its base in Chandernagore was laid in 1693 through a farman issued by the Bengal Nawab. Sandip Munshi’s detailed discussion (in Chapter 6) on the value of the organizational structure of the French East India Company shows that the central policy of the Company’s operation was determined by the Chamber of Direc­



tors in Paris, which was to be implemented by the Superior Council in Pondicherry for India operating through the Provincial Coun­ cils (as in Chandernagore in Bengal), which, in turn, supervised the subordinate factories under their command. Although the Company’s formal structure was maintained in Bengal, its func­ tioning was affected by the local terrain besides the political and economic situation, which required informal negotiations and the setting aside of the concerns of the Superior Council. As Munshi has shown, Chandernagore exploiting its geographical advantage with its proximity to the main political and commercial centres of Bengal – Hooghly, Kasimbazar, Malda and Murshidabad – and proper communication network, was able to make a sizeable profit during the period 1725-42 through its subordinate factories strate­ gically located in Balasore, Kasimbazar, Patna, Dhaka and Jugdia. Orders from the top for the international market were fulfilled on time through the local factories at the bottom with the Director of Bengal operations and Superior Council in Pondicherry serving diligently as facilitators for the required shipment, mainly textiles. This also meant that Company officers in Bengal, such as Dupleix, could sometimes not only ignore orders from the officers in Pondicherry or keep them informed about the situation in Bengal and north India but also get away with their private trade, making huge profits, for instance, through opium procured from Patna. Institutional corruption, as in the case of the English East India Company’s attempt to establish a monopoly on salt, severely affected the English commercial interests. Arijita Manna’s richlydetailed work (Chapter 8) has shown that the salt monopoly of the Company was a ‘doomed enterprise’. Institutional weaknesses, the persistence of local trading systems, resistance from indigenous communities and unclear boundaries of the early colonial state – despite serious attempts at boundary maintenance – together ensured that large-scale smuggling of salt continued through various trade-routes intersected by water bodies, channels and forests. The Marathas, Arakan rulers, French Company officials and local interested parties worked in connivance with corrupt English Company employees for ‘illicit’ trade in salt, produced and marketed through a network not controlled by the state. Though


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the English Company does not disclose the exact quantum of smuggling and the smugglers maintained a high degree of secrecy in their ability to defy its trade regulations, Manna has shown that the estimated loss to the Company was not small. It may be mentioned that it was, in reality, business as usual except that the Company state failed miserably in maintaining a strict monopoly on the production of and trade in salt – a system that sought to dub a prevailing commercial system as ‘illicit’. It may be noted that salt trade was a monopoly of the Nawabs before the British rule; they auctioned it to managers who bid to acquire sale at specific sites of production. Production was organized by zamindars, and, at least, in some places was collected as a tax in kind. Further, as Sayako Kanda (Chapter 9) has analysed, the choice of a food item or any consumption material (in this case, salt) represented cultural, political and ritual values and, accordingly, shaped consumer preferences and the market. Price was import­ ant, and quality equally mattered. Salt was the second-largest source of revenue for the English Company; it attempted to con­ trol its production and supply to maintain high prices, which meant banning not only internal outputs but also importing a cheaper quality of salt from outside. The monopoly worked with some difficulty; the demand and supply of different varieties of salt – such as panga and karkatch – varied in different regions as per the taste of consumers. Some preferred the illegally-supplied, and low-priced karkatch to the costlier and refined salt sold in the market. In parts of western Bengal and Bihar, some communities preferred karkatch and possibly went by the black-market strategy to sabotage the official salt market in their supposition that refined salt might have been adulterated with bone dust. Interestingly, as Kanda has argued, the decline of the indigenous salt industry in Bengal by 1845, mainly due to fuel problems and increasing pro­ duction costs, meant the introduction of a cheaper variety of salt imported from Liverpool, which was more agreeable to the taste of consumers in the eastern Bengal districts. Thus, it was introduced at a cheaper rate and once it completely replaced panga, the price was increased on the assumption that it was highly rated both for its quality and appearance.



Other commodities, such as raw silk, had a different trajectory. Competition from Indian merchants catering to the traditional Asian demand for raw silk meant that the Bengali peasants involved in its production had a better negotiating capacity and, hence, the English East India Company could not establish its monopoly on the silk trade. Roberto Davini (Chapter 11) has made an interesting comparison of the ambitious introduction of Piedmontese reeling technology to produce silk in two British colonies, Georgia and Bengal, during the period 1730-1830. As a significant market for silk textiles in Europe, Great Britain was dependent on her colonies for the production and supply of raw silk. Its climate was not conducive to the cultivation of mulberry trees, and it had to import quality silk thread from Piedmont in Italy. Accordingly, as Davini illustrates, the British decided to introduce the Piedmontese technology in Georgia and Bengal. The Georgia experiment was a big disaster as despite everything they did – recruiting and training mulberry cultivators, silkworm­ rearers, spinners and reelers, and paying them high salaries – the labour force refused to work. The abundance of fertile land and the scarcity of human resources meant that the landowners were able to secure more profit from cultivating staple crops like rice and indigo by exploiting unskilled labour. In contrast, there was an already-established system of trad­ itional raw silk production in Bengal where neither the state nor the merchants or bankers dictated the terms of production. The representatives of the state were only concerned with the taxes collected from the mulberry lands and the duties on the inter­ nal circulation of silkworms, mulberry leaves, raw silk and silk textiles. Similarly, the merchants’ domains were limited to the procurement, marketing and export of raw silk. These parties were not involved in sericulture. In other words, as Davini shows, the peasants had complete control over all the stages of production until the putney was delivered to the merchants. The Company state drastically altered the traditional Bengali reeling technology to increase the sales of raw silk through the introduction of the Piedmontese reeling machine for better control of the production process. From the point of view of the Company, the experiment


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was satisfactory for vast quantities of low-quality raw silk were produced between the 1770s and the 1830s. Yet as the quality of silk was low, the idea of producing high-quality Piedmontese silk at a low cost was defeated. Also, as there was no monopoly on the silk trade, traditional merchants could work with the peas­ ants through intermediaries and continue with the conventional method of the production and procurement of silk in an environ­ ment in which peasants could stop taking interest in sericulture if it were not rewarding enough. The English East India Company state’s attempts to optimize profits in areas under its control through the introduction of several new policies had disastrous consequences for traditional economic arrangements, especially those involving the peasants. Amrita Sengupta has illustrated (in Chapter 15) how certain parts of Bengal, especially between 1779 and 1800, witnessed severe upheavals, including an insurgency by the Dashnami Sannyasis and Madariya Faqirs in north Bengal, the Dhing peasant rebellion at Rangpore and the Chuar Adivasi disturbances in southern Ben­ gal. The Company state not only resumed the rent-free land-grants that Sannyasi-Faqir institutions like the maths had enjoyed in sev­ eral northern districts but also imposed curbs on their movement – pilgrimages and processions. These groups, which had access to considerable military resources created havoc in north Bengal for close to thirty years. The introduction of the annual revenuefarming as part of several experiments from the 1770s forced the ryots of Rangpore and Dinajpore to protest against the oppressive taxation and corporal punishments of a particularly notorious revenue farmer, Raja Devi Singh. This was despite the fact that the Rangpore-Dinajpore peasants, unlike the Sannyasi-Faqirs, had acknowledged the Company as the legitimate authority. Further, as Sengupta has shown, the long-drawn disturbances involving the Chuars and other tribal and zamindar-like landed chiefs, whose traditional rights and privileges were being curtailed by the Com­ pany state in its bid to establish its sovereignty in the Jangal-Mahal, besides attempting to optimize land revenue, provoked them to violently attack and plunder the Company’s territories, thus



exposing the power of the Company in these areas, even as thanas established by the English and intelligence reports provided by the harkara network enabled it to devise counter-measures. Eventually, the Company state was able to suppress the rebels and establish its authority. Thus, the British succeeded, though not uniformly, in destroying the local-level political economy and culture in certain pockets by the late eighteenth century, which was resisted but without success. The changes would be manifest not only in the late eighteenthcentury political and economic sphere but in the cultural arena as well. This is captured in the portrayal or imaging in the eighteenth-century Murshidabad paintings. As Mrinalini Sil has shown (Chapter 7), the courts of the Murshidabad Nawabs were grand, displaying elaborate rituals with coded meanings, which were recorded in contemporary accounts and visually depicted in multiple paintings. The city of Murshidabad provided a platform for extraordinarily varied styles of art to emerge from the many inter-connected painting traditions of the eighteenth century. The diversity can be easily seen, for instance, in the way that Nawab Alivardi Khan was represented or in the way that the Ghazi scrolls were painted. Even though the Murshidabad and Company artists could not get the patronage on the scale that artists of the Mughal imperial visual culture could boast of, regional centres and their patrons were varied, as were the representations. The patronage did not die down with the Nizamat; an English officer, William Ful­ larton, for instance, got himself depicted in a portrait as a Nawab – smoking a hookah and reclining against a bolster on the terrace of his residence in Patna. These kinds of images would disappear with the colonial frowning upon Indian ways of life and man­ ners within a few decades. The colonial modern transformations and hardening of boundaries had yet to occur, and early modern Bengal was still a level playing field. As politics changed from the Nizamat to the Company rule, noticeable changes were beginning to be felt in many aspects of life from the latter half of the eighteenth century. Natasha Eaton has presented (in Chapter 16) a fine art-historical analysis of the


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‘rubbishing’ of Hindu deities, using a concept significantly termed as ‘iconoclash’, that is, a position somewhere between iconophilia and iconophobia – involving the extraordinary career of Charles ‘Hindoo’ Stuart, on the one hand, and the iconoclastic London Missionary Society missionaries, on the other. As Eaton elucidates, ‘Unlike Company officials who acquired Hindu images through theft, gift, prize or looting’, missionary collections ‘entailed rheto­ ric of legitimisation – a theory of rubbish and of extraction of the sacred from places they could not enter (shrines, temples, elite homes)’. Even as the missionaries could get some local allies in their antagonism to idolatry and the partial conversion and secu­ larization of idols through their transfer to museums in London, the controversial idol chamber of Colonel Stuart, which housed a large collection of images of various deities accumulated over half a century with the Colonel rumoured to be a worshipper of idols, sabotaged the efforts of the evangelical missionaries. His Calcutta home was eventually taken over by the London Missionary Soci­ ety and cleansed of the numerous ‘horrible’ idols. Eaton, however, notes how Stuart had the last laugh as his ‘will specified that the black basalt archway from a Shaiva Temple of the Pala period, a miniature temple, two statues of the river goddesses Ganga rid­ ing on a makara (crocodile) and Yamuna on a tortoise, a dome resembling the amalaka of an ancient Hindu temple and a lintel featuring the face of Shiva be incorporated into his colossal tomb at South Park Street, Calcutta’, thus violating a Christian and deis­ tic space with his idolatrous proclivities. Eaton has also drawn attention to the long history of ‘perceived ambiguities and dissimulation’ in the Company’s attitude towards the religious traditions and practices of the local inhabitants and its inability to maintain a ‘critical distance’, as alleged by the mis­ sionaries. Of significance is the rise of new gods and goddesses in the areas controlled by the Company in contrast to the mission­ ary efforts for the removing and rubbishing of heathenism. For instance, in 1818, some Calcutta Brahmins prophesied the arrival of a Muslim pir or Hindu goddess allied to Kali; she was identified by Muslims as Shitala or Ola Bibi or as Olai-Chandi by Hindus. Though the Company sepoys and officials were able to neutralize



such cultic figures, there was confusion and a lack of clarity over such matters involving popular religious beliefs, and when they sought to intervene, they usually messed it up. The indigenous society had accommodated many local deities in Brahmanical religious rituals. The Mangalkavya texts, com­ posed between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, had made sense of popular religiosity, especially around the goddesses. Swarnali Biswas’ study in this volume (Chapter 13) refers to three well-known compositions – Manasamangal, Chandimangal and Dharmamangal – and attempts to see how women, both divine and human, were depicted in them. The narratives accord con­ siderable power to goddesses such as Manasa and Chandi but, eventually, they are shown to be subordinated and domesticated by a male authority, such as the powerful male gods of the Hindu pantheon – for instance, Shiva as Manasa’s father and Chandi’s consort. Their image as powerful beings was also discredited by their being ascribed meanness and other negative characteristics generally attributed to women in a conservative milieu. Women were advised that they would be better served by bearing children and avoiding crossing boundaries set for them in a patriarchal society – the latter always anxious about controlling women’s sex­ uality, and their sense of honour, social position and caste purity. In such a condition, sexual objectification was present, along with the exaltation of Sati and motherhood. At the same time, violence against women was also endorsed. The Mangalkavyas are, therefore, of crucial import for the his­ tory of religion and culture in medieval and early modern Bengal. The texts are mostly located in south-west Bengal and not so much in the eastern districts on which Richard Eaton had focused in his study of the expansion of Islam.13 Are the texts related, in some sense, to a long chain of Hindu resistance to the dominant political presence of Muslim, since the time of the Bengal Sultanate with its base in western Bengal? Can they be understood as representing the response to Islamic cultural dominance in Sultanate and later, Mughal Bengal? How are the ideas adumbrated in the Mangal­ kavyas similar or different from those coming from movements, such as the one led by Sri Chaitanya, regarding resistance to Islam,


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and both political and popular Sufi spirituality, which needed to be countered? In the light of these questions, the political context of the Bengal Sultanate which shaped the setting for such religious texts becomes important.14 Another text, Annadamangal is also relevant for our discussion here on the cults of goddesses and the question of gender. Besides, eighteenth-century texts like Dharmamangal and Tirthamangal could help in thinking about the change from the medieval to the early modern; and, thus, through the Mangalkavyas, being able to locate the history of early modern Bengal not only through the European Companies’ enormous commerce but also the broad circulation of ideas, with people travelling and writing accounts of their experiences. We need many more studies on these genres, the contexts of their production and circulation, the intended audience (for the texts were also meant to be performed) and their impact, as well as distinctions between the Mangalkavyas and various recensions of Vaishnava literature.15 Since these are vernacular literary compositions of a religious or mythical nature, how do we deal with questions of corroboration with conventional sources used by previous generations of historians? A number of historians working on religious practices and historical traditions in medieval and early modern India have shown the way.16 The vernacular archive does provide considerable information on religious practices. In his study of accounts sheets, referred to as ‘books of religion’, Samuel Wright (Chapter 10) relies almost entirely on this ‘regional archive’ to unravel complex practices of consumption among households and institutions organizing religious activities in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Bengal. The activities were varied and included pujas, household ceremonies, installations of idols and inauguration of monasteries. As Wright notes, the movement of goods and people depended upon multiple networks operating simultaneously. The accounts of expenses borne under different heads – from payments to Brah­ mins and helpers to specific amounts spent on things supplied with labour charges – were maintained in exact terms down to the last penny. The history of these practices in all their precision can be traced from, at least, the seventeenth century. Thus, net­



works of consumption connected to religious traditions were not an outcome of colonialism even though the practices may have undergone some transformations in the later period. This would be more perhaps in a city like Calcutta but to a somewhat lesser extent in rural districts. Also, contexts like political flux and eco­ nomic distress created conditions for public celebrations of Durga Puja with pandals set-up with donations. The conspicuous roles of agents for getting various things done, including getting chanda (voluntary collective contributions) collected and arranging for a particularly accomplished Brahmin priest to conduct the puja, can be traced back to early modern times. Further, as Ananya Roy Choudhury has shown in her article (Chapter 14 in this volume) on the early years of institutionaliza­ tion of Bengali Vaishnavism, Hindu mobilization maintained an ambiguity on caste or the jati-based hierarchy. Indeed, resisting Islam’s dominant presence, Chaitanya identified Kaliyuga as the time when Brahmins would behave like Muslims. Accounts also refer to the confrontation of Chaitanya and his followers with a qazi and their subsequent reconciliation. Chaitanya and a group of Vaishnavas confronted a Muslim qazi who wanted to stop the kirtana and other Vaishnava religious gatherings. Vrindavan Das has provided details of this incident. Even though fundamentally being non-violent, Chaitanya was ever-ready to defend his faith, even sometimes by violent means. As Roy Choudhury maintains, though the credit of formally organizing the ‘structure’ of the movement goes to the disciples of Chaitanya, the latter, too, had an important role to play despite his ambiguities on many issues about caste and gender. The Sufi approach, in such contexts, was different, eclectic and pluralist, though located within the broader Islamic traditions. In the cosmopolitan background of seventeenth-century Arakan, ruled by the Buddhist dynasty of Marak U and boasting of a multilingual culture connected with the Indian Ocean network, the seventeenth-century Qadiri Sufi poet, Alaol, showed the way through his interesting strategy of diffusing several important Islamic cultural texts into the Bengali environment. Anwesha Sen­ gupta’s rich discussion (in Chapter 12) of Alaol’s Bengali rendering


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of the Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jaisi’s famous Hindi prema­ khayan, Padmavat, written a century earlier, shows the interesting ways in which the poet dealt with the problem of translation. An attempt at a mere literal translation of a complex text could have been a meaningless exercise and departing entirely from it would not have done justice to the original. Hence, as Sengupta has shown through her close comparison of the prologue of the two versions, the original Hindi and its Bengali adaptation, Alaol’s translation is not only a sincere reflection of the original text but also an indepth interpretation, which he was able to achieve through an attempt at understanding the inner dynamics of the text. This was an important exercise as part of the effort to explain the complex Perso-Arabic Islamic discourse in the Bengali vernacular through the significant deployment of equivalent terms and phrases from the Sufi-Bhakti milieu of the period. Alaol’s translations of Islamic texts show a fundamental break after he was imprisoned for his support of peaceful relations with the Mughals, a peace that shortly was contradicted by Mughal attacks on Arakan. Imprisoned and stripped of his property, and after release barred from the court, Alaol (and his Bengali Muslim patrons) turned away from emotive poetry to didactic religious texts.17 In the Sufi-Bhakti language of the kind that Kabir and Guru Nanak preached in (and Jaisi was a contemporary of both), the Qur’an and the Puran could be spoken of in the same breath, and Allah and Khuda could pass off as Ishwar and Niranjan, with­ out compromising on the substance of the original usages and maintaining distinctions. The purpose of translation was served. Interestingly, Alaol later resorted to the same strategy of deploy­ ing literary equivalences as acceptable idioms. However, in doing so, the translators and re-creators of Padmavat have contributed to the making of the many lives of the legendary Rajput princess, Padmini or Padmavati, as has been shown by Ramya Sreenivasan in her excellent book.18 The recent controversy over the making of a film based on the text and the central character once again brought to the fore such questions as the license to translate in ways in which the work remains faithful to the original, the superimposi­ tion of fresh imageries to refashion the original even as the basic



plot remains the same, or the creation of something altogether new to subvert the original. Did the film-maker subvert the origi­ nal with minimal resemblance to the plot, characters and purpose of the original composition? Making sense of contested historical legacies during times of widespread ignorance and suspicion is a difficult proposition. Malik Muhammad Jaisi, identified with the Chishti tradition, wrote many long narrative poems in Awadhi. The Sufis and other poets of the period wrote in different registers in a range of genres and a variety of Indian vernaculars. The Awa­ dhi premakhayan, the poetry of love, was a well-recognized genre in which the Sufi poets expressed their ideas of mystical love and the material desires that the mystics or lovers of God should steer clear of. Jaisi’s Padmavat is an excellent example of such prema­ khayans, which also included Mulla Daud’s Chandayan, Manjhan’s Madhumalti and Qutban’s Mrigavati. Jaisi was a well-known figure of his time, writing on themes dear to Hindus and Muslims alike and, as typical of most Sufi compositions, in a language intelligible to the common person. He avoided Arabic though he was wellversed in the Arabic-Islamic tradition; he also avoided Persian, the language of power and elite intellectual discourse. Sanskrit was also an exclusive language – Sanskrit classics themselves were being adapted into Braj and Awadhi, besides their translations in Persian. By the fourteenth century, the Chishti Sufi tradition had estab­ lished itself firmly in almost the entire Indian subcontinent. The Chishtis were devoted to God, and their songs of love were pre­ sented to the people as an essential form of worship; since God created everything, they believed, one should love and respect His entire creation, and this included people of all creeds, castes and ethnicities. The Sufis established their hospices not only in the big cities but also in many qasba-like towns, in Awadh, Punjab, Bengal and the Deccan; in this way, they created a spiritual following over a vast geography, embracing people who had or had not formally converted to Islam. The early sixteenth century in north India, the period in which Jaisi flourished, witnessed a variety of developments. On the one hand, there was the vibrant religious and cultural impact of the Sufi


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and Bhakti saints; on the other, a fluid political context charged with possibilities was emerging. Babur’s attempts to establish his Timurid or Mughal dynasty in India would be followed by Afghan resistance, especially the one led by the formidable Sher Shah Sur. Though the Rajputs were still emerging in the early sixteenth cen­ tury, the ‘Hindu’ subjects may not have felt disenfranchized under the Afghan or even the earlier Turkish rulers – just as they would not under Akbar or the other Mughals, though the Chaitanya episode with the qazi would indicate some social undercurrents, which was, eventually, intelligently handled as shown by Kiyokazu Okita (2019) in a recent essay. The Padmini legend spread over almost five centuries to large parts of upper north India, Bengal, Arakan and, of course, Rajasthan. Though we are not sure if a Rajput princess called Padmini ever existed, ‘Ala-ud-Din Khalji was a historical figure with a massive amount of information available on him. He was a strong ruler who warded off several Mongol invasions from the north and an able administrator, no more harsh or violent in his methods than rulers of the same period in any other part of the world. The original meaning in Jaisi’s text was the Sufi ideal of love and the search for common social grounds that are often done away in the contexts in which the demonization of Muslims fits in with the myth of the dark middle ages. Some fine studies on Sufism in medieval and early modern India have come up in recent decades,19 but Bengali Sufism is still attracting some historians to unpack a whole gamut of themes and issues involving Sufi activities from as early as the beginning of the thirteenth century. Some interesting works have come up from time to time,20 yet some pressing questions related to the Sufis’ political and cultural roles, such as their involvement in the diffu­ sion and expansion of Islam, require more in-depth discussions. The Chishti Sufis of the Bengal Sultanate carried forward the traditions and practices adopted by their predecessors in Delhi, though important figures like Shaikh Akhi Siraj-ud-Din (d. 1357) and his successor (khalifa) in the Chishti lineage, Shaikh ‘Ala-ul-Haq (d. 1398) did not maintain a critical distance from the political regime. Subsequently, ‘Ala-ul-Haq’s khalifas, Syed Ashraf Jahangir



Simnani (d. 1405) and Shaikh Nur Qutb-i-‘Alam (d. 1415), are known to have played an active role in politics, influencing the sultans of Jaunpur and Bengal, respectively. They are particularly remembered for their efforts to ‘save’ Islam from the sedition (fasad) of the mighty Hindu zamindar, Raja Ganesh, who had captured power to declare himself as the sultan in his own right. Even though the raja would have made friendly gestures towards the custodians of Islam, his name could not have been read in the khutba, or sermons, in the mosque. The reigning sultan had to be a Muslim who represented the authority of the caliph, who, in turn, represented the Prophet and the latter was a messenger of God. Thus, a strong fight by the Muslim party and negotiations by the Sufi masters led to a compromise formula in which Raja Ganesh had to step down in favour of his son Jadu, who converted to Islam at the hands of Shaikh Qutb-i-‘Alam and styled himself Sultan Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Shah. In deference to the power enjoyed by his father and the strength derived from him, the new sultan announced his legitimacy through his coins in which he referred to himself as Sultan Jalal-ud-Din bin Raja Ganesh! In all likelihood, Jalal-ud-Din remained a liminal figure, pandering to divergent pressure groups and the representatives of Muslim and Hindu reli­ gious traditions, and possibly reverting to the Hindu fold before his dramatic reign (1415-16, 1418-33) came to an unceremoni­ ous end. Our conventional secular history has tended to sanitize and sweep under the carpet, the ugliness of community relations, especially when it is unable to deal with the deadly concoction of violent politics taking recourse to aggressive religious justification. Emperors in early modern Europe were able to handle this ques­ tion by the confidence that they had in their military power and, thus, did not need religious legitimacy for their rule, leading to the separation of the church and state.21 By contrast, early modern Indian and Bengal rulers continued to succumb to the power of the religious domain, as in the stepping-down of Raja Ganesh and his son converting to Islam to be accepted as a legitimate ruler. The question of conversion to Islam and the Islamization of the region requires some discussion for it is one of lasting significance. Advancing his ‘ecological’ explanation in his important work on


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the rise of Islam in the Bengal frontier, Richard Eaton has pointed out that the expansion of Islam was most effective in areas that were least exposed to Brahmanical cultures, such as eastern Ben­ gal, and had shifted from a tribal to an agricultural existence under the Mughals. Thus, according to him, ‘large numbers of rural Mus­ lims were not observed (in eastern Bengal) until as late as the end of the sixteenth century or afterwards’ and ‘the bulk of the delta’s Muslim population emerged after the advent of the Mughals’. In arriving at this conclusion, Eaton rejects, perhaps not so legiti­ mately, the suggestion that the Sufis or their shrines played any role in the expansion of Islam prior to the sixteenth century when the hagiographers began to project ‘backward in time an ideology of conquest and conversion that had become prevalent in their own day’. ‘As part of this process’, Eaton adds, ‘they refashioned the careers of holy men’ of the Sultanate period so as ‘to fit within the framework of that ideology’. The ecological model for establishing the linkage between agrar­ ian growth and religious change has neglected the Sufi literature of the Sultanate period, which shows that a large number of Sufis, including Shaikh Jalal-ud-Din Tabrizi, were active in Bengal from the thirteenth century. Some of this literature has been utilized by Abdul Latif who writes that Tabrizi’s piety made him ‘extremely popular and his missionary zeal won him many converts to Islam’. Similarly, Latif refers to a joint effort between Shaikh Jalal-ud-Din Mujarrad and Sultan Sikandar for the conquest of Sylhet in 1303, adding that after the conquest was over, the Shaikh established his hospice there and converted many inhabitants of the place to Islam. Clearly, there is a need to explore some of the key issues relat­ ing to the emergence of Islam in Bengal and to understand the processes in the making of such a huge Bengali-speaking Muslim population. The early inroads of the Turkish conquerors in the thirteenth century, the establishment of the Bengal Sultanate, the arrival of the Sufis and their complex negotiations with the exist­ ing religious traditions, the integration of Bengal as a Mughal suba or province, the slow and gradual process of cultural accretion and Islamization, the question of identity formation, linguistic and



religious attachments, and the more recent issues of communal antagonism and neo-Islamic assertions require careful investiga­ tion. Islam in Bengal presents a fascinating trajectory: as Eaton puts it, a ‘double-movement’ involving terms of reference located in seventh-century Arabia and cultural boundary-markers rooted in a distinctly ethnic Bengali milieu.22 Which of the two aspects of the religious and cultural spheres of the Bengali-Muslim life is emphasized depends on the political context of the time. Further, the vibrant intellectual tradition of Bengal would not disappear by the eighteenth century; besides religious concerns, contemporary history would attract attention, as in the case of transformations witnessed and recorded by a figure like Ghulam Husain Tabatabai. Rising from the rank of a Persianate Mughal gentleman with very strong connections in Delhi, Patna and Murshidabad, Ghulam Husain moved on from being an efficient munshi (clerk) to be, arguably, the best historian and chronicler of the period of transition in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Working with the British and other Europeans, and sensing the changing contours of politics, Tabatabai was quick to realize that the time was up for the Mughals, though their eventual fall was a long-drawn affair. The old regime just could not keep pace with the changing times even as early modern Bengal and India gave way to the colonial order of things, witnessing massive transformations in the political, economic and intellectual spheres.23 In conclusion, insofar as serious scholarship is concerned, if it is to remain relevant and credible, it must engage with intellectual concerns emerging out of contemporary political and social con­ texts, armed with the methods of critical historical distance. In the last four decades or so, Indian society and politics have grappled with a host of issues ranging from some legitimate questions of identity – ethnic, religious, linguistic – to long-standing cries of injustices based on gender, caste and tribe, and attempts to address these issues politically with some success. All these are primar­ ily reflected in the historiographical trends of the last couple of decades or more, especially in the works of scholars specializing in what are conventionally identified as the ancient and modern periods. By contrast, medieval and early modern Indian history is


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a besieged field today. It has to constantly battle, on the one hand, with popular perceptions that erroneously equate the period with one religion – Islam – and with centuries of darkness (an image that school textbooks do little to dispel), and, on the other, with ignorant fellow practitioners. It is completely marginalized in some universities because of its grossly-misinformed association with only one language, Persian (and the absence of language experts) and the domination of one set of people, Muslims. In the process, the polyglossian cosmopolitan early modern world is being reduced to a monochromatic caricature. The exceedingly rich corpus of European sources, Indic vernaculars and Sanskrit texts, as well as a variety of visual, epigraphic, numismatic and archaeological material, are ignored. Mercifully, some of the most innovative research is happening in institutions abroad, especially in universities in the US, and in rare instances, in some still ‘open’ Indian ones. Indian and American scholars, among others, have produced in recent years some pioneering works on the Portu­ guese, the Mughals, the Marathas, and on Vijayanagara and a host of other important regional kingdoms. Working on a vari­ ety of themes related to political theory and governance, literary traditions, religious practices, connections with the wider world, urbanization and consumption, visual cultures, body and sexual­ ity, and so on, the current generation of scholars have opened new frontiers of research. This voluminous collection of essays explores the trading net­ works, religious traditions, artistic and literary patronage, and politico-cultural practices that emerged in Bengal during roughly sixteenth-eighteenth centuries. Using a wide array of sources, the contributors of this volume, coming from diverse academic affili­ ations, and including many young researchers, have attempted to address historiographical shortcomings by deploying new material and offering fresh interpretations. Early modern Bengal’s history tends to get overshadowed by the later developments of the nine­ teenth century. What these assortments of articles highlight is that this period needs to be studied afresh. The region underwent rapid transformations as it got politically integrated with northern India



and its empires and economically with wider global economic networks. Combined with its unique geography, the trajectory of this region in all spheres would manifest an almost constant interplay of local and extra-local forces – be it in literature, art, economic domain, political and religious cultures – and consider­ able enterprise and ingenuity. Thus a variety of themes – including travel accounts, Portuguese and Arakanese presence, early Dutch, French, Ostend companies’ forays into the region, the English company state’s intrusion in local economy in salt and raw silk production and indigenous reactions and rebellions, consumption practices related to religious activities, circulation and translation of texts, artistic production in the nizamat and later collections of art, representation of women in vernacular writings, and organiza­ tion of religious traditions – have been analysed in this volume for a better understanding of the history of an important region that we have identified as early modern Bengal – an earthly paradise.

Acknowledgements The author would like to thank Richard Barnett, Partha Chatterjee, Mimi Choudhury, David Curley, Michael Fisher, P.J. Marshall and Tilottama Mukherjee for patiently reading an early draft of this chapter and for suggesting ways to improve. The usual disclaimers apply.

NOTES 1. See, for all these, a fine cluster of works by Fletcher 1985, Richards 1997, Subrahmanyam 2010; for subsequent transformation from the level-playing field of the early modern era to the more exploitative colonial modern in India, see Chatterjee 2004 and 2012; for a contrary view, see Chakrabarty 2011. 2. For a good discussion of early modern historical traditions in Bengal, see Kumkum Chatterjee 2009; for a larger emphasis on history in the vernacular, early modern transformations and discussions relevant to the tension between professional history and popular histories of the public domain, see Aquil and Chatterjee 2008; also see Chatterjee and Ghosh 2002.


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3. For a recent study of turf war as well as for the control of Persian and Marathi sources between historians like Sarkar and Sardesai, on the one hand, and newly-emerging professional historians, on the other, see Chakarbarty 2015. 4. For more on Sher Shah’s attempt at empire-building and the integra­ tion of Bengal in the enterprise, see Aquil 2007. 5. For a good discussion of Henri de Polier’s career and his Persian let­ ters, see Alam and Alavi 2001. 6. Ibid. Clearly there was an important shift in the culture of English Company servants between the period of Warren Hasting’s rule (decades before Plassey) and people who served in the 1790s, who had no use for Indians and Indian knowledge except as located in ancient past and as the object of Orientalist study. 7. For a fine introduction to his collection of representative essays and book-chapters on a wide variety of themes in the history of the eigh­ teenth century in India, see Marshall 2003. Also see Travers 2007; Mukherjee 2013; Chaudhury 2015a-b. 8. See an interesting critique of the bluff in Drayton 2011. 9. It was a simply wicked colonial project. See Hunter 2002. 10. See Bhattacharya 2008. 11. Also see, in this context, Bayly and Subrahmanyam 1988 for ‘port­ folio capitalists’ transcending the domain of market and politics. 12. See, for instance, Foltz 1998. 13. Eaton 1993 remains a fine study of the expansion of Islam in Bengal. 14. For the Bengal Sultanate, see Hussain 2003; for a rich analysis of the Mangalkavyas, also see Curley 2008 and 2011. 15. See for instance, Dimock, Jr. 1999. 16. See Chatterjee 2009 for Bengali historical practices; Busch 2011 for the Mughal Hindi world; Zutshi 2017 for connected and shared accounts of the past in Kashmir; also Zieglar 1976a-b for Marwari oral narratives and chronicles, as well as Kothiyal 2016; Aquil and Curley 2016. 17. David Curley (personal communication). 18. Sreenivasan 2007. 19. See for some of the representative work on Sufis’ involvement in politics as well as the question of conversion and Islamization, Aquil 2010. 20. Haq 1975; Abdul Latif 1993. 21. See in this context, Michel Foucault’s insightful lecture on Governmentality (1991). Also see Bilgrami 2014 for a strong argument in



favour of privileging secular governing principles over pressures from the religious domains in multi-religious contexts. 22. Eaton 2003. 23. Chatterjee 2004; Aquil 2006.

REFERENCES Abdul Latif. 1993. The Muslim Mystic Movement in Bengal, 1301-1550. Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi and Company. Alam, Muzaffar and Seema Alavi. 2001. A European Experience of the Mughal Orient, The I‘jaz-i Arsalani (Persian Letters, 1773-1779) of Antoine-Louis Henri Polier, Translated with an Introduction. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Aquil, Raziuddin and David L. Curley, eds. 2016. Literary and Religious Practices in Medieval and Early Modern India. New Delhi: Manohar. Aquil, Raziuddin and Partha Chatterjee, eds. 2008. History in the Vernacular. Ranikhet: Permanent Black. Aquil, Raziuddin. 2006. ‘Man of the Moment: The Intellectual Trajectory of a Persianate Mughal Gentleman in an Era of Transition, Ghulam Husain Tabatabai and his Seir-ul-Muta‘akhkhirin’, paper presented in the International Seminar on Arabic and Persian Studies in Bengal: Peace as Value in Literature. Hosted by Department of Arabic and Persian, University of Calcutta, in collaboration with the Asiatic Society, Kolkata. . 2007. Sufism, Culture and Politics: Afghans and Islam in Medieval North India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Aquil, Raziuddin, ed. 2010. Sufism and Society in Medieval India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Bayly, C.A. and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. 1988. ‘Portfolio Capitalists and the Political Economy of Early Modern India’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 25 (4), pp. 401-24. Bhattacharya, Neeladri. 2008. ‘Predicaments of Secular Histories’, Public Culture, 20 (1), pp. 57-73. Bilgrami, Akeel. 2014. Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment. New Delhi: Permanent Black. Busch, Allison. 2011. Poetry of Kings: The Classical Hindi Literature of Mughal India. New York: Oxford University Press. Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2011. ‘The Muddle of Modernity’, American Historical Review, 116 (3), pp. 663-75.


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. 2015. The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth. Ranikhet: Permanent Black. Chatterjee, Kumkum. 2009. The Cultures of History in Early Modern India: Persianization and Mughal Culture in Bengal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Chatterjee, Partha and Anjan Ghosh, eds. 2002. History and the Present. New Delhi: Permanent Black. Chatterjee, Partha. 2004. ‘The Early Modern and Colonial Modern in South Asia: A Proposal for a Distinction’. Lecture given at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, 2004. . 2012. The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power. Ranikhet: Permanent Black. Chaudhury, Sushil. 2015a. Companies, Commerce and Merchants: Bengal in the Pre-Colonial Era. New Delhi: Manohar. . 2015b. Trade, Politics and Society: The Indian Milieu in the Early Modern Era. New Delhi: Manohar. Curley, David L. 2008. Poetry and History: Bengali Mangal-Kabya and Social Change in Precolonial Bengal. New Delhi: Chronicle Books. . 2011. ‘The “World of the Texts” and Political Thought in Bengali Mangal-kavya, c. 1500-1750’, The Medieval History Journal, 14(2), pp. 183-211. Datta, Rajat. 2000. Society, Economy and the Market: Commercialization in Rural Bengal, c. 1760-1800. New Delhi: Manohar. Dimock, Jr, Edward C. 1999. The Caitanya Caritamrta of Krshnadasa Kaviraja: A Translation and Commentary. Edited by Tony K. Stewart. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Drayton, Richard. 2011. ‘Where Does the World Historian Write From?: Objectivity, Moral Conscience and the Past and Present of Imperialism’, Journal of Contemporary History, 44 (3), pp. 671-85. Eaton, Richard M. 1994. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204­ 1760. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Eaton, Richard M., ed. 2003. India’s Islamic Traditions, 711-1750. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Fletcher, Joseph F. 1985. ‘Integrative History: Parallels and Inter­ connections in the Early  Modern Period, 1500-1800’, Journal of Turkish Studies, 9 (1), pp. 37-57. Foltz, Richard C. 1998. Mughal India and Central Asia. New York: Oxford University Press. Foucault, Michel. 1991. ‘Governmentality’, in Graham Burchell et al., eds., The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. London: Harvester, pp. 87-104.



Haq, Muhammad Enamul. 1975. A History of Sufi-ism in Bengal. Dacca: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh. Hunter, W.W. 2002. The Indian Musalmans, with an Introduction by Bimal Prasad. New Delhi: Rupa & Co. Hussain, Syed Ejaz. 2003. The Bengal Sultanate: Politics, Economy and Coins, ad 1205-1576. New Delhi: Manohar. Kothiyal, Tanuja. 2016. Nomadic Narratives: A History of Mobility and Identity in the Great Indian Desert. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press. Marshall, P.J., ed. 2003. The Eighteenth Century in Indian History: Evolution or Revolution?. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Mukherjee, Tilottama. 2013. Political Culture and Economy in EighteenthCentury Bengal: Networks of Exchange, Consumption and Communication. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan. Okita, Kiyokazu. 2019. ‘Singing in Protest: Early Modern Hindu-Muslim Encounters in Bengali Hagiographies of Chaitanya’, in John Stratton Hawley, Christian Lee Novetzke and Swapna Sharma, eds., Bhakti and Power: Debating India’s Religion of the Heart. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, pp. 159-70. Rao, Velcheru Narayana, David Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. 2003. Textures of Time: Writing History in South India, 1600-1800. New Delhi: Permanent Black. Richards, John F. 1997. ‘Early Modern India and World History’, Journal of World History, 8 (2), pp. 197-209. Sarkar, Jadunath, ed. 1948. The History of Bengal, vol. II: Muslim Period, 1200-1757. Dacca: The University of Dacca. Sreenivasan, Ramya. 2007. The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen: Heroic Pasts in India, c. 1500-1900. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. 2010. ‘Intertwined Histories: Cronica and Tarikh in the Sixteenth-Century Indian Ocean World’, History and Theory, 49, pp. 118-45. Tabatabai, Ghulam Husain, Seir-ul-Muta’akhkhirin, Asiatic Society Ms. Nos. 174 and 175. Printed text: Medical Press, Calcutta, 1833; Newal Kishore, 1866?. English trans, reprint from 1926 edition, Inter-India Publications, 1986. Travers, Robert. 2007. ‘The Eighteenth Century in Indian History: A Review Essay’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 40 (3), pp. 492-508. Ziegler, Norman. 1976a. ‘Marvari Historical Chronicle: Sources for the Social and Cultural History of Rajasthan’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 13 (1), pp. 219-50.


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. 1976b. ‘The Seventeenth Century Chronicles of Marvara: A Study in the Evolution and Use of Oral Traditions in Western India’, History of Africa, vol. 3, pp. 127-53. Zutshi, Chitralekha. 2017. Kashmir’s Contested Pasts: Narratives, Sacred Geographies and the Historical Imagination. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Trails of Travellers

Descriptions of an Early Modern Region

in Some European Accounts

Tilottama Mukherjee

We should note the force, effect, and consequences of inventions which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, namely printing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world. francis bacon, Novum Organum, Aphorism 129 (1561-1626)1

Early modern travelogues perhaps best exemplify the conse­ quences of at least two of the three inventions that Bacon noted were so radical and imparted distinctiveness to the early modern period. Long-distance travel, exploration, discovery, mobility and migration also became associated with modernity.2 Numerous traders, scholars, physicians, sailors, adventurers and men of reli­ gion landed on the shores of the Indian subcontinent and further east thanks to the discovery and navigation of the sea-routes. Some of them recorded the experiences of their journeys, sojourns and encounters, which were printed either in their lifetime or by their heirs, sometimes going through numerous editions. Many were translated and published in the nineteenth century. There were multiple mediators in the process of production, publication and dissemination of ‘knowledge’. Travel accounts are first-person descriptions of real journeys that were embarked upon for varied reasons.3 The early modern


Tilottama Mukherjee

period witnessed a noticeable rise in global travel, and the pro­ duction and consumption of travel accounts or ethnographic texts. These accounts, ‘simultaneously represented and motivated European imperialism and proto-nationalism in the early modern era. Travel, and the act of writing, also affects the individual writer, providing an outlet for articulating the near-unexplainable, for reflexivity, or for “self-fashioning”.’4 Michael Di Giovine further states that identity formation – both the creator’s and the intended audience’s – are linked to travel. The account itself is a social con­ struct.5 Early modern travellers were particularly ‘interested in foreigners and foreignness’ for drawing moral inferences about themselves or to contrast others with their lives.6 At the same time, as Judy Hayden observes, early accounts were treated with suspicion, as it was difficult to ascertain the trustworthiness and dependability of the narrators. Integrity became associated with social standing so that in the English case that she studies, she observes that ‘the distribution of credibility follows the contours of English society,’7 yet doubts persisted even then.8 Curiosity, the thirst for knowledge, and commercial and political compulsions fuelled desire and encouraged journeys. Nuggets of information and the artefacts that these travels brought into Europe stirred further interest. ‘In a historical period which had begun to real­ ize an emphasis on nation, when exploration was laying the foundation for empire, science and literary discourse remained intrinsically linked.’9 Knowledge production through the ‘Republic of Letters’, influenced, in turn, by humanist ideas, acquired great importance from the sixteenth century.10 Hayden writes that the idea of ‘inquiries or heads’ assumed significance in data collec­ tion and in procedures for arranging this knowledge. The Royal Society, for instance, combined early European procedures with Francis Bacon’s systems for creating an assemblage of knowledge and a process to verify/reject claims, providing a competitive edge to English commercial interests.11 Jason Pearl12 underscores the significance of the directives of the Royal Society and its cru­ cial import for establishing a ‘normative’ and ‘new geographic paradigm’. Its instructions for travellers were meant to garner new information; ironically, the method seemed to curb and impede

Trails of Travellers


that aim.13 Specific sets of instructions were critical as the Royal Society attempted to regulate conventions for writing about dis­ tant places and thereby control the act of representation. Travellers were enjoined to write in a straightforward manner devoid of selfpraise and flourishes. The precepts entailed transforming distant lands into spaces that could be quantified, mapped, objectified, and naturalized, which many of these accounts sought to follow but not in its entirety.14 These guidelines seemed to animate many of the accounts written about early modern Bengal, as we will see in this chapter. What is hard to ascertain is the level of mediation involved in the texts that were finally produced. Whether what was recorded was finally printed is difficult to establish especially where the original manuscripts have not survived or are inacces­ sible. Details of authorship, social provenance, and circumstances of composition are mostly glossed over, and sometimes the intended readership, the critical reception thereof and their value for con­ temporaries are also difficult to ascertain with certitude. These travel narratives deserve scrutiny not only for the information they contain but also as documents of critical historical understanding and imagination.15 European travellers were confronted by novel ideas, societies, and religions in the Indian subcontinent. The dis­ orienting experience of travel and the complexities of assimilation were very much reflected in some of their accounts.16 Many scholars have argued that ‘most early English travel was carried out (explicitly or implicitly) in the name of trade, and the profit motive marks most of the period’s published accounts – whether in the author’s and printer’s desire to make money or in the sponsorship of specific ventures.’ All travel writers, Kate Teltscher observed, were in some way or the other involved in exploring potential commercial links with India and their writings had to bear an aura of ‘dependable authority’. They meant to show trading possibilities and function as sources of practical information, and act as merchant guidebooks.17 She further observes that subscrip­ tion lists for travel collections had the names of a large number of merchants, which she reads as an indicator of the relevance of these collections to commercial enterprise. She also perceives a sense


Tilottama Mukherjee

of national prestige in many of these writings. At times, authors of travel accounts would draw analogies with home, and at other times divergences were noted. Repeating brought in a semblance of verisimilitude. The authors tried to either show distance or reduce strangeness. There were difficulties and obstructions, that travellers had to surmount, as well as wonder about the unique­ ness and expanse of the Indian subcontinent. Some scholars have argued that the depiction of diversity and unbelievable strange­ ness were traits, for instance, of seventeenth-century English travel writing on India,18 with a landscape of plenty and a ‘topographical’ ordering, where attention was paid to specific material/com­ mercial features of particular places. Finally, the same landscape transformed into ‘negative excess’. Some authors have gone to the extent of tracing to the seventeenth-century ‘tropes and rhetorical structures that distinguish avowedly colonial eighteenth-century writing on India.’19 Many of the theoretical formulations by schol­ ars focus on travel writing as a colonial genre and, hence are not applicable to earlier accounts as Ivo Kamps and Jyotsna Singh20 point out. Shackling these accounts with imperial intent might be transposing future changes to the past but that does not, these authors state, preclude the possibilities of new imperial strategies buttressing the early modern mercantile economy. The meeting of two cultures, as evidenced by encounters be­ tween travellers and the people of the lands they visited, would be a two-sided process. Both were over roughly early sixteenth to late eighteenth centuries becoming ‘early modern’ independent of each other, and the coming into contact would further trigger long-term changes that would inflect and accelerate this process and make both more ‘early modern’. The travel accounts by their descriptions/exclusions/inclusions, and the recording of incom­ patibilities and incommensurability, also indirectly chart out the evolution of the early modernity of South Asia, specifically the region of Bengal. The journey from a frontier province to being recognized as the richest of the Mughal provinces and a centre of world trade is well-illustrated in the way the region attracted the increasing attention of various travellers. The changing fortunes of

Trails of Travellers


the region were featured, configured and reflected in the accounts they left. In this chapter, some of the travellers’ observations and per­ ceptions about the region of Bengal are depicted. Although the travelogues contain descriptions of other regions, even other countries, and general discussions of the religions, and customs of the Indian subcontinent, this chapter’s aim is modest: the discus­ sion solely revolves around the sections of the texts on the region itself. It is a disparate group of travel writing that we will discuss below – some are written in English, a few others in French or Dutch and, subsequently, translated into English, some not. It is by no means an exhaustive assortment of texts; these were chosen to cover where possible different decades of the early modern period, or if it is roughly the same period, the narratives left by travel­ lers coming from different parts of Europe. The attempt here is to see how this region figured in the accounts of the travellers who visited the area, their descriptions and recordings, their probable aims and whether the image changes in the early modern period. Many scholars have worked on the history of Bengal in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,21 especially utilizing the very rich corpus of English East India Company records, and Persian and vernacular sources. However, few studies have used travel writings to delineate developments in the region. Except for some well-known accounts, such as Francois Bernier’s, these texts have been somewhat neglected and have not attracted much scholarly attention. Travel literature offers useful insights on areas that are not covered by other kinds of sources and, in some cases, provides additional and sometimes alternative, even contradictory perspectives. Despite their myriad flaws and prejudices, some of the accounts present a vivid image of early modern Bengal and its environment, pertaining to both its human settlements and its natural landscape. Here, a small and varied selection of sixteenth-eighteenthcentury travel accounts are used to chart changes, if any, in representations of early modern Bengal in some of these Euro­ pean travelogues. These are enormously diverse in style and tone;


Tilottama Mukherjee

some are even chaotically organized.22 The accounts of the region, especially some of the earlier ones, are often in the form of route marches, almost like a textual map rather than a drawn one. These are supplemented by the occasional detailing of the natural flora and fauna: often exotic, sometimes dangerous, sometimes picturesque; but the bulk of the descriptions are devoted to the enumeration and inventory of cities, their locations, the presence of fortifications if any, and premier commodities available in their markets. It is almost as if these travellers walked on the pathways cut by the wheels of carts or on tracks formed by the trudging feet of innumerable journeying people or their wandering predeces­ sors, or took the same coastal or river routes. They seem to fulfil the function of ready handbooks, which could be used to get some brief rudimentary information on urban centres and routes. The data is often, however, elementary or in the form of a superficial survey, often repetitive, rather than an extensive manual that future travellers or merchants, for instance, could potentially uti­ lize to chalk out commercial possibilities, business strategies or even empires. For a more detailed glimpse of the experiences of travelling, the impact of domestic travel on the economy, or the mechanism of the operation of markets and merchants, one has to turn to a different set of sources. From the initial sparse references in early accounts, it is not surprising that the region attracted the attention of many more travellers over the seventeenth century as it became more firmly integrated into both the Mughal empire and the Indian Ocean trading network. The eighteenth century would receive a fillip in this interest as the European companies jostled for power and control of intensely-lucrative centres of trade. Intrepid travellers throughout the period seemed to leave with a favourable image of the region, which they recorded diligently. It seems like that the developments within the region were determining the itinerary of these travellers, and their journeys were in response to Bengal’s growing commercial and political clout. In turn, travel literature would further perpetuate the idea and image of a wealthy region. Accounts changed over the centuries under consideration. As Kim Phillips observes,23 the outlook was shifting from a propen­

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sity by around the early sixteenth century to see a uniform India of marvels and monsters to that of a heterogeneous land of vari­ ety and wealth. It was meant to cater to a readership desirous for information and enjoyment, and perhaps they determined what they wanted to read.24 However, the early modern readers, if we go by the accounts of Bengal, were apparently more interested in the textual mapping of the region rather than in swashbuckling adventures and perilous escapes, though there are exceptions.

Sixteenth Century: Early Explorations The sixteenth-century accounts of Bengal mainly depict the prin­ cipal coastal cities and the extensive trade that this area generated, mainly with Malacca in South-East Asia and, to a certain extent the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea areas and other parts of the subconti­ nent. Again this was mainly through coastal shipping, the various cheap commodities on offer were described, a diverse range of merchants from different parts, but not Europe as yet, at least in the English travel accounts of the early period, were noticed. By the latter half of the century though, the Portuguese presence is noted. In some ways, these travellers appear to be conducting an initial exploratory journey of the coastline, while not venturing into the interiors. They mention rulers and a few remarks are about the inhabitants, their religion and dresses. Scholars have observed that the sixteenth century also sees a new kind of traveller who enjoys travel for its sake. Ludovico di Varthema, according to Phillips25 was an example of this new type. Ludovico di Varthema, the Italian aristocrat and traveller, wrote in the early sixteenth century26 that the country of Bengal had a most plentiful supply of grain, ‘flesh of every kind’, sugar, ginger, and cotton – more than ‘any country in the world’. These were the wealthiest merchants that he had ever met.27 Around fifty ships of cotton and silk were sent from Bengal to Turkey, Syria, Persia, Arabia, Ethiopia and other parts of India. There were many jewel merchants who came from other parts. He termed ‘Banghella’ as ‘the best in the world, that is, for living in’.28 This picture of plentitude and a cornucopia of products is


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deftly etched into one account after another. Duarte Barbosa, in the service of the Portuguese government wrote in his account of 1511-1629 that the kingdom of Bengala has many towns, many populated by ‘heathens’, but he erroneously placed it under the political overlordship of the king of Vijayanagara. The Muslims lived in the seaports where there was a considerable trade, and a ‘Moorish’ king ruled the city of Bengala, variously identified with Chittagong, Sonargao, Satgao, and Gaur, which was inhabited by ‘white men’, as well as people from different parts. These were great merchants and owners of ships that sailed to Coromandel, Malacca, Sumatra, Pegu, Cambay and Ceylon. Crops were in abundance. Varieties of fruits were grown as well, and there were horses and cattle in plenty. As Tomé Pires did too, Duarte Barbosa mentioned eunuchs, some of whom became very rich and had big estates. Dresses were described as well. Conversions by locals ‘to gain the favour’ of their rulers were referred to as well. He further recorded that all cities were along the seacoast. Another early sixteenth century (1512-15) traveller, Tomė Pires, started off as a factor of ‘drugs’ in the Indian subcontinent and eventually became the first European ambassador to China. He begins his section on the region30 with an intriguing set of lines: ‘the Bengalees are great merchants and very independent, brought up to trade. They are domestic. All the merchants are false.’ Like other travellers, he, too, noted the presence of traders from other parts of Asia, as well as from Chaul, Dabhol and Goa. Describ­ ing Bengal as prodigiously productive with abundant cheap food items, he followed it by a description of what he understood of its state – ruled by a powerful ‘Moor’ warrior king and the people who governed were Abyssinians but were apparently not too supportive of commerce. The main port was the city of ‘Bengal’ (Gaur). The king’s mansion was made of adobe while the rest had palm-leaf huts. Satgaon was next in importance and it was a good port city with wealthy merchants. Pires wrote that there were strongly forti­ fied garrison towns in the interiors. Bengal had shipping links with Malacca. One ship annually or biannually carried ninety thousand cruzados worth of goods. The sheer variety of traded commodi­ ties was enumerated and he also mentioned cowries. Taxes were

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high for merchants going to Bengal, but since commodities were so highly valued in their countries and they only carried them in small quantities, their profit margins were still high.31 Ralph Fitch,32 a London merchant, stayed in the Indian sub­ continent between 1583 and 1591, and described how he went from Agra to ‘Satagam’ in Bengal down the river Yamuna, in the company of one hundred and eighty boats that were laden with salt, opium, hing (asafoetida), lead, carpets and other commodi­ ties. From there, he visited Benares, a big town, where a ‘great store of cloth is made’, which, he noted, also attracted pilgrims from far­ away countries.33 From Patna, he further travelled to Tanda where the main trade was in cotton and cloth. From Agra, down the river Yamuna and the river Ganges, it took five months but one could sail the same distance in a much shorter time. He described Hugli city as well, ‘which is the place where the Portugals keep in the country of Bengala’, while Satagam is:34 A fair city for a city of the Moors, and very plentiful of all things. Here in Bengala, they have every day in one place or other a vast market that they call Chandeau, and they have many great boats, which they call pericose, wherewithal they go from place to place and buy rice and many other things. These boats have twenty-four or twenty-six oars to row them; they are great of burden but have no coverture.

Alongside these observations about main trading commo­ dities,35 there are remarks and odd descriptions of ‘people which have ears of a span long if their ears be not long they call them apes. They say that when they are upon the mountains, they see ships in the sea sailing to and fro, but they know not from whence they come nor whither they go’, probably referring to a Bhutanese tribe.36 Thomas Coriate similarly wrote that he saw some of the strangest beasts of the world in the Mughal emperor, Salim’s (Jahangir) palace where they were brought from the ‘Countrie of Bengala’, which was of ‘most singular fertilitie’. It was about four months journey away and different channels of the Ganges watered parts of this region.37 Jahangir was also known for his immense collections of naturalia and artificialia from around the globe. Though these accounts do not belong to the ‘marvel’


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phase,38 yet some vestiges of it seem to linger here and there. Late sixteenth-century accounts, such as John Huyghen Van Linschoten’s The Voyage of John Huyghen Van Linschoten to the East Indies,39 had observations about the Ganges and the kingdom of ‘Bengalen’.40 This Dutch merchant made his first voyage to India in 1583, initially starting from Utrecht, and reaching India after sojourns in Spain and Portugal. He wrote about ‘Chatigan’ and the local people whom he found ‘most subtill and wicked . . . they are all theeves, and the women whores, although this fault is common throughout all India, no place excepted.’41 These accounts, to an extent also provide a glimpse of imperialist images and notions of native cunning, dishonesty, lethargy and sensuality that would develop later. However, it might have been the frustration of being bested in negotiations and bargains associated with trading enter­ prises that manifested itself in these negative portrayals – traits that made them into formidable rivals. Like most travellers, he, too, was struck by the cheapness of plenteous staples especially rice. The Portuguese traded here. Magnificent cotton textiles of various kinds, highly regarded in other parts of India and many other places including Portugal, were widely traded in. Though observations regarding Bengal are relatively scant, scholars have noted the importance of this work, in particular, for the informa­ tion that it provided to the Dutch for organizing their first voyage into the Indian Ocean.42 The Itinerario was the most sophisticated geographical text on the Indies available to the Dutch.43

Seventeenth-century Accounts: A Region of Riches By the seventeenth century, travel accounts were more detailed with a broader range of observations about the region. It was no longer the coasts, but these travellers were charting the interiors enumerating the cities on the Hooghly/Ganges. The primary com­ modities so diligently and sometimes so enticingly listed – a feature that would not change over three centuries now also include new world crops – such as tobacco and pineapple. These shifts reflected broader changes happening in not just the Indian subcontinent but

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also in the interconnected early modern economies with exchange networks operating on a much more impressive scale. Early mod­ ern regimes seem to have fostered it through incentives and by ensuring the safety of travellers. The state in Bengal seems to have utilized its resources more efficiently. Frequent references are made to metallic coinage as well. Foreign traders were no longer Arabs and Persians but Europeans, primarily the Dutch, English, French and, to a lesser extent the Portuguese as well. The existence of local markets was noted and there seemed to be an extensive regional trade. Though not always explicitly stated, travellers could have been utilizing these circuits of European companies and private traders once the former had based themselves in some of the nodal centres of commerce in the region; and also networks of religious groups to get their information, and perhaps logistical help as well. The building up of and use of the networks of allies, patrons and clients were intrinsic to both the early modern political and commercial world. It seems that some of these travellers were operating with preconceived notions about the region; ideas that were formed even before they had discovered and explored the place, and these would be articulated and reiterated with amend­ ments predicated and tempered by their observations. This period witnessed profound transformations within Europe as well. Benjamin Schmidt observes that exotic geography gained immense popularity in Europe for about a decade following the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. Particularly around the 1660s, there was a veritable upsurge of a dizzying array of material dealing with/ from faraway lands, which seems to have been pervasive by the end of the seventeenth century.44 There was an extraordinarily broad range of consumption. Their production, though, was principally based in the Netherlands.45 Schmidt further writes that the new exotic geography ‘marked a significant shift from earlier modes of description, characterised by intense contestation – national, confessional, colonial, imperial – to modes that allowed a generi­ cally “European” consumer to enjoy a generically “exotic” world’.46 He correlates ‘the invention of exoticism’ with ‘the invention of Europe’ and states:


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If time and history had played a critical role in framing prior descriptions and perceptions of non-European places – overseas lands branded as ‘newer’ satellites of European empires; exotic peoples presented as ‘olde tyme’ variants of European colonists; geography identified as the eye of (European) history – then space and distance (from Europe) served as key organizing principles for this later moment of geography. Geography now moved laterally across non-European landscapes, rather than verti­ cally through European-cum-global history. Images and accounts and material arts mixed and matched foreign peoples and polities, curious cultures and specimens, all lumped together as collectively, generically, congenially exotic. If geography had served in the sixteenth century as the eye of history, it was by the latter half of the seventeenth century the eye – or perhaps the outstretched arms or long loping legs – of ethnogra­ phy, cultural anthropology, comparative religion, natural history, and the innumerable other subjects that fit within its capacious boundaries.47… Exotic geography presented the world as an agreeable product – an image of the world as commodity, an affordable form of consumable globalism assembled for an eager European audience. And sources marketed and branded this format – so adroitly and consistently made in Holland – in visually sumptuous and winningly designed volumes. Exotic geography ushered in coffee-table books at the dawn of the age of coffee.48

Seventeenth-century accounts of Bengal were quite disparate. From brief mentions to weightier tomes, travellers left their im­ pressions of a region growing in stature. John Mandelslo (1638) noted49 that Bengal was the most powerful of the provinces in India giving its name to the gulf into which the Ganges flows. Its chief cities were Rajmahal, Dhaka, ‘Philipatan’ and ‘Satigam’. It was further divided into several smaller provinces, and had an exten­ sive trade in rice, sugar, cotton and, above all, silks, the best in all the Indies. Sugar cane production also elicited praise. He wrote that the inhabitants were pagans and ‘brutish.’50 Unlike most other early accounts, Fray Sebastien Manrique, a Portuguese missionary and traveller who visited Bengal in 1640,51 provides more detailed descriptions of the region, some of its towns, the state of Christianity in this part of the world and the developing political situation in the region. He wrote in detail about the churches in the region, including in the district of ‘Ange­ lim’, and Bandel which was a meeting node of several merchants

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dealing in commodities such as sugar, wax and ginghams.52 From the outer rims, Christianity moved into the interiors, including to Dhaka, the principal city and the seat of the Mughal emperor’s viceroy who was often a prince of the royal blood. Stretching over a league and a half on the banks of the Ganges, Manrique refers to the ‘suburbs of Manaxor’, ‘Narandin’ and ‘Pulgari’ as Chris­ tian settlements with a monastery and church.53 ‘Many strange nations’ visited the city for its extensive and varied trade, making it exceedingly wealthy. Highly populated (it ‘exceeded two hundred thousand, irrespective of visitors who come in great numbers from all parts’), it attracted both traders and mercenaries. He repeatedly remarks on the prodigious amounts of food and various kinds of commodities available.54 Manrique wrote that the ‘principalities of Bengala’ were made up of twelve provinces: ‘Bengala, Angelim, Ourixa, Jassor, Chan­ dekan, Midnimpur, Catrabo, Bacala, Solimanvas, Bulva, Dacca, and Rajamol.’ All were once ruled by the Padshah from his capital at Gaur and with the aid of twelve princes or the ‘twelve Boiones of Bengala’. These areas were under the Mughals when Manrique visited the region.55 He refers to the appointment of the nawabs, the governors, and their high rates of tribute that necessitated the use of force and which had to be paid in advance as they were sta­ tioned there for short durations. Manrique writes, ‘In spite of such violence, the Bengalas are so averse to paying money that some sections of the community hold that the payment of this tribute is a great humiliation unless they have first been severely beaten.’ He also writes that the climate was salubrious and observes that the quality of water was excellent. There was a super abundance of crops of all kinds, especially wheat, rice, vegetables, sugar cane, and ghee, oils, meats too were cheap. He writes appreciatively of the scented variety of rice, which was far superior to European ones. Local people fermented liquor from rice, as well as sugar. ‘Midinimpur’ manufactured scents that were exported to many places. The use of posto (poppy seed) was popular. The region was very extensive. He also wrote about the means of conveyance as well.56 While describing the local inhabitants, he mentions that they


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were of moderate height and medium complexion; many even very dark with pleasant features and were well formed, and wore unstitched cotton cloths. The women wore ornaments. The wealth­ ier ones had jewel-encrusted gold ones as well as coloured silks, or cloth richly embroidered with gold and silver thread. As Manrique details the clothes worn by the people, he, interestingly, notes that the rich people during festivals and other special occasions57 wore: . . . trousers and a cabaya (coat) after the Mogol style. The cabaya only differs, as it is like a cassock reaching half-way down the leg. Another difference in these coats, which distinguishes Hindus and Musalmans, is that it opens on the right-hand side in the latter case and on the left-hand side with Hindus.58

According to Manrique, the ‘Bengalas’ were ‘a languid race’ and pusillanimous, given up, ‘as most Asiatic peoples are’, to ‘self­ interest’. They were, ‘mean-spirited and cowardly, more apt to serve than to command, and hence they easily accustom themselves to captivity and slavery. To be well and successfully served by them they should be treated rather with harshness than mildness.’59 They lived in clean clay and mud huts with straw/palm leaf thatched roofs. Straw mats and kanthas were used for sleeping. A few utensils, and a daily diet of rice and salt, in the absence of other items, sufficed. The wealthier sections of people, he observes, had milk, ghee and milk products, though little fish was eaten, the flesh of goats, wild pigs, lentils, vegetables, seemed to have been consumed more.60 He writes about ‘kachari’ (khichri), and differ­ ent kinds of sweetmeats. He also notices the importance given to bathing before meals. He writes that most men were monogamous, and the women ‘naturally impetuous’, although ‘humane’ and with more ardour.61 Most people were Hindus (heathen cults) riven into many sects. Some had become Muslims (follows the ‘Alcoran’) since the Mughal advent in the region. For both religion, he has very disparaging observations to make.62 He refers to Jagannath and the ratha yatra as well and goes on to write about Durga Puja, celebrated ‘in the month of June.’63 Manrique describes the island of Sagor in the ‘Bengala Ocean’, as not far from the mainland of ‘Angelim’, about twenty leagues

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in circumference, flat and cool, with reservoirs of fresh water and areca palms. Once home to many temples, it began to decline after the Portuguese arrival and was frequented only by pilgrims visit­ ing the ruins, and by the Portuguese and Magh ships which came to rest and also seize pilgrims.64 As in many parts of his descrip­ tions of Bengal, Manrique wrote deleteriously about local rituals. The water from the place was transported over long distances for believers from diverse strata of society, ensuring ‘considerable profits on a basis of professed piety and charity.’ He notes: For the heathen rulers of those parts, and even some Maometans, when crowned, on first succeeding to their possessions, were in the habit of sending for some of this water. They washed themselves in it and used it in certain ceremonies connected with the coronation, the Bramenes, their masters and directors, assuring them that every material and spiri­ tual benefit would result from its use.65

Manrique further describes many rituals, especially the death rituals performed on the banks of the Ganges and makes man­ datory notings on Sati. He also notes that Christians were not allowed to stay on the island.66 Residing with other Christians he had learnt ‘the languages of Bengala and Industana’ and developed his expertize in missionary duties.67 John Marshall’s68 observations about Bengal, too, were similar to those of his other contemporaries. A factor of the East India Company, he travelled circa 1668. His notes on Bengal like many other accounts of the period were in the form of entries of a daily route march with references to the places and the distances between them. Some would merit lengthier descriptions. For instance, he writes: … 2 March. To Jaunnabad [Jahanabad] near the River, a very great towne, 4 Course, a pagotho I Cours[e] off, very great. 4 Course 3 March. Came to Bangamoddan, 5 Course, by the River, wher dined. To Serampore [Srirampur], 2 Course, by a Tank. Here they grind Sugar Cain. Travelled this day, 7 Course.

For 5th March, he has the following observations: Came to Hugly, 2½ Course, which at 2¼ miles per Course (these being


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much less than Orixa Course), are in all 61⅞ English miles, which [with] the 112¼ miles which travelled in Orixa, make in all 174 miles. I esteeme the whole way from Ballasore to Hugly to be North East, which makes the Meridian distance to be East 1232/10 and Lattitude raised North. There were in Company that travelled overland Mr. Shem Bridges Chiefe of Bengall, Mr. Walter Clavell Second, Mr. Edward Read and his wife, Gabraell Townesend, Sarah the wife of Wm. Bramston, and my selfe. Hugly is a very great Towne in which live very many Portuge[se]; great part of the towne was formerly called Satagam. The English and Dutch have each of them a stately Factory scituate by the River, which is a Branch of the River Ganges.69

The rest of the diary continues in a similar vein mentioning names of towns, distances, the commodities found there, and a jumble of miscellaneous information. The more extensive towns merited a slightly longer exegesis. For example, he describes Rajmahal as being large with stone houses, as well as thatched ones. He provides a more extensive description of the prince’s pal­ ace and garden, and the ‘English house’.70 In his famed Travels in the Mogul Empire,71 Francois Bernier, the French physician and natural philosopher, notes the richness of the province. Writing about the period 1656-68, he notes the political developments of the Mughal state and observed that Sul­ tan Shuja, one of the sons of Shah Jahan, ‘had garnered resources by completely ruining’ some of the local Bengal rajas and others.72 He also got the support of the Portuguese from lower Bengal, who supplied several pieces of cannon. The abundant fertility of the province brought many Europeans and it was Shuja’s policy to encourage them to settle, especially the Portuguese mission­ aries, with visions of future wealth and the prospect of building churches. Scholars such as Munis Faruqui73 have noted the role of the princes’ alliance-building and their networking efficacy as a determining factor in the final quest for the throne. The prior problems that the Mughals had with the Portuguese in Hugli and the piracy conducted from Rakan are also noted. Bernier compares the large region to Egypt – although the usual analogies, according to Teltscher,74 were to England or Europe. He enumerates the vari­ ety of Bengal’s rice, corn, silk, cotton, indigo and mangoes. These

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were so abundant that the region supplied both adjoining and dis­ tant states. These were carried up the Ganges as far as Patna, and by sea to Masulipatnam, Coromandel, Ceylon and the Maldives. Sugar went to Golconda and the Carnatic, Arabia, Mesopotamia and Persia. Bengal was known for its sweetmeats, especially in areas where the Portuguese resided for they were ‘skilful in the art of preparing them, and with whom they are an article of consider­ able trade’. Fruit preserves of citrons, amla (Indian gooseberry), ananas (pineapples), small mirobalans (probably myrobalan or trees with astringent fruits), limes, and ginger were well known. Wheat that was cultivated in small but sufficient quantity for sea biscuits supplied European ships. Three/four vegetables, and rice and butter were the staple diet of the people and were very cheap. Meat was plentiful and fish abundant.75 According to Bernier, There are also many parts of the Indies, where the population is suffi­ ciently big, and land pretty well tilled; and where the artisan, although naturally indolent, is yet compelled by necessity or otherwise to employ himself in manufacturing carpets, brocades, embroideries, gold and sil­ ver cloths, and different sorts of silk and cotton goods, which are used in the country or exported abroad.76

Bernier further mentions cowries imported from the Maldives, as well as the monsoon pattern. The Jesuits and Augustinians had large churches, and Hugli had eight to nine thousand Christians. In other parts, there were above twenty-five thousand. Enormous amounts of cotton and silk made Bengal into a storehouse of the entire Mughal Empire, Asia and Europe. The region produced vast quantities of cotton cloths of every kind: fine and coarse, white and coloured. The Dutch took these to Japan and to Europe. The English, Portuguese and indigenous merchants also dealt in these, along with silks which were cheaper than the richer varieties found elsewhere. The Dutch employed seven or eight hundred people in their silk factory at Kasimbazar, as did the English and other merchants. The Dutch and English sent saltpetre to many parts of Asia and to Europe. Superior-quality lac, opium, wax, civets, long pepper, various drugs and butter, were sent by sea. Mortality rates


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among the Dutch and English crews were initially high but this diminshed with precautions. They were discouraged from drink­ ing or indulging in arrack and tobacco, and enjoined to ‘visit the Indian women’ with lesser frequency. The rivers were suitable for the conveyance of commodities and the supply of drinking water. They were lined by thickly-populated towns, villages, fields of rice, sugar, corn, vegetables, mustard, sesame for oil, and small mul­ berry trees. Islands formed on the river were extremely fertile with groves, fruit-trees and pineapples, the lush green cut by channels. Many of the travellers also note the presence of tigers on these islands, creating an image of a paradise, which was guarded by wild beasts. Once these gates of savagery were crossed, one entered a verdant space interlaced by silvery streaks of rivulets. Thomas Bowrey,77 a sailing master and merchant who travelled in the Indian subcontinent between 1669 and 1679, and who compiled the first Malay-English dictionary, provides a more detailed account of the region. He characterizes it as ‘the most potent kingdom of Hindostan’, with many fine navigable rivers such as the Ganges and the Hooghly. He mentions villages, groves, cultivated fields that supplied plentiful sugar, cotton, lac, honey, beeswax, oil, rice, gram, and other valuable commodities. He also notices the cheap provisions, and the use of cowries and metal coinage ‘excellent conveniences for carrying theire European commodities up into the inland towns and cities, and the like for bringing downe the commodities purchased in this or some other kingdoms.’ English, Dutch and Portuguese ships called on its ports, and trade flourished with other parts of India, Persia, Arabia, China and the South Seas. The English and Dutch had a factory each with small investments but the real reason why they were stationed there was to gain proximity to the prince and his court. Sultan Shuja governed the region but was subsequently defeated as Bowrey recounts in some detail. Apparently the Euro­ peans, especially the English, were distressed by the sequence of events as the prince was benevolent and ‘a real lover of the English Nation’. Bowrey also enumerates the major cities of Bengal. Dhaka was large and spacious but built upon swampy ground. However, the fine navigable river nearby and the good quality water com­

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pensated for these deficiencies. It had great buildings, a number of inhabitants, a standing army and elephants. Cuttack the second best city, was very beautiful but not as large as Dhaka. It had many great buildings, streets, water sources, and groves of mangoes and other fruits. The governor resided here. Bowrey presents a very negative appraisal of the Nawab of Cuttack as well as of Shaista Khan, the subahdar of Bengal, who reportedly preyed on the rich merchants. Hugli was ‘famous and sumptuous’, with many fine buildings, gardens, groves, bazaars, choultries, and was heav­ ily populated. It had the largest Dutch factory in Asia, the chief English factory of the province, the richest merchants, and a huge variety of articles from Bengal, Orissa and Patna that were bought and sold in the public bazaar. It had specialized markets as well. Kasimbazar was famed for its trade and very wealthy merchants, the name itself meaning primary market. The Dutch and English had factories there, the latter having a bigger presence in trade and factors, and with a bigger factory. Differences between the Danes and the ‘Bengala’ government are also noted, as the presence of the Portuguese, especially in populous Bandel. Though very poor, the latter are commended for their ‘industrie’. The local customs of worship are mentioned and characterized as ‘very strange’, mainly encouraged by ‘wicked’ Brahmins. There are some brief comments on women as well. The forests were full of wild beasts, tigers and bears, and often the woodcutters and salt makers near the mouth of the Ganges bore the brunt of their ferocity. Despite this, on the whole, it was a very flourishing and prosperous land, and as Bow­ rey observed, ‘for thousands that were borne in Other Countries doe live and Ends theire days with Old age in Bengala.’78

Eighteenth-century Chronicles: The Rise of the English East India Company, Calcutta and Smaller Towns By the middle and later half of the eighteenth century, the chang­ ing political fortunes of Bengal were quite clear to all authors and travellers. What perhaps the earlier writers had not envisioned was the massive change that would occur: the unexpected English conquest and, at the same time, the demise of not just Mughal


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dominance but also the declining clout and affluence of the Dutch and other European companies and their traders. Chance encoun­ ters and unforeseen consequences played an essential part in the developments within the region as elsewhere. Most travellers continued to write about the towns, especially the smaller nodes which seemed to have emerged during the century, mainly dealing in grain and other agricultural products, as well as the presence of merchants from other parts of the country and, in fact, the world. Alexander Hamilton,79 an East India Company employee, mer­ chant and writer, who was probably a navigator as well, travelled between 1688 and 1723, and observed and listed the towns, cities and customs of the region. He writes that Pipli was once a cen­ tre of trade with English and Dutch factories but had fallen into bad times like ‘Ingellie’ and ‘Kidgerie’ with the factories moving to Hugli and Calcutta and the disappearance of merchants. He describes in detail that the first secure anchoring place for ships was the Rogues River, and then goes on to list the smaller towns. ‘Culculla’, was a market town for corn, coarse cloth, butter and oil. Dutch enclave of Bankshall, Radnagar was known for cotton cloth, silk rumals. ‘Bussundri’, ‘Tresindi’ or ‘Gorgat’ and ‘Cottrong’ were known for sugar. ‘Ponjelly’ with its weekly/bi-weekly corn market was an exporter of great amounts of rice. ‘Tanna’ fort and ‘Governapore’ are also mentioned. Hamilton writes at some length about Fort William, giving a brief history of the English settlement with appreciative remarks about the governor’s house, lodgings for factors and writers, and storehouses for the Company’s goods. Provisions of all kinds were inexpensive and bountiful, and made the country very pleasant. Fort William had 200-300 soldiers who were there for conveying their fleet from Patna. All religions co­ existed. In the early eighteenth century, apparently the settlement had little ‘manufactory’ of its own and discouraged initiative, and hard work. Hamilton goes on to give certain examples of the ‘tyranny and villainy supported by a power(ful) (official)’. He also describes the other major towns along the river. Baranagar had a Dutch house and garden. The Danish factory, which had fallen on hard times, was situated 4 miles below the Hugli. ‘Bankebankshal’ was where the Ostend had a factory but the latter had to leave in

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1723 and go to Chandernagore but without much trading suc­ cess even there. There they would attend church and ‘hear mass, which is the chief business of the French in Bengal.’ He reports that Chinsura had a large Dutch factory with many good river houses with gardens. The town was under the Dutch Company’s govern­ ment and was inhabited by the indigenous population as well as the Armenians. Hugli was a large town with thriving trade, was a centre of exports and imports with a Mughal customs house, and could easily lade 50-60 ships, supplied with saltpetre from Patna in October but the boats had to be tracked back. Opium, long pepper, ginger, tobacco, and many piece goods were the principal items of exchange. Bandel was formerly under the Portuguese. Kasimbazar, with both English and Dutch factories, was large and was continu­ ally visited by merchants. Hamilton notes that it was a healthy place with hardworking people who ‘cultivate many valuable manufac­ tories’. Murshidabad with a Mughal mint was the ‘greatest place of trade’, which subsequently shifted to Kasimbazar. Malda was large, well-populated, frequented by merchants, and had English and Dutch factories. Foreign traders visited Patna, which had an English and Dutch factory for saltpetre, raw silk and opium. It was the residence of princes of the royal family. Sacred Benares with its universities and seminaries is also mentioned. Hamilton does not venture any further on this route and instead visits Dhaka, which he describes as the largest city of Bengal. He notes that cotton and silk of both the cheapest and best quality could be found here. There were cheap and abundant provisions as well and the city was heavily populated. Chittagong and Sandwip find a mention as well. He calls Bengal an ‘earthly paradise’. Robert Markley80 notes that ‘throughout his New Account, Hamilton interlaces discussions of indigenous cultures, histories, commodities, and trading practices with descriptions of seas, coastlines, shoals, and harbors.’ By the seventeenth century, Dutch maritime cartography with its charts had already started to depict the Indian coastlines. The mapmakers marked the ports but the interiors were deliberately absent.81 The textual descriptions in many ways provided the details that were mostly absent on the drawn maps. Another English East India Company servant and writer, John


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Henry Grose,82 reached Bombay in 1750 and probably visited Ben­ gal in 1763. He observes that the Mughal empire comprised three parts, ‘Indostan, the Deckan, and Bengal’, with the first under the emperor, while the rest was ruled by his viceroys who were practi­ cally independent. The subahdar of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa was in all manner ‘an absolute prince’.83 The internal and external trade of Bengal was very substantial, as evidenced from the large number of merchants who frequented it: Persians, Abyssinians, Arabs, Chinese, Gujarati, Malabari, Turks, ‘Moors’, Jews, Georgians, Armenians, and those from all parts of Asia. All ‘Christian nations established in the East-Indies’ sent ships; and with commodities from these areas, they ‘partly make their returns to Europe, besides what they export for their India Trade.’ Grose also enumerated the principal items such as silk, cotton cloth, pepper, rice, salt-petre, wood, ‘terra merka’, lac, yellow and white wax, indigo, camphor, aloe and ‘gum gutta’.84 Fifty-sixty ships laden with cargo made their way to different parts of the world annually. In some parts, Grose’s account is quite similar to Alexander Hamilton’s and might have been derived from the earlier traveller’s example. The towns along the Hooghli are mentioned with their principal commodities. For instance, ‘Culculla’ supposedly had a good market for coarse cloth, corn and oil. Radnagor was wellknown for manufacturing cotton, cloth and silk handkerchiefs while ‘Ponjelly’, a little market town for corn, exported abundant amounts of rice. Calcutta was big, pleasant, and densely inhabited by numerous private English merchants and rich Indian traders, who provided the Company with articles of the region. The fort, the quarters for the factors, the warehouses for the Company’s merchandise and the magazines for their ammunition find men­ tion, as also the gardens and fish-ponds, a hospital, dockyards for repairing and careening the ships, and an Armenian garden. What appears remarkable to Grose was that different religions seemed to coexist. He writes, ‘The Pagans carried their idols in procession; the Mahommedans were not discountenanced, and the Roman Catholics had a church.’ The English merchants and seamen had contributed to the building of a church as well. The Hindus wor­ shipped the Ganges. About Hugli, too, the author had very positive

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observations: it was significant in size, and Indians and Portuguese mostly lived there. It was a meeting place for all countries that had commercial relations with Bengal. The storehouses and shops abounded with the costliest commodities of the country.85 Though national pride is not lacking, Grose does not brush away corruption within the Company’s establishment. For instance, he notes that the English Company withdrew its factory from Patna in 1750 where above 100,000 £. were reportedly lost due to misappro­ priations, fabricated entries and ‘bad conduct’. He also describes in great detail the way in which the English became the masters of the principal centres of trade in Bengal by worsting the nazim, as well as other European trading rivals whose activities he reported as well.86 As Grose almost gleefully notes, the French and all its dependencies were entirely driven out of Bengal in a short period and the English East India Company reaped more solid profits: . . . with few men, and a short campaign, than has been done by crowned heads, and powerful armies, in those bloody wars which have almost drained the veins of Europe to the last ebb. It is amazing, that the govern­ ment of a vast kingdom, as extensive as most in Europe, equal to any in the fertility of its soil, superior to many in the richness of its commerce, and inferior to few in the number of its inhabitants, would be so suddenly transferred by such a handful of troops, who in Europe are undeserving the name of an army: but the victors were Englishmen, and their leader was Clive, who seems to have been born a general! If a Justin or a Cur­ tius had been living in our times, what would they have said, to find the glory of Alexander the Great out rivalled by a British subject? Alexander invaded India with an army of 120,000 horse and foot: but the places he took, and the conquests he made, were attended with no difficulty. Porus fell into his hands, and he restored him to his kingdom. A private subject of Great Britain has done an act equally as brave and great: his few soldiers would have followed him to the utmost limits of the globe yet Alexander could not prevail upon his numerous army to pass the Ganges and attack Aggamenes.87

Grose’s contempt is also directed towards the other Europeans: ‘silly, senseless, sanguinary bigotry of the Portuguese; … the un­ social dryness, imperious conduct, and keenness after a gain of the Dutch, and the super-refined designing politeness of the French.’


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Grose reflects that his contemporaries had incorrectly seen the extensive trade that occurred in the Indian subcontinent as being primarily in luxuries that discouraged English manufactures on account of the low prices of the former. He also notes that a primary objection was their exchange for bullion.88 However, he clarifies that this was a false impression. On the other hand, it was the Indian weavers whose ‘incessant and ingenious industry’ hardly ever rescued them from poverty, while rendering them unfit for any other service. Therefore, the profits accrued to banias, chettis/head merchants and ‘men as effeminate as themselves; in whose coffers, generally speaking, all that money stagnates that is not invested in the usurious advances’. Grose makes a case for the use of force by the English to trade in the East Indies and India. He reasons that merchants seemed to show affinity to a country that was powerful and able to secure them from the oppression of their state and the chief reason for the English to having earned a footing in the Indian subcontinent was because of their use of arms both on land and on sea. J.S. Stavorinus,89 a Rear-Admiral in the service of the StatesGeneral, travelling between 1768 and 1771, writes that different ‘nations’ inhabited Bengal but the ‘Moguls’ were the most numer­ ous.90 The local inhabitants, the ‘Gentoos’, were much more in number than the ‘Moors’ in this ‘most fruitful part of Asia’.91 He describes the towns of Chandernagore, Chinsura, Falta, Giretti and Calcutta. As did the other travellers before him, he writes about the fertility of the region that produced an immense quantity of diverse and essential commodities of trade, such as silk, cotton, saltpetre, opium and wheat. Unlike many of the earlier travellers, he dwelt in some detail on silk and cotton production. He writes about the collection of silk from the vicinity of Kasimbazar92 and the cotton grown in enormous quantities within the region that still fell short of the required piece-goods, necessitating imports from Surat.93 The arangs for these were scattered all over. Bihar opium too made its way to different parts of East Asia. A whole range of goods were sold in Bengal: all kinds of spices, pepper, Japanese copper, sandalwood, sapanwood, tin, lead, pewter and other European items.94 The coinage of the region is also discussed at some length.

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Bad harvests, according to him, were rare in Bengal. Forests, groves, and trees abounded in a land with few forts unlike in Hol­ land.95 He provides miscellaneous information on various things: from the variety of fruits to rainwater-filled tanks. Rivers and rivulets crisscrossed the region, and ‘all merchandize is conveyed, by means of these passages, with great facility from one place to the other, throughout the land’.96 Rivers bordered by towns, ham­ lets and green fields made the countryside very beautiful. Some channels were navigable for large ships. Stavorinus writes about the immense riches of the Jagannath Temple in Orissa, due to the large number of visitors who made huge gifts to it.97 Considerable trade was carried on by pilgrims who, for instance, came to bathe in the Hooghli and the Triveni and carried back Ganges water, the price of which was determined by the distance traversed to the selling destination.98 The author also does not fail to mention the famine of 1770. According to him, this was due to the rice harvest failure but mainly because of the English East India Company’s monopoly of the previous season’s rice. The peasants had meagre resources and buying rice was beyond their means.99 Besides, a smallpox epidemic wreaked further havoc. He notes that many people were impoverished, though agents and merchants could be wealthy, the latter being very astute in matters of business.100 Economic expansion had not benefited everyone equally and its fruits were unevenly distributed in an unequal society, deepening such asymmetries. The ‘artificers’ (craftsmen) elicit fulsome praise from Stavorinus for their deft, skilful ways and the manner in which they could imitate models with great precision and ingenuity, though they worked with very few tools. Stavorinus seems well-acquainted with the history of the region: the Nawabs and their relationship with the Mughals,101 and the changing fortunes of the former once the English took over the collection of revenue. He shows a remarkable degree of familiarity with the history of the establish­ ment of the English East India Company’s political authority in Bengal from a minor trading power, as well as the growth of the city of Calcutta.102 Stavorinus notes that the Dutch presence was reduced to Chinsura and Baranagore. Chinsura had many kinds of markets, especially for provisions. The Europeans apparently


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led an easy life and employed many bearers, necessitating huge expenditure.103 They were the new spending sections of Bengal’s society. Time and again, Stavorinus observes the ‘advantageous trade’ which everyone could pursue in the region. The land was immensely favourable for extensive commerce and more fertile than others. It produced an array of necessary commodities104 but suffered under the oppression of the English East India Company, which were affecting the profits of the Dutch Company. William Hodges,105 the noted English painter and a part of James Cook’s second voyage, came to Bengal in 1781 with the intention of seeing, drawing and convalescing. As he observes, Europeans land in Calcutta ‘in the midst of a great city, without passing the outer drawbridges of a fort: here are no centinels with the keen eye of suspicion, no stoppage of baggage’. Visitors recorded a very favourable impression of the city: broad streets and magnificent buildings that were spacious and detached. Hodges notices the cosmopolitan nature with a mix of European and Asian ‘manners’, and different kinds of transport (coaches to hackeries), Hindu rituals and fakirs, creating a ‘sight perhaps more novel and extraordinary than any city in the world can present to a stranger’. Throughout the region, he records plentiful crops (highly flourishing in tillage), cattle, and tidy villages filled with people and luxuriant greenery. The Katra in Murshidabad, he says showed signs of decay but the builder received his praise. The ruins of Rajmahal, too, drew his atten­ tion, as did the landscape in general, including the waterfalls and woods on the way especially near Kaliganj, which reminded him of the parks of England. From Bhagalpur to Munger, he notes good roads, cultivated fields, neat villages and burial places near the road. Hodges writes about the varied landscape between Calcutta and Munger: from the flat plains of rich soil, which from Rajmahal became hilly, covered with forests, soil and the weather became drier. He travelled by road on palanquins, and observes that the way was marked by many small choultries or sarais constructed by charitable people or at public expense. The roads were lined with trees and wells, and one frequently passed other travelling parties (variety of travellers that are to be met with on the road), consisting of merchants, soldiers, fakirs and others.106 He returned

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by water, noting a variety of boats, and small temples, ganjs, and bathing and worshipping people on the banks of the Ganges ghats. The enormous mass of water made even the Rhine appear as a rivulet to him. The spirit of cleanliness was noted by him as also the hospitality of the people. As with the other accounts, Hodges provides a summary of towns, both the old and newer centres. He mentions Chandernagore, Chinsura, Hugli (all these by then had lost much of their former sheen), Kalna, Nadia and Katwa with well-informed observations of their recent historical importance and notable architectural sites. Also, he writes about passing Bur­ hampur, Kasimbazar, Murshidabad, Sooty, Munger and populous, long and narrow Patna with its high buildings and narrow, unclean streets; Bankepour, Dinapore, Buxar, Gazipur, Benares, Chunar, Bhagalpur and Deoghar included some Company stations for troops. By the time of Hodges’ journey, the English Company’s political and military presence had substantially increased, hence the recording of these new centres of importance and the greater distance traversed into northern India from Bengal. The archi­ tecture of some of the buildings, as in the dome of the mosque of Munger, is admired by him and deemed better than European domes and its entrance compared to the doors of Gothic cathedrals. Hodges also writes against the general slavish imitation of Grecian architecture and states that the nature of the climate and materi­ als, as well as the habits and pursuits of the inhabitants, should ideally inspire architecture. The political overtones in presenting a rich Company province would not be lost to any reader of this text wherein the Company’s government and Governor-General are presented in a positive light, especially in the context of the Chait Singh rebellion. There are brief mentions of conquests as well. Pilgrimage also entailed trade: Hodges notes in Deoghar that many pilgrims carried Ganges water and its price was proportion­ ate to the distance of the place from the river.107 The aftereffects of the famine of the 1770s were still felt in Jangal Tarai with the population reduced by both deaths and migrations, and here, too, he writes that despite his initial reservations, he was persuaded by documents that the Company officials had done their best to obviate sufferings.


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L. De Grandpre,108 a French naval officer, travelled in 1789-90 and wrote in the period when the French power in India was on the wane. He was critical of the policies adopted by them and their agreeing to play a secondary role to the English. He observed that Chandernagore and other French lodges of Bengal – Balasore, Patna, Dhaka and Chatigam, were dependent on Pondicherry. The government of Pondicherry provided permits annually to trans­ port salt into Bengal from Karaikal to be delivered to the English Company at a stipulated price and a fixed quantity, providing a major source of income for the French. Grandpre has lengthy sections in his account on the crafts of the Indian subcontinent and the navigation up the Hooghly. Various towns are described: Kulpi/Port Diamond with its post offices, its ‘bakehouse’, hospital for the marines, ‘shambles’ (meat market), and a market; and Falta – a Dutch possession fallen from its former heydays with a single galliot sent annually to pick up bales from Chinsura, and which had an inn and the commandant’s residence. The Indian part of the town, though, was large, with a well-stocked bazaar and space for unbounded licentiousness. He also describes Mayapur, where French vessels used to stop formerly ‘dispensing abundance and luxury’, and which declined with the waning French fortunes. A few leagues from there, Grandpre wrote that gardens and ‘sumptu­ ous’ palaces announced one’s approach ‘to the capital of the East, the metropolis of the English empire in Asia, and the finest colony in the world. The magnificence of the edifices, the luxury that has converted the banks of the river into delightful gardens, and the costliness and elegance of their decorations, all denote the opu­ lence and power of the conquerors of India and the masters of the Ganges.’ He waxes eloquent on Fort William: ‘. . . finest fortress that exists out of Europe . . . astonishes by its grandeur, splendour of its buildings’, and describes the town as noble and majestic though the site itself was not suitable. Grandpre goes on to describe the city in detail with its extensive square and great buildings, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, monuments and the considerable ‘black town’ of 600,000 people. The town was unclean and he notes the various problems as well as solutions. Grandpre describes the social life of the place, and writes that smoking hookas after meals

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was customary and women did it as well. With tobacco, other things were added. New world cultivars were by the eighteenth century, if not earlier, an indispensable part of daily life. The city had a wide range of transport vehicles. In other parts of Bengal, palanquins were in use, although most journeys were made by water. He also noticed the shipbuilding industry in the city. Though the English Company enjoyed a monopoly of trade with England, trade was ‘free’ within India, and there were significant com­ mercial relations with other parts of the world, including China. Saltpetre and European muslins were supplied from the region, while Spanish coins, gold threads, copper, lead, iron bars, wrought iron, English manufactures for Europeans, wine, brandy, sea salt and marine stores were brought into it. Pepper and arrack came from the Malabar coast, while raw silk, nankeens, porcelain and tea came from China where Malabar cotton was sent. Grains from Bengal made their way to all other parts of the Indian subconti­ nent. Silk was obtained from Surat, muslins and European goods were sent to Macao and the Philippines and all these commodities reached all of Asia. As Grandpre writes, ‘commerce which extends to such a variety of branches cannot fail to enrich those who cul­ tivate it, and accordingly, Calcutta is the richest town in India’. He also observes that private merchants were not the richest: that dis­ tinction belonged to the Company’s servants who became richer quickly and enriched the local ‘sircars’. Coinage is described as well. He notes that the English reigned over the country without any opposition. The Hindus and Muslims were disunited because of their mutual disagreements, which was adeptly utilized by the English for governing and keeping both in check. Like all other travellers, he, too, writes about the abundance of rice, saltpetre, vegetables and indigo. A new kind of cultivation of sugar cane by the English had begun as an experiment in 1794 and showed signs of success, and he visited the plantation of Messrs. Lambert and Ross. The workers for the plantation were brought from China. Manufactured articles consisted of muslins of different kinds. The English had set up manufactories for printed linen near Cal­ cutta, which the author predicted would ruin the ones from Patna which were of inferior quality and harder to access. The navigable


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Ganges was of major advantage for trade. References, too, are made to Durga Puja (madam Dourga), which the rich celebrated in their mansions and ‘are ambitious of displaying the greatest luxury, lighting up their apartments in the most splendid manner.’ The rest, who could not afford this on their own, visited neighbours: ‘. . . there is one of these celebrations at least in every quarter of the town so that all the inhabitants have an opportunity of paying their devotions’.109 ‘Jamsey’ was celebrated by the Muslims. Grandpre was well-aware of the histories of some of these centres. He writes about towns beyond Calcutta. He mentioned Baranagor, which was in the possession of the English after 1790. Before that, it was with the Dutch. He also referred to the Danish Srirampur under the council of Tranquebar with its limited commerce, the English had a camp of ten thousand men on the opposite bank; Girati, residence of French governor, Chandernagore bearing marks of decline; as also Dutch Chinsura and a small Portuguese town of Bandel known only for its cheese.110 The difficulties and travails of travel; customs and death ritu­ als perceived by the travellers as odd were sometimes mentioned in later accounts. The menace of mosquitos, flies, tigers, the dif­ ficulties of navigation on certain stretches: the storms and famine of the 1770s: the practice of Sati, and the Brahmins and their, to them, unintelligible philosophy formed a relatively small part of accounts of the region. By the eighteenth century, travel accounts were undoubtedly even more detailed with more descriptions being provided about political occurrences, the rivalries between the European trad­ ing companies and, if the author was English, the problems that the English East India Company had to face to establish itself in Bengal. Calcutta became a mandatory stop for the travellers, an acknowledgement of the growing influence and affluence of the city in the early modern interconnected commercial world. Indirectly, it points to considerable investments in the city and the mobilization of labour on a grander scale. Calcutta occupies centre stage in these accounts. The city was established in 1690 as a settlement where the English East India Company and its suppli­

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ers of exports could interact. It grew into the principal commercial hub of Asia. As Kapil Raj notes, by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it also became known as ‘a world-renowned centre of scientific knowledge-making in botany, geology, geo­ desy, map-making, geography, history, linguistics and ethnology, to name but a few, and a world pioneer in modern public edu­ cation.’111 He writes that Calcutta changed from a contact zone into that of a junction of diverse networks, a node in the flow of knowledge, which shaped and organized cultural encounters and their outcome.112 Samuel Purchas, in his accounts based on various travellers, mentions several cities in Bengal: ‘Gouro’, ‘Bengala’, ‘Chatigan’,113 Tanda,114 Patna115 and Satagam.116 Besides ethnographical details, travellers such as Thomas Bowrey also give details of the location of towns and their commercial advantage, as well as perceptive observations regarding the problems of trading. Towns and the products that they offered were persistent themes of these accounts, leitmotifs that would segue across the genre irrespective of the background of the authors. Details that some of these travellers such as Stavorinus so painstakingly recorded were, paradoxically, of no use for the Dutch who were already a spent force in Bengal. No less ironic is the fact that some of the most in-depth obser­ vations about Bengal were written in other European languages, notably Dutch and French. As Isabella Matauschek writes, it had become the general Dutch policy to garner as much information as was possible. By the end of the eighteenth century, the ships of the Dutch East India Company set sail with a copy of an order on board that required the captain to register in the ship journals ‘noteworthy affairs and events, as the description of the shape of the primary islands passed, mountains, coastal formations, with their soundings or distance, correct the maps with currents, fairways and everything that is newly discovered and is of relevance to navigation’ – with a stern command to leave all trivia out.117

Fuller sketches started to appear at a time when the English East India Company had already established itself as a political power


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in the eastern part of the subcontinent, and the opportunities of ‘knowing’ and recording the country, or at least some towns/parts of districts, had increased. Various officials and the Company servants did leave detailed observations in their correspondences, the minutes of council meetings, their reports and so on. If one needed information, perhaps one turned towards these rather than to the travel writings of the period. Hence, the connection that many scholars have drawn between travelogues and coloniza­ tion and empire-building seems to be perhaps an overstatement in the case of early modern Bengal. By the eighteenth century, the cartographic representation of the interior of Bengal too, became fuller. An early eighteenth-century Ostend company map charts the Hooghly River in Bengal with Bankibazar (its commercial base), Hydisiapore, Chandernagore, Chinsura, Danemarnagore, Calcutta, Hugli and other Bengali towns being marked.118 James Rennell’s map of Bengal and Bihar is the earliest accurate survey-based one with districts, villages, roads, rivers, swamps and hills outlined in detail.

Readers of Travel Narratives Who were the readers of these travels accounts? Perhaps these were meant to provide a glimpse of a distant, different world to curious persons back home who were interested in natural history, science, geography and travel. A place with which some kind of prolonged interaction was possible probably for the accumulation of knowledge, as well as for curated novel artefacts. Though the accounts are replete with descriptions of places, landscapes and commodities, in many cases, individuals other than monarchs and well-heeled hosts never elicit any remarks. The collective is men­ tioned but rarely the individual. Many travellers portray images of unsavoury indigenous inhabitants of the land, perhaps because the custodians of the land of plenty could not be easily induced to be parted from their resources for anything less than the prevail­ ing market norms and prices. Often these narratives reveal very little about the author. Except for the occasional shipwreck or the fear of dacoits, on most occasions, these descriptions of journeys,

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expressed in a turgid clotted prose, make for exceedingly dry and tedious reading. Travel writing seems to have been a popular genre in early mod­ ern Europe but the size of its readership is challenging to ascertain. In recent years, scholars have attempted to arrive at some quan­ tifiable estimates for determining the popularity of this genre of writing. Alan Farmer’s and Zachary Lesser’s calculations show that less than 2 per cent of the market share of the Elizabethan book trade was occupied by categories such as husbandry, mathemat­ ics, travel, political geography and cookbooks. They also state that the most familiar genres of books had a market share of below 4 per cent, which was typical.119 New titles usually resulted in more returns.120 These two authors also clarify that print popularity was not the only way of gauging the importance of books, and num­ bers alone cannot indicate or predict which ones had the more transformative social influence.121 Vivienne Dunstan has similarly worked out figures from some libraries in Scotland. For instance, the subjects of books borrowed at Selkirk Subscription Library from 1799 to 1814 indicate that voyages and travels constituted 14 per cent of borrowings. From the Haddington records, it seems that the library’s male readers read more of history and travel.122 If the number of readers was split into occupational groups, the fig­ ures from Gray Library from the 1790s to the 1810s indicate that 8 per cent of professionals, 18 per cent of merchants, 11 per cent of artisans/traders, and 13 per cent of all borrowers read about voyages and travels.123 As auctioned books of Europeans in late eighteenth-century Bengal show, the reading tastes of those coming to India were varied. However, they seemed to include only a few of these travel accounts. Of the 368 books printed in Calcutta on various subjects before 1800, only ten were travelogues, including one on Burma,124 while in eighteenth-century Europe, scholars have noticed a remarkable spurt in the printing of travel accounts.125 Whether people in Bengal read these accounts is hard to say with certainty. The sale of the belongings of deceased Company men and private traders directed the dispersal of various objects, including books, into the hands of the wealthier city-dwellers and even affluent


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landed elite of the region.126 Margot Finn notes that these pos­ sessions image the ‘cultural hybridity of Anglo-Indian consumer preferences’.127 The only Bengali travelogue of the period belongs to the eigh­ teenth century, although there are descriptions of journeys – part imaginary though sometimes with real places mentioned – in the ballads and Mangalkavyas of earlier periods. Travel writing was apparently not a European preserve and the Tirtha Mangala corresponds to an indigenous version written in verse. In some ways, it parallels the account of Hodges who embarks on one of his journeys on the river Ganges as a part of the entourage of the then governor-general. ‘Pilgrimage and travel were complemen­ tary, perhaps the only way open to common people to justify travel, novelty and change.’ 128 Anyone could go on a pilgrimage, financial means permitting. Individuals travelling in groups, especially in the entourage of a wealthy patron, resolved the problem of finances. The Tirtha Mangala, composed in 1177 bs (ce 1770) by Bijayrama Sen,129 describes in some detail the journey of Krishnachandra Ghoshal with his entourage to various sacred sites, such as Benares, Gaya, Kashi and Prayag, with stops on the way where he met many eminent men such as Raja Nabakrishna. There is a keen sense of the elite patronage of religious activities, rituals and building and maintenance of temples.130 Along with the performance of various pujas, the party also came ashore for sightseeing. Descriptions abound of hats and bazaars (markets) in Hugli and Golahat, where they saw moodis (grocers) and shops in every street and several golas (granaries). The high buildings of Rajmahal, and its houses and hats impressed them. The pilgrims appeared to be well-acquainted with the history of the region with visits to sites such as the Munger fort. Cities like Mirzapore were acclaimed for their wide range of goods. Carpets and mats were also purchased. The group of pilgrims also enjoyed the local deli­ cacies. It appears that the notions about pilgrimage had changed. These travellers were acquainted with places that were not centres of religious importance. It seems that strong regional identities had already formed as well.

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Epilogue The various accounts of Bengal have some similarities. Most of them note the bounties of nature, and the prodigious quantities and wide varieties of rice, and other primary commodities. The later ones have almost mandatory descriptions of major towns, especially of Calcutta, and of the coming-to-power of the English East India Company in Bengal. However, they hardly provide the detailed/in-depth information required for future businesses. They record changes and mirror transformations that have already occurred, not the ones that they anticipate the future would bring. The accounts are more in the form of geographical descriptions, almost like textual maps, with some details of notable places and the things that one might expect to see on the way. Travel narra­ tives, like itinerary maps and nautical charts, were ‘way-finding maps’ that were not meant to conceptualize space. They would prove to be a valuable source for cartographers such as James Ren­ nell, who would undertake the mapping enterprise of Bengal in the wake of its conquest,131 bringing in greater accuracy and conci­ sion. Nevertheless, his first map was drawn to illustrate a volume of Robert Orme’s History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indoostan from the Year 1745.132 However, it is important to remember that very few maps from the early modern period seem to have made it into print. Maps must have continued to be relatively rare artefacts in this early phase. Ricardo Padrón notes, ‘. . . the predominant spatial imagination of the Greco-Roman world was actually quite different from that of the modern west, in that it tended to imagine the world through the unidimensional spatial­ ity of the itinerary or periplus, rather than the two-dimensional one of the map.’133 On the basis of Spanish examples, he observes that ‘espacio continued to refer primarily to time, and secondarily to one-dimensional space, that is, distance’. Space was conceived of in ‘linear, unidimensional terms rather than bidimensional, planar terms,’134 and towns and villages appeared as halting-places, not as ‘locations in a Euclidean plane’.135 For cartography to serve as the hand-maiden of imperialism, one would have to wait for a later period.


Tilottama Mukherjee

J.F. Richards 136 expounded some key characteristics of the early modern world and our travellers seem to embody these features in different ways. With the discovery and use of dependable mari­ time routes throughout the world, travellers could traverse long distances. They were eyewitnesses to, though rarely the initiators, of long-distance, rapidly expanding trade, which connected grow­ ing economies. Almost every traveller in our region itemized the merchandize available and often mentioned far-flung markets that were supplied with these articles. Commodity production for huge markets was a shared feature of early modern societies. States and other big complex organizations achieved dimensions, stability, power, efficiency and territorial reach that had not been seen since ancient times. Often our accounts refer to the region being a part of the Mughal empire. The eighteenth-century ones also noticed the latter’s waning hold over the region and the subsequent growth of the nawabs before the English Company took over the reins of power. References to exact population figures are absent, although many travellers did notice the populous state of the region and the towns that they passed. On rare occasions, some estimates of a rising population are also provided. Agricultural expansion and the abundance of food were repeatedly written about from the earliest narratives onwards as if offering readers an enticing vision of a world without want. New cultivars are mentioned as well, especially from the seventeenth century, and print technology is taken as another hallmark of early modernity, which had seen to the wide dispersal of some of these travel accounts in Europe. By the late eighteenth century, books were being printed in Calcutta as well. The ‘relative porosity’ of early modern Bengal is quite evi­ dent as all kinds of foreigners and people from other parts of the Indian subcontinent – traders, priests, adventurers, poets, artists and others – moved around with relative ease and without searing anxieties or morbid fears, and with little or no state intervention or control.137 The increasing scale of international and subcontinental trade, urban and population growth, long-distance connections through maritime routes, agrarian expansion, including the intro­ duction of new crops, powerful states, and, of course, movement and travel all got showcased in these travelogues of the early

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modern period. Even earlier, Joseph Fletcher had drawn attention to population growth, the ‘quickening tempo’ in every facet of life, the evolution of regional cities and towns, the emergence of urban mercantile classes and disturbances in rural areas, and the ‘religious revival’ and ‘decline of nomadism’ as common threads binding different parts of the early modern world.138 The travel accounts, too, offered glimpses of some of these features in Bengal. Each traveller acted as an ethnographer.139 Joan-Pau Rubiés writes that like many early modern European cartographers and cosmographers, early modern travel writers too, explored the rela­ tionship of geography and history with great enthusiasm as they responded to the revival of classical scholarship and the discovery of the Americas.140 In the process, what these travellers did was to broker and configure Europe’s perception of the world and selfidentity. Perhaps they helped in making heterogeneous Europe more ‘early modern’ through their collection of information about different parts of the world, including the accumulation of mate­ rial about commodities, cities, political powers, religions and routes from the Indian subcontinent, assisted by the avid readers’ (including, among others, learned academies and European com­ panies) intense interest.

Acknowledgements I would like to thank Raziuddin Aquil, Sayako Kanda and Amit Bhattacharyya for their encouragement and support to this research project. Versions of this essay were presented at confer­ ences at Keio University, Tokyo and at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and I am thankful to the organizers and participants for their comments. The usual disclaimers apply.

NOTES 1. 2. 3. 4.

Cited in Eisenstein, 1979: 43. O’Doherty, and Schmieder, 2015. Kilpatrick, 2008: 234. Di Giovine, 2011: 93-105. Also see Juall, 2008: 1-4.

72 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21.

22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40.

Tilottama Mukherjee Di Giovine, 2011: 93-105. Holmberg and Houston, 2013: 4. Hayden, 2012: 10. Ibid. Also see Schleck, 2012: 53-69. Hayden, 2012: 16. Dixhoorn and Sutch, 2008. Ibid., 17. Pearl, 2012. Ibid., 77. Ibid., 18. See Teltscher, 1997. Also see Aune, 2005: 4, 1-35. Teltscher, 1995: 17. Nayar, 2005: 213-38. Nayar, 2003: 358; 357-94. Kamps, and Singh. 2001: 1-2. Datta, 1939; Sarkar, 1973; Prakash, 1988; Chaudhury, 1995; Sinha, 1956, 1962 and 1970; Marshall, 1976. Although cities in Bengal have not been studied in depth, there are a few exceptions like Karim, 1964; Mohsin, 1973; Sinha, 1978; also see, Mukherjee, 2013. Hulme and Youngs, 2002. Phillips, 2014. Ibid., 2. Ibid., 58. Varthema, 1863. Ibid., 212. Ibid., 214. Barbosa, 2002: 135-48. Pires, 2005. Ibid., 88-95. Fitch, 2005. Ibid., 54. Ibid. Teltscher, 1995: 14. She again sees his work as a commercial refer­ ence work. Fitch, 2005: 58-60. Coriate, 1616: 24-5. Also see Craik, 2004: 77-96; Ord, 2008: 123-54. Wittkower, 1942: 159-97. Linschoten, 1997. Ibid., 92.

Trails of Travellers 41. 42. 43. 44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51. 52. 53. 54. 55. 56. 57. 58. 59. 60. 61. 62. 63. 64. 65. 66. 67. 68. 69. 70. 71. 72. 73. 74. 75. 76. 77. 78. 79. 80.

Ibid., 94. Saldanha, 2011: 149-77. Ibid., 168. Also see Matauschek, 2015: 110-22. Schmidt, 2015: 6. Ibid. Ibid., 8. Ibid., 15. Ibid., 18. Mandelslo, 1669. Ibid., 16, 94-5. Manrique, 2016. Ibid., 41-2. Ibid., 42-3. Ibid., 43-5. Ibid., 51-8. Ibid. Ibid., 60-6. Ibid., 61. Ibid. Ibid., 64. Ibid., 64-6. Ibid., 66-8. Ibid., 68-1. Ibid., 72-8. Ibid., 76. Ibid., 74. Ibid., 81. Marshall, 1927. Ibid., 64-5. Ibid., 70-1, 116-17. Bernier, 1916. Ibid., 26. Faruqui, 2012. Teltscher, 1995: 14. Bernier, 1916: 438. Ibid., 202. Bowrey, 1993. Ibid., 131-220. Hamilton, 1995 II: 3-26. Markley, 2007.


74 81. 82. 83. 84. 85. 86. 87. 88. 89. 90. 91. 92. 93. 94. 95. 96. 97. 98. 99. 100. 101. 102. 103. 104. 105. 106. 107. 108. 109. 110. 111. 112. 113. 114. 115. 116. 117. 118. 119. 120.

Tilottama Mukherjee Nanda and Johnson, 2015: 110. Grose, 1772. Ibid., II: 233. Ibid., II: 234-5. Ibid., II: 254. Ibid., See also I: 287-325. Ibid., II: 263. Ibid., I: 252-8. Stavorinus, 1798. Ibid., I: 406. Ibid., 122. Ibid., 472. Ibid., 473. Ibid., 480. Ibid., 391-2. Ibid., 399. Ibid., 100. Ibid., 405. Ibid., 153. Ibid., 408. Ibid., 459. Ibid., 481-534. Ibid., 521-4. Ibid., 532-3. Hodges, 1794. Ibid., 13-32. Ibid., 94. De Grandpre, 1995. Ibid., 62-6. Ibid., I: 38, 84, 236-73; II: 1-106. Raj, 2011: 55-82. Ibid., 78. Early Travels in India, 1864: 1. Raj, 2011: 5. Early Travels in India, 1864: 10. Ibid., 13. Matauschek, 2015: 115. Nanda and Johnson, 2015: 123-4. Farmer and Lesser, 2013: 36. Ibid., 41.

Trails of Travellers 121. 122. 123. 124. 125. 126. 127. 128. 129. 130. 131.

132. 133. 134. 135. 136. 137. 138. 139. 140.


Ibid., 52. Dunstan, 2017: 239. Ibid. Shaw, 1981: 41. Keighren, Withers and Bell, 2015: 4. Mukherjee, 2013: 79. Finn, 2006: 209. Watkins, 2008: 93-110. Bijayrama Sen, 1915-16. Ibid., 152. Raj, 2010: 61. Also see Raj, 2000: 119-34, 129. He notes that Rennell started work based on the received reports from both Indian and British soldiers who were sent on long route marches, and from dif­ ferent travellers and missionaries. Raj, 2010: 68; 2000: 129. Padrón, 2002: 47. Ibid., 35. Ibid., 41. Richards, 1997. Ibid., 197-209. Fletcher, 1985: 37-57. Mancall, 2007: 1. Rubiés, 2007.

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the Role of the Island of Sagor, 1600-1800

Gargi Chattopadhyay

Located at the southern tip of the mainland of western Bengal, about 80 miles away from Calcutta, the island of Sagor marks the journey’s end for the river Bhagirathi. The Bhagirathi flows along its west, while the Baratala or Muriganga marks its eastern bor­ der. The island’s history as a node of commerce since the twelfth century, a supposed naval base during Pratapaditya’s (1584-1612) regime in the late sixteenth century and as a piratical hub in the seventeenth century1 could perhaps be explained in terms of its potentialities as a deep sea port. Sagor has a mythological signifi­ cance connected to the story of the origin of the Bhagirathi and its mingling with the sea. To commemorate this, devotees from all over the place congregate annually for a holy dip during the winter solstice2 when a mela is held on the southern sea face of the island. Sagor is an island consisting of waterways, creeks, marshes, jungles and muddy banks which are home to various species of wildlife and vegetation.3 It is part of the Sundarbans, the largest single block of mangrove forest spread over parts of the north and south 24-Parganas in West Bengal, and the districts of Khulna, Satkheera, Patuakhali, Bhulwa, Bagerhat, Barguna and Pirojpur in Bangladesh. Extensive areas of the riparian tracts of lower Bengal,4 includ­ ing Sagor, suffered joint Arakanese and Portuguese piratical forays roughly between the early seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Such inroads were commonly referred to as the Magh Firangi


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attacks. The word ‘Firangi’ or ‘Firingi’ originated from the word ‘Frank’ meaning French crusaders. Though it became associated with the Portuguese in India, it also became a generic term for all Europeans who came to the country. ‘Harmad’ is another term identified with the Arakanese Portuguese raiders.5 The ‘pirates and robbers of Arakan’,6 including the local Portu­ guese settled in Arakan and the neighbouring Chittagong region, were locally referred to as the Maghs; and the ‘Muggs’ or ‘Moggs’7 in official British correspondences. The piratical raids were con­ ducted by a particular group residing in Arakan and parts of Chittagong. It is claimed that this Buddhist community migrated from Magadh or Bihar many centuries ago and a dynasty of that group supposedly ruled over Arakan. However, in modern times, the people of Arakan prefer to be called ‘Rakhines’ (Rakhaings).8 Their captives were made to withstand unspeakable cruelties before being transported to various destinations.9 The terror associated with these raids has been transmitted over generations through contemporary ballads that have been a part of Bengal’s oral tradition. This article attempts to enumerate the Bhagirathi/Ganga River as an usherer of incursions, of how Sagor got enmeshed within the raiders’ network and what kind of impact the raids left on the island and around it. Though the article focuses on Sagor, its surrounding macro region of the Sundarbans is referred to as well to provide a geo-historical context to the theme. Historians have touched upon some aspects of the Magh Firangi raids in Bengal but not specifi­ cally on Sagor as a raiders’ haunt. Some of Rila Mukherjee’s works have mentioned Sagor’s involvement10 but the river’s role has not been highlighted in detail in the scholarly contributions so far.

Bengal as a Catchment Area A number of factors had turned lower Bengal into a source of labour. However, there was a long-term ecological perspective to this. Since the sixteenth century, much of the Bhagirathi’s water started flowing through the easterly Padma. In the course of its eastward journey, the Bhagirathi left behind a moribund delta in

Marauders of the Sundarbans


central and western Bengal as the river got cut off from its head­ water and fresh alluvium. As a result, parts of the western delta gradually losing their fertility and became dotted with pestiferous malarial marshes on the dry riverbed. The same river charted out a new eastern delta of fresh and fertile sediment that facilitated large-scale wet paddy cultivation and the establishment of new colonies by the drawing-in of settlers from near and far.11 A good number of adventurers with organizational skills and constructive visions from the north Indian plains are believed to have initiated large-scale settlements in eastern Bengal by reclaiming the marshes and jungles, bringing them under the plough and pushing back the edges of natural forests.12 The new grain bowl nurtured a considerable population base located close to Chittagong. So for about a hundred years, the slave raiders from the Chittagong-Arakan belt made regular penetrations into the populous riverside villages of Bengal under the patronage of the Rakhine monarch. However, major towns and settlements of the mature, western, delta-like Hooghly and its neighbourhood, and, later on, the new vector of development around Calcutta, besides the old Portuguese townships, remained significant attractions for the Maghs.

Importance of Chittagong From the fifteenth century down to the mid-seventeenth, the vibrant port city of Chittagong was a contested space between Tripura, Arakan and the Sultanate of Bengal, and later, the Mughals, too.13 Many rich Arab and Portuguese traders resided in Chittagong, named Porto Grande (Big Port) by the Portuguese.14 However, vagrant rough Portuguese elements around the Bay of Bengal functioned as mercenaries with the small and big power blocs around it. The king of Arakan was extremely wary of this group though he nurtured it as a bulwark against Mughal expan­ sionism.1 5 The Afghans and, subsequently, the Mughals were lured towards Bengal in the post-Husain Shahi period (1494-1538) by the prospect of revenue. Further, the prosperous seaport-cum-city


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of Chittagong was an added attraction for them. Moreover, it was blessed with the bounties of nature. The high-yielding soil, watered by the Karnafuli, Feni, Kaladan and ‘ninety-nine perennial nul­ lahs’,16 boasted a prolific growth of crops. The place produced great quantities of wheat and rice and other grains, cotton, wax and oil, and also supplied ivory. It was a rich source of high-grade timber.17 Much later, Francis Buchanan, during his visit to Chittagong in the 1790s, noted, ‘the river is a good harbour, and very good vessels have been built here. It would be very convenient for foreign com­ merce, were it not pent up in the corner of the Bay’.18 However, to capture and retain Chittagong for long was a tough challenge for any interested group. The Afghans had taken con­ trol of it in brief phases. So had the king of Tripura. Nusrat Shah (1519-33, the son and successor of Husain Shah), for instance, had captured Chittagong for the second time in 1525 and made it his seat of political power after renaming it Fathabad.19 The conquest of Gaur (also known as Lakhnauti, or Gaur region including Gaur, Pandua, Tanda: situated in modern day Malda district of West Bengal, remained the capital of Bengal from the seventh to six­ teenth centuries with small gaps. It was located on the eastern bank of the Ganges and it declined when the river changed its course in the late sixteenth century) by Sher Shah triggered a prolonged civil war. The struggle for power in Bengal by Sher Shah created political disorder. Sher Shah occupied Gaur by defeating Muham­ mad Shah in 1536 to become the master of Bengal. This alarmed the Mughal emperor Humayun, who marched against him only to be defeated at Chausa in 1539. Further, the Portuguese pres­ ence at nodal points along the Bhagirathi and the overshadowing presence of the Arakanese towards the east contributed to the political turmoil in Bengal. The realization of Mughal ambitions in Chittagong as a part of their eastward intrusion into Bengal was, indeed, a doubtful prospect. The Mughals officially laid their claim to Bengal in 1575.20 In fact, the Afghans and, later on, the Mughals could not keep the Ara­ kanese power at bay as their capitals in the Gaur-Tanda-Rajmahal region were far away from the Arakanese strongholds in eastern

Marauders of the Sundarbans


Bengal. Besides, the rudimentary Mughal navy was no match for the highly sophisticated Arakanese fleet manned by Rakhine and Portuguese sailors. Moreover, the Mughals were possibly hesitant to tread into unknown terrain. In fact, the Ain-i-Akbari (written by Shaikh Abu'l Fazl, the Grand vizier of the emperor Akbar. Written in Persian, it is the third volume of the Akbarnama and is consid­ ered one of the most significant primary sources on the Mughal history) expresses their deep apprehension towards the Bengal monsoon, along with the accompanying flood and pestilential air that would last up to almost six months.21 Further, as the Por­ tuguese mercenaries had extended their support to the Rakhine king, Arakan became formidable. From 1538 onwards, Chittagong came under the firm control of the neighbouring kingdom of Ara­ kan and was to remain so for a little more than a century.

Chittagong and Sagor under Arakanese Influence As the Bengal delta or bhati was a free field for the local chief­ tains, Afghan warlords, Portuguese fortune-seekers and Arakan, the Mughals had initial reservations about marching straight into the interior of Bengal. Thus, though Bengal was formally incor­ porated within the Mughal empire in 1576, Mughal control over Bengal was far from secure at this stage. From the latter part of the sixteenth century, the Baro Bhuiyans22 came in the way of establish­ ment of absolute Mughal control over Bengal. However, they were decisively defeated in 1612 and Bengal was brought under Mughal suzerainty. The Mughals ruled over Bengal with the help of their subahdars. The emperor Akbar had created the subah of Bengal in 1576 as one of the twelve subahs of the empire. The subah of Bengal was headed by a subadar or a viceroy, appointed by the emperor himself. This system continued till 1717. The great distance be­ tween the imperial capital and the emperor's preoccupation with wars and exigencies at various corners of the subcontinent; provided opportunities to the subahdars at times to be virtually autonomous in day to day decision-making. Though officially under the Mughals, the flourishing eastern delta was politically in


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a state of flux as there was hardly any strong day-to-day monitor­ ing over this remote area. The Arakanese expansionism continued unabated. Various Mughal steps to combat the Rakhine aggressions, such as the shifting of the provincial capital from Rajmahal to Dacca in 1610,23 their decisive victory against the two major power blocs of the bhati, and the attempts of Isa Khan and Pratapaditya to build up a strong navy to maintain vigilance over the vulnerable points of the Padma and Meghna rivers, proved ineffective till Shah Jahan’s reign (1628-58). Heinrich Blochmann’s (a German Orientalist and scholar of Persian literature) major work based on Todar Mal’s rent roll is suggestive of Sagor being part of the most southerly-assessed mahal of Hathiagarh under the sarkar of Satgaon and Khilafatabad.24 In reality, the Mughal control over south-eastern Bengal was, at best, nominal. According to a contemporary chronicler, Shihabuddin Talish, who was an officer accompanying Mir Jumla, the subadar of Bengal (1660-3), in his eastern campaigns, there existed a com­ plete record of taxes collected from south-eastern Bengal till 1625.25 The first revenue settlement of Bengal under Todar Mal in 1582 confirmed that the disputed territory between Arakan and the Mughals yielded about 30 per cent of the land revenue.26 This included the sarkars of Hijli, Dacca, Bakla, Chittagong that were under the control of Arakan. In 1658, many more areas were added to Todar Mal’s rent-roll and this significantly explains the increase in revenue from Bengal. However, at least till the 1650s, a large part of the revenue of south-eastern Bengal went to the treasury of the Arakanese royalty as the latter had control over extensive parts of Bengal adjoining Arakan. It has been ascertained that Sagor had been absorbed into the zamindari of Hijli.27 We can surmise that after Pratapaditya’s fall, parts of south-eastern Bengal, including areas in and around Sagor, came under the strong influence of Arakan. The island turned into a bulwark between Mughal inroads and Arakanese expansion. Though the new Mughal Governor, Islam Khan, adopted a firm stand against Tripura, Ahom and Arakan during the planned eastward expansion28 in the 1630s, parts of lower Bengal remained

Marauders of the Sundarbans


vassals of Arakan till 1666.29 This continued till the viceroy of Ben­ gal, Shaista Khan, captured Chittagong and defeated Arakan.30 In its heyday, Arakan exploited Bengal in three ways from its regional power hub of Chittagong: as a source of revenue from commerce, for land revenue and as a source of labour. For the third activity, the Arakanese monarchy initiated an alliance of the local tribe of Maghs with the freewheeling Portuguese of the delta. Shah Jahan had aimed to capture the two major ports of Ben­ gal.31 He had decimated the Portuguese and captured the port of Hooghly. Next, he aspired to take possession of the port of Chit­ tagong. Raiding and slave trade were unacceptable to the Mughal rulers32 but they were not against retaining slaves. Slaves provided various services in Mughal India. As Indrani Chatterjee notes, even in the late Mughal period, skilled slaves like trained female slave performers, expert cooks, seamstresses and artisans retained their prominent position in the royal court and Mughal aristocratic households.33 However, the catchment area for slaves lay far away from South Asia in the distant corners of Central Asia in Kabul and Qandahar.34 Further, Akbar and Jahangir had taken strong stands against the practice of slavery. Jahangir had reacted very sharply to certain practices of the ‘Maghs’ that bore sub-human implications.35 Shah Jahan's biographer Abdul Hamid Lahori had criticized the audacious attitude of the Portuguese of Hooghly where they car­ ried on rampant slave raids ‘along the sides of the river’.36 The trade carried on by the outsiders, involving violence and lawlessness within the Mughal domain, was an open challenge to the political authority. The Mughal siege of Hooghly, as Rila Mukherjee noted, symbolized pre-modern claims to sovereignty.37 The utter lawlessness in places like Hooghly port and the Portu­ guese disregard towards Mughal authority had greatly irked Shah Jahan. Moreover, the slave trade was seen as the royal prerogative of the Mughals. Rampant raids, slave-hawking and profit maximi­ zation by foreigners in this trade within the imperial jurisdiction invited royal intervention in the form of severe military campaigns. Also, in the eyes of the Mughal aristocracy, the Maghs of Arakan represented an alien and inferior culture.38


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Justifications for Slaving In the bay littoral and Bengal, in particular, labour was obtained mainly by kidnapping, conquest and the voluntary sale of people and their family members to the European mercantile companies in order to avoid extreme hardships in times of drought, pestilence and famine. According to a French traveller of the 1670s, named Francois de L’Estra, ‘poor men sell their own wives and children to strangers, whom they take away to different parts of the world’.39 Scholars like Thibaut D’Hubert and Jaques P. Leider40 opine that while the Mughal military campaigns were tagged as warfare, the prevalent trend of looking at the Arakanese campaigns as slave raids and piracy could be historical constructs based on Shihabud­ din Talish and Mirza Nathan’s works. Shihabuddin Talish was an officer under Mir Jumla in Bengal, accompanying the latter in his eastern campaigns of Assam, Cooch Bihar, Kamrup. His record of those campaigns is titled Fathiya-i-ibriyya. Mirza Nathan had accompanied the Mughal army in some of its eastern campaigns, had chronicled in Persian, detailed accounts of the Mughal conquests and wars in Bengal, Kamrup, Kachhar, Assam. His account is titled Baharistan-i-Ghaybi. It was the normal practice of South-East Asian states to indulge in expansionism. The practice of possessing slaves was common between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries in the mutually-squabbling, expansion­ ist states of Burma, Ahom, Cachar, Tripura, Manipur, Bhulwa, Toungu, Ayutthaya and in Husain Shahi Bengal. Arakan was no exception.41 Such an expansionist policy called for a workforce for the running of new colonies, which was gathered through raids and during warfare. Not only was coastal Bengal desecrated by the Maghs, but the Rajmala (chronicle of the kings of Tripura dealing with their geneology; composed in Bangla verse sometime in the fifteenth century) is also replete with instances of the butchering of the people of Tripura by the Rakhines.42 Moreover, the narrative mentions that capturing the members of enemy camps was com­ mon practice for the Kuki tribes of Tripura.43 They matched the Maghs in the cruelties inflicted on their war captives. These captives could be transferred as ‘tribute’, ‘rewards’ or ‘fine’ within a particular group or between two separate social groups.

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Most importantly, the captive slaves had a resale value. According to a late seventeenth-century account, ‘the rich have a number of slaves which they sell like horses and the poor give themselves and their lives for their service’.44 There are also instances like that of the king of Tripura encour­ aging the captive coastal Arakanese to relocate after making them clear the forests for agricultural purposes.45 In the new colonies the states along the northern Bay of Bengal, the bulk of the cap­ tives served the defence sector and also as a workforce. In times of relative peace, the accomplished ones were sorted out according to their particular talents as scribes, priests, tax collectors, artisans and as part of the royal households.46 The captives settled down over a period in their adoptive countries. There were colonies of Mon captives along the bank of the Kaladan since the fall of Pegu in 1599.47 The mushrooming of these colonies as well as the migration of captive labour across porous boundaries was not uncommon in the states along the northern Bay of Bengal. In fact, quite a few of the Arakanese who came to Bengal was ‘gradually reduced to obe­ dience, (and) became subject to the Maghul Empire’.48 Similarly, many people from Bengal had adopted Arakan as their second home.49 Such instances of resettlement often led to heterogeneous identities and linguistic plurality.50 Though there were instances of cross border settlements; there is concrete archival evidence claiming raids, kidnapping, trafficking, and the stalling of economic pursuits along the various pockets of the Bengal coast from time to time, well into the late eighteenth century. Innumerable letters were exchanged amongst officials of the English Company State, airing severe security concerns51 and suggestions to introduce vigilance boats,52 guards for various fac­ tories53 and armed patrolling vessels54 along the Sundarban rivers and the erection of defensive forts to repel riverborne attacks.55 All these are indicative of the seriousness of the issue.

Tripartite Nexus of Slave Trade The Portuguese freebooters of the Bengal delta with fading allegiance or no allegiance to the Estado, the missionaries, the Arakanese and the Mughals were familiar with Sagor at the mouth


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of the Hooghly River. Sagor delineated the frontier zone between the Mughal advances into the heart of Bengal and the Arakanese influence in Bengal. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, the absence of a centralized authority in the periphery of the north-eastern bay emboldened various groups to vie for the control of Chittagong, the principal port of south-eastern Bengal. However, from 1538, Chittagong was brought under the control of Arakan. In 1607, the slave port of neighbouring Dianga was cap­ tured by Arakan. Between 1538 and 1666, the fort of Chittagong became an ‘appurtenance’56 of the kingdom of Arakan. Arakan attained the peak of its material growth that manifested itself by the late sixteenth century in a magnificent court, large garrisons and fortresses, an impressive fleet57 and a wealthy class of multi-ethnic elites in Mrauk-U and Chittagong. To retain its overall grandeur, the royalty looked for a good plan for gathering a workforce to cater to its new needs related to its growing frontier. The border of Arakan continually advanced towards Bengal and Burma. To pay for imported items like textiles, iron and steel, Chinese ware, tobacco, and also for arms and a hired army, Arakan was looking for a viable commodity exchange.58 Arakan was endowed with sprawling alluvial plains intersected by rivers59 that pro­ duced a bountiful crop of wet rice. However, rice cultivation was dependent on the vicissitudes of nature. So the Arakanese royalty started sponsoring regular raiding forays with a mission to gather enough commodities in exchange for slaves. Arakan needed slaves as ‘domestic manpower’ and ‘a second export commodity’ other than rice.60 The Arakanese monarchs had been encouraging the Magh people to be on the frontline of attack in the state-sponsored slave raids in the eastern and southern coastal villages of Bengal. The Maghs resided in the periphery of eastern Arakan and some areas of Chittagong, and adhered to a part-Buddhist, part-Muslim belief. They were expert boatmen with a sound knowledge of aquatic routes and wind directions. The floating Portuguese population of the delta with no connection to the Estado, who freelanced for the

Marauders of the Sundarbans


local landlords, delta kings and other neighbouring states, became linked to Arakanese territorialism as they possessed naval skills, and the spirit of aggression and enterprise that matched those of the Maghs. The Casado settlements of the bay, such as Hooghly, Sandwip, Chittagong, Dianga and Mrauk-U, provided support bases to the Portuguese who moved from one end of the bay to the other and gathered at the estuaries. The king of Arakan used these foreigners as a bulwark against the Mughals.61 They were encouraged by the royalty of Arakan to ally with the Maghs. Clubbed together as the Maghs and Firangis,62 they launched a massive slave-raiding operation, and perpetuated a reign of terror in the riparian tracts of lower Bengal and Burma for more than a century. Arakan organized and financed the forays to capture a great multitude of Bengalis as slaves.63 Arakan used to gather a large number of slaves primarily through raids into the riverside villages of Bengal in and around the Sundarbans that was spearheaded from Dianga, Chittagong and Mrauk-U. After the absorption of the workforce within Ara­ kan as labour64 as well as a commodity of exchange in foreign trade, the surplus was sold by the Portuguese in the ports of Arakan, Hooghly, Tamluk and Piply.65 Often, raiding zones like Chittagong and Dianga doubled up as marts for this disbursal. ‘Bengala’ slaves were commonly found in many Portuguese colonies of western India.66 The Dutch became a major buyer of surplus slaves. The raiding pattern reflected three distinct phases. In the early decades of territorialism, the Arakanese fleet under royal patron­ age spearheaded the hunt for slaves while the Portuguese acted as their partners. Radhika Chadha notes that from the 1620s, Arakanese fleets were withdrawn and the Portuguese were com­ missioned to do the work.67 However, Sanjay Subrahmanyam has observed that the king of Arakan sent his raiding vessels to the coast of Bengal till the early 1640s.68 It is also true that from the early seventeenth century, the Portuguese were officially sent to loot and kidnap and were treated ‘in the light of servants’.69 Talish remarks, ‘the Feringis engaged in piracy, kidnapping and plunder­ ing the inhabitants of Bengal, and lived in Chatgaon under the


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protection of the zemindar (king) of Arracan, giving half their booty from Bengal to him’.70 So it was likely that the royal fleets of Arakan scouted for slaves from time to time over and above the Portuguese raiding vessels. By this time, another new force, the Dutch, provided an additional fillip to the raids and slave trade. The third phase can be traced back to the Mughal conquest of Chittagong in 1666. The south-eastern part of the Mughal frontier extended up to the Feni River. The Portuguese of Chittagong were decimated, too. After losing their royal sponsor and their collabo­ rators, the desperate raiders stepped up their attacks in a bid for quick profits. This happened during the early phase of Aurangzeb’s reign. The present article focuses on this phase of piratical forays when the raiders were bereft of Arakan’s patronage after the fall of Chittagong. The pattern of slaving underwent a sharp change after the 1620s71 when the Dutch came into the picture. The Dutch had a commercial relationship with Arakan from the sixteenth century. Arakan started bartering Bengali slaves to the Dutch on a regular basis for items like porcelain and firearms. Also, as buyers, the Ver­ eenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) relied on the Portuguese slave-raiders-cum-suppliers of Chittagong and Dianga to get a bulk supply of slaves for their Indonesian colonies. A large section of the ‘Arakan slaves’, as the Bengal slaves were called, were col­ lected by the Dutch from the Portuguese intermediaries and sent via Masulipatnam to Batavia and, finally, to their various Asian colonies. The kingdom of Arakan sponsored the raiders. Bernier’s Travels makes it clear that the VOC had planned to have good relations with the Mughals, too, for two reasons: to have a firm footing in the commercial arena of Bengal and the East Indies, and to override the Portuguese prominence in their mutuallyoverlapping commercial sphere.72 According to the Dutch traveller, Gautier Schouten; the pirates came in their boats from Arakan to the Dutch base in Piply and sold some slaves to the Dutch at the price of twenty ‘roupies’ or ten ‘risdales’ for each. Many of them were women and young girls.73 Also the French traveller, Francois de L’Estra, also mentions

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instances of the Dutch involvement in the trans-shipment of slaves bought in Bengal.74 Thus, the VOC became a significant partner of the king of Arakan and the Portuguese rovers of the Bay of Bengal delta in organized slave trading. The profit for the Arakanese kings depended on their control over the Portuguese brokers, which was not always guaranteed as the latter tried to get a higher share of profit by ‘reselling on the high seas’.75 Table 3.1: Price of Slaves in 1655 Fixed According to their Age in a Contract with the Portuguese Raiders in Dianga Item Man, 20-36 years Woman, 12-25 years Boy, 8-19 years Girl, 7-12 years Child, 3-6 years

Price (Rs.) 24 12 15 12 5

Source: Arasaratnam, 1995: 206-7.

However, from the 1650s, the slave imports by VOC from Arakan, was strongly opposed by the Mughals. VOC was pursuing commercial activities on a regular basis in Bengal and apparently did not want to jeopardize its reputation by getting further entangled in the grey area of the slave trade. So the Dutch shifted their focus away to other promising sources of profit.

Slaving and the Divergent Delta System The intrusions, looting and raids into Bengal are to be reviewed from the rubric of the anachronistic delta system. The western delta was a victim of river changes that triggered a process of agrarian disruption. The lack of fresh silt meant that the land was losing its productivity. The fresh silt-laden eastern delta facilitated the inflow of people and drew peasants from the western delta into its fold. Moreover, periodic political disorders like the Portuguese exploits in Hooghly before the 1630s, Sobha Singh’s (a petty zamindar of


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Chetwa-Barda pargana in Midnapore and notorious for his cruel nature. He had spearheaded a revolt in the 1690s that temporar­ ily destabilised parts of western Bengal upto the western bank of the river Hugli and as far as Murshidabad)76 rebellion in the final decade of the seventeenth century and, most importantly, the mideighteenth century Bargi raids that lasted for about a decade led to displacements, causing a population swell in eastern Bengal. Perhaps the evolution of the two contrasting deltas moderated the pattern of the Arakanese-Portuguese raids. The overpopulated eastern delta was a convenient source of slaves. It remained the raiding zone of the Portuguese and Arakanese marauders. Bengal had a number of big and small Portuguese operational bases that evaded the censorial eyes of the Estado. Some, func­ tional from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, were set up by the Cochin and Goa free trading Casados who were scattered along the periphery of the Bay littoral. Initially, there were temporary marts. However, trade prospects made the Por­ tuguese casado traders of Goa, Cochin explore further to lay the basis for various Portuguese colonies. The most significant ones were Chittagong in the east called Porto Grande and Satgaon, and, subsequently, neighbouring Hooghly in the west, known as Porto Pequena. The primary slave marts of Bengal were located mostly in western Bengal spanning the Orissa coast, which were mostly Portuguese Casado settlements. These were utilized for sale and trans-shipments though there are references to the collection of slaves from Hooghly as well.77 Eastern Bengal

The ‘Mugg’ raiders propelled their incursions towards the east­ ern delta from Chittagong, Dianga and the island of Sandwip, although most of those places also functioned as major slave marts and as a catchment for labourers. According to Shihabuddin Talish, the settlements on either side of the rivers that flowed past the entire stretch between Chittagong and Dacca lay vacant.78 In Mirza Nathan’s contemporary account, places like Sripur, Bhalwa, Khizrpur, Islamabad (Chittagong), Jahangirnagar

Marauders of the Sundarbans


(Dacca), Dakshin Shahbazpur are mentioned as being destroyed by attacks.79 However, Chittagong was the principal base of the Arakanese incursions. During the terminal phase of the tenure of bhati rul­ ers like Isa Khan and the early phase of the Mughal annexation of Bengal, Arakan again captured Chittagong. The territory between Chittagong and Jugdia was made into a formidable Arakanese frontier through blockades and barricades and by making the peripheral areas surrounding Chittagong unfavourable for human habitation. Further, the king of Arakan got a strong fort built and left a formidable fleet to guard it. This ‘increased the desolation, thickened the jungle . . . and closed the road so well that even the snake and the wind could not pass through’.80 Such a carefullyguarded area was used as a primary base camp to launch the flotilla for the king of Arakan. It enjoyed a good connectivity with various nooks of the Bengal delta and had access to the big and small riverside villages of Bengal. Their regular incursions, loots and kidnappings eventually provoked a Mughal attack on the Portuguese town of Hooghly in 1632 and the annexation of Chittagong in 1666. Once the local Portuguese allies were decimated, the Rakhines lost their able partners and the Arakanese ascendancy over Bengal was brought to a halt. Nevertheless, the raiding sprees continued unabated as ‘the piratical instinct remained’.81 The freewheeling ‘Muggs’ who were without any state patronage randomly raided the ripar­ ian tracts of Bengal. The French traveller, Francois de L’Estra, provides vivid first-hand accounts of large-scale slave-raids and of the trafficking pursued by the Dutch after the 1660s.82 Also, there is ample evidence of piratical attacks on the Bengal delta that continued till the 1770s. Records of the English Company State point towards incursions radiating from Dianga, Chittagong and Sandwip, mostly towards places located in the eastern delta. Such records indicate that the raids were directed towards Chit­ tagong, Dacca and Jugdea in the 1720s83 and 1730s84 and on the east of Bakarganj, Noakhali, Dakshin Shahbazpur and the Dacca region till the 1770s. The Company’s vessels were not spared. The


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‘Muggs’ are described as being particularly troublesome as they looted the Company’s cargoes and factories. In 1746-7, they plun­ dered some English boats carrying goods at some point between Dacca and Bakarganj.85 Again, as stated in a letter dated 19 Decem­ ber 1776 from Dacca, ‘plunder of the goods of the country is not their object, but the taking off the inhabitants into slavery’.86 An extract enumerates the raiding forays in parts of eastern Bengal: ‘The alarming representations we daily receive from the zamindars of Sundeep, Duckinsavagepore, Hattia, Bettia, Bazegomed­ pore and in short all the southern districts of the incursions of the Muggs call aloud for the interposition of Government, to repel these ravagers, who have already taken away many of the poor inhabitants.’87 The Arakanese attacks were contained in the eastern delta to places like Sandwip, Dakshin Shahbazpur, Hattia, Bettia, ‘Buzeg­ omedpore’88 and Dacca89 but persisted till the end of the nineteenth century. The Surveyor General of the Bengal Presidency James Rennell’s journal explains the vulnerability of the conglomeration of islands like Sandwip and Hattia in eastern Bengal to ‘Mugg’ incursions as they provided ‘shelter for ships, especially during the south-west or southward monsoon’.90 In the long run, such incur­ sions became a rare phenomenon in eastern Bengal. However, the fact that the vast tract of the Sundarbans beyond the eastern part of deltaic Bengal had suffered from human trafficking-cum-piracy is enumerated by another record that states ‘from Ducansavagepore to the Soondry buns are infested with Muggs seizing all persons they can by their hands’.91 All the places mentioned here like Hat­ tia, Dakshin Shahbazpur, Bhulwa, Sripur, Sandwip and Bakarganj were located very close to the Sundarbans in the southern part of the delta. Western Bengal

Some of the old and functioning commercial bases in western Bengal like Tamluk, Hijli, Khejuri, Sutahata, Mahishadal, Humgarh, Hajipur, Kulpi, Satgaon, Hooghly, Tardaha at the confluence of the Adi Ganga and Bidyadhari, Betore or Thana near Howrah at the

Marauders of the Sundarbans


confluence of the Saraswati and Adi Ganga, and Piply and Balasore in neighbouring Orissa bore Portuguese influence and also forged links with Arakan. A few of these, along with Piply and Balasore, doubled up as the Dutch operational base. The most promising commercial sites had invariably been chosen by the Portuguese after a thorough study of the local topography, riverine connectivi­ ties and flows. Almost all these sites acted as marts for the captives brought from the eastern delta and those kidnapped in the course of their journey through western Bengal. Most of the marts had formerly been active Portuguese trad­ ing nodes and settlements. The Arakanese-Portuguese from the east had a good rapport with the Portuguese of the western delta, based on which they utilized established settlements as marts for selling captives. Hence, many of the major Portuguese settlements of western Bengal like Tamluk and Hijli, and Piply and Balasore in Orissa, were tagged as pirate ports. Thus, the eastern and western deltas of Bengal were entwined in a mesh of exchange. Moreover, this channel was provided by none other than the crisscrossing river system. Though the general trend suggests that the Arakanese Portu­ guese raids radiated from the eastern delta and the western delta was the captives’ mart as well as the Portuguese bases that pro­ vided support, there was no clear division of functions. The main point is that the linkage between the two deltas persisted on the issue of slave raids and trade. For example, Murshid Quli’s (1717­ 27) contemporary Persian chronicler, Azad-al-Husaini, noted that the ‘Arakanese with their numberless boats’ had attacked the thana (Mughal administrative subdivision that means military district) of Islamabad (Chittagong) and took away some thousands as cap­ tives to sell them in the ‘Feringi territory’.92 The ‘Feringi territory’ indicated the Portuguese bases in western Bengal.

Linkage between Chittagong-Arakan and Sagor The fall of Hooghly in 1632 forged a strange connection between Hooghly and Sagor where the evacuees from Hooghly had taken refuge. Evidently, the Portuguese were already familiar with the


Gargi Chattopadhyay

island.93 A Portuguese missionary, Father Cabral expressed in no uncertain terms that Sagor enjoyed certain inherent advantages:94 ‘There we entrenched ourselves in an island called Sagor.… Our captain and those most competent in the matter considered the site most appropriate. Accordingly, it was decided to convert the pagoda into a strong fortress for His Majesty (the King of Portu­ gal)’.95 The runaway Portuguese had plans to utilize the island as a strategic base in alliance with Arakan and, hence, they asked for ‘reinforcements’96 from the king of Arakan. The captain Manoel de Azevedo had initially thought of converting the main temple into a fort.97 Then the Portuguese at Sagor realized that the proposal might make Arakan apprehensive about their activities. Cabral went to Arakan from Sagor on a diplomatic mission98 to assure the former that the Portuguese had no intention to build a ‘bandel’99 for which Sagor was ideally suited. However, they wished to fortify Sagor. Arakan had a political connection with Sagor. The island was a part of the prosperous zamindari of Hijli100 which was under the revenue roll of Arakan. According to William Hedges, an English merchant and the first Governor of the East India Company in Bengal, the ‘Raja’ of the island collected a yearly rent of Rs 26 lakh from here101 at least till the 1640s. Sagor was ideally suited for salt production and was dotted with salt pans,102 besides boasting of timber that was suited for shipbuilding.103 An apiary was nurtured to extract beeswax. The region was also rich in gum lac104 and vari­ eties of fish.105 The ‘Raja’ could have either been the zamindar who collected the revenue on behalf of the king of Arakan or the king of Ara­ kan himself. The latter’s agenda was to utilize the first landfall as the line of supply to his army in his combat strategy against the Mughals.106 Unfortunately, this did not synchronize with the Portuguese strategy. In the 1630s, Sagor’s advantageous position had turned it into a theatre of anti-Mughal alliances between the Portuguese migrants from Hooghly and Arakan. The island had to accommodate an enormous number of pil­ grims every year in May before the rains107 and, more importantly,

Marauders of the Sundarbans


in the winter for the annual holy dip at the confluence of the Bhagirathi and the Bay of Bengal. During the pilgrim season, Sagor assumed the dimensions and ‘bustle of the most populous city’.108 Manrique observed that the Bay littoral around the time of the Ganga-Sagor fair was the ideal time for the marauders to strike and capture a large number of people as the multitude of pilgrims voluntarily proceeded towards the confluence to give up their lives by drowning themselves.109 The raiders used the unique technique of threatening to drown boatfuls of visitors in the river if they did not voluntarily hand themselves over.110 The tradition of kidnapping people from the littoral habitats on these particular days continued till much later in the Company’s tenure, as ‘during the whole fair season, people are under conti­ nual alarms’. The raiders invariably struck when the menfolk were away for business at the fair and took away all movable properties, including livestock, grains and all valuables, apart from the ‘female and children’.111 As a venue for Arakanese-Portuguese diplomatic interactions and as a slave-raiders’ zone, Sagor became entangled with an elaborately spread-out lattice containing the Portuguese operational nodes like Betor, Tardaha, Satgaon, Hooghly, Hajipur (Diamond Harbour), Kulpi and beyond with Piply and Balasore. Again, this complex web interfaced with Chittagong, Dianga and the Arakan coast in which Mrauk-U was a major centre. In fact, Sanjay Subrahmanyam notes that Arakan’s new centre of gravity functioned as a raiders’ hub from which the ‘Magh’ fleets advanced towards Bengal.112 A fair number of islands existed along the Bengal delta between Point Palmyras in the west in Orissa to Chittagong in the east. Manrique identified the prominent ones in the early seventeenth century as Sandwip, Shahbazpur and Sagor or ‘Sogoldiva’. As Radhika Chadha observes, these were ideally suited as centres for Portuguese piratical activities due to their fertility, abundance of necessary items, cheap living costs and easy connectivity by boats and other vessels.113 This in turn also ensured safe escape routes via a closely-knit network of aquatic passages. For Manrique, ‘Sogoldiva’ was the richest of all islands.114


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Rivers and the Rain Long-term changes in the river system of Bengal had taken place roughly between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The eastward riverine shift of the Ganga had led to the bridging of the western channels and the burgeoning aquatic realm of the Padma/ Meghna, as also the braiding of the Bhagirathi and its tentacles – comprising the Damodar, Rupnarayan, Ajay and Subarnarekha in western Bengal – with the Kosi flowing past Bihar; and the Mahananda, Ichhamati, Atrai, Burrull, Teesta and Jamuna flowing along northern Bengal.115 Thus, there was a merging of the fluvial networks of the major river systems of Bengal, that allowed for sailing across the length and breadth of Bengal.116 There also lay a vast stretch of aquatic realm in the upstream areas between the Bhairav, the Kapataksha in the east and the Matla in the west. Further, downstream of the rivers at the estuary immediately to their east, south-east and south, the broad expanse of the intermediate aquatic realm contained many creeks and tidal rivers, and an estuarine flow affiliated either to the estuarine approach of the Bhagirathi or the Padma, Brahmaputra. Many of these channels, connected to the inner and outer Sundarban passages, could facilitate smooth passage of vessels to and from Chittagong, Dacca or even Assam. Some of the rivers connected to the Bhagirathi system like Vidyadhari might have allowed pas­ sage to the raiding fleets while it received fresh water. Also, it was entirely possible for the ‘Muggs’ to sail from Chittagong and then from Dacca to Hooghly to Sagor without taking recourse to the land route. So the kidnappings from Sagor, as cited by visitors like Manrique, were a distinct possibility. It seems that the monsoon was the ideal time for piratical activities for a number of reasons. In spring, autumn and winter, the labourers of Arakan were made to work in the fields. In the idle months of the monsoon, they indulged in slave-hunts in the coastal villages of Bengal.117 Nau-Bahar-i-Murshid Quli Khani, a contemporary account of the Murshid Quli Khan, confirms that the season of floods was the usual time for attacks by the Ara­ kanese.118

Marauders of the Sundarbans


By virtue of the geographical continuum, Arakan experienced its monsoon immediately before south-eastern Bengal did. So naturally, they took advantage of the smooth sailing out of Arakan to make an easy entry into the Bengal delta. At the onset of the rains, they sailed effortlessly out of their coasts via rivers that were brimming to the full. By the time they reached littoral Bengal, torrents of rain were filling up the water-bodies and spilling into every bit of empty land to submerge it. Transportation from Ara­ kan to the Bengal delta and the adjoining Sundarbans trimmed by the mangrove forests was smooth and easy via the interconnected and brimming watercourses. A continuous waterscape dotted with boats dominated the scene of Bengal. At the time, it was really easy to commute to its farthest nooks and also to major highways con­ necting big towns like Hooghly. The monsoon wind aided the ‘Magh’ jalia or jeliyas (boats) to glide smoothly into the interiors of Bengal through the braided waterways that seemed like a continuous and extensive sheet. Also, the rain and floods came in the way of Mughal vigilance as the Mughal army did not have a navy that could match the power­ ful raiding fleets. This was the season for the local zamindars with their efficient fleets to declare their revolt against the Mughals.119 The raiders most certainly made the best use of this chaotic situa­ tion. ‘They entered the numerous arms and branches of the Ganges, ravaged the islands . . . often penetrating forty or fifty leagues up the country, surprised and carried away the entire population of villages on market days and at times when the inhabitants had assembled for the celebration of a marriage or some other festival’.120 Indeed, the slave-powered (liable to move by wind power, too) multi-oared jalia, jelliya, jelyasse, gelia or war boats had a crucial role to play in these aggressive inroads.

Possible Sailing Routes and Sagor as a Major Entry Point Shihabuddin Talish mentions two separate sailing routes usually followed by the Arakanese and Portuguese intruders to Bengal from Chittagong and the coast of Arakan. They bypassed the royal


Gargi Chattopadhyay

port of Bhulwa on their right and Sandwip island on their left to reach the village of Sangramgarh. Sangramgarh enjoyed a strategic location at the southern point of the delta to Dacca at the then junction of the Ganga (Padma) and the Brahmaputra. If we are to believe Talish’s account, then we have to assume that the river system was a little different in the mid-seventeenth century: the estuary of the Padma and Brahmaputra is located at a much more southerly point, very close to the open sea. From here, the raiders either sailed up the Brahmaputra if they planned to target Vikrampore, Sonargaon and Dacca; or floated up the Padma if they targeted Jessore, Bhusna and Hooghly.121 However, the westward route delineated by Talish implies that the Padma and the Bhagirathi were interconnected at the intermediate reach of the Bhagirathi. Otherwise, the raiders had to sail north­ wards from the junction at Sooty above Murshidabad in the upper reaches and embark upon a longish southward journey to reach the targeted places. One known connecting filament could presum­ ably have been the Jellenghy that met the Bhagirathi near Nadia. Their combined water flowed downwards towards Hooghly and beyond up to the Bay of Bengal in the western delta in which the Sagor island stood as the first landfall. Stavorinus notes sometime in the late eighteenth century that the bulk of goods from Dacca was sent to Hooghly via the Channel Creek or Baratala River past Sagor, which, at the time, was either the Baliaghat passage passing through the Sundarbans or had some connectivity with it.122 The primary inlet into western Bengal seemed to have been the river that was close to Sagor.123 It could have been the Hugli or the Muriganga. If the raiders targeted Hooghly, Hijli or even Piply in Orissa, the most convenient route was to sail along the Sundarban coast, often taking recourse to some creeks or tidal channels, then westward from Chittagong close to the coast, making an entry via the opening at Sagor. They might have entered via the mainland as well to access the Hugli River from above Sagor. However, by sneaking through these creeks canopied by the luxuriant mangrove foliage, they could avoid an east-to-west sail through the river in the mainland through pockets of settlements and, thus, evade detection. The entrance into the mainland via the

Marauders of the Sundarbans


Rupnarayan was guarded by a fort constructed by Shaista Khan to repel the Maghs. The entry from the mouth of the Chingri Khal or Rogue’s River close to Diamond Harbor at a village named Chakraberer Garh could have been blockaded by the Hijli fort of Isa Khan.124 So, in all probability, they had to sail past Sagor to enter the mouth of the Bhagirathi (Hooghli) drawing least attention to themselves. Jamini Mohan Ghosh observes that the only possible entry point of the Maghs from the bay towards western Bengal was from Sagor.125 If they wanted to go to Piply and Balasore, they skirted Sagor from the south to reach the coast of Orissa. The English Company’s records indicated that the Arakanese followed almost the same route towards the western delta till as late as the 1770s. ‘When the Maghs leave Arakan in search of plunder, they seldom or never proceed along the coast towards Chittagong, but steer to the westward, and fall in with the islands in the mouth of the River Pudda, about seventy miles westward of the Chittagong shore’.126 From Chittagong, there was a convenient inlet to the west to

Sources: Adapted from Talish, 1907; Ghosh, 1960; Archival Records. Map not to scale. Fig. 3.1: Sailing Routes of the Raiders


Gargi Chattopadhyay

Rabnabad and from here, there were ‘fine breaks on both sides, leading through to the Hooremgottah (Haringhata) westward and the Pudda eastward.’127 If they wanted to penetrate into the western delta, then they took recourse to the Haringhata River. The Proceedings of the Revenue Record, Chittagong, mention ‘Heron Gaut’128 as one of the major ‘outlets’129 to the ‘westward’.130 Talish’s route indicates that the Rakhines approached the western delta via the upper or intermediate reach of the Bhagirathi at the confluence of the Padma.

Raiders and the Sundarbans The Portuguese downturn in Asia, the siege of Hooghly, Arakan’s diminishing hold over south-eastern Bengal from 1638, the fall of Chittagong in 1666, the loss of Arakan’s trade ties with the Dutch Company and the influential Coromandel merchants triggered the desperate scramble of the Portuguese at the fringes and the Arakanese fortune-hunters for quick gains for survival. Despite Dutch restrictions, Coromandel merchants, the Muslim 'Chuliyas' and the Hindu ‘Kelings’ were active in mainland South-East Asia like Ayutthaya, Ava, Arakan, Mergui, Thailand, Cambodia in the seventeenth century. The king of Arakan traded with Coromandel merchants. After the fall of Chittagong, a politically unstable Ara­ kan was reduced to the stature of a Mughal vassal. In the 1660s, Francois Bernier, a French physician and traveller, who travelled extensively in the subcontinent, had remarked that many islands at the mouth of the Sundarban delta had turned to ‘dreary waste’ and become infested with tigers and boars due to the Arakanese incursions.131 Historian Jamini Mohan Ghosh opines that long before Bernier had noted the desolation of the Sundar­ bans, the place was already vacant. It was also a fact that the fear of the Arakanese attacks contributed more to the process of depopu­ lation than the actual kidnappings.132 The Portuguese teamed up for raids with the Arakanese much later. The Arakanese ‘rendered it [parts of the Sundarbans] by no means a desirable place of resi­ dence for such persons, as having the means of subsistence, were enabled to live elsewhere’.133

Marauders of the Sundarbans


In James Rennell’s map titled An Actual Survey of the Provinces of Bengal and Bahar etc., 1794, the area encapsulated between the ‘Haringhata’ River in present day Bangladesh in the west and the ‘Rabnabad’ River flowed through Bakarganj district in the east has the following caption: ‘This part of the country has been deserted on account of the ravages of the Muggs.’134 The area roughly extended longitudinally from a segment of the coastline in the south to Bakargunge in the north and did not denote a very small area. Despite possessing rich and luxuriant soil, the long fringe of south-western and eastern Bengal between the Haringhata River and the extremity of Chittagong did not yield as much revenue as it could for the English Company for many years due to such depredations.135 According to the Revenue Record of Chittagong, till the late 1770s, the extensive forested region at the fringe of the delta provided the space where the raiders were ‘capable of doing any essential mischief ’.136 Thus, though the ‘Mugg’ infiltrations considerably declined by the late eighteenth century, Rennell’s map popularized the belief that the long-term impact of the Por­ tuguese Arakanese infiltrations was the emptiness of a part of the Sundarbans.

Lingering Threat in the Western Delta Close to Sagor The western delta, too, was not entirely immune to threats, imag­ ined or otherwise. In the late Mughal period, the Magh scare extended up to Calcutta. It is said that scarcely any people lived beyond Thana, which was notorious as Magua Thana.137 In the 1660s, Streynsham Master noted that nobody lived beyond it as the ‘Arracaners’ were regularly spotted there and were believed to lift people.138 Till the late eighteenth century, the general defence of the borders of southern Bengal remained a lingering concern for the fledgeling Company State. Calcutta, as the major emerging hub of commerce and, subsequently, as a prosperous port city on the river located close to the confluence of the Hugli and the Bay of Bengal, was susceptible to piratical raids. As late as 1770s, a protective chain ran across the Hugli at Thana near Betore to defend Calcutta from the Magh raiders. In fact,


Gargi Chattopadhyay

Thana fort was established by the Mughals just below Calcutta to put a check on the raiders who came by way of Channel Creek into the river and frequently proceeded towards Calcutta.139 The city of Calcutta was a slave market and a raiding zone. The pirates of the Sundarbans frequented places like Akra, Budge Budge and Calcutta for prospective victims even in the late eighteenth cen­ tury.140 Thus, it would be a gross exaggeration to claim that areas within striking range of Sagor in south-western Bengal had not experienced the Magh scare in the eighteenth century.

Desolation of Sagor: A Myth According to Manrique (1628-41) and Cabral (1633), the Ara­ kanese-Portuguese pirates desecrated the island of Sagor and its temples. Indeed, Sagor appeared desolate because of the Magh ravage, despite being a deep-sea port when Bowrey141 and Master visited it between the 1660s and 1680s. According to late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century European travellers like Alexander Duff,142 Bishop Reginald Heber,143 and Maria Graham,144 Sagor appeared to be very depressing, vacant and frightening. However, the foreigners’ accounts and diaries often tended to capture a fleeting and superficial impression of a locale. The travellers were fed-up with the ‘depressing sight of mud-banks, flooded forests and tangled vegetation’145 that unfolded itself on their onward journey from the first landfall at the Hugli’s mouth. Hardly any human being was sighted in Sagor. It was notorious for the pres­ ence of man-eating tigers. Also, semi-decomposed shark-eaten bodies of pilgrims evoked revulsion in the foreigners’ minds. A diary entry by William Hedges contradicts the picture of the absolute emptiness of Sagor in the 1640s. The substantial revenue generated from Sagor in the 1640s lead us to assume that there was a considerable settlement and agriculture at the time. Bowrey’s and Master’s remarks indicate traces of economic activities in the close neighbourhood of Sagor. Sagor and parts of the lower Bengal villages that trimmed the coast of the Bay of Bengal had ‘rich and luxuriant soil’,146 endowed with high-value timber, gum lac and even fields of rice, according to some reports, and salt pans. Sagor

Marauders of the Sundarbans


was most suited to raising ‘a single annual crop of coarse paddy’.147 All this provided means of gainful livelihood to the people and yielded a handsome revenue to the administrative body, and, much later, to the Company State. An official English document of the early 1760s describes the southernmost parts of its land from Rangafalla to Sagor as being covered with jungles that grew a vast stock of timber fit for multiple uses. Some of the ‘low’ riverbanks and creeks had salt pans and abounded in varieties of fish.148 Still, the nagging threat of raiders in the Sundarbans in general came in the way of the constant economic pursuits of the locals and the beneficiaries of revenue. The several salt contractors . . . allege that the Molungees to a man has deserted the works. . . . The plunder of these people is confined to the persons of the inhabitants whom they lead away into slavery.149

Besides, The woodcutters disarting the Soondybans has put an entire stop to boatbuilding besides the great sails of that article . . . the distress of firewood and such a quantity of rice not going to Calcutta.150

Nevertheless, a small group of European visitors like Maria Nugent in the early nineteenth century could discern sparks of life in this apparently empty land. She reached Sagor in 1812.151 There were indications of small local markets in the vicinity of Sagor and a primary exchange system. Moreover, the congregation of pilgrims to Kapilmuni’s temple has never ceased till date. In 1758, a group of 5,000 devotees from Delhi and beyond, some even from far-flung provinces close to Persia and Tartary (Turkey), proceeded towards Sagor. Their number swelled to 20,000 by the time they reached it.152 In 1837, it was estimated that more than 60,000 boats had landed in Sagor for the festival of Makar Sankranti or winter solstice, carrying a little less than 300,000 people from all parts of India.153 Temporary seasonal markets could barely cope with such a large gathering of devotees. Hence, something more than a rudi­ mentary supportive infrastructure had to be maintained. A degree of consistent patronage had to be ensured year after year to cope


Gargi Chattopadhyay

with the massive pouring in of visitors who were as ruinous as a ‘host of locusts’.154 Such gatherings ensured that the island did not remain devoid of people and of economic activities for any stretch of time. However, large and permanent settlements have not been sustained in Sagor for a number of reasons. As a part of the broader terrain of the Sundarbans, located at the edge of the mainland, Sagor has been at the receiving end of the magnified impacts of storm waves, cyclone, rainfall, inunda­ tions by rivers, water-borne pollution, epidemics, cyclones, floods, earthquakes, and topographical alterations related to land-making at the fringe of the deltas. These posed hindrances to sustained settlement patterns. The island’s susceptibility to the vagaries of nature has substantially contributed to its sparse habitation and periodic emptiness. Besides, Sagor fell within the zone of the sub­ sidence of land typical of the deltaic terrain of the Sundarbans. After Pratapaditya’s power ebbed, the Sundarbans underwent a structural alteration owing to the subsidence of land. Sagor expe­ rienced a mild impact of this and survived till 1688 when a flood and cyclone ravaged it. In fact, choked-up ponds, and archaeo­ logical remnants like old temples, clay and metal utensils, copper plates, stone idols and old coins have been unearthed from the subterranean layers of Sagor and its neighbourhood.155 The magnitude of the impact of the Arakanese Portuguese forays into Sagor has also to be reviewed from the long-term per­ spective of the river system, as well as various interventions posed by the natural phenomena. The island had reconfigured itself in shape and size a number of times over the centuries. The deltabuilding activities of the river have created a precarious fluvial system. Thus, at times, it seems as though Sagor’s existence has always been at risk. For instance, This Island (Edmonstone Island) but a few years ago had from 2 to 3 fathoms of water upon it, but is now high and dry at all seasons of the year, an event, which would not so speedily have happened, had not the River encroached on Saugor Island. . . . I do not apprehend the total destruction of the Saugor Island as I think it possible that the River will force itself a passage through some of the small Creeks which intersect the Island. . . .156

Marauders of the Sundarbans


Again, ‘There must be a very extended Dead Water at the south of the Saugor island which allows of the River depositing its sedi­ ment during the rains. . . . And consequently either forming a new Island or carrying Saugor island further into the Sea’.157 It seemed a new island took shape close to Sagor and, from a distance, it seemed that the island of Sagor had shifted further into the sea. There were ‘many shoals and sandbanks near Sagor’.158 However, such isles, braces and sandbanks appeared and disap­ peared in keeping with the nature of the fluvial world. Again on 4 October 1864, a storm wave that rose 15 ft above the sea level managed to split the island into two halves.159 According to Kalyan Rudra, the Bhagirathi-Hugli estuary is the ‘largest and the most active’ one in the western part of the Gangetic delta. In any estuary, usually erosion and deposition of suspended sediments occur simultaneously. As a result, considerable altera­ tions have taken place in the estuary of the concerned river. In 1767, Sagor was much bigger than it had been in 2010.

Conclusion The fluvial integration of Arakan with the eastern and western Bengal delta used to reach its peak in the monsoon that facilitated Magh inroads through the overflowing riverine web into the Sundarbans and beyond. Further, the Mughal penetration into the edge of Bengal took place on the back of the easterly migration of Bengal’s river system and the burgeoning of the Padma. Initially, the invincible masters of combat on land, the Mughals, could not make much headway into Bengal’s interior for which mastery over aquatic warfare was mandatory. Their will to trample over a terrain chequered by rivers, rivulets, swamps, forests, tangled vegetation, excessive downpours, sultry weather and slushy pathways in the prolonged monsoon months compelled them to match the Ara­ kanese naval prowess. Thus, Mughal supremacy was established up to the fringes of the south-eastern delta. However, as a close neighbour, Arakan moderated over peripheral areas, including Sagor, for some time, as mentioned by Manrique. Being a part of the Sundarbans and located on the edge of the


Gargi Chattopadhyay

active delta, Sagor has been mauled by nature’s ravages. It was difficult to determine which was the more dangerous: the tigers or the pirates. Hence, the place was not conducive to consistently spread out, extensive and continuous human habitation within the chosen period (1600-1800). The island comes alive with the inflow of seasonal pilgrims. Again, though Sagor received the footfall of the Magh Firangi raiders, it neither blossomed into an ‘informal’ but major Portu­ guese colony like Hooghly nor a minor one, being shorn of a comparable social and loose administrative structure. It could not evolve as a Portuguese ‘shadow empire’ like Sandwip or Syriam as there was neither a Thibau supported by his band of tough men and a social set-up of family structure, nor a Filipe de Brito, with a high-order political sagacity to court the king of Arakan with his loyal service, encourage the Portuguese to colonise Syriam and declare his independence from Arakan at an opportune moment. Further, despite having a legacy of trade, it could not evolve into a commercial node. Sagor remained in the backwaters of history till the British cast more than a cursory glance at it as a potential source of revenue in the early nineteenth century. In the early modern period, the river-borne raiders along with other factors might have caused some disruptions, as is evident from remnants of scattered settlements noted by various accounts and sources. Jamini Mohan Ghosh claims that the Magh exploits were more ‘far-reaching and insidious’160 than those of the Bairagis, Sannyasis and Fakirs. However, the long-term impact of the marauding inroads into Sagor has to be weighed against the vulnerability of the Sundarban region to natural disasters and its ephemeral physical surroundings. Even if the Magh incursions did not occur, nature’s interventions bore enough potentialities of challenging the existence of the island. It was another matter that in the aftermath of extremely adverse conditions, Sagor had an innate propensity to bounce back into a regular rhythm of life at the earliest opportunity. The island had an extraordinary fertility level suitable for raising annually a single crop of coarse paddy; it was once part of the Hijli zamindari that

Marauders of the Sundarbans


was very populous and located close to the Hugli River. Moreover, the parts of the island were very fertile.161 The island received more than its abundant share of monsoon rainfall. It is unlikely that such a prolific rice-growing tract, at the junction of the river and sea would remain vacant with little ves­ tige of life for a very long and continuous stretch of time.162

NOTES 1. 2. 3. 4.

Mitra, 2013: 653-7. Makar Sankranti or winter solstice. Phillimore, 1950: 14. Lower Bengal loosely implies the parts of deltaic Bengal of the allu­ vium under tidal influence. 5. Derived from the word ‘Armada’ denoting the Portuguese fleet that had earned notoriety for its aggression and competence. 6. NAI, Secret, Proceedings, vol. 35A, 5 May-30 June 1777: 914. 7. Maghs and Harmads became synonymous terms in Bengal. 8. Phayre, 1883: 46-7. 9. Talish, 1907a: 422. 10. Rila Mukherjee, 2006: 192; Mukherjee, 2009: 112; Mukherjee, 2011: 456. 11. Radhakamal Mukherjee, 1938: iii; Eaton, 1993: 195. 12. Eaton, 1993: 195. 13. Deyell, 2011: 295. 14. Satgaon in the western Bengal was called Porto Pequena (Small Port). 15. Bernier, 1914: 175. 16. Talish, 1907a: 420. 17. Firminger, 1917: 131. 18. van Schendel, 1992: 123. 19. Jalil, 1988: 27. 20. Majumdar, Raychaudhuri and Datta, 1967: 443. 21. Abul Fazl, 1891: 120. 22. Local chieftains of the bhati or lower delta. 23. Ghulam Husain, 1975: 39. 24. Blochmann, 1968: 343-8. 25. van Galen, 2008: 183.


Gargi Chattopadhyay

26. van Galen, 2013: 13. 27. ‘Saugor Island and its Condition Subsequent to the Inundation of November last’, 1832: 293. 28. Ibid., 46. 29. van Galen, 2013: 12-13. 30. Jalil, 1988: 26. 31. Subrahmanyam, 2005: 46. 32. Ibid., 41. Nevertheless, the apparent cause for the Mughal attack was prompted by the murder of Aurangzeb’s rebellious brother, Shuja, by the king of Arakan. The former had fled his country and sought asylum in Arakan. 33. Chatterjee, 1999: 2. 34. R. Mukherjee, 2006: 75. 35. Thackston, 1999: 142. 36. Badshah-nama, 32-4. 37. Mukherjee 2006: 73. 38. Ibid.: 72. 39. de L’Estra, 1677: 193. 40. D’Hubert and Leider, 2011: 353-5. 41. R. Mukherjee, 2011: 42-3. 42. Singha, 1997: 60-1. 43. Ibid.: 186-7. 44. de L’Estra, 1677: 193. 45. Chatterjee, 2008: 254. 46. Ibid. 47. D’Hubert and Leider, 2011: 155. 48. NAI, Board of Revenue, Proceedings, vol. 58, pt. 1, 2-9 January 1789: 347. 49. Schendel, 1992: 31-2. 50. Chatterjee, 2008: 255. 51. WBSA, Bengal District Records, Chittagong, Proceedings, vol. 1, 1760-1773, dated 8 March 1769: 30-1. 52. NAI, Foreign Secret, Consultation no. 9, 12 May 1777; NAI, Foreign Secret, Proceedings, vol. 35, 28 January, 1777. 53. NAI, Home Public, Proceedings, vol. 13, November-December 1759, dated 12 November 1759. 54. NAI, Foreign Secret, Consultation no. 5, 30 December 1776: 1-2. 55. NAI, Secret, Proceedings, vol. 35A, 5 June-30 June 1777: 920-54. 56. Talish, 1907a: 420. 57. D’Hubert and Leider, 2011: 353.

Marauders of the Sundarbans 58. 59. 60. 61. 62. 63. 64. 65. 66. 67. 68. 69. 70. 71. 72. 73. 74. 75. 76. 77. 78. 79. 80. 81. 82. 83.

84. 85. 86. 87. 88.


Ibid.: 212. Forster, 1988: 11. Subrahmanyam, 2011: 213. Francois Bernier, 1916: 175. Often mentioned as the ‘Muggs’ or ‘Maghs’ in the English East India Company’s correspondence. Arasaratnam, 1995: 198. Harvey, 1950: 57-62. Skilled artistes, artisans, craftsmen, weavers and intellectuals were handpicked by the royalty. Subrahmanyam, 2011: 211. Chadha, 2008: 48. Subrahmanyam, 2011: 221-2. Talish, 1907a: 425. Talish, 1907b: 406-7. D’Hubert and Leider, 2011: 355; Chadha, 2008: 48. Bernier, 1914: 179-81. Gautier Schouten, 1725: 81. L’Estra, 1677: 99-200. D’Hubert and Leider, 2011: 355. O’Malley, 2009: 38. Begley and Desai, 1990: 85. Talish, 1907a: 422. Nathan, 1936: 86, 146-50, 330, 332-5, 630-9, 749. Talish, 1907a: 421-2. Harvey, 1950: 148. L’Estra, 1677: 193. The rich have a number of slaves who they sell like horses, and the poor give themselves and their lives for their service. NAI, Bengal Public Consultations, Microfilm, Accession No. 2665, Fort William, November 1725; Fort William, November 1726, Fort William, September 1727. NAI, Bengal Public Consultations, Accession no. 2668, Fort Wil­ liam, October 1738. NAI, Home Miscellaneous, Proceedings, vol. 12, 1746-7: 259. NAI, Foreign Secret, Consultation no. 7, 23 December 1776; NAI, Foreign Secret, Consultation no. 1, 30 December 1776. NAI, Foreign Secret, Consultation no. 7, 23 December 1776. NAI, Foreign Secret, Consultation no. 2, 30 December 1776, Foreign Secret, Consultation no. A, 30 December 1776, p. 1, Foreign Secret, Consultation no. B, 30 December 1776: 1-2.


Gargi Chattopadhyay

89. NAI, Foreign and Political Secret, Consultation no. 4, 30 December 1776, no. 4: 1-3. 90. Rennell, 1910: 78. 91. NAI, Foreign Secret, Proceedings, vol. 34A, 12 December 1776. 92. Azad-al-Husaini, 1985: 4. 93. Manrique, 1927: 316. 94. Ibid., 418. 95. Ibid. 96. Ibid., 421. 97. Collis, 1995: 187. 98. Manrique, 1927: 420-1. 99. Port / a landing space. 100. ‘Saugor Island and its Condition’, 1832: 293. 101. Hedges, 1887: 172. 102. Habib, 1982: 11B. 103. Hedges, 1887: 172. 104. Habib, 1982: 11B. 105. Master, 1911: 15. 106. Manrique, 1927: 421. 107. T. Mukherjee, 2013: 105. 108. Ibid., 94-5. 109. Collis, 199: 79. 110. Bhowmik, 1999: 28. 111. NAI, Secret, Proceedings, vol. 35A, 5 May-30 June 1777: 917. 112. Subrahmanyam, 2011: 70-9. 113. Chadha, 2008: 22. 114. Manrique, 1927: 394-5. 115. Habib, 1982: 46. 116. R. Mukherjee, 2006: 207. 117. Ibid., 144. 118. Azad-al-Hasaini, 1952: 4. 119. Gommans, 2002: 174. 120. Bernier, 1916: 175. 121. Talish, 1907b: 405. 122. Stavorinus, 1798: 106. 123. Ghosh, 1960: 8. 124. Ibid. 125. Ibid. 126. NAI, Secret, Proceedings, vol. 35A, 5 May-30 June 1777: 912-14. 127. Ibid., 917.

Marauders of the Sundarbans


128. WBSA, Revenue Record, Chittagong, Proceedings, vol. 5, January 1778-December 1778: 2. 129. Ibid. 130. Ibid. 131. Bernier, 1996: 442-3. 132. Ghosh, 1960: 50. 133. WBSA, Board of Revenue, Proceedings, vol. 58, pt. 1, 2-9 January 1789: 346. 134. Gole, 1980: 55. 135. NAI, Secret, Proceedings, vol. 35A, 5 May-30 June 1777: 918. 136. WBSA, Revenue Records, Chittagong, Proceedings, vol. 5, January 1778-December 1778: 1. 137. NAI, Secret, Proceedings, vol. 35A, 5 May-30 June 1777: 912-13; Gholam Hosain, 1975: 39; WBSA, Board of Revenue, Proceedings, 18 May 1787: 666. 138. Master, 1911: 66. 139. Deb, 1905: 39. 140. Datta, 1984: 260. 141. Bowrey, 1993: 210-11. 142. Duff, 1839: 200. 143. Heber, 1829: 44. 144. Graham, 1813: 132. 145. Arnold, 2006: 71. 146. NAI, Foreign Secret, Proceedings, vol. 35A, 5 May-30 June 1777: 918. 147. Carey, 1907: 123-4. 148. NAI, Home Miscellaneous, Proceedings, vol. 28, Fort William, 8 April 1762: 356. 149. NAI, Foreign Secret, Consultation no. 1, 30 December 1776. 150. NAI, Foreign Secret, Proceedings, vol. 34A, 11 November-30 December 1776: 3873-6. 151. Nugent, 1839: 68-9. 152. Das Gupta, 1959: 131. 153. Duff, 1840: 226. 154. Cited in T. Mukherjee, 2013: 94. 155. Chaudhury, 1999: 343; Mitra, 2001: 615. 156. NAI, Home Public, Proceedings, vol. 328, July 1822: 59. 157. Ibid., 58. 158. Ibid., 58-79. 159. Chattopadhyay, 2003: 328.


Gargi Chattopadhyay

160. Ghosh, 1960: 6. 161. ‘Saugor Island and its Condition’: 292-3. 162. Ibid.: 292.

REFERENCES Archival Sources National Archives of India (NAI), Bengal Public Consultations NAI, Board of Revenue, Proceedings NAI, Foreign and Political Secret, Consultation NAI, Foreign Secret, Consultation NAI, Foreign Secret, Proceedings NAI, Home Miscellaneous, Proceedings NAI, Home Public, Proceedings NAI, Secret, Proceedings NAI, Secret, Proceedings West Bengal State Archives, Kolkata (WBSA), Board of Revenue, Proceedings WBSA, Revenue Record, Chittagong, Proceedings

Published Sources Allami, Abul Fazl. 1891. Ain-i-Akbari, tr. H.S. Jarrett, vol. 2. Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal. Arasaratnam, S. 1995. ‘Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean’, in K.S. Mathew ed., Mariners, Merchants and Oceans: Studies in Maritime History. New Delhi: Manohar. Arnold, David. 1995. The Tropics and the Traveling Gaze: India, Land­ scape and Science, 1800-1856. London and Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006. Badshah-nama of Abdul Hamid Lohori in H.M. Elliot and J. Dowson, The History of India as Told by Its Own Historians, vol. VII. Delhi: Low Price Publications, rpt. 2008. Bernier, Francois. 1916. Archibald Constable trans. Travels in the Mogul Empire, 1656-1668. London, Edinburgh, Glasgow: Oxford University Press. . 1996. Travels in the Mogul Empire: 1656-1666. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Marauders of the Sundarbans


Blochmann, H. 1968. Contributions to the Geography and History of Bengal (Muhammedan Period). Calcutta: Asiatic Society. Bowrey, Thomas. 1993. A Geographical Account of Countries Round the Bay of Bengal, 1669-1679. R.C. Temple, ed. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services. Carey, William. 1907. The Good Old Days of the Honourable John Company, vol. 2. Calcutta: R. Cambray and Co. Chadha, Radhika. 2008. ‘Big Generals in Little Kingdoms: The Portuguese Settlements of Chittagong and Sandwip, 1530-1640’, in Yogesh Sharma and J.L. Ferreira, eds., The Portuguese Presence in India in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. New Delhi: Viva Books. Chattopadhyay, Basudeb. 2000. ‘On the Bank of Hugli’, in Abhijit Dutta et al., eds., Explorations in History. Calcutta: Corpus Research Institute. Chaudhury, Kamal. 1999. Chobbish Pargana, Uttar, Dakkhin, Sundarban. Calcutta: Dey’s Publishing. Collis, Maurice. 1995. The Land of the Great Image: Being Experiences of Friar Manrique in Arakan. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services. D’hubert, Thibaut and Jaques P. Leider. 2011. ‘Traders and Poets at the Mrauk-U Court: Commerce and Cultural Links in Seventeenth Century Arakan’, in Rila Mukherjee, ed., Pelagic Passageways, the Northern Bay of Bengal before Colonialism. Delhi: Primus Books. Das Gupta, Anil Chandra. 1959. The Days of John Company: Selections from Calcutta Gazette, 1824-1832. Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing. Datta, Kalikinkar. 1984. Economic Condition of the Bengal Subah, 1740­ 1772. Calcutta: Saraswat Library. Deb, Raja Binaya Krishna. 1905. The Early History and Growth of Calcutta. Calcutta: R.C. Ghosh. Deyell, John. 2011. ‘Monetary and Financial Webs: The Regional and International Influence of Pre-Modern Bengali Coinage’, in Rila Mukherjee, ed., Pelagic Passageways: The Northern Bay of Bengal before Colonialism. Delhi: Primus Books. Duff, Alexander. 1840. India and India Missions: Including Sketches of the Gigantic System of Hinduism, Both in Theory and Practice. London: Whittakkar and Co. and Nissat and Co. Eaton, Richard M. 1993. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier 1204­ 1760. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


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Elliot, H.M. and J. Dowson, The History of India as Told by its Own Historians, vol. 7, Delhi: Low Price Publications, rpt. 2008. Forster, Richard. Spring 2011. ‘Magh Marauders, Portuguese Pirates, White Elephants and Persian Poets: Arakan and its Bay of Bengal Connectivities in the Early Modern Era’, Explorations, A Graduate Students’ Journal of South East Asian Studies, 2(1): 63-80. de L’Estra, Francois. 1678. Relation ou journal d’un voyage nouvellement fait aux Indes Orientales depuis l’annee 1671 jusqu’en 1675. Paris: Chez Estienne Michallet. van Galen, Stephan. 2008. ‘Arakan and Bengal: The Rise and Decline of the Mrauk U Kingdom from the Fifteenth to the Seventeenth Century A.D.’, PhD thesis, Leiden University. Ghosh, Jamini Mohan. 1960. Magh Raiders in Bengal. Calcutta: Bookland. Gole, Susan. 1988. Maps of Mughal India. New Delhi: Manohar. Graham, Maria. 1813. The Journal of a Residence in India. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable. Heber, Reginald. 1829. Narrative of a Journey through the Upper Provinces of India from Calcutta to Bombay, 1824-25, vol. 1. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea and Carey. Hedges, William. 1887. Esq. Col. Henry Yule and R. Barlow, eds., The Diary of William Hedges, During his Agency in Bengal; As well as on his Voyage Out and Return Overland, vol. 1. London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society. Manrique, Sebastian. 1927. Eckford Luard and H. Hosten, eds., Travels of Frey Sebastian Manrique, 1629-1643, vol. 2. Oxford: Published for the Hakluyt Society. Master, Streynsham. 1911. The Diaries of Streynsham Master 1675-1680 and Other Contemporary Papers Relating thereto, vol. I. R.C. Temple, ed., London: John Murray. Mitra, Satish Chandra. 2013. Jashohar Khulnar Itihaash, vol. 2. Calcutta: Dey’s Publishing. Mohammad Abdul Jalil. 1988. Bonge Mogh Phiringi O Borgir Otyachar. Dacca: Bangla Academy. Mukherjee, Radhakamal. 1938. The Changing Face of Bengal: A Study in Riverine Economy. Calcutta: University of Calcutta. Mukherjee, Rila. 2006. Strange Riches: Bengal in the Mercantile Map of South Asia. Delhi: Foundation Books. . 2009. ‘Mobility in the Bay of Bengal World: Medieval Raiders, Traders, States and Slaves’, Indian Historical Review, no. 36, vol. 1, pp. 109-29.

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Mukherjee, Rila, ed. 2011. Pelagic Passageways: The Northern Bay of Bengal before Colonialism. Delhi: Primus. . ed. 2012. Pelagic Passageways: The Northern Bay of Bengal before Colonialism. Delhi: Primus. Mukherjee, Tilottama. 2013. Political Culture and Economy in Eighteenth Century Bengal: Networks of Exchange, Consumption and Com­ munication. Delhi: Orient BlackSwan. Nathan, Mirza. 1936. Baharistan-i-Ghaybi: A History of the Mughal Wars in Assam, Cooch Behar, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa during the Reigns of Jahangir and Shahjahan, vol. 1. M.I. Borah trans. from original Persian. Guwahati: The Government of Assam, Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies. Nugent, Maria. 1839. A Journal from the Year 1811 till the Year 1815, Including a Voyage to and Residence in India, vol. 1. London: British Library. O’Malley, L.S.S. 2009. Bengal District Gazetteers: 24 Parganas. New Delhi: Logos Press. Phayre, A.P. 1883. History of Burma: Including Burma Proper, Pegu, Taungu, Tenasserim and Arakan from the Earliest Time to the End of the First War with British India. London: Trubner and Co. Phillimore, R.H. 1950. Comp. Historical Records of the Survey of India: 1800-1815. Dehradun: Published by Order of the Surveyor General of India. Rennel, Major James. 1910. ‘The Journals of Major James Rennel, written for the information of the Governors of Bengal during the Surveys of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers, 1764 to 1767’. Calcutta: The Asiatic Society. ‘Saugor Island and its Condition Subsequent to the Inundation of November last’, in The Nautical Magazine: A Journal of Papers Connected to Maritime Affairs, vol. 1. Glasgow: Brown, Son and Ferguson, March 1832: 293. Schendel, Willem Van, ed., 1992. Francis Buchanan in Southeast Bengal (1798), His Journey to Chittagong, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Noakhali and Comilla. Dacca: University Press Limited. Stavorinus, J.S. 1798. Samuel Hull Wilcocke, trans. Voyages to the East Indies, vol. I. London: G.G. and J. Robinson. Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. 2005. Explorations in Connected History: Mughals and Franks. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Talish, Shihabuddin. 1907a. ‘Fathiya-i-ibriyya’. English trans. in part. Jadunath Sarkar. ‘The Feringi Pirates of Chatgaon, 1666 A.D.’


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Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. 3. New Series. Calcutta:

The Asiatic Society, pp. 419-25.

. 1907b. ‘Fathiya-i-ibriyya’. English trans. in part. Jadunath Sarkar.

‘The Conquest of Chatgaon, 1666 A.D.’ Journal of the Asiatic Society

of Bengal, vol. 3. New Series. Calcutta: The Asiatic Society, pp. 405­ 17. Thackston, W.M., tr. 1999. Th e Jahangirnama: Memoirs of Jahangir, Emperor of India, Washington and New York: Oxford University Press.


Beyond the Company and its Commerce

Reviewing the Presence of the VOC

in Mughal Bengal, 1600-1700

Byapti Sur

The Dutch East India Company or the Veerenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) was founded in 1602 in the Dutch Republic for carrying on trade and territorial expansion in the Indian Ocean region. Among other places in Asia, it operated in Mughal India as well throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries until its dissolution, when the English East India Company (EIC) took over political power. The base of the EIC was Bengal, which also witnessed a considerable Dutch presence in the previous years. The arrival of the VOC in Bengal was first registered around Pipli in 1615.1 At this time, the Dutch Company had already set up its bases in other places like Surat, the coast of Coromandel and Mal­ abar. However, in Bengal, the VOC was yet to make its mark. By the end of the seventeenth century, the number of Dutch factories in this region had multiplied with the VOC trying to consolidate its position. A lot has been written about the EIC’s activities in Bengal in this century. Rila Mukherjee points out how the English discourse in these years began producing a stereotypical image of Bengal. Prompted by the English ambassador, Thomas Bowrey’s narratives, an image of ‘Brand Bengal’ was born.2 While this was, indeed, a significant phenomenon, the Dutch presence in Bengal was probably as important in the beginning as its English counter­ part’s. Despite this, very little scholarly attention has been given to studying the VOC in this region and not much research has been done on Dutch visions of seventeenth-century Bengal.


Byapti Sur

The conventional story of the VOC in Bengal is not that of an imperial success. Finally, the EIC went on to build one of the quintessential colonial empires of the British crown. It was the English who fought against the Mughals in the 1680s, at a time when the VOC openly discouraged such battles. This show of restraint on the part of the VOC has precisely been the reason for many scholars to conclude that the Dutch, in the end, were neither interested in nor were influential in the political space of Bengal. The fact that the VOC did not take a political interest in this area at a time when the scramble for territorial possessions was high is baffling. It provokes scholarly interest in trying to understand the motives of the Dutch Company in Bengal. What was the nature of the VOC’s presence here? Where did Bengal figure in the story of the seventeenth-century VOC expansion? This article tries to answer these questions by exploring the goals of the Dutch Com­ pany and its officials around this time in relation to the Mughal authorities and the locals of Bengal. Perhaps nothing better reflects the paradox of the existing his­ toriography on the VOC in Bengal than the sorry Wikipedia link to ‘Dutch Bengal’.3 The text posted on this webpage displays an uneasy bundling together of the words ‘trading posts’, ‘colony’, and ‘imperialism’ that bares open the muddled state of the Dutch Com­ pany’s presence in Bengal. Before delving further into this aspect, it is important to note that the general historiography of the VOC has undergone crucial changes in recent years to accommodate the words ‘trade’ and ‘empire’. In 1988, an edited volume titled Dutch Authors on Asian History summarized, for the first time, the differences between colonial and post-colonial scholarship on the VOC in Asia.4 Through a collection of pioneering articles, it traced significant developments within Dutch historiography that witnessed a shift from the glorification of the Dutch Company to the inclusion of its Asian perspectives. Stopping at 1960, Gerrit Jan Schutte applauds J.C. van Leur for having ‘rebelled against the Eurocentric approach of colonial historiography’ and for having ‘considered the organizational, economic, and political superior­ ity of the Europeans to be a fable.’5 Where Schutte stopped, there began another trend in the historiography post-1960 with the

Beyond the Company and its Commerce


VOC increasingly being portrayed as a commercial concern and a participant in the vast Asia trading network. Holden Furber, in 1969, provided a number of examples of the Dutch Company servants’ encounters with the locals in Asia, which he optimistically reduced to the level of ‘partnership’.6 Toe­ ing this line of thought, most of the historians in the decades of the 1980s and the 1990s engrossed themselves in highlighting the commercial character of the Company.7 Several Indian scholars echoed this view as well, and shuttled between the ideas of ‘part­ nership’, ‘collaboration’ and ‘competition’ while describing the VOC’s mercantile relations in India.8 This scholarship trend went on to create the catchphrase of a ‘VOC-mentality’ in the Nether­ lands, which propagated the spirit of commerce (handelsgeest) of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. In 2006, the Dutch Prime Minister (Minster-president), Jan Peter Balkenende, while speaking about international economic policies, said, ‘Let us be optimistic! Let us say the Netherlands can do it again! The VOCmentality, to look beyond the borders, (that is) dynamic! Right?’9 Not unexpectedly, it sparked a controversy in politics but also revealed the sorry state of affairs about popular perceptions of the VOC in the Netherlands. Both the Dutch and international academia have invested more energy on redressing this historiographical imbalance since then and in highlighting the political (and colonial) aspect of the VOC in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Adam Clulow convincingly argues that despite repeatedly asserting that their interests were primarily in business, the VOC ‘displayed a con­ sistent appetite for territorial acquisition, seeing physical control of trading hubs as the swiftest and most secure route to profit’.10 Other scholars like Gert Oostindie heavily criticized the national­ istic commemoration of the VOC in 2002 that was boycotted by the embassies of Indonesia and South Africa, while being treated indifferently by India and Japan.11 He suggested the opening-up of debates on colonialism and slave labour, and for including Asian perspectives while reinforcing the point that the initiation of the VOC definitely marked the beginning of Dutch colonialism. Gerrit Knaap argues that the core business of the VOC, in fact,


Byapti Sur

was territorial expansion with significant commerce to sustain it.12 Remco Raben, too, advocate going beyond the commercial hul­ labaloos to unveil the Dutch Company’s imperial pursuits in the Indian Ocean.13 In this revised historiography, the position of Bengal has remained, however, that of a trading post of the VOC in Asia. Pieter Hendrik Pott, in his essay on Willem Verstegen raised the first argument about the Dutch Company’s ability to disseminate in different regions in varying degrees.14 His was a convincing point and was reiterated by Leonard Blussé, Femme Gaastra and Om Prakash in their works.15 In 2014, Knaap made his categorization of the numerous VOC posts in Asia by their political status. These ranged from ‘extraterritoriality’ to ‘suzerainty’ to ‘sovereignty’, representing the varying degrees of VOC penetration in foreign territories. By ‘extraterritoriality’, Knaap indicated a situation where the political force(s) of a certain region allowed the VOC to trade in their dominions with special privileges of separate jurisdiction, authority over some villages, and so on. This was in contrast to ‘suzerainty’, where the VOC exercised its influence through local overlords, and ‘sovereignty’, where the Company wielded direct political control. In this spectrum, Bengal was categorized as an ‘extraterritorial’ unit, along with Japan, China, Surat and Persia.16 It is true that throughout the seventeenth century, there were no explicit military expeditions undertaken by the Dutch Company in Bengal, unlike in Malabar, Java, Ceylon or Makassar.17 However, there was more to the Company when it came to its officials serv­ ing abroad as directors and other high-ranking administrators. Catia Antunes, in Exploring the Dutch Empire, argues that there existed a web of empire woven by the Dutch Company person­ nel, that operated beyond the confines of the formal institution of the VOC.18 The personal interests and objectives of the officials serving abroad often did not coincide with the goals of the Com­ pany’s board of directors in the Dutch Republic. It is in line with this argument that the present article essentially tries to analyse the Dutch presence in Bengal at the informal level and centred on its officials posted there. I shall aim to show that the VOC in the Dutch Republic and its employees in Bengal did not always

Beyond the Company and its Commerce


harbour similar aspirations when it came to fulfilling specific aims overseas. This was especially relevant for Bengal where control over its commerce was intermingled with the power of the admin­ istrators operating there. What is, therefore, needed is a revision of the conventional marking of Bengal as a commercial post, and to reconsider its importance from the perspective of the Dutch officials working there.

Bengal and the VOC in the Seventeenth Century Before its prominence in the seventeenth century, Bengal had been known for a long time for its commercial viability in the Indian Ocean trading world.19 Thanks to its numerous rivers and water channels that rendered its land fertile, the maritime space of Ben­ gal was ‘frequented by a large number of East African, West Asian, South Asian, South-East Asian and Chinese merchants, shippers, sailors and pilgrims.’20 This region witnessed the reign of a series of independent sultanates with Afghan, Turkic and other ethnic backgrounds before being annexed to the Mughal empire under Akbar.21 Under the Mughal administration, Bengal came to be categorized as a subah (a territorial unit for governance) and was put under the charge of a subahdar. The subahdar was assisted by the faujdar, the diwan and other regular Mughal administrators. Kumkum Chatterjee shows how the regional dynamics in Bengal continued to operate within the overarching structure of Mughal governance.22 The subahdars and other nobles managed to install themselves not only in Bengal’s political space but also in its exist­ ing trading network.23 They ran business enterprises from here to Malacca, Ceylon and other places that were part of Bengal’s larger commercial sphere.24 These merchant-nobles existed along with the ordinary merchants of Bengal, including peddlers and intermediate brokers.25 As can be gleaned from archival sources, besides Bengali-speaking merchants, those who spoke Gujarati and ‘Hindustani’ were also present, and lived for generations in this region.26 It was in this political and commercial setting that the Dutch (and other European companies) arrived in Bengal in the sev­


Byapti Sur

enteenth century. The Portuguese had earlier settled themselves in Hooghly but were ousted by 1632 for extending their support to the local zamindari unrest against the Mughals.27 The Dutch were quick to seize this opportunity and replaced the Portuguese at Hooghly in 1634, although the Portuguese presence continued informally in this region. Prince Azam Shah, the subahdar of Bengal, granted formal permission to the VOC to set up a trading post in Hooghly on the condition that the Company paid customs duties like all other merchants for using the port.28 The Dutch Company also received a royal farman from the emperor, Shah Jahan, in 1635, acknowledging its right to trade in Bengal.29 There were simultaneous attempts by the Dutch around these years to set up factories in other places though not all of these were suc­ cessful.30 Back in the Dutch Republic, the VOC’s supreme decision-mak­ ing body was the Heeren XVII (the board of seventeen directors, representing all its chambers from different cities) that met twice every year. In Asia, all powers were delegated to the Hoge Regering (High Government) at Batavia, led by the Governor-General and his council called the Raad van Indië. All the Dutch Company’s fac­ tories in Asia were supposed to report to Batavia on every matter, including civil and criminal cases against any Company servant. The Company in Bengal initially remained under the supervision of the VOC governor in Coromandel. However, a change soon followed as the Heeren XVII started realizing its strategic worth between the trading worlds of Ceylon and Batavia.31 From 1655, an independent Dutch directorate began operating in Bengal with Hooghly as its headquarters. Although the flood of 1656 washed away into factory, the Dutch Company managed to secure a lease on the three villages of Baranagore, Chinsurah and Bazar Mirza­ pur in the same year from the subahdar of Bengal, Shah Shuja.32 This attracted fresh investments in a new factory that was con­ structed in one of the newly-acquired villages, Chinsurah (close to Hooghly). The other subordinate factories were in Malda, Dhaka, Sherpur, Udayganj, Patna, Balasore and other places, although not all of them were always operational.33 The director and his council were answerable to the Heeren

Beyond the Company and its Commerce


XVII and the Hoge Regering for everything that happened in all the factories of Bengal. The gezaghebber (chief) of the factory at Kasimbazar was considered second in rank to the director of Hooghly. Apart from the regular Dutch servants, there were the local inhabitants who also worked for the Dutch Company in Bengal. These comprised scribes, brokers, translators and menial workers, such as overseers, foot soldiers or runners (peons), coolies, porters, water-carriers, barbers, washermen, gardeners, sweep­ ers, cooks, smiths, carpenters, rowers, and so on.34 All the local men that were hired by the Dutch Company, including domestic servants, mostly came from the villages in the areas surrounding the factory.35 Consequently, the VOC officials working in Bengal had daily interactions with these villagers, as well as the mercantile groups and, of course, the Mughal administrators. Throughout the seventeenth century, the Mughal governors held political power in Bengal while the Dutch Company strode uncertainly on their terrain. Even though all the VOC officials were subject to the jurisdiction of the Hoge Regering, the economic sustenance of the Company was dependent on the formal orders of the Mughal nobles and the emperor. This meant that it was not infrequently that the VOC came into conflict with the Mughal authorities to bargain for its privileges and thereby nibbled at the edges of the administrative space in Bengal. However, the Company was unable to penetrate further. Trade in Bengal was, in practice, not protected by the Mughal emperor.36 It was an enterprise of a cluster of Mughal nobles who ran their commercial ventures as private initiatives, entailing risks and losses on their account.37 This made it possible for the Dutch Company officials to put pressure on the Mughal nobles by blocking their private ships and causing inconveniences to their trade on the sea for gaining greater privileges.38 However, whenever they did this, the Mughal subahdars retaliated with their political might by seizing Dutch factories or cutting off rice supplies to cripple the Company.39 The Heeren XVII, under such circumstances, did not encourage expenses incurred in fighting frequent battles with the Mughal administrators, who had both the political power and commercial strength required to confront the Dutch Company in Bengal.40


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However, the fact that the Company officials in Bengal harboured deeper ambitions can be deduced from their informal actions, which were justified through a specific formal discourse. Their actions and accompanying discourse aided in ‘claiming' or assert­ ing their presence in the administrative space of Bengal without having the VOC incur military expenditures.41

The Formal and Informal Dynamics of Permeability in Mughal Bengal The fact that the VOC officials in Bengal intended to be more than just merchants is evident from the three prominent ways in which they behaved there. The officials resorted to (1) the appropriation of the Mughal/noble lifestyle and customs of local administrative elites, (2) the forging of personal relations with Mughal administra­ tors in the name of strategic communication and (3) the adoption of a discourse which superimposed a Dutch higher moral ground over that of the Mughal governance in Bengal. While the VOC forbade the first two actions, they were still carried on (as seen below) and justified through the third act of producing a specific discourse by the Company officials. It is, therefore, essential to explore this balance between the Company’s formal image and its officials’ informal actions to detect a different kind of Dutch pres­ ence in seventeenth-century Bengal. To begin with the first point, the fact that the Heeren XVII’s propositions for the right conduct of its officials included nonappropriation of princely behaviour can be concluded by looking at the VOC official, Hendrik Adriaan van Reede tot Drakenstein’s instructions. Van Reede was sent as the commissioner-general in 1684 by the Heeren XVII to investigate the Dutch factories in India and he arrived in Bengal in 1686. After inspecting the factories there, he compiled a set of instructions for the VOC director and his council in Bengal that contained the following message: The Dutch East India Company in Bengal is seen as a friend of the King of Hindusthan, called the Great Mogul here, from whom we have obtained several privileges and favours . . . we should therefore always keep in mind that we are nothing more than servants of the Company in this land. We

Beyond the Company and its Commerce


possess no other quality apart from merchants . . . because our lords and masters behave like our king here, and the governor-general and council are treated as sovereign overlords . . . it brings us the ornament of honour and esteem . . . we should not, therefore, consider ourselves as kings and princes here.42

Conversely, what was implicit in such an instruction was that the reality was in stark opposition to what was being said. The Dutch Company officials were repeatedly being reminded to con­ fine themselves to their mercantile ethics and behaviour, and not to copy the local, princely lifestyles. This, in fact, implied that the VOC officials were deliberately appropriating Mughal lifestyles, dresses, customs and rituals to mark their desired political status in Bengal. On 9 March 1647, the VOC issued a warning to the Dutch offi­ cials against the wearing of costly clothes, and ornaments of gold and silver.43 With this, there was also a strict prohibition against the practice of having slaves carrying parasols above the heads of the latter. The Heeren XVII feared that: . . . the pomp and glory of the Company servants and the free merchants had begun growing so much, so that some of them, in order to maintain their lifestyle, indulged in rampant malpractices . . . especially when it came to the use of ‘parasols’ there was great abuse. Everyone, irrespec­ tive of their position and status, had slaves to hold these (parasols) above their heads, as a mark of pompousness rather than necessity.44

All Dutch Company servants, except the members of the council in Batavia, were, therefore, forbidden to indulge in such practices. Embedded in all these prohibitions was the idea that such acts happened plentifully and daily in most of the VOC settlements of Asia. While this style of appropriating the behaviour of the local political elites might not have been the sole course of asserting political presence everywhere, it did manifest itself visibly among the Dutch Company officials in Bengal. The Dutch director of Bengal residing in Hooghly was instructed to visit the factory at Kasimbazar twice every year to investigate the state of affairs there.45 This journey from Hooghly to Kasimbazar was made by land, and was a ceremonial and con­


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spicuously grand procession. Pieter van Dam, the advocate of the VOC, wrote: ‘The custom was that the director had to go annu­ ally in person to Kasimbazar, (which he did) with a grand parade, incurring huge expenses owing to the numerous tents, horses and several newly arrived soldiers who were hired.’46 This was a clear indication of the appropriation of Mughal elite symbols to mark the Dutch Company officials’ princely status and power in the land. As he passed through the villages that lay on his way, the director seized the opportunity to impress upon the local inhabitants the significance of his social position and might in Bengal. Van Dam explicitly argues that the intention of these VOC officials was to be recognized by the Mughal authorities as their peers for which they adopted visible traits of princely attitude and manners.47 A painting of the Dutch Company’s factory at Hooghly by Hendrik van Schuylenburg in 1665 possibly depicts one such pro­ cession, displaying the splendour of the VOC director (Figures 4.1 and 4.2). Martine Gosselink concludes that this could have been Schuylenburg’s patron, Pieter Sterthemius’ journey back from Kasimbazar to Hooghly during his tenure as the director of Bengal.48 In fact, all directors until the late seventeenth century conducted this ceremonial journey of travelling back and forth from Hooghly to Kasimbazar. One can see, in this painting, a palanquin carrying two Dutch officials and some other Europeans on horseback following them. A retinue of foot-soldiers accom­ panies these officials with a man in front blowing the trumpet to herald the advance of this stately procession. The villagers witness this display of power and pomp, along with possibly the Mughal subahdar or a high-ranking noble, whose tent is pitched next to the Company’s factory. Such scenes revealed the outright imitation of local elite behaviour by the Dutch Company officials to secure a ‘more-than-merchants’ recognition in Bengal. It was also accompanied by elite ways of living, including pos­ sessing personal attendants and domestic slaves in the households of high officials.49 Wouter Schouten, a physician (chirurgijn) in the Dutch Company, wrote about the factory at Hooghly that resembled a modest castle rather than a lodge.50 The desire of the Dutch officials to assert their position as peers of the Mughals and

Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Fig 4.1: The painting of the VOC lodge at Hooghly, Bengal, by Hendrik van Schuylenburg, 1665.

Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Fig 4.2: A zoomed-in view of the painting above showing the procession of possibly the director of the Dutch Company returning to the factory in Hooghly.


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local administrators is evident from another expression, namely the yearning among some of them to follow Mughal burial cus­ toms. The VOC commissioner-general, Van Reede, during his investigation of the Company’s factories, wrote, ‘We have to sit and watch how the efficiency of our population . . . is being drained away in the extravagance of building grand and pompous grave­ stones, wherein some cost more than 8000 guldens, needlessly and deprived of quality.’51 He points out that what was more important to the locals were ‘the temples of the heathens and mahommed­ ans’ that ‘attract(ed) much more respect and honour than the cemeteries of Christians.’52 He suggests, therefore, the stoppage of investment in expensive gravestones by the Company officials. Van Reede, too, was buried in a tomb in Surat that resembled a syncretic Indo-Saracenic style, commonly built for political per­ sonalities in Mughal India.53 One needs to take into account what was considered respectful among the local inhabitants. The urge to impress them with their imposing tombs was a clear reflection of Dutch political pursuits in this region. The cemetery of the Dutch Company in Chinsurah still stands, displaying numerous graves of VOC officials with small tombs or conical structures resembling Indian styles instead of the usual flat gravestones.54 The second aspect that accompanied the Dutch mechanism of appropriating local elite manners was the informal interactions of the Company officials with the Mughal administrators beyond the Heeren XVII’s permissible boundaries. Relation between the VOC and the Mughal authorities were constrained on paper.55 However, this did not mean that the Dutch Company officials did not try to forge personal alliances with the Mughal nobles for fulfilling their objectives, while simultaneously testing the porosity of the Mughal administrative sphere. If they understood the implications of adopting an elite lifestyle in the given social setting, one can assume that they also knew the significance of having important contacts in the political sphere. Although such personal contacts went against the Dutch Company’s code of conduct, they came to be justified by the officials as beneficial for the Company’s commerce.56 Glimpses of these informal contacts with personal

Beyond the Company and its Commerce


undertones are evident from occasional instances that can be col­ lected from the official reports. There was an incident when the Dutch director of Bengal, Jacob Verburg, needed to prove his allegations against his opponent, Constantijn Ranst, in the Raad van Justitie (council of justice in Batavia). Verburg produced a convenient testimonial from the diwan of Hooghly, Rai Nandalal. Rai Nandalal confessed that Ver­ burg was a much better person than Ranst and more accustomed to the ways of the land.57 It is difficult to ascertain from the offi­ cial sources what the incentive of the diwan had been for helping Verburg. Nevertheless, it is evident from this example that certain Dutch Company officials did have personal alliances with the Mughal administrators in Bengal and were aware of the benefits that they could draw from these relations. It also allowed them to slip into the Mughal political domain, and learn the symbols, lan­ guage and actions thereof. The VOC officials could then use these for emphasizing their administrative status. The Mughal officials in their formal letters to Batavia also acknowledged and subtly referred to these informal and seemingly personal connections. For instance, the contents of the letter of Malik Kasim, the faujdar of Hooghly, to the director of Bengal and the Hoge Regering, con­ vey a heavily politicized yet personalized tone. While conforming to the epistolary styles and courtesies of the Mughal administra­ tors in addressing their political peers, the letter also shows that the subahdars and faujdars had regular interactions with the VOC directors. Malik Kasim, while asking for the money that the Dutch Company officials owed him in Bengal, wrote: It is from the nachodas and the other men in my ship that I have come to know that the Hollanders in the Gulf of Mannar did all of this (that is, plundered the cargo of my ship and had sold them all out) . . . I have earlier brought this matter to the attention of Willem Volger who was then the director of Hooghly, to which he had answered that the magni­ tude of the case required it to be forwarded to the Governor-General. . . . When Jacob Verburg became the director he promised to have the matter discussed and return my money (as compensation) . . . after he died, Her­ man Fentzel assured me that he would write to the Governor-General.


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. . . Assuming that your highness has by now received the letter with all the details and the testimonies, I would like to remind you about the good bond of friendship between Fentzel and my father, Murtabad Khan. It was during his (Murtabad Khan’s) rule as the subahdar of Orissa that the Company was allowed to erect its lodge in Balasore and Pipli. . . . At the time of Prince Shah Shuja’s rule, when the full disposition of the subahdari of Orissa and the faujdari of Balasore and Pipli, lay with me, I too have had extended all the possible help and hospitality for the directors and captains of Hooghly and Balasore. I have had written a recommendation for them to acquire a firman from the subahdar, Shah Shuja. . . . It is because of this good relation that had been cultivated by my father and me throughout these years, that I have been patient until now. . . . I hope that your honour would do justice and no longer make delays in taking the right action.58

The language and the way of writing were not meant for address­ ing ordinary merchants but apparently reserved for conversing with foreign delegates or diplomats of another empire. While such formal letters provide glimpses of these informal relations, they also show that the Dutch Company officials were aware of their comparable designation as merchant-administrators like the Mughal nobles in Bengal’s political structure. It is true that from the Mughal emperor’s perspective, the VOC officials were delegates of a foreign power. The political rituals of gift-giving by the Mughal authorities to the Dutch Company’s governor-general, for instance, made this very evident. On a particular occasion, the subahdar, Shaista Khan at Dhaka asked the Dutch Company for help with naval forces to conquer Arakan. He wrote to the governor-general, Joan Maetsuyker equating him to the political superior of the VOC officials in Hooghly. The formal letter was adorned with epistolary greetings, as per the Mughal etiquette of addressing other nobles, and reads as follows: ‘The noblest and the most powerful among the esteemed men of this age, a lion in his show of courage, a crocodile in the sea of manhood, Joan Maetsuyker, General of the Hollanders.’59 This was accompanied by gifts as tribute not only for the Dutch Company in general but also personally for Maetsuyker comprising two red saloes with golden heads, a white piece of cloth with golden strips, a cloth with embroidered borders, a lancol with painted borders and a stitched

Beyond the Company and its Commerce


dekentie, along with a unique Bengali variety of cassa.60 However, even though these were credited to the VOC’s general accounts, in compliance with the Heeren XVII’s instructions, such diplomatic gestures brought about the realization among the individual Dutch Company officials of their potential as men of administrative sig­ nificance in the Mughal governing world. Moreover, the three villages of Chinsurah, Baranagore and Bazaar Mirzapur that were granted to the VOC on lease by the Mughals in 1656 was described by Louis Taillefert, the director of the VOC in Chinsurah (1755, 1760-3) to his succeeding director, A. Bisdom in 1755, in the following manner: The zamindari or the inheritance right over Baranagore belonged previ­ ously to the Company’s translator, Rammisser, who seeing no chances of being able to protect himself and the inhabitants of his village against the violence of the Moors, had given it away to the Company in 1681 under the ratification of the Moorish government, along with the condi­ tion of paying the rent for the ground to the Moors. But, whether we acquired Tjoentjoera (Chuchura) and Mirzapur also from him is not known to me. All I know is that the Nawab Shaista Khan recognized the Company’s legal rights over these two villages and the bazaar and had issued a perwanna in that regard, for which Chinsura was to pay f 1652, 1, 12; Baranagore was to pay f 903, 8 and bazaar Mirzapur paid f 440, 4 annually to the Moors.61

While it is possible that these three villages or at least the village of Baranagore had been former zamindaris that were transferred to the Company, two vital points in the existing historiography on the VOC in Bengal can be established. Firstly, from the Mughal viewpoint, the VOC did come to enjoy a certain administrative status in Bengal that was more than the usual designation of sim­ ple foreign merchants. Secondly, it meant that the Mughal officials in Bengal informally recognised the right of the VOC to collect revenue from the villages under their control and exert their civil jurisdiction over its people, as long as the Company paid their cus­ toms duty to the Mughal subahdar. In fact, it conferred three very important rights to the VOC officials in Bengal that were part of the general zamindari rights in Bengal – the right to provide pro­ tection, jurisdiction (not criminal though) and the right to extract


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revenue from these three villages. Unlike actual zamindars, the VOC of course exercised these rights without gaining any concrete ownership over these villages. Such a fluid status invariably led the Company officials to foster informal relations with the Mughal mansabdars in Bengal as well as put up a pompous show in this region. It is no wonder then that by the eighteenth century, the English ‘nabob’ culture had their Dutch counterparts in officials like Jan Albert Sichterman, who served as the VOC director in Chinsurah from 1734-44.62 It was, thus, the combination of appro­ priating elite officials’ manners and the cultivation of informal connections with Mughal nobles that were the avenues chosen by the VOC officials to elevate themselves by infiltrating the Mughal administrative world.63 This was not a smooth process. It sparked occasional conflicts with the Mughal administrators that blew the lid off the VOC’s officials’ extra-institutional actions in Bengal. It called for justifica­ tions of their actions to the Heeren XVII in the Dutch Republic. From the beginning of the Dutch Company’s establishment in Bengal to the later years, its officials began adopting one of the most distinctive approaches to resolve this problem. They began using a particular kind of discourse for the superimposition of Dutch moral standards on Bengal. One of the most efficient ways of imposing this was through the practice of writing reports on the corrupt Mughal governance of the region and its general law­ lessness. Pieter van Dam was assigned the task of compiling the Dutch Company’s history in the late seventeenth century. In his work titled Beschryvinge der Oost-Indische Compagnie, he wrote: The Mohammedans, who, as they say, rule the land and government, are of a large number and are mighty and greedy. The regents have a very small piece of land, in comparison to that of their king, who is a great and powerful monarch . . . these arrogant regents and their slavish subjects, are false, flattering, and exhibit no moral virtues . . . one should try to please them as much as possible, otherwise they are capable of causing much damage and harm to us . . . the general populace here (in Bengal) is poor and slavish, and repressed harshly by this Moorish government.64

Similar observations on the inefficient Mughal government in

Beyond the Company and its Commerce


Bengal appear in many other administrative reports. While writ­ ing about the diwan of Bengal, Rai Balchand, Verburg, the Dutch director, describe him as a ‘shrewd money-grabber’.65 Van Reede, the Dutch commissioner in 1687, wrote: . . . the government in this land (Bengal) curtails the fruits that can be reaped out of it (for the Company) . . . Bengal is administered by Shaista Khan . . . the predominant nature of the prince enjoying the highest authority called Naboob, is to be extremely greedy; as a consequence of which he is neither the happiest nor righteous in his administration. . . . The regents (meaning administrators) are extravagantly grand, self­ ish, and conspicuously pompous with their lifestyles, (the standards of) which are often more than their power and income. They are drawn to tyranny and extortion, not only from their unregulated squandering behind women, servants, horses, tents, camels, and elephants but also for having more resources to maintain their households and their (political) favourites in their courts.66

The presence of a supposedly immoral Mughal government in Bengal provided a justification for the VOC officials to have vio­ lated the Company’s rules on unsolicited contact with the Mughal nobles. However, at the same time, it laid the ground for creating an image of lawlessness that as Adam Clulow and Lauren Benton argue, formed a classic way of ‘claiming’ authority by superimpos­ ing moral and jurisdictional standards.67 This was extended further to the landscape of Bengal that came to be portrayed as a region of affluence and perilousness, riddled with lawlessness and chaos.68 What is striking is that this practice of involving the geographical trope as a standard of morality was not common among the VOC officials before Van Reede introduced it in his reports of around 1687. He wrote about Bengal and its people in the following man­ ner: Bengal, in general, is known to be a blessed and fruitful land, and as I understand have particular things that are found nowhere else. . . . How­ ever, there, lives the moors and the mohammedans who are so filthy, and the climate happens to be so hot that there is very little chance of behaving properly or doing otherwise, in the influence of their (of these Muslim locals’) contemptuous eyes.69


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This association of Bengal’s alleged low moral nature with its hot climate and landscape entered through Van Reede’s reports in the Dutch Company’s official papers. However, before him, individual publications produced by men from both within and outside the VOC had already started to propagate similar ideas about Bengal in the Dutch Republic. Their books reached the Dutch and other European readers, and often claimed to provide descriptions of voyages across oceans or the flora and fauna of ‘exotic’ regions. For Bengal, these descriptions quintessentially created the idea of a ‘Brand Bengal’ – a region displaying a combination of wealth and peril, where a certain kind of riverine geography established Bengal’s position in the hierarchies of morality and order. The first detailed description of Bengal in Dutch appears in Jan Huygen van Linschoten’s Itinerario.70 In around 1616, Linschoten laid the ground for the stereotypical description of a flourishing and pros­ perous Bengal that was repeated systematically in most of the later travel accounts on Asia. He writes: The country is wondrously abundant and fertile of all life forms, primarily of rice . . . numerous ships from all places come here to load themselves (with this rice) . . . and it is so cheap that if told (to someone) it would sound incredible . . . there is ample sugar and all other commodities which makes one realise the abundance of everything here . . . Besides rice, a lot of cotton textiles are produced that are very fine and are held in high esteem all over India; they are not only distributed and shipped within India and the entire Orient but also to Portugal and elsewhere (in the world).71

This story of abundance along the rivers and the ports was probably borrowed from Portuguese accounts. These were, sub­ sequently, accompanied by tales of danger and descriptions of wildernesses that were part of the riverine tracts of eastern Bengal. Linschoten further writes: . . . the water (of the Ganges) . . . is so pristine and clear, that it seems to be like paradise . . . it has crocodiles, like the Nile in Egypt . . . for all Indians this water is considered holy and blessed and they believe for certain that washing and bathing in its waters would rid them of all sins

Beyond the Company and its Commerce


and make them pure and clean again . . . The Portuguese have some of their trade and traffic there and their settlements in some of the places . . . but they have no permanence, nor any police or government as in (the rest of) India. They live by themselves like wild men and untamed horses, to do whatever they wish, being masters of themselves and do not pay much attention to the legal system and if they do, they are often to laws of Indian origin, and in this way some of the Portuguese there sustain themselves.72

This set the trend of describing Bengal and was picked up by others writing about the region later. The rivers and the unruly terrain littered with danger became a standard stereotype that came to be reiterated in almost every account.73 Dutch poets like Antonides van der Goes and geographers like Olfert Dapper derived their information from these accounts and reproduced these very ideas in their own works.74 Dapper pub­ lished his book, Het Rijk des Grooten Mogols, in 1672 where he put forth similar ideas. He writes: Those from Bengal, as Linschoten shows, claim that the Ganges origi­ nated in the earthly paradise which is why they also consider its water sacred. It even attracts thousands of Banias and other Indian heathens who bathe in its waters.75

He then continues to talk about Bengal’s richness and prosper­ ity: In the middle of the Ganges there lie innumerable small and big islands, which are very fertile, and bear wild fruit trees, pineapples and all other sorts of vegetables, while being criss-crossed with several canals or waterchannels (tributaries).76

However, these images of prosperity were coupled with the usual portrayal of danger and lawlessness in the region. Dapper notes that the islands in eastern Bengal were not under proper con­ trol and were left to be ‘wild and desolate’ infested by the Frankish pirates from Arakan.77 They were also teeming with ‘tigers that swam from one island to another, making it very dangerous to move in there.’78 Dapper’s narrative reinforced the stereotypical


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picture of a rich and perilous country filled with chaos and dis­ order. He emphasised on the tiger as a dangerous, exotic creature that was to be found: In several places in the interiors of India . . . especially in Bengal. . . . He has . . . glistening eyes, sharp teeth, giant paws with bent claws, and long hairs on the lips: that are so poisonous that if one of these hairs get into a man or even an animal, they succumb to the poison . . . nobody should, as forbidden by the Great Mogols, keep such hairs of a dead tiger for themselves, but on penalty of death (if violated), should send them to the court of the Great Mogol, where the King’s physicians then made deadly poisonous pills from these hairs, that would be given secretly to anyone, the King wished to kill.79

These detailed images were produced by someone like Dapper who, ironically, had never travelled to India. It is difficult to con­ clude if such descriptions were true or not; but it is important to note that they were consistently reproduced and echoed by others who did visit Bengal, setting the trend of a ‘Brand Bengal’ in Dutch accounts. During the last decades of the seventeenth century, Wouter Schouten visited the Company’s factories at Hooghly. He pub­ lished his experiences in a book in 1676 from Amsterdam. His accounts, as well as the illustrations in the book, reflected directly the image that was created by Linschoten and Dapper. Schouten reported on the affluence that marked the land of Bengal and its people, building upon the existent dualism of prosperity and peril. He writes: Bengalen or Bengala is a great and mighty land. . . . Bengal is one of the most beautiful and productive countries of India. With the produce of this region, the people can feed not only themselves, but also the inhab­ itants of other areas of India. . . . We saw that Hooghly lay, great and beautiful, along the banks of the famous river, the Ganges. There were wide but unpaved streets, beautiful footpaths (wandelwegen) and occa­ sionally, here and there some respectable buildings, wealthy warehouses, and houses built in the Bengali style. There were also shops filled with all kinds of commodities, especially beautiful silk cloth and other oriental textiles.80

Beyond the Company and its Commerce


Conversely, he, too, infused the elements of chaos and danger into his narrative and juxtaposed this with the abundance of Bengal. He observes: With daybreak, we reached the village of Baranagore where a large number of jentives, both men and women, disregarding the sharp chill, went shamelessly naked . . . to plunge themselves in the river. This was without consideration of the fact that crocodiles and alligators are found daily in these waters that are known to have frequently preyed on many human beings.81

An illustration published in Schouten’s book depicting the landscape of Bengal along with the relevant text reinstates this impression. As can be seen in Figure 4.3, scenes of cremation, a tiger attacking a woodcutter and crocodiles in the water were bunched together in a frame against the ships and trade in the background. This presumably depicted the peculiarities that were spotted by the author in riverine Bengal. Such representations led to the constant rendering of Bengal as a profitable and yet poorlygoverned region, which became a steady stereotypical image that made its way into the Dutch Company’s archives. What is conclusive from these and many such passages is the constructed analogy between geography and morality that paved the way for the superimposition of a higher Dutch jurisdiction on Bengal’s ter­ rain. Even though there had been no political vacuum in Bengal, this discourse portrayed the idea of the lack of proper governance that, in turn, paved the way for the act of ‘claiming’ through the continuation of the informal actions of the Dutch Company offi­ cials, cited earlier. The VOC, in this way, revealed both the formal and informal dimensions of its presence in Bengal suggesting that its extent went beyond mere profit and commercial motives.

Conclusion The fact that the VOC did not harbour territorial interests in Bengal in the seventeenth century is widely acknowledged in the existing historiography on the Company in Asia. However, there are two vital issues that have been glossed over. First, the fact that

Source: Leiden University Special Collections, Leiden. Fig 4.3: The Ganges in Bengal, etching by C. Dekker and J. Kip. Repro­ duced from Wouter Schouten, Oost-Indische voyagie, book III: 62.

Beyond the Company and its Commerce


the Heeren XVII’s ambitions were not the same as that of its offi­ cials overseas and, second, the fact that the Mughal administrators in Bengal survived mainly because of their commercial influence, which meant that control over its trade was more important than territorial expansion.82 Building on these, I have argued here that the VOC officials working in Bengal harboured personal ambitions that went beyond the limited scope of their institutional mandates. With no direct means of support from the Heeren XVII to achieve these ends, these officials mostly resorted to three options. At the formal level, they tried to persuade the Heeren XVII through the production of a stereotypical discourse, which could allow them to superimpose the Dutch Company’s jurisdiction onto this area. At an informal level, they strove to break into the local administrative space by trying to appropriate the ways and manners of the Mughal dignitaries, as well as interacting with them tactfully for forging personal, informal alliances. These actions, in turn, had repercus­ sions in the formal arena where in order to convince the Heeren XVII of the necessity of their actions, a stereotypical discourse was produced to superimpose the Dutch Company’s moral authority over Mughal governance, or the lack of it. Combining these formal and informal dynamics, it is clear that extra-commercial aspira­ tions were very much present among the Dutch officials in Bengal. It did not come to fruition in the way the English succeeded but regrets about this were echoed throughout the subsequent centuries in the Netherlands. The Dutch resident at Chinsurah, D.A. Overbeek, lamented the fall of Chinsurah to the British in 1824, stating that ‘we have kept declining gradually, step by step, to be reduced to this current state of uselessness’.83 In an article written by P.H. Kemp for the journal, Bijdragen tot de taal-, landen volkenkunde, in 1901 about the colonial drama of the Dutch submission to the English in eighteenth-century Bengal, Kemp sarcastically points out how ‘extremely happy’ the English officials were then.84 The VOC in Bengal, thus, despite not being actively aggressive on the political front did take some informal initiatives of making subtle inroads into the local administrative arena.


Byapti Sur

NOTES 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.

8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16.

17. 18. 19.

20. 21. 22. 23.

24. 25.

Prakash, 1972: 260. Mukherjee, 2006: 19. url: Roelofsz, Opstall and Schutte, 1988. Schutte, 1988: 24. Furber, 1969: 717. Pearson, 1979: 1-14; Blussé and Gaastra, 1981: 3-13; Lombard, 1981: 179-87; Gaastra, 1999: 189-201. Dietmar Rothermund pointed out the Dutch expansion but concluded that this was against the profit­ ability of the Company in the long run. Rothermund, 1981: 25-32; Winius and Vink, 1991: 6. Gupta, 1985: 481-99; Prakash, 1979: 43-70. url: Clulow, 2016: 19. Oostindie, 2003: 135-61. Knaap, 2014: 18-24. Raben, 2013: 5-30. Pott, 1956: 355-82. Blussé, 2003: 79-92; Gaastra, 1999: 189-201; Prakash, 1981: 189-205. Knaap included six areas under VOC ‘sovereignty’, including Batavia, Java’s north coast, Banda, Ambon, Ceylon and the Cape of Good Hope. Twelve other regions were categorized under VOC ‘suzerainty’. Knaap, 2014: 18-19. Blussé, 2003: 90. Antunes, 2015: xiii-xx. Hussain, 2013: 264-308; Chakravarti, 1999: 194-211; Chakravarti, 2001: 1-101; Mukherjee, 2001: 199-227; Glover, 1989; Bouchon and Lombard, 1987: 46-70; Hall, 2010: 109-45. Chakravarti, 2004: 306. For a general overview of the political history of pre-colonial Bengal, see Salim, 1902-4; Sarkar, 1973. Chatterjee, 2009. Ashin Das Gupta argued that these nobles flirted with com­ merce, while C.A. Bayly and Sanjay Subrahmanyam called them ‘portfolio-capitalist(s)’. See Subrahmanyam, 2001: 11; Bayly and Subrahmanyam, 1988: 401-24; Chandra, 2009: 227-34. Bowrey, 1993: 131-4; Pires, 2005: 88-94; Schouten, 2003: 366-7. Prakash, 2004: 435-57; Gupta, 1991: 353-62; Gommans, 1995: 82-108.

Beyond the Company and its Commerce


26. Netherlands-Den Haag, Nationaal Archief (NL-HaNA), VOC 1422: f.1139r., f.1140r., f.1144r., f.1145v.; Furber, 1969: 715. 27. Though officially not permitted to be in Bengal, a huge number of Portuguese men and women as well as a significant mestizo popula­ tion continued to live there informally. In fact, for the entire span of the seventeenth century, Portuguese remained the dominant medium of interaction between the locals and all other Europeans in Bengal. Lequin, 2005: 124. 28. Dam, pt. II, Book II, 1927: 1. 29. Ibid, pt. II, Book II: 2. 30. Prakash, 1972: 258-87. 31. While Batavia was the political base of the VOC, Ceylon was proposed to be set up as another colonial base. Bengal was well-con­ nected to the two, making its ports strategic and convenient. Added to this was the interest in Bengal for the Company’s slave trade and the rice supply for Batavia, as well as trade with Ceylon. Vink, 2003: 131-77; Gale, 1971. 32. NL-HaNA, VOC 1421, 1686: f. 75v. 33. Prakash, 1972: 258-87. 34. NL-HaNA, Hoge Regering (HR) 241, 1687: folio not numbered. 35. Ibid: folio not numbered. 36. Prakash, 1964: 47. 37. Alam and Subrahmanyam, 1998: 28. 38. Chijs, 1895: 212-13; Chijs, 1889: 6. 39. Mees, 1931: 52, 184-7, 427; Chijs, 1889: 118. 40. The Company was not always static in terms of its decision-making process throughout the seventeenth century. Military expeditions were sometimes encouraged and, at other times, not. By the time Bengal became important towards the end of the seventeenth cen­ tury, the Heeren XVII came to be controlled by directors who were interested in reviving the Company financially with minimum expenditure. Gaastra, 1989: 42; Winius and Vink, 1991: 4. 41. For an explanation of this act of ‘claiming’, see Clulow, 2016: 17-38; Benton and Clulow, 2017: 74-92. 42. NA, HR 241, 1687: folio not numbered. 43. Chijs, vol. II, 1886: 111. 44. Ibid.: 113. 45. Chijs, 1891: 142. 46. Dam, 1927, Book II, pt. II: 27. 47. Ibid.: 27.

148 48. 49. 50. 51. 52. 53. 54. 55.

56. 57. 58. 59. 60.

61. 62. 63. 64. 65. 66. 67. 68. 69. 70. 71. 72. 73. 74. 75. 76. 77. 78. 79. 80. 81. 82.

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Gosselink, 1998: 400. NA, VOC 9521: folio not numbered. Cited by Zandvliet and Blussé, 2002: 189. NA, HR 241: folio not numbered. Ibid.: folio not numbered. Drost, 2010: 73-87. url: Vink provides an overview of the historiography on European-Asian relations ranging from the ‘age of partnership’ to the ‘age of con­ tained conflict’ in the Indian Ocean. Vink, 2007: 55-6. Chijs, 1889: 391. Gaastra, 1985: 126-36. Haan, 1919: 125-7. Chijs, 1895: 40. Saloes refer either to boats or to the salempuri variety of textile. Lancol, dekenties and cassa are all different varieties of textiles. Kooi­ jmans and Oosterling, 2000: 100, 67, 37, 28. Hodenpijl, 1920: 258-83 Feith, 1914. Ibid. Dam, 1927, Book II, pt. II: 17-18. Haan, 1912: 725. NA, VOC 1421, 1686: ff. 73r.-75v. Benton and Clulow, 2017: 74-92. Benton, 2010. NA, HR 241, Instructions by Van Reede for the directors and their councils in Bengal. 26 February 1687: folio not numbered. Linschoten, 1596. Linschoten, 1596: 21. Ibid.: 21. For more such accounts, see Graaff, 2010; Jong, 2006. Goes, 1671, Book II: 46-7. Dapper, 1672: 11. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid.: 14. Schouten, 2003: 373. Ibid.: 371. Mukherjee, 2014: 87.

Beyond the Company and its Commerce


83. NA, HR 298, Report of the Resident at Chinsurah, D.A. Overbeek for Batavia. 22 August 1824: folio not numbered. 84. Kemp, 1901: 293.

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Clulow, Adam. 2016. ‘The Art of Claiming: Possession and Resistance in Early Modern Asia’, American Historical Review 121: 1, pp. 1738. Dam, Pieter van. 1927. Beschryvinge van de Oostindische Compagnie, ed. F.W. Stapel, Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff. Dapper, Olfert. 1672. Asia of naukeurige beschryving van het rijk des grooten Mogols, en een grootgedeelte van Indiën. ’t Amsterdam: Jacob van Meurs. Drost, Alexander. 2010. ‘Changing Cultural Contents: The Incorporation of Mughal Architectural Elements in European Memorials in India in the Seventeenth Century’, in Michael North, ed., Artistic and Cultural Exchanges between Europe and Asia, 1400-1900. Surrey: Ashgate. Feith, J.A. 1914. Bengaalse Sichterman. Groningen: B.V.D. Kamp. Furber, Holden. 1969. ‘Asia and the West as Partners before “Empire” and After’, Journal of Asian Studies 28: 4, pp. 711-21. Gaastra, Femme S. 1985. ‘Constantijn Ranst en de Corruptie onder het Personeel van de VOC te Bengalen, 1669-1673’, in S. Groenveld et al., eds., Bestuurders en Geleerden. Amsterdam: De Bataafsche Leeuw. . 1989. Bewind en beleid: de financiële en commerciële politiek van de bewindhebbers, 1672-1702. Zutphen: Walburg Pers. . 1999. ‘Competition or Collaboration? Relations between the Dutch East India Company and Indian Merchants around 1680’, in Sushil Chaudhury and Michel Morineau, eds., Merchants, Companies and Trade: Europe and Asia in the Early Modern Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

. 2003. The Dutch East India Company: Expansion and Decline.

Zutphen: Walburg Pers.


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Gale, Stephan van. 1971. ‘Arakan and Bengal: The Rise and Decline of the Mrauk U Kingdom (Burma) from the Fifteenth to the Seventeenth Century AD’. Ph.D. thesis, Universiteit Leiden. Gelder, Roelof van. 1992. ‘Noodzaak of nieuwsgierigheid: Reismotieven van Oostindiëgangers in de zeventiende en achttiende eeuw’, Indische Letteren 8: 2, pp. 51-60. Glover, Ian. 1989. Early Trade between India and South-East Asia: A Link in the Development of a World Trading System. Hull: The University of Hull, Centre for South-East Asian Studies. Goes, J. Antonides van der. 1671. De Ystroom. Begreepen in vier boeken. ’t Amsterdam: Pieter Arentsz. Gommans, Jos. 1995. ‘Trade and Civilization Around the Bay of Bengal, c. 1650-1800’, Itinerario, 19: 3, pp. 82-108. . 2015. ‘South Asian Cosmopolitanism and the Dutch Microcosms in Seventeenth-century Cochin (Kerala)’, in Catia Antunes and Jos Gommans, eds, Exploring the Dutch Empire: Agents, Networks, and Institutions, 1600-2000. London: Bloomsbury Academic. Gosselink, Martine. 1998. ‘Schilderijen van Bengaalse VOC-loges door Hendrik van Schuylenburgh’, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 46, pp. 390-409. Graaff, Nicolaas de. 2010. Oost-Indise Spiegels, ed. Barend-van Haeften and Marijke Plekenpol. Leiden: KITLV Uitgeverij. Guleij, Ron and Gerrit Knaap, eds. 2017. Het Grote VOC boek. The Netherlands: W Books. Gupta, Ashin Das. 1985. ‘Indian Merchants and the Western Indian Ocean: The Early Seventeenth Century’, Modern Asian Studies 19: 3, pp. 481-99. . 1991. ‘Changing Faces of the Maritime Merchant’, in Roderich Ptak and Dietmar Rothermund, eds., Emporia, Commodities and Entrepreneurs in Asian Maritime Trade, c. 1400-1750. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag. Haan, F. de. 1912. Daghregister gehouden in’t casteel Batavia vant passerende daer ter plaetse als over geheel Nederlandts-India, 1680. Batavia: Landsdrukkerij. . 1919. Daghregister gehouden in’t casteel Batavia vant passerende daer ter plaetse als over geheel Nederlandts-India, 1681. Batavia: Landsdrukkerij. Hall, Kenneth R. 2010. ‘Ports-of-Trade, Maritime Diasporas, and Net­ works of Trade and Cultural Integration in the Bay of Bengal Region of the Indian Ocean: c. 1300-1500’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 53: 1-2, pp. 109-45.

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Hodenpijl, A.K.A. Gijsberti. 1920. ‘De handhaving der neutraliteit van de Nederlandsche loge te Houghly, bij de overrompeling van de Engelsche kolonie Calcutta, in Juni 1756’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 76: 3/4, pp. 258-83. Hussain, Syed Ejaz. 2013. ‘Silver Flow and Horse Supply to Sultanate Bengal with Special Reference to Trans-Himalayan Trade (13th16th Centuries)’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 56: 2, pp. 264-308. Jong, Okke de. 2006. Schipbreuk in Bengalen: avonturen van een V.O.C.­ matroos. The Netherlands: Lanasta. Kemp, P.H. van der. 1901. ‘De Nederlandsche factorijen in Voor-Indië in den aanvang der 19de eeuw’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 53: 1, pp. 285-511. Knaap, Gerrit. 2014. De ‘Core Business’ van de VOC: Markt, macht en mentaliteit vanuit overzees perspectief. Utrecht: Universiteit Utrecht. Kooijmans, Marc and Judith Schooneveld Oosterling. 2000. VOCGlossarium: Verklaring van termen, verzameld uit de rijks geschiedkundige publicatiën, die betrekking hebben op de Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie. Den Haag: Instituut voor Nederlandse Geschiedenis. Lequin, Frank. 2005. Het personeel van de Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie in Azië in de 18e eeuw: meer in het bijzonder in de vestiging Bengalen. Alphen aan den Rijn: Canaletto/ Repro-Holland. Linschoten, Jan Huygen van. 1596. Itinerario, voyage ofte schipvaert van Jan Huygen van Linschoten naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien. Amsterdam: Cornelis Claesz. Lombard, Denys. 1981. ‘Questions on the Contact between European Companies and Asian Societies’, in Leonard Blussé and Femme Gaastra, eds., Companies and Trade: Essays on Overseas Trading Companies during the Ancien Régime. The Hague: Leiden University Press. Mees, W. Fruin. 1931. Daghregister gehouden in’t casteel Batavia, vant passerende daer ter plaetse als over geheel Nederlands India, anno 1682. Batavia: G. Kolff & Co. Mukherjee, B.N. 2001. ‘Coastal and Overseas Trade in Pre-Gupta Vanga and Kalinga’, in Ranabir Chakravarti, ed., Trade in Early India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Mukherjee, Rila. 2006. Strange Riches: Bengal in the Mercantile Map of South Asia. Delhi: Foundation Books. . 2009. ‘Mobility in the Bay of Bengal World: Medieval Raiders,


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Traders, States and the Slaves’, Indian Historical Review 36: 1,

pp. 109-29.

. 2014. ‘Escape from Terracentrism: Writing a Water History’,

Indian Historical Review, 4: 1, pp. 87-101.

Oostindie, Gert. 2003. ‘Squaring the Circle: Commemorating the VOC after 400 Years’, Bijdragen tot de Taal, Land en Volkenkunde, 159: 1, pp. 135-61. Pearson, M.N. 1979. ‘Introduction’, in Blair B. Kling and M.N. Pearson, eds., The Age of Partnership: Europeans in Asia before Dominion. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii. Pires, Tome. 2005. The Suma Oriental of Tome Pires: An Account of the East, from the Red Sea to China, written in Malacca and India in 1512-1515, ed. Armando Cortesao, New Delhi: Asian Educational Services. Pott, P. 1956. ‘Willem Verstegen, een extra-ordinaris Raad van Indië als avonturier in India in 1659’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 112: 4, pp. 355-82. Prakash, Om. 1964. ‘The European Trading Companies and the Merchants of Bengal, 1650-1725’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 1: 3, pp. 37-63.

. 1972. ‘The Dutch East India Company in Bengal: Trade Privileges

and Problems, 1633-1712’, The Indian Economic and Social History

Review, 9: 3, pp. 258-87.

. 1979. ‘Asian Trade and European Impact: A Study of the Trade

from Bengal, 1630-1720’, in Blair B. Kling and M.N. Pearson,

eds, The Age of Partnership: Europeans in Asia before Dominion.

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. 1981. ‘European Trade and South Asian Economies: Some

Regional Contrasts, 1600-1800’, in Leonard Blussé and F. Gaastra,

eds., Companies and Trade: Essays on Overseas Trading Companies

during the Ancien Régime. The Hague: Leiden University Press.

. 2004. ‘The Indian Maritime Merchant, 1500-1800’, JESHO, 47: 3,

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Raben, Remco. 2013. ‘A New Dutch Imperial History? Perambulations in a Prospective Field’, Low Countries Historical Review, 128: 1, pp. 5-30. Rothermund, Dietmar. 1981. Asian Trade and European Expansion in the Age of Mercantilism. New Delhi: Manohar.

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Salim, Ghulam Husain, 1902-4. The Riya]zu-s-Sala_tin: A History of Bengal. Calcutta: The Asiatic Society. Sarkar, Jadunath. 1973. The History of Bengal: Muslim Period, 1200-1757. Patna: Academica Asiatica. Schouten, Wouter. 1676. Oost-Indische voyagie, vervattende veel voorname voorvallen en ongemeene vreemde geschiedenissen, bloedige Zee en landt gevechten tegen de Portugeesen en Makassaren; belgering, bestorming en verovering van veel voorname steden en kasteelen. Mitsgaders een curieuse beschrijving der voornaemste landen, eylanden, koninckrijcken en steden in Oost-indiën. Amsterdam: Jacob Meurs. . 2003. De Oost-Indische voyagie van Wouter Schouten, ed. Michael Breet and Marijke Barend van Haesten, Zutphen: Walburg Pers. Schutte, G.J. 1988. ‘Introduction’, in M.A.P. Meilink-Roelofsz, M.E. van Opstall and G.J. Schutte, eds., Dutch Authors on Asian History, Dordrecht: Floris Publications. Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. 1996. An Expanding World: The European Impact on World History 1450-1800, vol. 8: Merchant Networks in the Early Modern World. Aldershot: Variorum. . 2001. ‘Introduction: The Indian Ocean World and Ashin Das Gupta’, in Uma Das Gupta, ed., The World of the Indian Ocean Merchant, 1500-1800: Collected Essays of Ashin Das Gupta. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Vink, Markus. 2003. ‘“The World’s Oldest Trade”: Dutch Slavery and Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean’, Journal of World History, 14: 2, pp. 131-77. . 2007. ‘Indian Ocean Studies and the ‘New Thalassology’’, Journal of Global History 2: 1, pp. 41-62. Winius, George D. and Markus Vink. 1991. The Merchant-Warrior Pacified: The VOC (The Dutch East India Company) and its Changing Political Economy in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Zandvliet, Kees and Leonard Blussé. 2002. The Dutch Encounter with Asia, 1600-1950. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum.


The Ostend Company’s Worlds

Courtly Interactions and Local Life in

Eighteenth-century Bengal

Wim de Winter

In 1722, the General Imperial India Company (GIC), was estab­ lished in the Austrian Netherlands as a joint-stock trading company, operating on the model of the English East India Company (EIC) or the Dutch Veerenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC). This company employed ambitious sailors and entrepreneurs, as well as former personnel of other European trading companies, sail­ ing from the Southern-Netherlandish port of Ostend (present-day Belgium). These merchants travelled to Bengal and China to control the production process and transport of silk and cotton textiles and to participate in the Indian Ocean trade. During the history of this relatively short-lived trading company (1722-34), a series of expeditions took place to establish trading posts and their presence, for which negotiations were required, resulting in the establishment of the settlement of Banquibazar in Bengal in 1726.1 Due to unresolved court cases, the post-1734 archive of the GIC was kept at the Antwerp Stock Exchange, in the hope that the over­ seas trade would resume and was later moved to the Antwerp City archives.2 This archive contains both administrative and personal documents regarding the GIC and its personnel. These sources unveil a history of cultural interactions, which were of central importance in determining the possible conditions for sustained economic activities, and allow us to reconstruct the GIC’s history and its interactions in Bengal. Despite official instructions to limit


Wim de Winter

intercultural contacts to commercial or diplomatic purposes,3 the reality of daily encounters and interactions brought merchants and travellers into contact with a broad spectrum of local inhabit­ ants as well as courtly ambassadors, forming a local world history. Belgian colonial historiography first resuscitated the GIC’s his­ tory in an attempt to seek historical precedents for its nineteenth and early twentieth-century colonial efforts and aspirations in Asia and Africa. This historiography legitimized and detailed a fictional affirmation to colonial aspirations in Asia, even claim­ ing Banquibazar-Hughli as ‘Belgium’s first colony’,4 undoubtedly an ideological construction and a case of historical anachro­ nism. Although such endeavours produced thorough historical scholarship, they also constructed a narrative in which heroic colonial Europeans took centre stage, to which any aspects of local embeddedness and cross-cultural contacts would necessar­ ily be subordinate. For instance, in the colonial historiography developed by Norbert Laude, Belgian historian and director of the Colonial Institute, we find an ensemble of notions concern­ ing the dominant establishment of colonial rule via Eurocentric power relations in Bengal, as the ‘administration by a European motherland of its expanded territory overseas’ was accompanied by the exploitation of a terrain and its inhabitants. He does not merely consider Banquibazar as an exploitation colony, but as a colonial settlement including commerce and plantations, gov­ erned by a colonial administration.5 Moreover, its ‘governor has the strict task to protect them from any molestation, tax or tyranny of the moorish government’.6 The first governor of the GIC’s trad­ ing posts in Bengal, Alexander Hume, is depicted as ‘governing as absolute chief over the employees under his authority (…) and over the indigenous established in our territories’.7 Likewise, the GIC ambassador, Jacques-André Cobbé, was depicted as a heroic military ambassador, conducting treaties with the Nawab of Bengal, Murshid Quli Khan. However, as we shall see in this article, the performative aspects of courtly interactions involved subservience rather than proud arrogance. This does not signify autonomous freedom and control over the territory to the degree that Laude aimed to depict but rather indicates a dependency

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and obeisance towards Mughal cultural customs and authorities, which might be one reason why the GIC’s history has not been considered as a cultural history before, as this yields a perspective subverting those relations of power that colonial historiography sought to emphasize in its legitimization for colonial activities in Congo. Later on, a more ‘neutral’ economic historiography devel­ oped, which has never completely redeemed previous Eurocentric perspectives, let alone reconstructed the history of ‘local worlds’.8 Consequently, there is a need to bring interactions and local perspectives back into view in a world-historical framework, countering colonialist narratives or reductive inquiries on the importance of Bengal’s economic role in European economic his­ tory.9 Therefore, an alternative approach should attempt a critique of colonial tropes, shed new light on intercultural and courtly communication as a learning process involving specific acts and symbols, and reconstruct the social environment in which the GIC was embedded in Bengal. This may be attempted by treating the GIC sources and travel reports as ‘virtual informants’, in a frame­ work informed by Johannes Fabian ‘performative ethnography’, which considers text and performance as aspects of a process in which ‘a text is not a representation, much less a symbol or icon, of a communicative event, it is that event in its textual realization’.10 This approach to sources as pendants to performative acts allows us to better consider historical sources as lived events in contrast to a descriptive reproduction of perspectives for the reconstruc­ tion of a cross-cultural history of local worlds.

Approach to a Local Cross-cultural World History An approach towards conceiving such a world history may be found in Arif Dirlik’s proposal for a decentred spatial approach to world history that emphasizes interactions and spatial configura­ tions in an entangled world, which he sees as a characteristic of the period of (early) global modernity.11 He argues for Jerry Bentley’s ecumenical approach, recognizing ‘a multiplicity of spatialities within a common space, marked not by firm boundaries but by the intensity and concentration of interactions’.12 However, one should


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keep in mind what anthropologist Clifford Geertz has termed ‘local knowledge’, or how ‘rubrics emerging from one culture and practices met in another’,13 pointing to the local contextualization of descriptions and the sense they make.14 Furthermore, this approach can be methodologically enriched by the perspective of global microhistory, which Tonio Andrade formulates as adopting ‘microhistorical and biographical approaches to help populate our models and theories with real people, to write what one might call global microhistory.’15 This does not imply processes and structures to be absent but rather a different viewpoint from which to approach them for which the goal is ‘to bring alive, just for a few pages, some of the people who inhabited those structures and lived through those processes’, forming ‘the history of an interconnected world’.16 Rather than the translocal, this interconnection seems to embed different forms of locality and production of space and experience, as in the establishment of the GIC’s factories. It may also be useful here to note Anna Tsing’s remark on ‘the making and remaking of geographical and historical agents and the forms of their agency about movement, interaction, and shifting, competing claims about community, culture, and scale. Places are made through their connections with each other, not their isolation (which is uneven and produced by frictions)’.17 Therefore, we should also take care not to reduce the complexity of shifting or competing claims on community or culture nor the frictions between different interest groups. The interdependence or entanglements of world history within the establishment of communities thus established may be considered as a relational assemblage of fragments of larger wholes embodied in human relations. Dirlik summarizes this as ‘the political, economic and cultural configurations of the world’,18 or the confrontation of contingencies of human activity with the structures that, at once, produce and condition that activity.19 Along these lines, we shall investigate how the GIC’s interac­ tions and co-formations of local worlds manifested themselves in early eighteenth-century Bengal. The forging of these inter­

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connected local worlds in Bengal consisted of cross-cultural interactions for maintaining the conditions of possibility for the GIC’s involvement in its local life. The latter happened as a result of brokerage by intermediaries connecting different spheres of social life, and courtly embassies as performative practices establish­ ing further relations. These themes may be approached through a global microhistory revealing a glimpse of the GIC’s lifeworlds in courtly negotiation, as well as the construction of factories or trading settlements in Bengal around 1723-4, on the levels of daily commerce and courtly interactions, as well as the involvement in the social context of settlers, labourers and inhabitants of the fac­ tory premises. The archival sources for this approach consist of account books, letters, diaries and papers of two GIC agents, Jacques-André Cobbé and Alexander Hume, which may be used as ‘proxy sources’,20 supplemented with correspondence from local intermediaries and contacts, such as Armenian merchant Khoja Delaune, or one of Nawab Murshid Quli Khan’s close confidants, mentioned as Chirdiserour. This perspective takes us away from the classic contradic­ tion or binary opposition between an ‘Age of Partnership’21 vs ‘Contained Conflict’,22 as put forward by, among others, eminent historians like C.A. Bayly or Sanjay Subrahmanyam, as both may ultimately be reductive labels for a more complex, layered reality, which was not grounded in essentialism but, instead, in frictions simultaneously involving both partnership and conflict. Instead of hegemonic conceptual totalities, one may plead for ‘the prolifera­ tion of spatialities . . . allowing for a more complex understanding of the processes of history,’23 which emphasizes the ways in which interactions and tensions fed into each other. We may, therefore, consider Hughli and Murshidabad as shared spaces consisting of multiple spaces formed as an unequal field of exchange by multiple agents or actors, as carriers of mutual social distinction carrying out multiple projects while coming into friction. In these entanglements, we inquire into the aspects that went into com­ munity formation, and forming and maintaining relations against


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a context of reciprocal alterity or what, in cultural anthropology, is known as a ‘double-bias situation’24 in the intercultural encounter. As to which Indian or Bengali lifeworlds are being studied, Ashin Das Gupta has reminded us that ‘there was no India in the political sense in the eighteenth century; economically and socially it was even more intricate: areas in the subcontinent were commercialised with clusters of trading cities and ports’.25 He also mentions how ‘innumerable villages remained distinct from these other areas of trade and administration . . . this was possibly due to the structure of money and credit, without which such trade would be impossible’.26 European merchants likewise needed brokerage for establishing trade and contacts from what, in anthropological parlance, are called ‘gatekeepers’: a role engaged in by intermedi­ ary merchants, munshis, vakils and ‘merchant princes’, all of whom provided access to the commercial life of Bengal, or to its political economy in the literal sense. Sushil Chaudhury notes: The commercial life of Bengal during the first half of the eighteenth cen­ tury was dominated by merchant princes . . . via their control over the money market which financed both trade and government. As financiers, traders and administrators, they played a crucial role for the European companies. Through their control of the credit market . . . provision of goods for exports and purchase of imports, the merchant princes had a close relationship with the Europeans. It is to be emphasised, however, that their position depended to a very great extent upon their influence at the nawab’s court.27

Subrahmanyam and Bayly use the term ‘portfolio capitalists’ to designate those Indian merchants who straddled the worlds of commerce and political participation, thereby removing the bar­ rier between mercantile activity and military-political power. They designate them as entrepreneurs who ‘farmed revenue, engaged in local agricultural trade, commanded military resources and . . . on more than the odd occasion had a flutter in the Great Game28 of Indian Ocean Commerce – was a characteristic feature of Indian political economy’.29 The entanglements between intermediaries, courtly interactions and the place-making of the GIC’s factories in Bengal shall form the focus of this article, as we shall see how these

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macro-levels played into and were formed by local interactions, depicted as a ‘global microhistory’.

The GIC’s Courtly Encounters: Hume, Cobbé and Bos in Murshidabad In 1720, two former employees of the British East India Company, John Harrison and Alexander Hume, sailed to India on account of the Austrian-Netherlandish merchants, in order to conduct trade and establish a trading community. Upon arrival in Cabelon or Sadatpatnam, in the present-day fishing village of Kovalam in Chennai, they found out that, in 1717, a clergyman Francesco de Piedade had already pretended to be an envoy of Austrian emperor Charles VI, in order to obtain territory on the banks of the Ganges River. In the hopes of building on this opportunity, they acquired a parvana or permit to conduct trade and establish their presence in Bengal.30 To finalize these agreements, they returned to Ben­ gal on 8 January 1723, accompanied by Jacques-André Cobbé, a lieutenant-general of artillery who was appointed to serve as an ambassador to the Nawab of Bengal.31 For this task he was eventu­ ally obliged to undertake a courtly embassy, carrying 5,000 rupees worth of gifts, guns and other presents to the court of Murshida­ bad. The conventional historical view has it that Murshid Quli Khan, Nawab of Bengal, accepted these gifts and stalled negotia­ tions for over a month, partly due to bribes from rival European companies.32 However, we should also carefully question what the stalling of negotiations and their conditions meant in this context, taking into account the incommensurable customs or intercultural misunderstandings as did occur in Mughal India. For instance, Jos Gommans mentions that the Mughals had different concepts of honour, engaging in policies not aimed at destroying but at incor­ porating rivals and using endless rounds of negotiation.33 A similar strategy might also have been at work in these negotiations. As previous GIC historiography has neglected to consider the per­ spective of cultural history, we ought also to consider the degree of miscomprehension or ‘incommensurability’34 that played a role in the GIC’s courtly interactions.


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We now ought to take a closer look at the role of the myste­ rious clergyman, Francois de Piedade, who had single-handedly decided to masquerade as an Austrian envoy to Murshidabad, and had thereby raised the ire of the Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, resulting in his imprisonment at Murshidabad. Apparently, some of his letters reached the GIC merchants, in particular, Cobbé, from the Nawab’s prison.35 In these letters, Piedade pretends to be an ambassador to the Austrian Emperor Charles VI, and offers his full collaboration and advice on the parvana costs and negotia­ tions. He mentions to Cobbé that all ‘your negotiators are demons, and your servant’s thieves all’.36 Despite Piedade’s outrageous claims and behaviour, his ideas appear to have influenced Cobbé’s mind and attitude, and set in motion events which later historiography would aggrandize into ‘Cobbé’s War’.37 On his attitude towards the Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, Piedade offers the following advice to ambassador Cobbé in ‘Translation of a letter in Portuguese, by father Francois a Piedate translated into French language of the 20th of June 1723’, You should be warned that this barbarous man has this Inclination to be ambitious to the last degree. There is a maxim ‘which is to do all when it is permitted and suffer that all is done when dared’ . . . communicate to the Nawab by way of the faujdar of Hughli and at the same time occupy the mouth of the Ganges to prevent the entry and exit of vessels. In case you fail to do this you will work in vain. I know that the Moor has asked you if you were of my Ideas and you have replied that each has the proj­ ects he wants.38

It appears that Piedade can be found responsible for the idea of using force while holding parallel negotiations with the Nawab of Bengal. This is morally justified by Piedade’s depiction of the Nawab as an ‘ambitious barbarian’. Moreover, Piedade warns Cobbé that ‘the adverse party has consumed a lot of money, and there is no minister who is not corrupted’.39 He thereby warns Cobbé only to trust him, as his other contacts might be corrupt. This leads him back to the former moral argument, which is again a depiction of a one-sided negative portrayal of the Mughals, warning Cobbé to ‘pay attention that this nation is the most pernicious and the

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most malign in the Universe’40 Subsequent letters also contain a strategical incitement, as Piedade convinces Cobbé that the affair might only be concluded and the parvana obtained through heroic efforts reminiscent of a crusader rhetoric: . . . what do you fear if you are a true soldier of Christ put me at your Side and you will see great Things and you will obtain in this town a Crown of glory, for he will not be Crowned who has not fought diligently, and in this land one doesn’t use any other weapons of defense except Those of the spirit and the understanding, believe me and you will be a great man, take guard for Those who are employed with you they are your enemies by whom I am in this prison.41

Piedade insists on being the only trustworthy ally for Cobbé, who should jointly solve this affair ‘of the pen and the sword’: . . . believe me I am truly a priest it is not my profession to lie and you have to lean on me I have started and I will finish take guard to frauds your servants are all thieves from the first to the last . . . we are two oxes in this Chariot we have to march with equity one to the right and the other to the left as all your troubles will yield no proft . . . you for the sword and I for the pen, and you will soon see great storms on our enemies as they have obliged themselves to say that if this affair is done we would be guilty in the Judgment of the Nabab and he will give us such punishment as he would ordain, but I believe that the English nor the Dutch will rest in this kingdom take guard as I have friendship with the Nabab. I know him and I don’t ignore the Justice with the assistance of God we will see our Enemies under our feet and the kingdom of Bengal as ours.42

Lieutenant-General Cobbé, Alexander Hume and Captain John Harrison had arrived in Hughli, where Cobbé’s diary notes: As we arrived near Hughli we were requested by second governor Fous­ dar Mirsa Backer to arrive, where we were treated very politely, and after some impartial discourse and the mutual inquiry of health, this Lord showed himself very keen to talk with the General about current interests . . . and said he had not yet seen the general nor tasted his drinks or food.43

At the faujdar’s residence, everyone was seated according to rank. It seems that Hume addressed the faujdar without inquiring about his health and abruptly started talking about their business. To this behaviour, the faujdar noted that Hume appeared to be


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ignorant about the way in which privileges were obtained and that he was acting like a child. However, if he wanted to learn how to behave, the faujdar would be willing to instruct him. When betels were brought at the time of their departure, the faujdar presented them to Cobbé and his secretary while ignoring Hume.44 Here, the betel not being given to Hume is significant and indicates the role of a learning process in such intercultural encounters. Hume is characterized as a child who still needs to learn proper manners. The faujdar eventually notified Cobbé that it was best for him to meet the Nawab of Bengal in person, who requested as much: The Nawab has said that when somebody arrives in a foreign country, they should first meet the ruler of that country. That is why the Captain of the ‘Almanjes’ should come here, so that I may know his visions and actions and so that I may tell him what I have on my heart and what he carries in his mind. It is not sufficient that he sends someone to discuss all this: it is bad manners. And so that he wants to come here, his business will succeed. Come and visit the Nawab and by the grace of the Lord you may quickly depart from here to carry out all to which you endeavour.45

Cobbé’s first courtly encounter had taken place with the Car­ natic governors of Cabelon, Bara Saheb and Miya Saheb, in what would become the first GIC settlement in Mughal India. His letters mention how the ‘Moorish’ merchants welcomed him on arrival and gave him textiles and betelnuts. On his departure, noblemen brought him a purple serapah or courtly robe of which he was particularly proud.46 The perceived courtesy and dignity of the encounter remained in Cobbé’s memory throughout his stay in Bengal, as his letters demonstrate.47 The actual giving of the robes of honour formed part of the Mughal ritual of khilat, which signified the subordination of the recipient.48 This was part of a ritual and idiom of subordina­ tion reminiscent of gradual relations to a master in Sufism,49 as an expression of loyalty towards Mughal ruling elites through Persianate cultural forms belonging to a unifying ideology.50 Anthropologist Bernard S. Cohn has thoroughly considered the signification of gifts and clothing in the constitution of Mughal authority, and emphasizes how the ritual of khilat involves the idea of a robe being transferred from the kingly body to the receiver,

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in which ‘clothes literally are authority’. He describes this as part of a system of symbolic bodily politics in which the submission of the body to a higher authority is implied by the acceptance of the courtly robe.51 However, Cobbé was seemingly unaware of this meaning and accepted the courtly robe as a mark of his unique distinction, not failing to point out that in contrast to his distinct status, his colleagues were mere ‘merchants’.52 So it was decided to set out for the Nawab’s capital of Murshida­ bad where Cobbé practised the court rituals beforehand: ‘We inform ourselves of the ordinary on the ordinary Custom in the making of the Salaams, sitting and other such Moorish manners, by which the day came to its end.’53 Nachoda Haji Abdullah, shipowner and landlord of the GIC in Bengal, further informed the GIC agents that the performative acts of the court ritual were crucial. The negotiable conditions were already fixed in acts and requests, which had been previously delivered to the court but if the private audience were not carried out correctly, no trading permits or settlements would be accorded, and all deals could be broken.54 The GIC had engaged an Armenian merchant named Khoja Dilon, ‘whom we believe to be of Confidence and particularly adept in the Routines of the Nawab’s Court, with whom he has previously treated several similar affairs, to help in the voyage and to instruct usefully by his advice’.55 Dilon himself indicated that he had been at the court of Bengal for twenty-four years.56 Previously, in 1676, English sources had mentioned this ‘Cojah Delaune’ to have been a merchant at Surat.57 Cobbé reports that the faujdar of Hughli wrote a letter to Mirza Bakr Khan, son-in-law to Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, stating: ‘My brother, I insist to make haste to the court of the Nawab for the affairs of the allemans (‘Germans’), we have to jointly send a letter to the Nawab with the seal of the General’, noting the following conditions to be signed by Cobbé:58 . . . to pay the customs on merchandise without constraint and I will not commit any fraud on the taxes, to obey the orders of all governors and to do all that they say and to never contradict their orders, I will never keep inhabitants or people against whom there are royal trials on the


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terrain, and if it happens that some inhabitants of people against whom there’s a royal trial are in my terrain and the governor asks for them, I will send them and never shall take their side nor protect them. And if in this country any War happens against the King, or the governor goes to make War, I will accompany him with my People and follow and assist him, and undertake nothing against the orders of the government, not even as little as a mustard grain, and I will never make noise with the people of the King and will always keep the government’s orders.59

This letter unambiguously clarifies the relations of power and subservience that the Company was engaged in towards the Bengal government, both locally in Hughli and throughout Bengal. However, Cobbé was reluctant to sign these orders, as he replied to Mirza Bakr that he was also ‘the Servant of a Master to whom I have to report my Behaviour, and I will not sign it with my seal since we have enemies who by the sole copy of this bill will cause my infallible ruin.’60 On 9 October 1723, tribute-bearing embassy of Cobbé reached Murshidabad where the Nawab ordered or proposed that Cobbé lodge at the house of Mirza Nasratullah, the son-in-law of the faujdar of Hughli, a location which strongly displeased Cobbé who writes: ‘this place is very small and rats enter the walls in half of my chamber, and by consequence fill half of my bed, and Aga Motahar instantly offered his lodge’.61 The same day, he reports that the Nawab: . . . sent his Chobdar with a filled purse of fifty roupies to make a compli­ ment in his name and not knowing our way of stews (ragout) . . . in the place of the fosdar would have made a dinner be prepared in his Name which they tell me is an honour which has never been made to other nations. This makes me hope that by this our affair is in the good mind of the Nawab which, joined with the politeness of the Lodging gives appear­ ance of a prompt sending which I desire with all my heart.62

However, he would soon find his affairs in a very different state. Writing on 12 October, he notes ‘I found the affaires so crude and so little advanced . . . Coje Delange was called this morning onto the Nawab and having arrived he told him that I came from the part of a great Emperor.’ 63 The affair became more and more

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complicated, as the Nawab requests a more significant sum for the permits than the GIC was willing to pay, or as Cobbé states: He was strongly surprised to see me come here without having more to present as he believes strongly . . . that he should have more or not to come and that for a trifle like this he couldn’t write to the King his master and that the English and Dut(c)h are as if inferior vassals to my master that he wasn’t surprised that they had given so little, but having received this news by Coje Delane, I told him that the emperor my master had sent us by the Confidence he had in his parvanna granted 6 january 1721.64

While awaiting the Nawab’s decision, who let his scribes consult previous records on other European payments as a precedent for the sum he required from the GIC, Cobbé complains about being imprisoned in his assigned lodgings: . . . while waiting I am lodged in an appartment with my people in a chamber that is so grand that as soon as I move a foot, I can, with my cane, touch the two farmost walls and with my hand the narrowest, six foot long and ten foot wide and for my consolation they tell me I cannot go out nor see anyone before having visited the Nabab, of which there is no more talk . . . every day new oppositions are born but i am resolute to stand firm and see that if my tenacity is without effect my feeling is to take my time and remove myself from here for some distance, I already received 1000 remarks as I hadn’t stayed closer to the town . . . and they believe here that they will make me consent by Boredom.65

Over the next few days, Cobbé continues to complain about the circumstances of his lodging and stay near Murshidabad: The 17th finding me inconvenienced because of a long repose without leaving my chamber, I resolved to take a small walk by the Fields being but little distance from my Lodge, and to show to the people that I wasn’t stopped as had been divulged . . . and in case they would want to impede my retreat, first the little faujdar Mirza Nasratullah came more than ten times each night near my Chamber making more exact rounds than the best ‘major de place’ or military captain and secondly night and day there was a back-and-forth of people in his garden too, that in this manner I was surrounded by all the sirs, and my people were sleeping around me, mocking the sermons and other circumstances . . . all withstanding my walk was useful I went to see the house which Aga Motahar had offered


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me and for which I had asked the necessary letters, and found it very accomodating . . . which resolved to change Lodging I warned the son in law of the faujdar of my intention and by Khoja Delon and Mersa Backer for that i would not lose apparent friends.66

This citation rightly stresses the importance of a social network among Murshidabad’s nobility, which could have been of crucial importance in attempting to sway the Nawab’s mood in favour of the GIC. As to the lodging situation, Cobbé sent Khoja Delaune to enable a change of lodging to Aga Motahar’s residence, who was a Persian salt trader and one of the richest merchants of Hughli. Eventually, with the support of a Jain banker, Jagat Seth, a favourable agreement was reached with the Nawab, and the official courtly visit and ceremony were in order. From the description of this court ceremony, it becomes clear how Cobbé and others had to adapt themselves to the dominant rituals of subservience, or neither further discourse nor trade was possible. On the day of the courtly visit, Cobbé and his associates were taken to the Nawab Murshid Quli Khan’s residence, where: . . . having been led to a distance of hundred feet across the ruler, where we had to make 3 Salaams (: the making of Cervus or Salaams, exists in bowing down the head and Back, at the same time when one is bowed down, bringing down the Right hand on the ground and subsequently standing to the forehead:) after having been done they led us to the side to dress into the Honour Clothes, after which with this Moorish habit hav­ ing been brought to our place, again needed to carry out 3 Salaams for the Same to the ruler after which a horse was brought as a gift to his Honour, which having put the Bridle over the Shoulder and then again making 3 Salaams, thus advancing halfway towards the Nawab after which we were ordained to stand still and Salaam again, then advancing to about 5 or 6 Steps from the ruler, then they told us to make 2 of foresaid Salaams, and were then led upwards beside the seat of this Moorish ruler where, after having made a Compliment, and request after his good youthfulness (: to the grant of the privilege to place His Majesty’s flag at the bank of the River Ganges:), he replied: it is very well, but the European Nations are no longer Men of their word such as they claimed to be.67

Cobbé promised he belonged to a truthful people to which the Nawab answered: ‘if this is so, it is very well’. After this, Cobbé

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notes that he raised his hand to his head, caused them to be given betel and gave them permission to leave. They had to again per­ form the salaam twice.’68 This lengthy description reveals a very different image than what was later presented in the GIC’s colo­ nial historiography. Europeans did not stand before the court as proud and victorious uniformed military types but bowed and sat according to rank, wearing courtly robes. Moreover, in this meet­ ing, there was no question of ‘attempts at colonial expansion’ but, instead, a demand for trade permissions. Cobbé’s negotiations carried on for at least seven more months by which time he lost his patience while his temper got the better of him. He decided to force the slow process of negotiations by halting all ‘Moorish shipping’ on the Ganges, a strategy he learned from former EIC employees, Hume and Harrison, and which was likewise suggested to him by Piedade. He hijacked the heavy freight ship of a wealthy Armenian merchant, Khoja Mahomet Fazl, and his son, which was destined for Surat. These events sparked a reaction from the authorities, resulting in what previous historiographers have labelled a small-scale ‘war’ in which Cobbé lost his life.69 For negotiations to be re-established and to normalize the situ­ ation, a merchant, Jan Bos, was sent to the Murshid Quli Khan (under the title Zafar Khan) in 1727 who received him courte­ ously on the promise that ‘they would not create any noise in this country’.70 However, Bos interrupted the court ritual to discuss a manuscript in which previous privileges were stipulated. This angered the Nawab who replied: ‘I already know in advance what you desire, but it is at present a time of ceremony.’71 Here again, it appears that, power relations were anchored within court rituals and visitors had to keep to this code of behaviour. Receiving the serapah and conducting the salaam, as well as the general behaviour expected in court, can, thus, be seen as practices of bodily subservience, which, along with the Nawab’s wishes and commands, emphasized the GIC’s position in the power rela­ tions of eighteenth-century Bengal. This subservience is yet again demonstrated by the conditions surrounding Cobbé’s lodging in Murshidabad.


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The bodily politics involved in the court rituals were not limited to the early eighteenth century but were products of a long history. Thus, Mohammad Azhar Ansari quotes John Jourdain (1608-17) on the same customs of reverence at the Mughal emperor Jahan­ gir’s court: ‘The reverence was paid to the Emperor, by laying the hand three times from the ground to the head, and then kneeling and putting it to the ground’, Further, ‘all such presents given to the King were deposited in the treasury. Moreover, an account of them was kept.’72 What Cobbé describes as the ‘Ceremony of the Salaams’ formed an act of obeisance named taslim, the concrete form of which dates back at least to the Mughal emperor Akbar’s court, which signifies that the ‘performer’ was symbolically ready to give himself in the offering.73 One would expect a learning process in which subsequent ambassadors learned from previous mistakes in adapting to this subservience. Instead, the repeated rupture of the symbolic process took place due to the GIC agents’ insistence on their commercial prerogatives. Thus, from Hume’s ‘childish’ behaviour to Cobbé’s fraught negotiations to Bos’ interruption of the court ceremonial, the GIC sources show that even if a learning process took place, it was of a slow and superficial kind.

Interactions on a Local Scale: Merchants and Local Inhabitants in Kasimbazar and Banquibazar Thus far, we have gained an insight into the attitudes, behaviour and struggles involved in the GIC’s courtly encounters, as a fraught process filled with frictions to obtain permission to settle in Ben­ gal. Eventually, the crucial brokerage by the Armenian merchants of Saidabad combined with the support of powerful bankers such as Jagat Seth concluded the deal on the GIC’s behalf. Once the parvana was obtained, Alexander Hume, now as governor of the GIC, established a factory and trading community in Banquibazar and Kasimbazar. We may consider these settlements as contexts of further interaction, both with merchants and local inhabitants, which form another important aspect of local lifeworlds ignored by previous historiography. At most, Banquibazar’s inhabitants

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were considered as an anonymous backdrop against which the Europeans carried out their commercial activities, instead of a liv­ ing and relational world. Therefore, a focus on this context should form the remainder of this article. Commercial Interactions

Looking at the GIC’s account books for a history of interactions between Europeans and Bengali people, we can trace the history of transactions and communications. They give us an overview of the official merchants involved in the GIC’s trade, the identi­ ties of whom can be perceived from their names or other details. Based on these account books, we may add up a list of income, expenses and debts.74 Taking these three values together, we have a distribution of total capital circulating between factors, merchants and others, and can thereby note the chief merchants involved, the frequency of their interactions and where the capital was utilized. The wealthiest merchants also seem to be the ones with whom the most interactions happened. Adding all this, we get a list of ten principal merchants for Ban­ quibazar, the foremost being the Armenian merchant Aga Mallick, who served in a double role both as factor75 and as a merchant, operating as a link to buy merchandise from Dhaka. Mahomet Backer, the second most important factor, likewise operated as merchant-cum-factor. The Hindu merchant ‘Bolram Nondy’ (Balaram Nandy) served as the factory’s official accountant as well as a merchant. Next, there are some ‘gentile’ or Hindu merchants, providing textiles as well as arranging debts: Moussendar Brahmin, Ramquichendas and Domencem. Finally, we find mention of two Armenian or Persian merchants of considerable importance, who also held credit relations with Nondy, Khoja Pavoos and Khoja Mahomet Fazel. On the whole, during the 1724-8 period, we find that Persian and Armenian traders formed the majority of wealthy trading partners in Banquibazar of whom we find mentioned Khoja Seral, Khoja Safar Madras, Khoja Joannes, Khoja Pavoos, Khoja Mahomet Fazel, and Khoja Aga Mallick. We also find mention of a whole range of Hindu merchants


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apart from Bolram Nondy and Ramquichendas: Ramji ben Mol­ lick, Quichendas and Damnadat. A few Europeans were also present in the capacity of private traders, among whom we find Schonamille, Walter Bourck and Jean-Baptiste Toruys. Concerning Kasimbazar (Cassembazar) in 1727, a similar scrutiny of records yields the names of the following merchants as ‘prime movers’: Chamel Chaudry, Panchoeserman, Darandat, Jagranatdat, Lahatchurn, Andonderam Serman, Parbetty, Khoja Mohameth, Kissendas Radepouramanicq and Kirparam Jobinsoe. Kasimbazar, thus, seems to reveal a majority of either Hindu or Jain merchants. Comparing the amount of capital mentioned, Banquibazar appears as the most important location, probably due to its role as the GIC’s main trading post, whereas Kasimbazar specialized only in specific commodities, like silk. Capital also went from Banquibazar to merchants commis­ sioned elsewhere, such as through the Armenian network of Kasimbazar to Dhaka via Khoja Wahid, for the procurement of goods. Other notable merchants appearing in the accounts are Armenian merchant Khoja Sarat as a factor, Chieramra, Khoja Minas in Dhaka – who was listed as handling the Company’s affairs there, or Khoja Alexander, as a merchant of ‘Guinee’ textiles. This list, thus, confirms the importance of Armenian and Persian mer­ chants for the GIC, both in their ongoing trading activities and as prime intermediaries or brokers in courtly encounters, securing their conditions of existence in Bengal. In both roles, they played an indispensable part in the GIC’s establishment and survival in Bengal. Local Life and Communities

The GIC employed a Bengali Hindu merchant Chierarmra as Ban­ yan trader responsible for the development of Banquibazar’s social life and commerce. His Bengali contract stipulated that he would arrange for the settlement of the newly developing trading post at Banquibazar, for which he would hire all necessary servants and workers, as he was said to be able to deal with his people in a reli­ able manner.76 In this regard, Cobbé mentioned that the company

The Ostend Company’s Worlds


would be: ‘obliged to engage in spending, in order to attract said people to establish themselves there . . . otherwise, an establish­ ment which is solid in commerce would only attract poor and indigenous people, who would establish themselves there in hopes of a better fortune’.77 In the GIC’s description of their factories, we read that the prin­ cipal establishment was at Banquibazar on the east bank of the Hughli River with the main lodge at ‘Bouramporre’ on the west bank. Banquibazar contained the village of said name and another named ‘Hydsiapour’. It contained 2,942 bighas of land, the remain­ ing ‘portions of Land before ceded by the Moors as pure gifts to the Bramins or Gentile priests which are placed under the Impe­ rial Company’s protection and subject to its authority and rules of justice’.78 Its grounds are described as fertile lands, yielding fruit, grains and, above all, rice ‘being the ordinary food of the inhabit­ ants of this country’.79 A fort was built to cover the factory for ‘the invasion of the Moors by whom the establishment is menaced’, a depot for merchandize, a pavilion for the governor and principal employees, and barracks for the soldiers.80 The number of families under the jurisdiction and protection of the Company in 1730 numbered a total of 831 persons. As the Company’s commerce had been interrupted due to the European diplomatic situation, these 831 persons merely remained in the hope that commerce would restart. The principal families are listed as consisting of merchants, weavers, stitchers, carriers, masons and artisans.81 The Imperial factory’s establishment at Bourompore (Berham­ pore) had a size of 151 bighas, and its inhabitants were exempt of all taxes on behalf of the Bengali government (or by Nawab Murshid Quli Khan’s government) and only obliged to pay their annual rent to the Ostend Company for their portion of land. The GIC had constructed a big and beautiful house there, including a large depot and galleries to house silk-thread workers, weavers and cotton-printers. A total of two thousand workers were accom­ modated by the Company to produce cargo for their vessels.82 However, as rival European companies had spread the word, and published pamphlets, that the GIC’s trade was being suspended for a duration of seven years, the remaining families left their house


Wim de Winter

to join rival European companies, so that only the guards were left by 1730.83 The GIC’s description of its factories in Bengal further provides a list of ‘Naturels du païs au servive de la Compagnie Imperiale’ (Natives of the country in the service of the Imperial Company) in 1731, depicting its principal Bengali officers and their professions. Thus, we find Mahomet Backer as a merchant for acquisitions of products made in the country and as agent at the court of Murshidabad. As secretaries for Persian writing, we find Chunilal and Bangalal.84 The resident secretaries for the Bengali language numbered far more than perhaps the total number of Hindu merchants and workers. Thus, we find mention of Moussendaer, Harmenon, Bisnadash, Bolram Nondy, Janikiram, Duderam and Hory Brameny. Some of them have also been mentioned above as merchants and accountants. The list further mentions around a total of ninety-four unnamed soldiers, guards and palanquinbearers. The description of the GIC’s factories in Bengal includes an extensive list of people living in Banquibazar, with their names, professions and locations, the extent of land they rented and their dates of entry and departure.85 This provides us with ample information to reconstruct the lifeworld of the local people in the factory environment, and allows us to contemplate how and to what extent the European merchants and personnel mingled with them. The list reveals that the vast extent of inhabitants were designated as ‘gentiles’, a denomination used to indicate Hindus, with the second largest group designated as ‘Moors’ or followers of Islam. Although there was a specific area designated as the ‘Musul­ man Serracq’, which was nearly exclusively inhabited by Muslim workers, we also find several Muslims living among Hindus in the ‘Guala Seray’. Thus, there seemed to be no strict segregation between communities based on religion. Although we find many workers of the same profession living in the same quarters, such as the many masons living in the ‘Anundi Seray’, professional or class distinctions were not strictly maintained. Workers of differ­ ent professions, such as fishermen, house-servants and labourers, might carry the same names or designations and lived in the

The Ostend Company’s Worlds


same area. The list’s order in this respect gives the impression that kinship or family relations were more important in determining living quarters than professional or religious identities. Curiously enough, the list also reveals a small number of Europeans who set­ tled on the land as independent workers or entrepreneurs. Among them, we find several Portuguese soldiers, innkeepers and tailors. It also shows at least one extended Portuguese family, including two ladies, Clara de Rosa as a tailor and Lucia de Rosa as a soldier’s wife. Also, we find a few Dutch inhabitants working as innkeepers, soldiers or surgeons. There was a specific quarter named ‘Feringy Serracq’ for European inhabitants, although a few Europeans lived among the Muslims and Hindus in different quarters. It seems there was no strictly enforced segregation, so we may imagine how these people of different backgrounds and professions mingled in their daily life, visiting innkeepers, surgeons or tailors.86

Perceptions and Attitudes Besides these glimpses of interactions, there are no further clues about the day-to-day behaviour or attitudes of the GIC’s European employees towards the local inhabitants in Banquibazar. However, we do get an insight into some Europeans mentalities and percep­ tions of daily life in Bengal. We may, for instance, find Cobbé’s sentiments and descriptions of Bengal in his letters to some mem­ bers of the European nobility. Thus, he describes the country of Bengal as beautiful but unhealthy.87 His attitude to local people, as well as the stereotypes about them circulating in Europe, become painfully clear when he mentions perceiving common Bengali women and men: As regards the beauty of the female gender against which his Excellency the Marquis de Prié has deemed to give me fatherly advice. It is so rare, even though I have seen more than 3000 women daily bathing naked in the Ganges, to which their Religion obliges them daily, there is not one which has seemed worthy to engage as concubine, they are so preciously and richly ugly that they would be horror to the most tormented man in the most obscure night. The men here are like monkeys, never upright, but when they walk, always sitting on their heels in almost all their work:


Wim de Winter

their toes serve as their hands: they have difficulties to conceive the work which we order them even though they are craftsmen, they are not capable of invention.88

As for Cobbé’s perception of living conditions, he notes: ‘the houses of Hughli are of earth and straw . . . with doors so low like the stables of pigs in the Low Countries: they are spread through­ out the land without order and without streets, having only narrow pathways for their communication.’89 These houses were ‘normally inhabited by a family of 12, 14 or 16 persons, in a way that they cannot do otherwise but to sleep on the floor haphazardly. Because there is no bed, nor chairs nor table, nor any other furniture.’90 On the people’s general occupation, Cobbé reports that . . . it seems incomprehensible to a stranger who comes here to conduct trade, as nowhere do we see people working, nor any other shop but those where pipes, tobacco or betel are sold, which is a green leaf, which being chewed with a nut (strongly resembling the color of nutmeg) this drug makes the teeth black as charcoal and saliva red as blood, which is hideous to those unaccustomed to it. These betels are given as great treats in the visits of moors.91

From these descriptions, it seems that Cobbé had some expe­ rience in observing the ordinary people’s lives and activities, of which he held strongly biased and, to a modern sensibility, shock­ ing perspectives.

Conclusion We have seen how the courtly rituals and bodily politics engaged in by the GIC agents, as well as the surrounding living conditions and implied power relations, form an opposing image to notions of colonial dominance present in the works of the earliest GIC his­ torians. Instead, authority was firmly made felt to have been in the hands of Nawab Murshid Quli Khan and his local representatives. Even living conditions and courtly travels were regulated, and the combined friction of the Nawab’s power and local circumstances determined the spatial categories within which the GIC could be

The Ostend Company’s Worlds


present in Bengal. Eventually, the only way for it to obtain a foot­ hold or conditions of residency was through its contacts with and intercessions by Armenian ‘political merchants’ and their allies. This shows the courtly interactions of the GIC to have been a ques­ tion of political economy in the literal sense. Another perspective on the local lifeworlds in Bengal, enabled by the GIC’s presence and development of territories in Banqui­ bazar and Kasimbazar, has shown us the local diversity of social life which has hitherto remained unremarked upon in the GIC historiography. The interactions with merchants of different back­ grounds and the employment of labourers and artisans show us a world beyond courtly interactions. Close contacts and perceptions of GIC-officials in the lifeworlds of Banquibazar, Cossimbazar and Dacca would nevertheless result in strongly biased perspectives, perhaps not only due to a clash of mentalities or living conditions but also due to frictions with local society and power relations between changing worlds. This might be fruitfully considered in the light of Dirlik’s cri­ tique of post-colonialism as issuing theories of hybridity, which he criticizes for isolating questions of culture from political economy, while also serving as a cover for inequalities and oppression in the present no less than in the past.92 Therefore, he argues in favour of considering culture in relation to the structures of political economy.93 This might equally apply to the history of the GIC’s historical interactions in Bengal in which it has become clear that culture cannot be divorced from political economy, and that inequalities, as well as frictions, were prevalent.

NOTES 1. De Winter and Parmentier, 2013: 44. 2. Prims, 1925. Inventaris op het archief der Generale Indische Compag­ nie, 1925. 3. ‘Instructies aan kapitein De Winter’, SAA (Antwerp City Archives): Archief van de Oost-Indische Compagnie van Oostende, IC 5665 Copijboek der orders gegeven voor Bengalen, Cabulon, China aan residenten, scheepskapiteins, enz. 1721-1730.


Wim de Winter

4. Throughout the scholarship of Prims, Huisman and, perhaps most notoriously, in Dumont, 1942. Georges-Henri Dumont, 1942; and Laude, 1944. 5. Laude, 1944: 32-44. 6. Ibid.: 44. 7. Ibid.: 221. 8. A critique I treat more extensively in De Winter, 2015. 9. Parmentier, 2002. 10. Fabian, 1990 : 9. 11. Dirlik, 2005: 10-11. 12. Ibid.: 21. 13. Geertz, 1983: 168. 14. Ibid.: 173-81. 15. Andrade, 2010: 574. 16. Ibid.: 591. 17. Tsing, 2000: 330. 18. Dirlik, 2005: 10. 19. Ibid.: 13. 20. Despite containing a European perspective, this may still serve in those areas where other sources do not help us in order to recon­ struct a lifeworld, as mentioned in: Prakash and Lombard, 1999. 21. A concept first employed by Furber, 1969: 711-21. 22. A slightly more appropriate notion, through definitely not unprob­ lematic, coined by Subrahmanyam, 1990. 23. Dirlik, 2005: 10-11. 24. As the observer’s cultural perspective and bias, contrasted with the bias of the people he or she observes, as described in Restivo, 1994: 125. 25. Das Gupta, 2001: 183. 26. Ibid.: 184. 27. Chaudhury, 1995: 109. 28. Take note of the ironic metaphorical use of the ‘Great Game’, as a term which has mostly been used to designate nineteenth century British colonial interests in, for instance, Russia. The metaphor might be somewhat out of place in this early modern historical context. 29. Bayly and Subrahmanyam, 1988: 418. 30. These events were described in Prims, 1926: 21. 31. Ibid.: 26. 32. Prakash, 1998: 263. 33. Gommans, 2002.

The Ostend Company’s Worlds


34. This was not limited to intercultural interactions between Europeans and Mughals but also occurred between Persian ambassadors and Mughals, as noted in Subrahmanyam, 2012. 35. It remains unclear how he was able to send them as the sources remain silent on this issue. 36. Letters by Piedade are found in ‘Papieren en Brieven Cobbé’, SAA: GIC 5772 Copie des lettres et autres instruments de monsieur Jacques André Cobbé, envoyé aux Messrs Alexandre Hume et John Harrisson. 37. Prims, 1927. 38. Ibid. 39. Ibid. 40. Ibid. 41. ‘Translat de la Lettre du pere Piedas ecrit à Mexidabat 10 8bre 1723’, in ‘Papieren en Brieven Cobbé’, SAA: GIC 5772. 42. Ibid. (or Ibid.: recto-verso.) 43. Cobbé, ‘Dagboek en klad van M. Cobbé, juli 1723-febr. 1724’, SAA: GIC 769#7: 7. 44. Ibid., 9. 45. Based on a Persian letter received on behalf of the Nawab, as included in SAA, GIC 5772 ‘Translaetboeck en copyboeck 1723-1724’. 46. SAA GIC 5772, ‘Copy en minuten brieven van Cobbé’. 47. Ibid. 48. Pinch, 2012: 4. 49. Gommans, 2002: 61. 50. Metcalf and Metcalf, 2012: 17. 51. Cohn, 1996: 114. 52. ‘Papieren en Brieven Cobbé’, SAA: GIC 5772. 53. Cobbé, ‘Dagboek en klad van M. Cobbé, juli 1723-febr. 1724’, SAA: GIC 769#7: 51. 54. Ibid.: 106. 55. ‘Danemarnagor, 13 7bre 1723’, In: ‘Papieren en Brieven Cobbé’, SAA: GIC 5772, fl. 2 v. 56. ‘Letter from Khoja Dilon’, written from Seydabad. In: ‘Papieren en Brieven Cobbé’, SAA: GIC 5772. 57. Baladouni and Makepeace, 1998: 81. 58. ‘Papieren en Brieven Cobbé’, SAA: GIC 5772, fl. 3. 59. Ibid.: fl. 3. 60. Ibid. 61. Ibid.: fls. 4-5. 62. Ibid.

182 63. 64. 65. 66. 67.

Wim de Winter

Ibid.: fl. 5. Ibid.: fl. 5. Ibid.: fl. 7. Ibid.: fl. 8. Cobbé, ‘Dagboek en klad van M. Cobbé, juli 1723-febr. 1724’, SAA: GIC 769#7: 107. 68. Cobbé, ‘Dagboek en klad van M. Cobbé, juli 1723-febr. 1724’, SAA: GIC 769#7: 108. 69. Prims, 1927: 262. 70. Bos, ‘Nous soussignez eclarons d’avoir rendu visite a Jafracan Nabab, le 16 may’. SAA, GIC 5669 ‘Déclaration de Bos & Carum’): 1. 71. Ibid. 72. Ansari, 1975: 49. 73. Cohn, 1996: 115. 74. The source on which this section is based SAA: GIC 5669 Colonie de Banquebazar L. Rekeningen, dagboek enz. Van Cassembazar 1727, Asseydabat 1726. 75. The head who was responsible for organizing the smooth handling of local trade and production. 76. “Conditien gemaakt op ’t engagement van Chiermara als Benjaan en coopman over des keyserljcke Compagnies nu zijnde oft naast Comenden handel &c.’, f°1 . In SAA: GIC 5782 ‘Papieren A Hume Banquibazar’. 77. ‘Memoire de ce qui seroit necessaire pour mentenir le Terrein’, SAA: GIC 5772 ‘Papieren en Brieven Cobbé’, f°1v°. 78. ‘Description des Factories dont Le double a eté envoie a la Cour de Vienne’, SAA: GIC 5679, f°1. 79. Ibid.: fl. 1 v. 80. Ibid.: fl. 2 v. 81. Ibid.: fl. 33 v. 82. Ibid.: fl. 4. 83. Ibid. 84. The suffix –lal often denotes the names of the munshis or writers. 85. Denombrement des familles qui demeurent Sur le Terrein de la Compagnie Imperiale’, in SAA GIC 5679, ‘Description des Factories dont le double a été envoyé a la Cour de Vienne’. 86. Ibid. 87. 1 ‘7bre 1723 pres de Hugly’, SAA: GIC 5772 ‘Papieren en Brieven Cobbé’, fl. 1 v.

The Ostend Company’s Worlds 88. 89. 90. 91. 92. 93.


Ibid.: fl. 7. Ibid.: fls. 7-8. Ibid. Ibid. Dirlik, 1999: 19-24. Ibid.: 28.

REFERENCES Archival Sources Bos, J. ‘Nous soussignez eclarons d’avoir rendu visite a Jafracan Nabab, le 16 may’. SAA (Antwerp City Archives): GIC 5669 ‘Déclaration de Bos & Carum’. Cobbé, J-A. ‘Dagboek en klad van M. Cobbé, juli 1723-febr. 1724’, SAA (Antwerp City Archives): GIC 769#7. ‘Colonie de Banquebazar L. Rekeningen, dagboek enz. Van Cassembazar 1727, Asseydabat 1726’, SAA (Antwerp City Archives): GIC 5669. ‘Conditien gemaakt op ’t engagement van Chiermara als Benjaan en coopman over des keyserljcke Compagnies nu zijnde oft naast Comenden handel &c.’, SAA (Antwerp City Archives): GIC 5782 ‘Papieren A Hume Banquibazar’. ‘Copy en minuten brieven van Cobbé’, SAA (Antwerp City Archives): GIC 5772. ‘Description des Factories dont Le double a eté envoie a la Cour de Vienne’, SAA (Antwerp City Archives): GIC 5679. ‘Instructies aan kapitein De Winter’, SAA (Antwerp City Archives): Archief van de Oost-Indische Compagnie van Oostende, IC 5665 Copijboek der orders gegeven voor Bengalen, Cabulon, China aan residenten, scheepskapiteins, enz. 1721-1730. ‘Memoire de ce qui seroit necessaire pour mentenir le Terrein’, SAA (Antwerp City Archives): GIC 5772, ‘Papieren en Brieven Cobbé’. ‘Papieren en Brieven Cobbé’, SAA (Antwerp City Archives): GIC 5772 Copie des lettres et autres instruments de monsieur Jacques André Cobbé, envoyé aux Messrs Alexandre Hume et John Harrisson. ‘Translaetboeck en copyboeck 1723-1724’, SAA (Antwerp City Archives): GIC 5772. ‘Translat de la Lettre du pere Piedas ecrit à Mexidabat 10 8bre 1723’, in ‘Papieren en Brieven Cobbé’, SAA (Antwerp City Archives): GIC 5772.


Wim de Winter

Published Sources Andrade, Tonio. 2010. ‘A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys, and a Warlord: Toward a Global Microhistory’, Journal of World History, 21.4. Ansari, Mohammad Azhar. 1975. European Travellers Under the Mughals, 1580-1627. Delhi: Idarah-i Adabiyat-i Delli. Baladouni, Vahe and Margaret Makepeace, eds. 1998. Armenian Mer­ chants of the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. Bayly, C.A. and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. 1988. ‘Portfolio Capitalists and the Political Economy of Early Modern India’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 4.25. Chaudhury, Sushil. 1995. From Prosperity to Decline: Eighteenth-century Bengal. New Delhi: Manohar. Cohn, Bernard S. 1996. Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Das Gupta, Ashin. 2001. The World of the Indian Ocean Merchant, 1500-1800: Collected Essays of Ashin Das Gupta. Oxford: Oxford University Press. De Winter, Wim and Jan Parmentier. 2013. ‘Factorijen en forten: ZuidNederlanders in achttiende-eeuws India’, in Idesbald Goddeer, ed., Het Wiel van Ashoka: Belgisch-Indiase contacten in historisch perspectief, Leuven: Leuven University Press. De Winter, Wim. 2015. ‘Hofrituelen en koloniale recuperatie van de Oostendse Compagnie in 18e eeuws Bengalen en China’, Handelingen, 68 (2014). Gent: Koninklijke Zuidnederlandse Maatschappij voor Taal-en Letterkunde en Geschiedenis. Dirlik, Arif. 1999. ‘Is There History after Eurocentrism?: Globalism, Postcolonialism, and the Disavowal of History’, Cultural Critique, 42.

. 2005. ‘Performing the World: Reality and Representation in the

Making of World Histor(ies)’, Journal of World History, 16.4.

Dumont, Georges-Henri. 1942. Banquibazar: la colonisation Belge au Bengale au temps de la Compagnie d’Ostende. Bruxelles: Les Ecrits. Fabian, Johannes. 1990. Power and Performance: Ethnographic Explor­ ations Through Proverbial Wisdom and Theatre in Shaba, Zaire. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Furber, Holden. 1969. ‘Asia and the West as Partners before “Empire” and After’, The Journal of Asian Studies, XXVIII, no. 4.

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Geertz, Clifford. 1983. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books. Gommans, Jos. 2002. Mughal Warfare: Indian Frontiers and High Roads to Empire, 1500-1700. London: Routledge. Laude, Norbert. 1944. La Compagnie d’Ostende et son activité coloniale au Bengale (1725-1730). Bruxelles: Van Campenhout. Metcalf, Barbara D. and Thomas R. Metcalf. 2012. A Concise History of Modern India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Parmentier, Jan. 2002. Oostende & Co.: het verhaal van de ZuidNederlandse Oost-Indiëvaart 1715-1735. Gent: Ludion. Pinch, William R. 2012. Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Prakash, Om. 1998. European Commercial Enterprise in pre-Colonial India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Prakash, Om and Denys Lombard, eds. 1999. Commerce and Culture in the Bay of Bengal, 1500-1800. New Delhi: Manohar. Prims, Floris. 1925. Inventaris op het archief der Generale Indische Compagnie. Antwerpen: Veritas. . 1926. De Reis van den St. Carolus. Antwerpen: Leeslust. . 1927. De oorlog van mijnheer Cobbé. Antwerpen: Leeslust. Restivo, Sal P. 1994. Science, Society, and Values: Toward a Sociology of Objectivity. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press. Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. 1990. The Political Economy of Commerce: Southern India 1500-1650. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. . 2012. Courtly Encounters: Translating Courtliness and Violence in Early Modern Eurasia, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Tsing, Anna. 2000. ‘The Global Situation’, Cultural Anthropology, 15.3: 330.


The Organization and Operation of the

French East India Company in Bengal

Sandip Munshi

Every commercial organization consists of several elements. These components maintain its functional capability. All the European companies operating in India during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had their unique structures and policies. K.N. Chaudhuri, Tapan Raychaudhuri and Om Prakash, among others, have delineated the commercial structures and policies of the English and the Dutch East India Company. The French East Indian Company, too, had some distinctive characteristic features. Its operations in Bengal and Malabar were not identical. Scholars and historians such as Aniruddha Ray and Paul Kaeppelin have written extensively about the French trade in Bengal and India and discussed the organizational structure of the French Company. In this article, the organization, decision-making process and connectivity of the French Company in Bengal, more precisely, Chandernagore, would be studied in some detail.

Foundation, Transformation and Organization of the Compagnie des Indes Operating through a formally organized structure, the chartered companies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped to integrate, as K.N. Chaudhuri argues, ‘the scattered and selfcontained economic regions of early modern trade into a welldefined pattern’.1 The French East India Company, like other European companies, had a definite functional structure and


Sandip Munshi

served the same purpose. An early French enterprise was estab­ lished under the protection of the crown in 1604. However, Catherine Manning claims that the company was not founded until 1664 by a royal charter.2 In 1661, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a man from a merchant and banker family, became the intendant of finance.3 Colbert immediately focused on expanding the French navy and developing ports, as well as strengthening overseas com­ mercial explorations. In 1664, two companies were formed under his direct supervision: The Compagnie des Indes Orientales for trade with the Indian Ocean and the Far East, and the Compag­ nies des Indes Occidentales for trade with the West Indies, which acquired a monopoly over African slave trade later on.4 Like the other East India companies, the French East India Company also started its journey as a joint stock company but under the direct jurisdiction of the French crown.5 Colbert wanted to form it on the model of the Dutch Company but remained unsuccessful. The term ‘Royal’ was associated with the Company by default because it was founded by an act of royal will.6 After its creation the capital was raised from the royal family, courtiers and financers, and the merchant communities of provincial towns.7 The crown paid a substantial amount of the initial capital and put pressure on the others to follow. The result was that the first investment to the French East India Company included the king’s 3 million L.t (Livres Tournois), the high nobility’s 1.3 million, court officials’ including Colbert’s, 800,000 L.t, the Parisian financers’ joint contribution of 3.5 L.t and 2.6 million from the other. It is noteworthy that soon after his initial investment, the French mon­ arch Louis XIV converted it into outright subsidies, presumably to motivate private investors.8 The Company was given the exclu­ sive monopoly of navigation and commerce in the Indies and the South Seas for fifty years. They would have a perpetual concession to places and lands occupied by them with all rights of lordship, and to Madagascar and the neighbouring islands with the duty to propagate Christianity. The colonials were empowered with a certain amount of judicial autonomy but they were to operate fol­ lowing the imperial judicial regulations.9 The Company was also given the rights to send ambassadors to

The French East India Company in Bengal


Indian rulers, to make treaties, to declare war, to hoist the royal flag and to establish garrisons. For the building of ships, the Company was exempt from the payment of duties. The king also promised to give security to its ships.10 The Company sent into envoys, Beb­ ber, Mariage et Du Pont and la Boullaye La Gouz via Aleppo to the King of Persia and the Mughal emperor (Aurangzeb) to secure farmans (Rights to Trade) for starting its factories there. La Boul­ laye Le Gouz was previously been to India and documented his voyage.11 The Company in France was headed by Colbert who was elected as the director. Three committees were formed: one for the administration in France that included personnel, the second for the construction of ships, and the third for goods to be exported to the Indies and imported into France.12 Shareholders had little influence on the Company policy. It was always under the control of the state. Unlike the English or the Dutch Company, the admin­ istrative headquarters of the French Company was in Paris, while its port was at Lorient in Brittany.13 This was the primary organi­ zational frame of the French Company, which later expanded with changes in the countries they traded with and new commercial developments. At the initial stage, the Company suffered from financial trou­ bles14 and from its vulnerability in Asian waters in the time of the European war (Franco-Dutch War, 1672-8).15 This situation forced Colbert to seek other means to subsidize the loss by appealing to the private sector. The crown authorized private merchants to engage in eastern trade (with limited rights) on the condition of shipping goods only on Company vessels and selling them in the company’s sale.16 Gradually, the control of the Company passed into the hands of the merchant and ship-owning families of St. Malo17 who took up most of the share of its trade.18 This practically marked the end of the Colbertian era. Between 1719 and 1733, the Company went through a period of rapid transformation under Jean Law, a Scottish financier. Law founded a bank that was to reduce the state’s debt by using the credit of the commerce of chartered companies and crown taxes. The old Compagnie des Indes was absorbed into this enterprise,


Sandip Munshi

along with other state trading companies. By a new state charter, it established itself as the Compagnie Perpetuelle des Indes under full state control. The new Company took back its monopoly over Indian trade from the St. Malo merchants’ groups in 1719, and merged its taxation, intercontinental trade and country trade together.19 Law’s reforms placed a financial burden on the colonial company, which was totally unrelated to its commercial role. Its sole purpose was to reduce the state debt inherited from the war of Spanish succession by acquiring more credit. Colonial com­ merce was to play a role in this process but later, colonial trade became the moving force.20 Law’s system fell because of feverish speculation in the bank’s (Banque Generale) share and with this, the Company came under a huge financial debt.21 After that, the crown assumed ownership of Law’s bank and responsibility for its debt. Without repaying the bank’s principal creditors, it under­ valued the debt, made it permanent and ensured that it never need be paid. By granting the Company tobacco farms, the crown can­ celled a large portion of the debt and reinforced state control over its administration.22 To control the situation further, the Company opened the French country trade to its employees. The Company, once again, reorganized itself between 1721 and 1723. By another order of 24 March 1723, the administration of the Company was again restructured. A Council of India was cre­ ated. The Council consisted of six members of state, four officers of the king’s marine and ten prominent merchants. This was placed under Cardinal Guillaume Dubois. The Controller-General Dobun became the president.23 By a new proclaimation of 30 August, the Duke of Orleans (Philippe II) returned as the director. Also, it was decided that twelve merchant directors, selected by the crown would run the ‘Department of Commerce’ of the Company. The Council of Indies was constituted by the eight elected members from the share holders each year. Four inspectors were chosen by the king to oversee the work of council and they were answerable to the Controller-General. Though, this order gave some power to the shareholders but the real control was rested with the king. The returns of the shareholders were to be paid by the profit from the Company operations in the Indies.24 In 1730, the new Company

The French East India Company in Bengal


Controller-General, Philibert Orry, figured out that too many responsibilities and uneconomical administration of the Company was preventing it from becoming profitable. To change the situa­ tion, the Company decided to concentrate more on its trade with China and India, and, thus, another round of reorganization took place. The Company excluded the administration of the tobacco farms and Louisiana from its main structure and relieved itself of its heavy burden of unsustainable administration and development. After this, the numbers of ships and the quantity of silver sent out to India and China each year rose. In India, the French country trade increased strongly because of the steady supply of silver from France.25 It is evident that the changes in the Company’s structure in France affected its operation in India greatly. Specifically, the Company’s permission to its employees to conduct private trade and the reorganization of its administration in 1731 resulted in the high growth of its trade in India. During the period (1725-42), Pondicherry was the central com­ mercial and political base of the French East India Company. The French Company acquired Pondicherry in 1674 and it gradually became the epicentre of its venture in India. The constant warfare between Shivaji and Sher Khan resulted in an economic disaster for Surat, the importance of Pondicherry increased substantially. The Superior Council of Pondicherry oversaw all the operations of the French Company in India. All the other Company factories in India were supervised and controlled by it. A chain of command was maintained. The decisions of the French Company flowed down from the chamber of General Directors in Paris to the Supe­ rior Council of Pondicherry and from there to the other Company factories.26 Reports and correspondence from different Company factories all over India also used to reach France in the same way. Based on these, the Company used to determine its policies for differ­ ent factories in India.27 The Provincial Councils of the French Company in India had their own operating body. These factories operated under the instruction of the Superior Council of Pondi­ cherry. The chamber of Directors and the Committees in France were entrusted with major duties, such as the management and


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distribution of capital, the determination of the volume of trade, the appointment of officials for the factories in Asia, and the char­ tering of ships. The decision-making was a twofold process: the first part was the making of the central policy of the Company’s operation, which was determined by the Chamber of Directors in Paris and the second part was how the policy would be implemented as determined by the Superior Council of Pondicherry in the case of India. The decisions taken by the Superior Council were conveyed to the Provincial Councils. Their directors usually implemented these decisions keeping in mind the local political and economic situation. The Provincial Councils had subordinate factories of the province under their command.28 Figure 6.1 shows the operational method of the Company. These were mainly the forward trading

Sources: Martineau, 1920: 19-41; Haudrere, 1989: 320-7.

Figure 6.1: The Organization of the French East India Company

The French East India Company in Bengal


posts of the Provincial Council, all connected with commercially important areas. Their primary duty was to procure commodi­ ties according to the instruction of the Provincial Councils. The subordinate factories also had their own administrative body appointed by the Provincial Council. The number of employees of the subordinate factories depended on the importance of the factory in question. Figure 6.2 shows the control structure of the French factories in India. For example, the French factory in Kasimbazar had about six employees and a garrison of twenty-five armed men for the protec­ tion of the factory, because it was the most important forward post of the company for procuring valuable Bengal textiles. However, the Balasore factory only had a second-grade officer and some clerks in its employ.29 All the subordinate factories in Bengal were run by the Provin­ cial Council of Chandernagore. Their expenses were also managed by the Provincial Council, which included the salaries of the employees, capital for the procurement of goods, the provisioning of transport, the employment of captains for outbound ships and so on.30 It is worth mentioning that the Company’s organization in

Source: Martineau, 1920: 355-97.

Figure 6.2: Control Structure of the French Company Factories in India


Sandip Munshi Table 6.1: Employees of the Kasimbazar Factory and their Scale of Salary (Annual)

Administrative Personnel

Salary (in livres)

The head of the counter


The second officer








Military Personnel










‘Fief ’


‘A drum’


Source: Martineau, 1920: 368.

Bengal was deeply affected by the political, economic and geo­ graphical features of the area. Therefore, while maintaining the formal uniformity of the Company structure, it also organized its operational structure influenced by local variables. This resulted in the considerable growth of the Company’s business during 1725­ 42. The operations of the French East India Company in Bengal were initiated from Pondicherry. A man called Duplesis31 apprised Francois Martin (the first governor of the French factory in Coromandel and later commissioner and Governor general of French India), about his visit to Dhaka, and that he had acquired a farman from Shaista Khan, the governor of Bengal, to establish the Company’s ‘counters’ (Trading Post or Factory) in the cities of commercial importance within the Mughal empire.32 Duplesis, however, failed to run the Company venture in Bengal and returned to Pondicherry on 8 December 1674.33 Though he obtained from Shaista Khan the farman to construct lodges in Dhaka, Kasim-

The French East India Company in Bengal


bazar, Hooghly, and Balasore, he was forced to leave Bengal because of the lack of response from the Company. No letters were written to him nor was he provided with any money for negotiations or even for subsistence. Being considerably in debt, he decided to withdraw, along with all the Frenchmen he had with him.34 The French Company, at the time, was not in a position to establish itself in Bengal. Even their initial foothold in Coromandel was in a very precarious position due to political disturbances.35 This failure was mostly attributed to practical problems. Martin writes in his memoir: We allowed all these opportunities to slip past us and made no attempts to win the advantages which would have been ours if we had acted promptly and vigorously. Having allowed the favorable moments to pass, there were no subsequent attempts to utilize the concessions which had been won by the gentleman (Duplesis) from Shaista Khan, the viceroy of Bengal.36

Martin was ever-enthusiastic about reopening the Company’s commercial operations in Bengal. He transferred the base of French commerce away from Surat to the eastern coast, which had better possibilities of connections with South-East Asia.37 It was his official policy to expand French trade in Bengal and the Coro­ mandel. In January 1686, Martin was appointed as the director of the Coromandel coast and Bengal.38 Soon after resuming his office, he sent a ship the Saint-Joseph, to Bengal in February, along with Sieur Daguinet and Bertrand to examine the possibilities of trade and commodities, and to collect different merchandise for the France-bound ships Vautour and President so that the Company would be able to see for itself the truth of what Martin had been writing to them on several occasions.39 Martin received the authorization from France in May 1687 to establish counters in the kingdom of Bengal.40 On 28 June 1688, he sent two ships Normande and Agile to Bengal with a good quantity of silver.41 To place the affairs of Bengal on a proper footing, the council nominated Andre Boureau Deslandes, Martin’s son-in­ law, as the director of the Bengal factory. He set sail for Bengal on 30 August 1688 with the Company merchant Sieur Huet de la


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Clartiere, a clerk Sieur Fonvielle, and a surgeon Sieur Quentin.42 He arrived at Hooghly on 4 January 1689 and tried to set the affairs of the Bengal factory in motion. Deslandes started negotiations with the diwan in Dhaka for acquiring a farman from the Nawab of Bengal Shaista Khan. The diwan demanded 35,000 rupees from the French Company. During January 1693, the Superior Council of Pondicherry was informed by Deslandes that the negotiations for the obtaining of the farman had been completed.43 Deslandes also got a parvana issued on 21 May 1690 by the subahdar of Hooghly, allowing the purchase of land at Borokishenpore later called Chandernagore.44 Deslandes purchased a piece of land of 61 bighas and two cottahs from three zamindars of the village of Borokishenpore Rameshwar, Sriram and Ramkrishna, at the cost of 40 rupees.45 The foundation of the Chandernagore factory was, thus, laid by Deslandes. By acquiring the farman, Deslandes had established the French Company operations on a legitimate platform. The joint efforts of Martin and Deslandes finally succeeded in firmly establish­ ing the Company in Bengal. The Chandernagore factory became the focal centre for its trade. Gradually, this factory became the staging ground for the Company’s operations in eastern India. It took the French nearly two decades to build a viable organization in Chandernagore, which was capable of running various com­ mercial activities throughout Bengal. The commercial activities of the French Company in Bengal showed signs of growth from the early eighteenth century and became a thriving commercial venture during the period 1730-40. This growth can be attributed to its organizational framework. The well-knit functional structure of the Bengal factory made it possible for the Company to secure a considerable proportion of the Bengal trade. Figure 6.3 shows the location of Chandernagore factory.

Formal Organization and Management Structure of the Bengal Council The Chandernagore factory had some essential geographical advantages. It was situated near some of the main commercial and

The French East India Company in Bengal


Source: From the clay replica of the map currently in the museum of Institute De Chandernagore. Figure 6.3: The Location of the Chandernagore Factory

political centres of Bengal, namely Hooghly, Kasimbazar, Malda and Murshidabad. This gave the French Company a ready market, resources and access to commodities, as well as the availability of the riverine route connecting to the Bay of Bengal, which benefit­ ted the French Company as it did the other European companies in Bengal. Most of the European factories were situated on both sides of the Bhagirathi just like the French factory at Chandernagore. The general operational organization of the French factory of Bengal was divided into administrative and military sections. To serve their politico-commercial needs, a bureaucratic system was established by the French Company in all their factories. Chan­ dernagore was not an exception.46 This system was very much needed to run a factory successfully. There were some precondi­ tions to keep the factory running smoothly: a continuous flow of commercial goods and capital, the maintaining of a subsistence storage facility, providing lasting protection from aggressive political forces, the maintenance of law and order in the area, the provisioning of ships, the forging of alliances, and the skilful management of the stores and warehouses. To fulfil and maintain all these preconditions, a competent administrative structure was


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needed. The French Company was successful in building such an organizational framework from 1674, which was further devel­ oped by the Company directors. On the administrative level, there was a definite hierarchy among the Company officials. The administrative body had many posts that were essential to run its operation. The seat of the Director of the Bengal operations was in Chandernagore. He was invariably appointed by the Chamber of Directors in France and the order of appointment was implemented by the Superior Council of Pondicherry.47 The Director was responsible for all the commercial and political operations of an area. His duty was to implement the policy of the Company and to keep commercial exchanges going. He was answerable to the Superior Council. He was also in charge of the appointment of local brokers and undermerchants though he had to inform the Superior Council about these and provide details of the appointees. On various occa­ sions, if France demanded information regarding local brokers, merchants and the Director of the Bengal Council, the Company was obliged to satisfy these queries. For instance, in 1738, Paris received complaints against Indranarayan Chaudhuri, the courtier (banian) of the French Company in Chandernagore. In a letter, Paris referred to the complaint. Dupleix mentioned in his response that all allegations against Indranarayan were false. He pointed out that the banian Chaudhuri was an old and obedient servant of the Company. Dupleix also stated that the revenue of the villages under the Company administration that had been abandoned for the last fifty years were resumed by Indranarayan who had not only started collecting it but also increased the amount.48 Another duty was to keep the Superior Council informed about the polit­ ical events of the area.49 Besides the Director, there were other administrative posts, such as the first councillor, the quartermaster or the man in charge of the store/warehouse, the second councillor or book-keeper, the third councillor, fourth advisor, fifth advisor, the prosecutor for the king, peons, clerks and sub-dealers. All these posts had certain degrees of administrative duties. The councillors formed

The French East India Company in Bengal


the advisory body to the Director and apart from this, they had their administrative responsibilities. For example, the second councillor was the book-keeper of the Provincial Council, and was responsible for keeping records of all commercial transactions and day-to-day expenditure, as well as the losses and the profits of the Council. A number of peons and clerks helped the book-keeper in doing his job. The prosecutor for the king was entrusted with the judicial duty of the Council; he was also the observer of the king himself. It was his duty to ensure that the company operated under the latter’s laws.50 The peons and clerks had various tasks assigned to them, such as doing the duties of scribes, acting as assistants to the book-keeper, acting as the subordinates of the prosecutor, and quartermaster. Apart from these administrative posts, there were some official artisanal posts, such as those of the master carpen­ ters and master locksmiths. The engineers were entrusted with the duty of overseeing the Company’s constructions and maintenance of the buildings.51 Later on, the Company introduced the post of a courtier, traditionally held by indigenous merchants. They were responsible for commercial agreements and tax farming, and had other commercial and administrative duties.52 To oversee its interest, the Company appointed its agents at the Nawabi court of Dhaka and Murshidabad. These agents often played crucial roles in negotiations between the Company and the local ruler, acquiring farmans of trade and permissions for build­ ing factories. Through its agents at local courts, the Company used to lodge complaints with the state against oppressive local officials. Burat was the company agent at the Murshidabad court during the directorship of Dupleix.53 All higher appointments, however, were either made by the Chamber of Directors or the Superior Council. For instance, in a dispatch dated 20 April 1739, the latter had informed Dupleix that: . . . next to the table of the employees, it is to Mr. Gazon to fill the post of councilor, vacant by the death of Mr. de la Croix. That is why you will give him entry to the Council and his rightful place as the last councilor; he will have him enjoy in this capacity of all the privileges and prerogatives attached to this rank.54


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Less significant appointments were made by the Director him­ self, such as the appointments of peons and clerks. The Superior Council wrote them to Dupleix in the context of his decision on replacing and appointing officials on 20 April 1739: ‘We (the supe­ rior council) have nothing to say to you on the choice that you made of Mr. Bard to replace Mr Argan. It is up to you to judge of his talents and if he is able to fill this position; We can only confirm it.’55 The appointments in the subordinate factories were also made by the Director and the Council, as also that of the captains and supercargoes of outbound ships. Not all appointments were due to seniority; on several occasions, they were determined by the working capability and higher recommendations.56 The requisition of armed forces for the Superior Council was also the responsibility of the Director. Whether the Company would adopt peaceful policies was determined by the local political con­ ditions. The garrisoning of the armed forces also depended on this. However, the allotments of these forces were entirely under the jurisdiction of the Superior Council.57 The French factories always had a garrison stationed though its strength varied with political changes. The Director had the superior authority over the armed forces. The Superior Council of Pondicherry used to allot troops at the request of the Bengal Director and after thoroughly examining the reports sent by him.58 The garrison of the factory consisted of the posts of captain, lieutenant, sub-lieutenant, ensign, sergeants, corporals, lance-corporals, ‘drums’, ‘fife’, fusiliers, Topasse corpo­ rals, topasse soldiers, and an artillery brigade.59 The topasses were very dark-complexioned, half-caste Christians who claimed to be of Portuguese descent. The name topasses were applied to the soldiers of these classes who were superior to the ordinary peon or sepoy.60 The garrison in Chandernagore would consist of twothirds white soldiers; the rest were topasses.61

Decision-making Process Theoretically, at the decision-making level, the Chandernagore factory was bound to operate according to the instructions of

The French East India Company in Bengal


the Superior Council. On every occasion, the Superior Council used to instruct the local Councils through regular dispatches. However, because of the distance between these two factories of Pondicherry and Chandernagore, it was not always possible for the Chandernagore factory to follow all the instructions of the Superior Council. The Directors of the Bengal Council often exer­ cised autonomy in decision-making.62 The Superior Council regularly used to requisition goods and distribute capital for all the subordinate factories.63 However, it was not always possible for the latter to carry out the exact orders. Dupleix understood that without a certain level of autonomy, it was not possible to develop the commercial base of the French Company in Bengal. He was forced to take such a position because of the commercial and political differences within Bengal. It was not possible to issue final orders from Pondicherry for Bengal without taking note of the local economic and commercial fac­ tors. This is why Dupleix started to treat the Superior Council merely as an advisor. He made it clear from the first day of his appointment as the Director of Bengal that he intended to ignore the latter as much as possible.64 He rarely informed the Superior Council about his actions in Bengal. In this context, the Company wrote to Dupleix on 13 October 1732: ‘We came to know from the correspondence that you have spoken to the higher council of Pondicherry. It is essential that you continue to make an accurate account of all your operations and that you comply by reporting to the council following the rules of the subordination.’65 In another dispatch of 10 June 1739, the Superior Council wrote: We can undoubtedly point out that you are not sending us the time to time report of your actions and of the political happenings in Bengal as you promised. If you had not done so up to now, we urge you to give your attention onto this matter. This insubordination can have consequences for the Company’s future. It is our duty to keep informing France about the local political happenings to further determine our policy in here.66

On many occasions, the company reminded Dupleix that he was a subject of the Superior Council. Thus, the Superior Council and Dupleix were tied up in a power struggle. The latter used to


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inform the Superior Council only of matters of grave commercial and political difficulties. In turn, the Superior Council informed the Company in France on several occasions about Dupleix’s acts of disobedience.67 The Directors of the Bengal Council were obliged to inform the Superior Council about the establishment of new subordinate factories and of serious political occurrences. Even Dupleix did so. During the invasion of Nadir Shah in 1739, he informed the French Company about it and conveyed whatever information he could gather by a dispatch that arrived in Pondicherry by the ship Chandernagore on 23 May 1739.68 It contained all the details regarding Thamas Kuli Khan (Nadir Shah) and his invasion of Delhi, the fate of the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah and Dupleix’s fear of political disturbances that could be triggered by this invasion. He requested additional forces for the defence of the factory at Chandernagore.69 On another occasion during his conflict with the prominent merchant of Bengal, Fatehchand Jagat Seth regarding the circula­ tion of Arcot rupees, Dupleix continuously informed the Company about the developments regarding this matter. He also urged the Superior Council to press the matter by using the influence of Imam Sahib and Nizam-ul-Mulk of Hyderabad. He also asked for the advice of the Council when the Nawab of Bengal Sujah Khan imprisoned the courtier of the Chandernagore factory, Indra­ narayan Chaudhuri, on false charges.70 He, likewise, informed the Superior Council when he made a joint move with the Dutch and the English Company against Haji Ahmed’s (the Chief Counselor of Sujah Khan as well as a prominent trader) attempt to monopo­ lize the saltpetre trade.71 It is interesting to note that he did not notify the French Company about the details of the terms upon which this alliance was forged. The Superior Council demanded details but he disregarded this and did not respond.72 Often, the Company in France used to give instructions regard­ ing the private trading activities of its officials in Bengal and the rest of India. For instance, in 1738, it instructed Dupleix to not proceed with his private trade in Mozambique based on La Bourdonnais’ views,73 who alleged that Dupleix was using the

The French East India Company in Bengal


commerce with Mozambique for his profit.74 La Bourdonnais fur­ ther suspected that Dupleix had disobeyed orders. He stated in his report to the Company in France that Dupleix had sent goods to Mozambique without permission from Paris or Pondicherry.75 These kinds of accusations were not new for Dupleix. Regardless of these charges and orders from the Company, he continued send­ ing trading fleets to Mozambique. On another occasion, some of the officials from Chandernagore had informed the Company that Dupleix was using the Patna factory to facilitate his private trading activities. The Company in France demanded Dupleix’s response. Dupleix replied that his interests and those of the Company were never incompatible or contradictory and the former had never taken priority over the Company’s affairs.76 The Superior Council also used to look after the well-being and interests of the family members of deceased Company officials in Bengal. It was also the responsibility of the Superior Council to deal with desertions by the Company officials and soldiers.77 It is very clear from the details of the dispatches sent from Pondicherry to Chandernagore that though there were clear-cut instructions to be followed with information to be provided to enable the decision-making process and the fact that there was a chain of command, the Bengal factory directors operated inde­ pendently on various occasions. Due to the different commercial, political and geographical variables, the Company’s policy was shaped and moulded by the local directors who were much more familiar with the ground reality of the area in question. On several occasions, the Company directors took decisions on their own accord, which they thought were beneficial for the Company’s interests. Dupleix took decisions on his own because he thought it would be best for the Company’s commercial interests. During his directorship, the French Company’s commercial activities and profit in Bengal did increase considerably.

French Factories in Bengal Chandernagore was the main centre of the French Company’s trade in Bengal. However, apart from it, the Company estab­


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lished a chain of factories connecting all the essential commodity production areas. These factories were well-connected with Chan­ dernagore, were operated from this main factory and also followed the organizational structure of the Company. Just as Francois Martin needed the permission of the Company from France to establish the Bengal factory, the Bengal Council would have also required permissions from France and from the Superior Council to establish subordinate factories. Neither the Company court in France nor the Superior Council wanted to maintain or establish unwanted factories in India. Without a prospect of long-term gain, the Company would never approve of any plans for the establishment of a subordinate factory. There­ fore, it used to strictly scrutinize if the requisite and conducive preconditions were present before allowing the establishment of any subordinate factory. These included the suitability of location, political security, accessibility of market, an abundance of com­ modities, transport costs and so on. It was the duty of the local Council to provide the Company and the Superior Council with these details before the proposed factories were set up. The com­ mercial variables were not always the same for every proposed factory but without any prospect of profit, it was impossible to persuade the Company to establish a new factory. In Bengal, the primary export commodities of the French Com­ pany were textiles and saltpetre. The demand for Bengal textiles was always very high and steady in Europe. To maintain the con­ tinuous flow of these commodities, the Company had established its subordinate factories near the main production areas of both these items. If we follow the geographical location of the Com­ pany’s subordinate factories in Bengal, then we can discern that the establishment of these factories was a result of deliberate plan­ ning. Murshidabad, Hooghly and Dhaka were the primary textileproducing areas of Bengal. To access these production areas, the French Company, like the other European companies, established its subordinate factories within a close range. Besides, the main riverine routes connected with the Bay of Bengal and the factories seemed to have been set-up keeping this in mind as well. Apart

The French East India Company in Bengal


from the main factory of Chandernagore, the French Company had five other subordinate factories in Bengal. These were at Bala­ sore, Kasimbazar, Patna, Dhaka and Jugdia.78 Balasore factory was the oldest in eastern India. The city was 144 miles away from Calcutta and its distance from the sea was 4 miles. At the end of the seventeenth century, Balasore was a blooming trade centre but because of the receding sea and the increasing silt deposition in the river, this centre lost its import­ ance. The trading infrastructure of this area gradually moved to Bengal in the north and Cuttack in the south.79 The Mughal subahdar, Ibrahim Khan, gave the French Company permission to set up their lodge here by a parvana issued in 1686.80 The French lodge was situated at a distance of 2 miles from the city, divided into two parts by the river 29 acres on the left bank and 9 acres on the right bank.81 At this time, the trading activities of Balasore were very nomi­ nal and ships to Europe could not be prepared here because of the unavailability of trade goods. However, the importance of Balasore was for other reasons. It used to provide pilots for all the Bengalbound ships. These pilots knew the narrow river channels that led to the Ganges very well and it was their duty to lead the ships safely from the entry of the bay to the Ganges. To pilot a ship, they usually charged 800 rupees. The factory at Balasore was run by an employee of the second order with the assistance of a clerk.82 It served as the roadstead for the captains and crews of the Bengalbound ships and the ships coming from Bengal. Kasimbazar was the most prosperous subordinate factory of the French Company. Long before the presence of the Company in Bengal, the famous French traveler Francois Bernier, after his visit here in 1660, urged the French to concentrate on the silk of the region in his letter to Colbert.83 Kasimbazar was situated 160 miles north of Chandernagore alongside the Bhagirathi River.84 The total area of the factory was 82 hectares, consisting of lowlands prone to flooding. In the eighteenth century, Kasimbazar was a thriving and densely-populated trading centre. In reality, it was the suburb of Murshidabad, the then capital of Bengal,85 and its proximity to the court and mint might have added to its prominence. The city


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derived its importance for its silk, which remained the primary product of the area. When the Chandernagore factory started, the French Company had contacted some indigenous merchants of this area to ensure the supply of silk. They used to buy it on the spot for the Company and later send it to the Chandernagore factory. These were the forward contract merchants of the Com­ pany. However, the poor quality of goods obtained by them made the Company contemplate establishing a forward trading post in Kasimbazar. Rila Mukherjee has pointed out that the French Com­ pany’s trade in Kasimbazar thrived along with the English and the Dutch Company in the 1730s-40s.86 The French Company started thinking of sending its employees to Kasimbazar who would buy for it. Finally, a factory was established here.87 The French Com­ pany, just like the English and Dutch companies, employed dadni merchants there.88 Kasimbazar provided the Company with silk through eleven months of the year. From November to January, the finest and best silk was provided because of the winter season in Bengal when the mulberry leaves remain extremely tender. This silk was called agni or tani. During February and March, soila, a second-grade silk was produced. During July, August and September, there was a silk of a third quality, which was called aaony. Finally, the silk of April, May and June, qualitatively the worst of the lot due to the aridity of the soil, was named atchary.89 The French Company only purchased the first three qualities and not the fourth. The first, being the most valued, was also the most sought-after and the Company was often not able to acquire it. The competition was very steep in Kasimbazar, and the English and Dutch companies always used to get the first share of the tani production because of their already established presence here from an earlier period.90 The silk of Kasimbazar had an immense re-export value and that is why it very quickly attracted the French Company’s attention. Apart from the different qualities of silk, the Kasimbazar factory also provided the Company with different kinds of textiles of high demand and value in Europe. These were: 1. Allibanis (mixed cotton and silk, probably striped) 2. Bandannoes (silk handkerchieves)

The French East India Company in Bengal 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.


Chintz (block-printed) Doreas (mixed cotton and silk) Ginghams (mixed cotton and silk, striped) Gurrahs (plain white) Jamwars (silk brocade) Seersuckers (mixed cotton and silk, striped) Sooseys (mixed cotton and silk, striped) Taffetas (silk piece goods)91

The Kasimbazar factory, was a major establishment because of its economic importance. To manage the lodge, the Chander­ nagore Council stationed several of its employees there. The factory consisted of a first-grade officer as the head of the counter, his two subordinates, an accountant, a clerk, a chaplain and a sur­ geon. The Bengal Council also spared a detachment of twenty-five soldiers for the protection of the factory.92 Dindinarayan, the son of the banian of the Chandernagore factory, Indranarayan, was appointed as the banian of the Kasimbazar factory.93 The Bengal Council proposed that the Kasimbazar factory should buy silk tani worth 60,000 rupees every year with other textiles produced in the area, which were in high demand in Europe.94 It would not be wrong to perhaps suggest that the Kasimbazar factory not only provided the French Company with the silk and textiles of Kasim­ bazar but also provided it with the rich textile productions of Malda. Malda was another vital textile-producing area of Bengal and the Kasimbazar factory being situated near it thereby also pro­ vided the French Company with access to the textile-production areas there. Another important French Company establishment was the one in Patna. Patna was also renowned for its variety of textiles. Besides textiles, Patna was the supplier of the best quality opium in the country. The location of Patna made it the only market for Tibetan and Kashmiri goods in eastern India. Because of its geographi­ cal advantage and the abundance of commodities, the French Company established its Patna factory in 1734, much later than the establishment of the English and Dutch factories there. By the time the French Company decided to establish their factory here,


Sandip Munshi

the other European company factories were already flourishing.95 Besides the reasons mentioned above, the abundance of saltpetre in Patna also influenced the French Company’s decision to estab­ lish their factory here. Saltpetre was one of its primary export commodities. Figures 6.4 and 6.5 show the concentration of textile and saltpetre producing and trading regions in Bengal. The price of saltpetre in Patna was much lower than in other places.96 The French had found the Patna factory to be of great importance for their trade. Therefore, they gave Dupleix carte blanche (open permission) to buy as much saltpetre as possible. A 1736 record suggests they asked Dupleix to buy 6,000 maunds of saltpetre.97 In July 1736, the Pondicherry factory expressed its satisfaction about the Patna factory and wrote: The establishment of Patna is of utility to the company and would become much more with the sale of European goods. We are persuaded that the company will gain by buying saltpeter from Patna than from the coast. The price of saltpeter has fallen at Patna and it is of best quality. . . .98

The demand of the French Company for Patna’s saltpetre increased steadily. Apart from it, the textiles of Patna were also of importance. Patna used to produce a wide range of textiles. These were: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

Bafta (plain white) Chintz (block-printed) Chowtars (plain white) Emerties (plain white) Lacowries (plain white)99

All these textiles had a ready market in Europe. Another impor­ tant benefit of the Patna factory was its connectivity with Nepal. Later, the Company also planned on venturing into Nepal through this factory though the proposal was never realized. Apart from saltpetre and cotton textiles, other essential trading commodi­ ties in Patna included fine-grade opium, vermilion, camphor and quicksilver.100 Dupleix also engaged heavily in the opium trade. In 1737, Dupleix asked Groiselle, the then Company agent at Patna, to buy 80 cases of opium.101 Later, because of the growing

Bengal’s Main Textile Production Areas

Source: Martineau, 1920: 355-97. Figure 6.4: Bengal’s Main Textile-Production Areas (eighteenth century)

Bengal’s Saltpetre Producing and Trading Areas

Source: Martineau, 1920: 355-75. Figure 6.5: Bengal’s Saltpetre-Producing and Trading Areas (eighteenth century)


Sandip Munshi

importance of the Patna factory, Dupleix appointed Finiel to assist Groiselle and raised their salaries. To increase the procurement of commodities from Patna, he sought permission from France to establish two other small counters in Chapra and Singeria near Patna.102 Another important French Company factory was situated in Dhaka. Dhaka was a city of considerable political importance. It was located 264 miles east of Calcutta, easily accessible by the riverine route. The Company acquired the right to establish its factory in Dhaka in 1722.103 Dhaka was also crucial to the French Company for its textile production, especially the famous Dhaka muslin, which was of great value and demand in European mar­ kets. The French Company established their factory in Dhaka to acquire muslins directly. It appointed Sieur Téchère to look over its interests here. He was provided with 87,000 rupees to procure goods.104 The Company used to procure a wide range of valuable muslins besides other textiles produced in this area, such as: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15.

Addaties (plain white muslin) Bafta (plain white) Cossaes (plain white muslin) Dysookies (plain white muslin) Dimittis (plain white muslin) Hummams (plain white muslin) Jamdanees (brocade with white or coloured silk) Mulmuls (plain white muslin, base cloth for fine embroidery or flowering on the loom) Nainsook (plain white muslin) Salbafts (plain white muslin) Seerhaudconnaes (plain white muslin, luxury quality) Seerbettes (plain white muslin, superfine quality) Seerbands (plain white muslin) Tanjeebs (plain white muslin, fine quality) Terrindams (plain white muslin, fine to superfine quality)105

The French Company’s factory at Jugdia was approximately 300 miles east of Calcutta and 20 miles of Chittagong. Although located near the sea, the most convenient access route to Jugdia

The French East India Company in Bengal


was the inland waterways, via the Ganges first and then the Brahmaputra. Jugdia was situated at the mouth of the River Feni.106 Due to continuous erosion by the sea, the exact location of Jugdia was very hard to determine because of the continuous shifting of the shoreline. The French Company established its factory at Jugdia in 1735. At the time of its establishment, the Company lodge was two leagues away from the sea, which, by 1757, had been reduced to 3 km. Finally, in 1766, the lodge was completely washed away by the sea and the Company shifted its factory elsewhere.107 The counter in Jugdia had been established to provide the French Company with various goods of local specialization and value. These were mainly textiles, such as: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.

Gurrahs (plain white) Bafta (plain white) Cossaes (plain white muslin) Sanas (fine cotton) Rumals (handkerchieves) Toiles I quatre fils (cloths with four threads) Bazins communs108

The price of these textiles ranged from 5 to 30 francs a piece.109 Apart from the availability of different kinds of cotton textiles in Jugdia, another attraction was the cheap and abundant labour in the region.110 The French Company sent two of its officers, Ignace and Téchère, to Jugdia in 1735 under the instructions of the Dhaka factory. They received their funds from Dhaka to procure goods from Jugdia. During the first year of its existence, the Jugdia fac­ tory was instructed by Dupleix to procure goods worth 40,000 rupees.111 Later, during the 1750s, Jugdia became one of the prin­ cipal trading centres of the French Company in Bengal. The French East India Company established their subordinate factories very strategically. The Chandernagore factory had easy accessibility to all of them. Due to their diverse features, the Com­ pany had different strategies for each factory. Not all the factories were of similar importance but all of them had some uniqueness. It was essential for the Company to maintain a constant flow of commodities to keep up its commercial growth in Bengal. Because


Sandip Munshi

of the carefully devised location of these subordinate factories, the French East India Company in Bengal (1725-42) did have access to a variety of goods. This constant flow of high-value commodities, in turn, made it possible for the Company to flourish in Bengal. All the European companies had established their factories in commercially viable areas. What was commendable about the French were that they did it rapidly in a short span of time after their early failures. Figure 6.6 shows the areas under French com­ mercial influence; Figure 6.7 shows the connectivity of the French factories in Bengal.

Trading Variables and Operational Methods The commercial operations of the French Company in Bengal functioned through a cyclic process. The commodities of Bengal, or at least most of them (for example, textiles), had an immense sale value in Europe and, hence their procurement in time and volume was of great importance. This operational method had

Source: Martineau, 1920: 355-97. Figure 6.6: French Company Factories in Bengal and Areas under French Commerce

The French East India Company in Bengal


Source: Martineau, 1920: 299-348. Figure 6.7: Connectivity of Bengal Factories

different stages. At the first stage, the Company was required to send capital and imports, such as gold, silver, metals, broadcloth, pearl, corals, treasure and spices, from other Asian factories and from Europe to procure goods from Bengal. The merchandise of Bengal had a different commercial value. Most of the commodities with substantial re-export value were directed to Europe by the Company; sometimes directly from Bengal, sometimes through Pondicherry or other factories. Some of the commodities were directed to other Asian or African markets to procure import goods for Indian and European markets. These import goods were once again sent to Indian markets to procure textiles and other such commodities. The French Company’s organization in Europe used to play a twofold part in this process. First, it had to send requisitions of commodities for every Asian factory after tallying the demand of these commodities in the European markets. Then it had to assign capital for every factory to procure goods and arrange for shipping to send the capital and requisitions to Asia. After receiving requisitions of the commodities, it was the duty


Sandip Munshi

of the Superior Council to circulate the requisitions and capital to every factory. It was up to the local factories to send goods as per the requirements of the Company, though the local factories’ success in fulfilling requisitions were highly dependent on differ­ ent local economic and political factors. After the procurement of goods, the local factories or the Superior Council would send them directly to France. To procure further capital, the Company in France used to sell those goods or re-export them to other mar­ kets according to the demand. Apart from the European markets, the demand for Bengal textiles was also high in the African and Asian markets, such as Mozambique, Mocha, Pegu, Manila and Malacca. After the pro­ curement of Bengal goods by the local factories, a part of these was sent to the other overseas markets of the French Company to procure other high-value commodities from those markets – articles such as ivory, spices, pepper, wood and cowries. To understand this system, we can follow a single year’s shipping schedule of the Chandernagore factory. For instance, in 1732-3, the Company in France had asked the Chandernagore factory to ship garas, rumals, malmals, doreas, terrindams, nainsook and tanjeebs, and had sent 90,000 rupees along with a shipment of coral worth 10,000 rupees to procure the goods.112 Two ships the Philibert and the Dauphin, both of 500 tons, departed for Europe with a cargo consisting of 563 bales of garas, addaties, hammams, cherconnaes, tanjeebs, doreas, malmals, silk tany, embroidered muslins from Dhaka, nainsooks, saltpetre and pepper from the Chandernagore factory.113 Most of these cargoes had a large re-export value in Europe. In the same year, nearly twelve ships of a tonnage rang­ ing from 250 to 500 tons departed for various trading centres of South-East, East and South-West Asia, such as Basra, Maldives, Aceh, Bandar Abbas and Pegu, with a assorted cargo of textiles like doreas, garas, baftas and muslins, besides saltpetre, cowries, wine, pepper and redwood.114 Thus, we can divide the commercial operations of the Bengal factory into two sections: (1) European and (2) Asian and African. Apart from these two circuits, a con­ siderable part of its commercial operations involved the country trade. It ran between the trading centres of the Indian subconti­

The French East India Company in Bengal


nent. Every year, a considerable number of ships also sailed for the trading centres of Malabar and Coromandel, such as Goa, Surat, Pondicherry, Karikkal, Mahe and Madras. The Company also ventured into inland trade within the subcontinent on differ­ ent occasions. The geographical location of Chandernagore and the Gangetic delta provided easy communication and encouraged penetration into the interior, and the Bengal Council very success­ fully used this strategic advantage to increase their inland trading activities.115 It sent trading parties to Assam and Chittagong116 though most of the country trade was run by private merchants of the Company. From the time of Dupleix, private trading activities reached their zenith. Apart from the Company’s official trading activities, its officials engaged heavily in private trading activi­ ties, using the commercial connections of the Company. It goes without saying that these flourishing private trading activities also helped the Company to expand its commercial activities.117 Table 6.2 is showing the French imports and exports from Bengal.

Communication and Control Effective control over the French Company’s trading system also heavily depended on its communication structure. As mentioned earlier, its policy-making was highly dependent on information gathered from the different factories in India. All the local facto­ ries were to send information to the Superior Council and through the latter to the Company in France. The political and commer­ cial occurrences in their respective areas of operation were to be reported. It was the duty of the Company in France to formulate policies after examining the information thus gathered.118 Decision-making at the local level was also determined by the timely arrival of instructions from France. It was the duty of the Superior Council to convey directives to the local factories. The political and commercial picture of Bengal was very complicated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Apart from local political challenges, the Bengal factory had to deal with other European companies, such as those of the Dutch and the English. The changing political relations between these countries in Europe

Table 6.2: The List of Imports and Exports of

French Company in Bengal

Company Imports from Bengal

Company Exports to Bengal


1. Allibanis (mixed cotton and silk, probably striped) 2. Bandannoes (silk handker­ chieves)

3. Doreas (mixed cotton and silk) 4. Ginghams (mixed cotton and

silk, striped)

5. Gurrahs (plain white) 6. Jamawars (silk brocade) 7. Seersuckers (mixed cotton and

silk, striped)

8. Sooseys (mixed cotton and silk, striped) 9. Bafta (plain white) 10. Addaties (plain white muslin) 11. Cossaes (plain white muslin) 12. Dysookies (plain white muslin) 13. Dimittis (plain white muslin) 14. Hummams (plain white muslin) 15. Jamdanees (brocade with white or coloured silk) 16. Mulmuls (plain white muslin, base cloth for fine embroidery or flowering on the loom) 17. Nainsook (plain white muslin) 18. Salbafts (plain white muslin) 19. Seerhaudconnaes (plain white muslin, luxury quality) 20. Seerbettes (plain white muslin, superfine quality) 21. Seerbands (plain white muslin)

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18.

B roadcloth Coral Copper Iron Ivory Silver Gold Wine A nchors Shipping tools Lead Biscuits Cowries Pepper Cardamom Vermillion Redwood Sandalwood

Treasures 1. Silver Ingots 2. Cruzados 3. F rench Crowns 4. French Dollars 5. Arcot Rupees


The French East India Company in Bengal


Table 6.2 contd. 22. Tanjeebs (plain white muslin, fine quality) 23. Terrindams (plain white muslin, fine to superfine quality 24. Chintz (block printed) 25. Chowtars (plain white) 26. Emerties (plain white) 27. Lacowries (plain white) Other than textiles 1. Saltpetre 2. Wheat 3. Rice 4. Opium 5. Raw silk 6. Slaves 7. Exotic animals Sources: Correspondance du Conseil Supérieur de Pondichéry avec le Con­ seil de Chandernagor, II; Martineau, 1920; Pillai, 1904, vol. 1; Wellington, 2006.

used to affect their equations in Bengal. On many occasions, the French Company faced opposition from the other European companies in Bengal. In these circumstances, the Bengal Council was heavily dependent upon the orders of the Superior Council. Even during its negotiations with local political forces, the factory needed the support of and instructions from the Superior Coun­ cil.119 For instance, when the courtier of the Chandernagore factory Indranarayan Chaudhuri was arrested by the local authorities on false charges, the Superior Council asked the Bengal factory to desist from engaging in this matter without further orders from the Company.120 Timely appointments of higher posts were also entrusted to the Company in France and the Superior Council. For example, by a dispatch of 8 September 1739, the Superior Council had sent the


Sandip Munshi

list of appointments and promotions ordered by the Company in France, and asked the Bengal Council to implement these changes after receiving the order. The Superior Council had written in the dispatch that: ‘We are sending you the copy of the order sent from France by which it will be easy to see at a glance, the number of employees that the Company wants to maintain in the Indies, and the name of those who will be promoted when there will be a vacant post.’121 Ananda Ranga Pillai who was the Courtier or the Banian of the French Company in Pondicherry, also often mentions in his diary that all appointments to the higher posts were mainly made on the instructions of the Company in France.122 The success of every factory and council depended on a functional communication sys­ tem. In dealing with local and external forces, the appointment of officials, the scheduling of ships and, in fact, every decision of the Company was monitored through a network. Any vague instruc­ tion could result in a loss for the Company. Therefore, it instructed all its factories to be very careful when sending reports. The French East India Company, thus, built a functional communication sys­ tem. To maintain the constant and smooth flow of information and instructions/orders, the Company, Superior Council and local factories utilized all possible trade routes, every piece of apparatus and all means to circulate and convey their messages. The Com­ pany not only used its chartered ships but also the inland trading routes to pass on its messages to the local factories. On various occasions, it even sent messages through the Europe-bound or India-bound English ships. On the other hand, it was the duty of the local French factories to continuously feed the Company in France with local news and information. There are volumes of correspondence sent by the Bengal Council to the Company in France, which is housed in various archives and libraries in France at present. Table 6.3 shows the dispatches from Pondicherry to Chandernagore and the modes of sending the dispatches. On many occasions, updates regarding the departure and arrival of ships from between France and Pondicherry were conveyed by the English ships. In 1739, the Superior Council of Pondicherry sent 19 dispatches/correspondences to the Provincial Council of

English Vessel

French Vessel Ressource

French Vessel Heureux

French Vessel Chandernagore

French Vessel Midi

French Vessel Saint Joseph

By Land

French Vessel l’union

French Vessel Chauvelin

French Vessel Heureux

French Vessel Argonaute

French Vessel Argonaute

French Vessel Pondichery

Indian Brigantine

French vessel Saint Pierre

20 April

26 May

10 June

25 June

2 August

7 August

26 August

31 August

2 September

8 September

12 September

17 September

25 September

27 September

Dispatched rough

12 March



8 October

1 October

20 September

15 September

30 August

18 August

5 August

28 July

18 July

3 July

14 June

1 June

28 April

12 April

15 February


French Vessel Cantorbery

French Vessel Cantorbery

French Vessel Fidele

French Vessel Pondichery

French Vessel Cheval Marin

French Vessel Union

French Vessel Fluvy

French vessel Saint Joseph

French Vessel Rose

French Vessel Diane

French Vessel Neptune

Portuguese Vessel La Galiotte

French Vessel Saint Geran

French Vessel Marie Gertrude

French Vessel Rose

Dispatched rough


Table 6.3: List of Dispatches and Orders Sent from Pondicherry to Chandernagore (1739-40)


French Vessel Marie Gertrude

French Vessel Marie Gertrude

By Land

12 October

13 October

1 November

By Land By Land

3 December

By Land

By Land

French Vessel Neptune

Dispatched rough


30 November

7 November

22 October


9 October


Source: Correspondance du Conseil Supérieur de Pondichéry avec le Conseil de Chandernagor, 1916: II, 54-161.

By Land

Dispatched rough


8 October


Table 6.3 contd.

The French East India Company in Bengal


Chandernagore, out of these 19, two were carried by the English Company’s vessels, three had been sent through the overland route and 14 dispatches were carried by the French Company’s ships.123 This was the average number of dispatches sent by the Superior Council to the Bengal Council. Nearly every month, the Superior Council used to send an average of two pieces of correspondence to maintain the flow of orders and information. In this way, the French Company created and maintained an operational chain of communication, which helped the Bengal factory and the overall commercial activities of the Company to run in a smooth manner. The French Company’s organization in Bengal went through an extended period of transformation. During the first half of the eighteenth century, with the formation of the new Company, the directors understood the importance of their commercial opera­ tions in India. The commodity flow from India, primarily in the form of textiles, had made the Company a considerable profit in the European markets. Bengal had a significant share in the Com­ pany’s textile imports from India. To maintain the supply from Bengal the Company and the Superior Council both tried to reor­ ganize their Bengal operations. The inputs of the Company finally succeeded in transforming the Bengal Council into an efficient commercial entity.

Acknowledgements The author would like to thank Bidyut Kumar Bera and Louis Patrick St. Pierre for their help in going through and checking the French manuscripts.

NOTES 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.

Chaudhuri, 1978: 19. Manning, 1996: 20. Boulle, 1981: 105. Ibid.: 107. Manning, 1996: 20. Ibid.: 21.

222 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17.

18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31.

32. 33.

Sandip Munshi Ibid. Boulle, 1981: 107. Kaeppelin, 1908: 7-9. Also see Lach, Van Kley, 1993: 96-8. Ibid. Ibid.: 9-10. Ibid.: 11. Manning, 1996: 21. Boulle, 1981: 108. Manning, 1996: 21. Boulle, 1981: 108. St Malo Merchant Group: The St Malo merchants were a strong French private merchant group based on the island of St Malo. The St Malo merchants made their fortune from trafficking silver to Spain and by their extensive trade with England. Later, with the establish­ ment of the East Indian trade, they started investing heavily in it. The St Malo merchants offered strong opposition to the French mainland merchants and gradually became a very influential merchant lobby in the French East India Company. Their influence was destroyed during the reorganization of the French Company in 1723. Manning, 1996: 22. Ibid.; 27; Haudrere, 1989: 106-7. Boulle, 1981: 112. Manning, 1996: 27. Boulle, 1981: 22-3. Haudrere, 1989: 93-110; Wellington, 2006: 55-6. Ibid.: 109-10. Manning, 1996: 28-9. For more details on the Company administration of Pondicherry and other factories of India, see Haudrere, 1989; Wellington, 2006. Conseil, II: 82, Haudrere, 1989: 328. Haudrere, 1989: 320, 326-7. Martineau, 1920: 355-64. Conseil, II: 65. Duplesis was the first representative of the French Company in Ben­ gal. He bought a strip of land in Borokishenpore measuring twenty repents in exchange for 401 rupees from Shaista Khan. This area is located to the northern part of Chandernagore and is called Taut­ khana, of Taldanga. Martin, 1981, vol. II, pt. 1: 415. Ibid., 1981, vol. I, pt. 2: 472.

The French East India Company in Bengal 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41. 42. 43. 44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51. 52. 53. 54. 55. 56. 57. 58. 59. 60. 61. 62. 63. 64. 65. 66. 67. 68. 69. 70. 71. 72.


Ibid. Ibid., various pages. Ibid.: 473. Ray, 2004, vol. I: 288. Martin, 1981, vol. II, pt. 1: 985. Ibid.: 988. Ibid.: 1059. Ibid.: 1109. Ibid.: 1138. Ibid., vol. II, pt. 2, 1177, 1232, 1242. Ray, 2004, vol. I: 296. Ibid.: 307-8. Martineau, 1920: 92-3. Martin, 1981, vol. II, pt. 1: 985. For Dupleix’s reply see Dupleix to the Director-General, 25 Novem­ ber 1738, BN Fr. 8981, ff. 16-18. Also see Ray, 2004, vol. II; 902. Martineau, 1920: 31-5, 92-5, 227-31. Ibid.: 31-5, 92-5, 227-31. Haudrere, 1989, vol. I: 339. Martinue, 1920: 234-5. Ibid.: 227-31. Conseil, II: 75 Ibid.: 61. Ibid.: 31-5, 227-31 Haudrere, 1989, vol. I: 334. Conseil, II: 103. Ibid.: 60. Martineau, 1920: 247-8. Pillai, 1904, vol. 1: 59. Martineau, 1920: 248. Ibid.: 227-8. Conseil, I: 227, 360, 385. Martineau, 1920: 227-8. Ibid.: 228. Conseil, II: 81. Haudrere, 1989, vol. I: 331. Pillai, 1904, vol. I: 93. Dupleix to Gazon, 26th March 1739, BN Fr. 8982, fol. 55v. Martineau, 1920: 181. Conseil, II: 58. Ibid.


Sandip Munshi

73. La Bourdonnais: Influential French aristocrat who entered the ser­ vice of the French East India Company in 1718 as a lieutenant, was appointed as the Governor of Isle de France and Isle de Bourbon in 1735, and was one of the competitors of Dupleix. 74. For Dupleix’s Reply see Dupleix to the Director-Generals at Paris, 25 November 1738, BN Fr. 8981, f. 13. Also see Ray, 2004, vol. II: 901. 75. Ibid. 76. Fore Dupleix’s Reply see Dupleix to the Director-Generals at Paris, 25 November 1738, BN Fr. 8981, f. 12. Ibid.; also see Ray, 2004, vol. II: 900. 77. Conseil, I: 273, 359 also see Conseil, II: 58, 71. 78. Martineau, 1920: 355. 79. Ibid.: 356. 80. Ibid. 81. Ibid. 82. Ibid.: 356-7. 83. Bernier, 1916: 202. 84. Martineau, 1920: 364. 85. Ibid.: 365. 86. Mukherjee, 1994: 499-554. 87. Martineau, 1920: 365. 88. Mukherjee, 1994: 499-554. 89. Martineau, 1920: 365-6. 90. Ibid.: 366. 91. Martineau, 1920; Chaudhuri, 1978; Wellington, 2006. 92. Martineau, 1920: 367. 93. Ibid. 94. Ibid. 95. Ibid.: 375-6. 96. Ibid. 97. Ray, 2004, vol. II: 864. 98. Ibid. 99. Martineau, 1920; Chaudhuri, 1978; Wellington, 2006. 100. Conseil, II: 14. 101. Dupleix to Groiselle at Patna, 21 September 1737, BN Fr. 8980, ff. 36-36v; also see Manning, 1996: 191. 102. Dupleix to the Syndics and the Director-Generals of the Company at Paris, 23 November 1737, BN Fr. 8980, f. 50v. Also see Ray, 2004, vol. II: 882.

The French East India Company in Bengal 103. 104. 105. 106. 107. 108. 109. 110. 111. 112. 113. 114. 115. 116. 117. 118. 119. 120. 121. 122. 123.


Martineau, 1920: 395. Ibid.: 395. Martineau, 1920; Chaudhuri, 1978; Wellington, 2006. Mukherjee, 1990: 4-5. Martineau, 1920: 396. Mukherjee, 1990: 5. Ibid. Ibid.: 7. Martineau, 1920: 396. Ibid.: 260-4. Ibid. Ibid.: 302-5. Manning, 1996: 190. Dupleix to Sichterman, 25 July 1739, BN Fr. 8982, fol. 96. Also see Manning, 1996. Martineau, 1920: various pages. Also see Manning, 1996. Conseil, II: 71,72. Ibid.: 58. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid.: 75. Ibid., II: 54-123.

REFERENCES Unpublished Sources Dupleix, ‘Registre de lettres écrites de Chandernagor, par Dupleix’ (1731-1740); Tome I. Années 1731-1733; Tome II. Années 1737­ 1738; Tome III. Années 1738-1739; Tome IV. Années 1739-1740; Mss. Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BN), Département des manuscrits, Français 8979; 8980; 8981; 8982.

Published Sources Bernier, François. 1916. Travels in the Mogul Empire, ed. Humphrey Millford, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Boulle, P.H. 1981. ‘French Mercantilism, Commercial Companies and Colonial Profitability’, in Leonard Blusse and Femme Gastra, eds., Companies and Trade: Essays on Overseas Trading Companies


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during the Ancien Regime, Leiden: Leiden University Press, pp. 97-117. Butel, Paul. 2007. ‘French Traders and India at the End of the Eighteenth Century’, in Sushil Chaudhury and Michel Morineau, eds., Merchants, Companies and Trade: Europe and Asia in the Early Modern Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 287-99. Chaudhuri, K.N. 1978. The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company 1660-1760. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Chaudhury, Sushil. 1975. Trade and Commercial Organization in Bengal 1650-1720. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay. . 1999. From Prosperity to Decline: Eighteenth Century Bengal. New Delhi, Manohar. Correspondance du Conseil Superieur de Pondichery avec le Conseil de Chandernagor. 1916. Tome I: 1728-1737, Tome II: 1738-1747. Pondicherry: Societe de l’histoire de l’Inde française. Correspondance du Conseil Superieur de Pondichery et de la Compagnie. 1920. Pondicherry: Societe de l’histoire de l’Inde française. Crawford, D.G. 1902. The Brief History of Hughli District. Calcutta: Bengal Spectator Press. Cultru, Prosper. 1904. Dupleix: ses Plans Politiques sa Disgrace. Paris: Librairie Hachette. Deloche, Jean. 1990. Statistiques de Chandernagore, 1823, 1827, 1883. Pondicherry: Institute Français de Pondichery. Geller, J.H. 2000. ‘Towards a New Imperialism in Eighteenth-Century India: Dupleix, La Bourdonnais and the French Compagnie des Indes’. Portuguese Studies, vol. 16, pp. 240-55. Ghosh, Lipika. 1998. Chandannagoreer kotha. Chandannagore: Giridut. Habib, Irfan  and Tapan Raychaudhuri, eds. 1982. The Cambridge Economic History of India, vol. 1. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press. Haudrere, Philippe. 1989. La Compagnie Francaise des Indes au XVIIIe siècle 1719-1795, 4 vols., Paris: Librairie de l’Inde. . 2007. ‘The French India Company and its Trade in the Eighteenth Century’, in Sushil Chaudhury and Michel Morineau, eds., Merchants, Companies and Trade: Europe and Asia in the Early Modern Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 202-11. Kaeppelin, Paul. 1908. La Compagnie des Indes Orientales et Francois Martin. Paris: Augustin Challamel. Lach, Donald F. and Edwin J. Van Kley. 1993. Asia in the Making of

The French East India Company in Bengal


Europe, vol. III: A Century of Advance. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press. Luillier, Sieur. 1726. Voyages du Sieur Luillier dans les grandes Indes Orientales. Rotterdam: Hofout. Malleson, G.B. 1909. History of the French in India: From the Founding of Pondichery in 1674 to the Capture of that Place in 1761. Edinburgh: J. Grant. Manning, Catherine. 1996. Fortunes à Faire: The French in Asian Trade, 1719-48. Hampshire: Variorum. Margerison, Kenneth. 2015. ‘French Vision of Empire: Contesting British Power in India after the Seven Years War’. English Historical Review, vol. CXXX, no. 544, pp. 583-612. Marshall, P.J. 1976. East Indian Fortunes: The British in Bengal in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Martin, Francois. 1984. India in the 17th Century: Memoirs of Francois Martin 1670-1694, 2 vols., tr. and ed. Lotika Varadarajan, New Delhi: Manohar. Martineau, Alfred. 1920. Dupleix et L’Inde Francaise, 1722-1741. Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honore Champion. Mukherjee, Rila. 2015. ‘Competing Spatial Networks: Kasimbazar and Chandernagore’, in Michael Pearson, ed., Overland and Indian Ocean Worlds: Trade, Circulation, and Flow in the Indian Ocean World. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, Macmillan, pp. 129-51. . 1990. ‘The Chandernagore Jugdia Letters: A Look at the FEIC’s East Bengal Trade from 1750 to 1753’, Calcutta, CSSSC Occasional Paper. . 1994. ‘The Story of Kasimbazar: Silk Merchants and Commerce in Eighteenth-Century India’. Review (Fernand Braudel Centre), vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 499-554. Pillai, Ananda Ranga. 1904. The Private Diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai, 1736-1761, vol. 1, tr. and ed. J. Frederick Price and K. Rangachari. Madras: Madras Government Press. Prakash, Om. 1972. ‘The Dutch East India Company in Bengal: Trade Privileges and Problems, 1633-1712’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, July 1972, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 258-87. . 1998. The New Cambridge History of India: European Commercial Enterprise in Pre-Colonial India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. . 1985. The Dutch East India Company and the Economy of Bengal 1630-1720. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


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Ray, Aniruddha. 2004. The Merchant and the State: The French in India. 1666-1739, 2 vols., New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal. Ray, Indrani. 1999. The French East India Company and the Trade of the Indian Ocean: A Collection of Essays by Indrani Ray, ed. Lakshmi Subramanian. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal. Raychaudhuri, Tapan. 1962. Jan Company in Coromandel 1605-1690: A Study in the Interrelations of European Commerce and Traditional Economies. The Hague: M. Nijhoff. Sen, S.P. 1947. The French in India. Calcutta: University of Calcutta Press. Sinha, N.K. 1965. The Economic History of Bengal: From Plassey to the Permanent Settlement, 3 vols. Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay. Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. 1988. ‘Commerce and State Power in Eighteenthcentury India: Some Reflections’. South Asia Research, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 97-110. . ed. 1990. Merchants, Markets and the State in Early Modern India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Tavernier, J.B. 1889. Travels in India, ed. V. Ball. London: Macmillan and Company. Vaghi, Massimiliano. 2014. ‘Fear as a Political Instrument: J.P. Dupleix and Euro-Indian Relations in Bengal (1730-1740)’. Governare la Paura. URL: 10.6092/issn.1974-4935/4419 Verma, Sandeep Kumar. 2015. ‘Currency System in Pondicherry under the Rule of French East India Company (Compagnie des Indes Orientales), 1674-1761: Role of Indigenous Merchants and Sarrafs’, International Journal of Applied Research, 1, 8, pp. 110-16. Wellington, Donald C. 2006. French East India Companies: An Historical Account and Records of Trade. Chicago: Hamilton Books.


Imaging of Courtly Life

Bengal Nizamat in Eighteenth-century

Murshidabad Paintings

Mrinalini Sil

The Mughal empire annexed Bengal by 1603 during the reign of Emperor Akbar (1556-1605). However, unlike northern India, Bengal as a border province had never been fully incorporated into the Mughal pattern of administration and bureaucracy. After Emperor Aurangzeb’s (1658-1707) death, with increasing political disturbances and declining imperial control, Murshid Quli Khan, the last diwan of Aurangzeb in Bengal, promptly declared himself as the nazim of the region marking the beginning of the Bengal nizamat as an autonomous regional power. Many historians have characterized this period as one of decline.1 However, while vio­ lence was rife during much of the eighteenth century in India, there was considerable political, economic and cultural growth as well, as various ‘revisionist’ scholars have pointed out.2 Realign­ ments in several pockets of the erstwhile Mughal empire led to the emergence of regional successor states among whom Awadh, Hyderabad and Bengal gained a position of prominence by the first quarter of the eighteenth century. While some authors have revised our understanding of the eighteenth century in India and the ‘decline’ narrative, they have tended to highlight the politi­ cal, economic and social vibrancy in these provincial centres. By contrast, the aspect of cultural productions has been somewhat neglected. This was a century of transitions, and instead of per­ ceiving cultural formations at the end of its life with the weakening


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of the imperial Mughal control, it is imperative that through the lens of regional histories we understand this period as one where cultural productions received a new lease of life in the regional variations. In this context of cultural productions, little effort has been spent in charting the development of painting traditions in the long eighteenth century. Hence it is not surprising to note Robert Skelton’s comment in his seminal work on the ‘Murshid­ abad School of Painting’ where he writes about how the significant number of paintings produced during the eighteenth century that were attributed to various provincial schools of Deccan, Awadh and Rajputana (or otherwise understood as Provincial Mughal schools of painting).3 Among them, the Murshidabad School is one, which has received particularly scant attention. While at­ tempting a thematic exploration of the paintings done in the Murshidabad style, representing the court and nizamat in Bengal, the intention of this article is to highlight the new vitality as well as transformation seen in the artistic style and production along the course of the eighteenth century. Furthermore, with a close engagement with the paintings, I want to give currency to the premise that instead of a unified, cohesive and homogenous style, the Murshidabad style represented an artistic tradition that was, in fact, variegated, multi-layered and complex.

Establishment of the Bengal Nizamat and the Early Works of the Murshidabad Style The reign of Murshid Quli Khan (1707-27) inaugurated a new era of prosperity in the province of Bengal. During his reign, Mur­ shidabad became a smaller version of the imperial capital of Delhi with its mint, revenue offices and palatial buildings that were built strictly on the rules of Mughal architecture.4 This ensured a wave of migration of artists from Delhi to this regional court, which is where we can mark the inception of the Murshidabad School of Painting. The court in Murshidabad provided the setting where the nazims and other sections of society interacted.5 Besides being a political centre and the household of the ruler, it was also a node

Imaging of Courtly Life


of cultural production and a provider of patronage. Court culture included a wide variety of functions, including the appreciation of and support and funding to the arts.6 Identified as the last court style in India, the Murshidabad School of Painting offers us an extensive corpus of material to study the representation of the nizamat in the visual idiom. Even though no painting in this style can be positively identi­ fied before the reign of Nawab Alivardi Khan (1740-56), we have a painting in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, titled Murshid Quli and his Attendants,7 which shows the bearded Nawab in a white jama (long chemise) seated in a formal terrace setting overlooking the riverside. The kind of formality with which royal portraits have been handled from the time of Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-58) is evident in this stiff profile of the nazim and his attendants. The emphases on small details like the five Abyssinian servants who wear pointed caps wrapped by cloth bands at their base,8 a hawk in one of their hands and the morchhal as royal insignias were a continuation of the Mughal miniaturist tradition. The landscape against which the portrait is set shows a wide expanse of the river­ front with several boats afloat on the water. The dark hedge of emerald green bushes separating the terrace from the overlooking riverfront is also seen distinguishing the horizon from the river, bordered by a row of dark trees with palms projecting above. The imposing, statuesque figures so carefully positioned and the lyri­ cal landscape with its several soft tones make a forceful, dignified, individualistic statement, the sort that this style of painting would assert. Whether this painting was from the reign of Murshid Quli Khan or a later period is unclear because of the lack of support­ ing documents. It is not impossible that Murshid Quli Khan had an atelier of painters. An eighteenth-century chronicler, Ghulam Hussain Salim, wrote in his history of Bengal, titled Riyaz-us-Sala­ tin, that, ‘In every branch of learning, art and science the Khan had great proficiency.’9 Although there are no other surviving works to support this conjecture, Murshid Quli Khan may have had artists around him from Delhi who developed a conventionalized style in Bengal.


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Alivardi Khan and the Efflorescence of the Murshidabad Style It is difficult at present to point to any specific example of Mur­ shidabad paintings that was executed either during the reign of Murshid Quli’s successor, Shuja-ud-Din, or that of his son, Sar­ faraz Khan’s reign. It is not until the masnad had passed to Alivardi Khan in 1740 that we have evidence of a thriving school of art.10 As eminent scholars such as Robert Skelton and J.P. Losty have pointed out, it was during Alivardi Khan’s time that Murshidabad School of Painting assumed a definitive style.11 Reflected in a num­ ber of paintings, most prominent of which is a terrace assembly scene depicting a formal portrait of the Nawab on a terrace under a canopy in a closed meeting, the painting titled Nawab Alivardi Khan of Bengal with his Nephews and Grandson,12 stands out as one of the most important and defining paintings of the Murshidabad School. This painting, where Nawab Alivardi Khan is seen seated on a terrace in conversation with his nephews, Nawazish Muham­ mad Khan and Saulat Jang, and his grandson, Siraj-ud-Daulah,13 shows evolving characteristics of the distinctive regional style. A sense of formality is evoked in the painting by a stiff depiction of the upright figures, and the heavy but smoothly-modelled faces. The Nawab is seen handing a sarpech or turban jewellery to his nephew and son-in-law, Saulat Jang, beside whom is the Nawab’s grandson and heir, Siraj-ud-Daulah (r. 1756-7), watched by his other nephew, Shahamat Jang.14 The sombre shades of grey, olive green, and muted brown used here were apparently the favoured choice of colours of the Nawab.15 The architectural setting reflects an attempt at perspective by the artist and was manifested with a degree of naturalism; an attempt at this had started from the reign of Shah Jahan. However, when it came to the depiction of figures, the royal hierarchy was given precedence over the artist’s natural perception of perspective. That this period saw the constant move­ ment of artists between Delhi and different provincial courts is evident in this architectural depiction of the terrace, which is also noticed in several paintings from eighteenth-century Awadh and Delhi. Undoubtedly derived from the imperial Delhi style16 the

Imaging of Courtly Life


Murshidabad style was establishing its uniquely identifiable fea­ tures around this time in aspects such as the overall white tonality that was mainly associated with the representation of the nizamat. A more elaborate terrace scene depicting Nawab Alivardi Khan seated holding a hawk with courtiers, including his grandson, Siraj, represents a very sophisticated court scene.17 The expres­ sive and emotive study of the figures and its resemblance with the earlier-discussed painting is an indication of the same set of artists working on both these paintings, which further gives rise to an assumption that there was probably a formalized atelier of paint­ ers working in the employment of the Nawab of Murshidabad. The selective yet subtle use of gold in the bolsters supporting the Nawab, his sashes and turbans, and those of his select courtiers stands out in the overall white tonality commanding the painting. Another colourful and ornate court portrait dated between 1750 and 1754 depicts not the Nawab but the naib-nazim of Dacca, Husain Quli Khan,18 an influential adversary who was much envied by the Nawab’s grandson, Siraj, for his wealth and power. Unlike any other painting found in the Murshidabad School, this one stands out with its lavish use of gold in the background landscape as well as borders, and the resulting opulence and grandeur. The artists here have used the compositional format of the canopied terrace scene, as the subject is shown seated on a terrace under a white shamiana (canopy) supported by silver poles and smok­ ing from a gold hookah ornamented with jewelled flowers. Two men, one with the silver stick of office and the other holding a morchhal, attend him.19 The overall white tonality in the jama and the canopy helps us to associate this painting with the ones done in the atelier of the Bengal Nawabs. As we will also find in some later paintings, representations of courtiers, generals and, in this case, a strong opponent was part of the political vocabulary not only of the Bengal Nawabs but a continuation of Mughal tradition. Alivardi’s reign was one of the efflorescence of artistic production in the court atelier. One of the most iconic paintings of the Mur­ shidabad School, Nawab Alivardi Khan Hunting,20 however, sets itself apart from the rest of the paintings that we can attribute to Alivardi’s rule. The dynamism of the Nawab captured in the tilt


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of his body towards the lightning gazelle, the receding aerial per­ spective and, most of all, the abandoning of the bird’s-eye views of the Indian tradition for the viewer’s eye level evokes a sense of naturalism that is influenced by European watercolour painting developed in the eighteenth-century theory of the picturesque.21 This, in turn, forms the basis of the assumption regarding the cir­ culation of European prints in eighteenth-century Bengal and the incorporation of European techniques into the Murshidabad style. The various paintings that can be positively attributed to Ali­ vardi’s reign mainly deal with a formal court or courtly life but with not much insight into the private world of the Bengal Nawabs. In Robert Skelton’s opinion, zenana (women’s quarters) scenes and ragamalas (a genre of Indian painting depicting the various ragas of music) did not find much representation in the Murshidabad paintings of Alivardi’s reign because of his stern attitude towards women and his evident lack of appreciation for music.22 Whether or not we can make this claim about the Nawab’s character, what is evident from the artistic production during his time is that there was an effort to depict a thriving court in this ‘successor state’ that undoubtedly derived its inspiration from the Mughal impe­ rial ideology, maybe as a validation or an acknowledgement of continuity to that imperial control. During Alivardi’s reign, which was otherwise disturbed by continuous Maratha raids, there was probably a need to assert an idealized image of a prosperous court testifying to an able and robust governance, and to evoke a sense of successful control and stability.

Continuity and Change during and after the Reign of Siraj-ud-Daulah Robert Skelton has remarked that even though Siraj-ud-Daulah, the young and ill-fitted ruler of Bengal, had hardly received any­ thing but criticism for his chaotic rule of the region, the effect of his pleasure-loving spirit on the art of painting was a particularly happy one.23 Apart from the ragamalas dated to this period where the face of the nayaka (the hero) has been modelled along the lines of the ruler, there is a reference of a somewhat rare painting of

Imaging of Courtly Life


Siraj-ud-Daulah holding an assembly in the Sotheby’s Sales Cata­ logue dated 17 June 1999.24 In the painting titled Siraj-al-Dawla, Nawab of Bengal, with Courtiers on a Terrace, dated 1760, we find the same compositional format of a terrace with a canopied pavilion on one side being used for a genre scene. Here the young Nawab is depicted in a seated position, served by his attendants while being entertained by a group of musicians consisting of both male and female members. The figure of the young Nawab even in an open assembly scene confirms to the stiffness of the figures associated with the Murshidabad paintings of this time, while the gentle yet robust lines with which the musicians have been ren­ dered convey the creative activity of eighteenth-century imperial Delhi’s workshop-trained artists. The use of brighter shades of orange and yellow was a shift away from Alivardi’s favoured pal­ ette of sombre earth colours of olive greens and browns, bolstering Skelton’s view that Murshidabad paintings under Siraj were prob­ ably injected with a new and youthful energy. In the same context, another painting that has been reproduced in a Sotheby’s sales catalogue seems relevant. Titled as Nawab Haibat Jang of Bihar Entertained by Nautch Girls and Musicians25 it depicts the subject who is identified as the nephew and son-in-law of Alivardi Khan, Zayn-ud-din Ahmad, and who succeeded Khan very shortly before the passing of the masnad to his son, Siraj-ud-Daulah, in a light, leisurely informal setting even though the depiction of the figures in the painting is somewhat restrained, controlled and austere. Zayn-ud-din Ahmad, who had taken the title of Haibat Jang, is seen enjoying a performance of musicians and dancers, while resting against a bolster and smoking his large huqqa under a terrace shamiana typical of a Murshidabad composition. The compositional setting of a semi-elliptical riverine horizon, two attendants serving the Nawab with morchhal and the terrace jut­ ting into the riverfront have all been retained in this painting. It is difficult to date the painting specifically to either Alivardi’s or Siraj’s reign because of the quick succession of events and the rather short rule of Siraj-ud-Daulah. What marks the importance of this painting is the fact that visual representations of Haibat Jang are quite rare and, hence, it has significant value. The fresh and


Mrinalini Sil

youthful energy of the Murshidabad style that is clear from the last two paintings that have been discussed was to be shortlived, corresponding to Siraj’s rather short reign. Politically, the Battle of Plassey (1757) may have marked a watershed in the history of Bengal. However, artistic production continued to thrive without much of a withdrawal of the nazim’s patronage, even in the second half of eighteenth-century Bengal. A few paintings that have come down to us from the reign of Mir Jafar bear evidence of this continuing artistic tradition. These are reproduced in J.P. Losty’s Murshidabad Painting: 1750­ 1820 where he discusses a couple of those depicting Mir Jafar’s court scenes26 and hunting scenes. We can observe a subtle shift in style in the painting titled Mir Jafar Preceded by his son Miran on a Hunting Expedition from the V&A Collection (Victoria and Albert museum’s collection).27 This comparatively large painting is beautifully detailed and the distinct elongation of the forms of individual figures that is evident is an obvious shift away from the stumpy figures that predominated the paintings during Alivardi’s time. In this hawking processional painting, Miran, Mir Jafar’s son, leads the entourage, and both father and son are depicted with hawks in their hands, accompanied by a band of courtiers and attendants. The superbly rendered, crisply-modelled, slightly elongated figures bear the resonance of being rendered by an art­ ist trained in the Mughal idiom. This is further confirmed by a signature below the horse bearing Mir Jafar, which is also recon­ firmed by an English transcription of the Persian inscription on the reverse of the painting. The signature is of Puran Nath who adopted the name Hunhar and has been referred to as Hunhar II who flourished approximately between 1730 and 1771. Based in Murshidabad around 1750-65, he eventually moved to Lucknow in Awadh.28 Trained in the Delhi style, the elongation of figures and their long jamas (Indigenous chemise like long dresses) were the influence of the imperial style that he had brought to the Murshidabadi paintings; the flattening of the landscape, however, can be observed as his attempt at a more realistic depiction of the Bengal landscape.29 The British expectations were high and Mir Jafar’s inability to

Imaging of Courtly Life


satisfy them saw him being deposed by the British in 1760, as his son-in-law, Mir Qasim (1760-64), replaced him as the new Nawab of Bengal. Due to these political developments a shrinkage of patronage during this period would not have been surprising. However, instead of the complete cessation of artistic production, what we note is the unintended expansion of the Murshidabad painting style to Patna due to Mir Qasim’s transfer of the capital from Murshidabad to Monghyr in order to reduce the Company state’s interference in his governance. The most iconic painting from the rather short but significant reign of Mir Qasim is a typical Murshidabadi terrace court scene, titled Nawab Mir Qasim Seated on a Riverside Terrace30 where the Nawab is seen smoking a huqqa while meeting a Hindu official under a red shamiana on a riverside terrace. The Nawab is seated against a fully-developed landscape background of an elliptical horizon delineating the river from the land. This painting seems like a continuation of the artistic tradition in terms of composition, colour schemes and style that was prevalent during Alivardi’s reign. However, the appearance of a slightly bloated expression produced by fine stippling on un­ naturally grey or brownish white faces can be observed faintly in this picture, which went on to become a very typical feature of Murshidabad paintings produced in Patna.31 In another interesting example, a rectangular page, in land­ scape format, showing a pavilion in which a Nawab sits on the left smoking a huqqa in the company of a lady represents a more intimate scene depicting a Nawab being entertained by dancers and musicians.32 The Nawab, identified as Mir Qasim,33 is attended by two women holding a morchhal above him. In this simple com­ position that depicts the Nawab watching a female dancer, who is accompanied by two more women and four male musicians, we can observe the use of multiple viewpoints and the varying treat­ ment of perspective, especially when one pays attention to the four other women sitting on the terrace. The foreground shows a styl­ ized garden with flowerbeds and a fountain. The delicate shading and modelling characteristic of the eighteenth-century Delhi style that the Murshidabadi artists had adapted in their visual idiom has been combined with the bold contour lines associated with


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the Rajput miniature style in this painting. These traditions flour­ ished in an innovative way united by the exquisite artistry of the Murshidabad painters.34

The New Patrons and Crisis of Style The years between 1763 and 1765 were politically charged and extremely eventful, to say the least. Mir Qasim’s final attempt at the restoration of the nizamat’s power ended in the debacle of the Battle of Buxar (1764) and the transfer of the diwani of Bengal to the hands of the English East India Company (1765). This shift in the balance of power ensured a marked transition in the artistic productions as well. The pre-eminence of the ‘Nabobs of the Com­ pany’ was not only in the political developments in the province but also expressed itself in other socio-cultural productions; paint­ ing, especially, became a notable arena for the manifestation of the new power equations. In this regard, it is imperative to discuss the persona of William Fullarton and his collection, as most of the Murshidabad paintings in different museums and library collec­ tions about whose provenance there can be a degree of certainty belongs to his collection. Serving as a surgeon in Patna between 1744 and till about 1766,35 Fullarton had the opportunity to build up quite a sizeable collection of paintings by the Murshidabad artists, which is a reflection not only of his keen interest in the arts but also of the successful political connections that he made with Nawab Mir Qasim and other noteworthy figures like Ghulam Hussain.36 In the context of the imaging of the court, a painting of major importance is the portrait of an English Company official, identified as William Fullarton himself, shown reclining against a bolster in his terrace smoking his hookah.37 Traditionally Indian in format, it retains the same colour and compositional schema as the paintings of the Nawabs’ assemblies on the terraces, and the figures of the attendants replicates the standard way in which such depictions had been done from the time of Alivardi Khan. The sig­ nificance of this painting and the factor that distinguishes it from the earlier-discussed ones is what Ratnabali Chatterjee understands as a change in the perception schema implicit in the structure or

Imaging of Courtly Life


organization of a painting.38 Every work of art represents an inter­ relation between the artist, patron and the artistic setup within which the work of art was produced. After the reign of Mir Qasim, with a severe shrinkage in the exchequer as well as in the power of the Nawab, they ceased to play a dominant role in the patronage of artistic production. The Murshidabad artists who were trained in the Mughal or other provincial styles of painting, such as those of the Deccan or Awadh and working within karkhana (studio) setup of the Indian rulers, had to transform their visual ideology as they sought employment under the Company Nabobs39 and the best example of this is reflected in the works of Dip Chand. Dip Chand had signed the portrait of William Fullarton under discussion.40 The constant points of reference for Dip Chand were the Mughal and provincial Mughal portraits that circulated in Bengal. Hence, when he composed a portrait of the seated William Fullarton, it is hardly surprising that his pose appropriated the profile view often reserved for emperors and princes in Indian imagery. A conflict in the visual ideology of Dip Chand may have occurred because there was a simultaneous assertion of European depictions of authority rooted in classical antiquity that he had to represent being patron­ ized by this Company Nabob.41 Probably, as Ratnabali Chatterjee suggests, this brought about a transformation of the artist’s percep­ tion schema but in the absence of corroborative primary textual sources, it is very difficult to visualize the lives of eighteenthcentury artists like Dip Chand in any but the broadest strokes. Among the numerous paintings representing the servants in William Fullarton’s household, and the depiction of ascetics, yogis and yoginis attributed to Dip Chand in the William Fullarton Col­ lection, another painting which forms a very important building block in our study of the court imagery of the nizamat of Bengal is the one titled Officer, Most Probably Gurgin Khan Smoking a Huqqa.42 This painting depicts the Armenian general of Nawab Mir Qasim, Gurgin Khan, seated on a terrace and smoking a huqqa while being attended by two servants. Apart from the portrait of Hussain Quli Khan from the reign of Alivardi Khan, we do not come across any other representation of the numerous Murshid­ abadi courtiers or officials. Gurgin Khan had helped Mir Qasim


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to reorganize his army modelled upon the British forces before the Battle of Buxar. However, we can only conjecture whether it was his military contribution to the Bengal Nawab or his close companionship with the artist’s patron, William Fullarton, that had him immortalized in this beautiful portrait by Dip Chand. A change in the perception schema of the artist is most evident in this painting from the relative compositional simplicity, the use of very broad and clean strokes, and a drastic change in the colour scheme and medium, to small details like the formalistic treatment of the terrace. All of these suggest a shift from the typical Murshidabad terrace court scenes discussed earlier. Here was an artist trained in the traditional miniature style of painting trying to adapt to the aesthetic needs of an English patron. What started as an attempt by local artists like Dip Chand to adjust their styles to British needs would eventually develop into the Company School of Painting that deserves detailed attention.43 Among the many genres, portraits, more than any other, reflect the visual ideology of the ruling class.44 The representation of kings in courts, as leading the army, in grand processions and in royal hunting scenes have been a very integral part of the imperial Mughal visual culture. A series of paintings done in the Murshida­ bad style belonging to the J.C. French Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum carries this tradition forward in the depiction of Mughal rulers like Aurangzeb (1658-1707),45 Farrukh-Siyar (1713-19)46 and Muhammad Shah (1719-48).47 The magnificent settings and postures of the traditional Mughal court paintings could not be rendered with perfection by the Murshidabadi artists. What comes across in this set of paintings is a crisis of style, where the emulation of the imperial Mughal miniatures were in conflict with the carefully-controlled representation of the Murshidabadi artists.48 Of all the Nawabs and courtiers of the Bengal nizamat, only Alivardi Khan, Mir Qasim49 and Hussain Quli Khan are included in this set of paintings. Retaining the same compositional style and colour palette of white, pale blues, greys and shades of brown with splashes of gold, the use of the picture space shows how the Murshidabad artists appropriated the Mughal visual

Imaging of Courtly Life


idiom and transformed it to a new form, meaning and experience in eighteenth-century Murshidabad.

The Art of Books, the Book of Arts: Illustrated Manuscripts The depiction of courtly life in eighteenth century Bengal did not occur in only assembly, darbar scenes, hunting scenes, and portraits centering on the representation of the Nawabs and his courtesans. Lacking the grandeur but retaining the schema of the elaborate Mughal visual vocabulary, we find two detailed and exquisitely illustrated manuscripts that were produced in the Murshidabad style. The production of illustrated manuscripts required a well-organized karkhana of artists, a large amount of resources necessary for art production, and an enlightened patron; a conjuncture of these conditions was present in Murshidabad for a brief period. Hence, we can definitely attribute only two illus­ trated manuscripts that are done in the Murshidabad style to the nizamat of Bengal. The Dastur-i-Himmat in the Chester Beatty Library has been catalogued and reproduced in the second vol­ ume of the Mughal and Other Indian Paintings from the Chester Beatty Library.50 Roughly translated as Model of Resolution it nar­ rates the romance of a Hindu prince, Kamrup of Awadh and the princess of Serendip (Ceylon), Kamlata, in an elaborate Persian verse form. Illustrated in the Murshidabad style, this far-less popular version of the Persian retelling of Qissa-i-Kamrup is one of the most elaborately-illustrated manuscripts that has come down to us from eighteenth-century Bengal. Having a hundred and eighty-seven folios, this manuscript contains two hundred and eleven illustrations,51 testifying to its grandeur and scale, and the patron’s magnanimity. Revolving around the love of Kamrup and Kamlata conceived in a dream, their serendipitous meeting involves a mighty adventure, shipwrecks, fairies and friendly demons, and this fantastical tale was made to come to life by the emotive paintings of the Murshidabad painters. Dated to between 1755 and 1760 and unlike the stiff, controlled rendition of the fig­


Mrinalini Sil

ures that are usually associated with the Murshidabad paintings from the time of Alivardi Khan, the figures in this manuscript are stout with a kind of stumpiness that nearly makes them appear rotund. Further, the compositional style, and the frequent use of bright oranges, yellows and greens with a vivid background sets it far apart from the typical court portraits and assembly scenes that we have discussed so far. Linda York Leach in a significant observation about these Murshidabad paintings holds that it is probable that the artistic style was influenced by the older and better-developed Deccani schools that had a more established decorative tradition.52 The mobility of skilled service communi­ ties, such as artists, scholars and militarymen within and between regional polities during the eighteenth century saw not only the migration of people but also that of ideas, and artistic and writ­ ing styles. Therefore, it is quite natural that in the Murshidabad style, too, we can read the influence of a number of other provin­ cial styles of painting. This narrative style of painting embodies the spirit of the lively storyline, enlivening it with vibrant, vivid and warm colours, and decorative architectural backgrounds. A naturalistic attempt at a portrayal of the landscapes of Bengal and Ceylon, and attention to small details like the depiction of the English flag in the shipwrecked vessel in the ocean, adds to the historical specificity of this illustrated manuscript. Attempts to decipher who the benefactor of this manuscript was have yielded a somewhat inconclusive result because of the absence of a seal or an inscription identifying the name of the patron. Taking into consideration the somewhat austere nature of Alivardi Khan and the grandeur of the manuscript with its prolific number of illustra­ tions and the elaborate style of composition, Linda York Leach has attributed it to Siraj-ud-Daulah, Alivardi’s grandson and the last independent nazim of Bengal. The other illustrated manuscript, that of Nal-wa-Daman,53 housed in the Victoria Memorial Collection in Kolkata, remains unpublished and has not been studied in much detail so far. Based on Faizi’s translation (and retelling), the Nal-wa-Daman written in Nastaliq, contains thirty-six images, while the entire manuscript is of around three hundred folios. A formalistic analysis of the

Imaging of Courtly Life


illustrations reveals that the style used here seemed to be mov­ ing away from the idioms of the Mughal visual vocabulary. The Murshidabadi artists made the figures squat and stylized and the motifs began to be interpreted in a childlike manner. Having some similarities to what we find in Dastur-i-Himmat, this illustrated manuscript is, however, very distinctive in its figural and landscape styles. The manuscript opens with a detailed and complex depic­ tion of King Nal’s court at the height of its glory. The picture space is divided into horizontal tiers by architectural motifs depicting different episodes in each of the registers of the illustration. This is, in many ways, a unique use of the picture space, somewhat attempt­ ing a very crude emulation of Mughal visual ideals, yet unlike any done in the Murshidabadi style. While the upper register depicts King Nal holding his court, the middle register depicts his army of elephants and cavalry, while, in the lowermost register of the folio, we find the depiction of the king’s infantry. In this and as well as other folios depicting the inner chamber of Daman’s residence or the swayamvara (in ancient India the practice of choosing a husband, from among a list of suitors, by a girl of marriageable age. Swayam in Sanskrit means self and vara means groom in this context) of Daman being attended by Nal, or the composition that beautifully depicts the consummation of Nal’s and Daman’s mar­ riage, the structural depiction of the palace and court scenes with complex and small decorative, interlocking areas of white archi­ tectural spaces and pretty garden beds stylistically brings it very close to the Deccani style because of its luxurious ornamentation. The compositions in this manuscript emanate a kind of pulsating vitality with the dense and tightly-packed use of picture space and the brightly glowing colours. Like the Dastur-i-Himmat, here, too, we find attention to smaller details – in the folio that depicts the court of Nal and in another illustration depicting the king’s march to Daman’s swayamvara, we find the depiction of soldiers wearing the Company uniforms not just testifying to the historical specific­ ity of this manuscript but making the artists’ reckoning of the new foreign power evident in this rendition of the Nala-Damayanti narrative. The illustrations of the manuscript that focus on the scenes of the couple’s exile in the forest and their trials and tribula­


Mrinalini Sil

tions give us insights into how the artists rendered the landscape. The flowing grasslands with the dense bushes of rounded flowers and the way in which the artists represented the foreground of the image differently from the background show the influence of a type of naturalism. J.P. Lotsy holds the view that ragamalas done in the Murshidabadi style were inspired by the Rajput style of paint­ ing;54 there is a similarity between the depiction of the landscape in the ragamalas and this manuscript and, hence, an assumption can perhaps be made that we might probably find a specific Rajput influence in the Murshidabadi qalam (style) as well. However, there are other inspirations in the Murshidabadi style apart from the Rajput one. There is the evident iconographic influence of the Awadhi miniature school expressed in the motive of the fish on the façade of the palace structure. This was also a time when there was an exodus of artists from the Mughal court in Delhi to down south in the Deccan, to centres in Awadh, to Murshidabad, and to the courts of the Rajput kings and princes. There was a constant shuffling of artists from one region to another, from one court to another, seeking patronage. As we find in the writing of Ghulam Hussain Tabatabai, ‘People of any talent flocked to Bengal, know­ ing that they would find ready appreciation from the Nawabs.’55 It is quite natural that in the Murshidabadi style, we can read the influence of a myriad other contemporary schools. Beautifully ornate and embellished with the extravagant use of gold, this Nala-Damayanti manuscript is even more lavish than the Dastur-i-Himmat, which naturally raises the question of its patronage. According to the rationale employed by Linda York Leach for Dastur-i-Himmat, Alivardi Khan, although he appreci­ ated art, was quite austere in his tastes, and the paintings made under his commission used a lot of greys and dull colours. This leaves us with Alivardi’s grandson, Siraj, to whom the patronage of the Dastur-i-Himmat has been assigned. Leach further comments that the Nawabs of Murshidabad had little surplus money to spend on artworks after the Battle of Plassey, while commissions from wealthy landowners in the second half of the eighteenth century were somewhat crude.56 Because of the inconclusive study of the text of the manuscript, it is difficult to determine its exact patron

Imaging of Courtly Life


but what we can say with certainty is that it is the product of a royal atelier. In this illustrated manuscript, we get a glimpse of the remnants of an idea of a grand and lavish court, mostly associ­ ated with the Mughal visual culture, manifesting itself in terms of the artistry, opulence and grandeur but, more than anything, the schema of the Murshidabadi artists.

Late Eighteenth Century Changes With the passing of the diwani of Bengal into the hands of the British and the reinstallation of Mir Jafar as the Nawab of Ben­ gal, it can be said that he accepted for himself, as did the Nawabs succeeding him to the masnad of Murshidabad, a position of subservience to the English Company. Any discussion on the court imagery of the eighteenth-century Bengal nizamat would remain incomplete without referring to a very famous painting titled Mubarak ud-Daula, Nawab of Murshidabad, in Durbar with the British Resident, Sir John Hadley D’Oyly.57 Dating to 1795, this painting is said58 to be a copy of an original oil painting by a British artist, George Farrington.59 Copied by anonymous artists trained in the Murshidabad style, there was an attempt at experimentation with the perspective and light and shadow, as is evident in the dis­ proportionately elongated figures of attendants in the foreground of the painting as compared to the principal subject of Nawab Mubarak-ud-Daula and the figure of Sir John Hadley D’Oyly. Even though the Nawab and the British resident are given a central posi­ tion under the shamiana in the composition, the severe distortion in perspective divides and diverts our attention from these central figures as we try to take stock of the artist’s novel way of using the picture space emulated from a British watercolour that was informed by an accurate representational mode and the theory of the picturesque.60 Operating within the structure of the Nawabi karkhana, as Ratnabali Chatterjee observes, this was probably the most iconic painting that reflects the conflict in visual ideologies and difference of the perception schema of the British and the Murshidabadi artists. For the British artist, the installation of a British resident in the Murshidabad court was a glorious moment


Mrinalini Sil

but for the Nawabi court artists who were well-versed in the politics of the state, it was a moment of severe crisis. The represen­ tation captures a moment of political transition and, historically, this painting can probably be regarded as the culmination of court imagery of the Bengal nizamat.61 After the transfer of diwani in 1765 as the English East India Company assumed the Nawabi of Bengal, it also filled in the shoes of the chief patron to most of the artists working in the periphery of the Murshidabad court. Opening a dialogue between their traditional artistic training and British aesthetic needs, the art form that evolved out of the Patna-based artists practising in the Murshidabad style eventually developed into the Company School of painting in the nineteenth century.

Conclusion There are no defined limits to it as a city nor is there any part known especially by that name. . . . It appears to be a name given to an indis­ criminate mass of temples, mosques, handsome pucca houses, gardens, walled enclosures, huts, hovels, and tangled jungle containing the ruins of many edifices that have sprung up and decayed, around the former and present Nawab of Murshidabad.62

Captain James Eardley Gastrell, a trained surveyor working for the British government in India, made these observation about the erstwhile capital63 when presented with the puzzle of Murshidabad in the mid-nineteenth century. It provides us with a thoughtprovoking though slightly myopic view of what Murshidabad might have been in its heyday64 in the eighteenth century. Eight­ eenth-century Bengal represents a region in transition that was politically and artistically in a flux. After the Battle of Buxar (1764), the artistic heights achieved by the Murshidabad court style started to show signs of a downward curve. However, this does not signify a decline in artistic production or creativity in the region. As we develop a broader understanding of the paintings at Murshidabad that goes beyond the limits of the oeuvre representing and patron­ ized by the court, we discover not one but multiple strands of Murshidabad paintings developed in eighteenth-century Bengal.

Imaging of Courtly Life


As an important political and mercantile centre, the city was home to many wealthy communities that also patronized art and this needs to be explored more comprehensively. Finally, what started in Murshidabad as an attempt by regional artists to adjust their styles to British needs would develop into the Company School of Painting as they moved from Murshidabad to Patna in the last quarter of the eighteenth century,65 adding yet another dimension to the history of painting in Murshidabad. Hence, an extraordinary variety of art emerged from the many interconnected painting traditions that were prevalent in eighteenth-century Murshidabad. The courts of the Bengal Nawabs were opulent, with elaborate rituals, norms and grandeur, as contemporary accounts testify,66 and the paintings discussed in this article reinforce the picture. The exploration of the Murshidabad style of painting gives us an insight into the fact that the artists of the eighteenth century were open to innovation yet conscious of their roots. Even though we find a shift away from the Mughal visual ideology what is evident in the paintings discussed above is a clear sign of transformation that manifested itself in a formal balance, a new simplicity of composition and clarity of details. In such an intellectually vibrant and artistically creative period, tracing the multiple strands of art-making, sometimes with the same artists adapting to different demands and patrons, remains to be done essentially for a better understanding of Murshidabad paintings as a protean, diachronic and multi-dimensional phenomena.

NOTES 1. Works like that of Ali, 1975: 385-96; Goetz, 1938; Chandra, 1998: 347-61 to name a few pioneering works. 2. Alavi, 2008: 1-17. 3. Skelton, 1956: 10. 4. Chatterjee, 1990: 18. 5. Mukherjee, 2009: 406. 6. Ibid. 7. Chester Beatty Library Collection, Library Number 69.10. Repro­ duced in Linda York Leach’s Mughal and Other Indian Paintings from the Chester Beatty Library, 1995. Dublin.

248 8. 9. 10. 11. 12.

13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25.


27. 28.

Mrinalini Sil

Leach, 1995: 708. Ghulam Hussain, 1902: 308. Skelton, 1956: 11. Losty, 2013: 82. Nawab Alivardi Khan of Bengal with his Nephews and Grandson. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number D.1201­ 1903. Identified by Robert Skelton. Losty, 2013: 84. Skelton, 1956: 13. Delhi imperial style that developed during the reign of Muhammad Shah. See McInerney, 2002. Alivardi Khan Receiving Nobles Including Siraj-ud-Daula. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number D.1175-1903. Nobleman, Probably Husain Quli Khan, Smoking. Victoria and Albert Museum London. Museum Number: D.1202-1903. Losty, 2013: 82-83. Nawab Alivardi Khan Hunting. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number D.1199-1903. Losty, 2002: 37. Skelton, 1956: 10-12. Ibid, 1956: 14. Indian Miniatures, The Travel Sale: India and the Far East Modern and Contemporary Paintings, London, 17 June 1999. Nawab Haibat Jang of Bihar entertained by nautch girls and musi­ cians on a terrace before a lake, Sotheby’s Oriental Manuscripts and Miniatures Sales Catalogue, London, 23 April 1997, No. 147. Mir Jafar with an Official on a Terrace in a Garden. c.1760. San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, 1990.428; A Nawab and his Entourage Enjoying the Festival of Holi, 1763-64. Former Col­ lection of S.C Welch. Art Institute of Chicago, 2011: 250. Mir Jafar and Son Miran on Hunting Expedition. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum Number: IM.13-1911. Puran Nath adopted or was given the name of Hunhar to honour the memory of the seventeenth-century Mughal painter. Trained in the imperial Delhi style during Muhammad Shah’s reign, other paintings definitely attributed to Hunhar II are the Windsor acces­ sion portrait of Muhammad Shah, several other paintings now in the V&A Collection, and portraits that are a part of the Johnson Album in the British Library. Earlier paintings of Hunhar evoke a stylistic

Imaging of Courtly Life

29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35.

36. 37.

38. 39. 40.

41. 42.

43. 44. 45. 46. 47.


resemblance to the works of Chitarman even though they are lessrefined and detailed. However, with his migration to the court of Murshidabad, an evolution from his earlier style of painting is quite evident. I am especially thankful to Divia Patel of the V&A for shar­ ing her notes on Puran Nath with me. Losty, 2013: 87-8. Portrait of Nawab Mir Qasim Ali Khan. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum Number: D. 1178-1903. Basically referring to paintings that are dated to after 1760 whether or not they were specifically produced in Patna. Mir Qasim Ali Watching Dancers, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum Number: IS. 67-2006. Identified by the Persian inscription at the back of the painting. Losty, 2011: 580. William Fullarton of Rosemount joined the English East India Com­ pany’s service in 1744 and was the second surgeon in Calcutta in 1751. He was present at the siege of Calcutta in 1756 and eventually became the mayor of Calcutta in 1757. In 1763, Fullarton became a surgeon to the Patna Agency. Skelton, 1956: 17. Painting of an East India Company Official, Most Probably William Fullarton. Artist/Maker: Dip Chand, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number: IM 33-1912. Chatterjee, 1990: 5. Ibid. The reverse side of the painting contains the initials W.F 1764, hence making it easy to categorize as a part of the William Fullarton Col­ lection that he had probably acquired in 1764. Further reference about Dip Chand’s work found in Losty, 2002. Officer, Probably Gurgin Khan Smoking. Artist/Maker: Dip Chand, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum Number: D. 1180­ 1903. Archer, 1972: 28. Chatterjee, 1990: 11. Emperor Aurangzeb Holding a Saarpech. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number: IS. 235-1955. Emperor Farukhsiyar on Horseback. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number: IS. 236-1955. Muhammad Shah Smoking Huqqa. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number: IS. 234-1955.


Mrinalini Sil

48. Schmitz, 2012: 5. 49. Nawab Mir Qasim Khan on Terrace. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number: IS. 241-1955. 50. ‘Dastur-i-Himmat’, Chester Beatty Library Collection. Library Num­ ber: ms. 12, Dublin. 51. Having twenty full-page miniatures, some three quarter size but mostly small illustrations covering half or one third of a page. 52. Leach, 1995: 628. 53. ‘Nal-Wa-Daman’. Victoria Memorial Hall Collection, Kolkata, Accession Number: C325 54. Losty, 2013: 91. 55. Ghulam Hussain Tabatabai. Quoted from Chatterjee, 1990: 15. 56. Leach, 1995: 688. 57. Mubarak-ud-daula in durbar with Sir John D’oyly at Murshidabad, Victoria and Albert Museum Collection, London, Museum Num­ ber: I.S 11-1887. 58. An assumption made by Mildred Archer. See Archer, 1979. 59. George Farrington was a British minor historical painter. He came to India in 1782 and worked in Murshidabad from 1785 until his death in 1788. Farrington is known to have been encouraged to stay and paint in Murshidabad by D’oyly and Pott, the British residents there. 60. A nearly-exact painting of Mubarak-ud-Daula in durbar with Sir John D’oyly is currently in the private collection of the Francesca Galloway Collection in London. 61. Chatterjee, 1990: 23-8. 62. Gastrell, 1860: 8. 63. Quoted from Jones, 2013: ‘Introduction’, 12. 64. Jones, 2013: 12-13. 65. Archer, 1972: 2. 66. Chatterjee, 2008: 513-43; Mukherjee, 2009: 389-436.

REFERENCES Archival Sources: Image Index Alivardi Khan Receiving Nobles Including Siraj-ud-Daula. Victoria and

Albert Museum, London, Museum Number: D.1175-1903.

Emperor Aurangzeb Holding a Saarpech. Victoria and Albert Museum,

London, Museum Number: IS. 235-1955.

Imaging of Courtly Life


Emperor Farukhsiyar on Horseback. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number: IS. 236-1955. Mir Jafar and Son Miran on Hunting Expedition. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum Number: IM.13-1911. Mir Qasim Ali Watching Dancers. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum Number: IS. 67-2006. Mubarak-ud-daula in Durbar with Sir John D’oyly at Murshidabad. Victoria and Albert Museum Collection, London, Museum Number: IS 11-1887. Muhammad Shah Smoking huqqa. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number: IS. 234-1955. Nal-Wa-Daman. Victoria Memorial Hall Collection, Kolkata, Accession Number: C325. Nawab Alivardi Khan of Bengal with his Nephews and Grandson. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number: D.1201-1903. Nawab Alivardi Khan Hunting. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number D.1199-1903. Nawab Mir Qasim Khan on Terrace. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number: IS. 241-1955. Nobleman, Probably Husain Quli Khan, Smoking. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number: D.1202-1903. Officer, Probably Gurgin Khan Smoking. Artist/Maker: Dip Chand, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum Number: D. 1180­ 1903. Painting of an East India Company Official, Most Probably William Fullarton. Artist/Maker: Dip Chand, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number: IM 33-1912. Portrait of Nawab Mir Qasim Ali Khan. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum Number: D. 1178-1903.

Published Sources Alam, Muzaffar. 1986. The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India: Awadh and Punjab, 1707-48. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Alam, Muzaffar and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. 2007. ‘Love, Passion and Reason in Faizi’s Nal-daman’, in Francesca Orsini, ed., Love in South Asia: A Cultural History. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press. Alavi, Seema. 2002. ‘Introduction’, in Seema Alavi, ed., The Eighteenth Century in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


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Ali, M. Athar. 1975. ‘The Passing of Empire: The Mughal Case’. Modern Asian Studies, 9, no. 3, pp. 385-96. Archer, Mildred. 1972. Company Drawings in the India Office Library. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. . 1992. Company Paintings: Indian Paintings of the British Period. London: Victoria and Albert Museum Publications. Bayly, C.A. 1983. Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770-1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Beach, Milo Cleveland. 1992. Mughal and Rajput Paintings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Calkins, P.B. 1970. ‘The Formation of a Regionally Oriented Ruling Group in Bengal 1700-1740’, Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 799-806. Chandra, Satish. 1998. ‘Review of the Crisis of the Jagirdari System’, in The Mughal State, 1526-1750, ed. Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 347-61. Chatterjee, Kumkum. 2008. ‘The Persianization of “Itihasa”: Performance Narratives and Mughal Political Culture in Eighteenth-Century Bengal’, The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 67, no. 2, pp. 513-43. . 2009. The Cultures of History in Early Modern India: Persianization and Mughal Culture in Bengal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Chatterjee, Ratnabali. 1990. From the Karkhana to the Studio: A Study in the Changing Social Roles of Patrons and Artists in Bengal. New Delhi: Books & Books. Crill, Rosemary, Susan Stronge and Andrew Topsfield, eds. 2004. Arts of Mughal India: Studies in Honour of Robert Skelton. London: V&A/ Mapin. Eaton, Natasha. 2014. Mimesis across Empires: Artworks and Networks in India, 1765-1860. Durham and London: Duke University Press. Falk, T. and M. Archer, eds. 1981. Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, London: Sotheby Parke Pernet. Goetz, Hermann. 1938. ‘The Crisis of Indian Civilization in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries’. Calcutta University Readership Lectures, Calcutta: University of Calcutta. Goswamy, B.N. 2015. Nala and Damayanti: A Great Series of Paintings of an Old Indian Romance. New Delhi: Niyogi Books. Jones, Rosie Llewellyn and Neeta Das, eds. 2013. Murshidabad: Forgotten Capital of Bengal. Mumbai: Marg Foundation.

Imaging of Courtly Life


Leach, Linda York. 1995. Mughal and Other Indian Paintings from the Chester Beatty Library. Dublin: Chester Beatty Library. Losty, J.P. 2011. ‘Masters of Indian Painting: Indian Painting from 1730­ 1825’, in M.C. Beach, E. Fischer and B.N. Goswamy, eds., Masters of Indian Painting. Zurich: Artibus Asiae. . 1982. The Art of the Book in India. London: British Library. Marshall, P.J., ed. 2002. The Eighteenth Century in Indian History: Evolution or Revolution? New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Mukherjee, Tilottama. 2009. ‘The Co-ordinating State and the Economy: The Nizamat in Eighteenth-century Bengal’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 389-436. . 2013. Political Culture and Economy in Eighteenth-Century Bengal: Networks of Exchange, Consumption and Communication. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan. Parkhill, Thomas, ‘From Trifle to Story: A Study of “Nala and Damayanti” ’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 52, no. 2, pp. 325-41. Salim, Ghulam Hussain. 1902. The Riyazu-s-Salatin: A History of Bengal (trans). Calcutta: The Asiatic Society. Schmitz, Barbara, ed. 2002. After the Great Mughals: Painting in Delhi and the Regional Courts in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Mumbai: Marg Publication. Skelton, R. and Mark Francis, eds. Arts of Bengal: The Heritage of Bangla­ desh and Eastern India [Catalogue of An Exhibition Organized by the Whitechapel Art Gallery in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum], London, 1979. Skelton, Robert. 1956. ‘Murshidabad Painting’, Marg, vol. 10, pp. 10-22.

Sotheby’s Indian Miniatures, The Travel Sale: India and the Far East

Modern and Contemporary Paintings, London, 17 June 1999.

Sotheby’s Oriental Manuscripts and Miniatures Sales Catalogue, London, 23 April 1997. Wadley, Susan S., ed. 2011. Damayanti and Nala: The Many Lives of a Story, New Delhi: Chronicle Books. Zebrowski, Mark. 1983. Deccani Paintings. New Delhi: Roli Books International.


Salt Smuggling in

Eighteenth-century Bengal

A Dilemma of Boundaries

Arijita Manna

Historically, the salt industry has played a significant role in the economy of Bengal. Throughout the ancient and medieval period, revenue generated from salt manufacture and trade had been a vital source of income for the royal authority. This is evident from a number of ancient texts such as the Arthashastra, which mentions that salt was the monopoly of the king.1 The Nawabs of Bengal often farmed out the monopoly of the trade to the highest bidder. The well-known Armenian trader, Khwaja Wajid, alone paid £200,000 as a tax for his monopoly on the salt trade.2 This trade was so lucrative that after the English East India Company was granted the diwani in 1765, it endeavoured to monopolize the salt industry. Salt monopoly as an instrument of taxation, on the one hand, ensured the Company’s financial stability and expanded its economic capacity but, on the other, it inhibited indigenous enterprises.3 However, in defiance of the Company’s monopolistic design, indigenous merchants and producers continued to carry on manufacturing and trade on their own account. The Company decried such practices as ‘contraband’, ‘illegal’ and ‘smuggling’. Salt smuggling as a specifically eighteenth-century phenom­ enon in Bengal has received relatively scant attention. Scholars like H.R. Ghosal, Tarashankar Banerjee, B.S. Das and Balai Barui have explored it as a phenomenon of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.4 This article looks into the early phase of salt smuggling


Arijita Manna

from 1765 to 1801. Scholarship on the salt industry has agreed that smuggling emerged in defiance of the Company’s monopoly. In 1765, after the Company was granted the diwani, a Society of Trade was formed to monopolize trade in salt. To accomplish this objective, a specific change was introduced in the manufacturing and distribution system. The Company declared that it would buy the entire quantity of salt produced or imported within its dominion. After that, it would be sold to indigenous merchants at a public auction.5 No other indigenous initiative of procuring and selling salt within or across the Company’s dominion was allowed. The Company had restricted the profit margin: if the merchants sold salt at the spot of purchase, they could make a profit of 13 per cent, and if salt was transported and sold to distant places, they could make a profit of 17½ per cent.6 It also fixed the wholesale and retail price.7 Restrictions were additionally imposed on trad­ ing with neighbouring territories because the Company feared that an unlimited supply of cheap salt from these areas would capture the entire market and detrimentally affect its profit. Therefore, the assertion of monopoly necessitated redefining and strictly enforc­ ing boundary restrictions with adjoining territories.8 With the formation of new boundaries, economic activities that were existent before their creation now became outlawed. However, these state-imposed restrictions were arbitrary in the eyes of the indigenous inhabitants and throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they continued to defy the Company’s monopoly by carrying on manufacturing and trade in their trad­ itional ways. Therefore, it can be argued that smuggling under the colonial regime, which is frequently represented as a subversive enterprise, was, in fact, continuation of a longstanding tradition of a pre-existing trade.9 This also demonstrates that what the Company state meant by illegitimate and what the indigenous inhabitants understood as illicit varied widely. It is in this con­ text of the creation and exercise of a boundary, which manifests the power and authority of the state, that smuggling exhibits an attempt by the local economy to circumvent this arbitrary con­ trol. This article argues that smuggling across the boundaries of the Company state should be seen not as a conscious attempt to

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


undermine the early colonial state but, rather, as a continuation of longstanding arrangements and traditions.10 Smuggling across these boundaries posed a severe threat to the Company’s economic and political authority. The political, economic and ideological authority of a state depended on maintaining a rigid boundary and regulating economic activities accordingly. A state always strives to be an exclusive source of power and influence, and this is possible only when ‘state borders are impermeable, closed to external penetration’.11 However, smug­ gling reduces the boundary into ‘a remarkable porous divide’.12 The Company in order to prevent contraband trading with the neighbouring territories promulgated numerous regulations and introduced various administrative measures of which Regulations VI of 1801 was quite significant.13 This regulation made some es­ sential logistical reorganization to restrict the movement of salt smugglers but the smuggling continued unimpeded. The Company also constructed a state-society division because the exercise of monopoly required the Company state to margin­ alize indigenous economic actors. The Company state chose to stand above society instead of being a part of it. However, being a nascent ruling authority that lacked territorial reach, adminis­ trative authority or penetration into the pre-existing commercial network, the Company could hardly deter or exclude indigenous participants from this sector. Before embarking on the discussion of the course of smuggling, it should be mentioned that because of its elusive nature, the scale of smuggling cannot be correctly fathomed. This was because of the Company state’s disinclination to disclose the real extent of the size of the contraband trade. The Company was in any case being, criticized for its administrative incompetence to check smuggling and besides, the free trade lobby in the British parliament was pressurizing it to open up the market.14 Moreover, the very secret and evasive nature of an ‘illicit act’ adds to its immeasurability. What the archival documents furnish us with is the data of the seized salt at different golas (Tables 8.1 and 8.2). One may find that the quantities seized were not that huge. Nevertheless, it has to be kept in mind that these official records were accounts of individu­


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Table 8.1: Estimate of Quantity of Salt Ready at Different Gola Stations in 1204 and 1206 bs (1798 and 1800) Name of Districts

Name of Ghats

Quantity (in maunds) Hijli 1204 Rasulpore 49,671 Seized salt 112 Madacally 2,730 Seized salt 26 Nurghat 30,705 Seized salt 85 Jellasore 1206 Balsay 443 Seized salt 59 Moorgodah 5,002 Seized salt 97 Minachur 1,695 Midnapore 1206 Seized salt 47 Sabang Mohur 1,125 Seized salt 67 Sources: Compiled from WBSA, Progs Board of Trade, Salt, 8 July20 December 1801, vol. 23: 360-1; letter dated 1 September; WBSA, Progs Board of Trade, Salt, 6 July-28 December 1798, vol. 19: 208. Letter dated 26 August 1798 (fractions omitted).

als who were caught whereas a considerable quantity of salt passed through clandestinely, as evident from the anxious reports of the local officers. Therefore, ‘the history of illegal activity will always be an incomplete narrative’.15 Another problem with writing the history of salt smuggling in eighteenth-century Bengal is that one has to depend almost entirely on the English East India Company sources because the vernacular ones are silent on these matters. The problem with the archival sources is that they seek to present a particular narrative of smuggling. The challenge is to recognize and overturn this narrative. Thus, writing the history of smuggling casts light on archival practices, too. The bias of the archive is an important clue to actual practices. This is the reason for starting from the colonial archive in order to unearth and fathom the extent of contraband practices.

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


Table 8.2: Estimate of Seized Smuggled Salt in 1793 Name of Stations

Quantity seized

Salt delivered to Agents (in maunds)

Bircool 87.96 60.20 Rasulpore 68.00 68.00 Mayna Sabang 259.00 252.00 Paunchpally 26.34 25.00 Nurghat 5.00 5.00 Gohrahhohta 15.00 15.00 Narayanpur 29.30 29.30 Beutasuria 12.60 11.20 Purna Goltch 16.25 16.25 Moorrcoor 40.36 40.31 Dulapore 2.34 1.07 Uluberia 6.34 — Amta 9.20 — Tarapaheah 9.00 7.00 Mohordas 0.20 — Sompore 16.40 — Machnapasur 1,135.00 1,135.00 Source: WBSA, Progs Board of Trade, Salt, 28 February-15 May 1793, vol. 7, pt. 1: 45. Letter dated 15 March (decimal point suggests quantity was probably measured by maund, seer and chhatak).

Smuggling over the Company Boundaries The Company state shared its territorial boundary with the Marathas in the west and with Arakan in the east. The Company also shared a virtual political boundary with the enclave of the French East India Company. Over these boundaries a brisk trade in salt was carried on clandestinely by the petty traders. This con­ traband trade fed into the salt market of Bengal, which caused a decline in the sale of Company salt (Tables 8.3 and 8.4) and hence, a decline the in Company’s revenue.16 Since 1793-4, the Company had lost no less than £10½ million of revenue on this account17 (Table 8.5).


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Table 8.3: Estimate of Uncleared Salt in Gola (in maunds)


Salt sold but remaining uncleared in the gola in January of the same year

Total quantity of salt available

Salt cleared out





























Source: Appendix to the Report of the East India Company, vol. IV, Admin­ istration of Monopolies Opium and Salt, House of Commons, 11 October 1831: 84.

In the eastern frontier region, salt from Arakan was infiltrat­ ing through the hilly tracts of Chittagong. Salt production being free from taxation in Arakan, it quite quickly captured the market in eastern Bengal.18 However, smuggling on the eastern frontier was more a problem of the nineteenth century and does not fall within the scope of this article. It is evident from archival data that the Company faced great difficulty in restricting the move­ ment of smugglers as it lacked detailed knowledge about the hilly-forested eastern frontier region. On the western frontier, the smuggling of Maratha salt was quite alarming and was believed by the company officials to be one of the chief sources of smuggling in Bengal. Trade between Bengal, Bihar and the Maratha territories was a long-established tradition on which the Company imposed certain restrictions. However, petty traders continued to operate, flouting its authority. The Collector of Midnapore reported that salt from the Maratha territory was transported to Bihar every year through the western part of Midnapore without the payment of duty. He further noted that that beoparies (petty traders) car­ ried salt through the Western jungles (that covered the boundary of Bengal, Orissa and Chotanagpur) into Bihar. He also reported






24 Parganas












Quantity of salt sold in March, May, July








Balance remaining to be sold

Source: WBSA, Board of Trade, Salt, 6 July-20 December 1801, vol. 25: 239.




Production in 1207


Name of places








Quantity of salt ready for sale on 15 September 1800








Quantity of salt proposed for sale

Table 8.4: Statement showing produce of 1207 bs (1801): The quantity of salt remaining after the sales in March, May

and July in (1801) which is again compared with the quantity sold on 15 September 1800 (quantities in maunds)


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Source: Report of the Commissioner appointed to enquire into and report upon the Manufacture and Sale of, and Tax upon Salt in British India, and more Specifically upon the practicability of substituting for present arrange­ ments A System of Excise in the Presidencies of Bengal and Madras. 1856, Calcutta; Thos. Jones ‘Calcutta Gazette’ Office: 117.

that ‘several salt smugglers with four to six hundred bullock carts had been seized’ in the western part of Midnapore.19 The French enclave had also been allegedly involved in salt smuggling, albeit on a smaller scale. Trafficking across the boundaries of the French enclave was more a manifestation of the tension that existed on the international stage.

Smuggling along the Western Boundary In 1765, the ‘Society of Trade’ was established by Robert Clive and some other senior officers of the East India Company to regulate salt trade in lower deltaic Bengal. Certain restrictions were imposed on the salt trade between the Maratha territory in Orissa and the Company areas in lower deltaic Bengal. The Company prohibited any private trade in Maratha salt. John Graham, the Collector of Midnapore, took all the necessary measures to prevent ‘native merchants’ from going to Busta (present Basta near Balasore) to procure Maratha salt on their private account. They were further directed to ‘find out at which markets they carry salt which they purchase in the Maratha district . . . and prevent their undersell­ ing as in our district lay a heavy duty on all that is exposed to the sale which has not been brought by Society.’20 The purchasing price of Maratha salt was lower than that of the Company salt and the profit margin was not dictated by the Company, which meant

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


that it fetched a considerable profit for the merchants trading in Maratha salt on their own account. Thus, merchants trading in Company salt suffered huge losses that, in the long term, also caused a downward turn in the Company’s profit margins.21 In this respect, a merchant, Ramlochan Sharma, petitioned to Committee of Salt on the ‘Fatal and destructive consequence of smuggling of Maratha Salt’ which caused severe losses of upto 40 per cent to merchants like him who traded in Company salt. He pointed out that in the Maratha districts, the production cost was relatively less than that of Bengal and the transport was duty-free. Thus, the Maratha salt was much lower in price and yielded a considerable profit to the traders.22 Therefore, merchants trading in Company salt requested the Company to reduce the price of its salt so that they could dispose of their stock. However, the Company came up with a series of preventive measures instead of considering these suggestions. Nonetheless, these measures proved to be ineffective. In this respect, William Farquharson, salt agent of Hijli division reported that the massive quantity of Maratha salt that was pro­ duced in the districts to the east of Subarnarekha continued to be smuggled into Midnapore23 (Table 8.6). To understand the nature of smuggling along the Company’s western boundary, the natural layout of the region has to be kept in mind. Smugglers used the region’s remoteness to subvert state power. Table 8.6: Salt Seized at Western Chauki (1800) Name of Places Midnapore

Quantity Seized (in maunds)








Danton Total

20 535

Source: WBSA, Progs Broad of Trade, Salt, 6 July-28 December 1798, vol. 19: 228.


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Landscape of the Smugglers’ Haven River Subarnarekha marked the western boundary of the Com­ pany State. The western part of the river was the Maratha territory and the eastern part was the Company territory. Some areas like Nayabasan, Ghatsila and Belorachour that were to the west of the river belonged to the Company dominion. Bhograi, Camarda, Pataspore and a few other places on the eastern side of the Sub­ arnarekha River were under Maratha authority.24 The Company found it difficult to enforce its exclusivist policy over the economic activities in these parts. The boundary between the two territories had been present since the time of the nazim, Alivardi Khan, but the border was not exclusionary and this territorial division had never obstructed commercial activities. The Company monopoly imposed restrictions on the commercial transactions between these territorial units. Thus, the Company state’s imposition of an idea of two distinct, mutually-exclusive territorial units turned this long-established commercial activity between the two neighbour­ ing territories into an illegitimate act. The Company needed to draw a well-defined boundary to exert its authority over the Bengal Presidency. For this, Wiliam Cunningham, the superintendent of the western salt chauki (checkpoint), was instructed to provide ‘information regarding the boundaries of the chokies’ in the western frontier region. He reported that the border was ‘internally limited’. The boundary between the Com­ pany territory and Maratha territory became more entangled in the Jungle Mahal region. Jungle Mahal was under the control of a number of semi-independent rajas who had never been fully sub­ dued by the rulers of Bengal or Orissa.25 This area enjoyed relative freedom from either political authority. Since the Company state and the Maratha dominion became embroiled in this ill-defined and forested frontier region, it could be characterized as a ‘grey area’.26 In these forested parts legal and illegal transactions could hardly be differentiated from each other. For example, as the Company was not sure of its territorial limit in this region, smug­ glers, when caught by Company officers, defended themselves by stating that they were operating in the Maratha territory. That

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


the Company officials had no idea of the extent of the Company’s territorial limit is evident from the report of a daroga (the chief native officer of a chauki) of the chauki at thana (an administra­ tive area under a local police station where a petty officer with a small irregular force was posted) Haldipukur. He wrote, ‘I am like a traveller seated at the chokey.’ The daroga describes ‘the country of the Jagannath Dhol extending up to 48 coss of which every part abounded with hill and jungle’. To the south, it was bounded by the Maratha districts.27 Further south, there were three districts, viz. Bharagorah, Aulkossy and Haldipukur. Where the Company and Maratha lands combined, it was entirely jungle and hills. In the forested and hilly areas of these three districts, salt smugglers took advantage of scarce surveillance to bring Maratha contraband salt into Bengal on the backs of thousands of bullocks. This kind of terrain was ideal for smugglers to carry on their clandestine trade. Every year a huge amount of salt was smuggled into Bengal and Bihar through these western jungles. The smugglers netted a con­ siderable profit from this region. Zamindars aided these smugglers in transporting Maratha salt through these jungles. The daroga of Balarampore reported that the zamindars of Chota Nagpur were aiding the smugglers for they collected revenue from them.28 The local magnates sided with these traders very often. For instance, according to a daroga, Guruprasad Roy of Haldipukur thana. ‘In the midst of the jungles and hills where the Company and the Maratha lands unite the zamindar of Dhalbhum would refuse to point out his boundary.’29 At this the enraged daroga of Haldipukur thana reported that the zamindar himself was a chuar (tribal people inhabiting south-west Bankura and Midnapore) and his ryots (tenant, cultivator of the soil) were chuars. Daroga Guruprasad Roy desired that no salt chauki should remain within this zamindari. Although the roads through which the smuggled salt was carried were within the Company’s boundary, the zamin­ dars asserted that these pathways belonged to the Marathas. It was further stated by the daroga Guruprasad Roy that if the chauki situ­ ated in Dhalbhum was to operate, it needed thirty sepoys instead of twenty chaprasis (petty officers of the salt department subordinate to the darogas), thirty barkandazes (matchlock men). The judge


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would need to send an amin29 to ascertain the boundary.30 All this evidence suggest that the zamindars disputed the legal right of the Company to impose its territorial authority on them. What the Company failed to see was that allegiance in this fragmented and remote western jungles was fluid. It was in this rough and forested landscape that the Company tried to impose its monopolistic and exploitative practices. Zamindars, often taking advantage of the ill-defined boundary, let out to production merchants or sub-ordinate revenue engag­ ers their private khalaris (saltpans), which they claimed were under Maratha jurisdiction.31 In a parvana from Farquharson to Paramananda Pohraji and Bhim Nandi, the zamindars of the Mid­ napore chakla (territorial division enclosing a number of parganas) were accused of engaging malangis (salt workers) in their private farms, obstructing the manufacture of the Company. However, the zamindars claimed that these salt farms belonged to Maratha Pata­ spore.32 Along with the ill-defined boundary and diluted political allegiance, the strategic location of the forestlands made it a refuge for smugglers. Various trade routes intersected western jungles area.33 Smugglers could use different routes through the western jungle to enter the Company’s dominion. Cunningham, in his report, mentions that smugglers traversed not the usual route of ‘Kokrahati’ (trading mart in Midnapore on the river Rasulpore),34 but apparently other pathways. Given its lack of local knowledge and inability to penetrate deep into the terrain, it was not possible for the Company to check the smugglers’ movement in the fron­ tier region. Cunningham reported that the Maratha salt smuggled through the western jungle was chiefly the produce of the par­ ganas adjacent to Balasore.35 Maratha salt was also smuggled into Bengal from Nagpur. Cunningham estimated that ‘many years ago forty and fifty thousand bullocks were employed in the trade. In those days annual importation of Maratha salt probably exceeded 200,000 maunds.’ He claimed ‘through the chokies at Bulrampore alone . . . ’, 600,000 maunds of salt were annually smuggled. This salt sold at a much lower price. In 1800-1, smuggled salt was sold for as little as ‘Rs. 1-13 maunds of 62 Sicca (scale of weight)36 weight to the seer in Midnapore and Burdwan,’37 whereas the Company salt

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


was sold at Rs. 4 to 6 per maunds of 82 Sicca weight.38 It becomes evident from the price difference that the Company salt, being far more expensive, was shunned by the local populace while the cheaper smuggled salt found a ready market. This constant demand for cheap salt rendered all checks and precautions to pre­ vent smuggling futile. Other than these forested tracts, other areas such as Birbhum, Burdwan, Ramghur, Midnapore, Balarampore and Nausray, too, suffered from mass-scale smuggling.39

Company Enforcement Schemes Being unable to check the infiltration of Maratha salt on private accounts, the Company decided to strike at the sources of its supply. The resident at Balasore pointed out that the exclusion of Maratha salt had caused its illicit trafficking. Therefore, an arrangement was made with the faujdar of Balasore in 1785 to buy a specific quantity of salt (not more than 1,50,000 maunds) from this province.40 Salt contractors and boilers became subject to the Resident’s authority and were not allowed to sell a single grain of salt without his parwana.41 The zamindars and talukdars also had to obey the Resident in production matters and expect payment from him. The Resident deducted the government duty from the price and paid the remainder to the zamindar. As the places of salt boiling were dispersed, the prices varied as well. The Resident was supposed to investigate the quality of salt and settle the price accordingly. However, the Company was initially suspicious of the plan because this would increase the supply of salt in the market while its policy was to yield maximum revenue from minimum supply. However, William Wordsworth, the British Resident of Balasore, argued that the arrangement would not affect the profit of the Company monopoly but ‘would increase the revenue of these provinces and . . . would accommodate itself to the interest . . . of the Company’. Since Maratha salt was already being bought by the French and the Dutch (as vakil Bishambhar Pandit had reported42), buying Balasore salt would put a stop to its clandestine transportation by the beoparies or baladeas (petty merchants) and also, more importantly, would check the import and sale of Maratha


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salt by the French and the Dutch. This salt was to be delivered at Rasulpore under the charge of the Agent of Hijli, the price varying from Rs. 70 per 100 maunds to Rs. 100 per 100 maunds. However, the amount delivered was much less than the amount contracted. Out of 835,000 maunds, only 405,591 maunds were delivered.43 It can be presumed that the undelivered salt found its way to the salt market eluding the Company’s vigilant eye. Apparently, the new arrangement could hardly prevent smug­ gling. Until the late eighteenth century, baladeas numbering anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 continued to come annually through the western jungles to buy salt.44 Cunningham reported from that Nausray alone, almost 15,000 maunds of salt were smug­ gled through the western jungles.45 To put a check on the growing scale of smuggling, George Forster, a civil servant on the Madras establishment deputed to Nagpur by Lord Cornwallis, proposed to Raghuji Bhonsle (ruler of Nagpur) in 1790 to bestow upon the British the exclusive right to purchase all the Maratha salt from Orissa, Ratanpur and Sambalpur.46 The Company considered that since it had bought only a small portion of the surplus produce, the rest was probably being smuggled into its territory. Its proposal of monopoly was not granted.47 The Raghuji Bhonsle of Nagpur replied that ‘the existing arrangement was an established one, there was no necessity of making any change or alteration in it. . . . In case the English monopolised the purchase of salt the . . . beoparies would be ruined, and the Maharaja would also suffer a loss in the revenue.’48 However, later in 1791, it was decided that of the total quantity of salt manufactured in Balasore, only the quantity required for the consumption of the local ryots and inhabitants was to be kept, while the remainder was to be sold to Wordsworth and no one else.49 Even this arrangement could not stop the smuggling. The Company was operating on the principle that if it could diplomatically channel the surplus Maratha salt into a single legitimate trade with Calcutta, it could cut-off Maratha salt smuggling at its roots. Hence, Wodsworth interacted with the Maratha authority at Nagpur to enable him to set up such a trans­ action. Under these terms, Raja Ram Pandit (Maratha Governor of Cuttack) of Cuttack would sell all his surplus salt to the Brit­

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


ish at the rate of Rs. 100 per 100 maunds and would also provide security against smuggling. Wodsworth informed Calcutta that this was the best possible export price they could negotiate.50 All these developments show that what had been a local affair for so long now became an important element of state policy. The Com­ pany tried rigorously to modify pre-existing trading circuits. This reorganization undermined the pre-existing local economic prac­ tices. Problems arose when deep-rooted indigenous institutions and processes encroached upon the Company’s authority. It is in this context that the trade between Maratha dominions and Ben­ gal territories by indigenous merchants came to be considered as smuggling. Smuggling across the boundaries provides an insight into the interplay between the Company’s monopolistic designs assisted by a boundary creating scheme, and ‘transgressive project of smuggling that continually threatened to tear it down’.51

Practices and Patterns of Smuggling Vast quantities of sundub salt (an inferior grade of salt), karkutch salt (solar evaporated variety) and panga salt (boiled salt) were imported clandestinely from the Maratha dominions and sold by the petty dealers or beoparies in the local marts at a much cheaper rate.52 Salt was also illicitly imported from the Maratha enclosures within the Company’s dominion. Merchants dealing in Maratha salt had their golas (warehouses) close to Pataspore from where they procured salt and sold it under the cover of rowannah (Company sanctioned permit).53As a result the interests of trad­ ers in Company salt were being hurt.54 As the Company salt lost its market to the smuggled Maratha salt, it decided to purchase a certain quantity of the latter. The price for this varied from Rs. 70 to 100 per 100 maunds. The quantity contracted for was never entirely delivered. From 1785 to 1793, out of the 835,000 maunds contracted for, only 405,992 maunds were delivered.55 At the same time, there was no dearth of Maratha salt for local consumption. It is evident that the deficit salt that never reached the Company gola was smuggled and found its way into the local market. This was probably because the Company did not pay a fair price for the


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Maratha salt. To prevent smuggling, Farquharson recommended increasing the price for Maratha salt to Rs. 15 per 100 maunds.56 Wodsworth also proposed that the Maratha salt, instead of being disposed at Rasulpore, could be delivered at ‘Putchumber’ (pres­ ent Paschimabad near Balasore) as this would reduce the transport expenses, while selling it with Jellasore salt would yield more profit.57 However, none of the proposals were accepted by the Salt Department. It was only after 1793 that the Company decided that Orissa salt would be delivered to Salkia a town on the Hooghly river near Calcutta. A contract was entered into for 30,000 maunds at Rs. 119 per 100 maunds. However, the Agent at Hijli suggested that this purchase should be made at ‘Nausray’ a town in the Hijli district at a price not exceeding Rs. 55 per 100 maunds. Appar­ ently, he was anxious that the price paid for the Orissa salt should not exceed the price that he paid to his malangis. All these arrange­ ments were ineffectual and Orissa salt from Balasore and Maratha salt from Maratha enclosures continued to flood Bengal markets.58 Illicit trafficking in this ill-defined, forested frontier region also unleashed violence. The use of force to carry out smuggling activi­ ties became a significant problem for the Company authority. The Salt Comptroller reported to the Board of Trade that some of the officers belonging to the chauki at Sopure had been carried off by Mangovind Chowdhury and others for seizing salt brought clan­ destinely into the Company district by the Marathas, and, hence, military assistance was required.59Another report shows that in Nausray, the Marathas beat the daroga severely as he permitted some of the merchants to sell the Jellasore salt there. In another instance, the merchants of Midnapore complained that if they sold imported salt to the government, the zamindars would send the chuars to plunder them. The paikars of Jhalda reported that the chaprasis refused to report any of these abuses to the higher authorities as two sepoys and one chaprasi had been murdered by the chuars who were occasionally used to escort the Maratha salt smugglers. Therefore, military assistance was requested as unarmed chaprasis were falling victim to the chuars. The Daroga of Jhalda also reported that Maratha salt was being smuggled through the phandi (outpost) of Andhajuree and it amounted to

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


about 10,000-15,000 maunds.60 Because of these violent activities, the chaprasis of the phandis of Andhajuree, Ahonnah, and Kautjur refused to go to the stations. These stations being unguarded, the sepoys and chaprasis were being murdered. When an officer came with reinforcements, it raised an alarm, but the trouble makers had already left the place. The chuars and their leaders were creat­ ing immense trouble for the salt administration. They were looting bazars, extorting money (around 2 annas per coolie load of salt) from the boats laden with salt and were also escorting smugglers.61 These incidents show the inefficiency and inexperience of the Company administration, on the one hand, and the questioning of the authority of the Company state by the indigenous people. To check the smuggling, the Company reorganized the admin­ istration. Authority over the inland chaukis was transferred from the Collector to the Comptroller for better prevention of the illicit trade in Maratha salt. Even then, the Company state was not very successful in its venture as some of the local officers were them­ selves involved in it. The daroga of Balarampore, while trying to prevent smuggling through the western jungles, received no help from the thanadar and the inhabitants beat his chaprasis.62 The chauki officials also sometimes aided the smugglers. The salt merchants of Midnapore, Birbhum, Jellasore and Patcheat com­ plained that due to the negligence of salt chaukidars, merchants of low credit were importing Maratha salt without a rowannah. These petitioners themselves confiscated some salt and sent it to the chaukidars but both they and the superintendents ignored it completely.63 Not only the petty employees but senior officers like Wodsworth and Farquharson were also alleged to be corrupt. Wodsworth was apparently trying to create his monopoly in Jella­ sore. He employed his chaprasis, Ram Bhagat and Jugal Bhagat, for ‘looting’ salt from the houses of the ryots, which they had stored for family consumption.64 Thus, when the amount of salt pro­ duced under his authority was called into question, Wodsworth threatened to abolish the post of the Chief Salt Officer by using his influence. He also strenuously tried to have the district of Jel­ lasore brought under his jurisdiction to prevent smuggling. Many senior Company officers, who regarded this as a ploy to increase


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his power and influence, vigorously objected to his proposals.65 A somewhat similar incident took place in Tamluk where Farquhar­ son instructed other officials to order the darogas not to interfere in matters of the Maratha salt trade. He did not want the vigilant daroga to intercept and confiscate salt without rowannahs. This directly contradicted the Company’s own strict rules that all legiti­ mate salt must have rowannahs.66 Thus, both legitimate and illicit salt were out in the countryside without the requisite permits, and this made it practically impossible for the darogas to enforce rules adequately. Consequently, smuggling in Maratha salt continued unhindered and unabated. This state of affairs was probably one of the factors behind the Company’s decision to annex Orissa in 1803.67

Smuggling Across the Border of the French Enclave The English Company shared a virtual political boundary with the French East India Company, unlike the Marathas with whom the Company shared an actual boundary. Smuggling along this border caused a serious threat to the English Company’s political author­ ity. The French East India Company was an independent rival entity. Both the companies tried to establish their political and economic authority in the Indian subcontinent. They occasionally sided with rival regional powers waging war against each other. For example in the third and fourth Anglo-Mysore wars, the Eng­ lish allied with the Nizam and the Marathas against Tipu Sultan the ruler of Mysore who was supported by the French. Moreover, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain was at war with France (Seven Years’ War, American Revolutionary War, etc.). Therefore, their perpetual political-economic rivalry both in the subcontinent and on the international stage had its bearing on ‘contraband trading’ by the French East India Company. Smug­ gling by the French Company was a product of imperial infighting and opposition to limit the French ability to trade in Bengal. This is evident from the proposals advocated in the peace treaty signed at Versailles on 31 August 1787. According to this treaty, the French right to import salt in Bengal was limited to 200,000 maunds, salt­

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


petre up to 18,000 maunds and opium up to 300 chests.68 A dastak (permit) had already been issued under the seal of the Nawab of Bengal Mubarak-ud-Daulah in 1786 to check all French vessels going to and fro from Calcutta, Farasdanga, Hooghly, Chinsura and other places, if they were laden with arms and ammunition and foreign salt.69 If foreign salt was imported without a permit or in excess amount, it was confiscated as contraband and stored in the English Company’s gola, and was sold off by the Company. In one instance, the French Company was allowed to import 200,000 maunds of salt per annum but it imported more than 310,000 maunds. The excess amount was confiscated by the English Com­ pany and sold off to Calcutta merchants.70 While no definite account of French smuggling has been found, there are hints that a large-scale illegal trade was going on in secret. It is complicated to probe into the matter of salt smuggling by the French for the English Company was hardly ever furnished with any data by local authorities regarding the extent of salt smuggling by them. This lack of information has to be juxtaposed with the anxiety expressed in several letters transmitted among the officers of the Salt Department. One such letter underlines the urgency to appoint an ‘intelligent European’ for receiving the French con­ vention. They could not trust an indigenous daroga for this duty. Robert Fergusson, who ‘lately had the charge of French confiscated salt and some of the French convention’, was regarded as the ablest person to be appointed as the gola keeper at Sulkea.71 There are numerous letters containing exhaustive steps to ensure that there were no incidents of French salt smuggling. In a letter to the Board of Revenue, it was reported that the best way to prevent the introduction of excess salt outside the permits granted by the French Governor from Pondicherry to the officer of the settlements, was to keep a list of those permits with the Salt Department. Benjamin Grindale, a senior official, suggested that permits should be valid for one year and a fixed quota should be set at the beginning of the year.72 John Graham, a senior officer of the Salt Department, instructed that the salt agents were not to be allowed to receive excess salt than that which was specified in the permit without government permission. It was recommended to


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the Salt Department that officers should be authorized to search the vessel regularly. Salt without a permit was liable to be confis­ cated. The Department also sought to decide in which golas this salt was to be stored.73 Senior officers were to be appointed to make arrangements for the least expensive golas for the annual storage of French salt. They were also authorized to check these golas at regular intervals.74 In 1790, Mr Law ordered that the French salt was to be kept back until the following year. Though the reason for detaining was not given Ferguson was praised for being able to prevent smuggling.75 Since salt imported into the French enclave was consumed within its limits, the import of more than the specified quantities should not have bothered the English East India Company. How­ ever, it was always very concerned and kept a vigilant eye on the quantity of salt imported by the French Company. For instance, in 1793, when a majhi (boatman) reported that he had unloaded salt from an unknown ship in Chandernagar, the Salt Office immedi­ ately concluded that this salt was quite possibly illegal and began to probe the matter. Problems arose during the investigation as it involved foreign relations. It was, therefore, referred to Lord Cornwallis, the Governor-General.76 It can be inferred from this evidence that the English Company thought that if the French enclave was supplied with more salt than the quantity required for local consumption, the surplus might be smuggled into its terri­ tory. Therefore, it became obligatory for the English Company to detect, locate, capture and eradicate any potential source of supply that could feed the smuggling industry. So far, we have seen smuggling as a repercussion of the creation of boundaries. ‘Boundary production and boundary transgression in the form of smuggling can be seen as two sides of the same coin’.77 What aggravated the problem of smuggling in the frontier regions was the division between state and society. This statesociety division reduced the English Company’s administrative power, territorial penetration, and understanding of local knowl­ edge and local culture. This, in turn, rendered it incapable of checking the mobility of smugglers over the boundaries. This idea

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


of the state-society division has been taken from Joel S. Migdal’s theory of ‘spatial logic’.78 To exercise its monopolistic design at the expense of indigenous enterprises, the Company created a division between state and society. The Company state stood as a distant government that was not embedded in society. It treated its subjects as strangers who were subject to its grand strategies and abstract laws. Such a division stood in sharp contrast to previous regimes. In this respect, Farhat Hassan has pointed out that the pre-colonial state was in dynamic relation with local society.79 However, as Ghulam Husain Khan comments, ‘Bengal’s new rulers were quite alien to this country, strangers to the methods of raising tribute, as well as to the maxims of estimating the revenues or of comprehend­ ing the ways of tax-gathering’.80 The English Company failed to understand that the assertion of its authority depended on the compliance and active participation81 of local society. This also suggests that the Company state lacked social control. It failed to reorganize pre-existing modes of manufacture and trade as well. The nascent Company state depended on its lower-rung employ­ ees to run the ground level salt administration. These lower-rung employees (gomastas, mohures, sezawal bailiff and ziladars (rev­ enue collectors) were often found to have aided recalcitrant local economic actors in their ‘illegitimate’ pursuits. As a link between the producers and the Company, they could manipulate the latter’s attempt to subordinate domestic enterprises. They gave primacy to their allegiance with the smugglers over their role as agents of the state machinery. In this respect, Barui has made an interesting observation that Company officials like the darogas were some­ times dependent on the naib diwans for their employment. These diwans themselves were associated with the smuggling of salt and had secret understandings with the zamindars regarding its illicit manufacture.82 Sometimes the zamindars employed peons, majhis of the chaukis, for secretly transporting salt. These peons or majhis, being a part of the salt administration, had extensive and detailed knowledge of the activities and schedules of senior officials, such as the agents or darogas. They could, thus, try to smuggle the salt


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out at such times when these officials were otherwise occupied. Muhammad Rajah, a peon, was allegedly employed by Joynarayan Chowdhury, a zamindar, to carry salt out of the boats and he hid a small quantity in his house.83 One can perhaps guess from the above examples the extent to which the English Company employ­ ees were associated with and organized illicit transactions. In the process, they blurred the division between society and state. This problem was identified as institutional corruption. It was pervasive in the Company state and contributed to its structural weakness.

Institutional Corruption To exercise its monopolistic design more intrusively, the English Company employed salaried servants to deal directly with manufacturers and make tedious observations on everyday transac­ tions.84 These lower-rung servants were in a position to collaborate with or hinder the Company’s operations, as they deemed appro­ priate for their interest. The Company recognized that because of their low salaries, corruption among the petty ‘native’ officers was rampant.85 Since the Company wanted to keep the salt production cost at a minimal level, it paid its petty officials poorly and hence, it was too much to expect honesty from them (Table 8.7). The Board, therefore, pondered over whether the allowances of the darogas or mohurers were too small, and whether they would have to think of reducing the number of chaukis to manage their expenses.86 To Table 8.7: Remuneration of different ‘native officers’ in Tamluk division Designation

Remuneration (in Rs.)

Diwan (highest paid officer)












Sources: Sinha, 1954: 24; Barui, 1985: 154.

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


curb corruption, the Company also declared rewards in case of information on or the seizure of illicit salt. Holt Mackenzie showed that nearly 85 per cent of the sale deed of smuggled salt went in rewarding the successful informers87 (Table 8.8). However, the Company’s decision to give cash incentives to petty officers for reporting smuggled salt backfired. The officers were often tempted by substantial capital rewards and began reporting false cases of smuggling. For instance, the daroga of the Danton pargana claimed to have seized 28 maunds of salt but could not produce any receipt for it.88 To prevent such abuses, Cornwallis suggested that instead of a daroga, the chaprasi could be provided with a warrant to seize contraband salt and directly bring it to Calcutta. He also suggested that a sircar be established in every chauki ghat and an amin would be appointed to check the salt passing it to see if it contained the exact quantity specified in the rowannah.89 Corruption reached such an extent that the chaukidars even competed among themselves to secure a larger jurisdiction. The larger circle of authority would include a number of ghats that, in turn, meant that there would be an enormous number of com­ mercial transactions. This gave them greater scope to extort bribes from merchants. For instance, when a chaprasi caught the boat of Bhagirath Paul, which was laden with the illicit salt of around 60 maunds, the daroga, Baidyanath Banerjee, took a bribe of Rs. 32 to release it.90 Besides the recognized extra imposts, the Agency officials were in the habit of taking illegal dues from the malangis for land settlement and the short-term lease of khalaris, recogniz­ ing unauthorized ones and for supplying advance in periods of scarcity – the rainy seasons. The darogas often made bandobast (settlement) with the malangis. Every month, the chaprasis col­ lected a certain quantity of salt and money from the malangis as per the bandobast. The darogas then delivered the salt to the Company, reporting that they had confiscated it and thereby got 50 per cent of the price of the confiscated salt as a reward.91 To prevent such abuses, the Company increased the salary of the mohurers and darogas. The mohurer was paid anything from Rs. 15 to 20, while a daroga got from Rs. 50 to 75/100 (in 1801). A promotion scheme was also implemented. Under it, a low-level






At Mondalpara

At Chandiganj

At Seerpore

At Boleganttah

At Poygoyy



Quantity claimed (before seizure) by the agents




Amount to be paid on receipt of the Board’s order (seizure being above 10 maunds)

By Emaumdy sepoy (name of the sepoy)

By Amudally mohurer of the chauki of Chundry

By Mirza Gauffer Beg mohurer (native salt officer) of the chauki of Shoky

By ditto................ditto

By Tahoor Prasad Majumdar, daroga of Balliah

By whom seized

Source: WBSA, Progs Board of Trade, Salt, 3-19 January 1801, vol. 24, letter dated 26 December 1800.

Quantity of salt seized (in maunds)

Where seized

Table 8.8: Quantity of Salt seized in November 1800, and the rewards paid and to be paid

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


employee would be promoted for meritorious service to the post of mohurer and be entitled to a salary of Rs. 20 per month. After that, he would rise in the pay grade and eventually be promoted to the daroga rank with a pay of Rs. 50 per month. At the apex of the scheme was the post of the senior daroga, earning Rs. 100 per month. It was hoped that with high salaries, incentives and the scope for advancement, the officials would not easily succumb to corruption. This, though, did not stop them from committing fraudulent activities.92 In some areas, corruption reached such an extent that faux chaukis were established to extort money from legitimate and illegitimate dealers, and the retail shopkeepers of the village hat (market). These false chaukis were significant sources of organized illicit transactions. The superintendent J. Irwin, of the eastern salt chaukis on his journey westward of Meghna to Balasore found three illicit salt chaukis established by their respective darogas. In his report to the Board, he remarked: I stopped at Cowcolly where an illicit salt chokey had been established. I found a Mohrer whose Flag, adul, drum I took away from him and also papers as related to the gaut business, and sent them to Burricurn whence this chokey was established at churcally I met with none of the officers of the chokey, neither mohrer nor chuprasse. Pawnsay was also absent. The Mohrer had full notice of my approach, but it was informed that the present mohrer seldom or ever reside at the gaut as he leaves a brother of his to act at the gaut for him and the chuprasse are stationed at the different places.93

Another essential channel of organizing illegal transactions was the issuing of the sada-rowannah or blank permit that helped merchants to avoid checkpoints. B. Mason (Salt Agent of the Tam­ luk division), gave a detailed description of the smuggling of salt with the help of the sada-rowannah issued by local darogas. An essential part of this procedure included the merchant arrang­ ing with the chauki officials. According to previous provisions, a merchant would load double the amount of salt for which he had a rowannah. Once officials endorsed the rowannah (the date was left blank), the gomasta travelled ahead to the next chauki with


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it. After that, the rest of the salt-laden boats proceeded. If anyone pooled a challenge, the excuse was given that the rowannah was with gomasta who had travelled ahead to ensure that there was no wastage of time. As the gomasta could fill in the date of the rowannah himself, it was used to validate the trading of smuggled salt.94 Another standard way of smuggling was ‘retail smuggling’. Farquharson, the Agent of Hijli, wrote to the superintendent of the western chaukis that the merchants who dealt in this traffic in Mid­ napore had ‘. . . some golas of their own close to Pataspore where under cover of rowannahs they maintain and dispose salt and replenish their golas by clandestine importation from the depots within the district of Pataspore.’ After bribing the petty officials for this arrangement, the dealers were able to sell the salt at a price much below the market price of the Company salt.95 Sometimes the darogas let the salt pass without rowannahs. In a petition, some beoparies even offered to furnish details of salt that passed Poinjali, a chauki situated on the river Hooghly without rowannahs. They urged the Company to look into the matter for such practices seri­ ously injured both its revenue as well as the legal traders’ profits.96 Forging permits was also a widespread practice. The Gopi­ gunj daroga reported that he had stopped 11 boats laden with 2,350 maunds of salt under cover of a rowannah. Although the rowannahs were duly attested by the darogas of Tengrakhali and Rasulpore ghat, no date was mentioned on them. Therefore, it was assumed that previous darogas had probably colluded with the smugglers.97 Not only did they fabricate rowannahs but some of the Company servants were also found providing necessary help to smugglers and hiding the smuggled salt or sometimes even stealing the seized salt. Such an incident took place in phandi (police station subordinate to thana) Agrachur. Three hundred maunds of salt had been confiscated at Dadra and was dispatched to the phandi where there were two golas for storing seized salt. When the consignment was sent, the mohurer was absent from the phandi. It was suspected that he had an understanding with the smugglers.98 The Salt Department was well aware of the abuses committed by the darogas and servants stationed at the chaukis. The agents and

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


Superintendents repeatedly expressed their concern that ‘chaukis instead of preventing were serving as a means to promote it.’99 Thus, ‘fixed chaukis . . . became fixed abuses . . . where interest of state was almost entirely sacrificed to the emolument of indi­ viduals appointed in-charge of the chaukis.’100 When the Tamluk Agent took charge in 1801, he found that ‘there was not, nor ever had been a single English record . . . of the advances made to the Molunghees.’101 According to N.K. Sinha, it was both the inability and unwillingness of the Company officers to learn the language and probe into the heart of the problem that led the petty officials to continue with their illicit activities.102 This assumption can be questioned. Corruption was often a means of self-preservation, especially for the lower-grade Company officials. They would sometimes be posted to remote locations far from the centres of Company administration and power where they had to operate in a hostile setting and face opposition from opportunistic landlords, devious malangis and robbers. Isolated they would, thus, turn a blind eye to the salt smuggling to ensure their safety. No amount of salary hikes could resolve these problems.103 Very often, the chaprasis became the target of smugglers and robbers. They were publicly humiliated and sometimes murdered. These hapless chaprasis could not count on their departmental superiors for help. For instance, when Balai Singh, the chaprasi of ‘Kantateneh’ (a salt chauki), caught a boat laden with illicit salt, he was humiliated by the ‘Teekaraera’ (a salt chauki) daroga. The daroga insulted him and took away the salt with ‘40 other people’. Thus, they could not even claim the reward assigned for providing information or seizing salt. Since the chaprasis were underpaid, these rewards contributed to their earning. In reality, in their attempt to prevent smuggling they only endangered their own lives. The Company was acutely aware of the grave situation but could not ensure their security. Violent activities carried out in the eastern provinces reached an alarming level. Irwin, the superinten­ dent of the eastern salt chauki, reported that smugglers were many in number and well-armed. Smugglers of the islands of the Ganga and Meghna were armed with swords, matchlocks, bows and pots full of snakes, which they used as weapons. They transported salt


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in large convoys. After they crossed the swampy marshes, the salt was delivered into small dingis (boats) and sent out to houses and small shops whose owners had one chitty (permit) and sold salt under its cover. Irwin noted that the only way to stop them was to use firearms. His request was granted but a small number of armed sepoys were inadequate to prevent the smuggling.104 The Company passed a series of regulations (Regulation XXIX, 1793, laid down the rules and code of conduct for persons appointed by the government, and Regulation IV, 1798, laid down rules for the salt chauki officers),105 declaring handsome rewards for checking this problem. However, everything was in vain. Another form of corruption was embezzlement. Malangis made several petitions against the daroga, gomasta, koyal (weighman), mohurer and other officers who defrauded them during weigh­ ing.106 Bhabani Charan Roy and six other malangis complained in their petition that the daroga and koyal performed the mofussil­ banga (system of weighing salt) using an iron beam and leaden weights107 weighing 6.25 seers but that these weights had been tied together with a rope weighing 1 seer. Also, they alleged that the koyals had taken two handfuls of salt for every one maund and five seers that had been weighed.108 Besides, the new weighing system was not applied uniformly; therefore, the prevalence of both systems caused much confusion. As weights varied between the two systems (mofussil-banga and the English system), disputes broke out during the payment of duties and the fixing of the total price.109 In a report of 22 April 1774, contracts were made with the Calcutta merchants for the delivery of salt at Rs. 75 and 82 per maund of 82 sicca weight. However, as time elapsed, only 2/9ths of the contracted amount was delivered and was weighed with scru­ pulous exactness by European scales instead of wooden scales. The merchants pleaded that since they entered into contracts before the introduction of the new weighing system, therefore weighing of their salt should be done according to the previous method. But the company found this claim to be unjustified. They could not allow merchants demand for relaxation from being weighed with scrupulous exactness. The Salt Department countered that: ‘The wooden scale being coarse and heavy did not feel the additions of salt, thrown in to make them even, so quickly as the iron ones…

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


This uncertain method exposed the weighman to be bribed by the merchants to favour. . . .’110 Bribing became another traditional practice to promote smuggling. In the peripheral areas of the Eastern Salt Chauki, it reached such an extent that merchants had no other option but to pay bribes. In certain places, bribing local officers to carry on the illicit trade became a custom. It was so rampant that questions of legality or illegality became farcial. In the Sundarbans, boats often added excess illicit salt to their legitimate load while passing. The local chauki officers charged Rs. 2 for every 1,000 maunds of salt as a bribe while 2 anna per 1,000 maunds was the bribe for selling it.111 In some areas of eastern chauki, there was a fixed rate for bribes: Rs. 25 per 100 maunds for passing smuggled salt Rs. 10 per 100 maunds to import smuggled salt Rs. 5 per 100 maunds for mixing mud and other impurities with rowannah salt and Rs. 2.8 anna per 100 maunds for excess to rowannah salt.112 All these developments suggest that the English Company’s commercial interest received a considerable setback due to its inherent problems. Institutional corruption reduced its profit margin and limited the exercise of its authority. As the Company’s political and economic power increased, institutional corruption became a more significant problem. To check it and keep smug­ gling to its lowest level, superintendents were appointed at the western and eastern salt chauki in 1801. Surprisingly, the appoint­ ment of superintendents resulted in more reports of smuggling in these two chaukis. Smuggling continued to exist throughout the period as a manifestation of resistance by the indigenous society, throughout the eighteenth century not only as manifestation of resistance by the indigenous socio-economic actors but also as continuation of pre-existing forms of commercial activities. The trajectory of smuggling also reflects the institutional weakness of Company administration.

Conclusion It has been demonstrated here that the English East India Com­ pany’s monopoly over the salt trade was a partial one. The attempt of the Company state to monopolize the salt market was restrained


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by local economic agents. It is in the context of routine competi­ tion between the state and local society to capture the salt market that smuggling has to be studied. It has been determined that the exercise of monopolistic designs necessitated the enforcing of a territorial and state-society division. Such categories outlawed pre-existing commercial practices which were antithetical to the interest of the Company’s monopoly. However, local manufactur­ ers and traders flouted the state monopoly by continuing their commercial activity along an established course. This suggests that commercial networks of inland trade enjoyed relative autonomy from the control of the Company state. On the other hand, the interplay between the Company state and the local society provides a glimpse of the resilience of domestic trading networks.113 Thus, in conclusion, it can be argued that the failure of the Company’s monopoly over the salt industry was inevitable. First, smuggling was structurally linked to Company state in its exercise of eco­ nomic authority. Second, the Company had to depend on ‘native officers’ who were in a position to collaborate with or hinder its operations as they deemed appropriate for their interests. Thus, the salt monopoly of the Company was, in retrospect, a doomed enterprise.

NOTES 1. 2. 3. 4.

Choudhury, 1979: 116-17. Marshall, 1976: 109. Kanda, 2015: 1. Ghosal, 1966: 95-106. He has very briefly discussed illicit manufac­ ture and smuggling under the Company regime in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa in the early nineteenth century, and the preventive measures taken up by the Company; Banerjee, 1966: 214-80. He has given a detailed description of the centres of illicit manufacturing, the extent of such manufacturing, how the malangis clandestinely produced salt and the preventive measures taken to mitigate smuggling; Das, 1984:181-223 has argued that salt smuggling was a phenomenon of the 1820s. A clandestine market developed because the salt depart­ ment failed to clear their over-stocked golas and, on the other hand, smuggling was the only alternative for the intermediaries to avoid

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal

5. 6. 7. 8.


10. 11. 12. 13.

14. 15. 16.


sinking into the bankruptcy resulting from unemployment due to the closure of unauthorized khalaris; Barui, 1985: 27, 143-54. He has shown how the newly-introduced salt farming policy and the system of public auction gave rise to large scale salt smuggling; Bhargava, 2006: 24-43. She has briefly commented on the malangis’ and zamin­ dars’ participation in smuggling. Datta, 1961: 99. WBSA, Proceedings Select Committee, 9 January-31 December 1766, vol. 2A, letter dated 15 August. Tomlinson, 1850: 291-3. Tagliacozzo, 2005: 4-9. This chapter has drawn on the conceptual formulations made by Tagliacozzo and on his argument that time, geography and other factors help to determine when goods are to be considered contraband. He has contended that the history of smug­ gling has to be understood in terms of a particular historical moment that made the ruling power decree products as officially illegal. Legal or illegal were convenient terms used by the state when its authority or interest was undermined by the activities of rival bodies. Boehme, 2005: 704. She has demonstrated that (in the context of nineteenth-century western India), ‘British policy played a crucial role in marginalising certain commercial activities and thereby creating an illicit trade. This so-called illicit trade under the British, however, was in large part composed of pre-existing commercial system.’ Jones, Martin et al., 2015: 32. Moraczewska, 2010: 330. Smith, 2003: 4. Appendix to the Report of the Commissioner, 1856: Appendix C, no. 5. This regulation remained unchanged until 1826. According to this regulation, a number of superintendents were appointed in the salt chaukis. These new superintendents exercised their supervisory powers over the agents and were situated in the countryside so that they could act directly and decisively whenever necessary, whereas earlier salt agents were supervised directly from Fort William and, therefore, had limited powers. This was thought to be a very effective measure to prevent the movements of the smugglers. Peter, 1836: 11-16. Grahn, 1997: xv. Decline in the sale of Company salt is evident from the quantity left uncleared in the Company gola.


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17. Hume Tracts, 1846: 57-8. 18. Appendix to the Report of the Commissioner, 1856: iv (Appendix A, No. 16). 19. Price, 1876: 185-90. 20. Firminger, 1915: 13. 21. Ibid. 22. Sengupta, and Bose, 1962: 101. 23. Sinha, 1954: 21. 24. Ibid.: 22 25. Das, 1962: 4; Sinha, 1954: 24. 26. Diaz, 2015: 3. This idea of ‘grey area’ was propounded by George Diaz. He considered the entire borderland to be the ‘grey area’. In this context, the forest areas can be characterized as ‘grey areas’ because, in this part, the political jurisdiction of the Marathas and the Com­ pany state was vague and, hence, legal and illegal transactions could hardly be differentiated. 27. Sinha, 1954: 102-3. 28. Ibid.: 98-9. 20. Sinha, 1954: 102. 29. A native officer of the government, employed either in the Revenue Department to collect revenues for the government, measure land or estimate standing crops, make local inquiries, or employed in the Judicial Department as judges and arbitrators in civil cases. 30. Sinha, 1954: 106-7. 31. Ibid.: 131-2. 32. Ibid.: 129-31. 33. Das, 1962: 4. 34. Sinha, 1954: 128. 35. Ibid.: 70. 36. 80 sicca weight equals to 1 seer. 37. Sinha, 1954: 128. 38. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 17 March-28 April 1804, vol. 31, pt. II: 771. 39. Sinha, 2013: 128. 40. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Revenue, Salt, 4 January-30 June 1790, vol. 1: 487. 41. Ibid.: 477. 42. Ibid. 43. Sinha, 1954: 21.

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


44. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 4 January-30 June 1790, vol. 1: 199-203. 45. Sinha, 1954: 60. 46. Calendar of Persian Correspondence, vol. IX, 1949: 147. 47. Ibid.; Sinha, 1954: 25. 48. Calendar of Persian Correspondence, vol. VI, 1938: 147. 49. Ibid., vol. IX, 1949: 249. 50. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 10 January-29 June 1798, vol. 18, letter dated 22 March 1798. 51. Gainsborough, 2009: 105. 52. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 3 January-19 June 1800, vol. 24: 199. 53. Sinha, 1954: 129 54. Ibid.: 51. 55. Ibid.: 21. 56. Ibid.: 127. 57. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 4 January-30 June 1790, vol. 1: 199-203. 58. Sinha, 1954: 21. 59. Sengupta and Bose, 1962: 265-6. 60. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 22 October-30 December 1802, vol. 27, pt. II, letter dated 18 November 1802. 61. Ibid. 62. Sengupta and Bose, 1962: 209-10. 63. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 4 January-30 June 1790, vol. 7, part 1: 74-84. 64. Calendar of Persian Correspondence, vol. IX, 1949: 242. 65. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 4 January-30 June 1790, vol. 7: 78-87. 66. Ibid., letter dated 6 January 1789. 67. Kurlansky, 2003: 337. 68. William, 1802: 498. 69. Calendar of Persian Correspondence, vol. VII, 1940: 218. 70. Kanda, 2015: 5. 71. Calendar of Persian Correspondence, vol. VII, 1940: 218. 72. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 3-28 July 1791, vol. 3, letter dated 6 January 1791. 73. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 28 February-15 May 1793, vol. 7, pt. II: 487.


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74. Ibid.: 73. 75. Ibid.: 105. Letter dated 3 April 1793. 76. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Revenue, Fort William, 3-28 July 1786, letter dated 5 July 1786. 77. Markovits, 2009: 109. 78. Migdal, 2004: 22-3. Migdal has explained conflicting local identities and practices in terms of boundary and other spatial logics adopted by the state. This idea of spatial logic can be implemented in the case of the Company state. 79. Hasan, 2004: 2. 80. Wilson, 2008: 4. 81. Migdal, 1988: 33. 82. Barui, 1985: 91. 83. WBSA, Proceedings Revenue Board consisting of Whole Council, 5 February-30 March 1773, vol. 3, letter dated 26 January 1773. 84. In 1780, the Company introduced the agency system to take direct control of manufacture and distribution. From making advances to the malangis to the delivery of produce at the Company gola and dis­ tribution to the wholesale dealers everything was strictly supervised by the salaried servants.. 85. Sinha, 2013: 129. 86. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 6 July-28 December 1798, vol. 19, letter dated 11 October. 87. Das, 1984: 200. 88. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 10 January-29 June 1798, vol. 18: 298-300. 89. Ibid., 8 July-20 December 1800, vol. 23: 380-91. 90. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Revenue, Salt, 3 January-29 June 1791, vol. 3: 670-7. 91. Ibid. 92. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 6 July-29 December 1801, vol. 25: 749-61. 93. Ibid., 22 October-30 December 1802, vol. 27, pt. 2: 727. 94. Sinha, 1954: 208-9. 95. Barui, 1985: 147. 96. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 8 July-20 December 1800, vol. 23: 191. 97. Ibid. Letter dated 7 July 1800. 98. Ibid.: 56-61.

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


99. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 3 January-19 July1801, vol. 24, letter dated 10 July 1801. 100. Sinha, 1954: 77. 101. Ibid.: 206. 102. Ibid.: 21. 103. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 22 October-30 December 1802, vol. 27, pt. 2, letter dated 3 November 1802. 104. Ibid., 6 July-29 December 1801, vol. 25: 749-61. 105. Gupta, 1943: 360; Suderland, 1864: 390-1. 106. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 10 January-29 June 1798, vol. 19: 100-30. 107. Ghose and Bose, 1974: 318 (iron and lead weights were introduced instead of stone and wood). 108. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 10 January-29 June 1798, vol. 19: 106-14. 109. Nandy, 1978: 101. 110. Ibid.: 103-5. 111. WBSA, Proceedings Board of Trade, Salt, 22 October-30 December 1802, vol. 27, pt. II: 749-76. 112. Ibid. 113. This argument, in a way, takes issue with the ‘Revisionists’ School, which has analysed different aspects of competition and collabora­ tion between the Company rule and indigenous society.

REFERENCES Archival Sources West Bengal State Archives (WBSA), Proceedings of Select Committee, 9 January-31 December 1766, vol. 2A. WBSA, Proceedings of Board of Revenue, Fort William, 3-28 July 1786. . 4 January-30 June 1790, vol 1. . 3-28 July 1791, vol. 3. . 28 February-15 May 1793, vol. 7, pt. II. . 10 January-29 June 1798, vol. 18. . 10 January-29 June 1798, vol. 19. . 8 July-20 December 1800, vol. 23. . 3 January-19 June 1801, vol. 24. . 6 July-29 December 1801, vol. 25.


Arijita Manna . 22 October-30 December1802, vol. 27, pt. II. . 17 March-28 April 1804, vol. 31, pt. II.

Published Sources Appendix to the Report of the Commissioner appointed to enquire into and report upon the Manufacture and Sale of and Tax upon Salt in British India and more especially upon the Practicability of Substituting for Present Arrangements A System of Excise in the Presidencies of Bengal and Madras. 1856. Calcutta: Thos. Jones ‘Calcutta Gazette Office’. Appendix to the Report of the East India Company, vol. IV: Administration of Monopolies Opium and Salt, 11 October 1831. House of Commons. Banerjee, Tarashankar. 1966. Internal Markets of Bengal India, 1834-1900. Kolkata: Academic Publishers. Barui, Balai. 1985. The Salt Industry of Bengal 1757-1800: A Study in the Interaction of British Monopoly Control and Indigenous Enterprise. Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi. Bhargava, Meena. 2006. ‘Visibility through Resistance: The Malangis and Salt Making in Eighteenth Century Bengal’, Indian Historical Review, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 24-43. Boehme, Kate. 2015. ‘Smuggling India: Deconstructing Western India’s Illicit Export Trade, 1818-1870’.  Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 25 (4), pp. 685-704. Calendar of Persian Correspondence Being Letters which Passed Between Some of the Company’s Servants and Indian Rulers and Notables, vol. VI: 1781-1785. 1938, Delhi: National Archive of India. . vol. VII: 1785-1787. 1940, Delhi: Imperial Records Department. . vol. IX: 1790-1791. 1949, Delhi: National Archives of India. Choudhury, Sadananda. 1979. Economic History of Colonialism: A Study of Salt Policy in Orissa. Delhi: Inter-India Publication. Cobbett, William. 1802. Cobbett’s Political Register, vol. 1: January to June 1802, London: Cox and Baylis Great Queen Street. Das, Binod Sankar. 1984. Changing Profile of the Frontier Bengal, 1751­ 1833. Delhi: Mittal Publications. Das, Narendranath. 1962. History of Midnapore, 1760-1942, vol. 1. Calcutta: Midnapore Samskriti Parishad. Datta, Kalikinkar. 1961. Survey of India’s Social Life and Economic

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


Condition in the Eighteenth Century, 1707-1813. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay. Devi, Bandita. 1992. Some Aspects of British Administration in Orissa, 1912-1936. Delhi: Academic Foundation. Diaz, George T. 2015. Border Contraband: A History of Smuggling Across the Rio Grande, Austin: University of Texas Press. Firminger, W.K., ed. 1915. Bengal District Records, Midnapore, 1768­ 1770, vol. 2. Calcutta: Catholic Orphan Press. Gainsborough, Martin. 2009. On the Borders of State Power: Frontiers in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region. London and New York: Routledge. Ghosal, H.R. 1966. Economic Transition in the Bengal Presidency. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay. Ghose, Bhaskar and Sanat Kumar Bose, eds. 1974. West Bengal District Records New Series – Midnapore Correspondence of the Salt Districts Tamlook Salt Division. Letter Received. Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing West Bengal. Grahn, Lance Raymond. 1997. The Political Economy of Smuggling: Regional Informal Economies in Early Bourbon New Granada. Boulder: Westview Press. Gupta, M.N. Rai. 1943. Analytical Survey of Bengal Regulation and Acts of Parliament Relating to India up to 1833. Calcutta: University of Calcutta. Hasan, Farhat. 2004. Mughal State and Locality: Power Relations in Western India, c. 1572-1730. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Jones, Martin, Rhys Jones, Michael Woods, Mark Whitehead, Deborah Dixon and Hannah Matthew. 2015. An Introduction to Political Geography: Space, Place and Politics. London: Routledge. Kanda, Sayako. 2015. ‘Competition or Collaboration? Importers of Salt, the East India Company, and the Salt Market in Eastern India, c. 1780-1836’, presented at the International Conference on the Frontier of the Socio-Economic History of Bengal, Keio University, Tokyo, pp. 1-20. Kurlansky, Mark. 2003. Salt: A World History. New Delhi: Penguin Books. Markovits, Claude. 2009. ‘The Political Economy of Opium Smuggling in early Nineteenth Century India: Leakage or Resistance?,’ Modern Asian Studies, vol. 43, no. 1, ‘Expanding Frontiers in South Asian and World History: Essays in Honour of John F. Richards’, pp. 89-111.


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Marshall, P.J. 1976. East India Fortunes: The British in Bengal in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Moraczewska, Anna. 2010. ‘The Changing Interpretation of Border Functions in International Relation’, Revista Română de Geografie Politică, Year XII, no. 2, pp. 329-40. Migdal, J.S. 2004. Boundaries and Belonging: States and Societies in the Struggle to Shape Identities and Local Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. . 1988. Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Nandy, Somendra Chandra. 1978. Life and Times of Cantoo Baboo (Krishna Kanta Nandy) the Banian of Warren Hastings, Period Covered 1742-1804, vol. 1. Calcutta: Allied Publishers. Peter, William. 1836. An Appeal to the British Government in Behalf of the British Colony and Province of Ceylon: With an Appendix Containing Various Notices of the Island by Authors and Travellers of the Early and Middle Ages. Frankfurt: H.L. Brenner. Price, J.C. 1876. Notes on History of Midnapore, at the Presidency and other Places during the Interval between 1764-1774. Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press. Report of the Commissioner Appointed to Enquire into and Report Upon the Manufacture and Sale of, and Tax upon Salt in British India, and More Specifically Upon the Practicability of Substituting for Present Arrangements: A System of Excise in the Presidencies of Bengal and Madras. 1856. Calcutta: Thos. Jones ‘Calcutta Gazette’ Office. Salt Chamber of Commerce (Northwick), The Press Versus the Salt Monopoly in British India, Hume Tracts 1846. Sengupta, J.C. and Sanat Kumar Bose, eds. 1962. West Bengal District Records New Series, Midnapore Letters Received 1777-1800. Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Census Operations, West Bengal and Sikkim. Sinha, J.C. 1927. Economic Annals of Bengal. London: Macmillan. Sinha, N.K. 1954. Midnapore Salt Papers: Hijli and Tamluk, 1781-1807. Calcutta: West Bengal Regional Records Survey Committee. Sinha, Nitin. 2013. Communication and Colonialism in Eastern India: Bihar, 1760s-1880s. Delhi: Anthem Press. Smith, Joshua M. 2003. ‘The Rogues of “Quoddy”: Smuggling in the Maine-New Brunswick Borderlands 1783-1820’, PhD thesis, The University of Maine.

Salt Smuggling in Eighteenth-century Bengal


Sutherland, David G. 1864. The Regulations of the Bengal Code in Force in September 1862. Calcutta: Geo. Wyman & Co.1&1A, Hare St. Tagliacozzo, Eric. 2005. Secret Trade and Porous Borders: Smuggling and States along a South East Asian Frontier, 1865-1915. New Haven: Yale Historical Publications. Tomlinson, Charles. 1850. The Natural History of Common Salt: Its Manufacture, Appearance, Uses, and Dangers, in Various Parts of the World. London: The Committee of General Literature and Education. Vansittart, G., Stephenson Law and M.E. Monckton Jones. 1915. ‘Free and Open Trade in Bengal’, The English Historical Review 30, no. 117: 28-41. Wilson, Jon E. 2008. The Domination of Strangers: Modern Governance in Eastern India, 1780-1835. London: Palgrave Macmillan.


Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State in Early Colonial Bengal with Special Reference to Salt Sayako Kanda

In the last decade or so, many scholars from myriad fields of South Asian history have started focusing on the various aspects of con­ sumption (for instance, Haynes et al., 2010). Consumption would influence the other side of the commodity chain, production, importance and force of which has been especially stressed in the field of economic and social history. Among various studies, the consumption of cotton cloth has attracted much attention.1 The colour, design and quality of fibre generally mattered in the choice of cotton cloth for people of every social stratum. Like cotton cloth, the choice of food must also have represented cultural, political and ritual values of a region and community. Arjun Appadurai stresses the importance of food for human societies as follows:2 In its tangible and material forms, food presupposes and reifies techno­ logical arrangements, relations of production and exchange, conditions of field and market, and realities of plenty and want. It is, therefore, a highly condensed social fact. It is also, at least in many human societies, a marvellously plastic kind of collective representation.

As he eloquently argues, salt has never been just one of the essential minerals for human survival. The quality of ‘salt’ bears various pieces of information about it, such as its salinity, its chemical composition, the production method, the location of production, the means of transport, and those who transported and traded it. In other words, there is no anonymous salt except


Sayako Kanda

for excessively standardized industrial salt, used for both alimen­ tary and industrial purposes and produced in modern factories. People would choose a proper salt to consume in the context of their ritual, cultural, and political traditions and values. In addi­ tion to price, quality is another critical indicator for consumers to choose a product. Ecological conditions, such as the availability of raw and fuel materials, would determine production methods and technology, and, thus, was one of the primary determinants of product qual­ ity. Regional differences in ecological conditions would diversify the quality of salt from one region to another. Diversity in quality would then contribute significantly to the formation of regionally and communally diverse ‘tastes’, which had roots in a particular society for a long span of time. Since South Asia was ecologically diverse, various kinds of salt that were different as regards pro­ duction methods, quality or size, were produced and consumed. In coastal Bengal, the method of salt manufacture was carefully chosen and developed in concordance with local ecological con­ ditions, such as extreme humidity and abundant raw materials (seawater and fuel). The method was different from other coastal regions of South Asia where stronger solar power enabled them to produce solar-evaporated salt with no boiling process. This chapter explores how the salt market in eastern India, spe­ cifically Bengal and Bihar, was formed and transformed under the salt monopoly of the English East India Company (hereafter, the Company). The salt monopoly was established in 1772 to increase the Company’s revenues and strengthen its financial stability. As Sayako Kanda demonstrated in a series of articles, high salt prices characterized the Company’s salt policy, which had to be abandoned in 1836 mainly due to the transformation of the salt market in eastern India rather than the increasing pressure from the British industrial and shipping interests who tried to enter the market.3 The transformation of the indigenous market was brought about not only by the Company’s policy but also by other multiple elements, both intrinsic and extrinsic, including the activities of indigenous merchants, environmental changes and coastal trade along the Bay of Bengal. The domestic economy and society were

Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State


not mere witnesses of change. Among various factors, this paper focuses on the existence of different kinds of salt in the market and consumer preferences, and on how these factors affected the Company’s salt policy. In the mid-1840s, Liverpool salt, which was produced in Cheshire, England, began to be imported into eastern India and became the dominant variety consumed there in the 1850s, which coincided with the abolition of the monopoly in 1863. This paper also deals with how Liverpool salt was imported and consumed in eastern India from the mid-1840s. It views this new movement as a continuation of the market formation and transformation in eastern India of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries rather than the result of the rise of British industrial capital, namely the Cheshire salt industry and the Liverpool shipping industry.

Changes in the Salt Market and Trade under the Company’s Monopoly During the pre-British period, salt was the most critical item of import for salt-deficit Bengal. A diverse variety of foreign salt was, thus, consumed alongside domestic varieties here. Rock salt was transported on a large scale from the north and north-western provinces by river and overland.4 Eastern India also imported a large volume of sea salt from neighbouring Orissa, a large salt pro­ ducer that had developed an extensive market in eastern, central and south India.5 Bengal also produced sea salt, mainly in the dis­ trict of Midnapur on the Orissa border. Inferior in quality, cheap Bengal salt was in demand in distant provinces of India. Large traders, known as saudagars, from Punjab, Sindh, and Gujarat engaged in this traffic, as well as Armenian and British merchants.6 There must have been many kinds of saline substances that were used for human consumption, too. During the nizamat era, salt was one of the primary sources of revenues for the state, but nei­ ther the state nor privileged merchants were able to establish any monopoly from the production to the sale of salt.7 The Company’ salt monopoly brought about substantial changes in the salt market in eastern India, which followed the


Sayako Kanda

confusion in the market after the Battle of Plassey in 1757. In 1780, the Company started to take direct control of production and the production sites were confined to the districts along the Bay of Bengal, which were divided into several salt agencies, namely Hijili, Tamluk, the 24-Parganas, Jessore, Bhulua and Chittagong.8 It banned the private production of sea salt and other saline sub­ stances for culinary use. The private import of salt, which had been extensive in the pre-British period, was also banned by land and sea. In the process, Bengal sea salt became the sole variety of salt that was allowed to be consumed in Bengal and Bihar under the Company’s monopoly. The Company successfully established a stable system of mono­ poly characterized by the high price of salt through a series of reforms in production and marketing during the 1780s. Salt now became its second largest revenue source, playing a crucial role in consolidating its rule. It was crucial for the Company to control all the supply of salt to maintain high prices. That was why the private production and import of salt were banned since an increase in the circulation of cheaper kinds of salt would lower prices in the monopoly area. The Company’s initial policy on raising salt rev­ enues was entirely dependent on the high price of Bengal sea salt, produced exclusively because of it. Bengal sea salt was a boiled variety, known as panga, which was different from other coastal regions of South Asia where solar-evaporated salt, known as karkatch, was widely produced. The Bengal method followed a boiling process because its extreme humidity made it challenging to crystallize brine by solar power alone and the readily-available fuel made panga production pos­ sible there. Fuel materials of low calorific (heating) value, such as grass and paddy straw, were used to boil brine and brushwood was occasionally used when no alternative was available. It was not common to use wood of a higher calorific value.9 By boiling brine for long hours in small earthenware pots at low temperatures, finer and whiter salt was produced. Bengal salt was a favourite among consumers in Bengal and, thus, fetched higher prices in the region’s market. For instance, while the average price of Coromandel kar­ katch salt sold at the Company’s auction in 1825 was Rs. 317.08

Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State


maunds per 100 maunds that of Bengal’s Hijili salt was Rs. 419.5.10 Thus, the Company’s revenues became heavily dependent on the sale of Bengal panga salt. In other words, the Company integrated this consumer preference into the monopoly system. The Company’s primary policies were to isolate the eastern Indian salt market from the broader salt market by prohibiting salt imports and this strategy worked to restrain competition among salt varieties. This gave many the impression that the Company was an obstacle to trade. However, the Company itself became a giant ‘importer’ of salt and encouraged the coastal trade to main­ tain salt revenues.11 Beginning in the early 1790s, when successive bad seasons in Bengal had resulted in a decline in salt revenues, the Company realized the necessity of securing a certain amount of foreign salt in the system to maintain salt revenues in case of production failures in Bengal. It, thus, started to import Coro­ mandel salt. This led to the development of an export-oriented salt production on the coast of Coromandel to meet the demand in Bengal, and the trade between Bengal and Coromandel. Moreover, the import of foreign salt gradually became an integral part of the monopoly system in eastern India, as will be examined below. Coromandel salt was a solar-evaporated variety, unpopular because of its muddy appearance and inherent impurities. Con­ sumer preferences kept the price of solar salt low in most of Bengal and it was supplied mostly to remote areas far from the salt agencies, such as Bihar and north-western Bengal. The Company expected that the supply of karkatch in sufficient amounts would reduce opportunities for the smuggling of illegitimate Bengal panga into those markets, where legitimate Bengal panga was in short supply or sold at an inflated rate. It can be said that by including Coromandel salt in the monopoly system as a legitimate, cheap alternative to Bengal salt, the Company was able to raise the price of Bengal panga further. Smuggling salt from neighbouring Orissa that was under the Marathas was one of the major problems for the Company after the establishment of the salt monopoly in Bengal and Bihar in 1772. To stop cheaper Orissa salt from being smuggled into the monopoly area, the Company began to import it by contract. About 44,200


Sayako Kanda

maunds of salt were imported into Bengal annually through this channel.12 However, the amount was far from sufficient to solve the problem as it was reported that more than 200,000 maunds of salt had been smuggled from Orissa.13 The problem got worse when Orissa was annexed to the Bengal Presidency in 1803, which was followed by the establishment of the salt monopoly there in 1804. There was a substantial glut of salt after Orissa lost its vast market. To prevent this excess salt from being smuggled into Bengal and Bihar by land, which would lower the salt prices there, the mono­ poly in Orissa was treated separately from that in Bengal and Bihar, and Orissa salt was regarded as ‘foreign’ salt there. The Company again tried to absorb the excess amount of Orissa salt in Bengal and Bihar through a licit import channel by sea to Calcutta in 1807 when the Cuttack Agency was officially established. The import gradually increased, and half the production in Orissa became destined for Bengal after 1815.14 Although Orissa produced both panga and karkatch, Bengal imported only panga because of the unpopularity of karkatch in Bengal.15 It can be said that although its initial purpose was different, the Company’s inclusion of foreign salt in the monopoly system was part of its preventive measures against illicit production and smug­ gling in the monopoly area of Bengal and Bihar. The share of these foreign varieties, imported mainly from the coast of Coromandel and Orissa, gradually increased, reaching up to 25 per cent of the total supply of the Company in the 1820s.16 Under the Company’s monopoly, every kind of alimentary salt, which had been widely consumed during the pre-Company period, except for the legitimate panga and karkatch, were categorized as illegitimate. There were three types of illicit varieties: Bengal panga salt produced illegally in and around the salt agencies, saline sub­ stances such as the byproducts of saltpetre, and smuggled foreign salt. The Company’s high-price policy inevitably gave an impetus to the production and trade of illicit salt. Various statements and reports suggest the extent of the market for illicit salt. As for the panga salt that was illegally produced, it can be estimated that one-fourth or one-third of the salt produced in the salt agencies was smuggled into the market. For instance, in

Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State


1812, the salt agent at the 24-Parganas stated that ‘in many parts of the agency, at least one-third of the produce was smuggled’.17 The estimate made in 1834 suggests that not less than a million maunds of salt were smuggled out from the agencies of Hijili, Tamluk and the 24-Parganas,18 which was equal to more than one-fourth of the Company’s annual supply. In Bihar, it was estimated that at least 150,000 maunds of pakuwa and phul khari, which were important saltpetre byproducts, were produced in 1815.19 Pakuwa, which was manufactured from the watery refuse of saltpetre, was inferior in quality and consumed by the poor. Phul khari, superior among the byproducts of saltpetre, was chiefly produced in the Saran and Tirhut districts of northern Bihar, and was usually consumed by being mixed with panga. In 1829, a total of about 200,000 maunds of several kinds of saltpetre byproducts were produced.20 Foreign salt was also smuggled into the monopoly area from Orissa and the north-western provinces. As noted, it was esti­ mated that about 200,000 maunds of salt were smuggled from the Maratha territory (Orissa) in 1802. After the Company’s annexa­ tion of Orissa, Orissa salt continued to be smuggled into Bengal and Bihar, mainly through Mayurbhanj and Singbhum.21 Illicit Bengal salt (Hijili salt) was also smuggled out by the same routes. The estimates of 1814 show that 373,383 maunds of north Indian varieties of salt were smuggled annually into Bihar, which was much larger than the 280,000 maunds of legitimate salt imported from Bengal in the same year.22 These various estimates suggest that one or two million maunds of salt were illegally supplied to the monopoly area annually, while the Company’s annual supply of salt in the late eighteenth century was set at three million maunds, which gradually increased to five million maunds in the mid-1820s.23 Apparently, the market for illicit salt was an integral part of the salt market in eastern India. The Company was well-aware of the smuggling and illicit pro­ duction of salt, and introduced a layer of preventive measures, including the establishment of salt chaukis (check points) along the border of the salt agencies, the Orissa-Bengal border and the Bihar-northwestern Provinces border to check any illegal activities


Sayako Kanda

and traffic. For instance, the Board of Trade stated in 1793 that ‘there exists a systematic illicit trade in salt to a very considerable extent and the seizures which have hitherto been made are few in proportion thereto.’24 However, the Company was confident of its preventive measures, stating in 1829 that ‘the sale of rowannah [legitimate] salt even in tracts bordering on the manufacture was considerable and on the increase’, and ‘no such illicit supply did or could find their way into the interior.’25 Similarly, in 1824, the Commissioner of Cuttack was satisfied with his measures to sup­ press the supply side in Orissa, although he admitted that some routes were still open to smugglers.26 It was not until the early 1830s when the Company realized how serious the problem was, as will be discussed later.

Regional Differences in Taste and the Formation of the Market As noted earlier, high prices characterized the Company’s salt policy. It raised salt prices not only by its strict control of supply and of the different kinds of salt in the market but also by the sale of salt by public auction introduced in 1788. Purchasers of salt at the public sales, who emerged under the public sale system, con­ trolled prices in the market by buying all the salt at the sales.27 The high-price system, thus, promised enormous profits for both the Company and the purchasers. Since all the salt, both domestic and foreign, began to be sold in Calcutta and when distributed to the market, Calcutta gained tremendous control over prices, and prices in the mofussil market would change in response to fluctua­ tions in Calcutta. Purchasers of salt at public sales also stood at the top of the hierarchical structure of the Calcutta-centred salt trade. The Calcutta-centred trade did not mean that all the salt was traded in Calcutta. The majority of salt was distributed to the market directly from the Company’s warehouses in the salt agen­ cies along the Bay of Bengal. These warehouses were also placed in Salkia on the right bank of the Hugli opposite Calcutta where all foreign varieties of salt were first stored before entering the market from 1813. From here, salt was first brought to and stored

Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State


in the merchants’ warehouses at the major salt entrepôts near the salt agencies from where it was exported to other large wholesale markets, bazars and haats in nearby towns and villages, largely through eastern India’s sophisticated networks of navigable rivers (see Map 9.1). At these major salt entrepôts, the Company’s salt chaukis were established as one of the major preventive measures to tackle illicit activities. Chauki officers were stationed to examine salt, check rowannahs or official passes that had to be attached to every salt load, and issue new ones for the salt sold in these markets-cum­ chaukis. Each rowannah gave specific information about the salt, including the quantity, the name of the salt agency, the destination, the name of the proprietor(s) and the date of purchase. Therefore, the rowannah-check accounts at the salt chaukis show the mar­ kets for each variety of salt. The observations of the following paragraphs are based on the available rowannah-check accounts of April, June, August and November 1824, and November 1825 within the Superintendency of Western Salt Chaukies.28 The salt entrepôts near the Hijili and Tamluk Agencies were Ghatal on the Rupnarayan, Kansaiganj on the Kansai, and Amta on the Damodar.29 From Ghatal and Kansaiganj, salt was supplied to the towns in Chota Nagpur. The rowannah-check accounts show that Chatra was the most important destination for the salt sold in these two markets, which was followed by Ramgarh, Barabhum, Palkot and Palamau. Ghatal drew salt from both Hijili and Tamluk, while Kansaiganj was a market for Hijili salt. Byaparis (traders) from Ramgarh, Chatra and Bihar gathered these markets to purchase salt.30 Ghatal was also described as ‘the great empo­ rium for the supply of rowannah salt [salt covered by official pass], to the northern part of Midnapore, the southern portion of Burd­ wan and Bancoorah, the western part of Hooghly and . . . to nearly the whole of Jungle Mehals.’31 More than 90 per cent of the salt sold in Amta was Tamluk salt, the majority of which was bound for Kanchannagar, the main ghat of the city of Burdwan. Along the Hugli, there were several large salt entrepôts-cum­ chaukis, such as Gourhati, Bhadreswar, Niasarai and Sutanuti (Calcutta), which were also within the Superintendency of West­

Map 9.1: Eastern India (Based on the map attached to the report from the Select Committee

on Supply of Salt for British India, British Parliamentary Papers, vol. 17, 1836)

Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State


ern Salt Chaukies. These markets handled a large amount of salt not only from Hijili and Tamluk but also from the 24-Parganas. Patna was their most important destination. Salt was conveyed to Patna via the Bhagirathi or the Jalangi. Kalna, Katwa and Jiaganj on the Bhagirathi, which were out­ side the jurisdiction of the salt chaukis, were also significant salt entrepôts, attracting merchants from not only nearby markets but also distant ones in northern Bengal, such as Dinajpur, Rangpur and Rajshahi. The district of Nadia, especially northern Nadia, depended almost entirely on Kalna for salt. Katwa was the domi­ nant supplier of salt to the district of Birbhum.32 Among them, Jiaganj was the largest but in the mid-1820s, the importance of Kalna seems to have increased.33 This was because the northern Bengal merchants, who used to visit Jiaganj via Jangipur situated at the junction of the Bhagirathi and the Ganges, began to avoid Jangipur and take the diverted route (probably the Jalangi) to enter the Bhagirathi when the Company imposed transit duties on sev­ eral articles at Jangipur. During the dry months, when the water level of the Bhagirathi was not sufficient for navigation, the Sundarbans routes were taken to export Hijili, Tamluk and foreign salt to upriver markets. In addition, the rowannah records of the Superintendency of Mid­ land Salt Chaukies in December 1823, and in March, April, May, October and November 1824, show that large quantities of these varieties of salt were exported from Sutanuti and Salkia to the dis­ trict of Rajshahi through Jessore Gopalganj, the most substantial salt chauki in the Sundarbans.34 The records of rowannahs that covered the salt exported from the chaukis of Sutanuti, Niasarai and Salkia to the places within the Superintendency of Midland Salt Chaukies in April 1824 demonstrate that salt was exported as far as Sirajganj from these entrepôts along the Hugli.35 Although remote from the salt agencies, Patna can be listed as a salt entrepôt since salt was imported into it directly from the Company’s salt warehouses. From Patna, salt was also distributed to other towns in Bihar. As Francis Buchanan reports, both panga and karkatch were imported from Calcutta and Salkia, and sent via Patna to towns of western and northern Bihar, such as Tirhut,


Sayako Kanda

Saran and Ramgarh.36 Markets in eastern Bihar, such as Bhagalpur, Sultanganj and Purnea, were supplied directly from Bengal. For the salt of 24-Parganas and Jessore, Madhukhali and Siraj­ ganj were the major entrepôts from where salt was supplied mainly to central and north-eastern Bengal. According to the records of salt that passed the chauki of Jessore Gopalganj, about 60 per cent of the total quantity went to Madhukhali and 30 per cent to Siraj­ ganj.37 Narayanganj was the most important salt entrepôt in eastern Bengal, dealing with salt from Bhulua and Chittagong. It was said that two to three lakhs of maunds of salt were imported annu­ ally from the Bhulua Agency alone.38 Around 160 sloops were employed in the transport of salt from Bhulua and Chittagong.39 From Narayanganj, salt was distributed to the markets in the districts of Rajshahi, Mymensingh, Rangpur, Dinajpur and Syl­ het. Nalchiti was another entrepôt for Bhulua salt. Salt from the 24-Parganas and Jessore was also traded here.40 These large salt entrepôts played a significant role in distributing salt, in adjusting the balance of supply-demand and in controlling prices. A series of price data at major salt markets41 suggests that these entrepôts influenced prices in the neighbouring wholesale markets that depended on them for their supply. Figure 9.1 shows the price of panga in November 1832 and November 1833 in major wholesale salt markets across Bengal and Bihar from where salt was exported further to other wholesale markets or distributed to small markets around them for local consumption. In general, distances from the salt agencies were reflected in price differences. However, the prices of salt at Bhadreswar, Kalna, Katwa, Naray­ anganj, Madhukhali, Jiaganj, Nalchiti, Marufganj (Patna) and Maharajganj (Patna) were much lower than that of their adjacent markets. This suggests that these large salt entrepôts were more influential than large wholesale markets. Further, a detailed analysis of the salt chauki records shows that several major salt entrepôts formed a larger commercial zone wherein the same varieties of salt were consumed. As noted, salt from Hijili, Tamluk and a part of the 24-Parganas was exported from the salt entrepôts along the Hugli and the Bhagirathi to places

Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State


Sicca Rupees per 100 maunds

Figure 9.1: Panga Prices at Major Wholesale Salt Markets in Bengal and Bihar (Average of Monthly Lowest Prices in November 1832 and November 1833) Sources: BRP-Salt, P/104/84, 15 Jan, nos. 13-38. Notes: (1) District names are in parenthesis. (2) Columns in Black denote major salt entrepôts. (3) Different regional weight measures have been calculated into 82 sicca weight maund.

in western and north-western Bengal and Bihar. Foreign salt also followed the same routes from Salkia. Salt from the 24-Parganas and Jessore was supplied to places in central and north Bengal, mainly through Madhukhali and Sirajganj. Bhulua and Chittagong salt was distributed in markets in eastern and north-eastern Bengal mainly through Narayanganj. Hijili and Tamluk salt was also exported westwards by land and river towards Chota Nagpur from Kansaiganj and Ghatal. Therefore, it can be said that the salt market in Bengal and Bihar was divided into four regional com­ mercial zones: western Bengal and Bihar, central Bengal, eastern Bengal, and Midnapur and westwards.


Sayako Kanda

The Ganges and Brahmaputra River systems played a major role in determining the market of each variety of salt because eastern India’s trade was mainly dependent on its sophisticated system of river transport. However, it seems that inland navigation was not the sole determinant for the formation of regional commercial zones. The low prices of karkatch and upriver trade routes from Salkia partly explained why the market for it was confined to dis­ tant areas in north-western and western Bengal and Bihar, namely the western Bengal and Bihar zone. However, taste also mattered, as discussed earlier.42 Karkatch was unpopular in Bengal due to its muddy appearance, taste and inherent impurities. This consumer preference against karkatch appears to have been stronger in east­ ern Bengal, including distant Rangpur, where no record suggests that Coromandel salt was consumed. In Birbhum and western Bengal, on the contrary, specific communities preferred karkatch because ‘it was a popular belief that the refinement was done by the application of bone dust’.43 Thus, a clear regional difference in consumer preferences played a role in forming more extensive commercial zones. The existence of regional differences in taste suggests that eastern India’s cultural diversity, too, served as a context for the formation of commercial zones. Although this is beyond the scope of this paper, specific communities of merchants whose language, customs and appearance were different from one another domi­ nated the trade in each zone.44

Competition and Change in the Salt Market, c.1825-50 The Company’s monopoly system successfully maintained the high price of salt and salt revenues. However, from the mid-1820s, the Company began to face difficulties in raising prices and main­ taining revenues. The reduction of the annual supply of salt from the late 1820s and rising prices resulted in a shortage of supply. However, this only gave an impetus to illicit production and smug­ gling without a rise in prices. The Company lost control of salt prices, which began to fluctuate separately from one region or commercial zone to another.45 S.G. Palmer, the Assistant Secretary

Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State


to the Bengal Board of Customs, Salt, and Opium, noted in 1834 that the Company and large salt purchasers were no longer able to maintain high salt prices because of a surge in the circulation of illicit salt in the market.46 A combination of factors, in fact, contributed to the expansion of the illicit market. The Company’s monopoly system that depended on regional differences in consumer preference was one of the factors.47 The previous section shows that karkatch was mainly consumed in the western Bengal and Bihar, and a sufficient supply of legitimate, cheap karkatch there was part of the Company’s pre­ ventive measures. However, as Kanda demonstrated elsewhere, a rise in karkatch prices began to undermine the monopoly system.48 The Company’s encouragement to improve the quality of karkatch to meet the demand in eastern India, the increasing pressure from the salt interests of Coromandel, including the Company’s Madras government, European and Telugu shippers, and salt producers, contributed to this rise. Expensive karkatch was no longer able to prevent illicit salt from being produced or smuggled. The reduction in supply itself and the rise of karkatch prices led to an expansion of markets for illicit salt. In Bihar, the market for byproducts of saltpetre appears to have expanded. For the Com­ pany, the production and sale of phul khari and other khari salt of better quality were the targets of crackdown and supervision because they were consumed as alimentary salt by being blended with panga salt.49 It was reported in 1824 that panga adulterated with khari salt was sold extensively in both the city of Patna and its suburbs, and it was even openly sold in Marufganj. To prevent a further expansion of the consumption of khari salt, the Com­ pany restricted the production of superior varieties like phul khari in 1826. This led to a reduction in the production of phul khari but around 41,000 maunds were still produced in 1829, and the production of pakuwa increased from 75,000 maunds in the mid­ 1810s to 110,000 maunds. Also, a total of 25,000 maunds of other inferior varieties and 30,000 maunds of chua, another inferior type of saltpetre byproduct, was produced in Bihar in 1829. This caused a shrinkage in the consumption of legitimate salt in Bihar and a glut of panga in the market.


Sayako Kanda

The Company’s dependence on the consumer preference in eastern India to raise salt prices and revenues delivered yet another blow to its salt monopoly. Salt production in Bengal became costlier from the mid-1820s.50 One of the main factors behind the rise in production costs was the severe scarcity of fuel, which was an essential source of heat for the production of panga. First, fuels became no longer readily available. The price of straw rose because of increasing demand in Calcutta for domestic fuel as well as building materials. After this change, salt-makers became more dependent on the market for straw or had to search for alterna­ tive fuels in distant places. Second, severe coal shortages, despite the development of the coal industry, encouraged the formation of a market for domestic fuels. Fuelwood, especially, grew as an alternative to coal. Moreover, this also led to an overall increase in the price of other fuel materials in eastern India, including straw and grass. Third, a large tract of grassland, from where salt-makers were accustomed to gather fuels disappeared due to environmen­ tal decay and the expansion of cultivated land. Although the rise in fuel costs made the industry costlier, the Company was not willing to take measures to solve the fuel problem. This was because either the introduction of karkatch production or a switch to firewood or coal in the panga production, which would change the quality of salt, did not promise revenues that were substantial. The Company utilized regional differences in consumer pref­ erences between panga and karkatch as a preventive measure, as stated earlier, and it also depended widely on consumer preferences for the Bengal panga varieties. In order to increase salt revenues, the Company began to extend production in the Sundarbans because salt from the 24-Parganas and Jessore praised by consum­ ers as being made from the sacred Ganges water, and, therefore, always fetching higher prices at public sales among the Bengal panga varieties even though the quality of salt in terms of salinity was inferior.51 Unlike Hijili and Chittagong, which produced the finest salt in terms of salinity in more favourable environmental conditions for salt-making, the constant permeation of fresh water from the Ganges and its numerous branches in the 24-Parganas and Jessore inevitably lowered the quality of salt. Moreover, the

Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State


salt production there was costlier and more troublesome because many saltpans were dotted around a vast area in the Sundarbans far from human habitation and full of wild animals. Nevertheless, consumers appreciated the salt made from the Ganges water. That was why the Company stuck to production there and even divided the 24-Parganas Agency into two in 1819, creating the Jessore Agency to extend production. However, a rise in production costs played a role in the declining revenues. By the early 1830s, the Company lost control of the market and it could no longer resort to raising the prices of Bengal salt for increasing revenues. As a result, it abandoned the high price policy in 1836 and started to sell salt at fixed rates without interfering with or depending on the market. Instead, it successfully saved the monopoly itself as an important source of revenue under increas­ ing pressure from British industrial and shipping interests. At the same time, the Company started to secure revenues from the import duties levied on private salt imports. After the Company’s cessation of trading activities in 1833, private imports gradually increased. This compensated for the decline in the Company sup­ ply in the 1830s, as Figure 9.2 shows, which compares the shares of the Company’s panga salt (the supply of Bengal, Orissa and Ara­ kan salt), the Company’s karkatch salt (Madras permit salt) and private imports in the total volume of salt supply in eastern India. Figure 9.3 shows that salt began to be imported first from Bombay and West Asia (Mocha and Muscat, in particular), indicating that the expansion of salt trade on a broader regional level, involving Indian, Arab, and European merchants. The influx of Liverpool salt began much later in 1845 after the reduction of import duties.

Liverpool Salt in the Eastern Indian Market By 1860, after 90 years of the Company’s salt monopoly, Liverpool salt dominated the market in eastern India, which meant the dis­ appearance of the indigenous salt industry. It has usually been said that colonialism and the strength of British capital deprived the indigenous industry of its competitiveness by discriminatory poli­ cies and devoured it.52 By the new sale system introduced in 1845,


Sayako Kanda

Figure 9.2: Supply of Monopoly and Private Salt in Eastern India Sources: BRP-Salt, P/101/52, 10 July 1829, no. 16; P/102/9, 27 January 1832, no. 20; P/105/35, 28 February 1837, Report on salt in British India (Madras), Appendix L, BPP, vol. 26, 1856; Report on salt in British India (Bengal), Appendix K, Enclosure A, BPP, vol. 26, 1856; Minutes of evidence taken before the select committee on Indian territories, BPP, vol. 28, 1852-3: 159-61. Note: Private Imports (Duty Paid), Monopoly Karkatch (Madras Per­ mit), and Monopoly Panga (Bengal, Orissa, and Arakan) denote private imports, the Company’s imports of Coromandel salt, and the Company’s production and imports of panga salt, respectively.

Bengal salt was to be sold at the rate of the sum of the production cost and the import duty, which was reduced at the same time to Rs. 3 per maund. This change led to an influx of Liverpool salt against which Bengal salt had to compete. Such policies, indeed, deprived the Bengal industry of competitiveness but this alone cannot explain the decline of the industry. I argue that the decline of the salt industry in Bengal had already begun before 1845 mainly due to fuel problems and increasing production costs,53 and the consumption aspect also needs to be examined. Cheshire had become the dominant salt producing district in England by 1790.54 Both rock and boiled salt from salt springs, known as white salt, were produced in Cheshire. The export of

Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State


Figure 9.3: Private Imports of Salt Sources: Minutes of evidence taken before the select committee on Indian territories, British Parliamentary Papers, vol. 28, 1852-3: 164-5.

rock salt was, however, restricted mainly to Ireland and later, Hol­ land and Belgium, where the import of the finished product was banned. The development of the Lancashire coal-mining industry and the rise of the port of Liverpool encouraged the growth of the export-oriented Cheshire salt industry and the production of fuel-consuming white salt. Cheshire salt found its way to North America and Northern Europe in the late eighteenth century as the Liverpool shipping networks expanded. This extension to Africa and Asia opened up new markets. Calcutta was one of the major new markets. Concurrently, the growth of trade with Calcutta increased Liverpool’s imports of wheat and jute, and this raised the importance of Liverpool salt as ballast.55 The extremely high price of salt in eastern India under the Company’s monopoly enabled Liverpool salt to be competitive even with the high cost


Sayako Kanda

of long-distance transport. Influential British capitalists, such as the Salt Chamber of Commerce in Cheshire, also applied political pressure on the government in Bengal to open the market.56 In addition to the supply side, the consumption pattern, too, did seem to matter in explaining the inflow of Liverpool salt into east­ ern India. During the initial years of the Liverpool salt imports, rock salt was also imported to Calcutta but was rejected by local merchants because they could not find any purchasers.57 Almost all the salt imported into Bengal from Liverpool now became white salt or Liverpool panga. While other foreign varieties, either karkatch or rock, faced difficulties in extending their markets, Liverpool salt was in accordance with the local consumer prefer­ ence. According to a Bengali who visited the Cheshire salt factories in the early nineteenth century, middle-grained white salt was the most preferable in the Bengal market because its appearance resembled Bengal salt.58 Where was Liverpool salt consumed in eastern India? Table 9.1 shows the volume of salt that passed through the chauki at Babu­ ganj on the Hugli in the early 1850s. The table demonstrates that almost all karkatch salt was consumed in the upriver markets in the western Bengal and Bihar commercial zone, considering that an average of 1,443,644 maunds of karkatch and rock salt was imported annually in 1852 and 1853.59 It also shows that about 320,000 maunds of Liverpool salt were annually exported to upriver markets but the amount was only 17 per cent of the total volume of Liverpool salt imported into Calcutta. It was also Table 9.1: Volume of Salt that passed the Babuganj Salt Chauki (Average of 1852 and 1853) Bengal and Other Panga

Liverpool Panga

Karkatch and Rock

Volume (maunds)


Volume (maunds)


Volume (maunds)








Source: Letter from H.J. Bamber to G.G. Mackintosh, 8 June 1852, CSC, Western, vol. 7.

Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State


reported that the consumption of Liverpool salt in and around Calcutta was limited.60 These observations strongly suggest that the majority of Liverpool salt was exported eastwards and con­ sumed in eastern Bengal. Eastern Bengal had been supplied with salt chiefly from the Chittagong, Bhulua and Jessore Agencies. Around the time when the salt imports from Liverpool increased, eastern Bengal suf­ fered a severe shrinkage of the panga market due to the closure of the Bhulua Agency, which was followed by the Jessore Agency, their primary suppliers of panga salt.61 As Figure 9.2 shows, the supply of Bengal, Orissa and Arakan salt, which was of the panga type, was on the decline in the 1840s. However, the decline did not reduce the supply of panga itself, as Figure 9.4 demonstrates. Liverpool salt played a role in maintaining the market of the locally-favoured panga salt. It is important to note that Liverpool salt was consumed mainly in eastern Bengal where the consumer preference for panga salt was the strongest in the province. During the initial years of importation, Liverpool salt was not ‘much in request’ even in eastern Bengal because of the ‘Brahmins

Figure 9.4: Supply of Panga and Karkatch Salt in Eastern India Sources: See Figure 9.2.


Sayako Kanda

having declared it to be impure, and that it is whitened in the same manner as sugar, that is, by vitrified bones.’62 Despite its high quality, Liverpool salt was sold at a lower rate than Bengal panga salt (Table 9.2). In terms of quality and price, Liverpool salt was able to compete in the market against the Bengal panga variet­ ies, which were still produced under the salt monopoly. However, retail prices in the mid-1850s show that Liverpool salt was sold at a higher price than other panga varieties throughout Bengal, and rated highly both for quality and appearance.63 It can be said that Liverpool salt was appreciated by the consumers, considering that its share had become more significant by the mid-1850s. Table 9.2 shows that Liverpool salt was sold mixed with Hijili salt. The following statement by a superintendent of salt chaukis makes it clear that Liverpool salt was not sold separately but rather mixed with Hijili, Tamluk or the 24-Parganas salt:64 . . . I noticed in each depot [in Madaripur, Bakarganj], two different qualities of salt, one heap being Liverpool and the other either Tumlook, Higelleeor 24 Pergunnahs salt, by an admixture of which certain pro­ portions, the dealers manufacture a salt, resembling exactly the Sudder Ghaut salt of Chittagong, owing its being prized very much by the inhab­ itants of the country.…

The statement suggests that consumers favoured this ‘Chitta­ gong-salt-like’ blended salt and that Liverpool salt, superior in quality but lower in price, was much in demand in eastern Bengal. Another superintendent stated:65 . . . The price of the Pungah, in my opinion, does not seem to be affected by the introduction of the foreign manufacture, a greater demand exist­ ing for the former but as the latter is procurable at a much cheaper rate, the merchants are in the habit of importing it, and by mixing the two together dispose of their stock to greater advantage. . . .

In the market where there was a strong preference for Chit­ tagong salt, Liverpool salt was widely accepted as a useful variety not only by consumers but also by wholesale merchants who oligopolized the salt trade in eastern Bengal.66







Wholesale Price (Rs. per 100 maunds)

Original State

Original State

Original State

Generally mixed with Kalinagar

Generally mixed with Liverpool

Original State


Source: Letter from the Superintendent of Backergunge Salt Chaukis to G.G. Mackintosh, 18 May 1852, CSC Backergunge, vol. 7.

1,455 (0.7%)

6,683 (3.4%)




9,217 (4.7%)


56,570 (28.8%)




83,282 (42.5%) 38,982 (19.8%)

Sadar Ghat


Annual Consumption Maunds (share)



Salt Agency

Description of Salt

Table 9.2: Annual Consumption and Price of Salt in Bakerganj in 1852


Sayako Kanda

Conclusion Despite the Company’s initial efforts to control the varieties of salt to be consumed in eastern India, many varieties of salt, legitimate or illegitimate, were, in fact, consumed. The Company began to depend on the market, primarily regional, and other differences in consumer preferences, to raise prices as well as tackle illicit activi­ ties because its salt policy was to increase revenues through high salt prices, which inevitably embraced the problem of illicit pro­ duction and smuggling. It can be said that the Company’s policy was ‘market-oriented’. There was no anonymous salt in the market, and many people showed their preference and tried to choose the right salt depending on the price, ritual value or quality. Therefore, the salt market was formed and transformed not only by prices or state policies but also by consumer preferences. These inclinations mattered so much that policy makers sought negotiations with local societies when they aimed to make profits from producing and trading salt. The Company’s market-oriented salt policy progressed well but had to be abandoned in 1836 because it did not generate substan­ tial profits anymore. The British shipping and industrial interests, which saw state monopolies in general as an obstacle to ‘free trade’, applied political pressure upon the Company. However, this was not the sole cause for the modification of the monopoly system. The transformation of the salt market from the mid-1820s made it difficult for the Company to control the market and stick to its market-oriented salt policy. This means that it stopped intervening in the market to raise revenues, and began to take recourse to more stable means through rules and regulations, as a ‘modern’ state. The drastic changes in the salt monopoly system in the mid­ 1830s, namely the Company’s cessation of trading activities in 1833 and the modification of the salt monopoly in 1836, did not lead to an influx of Liverpool salt despite pressure from Britain. Liverpool salt began to be imported on a large scale in 1845, pri­ marily due to a reduction in import duties. It is important to note that a fuel problem led to the closure of the Bhulua Agency and a shortage of panga, especially in Eastern Bengal, where people

Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State


showed a stronger preference for this type. It was to such a mar­ ket that the majority of Liverpool salt was supplied. Importantly, Liverpool salt was not ordinary salt but, in fact, panga salt.

Abbreviations BCSO-Salt BRC-Salt BRP-Salt Buchanan-Patna CSC OIOC WBSA

Proceedings of Bengal Board of Customs, Salt and Opium-Salt, WBSA Bengal Revenue Consultations (Salt, Opium and c.) — Salt, OIOC Bengal Board of Revenue Miscellaneous Pro­ ceedings-Salt, OIOC Account of the District of Behar and the City of Patna, vol. II, Mss Eur D.86, OIOC Controller of Salt Chaukies, WBSA Oriental and India Office Collections, the British Library West Bengal State Archives

NOTES 1. For instance, Bayly, 1986; Riello and Roy, 2009; Riello and Prasan­ nan, 2009; Trivedi, 2007. 2. Appadurai, 1981:494. 3. Kanda, 2010; Kanda, 2013; Kanda, 2017; Kanda, 2019. 4. For instance, Bengal imported about 10,000 tons of rock salt annu­ ally from Agra (Sinha, 1984: 49). 5. For the fate of the salt industry in Orissa during the colonial period, see Choudhury, 1979. 6. Marshall, 1976: 109-12; Mitra, 1992: 432-3. 7. For the details of the salt production and trade during the pre-British period, see Sinha, 1954: 1-24; Barui, 1985: 11-13, 108-10. 8. For the details of the salt production in the Company’s agencies, Kanda, 2010. 9. It must be noted that the trade in firewood was not common at all in Lower Bengal, and the price of firewood was very high even in Benares and Allahabad where firewood was traded. Kanda, 2010: 143-50. 10. Kanda, 2017: 274, en.59.


Sayako Kanda

11. For the details of the Company’s salt imports from Coromandel, see Kanda, 2017. 12. Ibid.: 254-5. 13. BRC-Salt, P/98/41, 29 April 1802, no. 2. 14. Kanda, 2017: 255. 15. Interestingly, in Orissa, people, especially of respectable classes, preferred karkatch ‘made by the pure rays of the sun’, and felt that ‘nature’s gifts are pure until contaminated by the hands of man’ (Hunter, 1877: 152). 16. Kanda, 2017: 255, 267. 17. Letter from the Agent at the Twenty-four Parganas, BT-Salt, vol.76, 22 September 1812. 18. Appendix no. 19, BPP, vol. 17, 1836: 66. 19. Letter from the Superintendent of Western Salt Chokies, BT-Salt, vol. 103, 1 August 1815. 20. BRP-Salt, P/101/56, 13 October 1829, no. 1. 21. BRC-Salt, P/100/32, 21 April 1820, no. 3. 22. Letter from the Superintendent of Western Salt Chokies, BT-Salt, vol. 103, 1 August 1815. 23. BRP-Salt, P/101/52, 10 July 1829, no. 16. 24. BRC-Salt, P/98/25, 30 September 1793, no. 3. 25. BCSO-Salt, vol. 263, 4 December 1829, no. 10. 26. BRP-Salt, P/100/65, 13 February 1824, no. 2. 27. For the details of the emergence of salt merchants and their activi­ ties, see Kanda, 2013; Kanda, 2019. 28. The salt chaukis along the salt agencies were basically divided into three superintendencies. The Western Superintendency ‘occupied the tract of country to the westward of the Hooghly between the Damoodah and Soobunrika rivers, further inland than Midnapore, and on the west bank of the Hooghly itself to Neaserai, a mart about 25 miles above Calcutta’. The Midland Superintendency ‘stretched through the districts east of the Hooghly from opposite to Neaserai through the 24-Perggunnahs, Jessore, Backergunge &ca, as far as the western branch of the great delta of the Megna’. The Eastern Superintendency ‘included the delta of the Megna from above Dacca to the sea, also the tract between the Megna and Fenny. The islands seaward of Bomney, Hattea, Sundeep &ca laying at the mouth of the great Megna and the Chittagong district down to the island of Mascal’ (Note of H.M. Parker, BRP-Salt, P/105/23, 19 April 1836, no. 61). The chaukis in the Western Superintendency included Amta, Ghatal,

Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State

29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34.

35. 36. 37.

38. 39. 40. 41.

42. 43. 44. 45. 46. 47.


Kansaiganj, Kuyapur and Kantadowara in and around Midnapur, and Sutanuti, Gourhati, Niasarai and Babuganj on the Hugli (BRP-Salt, P/100/68, 1 June 1824, no. 16; P/100/70, 15 September 1824, no. 16; P/100/71, 1 October 1824, no. 11; P/100/73, 28 December 1824, no. 20; P/101/11, 17 January 1826, no. 22). BRC-Salt, P/98/42, 29 July 1802, no. 4. Petition of Ramdoololl Nundy, Guddadhur Dey, and others, salt beoparies, BT-Salt, vol. 75, 25 August 1812. Letter from the superintendent of Midnapore Salt Chokies, 10 Aug­ ust 1846, CSC Midnapore, vol. 1, 1846. Gupta, 1984: 226. BCSO-Salt, vol. 263, 4 December 1829, nos. 8-9. BRP-Salt, P/100/65, 2 January 1824, no. 18; P/100/67, 13 April 1824, no. 6; P/100/68, 1 June 1824, no. 18; P/100/68, 15 June 1824, no. 15; P/100/72, 12 November 1824, no. 14; P/100/73, 14 December 1824, no. 9. BRP-Salt, P/100/68, 1 June 1824, no. 18. Buchanan-Patna: 122. BRP-Salt, P/100/65, 2 January 1824, no. 18; P/100/67, 13 April 1824, no. 6; P/100/68, 15 June 1824, no. 15; P/100/72, 12 November 1824, no. 14; P/100/73, 14 December 1824, no. 9. BRP-Salt, P/101/59, 5 January 1830, no. 36A. Taylor, 1840: 99. BRP-Salt, P/101/25, 24 April 1827, no. 5; P/101/59, 5 January 1830, no. 36A. The Company was extremely keen to collect salt prices in the princi­ pal markets since price fluctuations would affect its salt revenues. It obtained prices systematically through the reports of the collectors and magistrates. Kanda, 2017: 265-6. Gupta, 1984: 227. For details, Kanda, 2013; Kanda, 2019. For the details of the movement of salt prices and mercantile activi­ ties, see Kanda, 2019. Kanda 2017: 249-50. Other factors included repeated financial crises in Calcutta from the mid-1820s that aggravated the situation of the large purchasers who were dependent on borrowed capital from Calcutta’s money market, and the rise of mofussil merchants whose trade was independent from the vicissitudes of the economy of Calcutta and the Company’s policy. Kanda, 2013; Kanda, 2019.


Sayako Kanda

48. Kanda, 2017. 49. BRP-Salt, P/101/56, 13 October 1829, no. 1. 50. For the details of the rise of production costs, see Kanda, 2010: 135­ 43. 51. Ibid.: 135-40. 52. Ray, 2001; Ray, 2014. 53. Kanda, 2010. 54. Barker, 1951. 55. Chaloner, 1960: 123-5. 56. Ibid.: 134-5. 57. BCSO-Customs, P/109/13, 29 January 1846, no. 14. 58. Report from the Select Committee on salt, British India, British Parliamentary Papers, vol. 17, 1836: 7. 59. Report on Salt, Madras, Appendix L, BPP, vol. 26, 1856; Report on Salt, Bengal, Appendix K, Enclosure A, British Parliamentary Papers, vol. 26, 1856; Minutes of evidence taken before the select committee on Indian territories, BPP, vol. 28, 1852-3: 159. 60. Letter from H.J. Bamber to G.G. Mackintosh, 8 June 1852, CSC, Western, vol. 7. 61. Kanda, 2010. 62. Diary of the Officiating Superintendent of the Barisal Salt Chokies, 14 September 1846, CSC Backergunge, vol. 1. 63. BRP-Salt, P/101/78, 20 December 1854, no. 16; BRP-Salt, P/111/12, 21 March 1855, no. 18. 64. Diary of the Superintendent of Backergunge Salt Chaukis from the 24 January to 3 February 1856, CSC Backergunge, vol. 11. 65. Letter from the superintendent of Backergunge Salt Chaukis to G.G. Mackintosh, 18 May 1852, CSC Backergunge, vol. 7. 66. In eastern Bengal, Tili and Saha merchants mainly from Dhaka and Faridpur Districts emerged to dominate the salt trade, and some of them became zamindars. Among them was the Sahas (later Raychaudhuris) of Baliati (near Dhaka), well-known wealthy zamin­ dar family. See, Kanda, 2019.

REFERENCES Archival Sources WBSA, BCSO-Salt: Proceedings of Bengal Board of Customs, Salt and Opium-Salt.

Consumer Preferences, Markets and the State


OIOC, BRC-Salt: Bengal Revenue Consultations (Salt, Opium and c.) — Salt. OIOC, BRP-Salt: Bengal Board of Revenue Miscellaneous ProceedingsSalt. WBSA, CSC: Controller of Salt Chaukies.

Published Sources Appadurai, Arjun. 1981. ‘Gastro-politics in Hindu South Asia’, American Ethnologist, 8-3, pp. 494-511. Barker, T.C. 1951. ‘Lancashire Coal, Cheshire Salt and the Rise of Liverpool’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 103, pp. 83-101. Barui, Balai. 1985. The Salt Industry of Bengal 1757-1800: A Study in the Interaction of British Monopoly Control and Indigenous Enterprise. Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi. Bayly, C.A. 1986. ‘The Origins of Swadeshi (Home Industry): Cloth and Indian Society, 1700-1930’, in Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge, NY, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. Chaloner, W.H. 1960. ‘William Furnival, H.E. Falk and the Salt Chamber of Commerce, 1815-1889: Some Chapters in the Economic History of Cheshire’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 112, pp. 121-45. Choudhury, Sadananda. 1979. Economic History of Colonialism: A Study of British Salt Policy in Orissa. Delhi: Inter-India Publications. Gupta, Ranjan Kumar. 1984. The Economic Life of a Bengal District: Birbhum 1770-1857. Burdwan: University of Burdwan. Haynes, Douglas, Abigail McGowan, Tirthankar Roy and Haruka Yanagisawa, eds. 2010. Towards a History of Consumption in South Asia. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Hunter, W.W. 1877. A Statistical Account of Bengal, vol. 19: District of Puri and Orissa Tributary States. London: Trubner & Co. Kanda, Sayako. 2010. ‘Environmental Changes, Emergence of the Fuel Market, and the Working Conditions of the Salt Makers in Bengal, c. 1780-1845’, International Review of Social History, 55, Supplement, pp.123-51. . 2013. ‘Forged Salt Bills, Speculation, and the Money Market in Calcutta: The Economy of Bengal in Colonial Transition, c.1790­ 1840’, International Journal of South Asian Studies, 5, pp. 89-112.


Sayako Kanda

. 2017. ‘Competition or Collaboration? Importers of Salt, the East India Company, and the Salt Market in Eastern India, c.1780­ 1836’, in Sanjukta Ghosh, Ezra Rashkow and Upal Chakraborty, eds., Memory, Identity, and Colonial Encounter in India: Essays in Honour of Peter Robb. London: Routledge, pp. 249-75. . 2019 (forthcoming). ‘Family, Caste and Beyond: The Business History of Salt Merchants in Bengal, c.1780-1840’, in Chi-cheung Choi, Takashi Oishi and Tomoko Shiroyama, eds., Beyond Market and Hierarchies: Networking Asian Merchants and Merchant Houses since the Nineteenth Century, Leiden: Brill. Marshall, P.J. 1976. East Indian Fortunes: The British in Bengal in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Mitra, Shubhra. 1992. ‘Indigenous Enterprise in Eastern India 1757­ 1833’. PhD. thesis, University of Calcutta. Ray, Indrajit. 2001. ‘Imperial Policy and the Decline of the Bengal Salt Industry under Colonial Rule: An Episode in the “Deindustrialisation” Process’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 38-2, pp.181-205. . 2014. ‘Decline of the Salt Manufacturing Industry: An Episode of Policy Discrimination’, in Indrajit Ray, Bengal Industries and the British Industrial Revolution (1757-1857). Abington and New York: Routledge, pp. 133-70. Riello, Giorgio and Tirthankar Roy, eds. 2009. How India Clothed the World: The World of South Asian Textiles, 1500-1850. Leiden and Boston: Brill. Riello, Giorgio and Prasannan Parthasarathi, eds. 2009. The Spinning World: A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1200-1850. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. Sinha, N.K. 1954. ‘Introduction’, in N.K. Sinha, ed., Midnapur Salt Papers: Hijili and Tamluk, 1781-1807. Calcutta: N.K. Sinha for the West Bengal Regional Records Survey Committee. . 1984. The Economic History of Bengal 1793-1848, vol. 3, 3rd edn. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay. Trivedi, Lisa. 2007. Clothing Gandhi’s Nation. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. Taylor, James. 1840. A Sketch of the Topography and Statistics of Dacca. Calcutta: G.H. Huttmann, Military Orphan Press.


The Books of Religion Things, Persons, and Consumption Practices in

Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-century Bengal

Samuel Wright1

Let us talk about suffering, Tara . . . Yes, Mother, to some you have given wealth, horses, elephants, charioteers, conquest. And the lot of others field labour, with rice and vegetables. Some live in palaces, as I myself would like to do. . . . Some wear shawls and comfortable wrappers, they have sugar and curds as well as rice. Some ride in palanquins, while I have the privilege of carrying them. ramprasad sen2

The central theme of this poem attributed to Ramprasad Sen (eighteenth century, Halisahar3) is consumption practices among the rich and poor in eighteenth-century Bengal. Presented in stark contrast, the poor only consume rice and vegetables whereas the wealthy consume a variety of items: shawls, wrappers, palanquins, sugar and curd. Rice, which functions here as a metonym for necessities, is the only shared item. By noting these differences in consumption practices, Ramprasad argues that wealthy indi­ viduals in eighteenth-century Bengal consume both luxury food items and things whereas the poor consume only non-luxury food items and, emphatically, never things. This perspective on the consumption of things highlighted by Ramprasad relates more broadly to the differentiation argued for by Bill Brown between a thing and an object. An object becomes a thing; Brown argues,


Samuel Wright

‘when it stops working for us. . . . The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.’4 Extending Brown’s argument to Ramprasad’s poem, the poet is making the point that the objects of the wealthy (shawls, wrappers, sugar) do not function as ‘working’ objects for him but rather simply exist as things in the world. The palanquin is simply a thing he car­ ries; it does not function or work in the same way as it does for those riding inside it. The same is the case with sugar and curd: they simply exist as things known but never consumed or ‘worked into’ one’s appetitive behaviour. The power of Ramprasad’s poem, then, is that it successfully expresses the poet’s relation to these luxury commodities not as a subject-object relation in which these commodities or objects work for him; but rather, one might say, as a ‘subject-thing’ relation in which these commodities have no workability and, thus, carry very different meanings for him as compared to a wealthy person. These remarks are made to stress the point that consumption practices are always undertaken with specific meanings attributed to, or taken for granted in, the object of consumption. These varia­ tions in the way in which objects are perceived speak to what Arjun Appadurai has termed the ‘social life of things’ in which objects entertain different meanings within the various contexts they are exchanged and used such that one can speak of a biography of things. This exchange and use of items – the ‘thing-in-motion’ as Appadurai terms it – is the way in which human and social con­ texts are revealed vis-à-vis a thing, such as the sugar, shawls and wrappers in Ramprasad’s poem.5 This essay remains sensitive to these theoretical perspectives – and returns to them in the conclusion – as it engages with the broad theme of consumption practices in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Bengal. Consumption practices, as an area of inquiry for Indian economic history as a whole, have been and remain understudied. A recent volume, noting this lacuna, has attempted to correct what its editors term an over-emphasis on production-centred approaches to economic history that often

The Books of Religion


obscures the agency of people in shaping the larger economy through new values or wants, changing identities, and ideas about status or leisure.6 This essay also shares these concerns. However, it seeks to question further the archives used for earlier studies, including the volume mentioned above, by relying nearly exclu­ sively on vernacular materials from Bengal during the period of study. The emphasis on what has been termed the ‘regional archive’ is made to engage with consumption practices in ways that the colonial archive, for example, does not permit and so recover voices that often remain unheard.7 Of course, studying consumption practices in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Bengal is a large area of concern. The sheer size of such a topic requires that I limit this essay in specific ways. For this essay, I limit my remarks to consumption practices embedded in religious activities that fall under the rubric of Hindu religious practices. This choice is made primarily as a result of the availability of materials in this area. Specifically, a number of account or balance sheets survive from eighteenth- and nine­ teenth-century Bengal that list the items (and the associated costs of these items) required for performing various Hindu religious practices. These practices are varied and include pujas, house­ hold ceremonies, the installation of a deity, and the founding of monasteries (maths) and water tanks. The items required in such practices are extensive, ranging from small items such as chillies and sugar to larger items such as cloth, bowls and plates. Given my focus on the consumption practices of religious activities, I refer to these practices as ‘religious consumption practices’. As regards the period chosen, this again is determined by the materials. I have not been able to locate examples of account sheets before the mideighteenth century but materials do stretch into the late nineteenth century that detail religious consumption practices. I have decided not to consider material later than 1835 when a standard coin was issued for all territories under the English East India Company.8 I use these consumption practices as points of entry into ques­ tions about how religious practices depend upon or encounter the market. The various encounters with the market expressed in the materials discussed below – the employment of specific


Samuel Wright

accounting methods, the reliance on trade networks, dependence upon creditors, the use of luxury commodities and reliance upon customary labour practices – suggest that religious consumption practices frequently overlapped with or appeared to be quotidian economic activities. There is, of course, nothing surprising about the fact that religious practices, as approached through their consumption needs, depend upon or encounter the market and assume forms of economic activities. However, since this question has not been asked for Bengal, I explore the specifics of what items and services were needed from the market rather than merely making the assertion that such encounters must have taken place. This raises a number of questions, some more problematic than others. For instance, what sorts of consumption patterns emerge from studying the commodities needed for conducting religious practices? How might the meaning of objects change according to their consumption contexts? Alternatively, how might religious consumption practices express certain relationships with labour practices? Additional vexing questions have recently been raised for eighteenth-century India about how consumption practices may have shaped larger economic processes and trends or affected production decisions.9 I make no assurances that these questions can be answered here with any definitiveness. Instead, this essay constitutes an initial exploration of these broader issues. The essay is divided into three sections. The first section exam­ ines existing account sheets and other documents to catalogue and present the various items or things required for consumption in certain Hindu religious practices of eighteenth- and early nine­ teenth-century Bengal. The second section examines the role of people in religious consumption practices. It discusses different groups of people, such as priests, unskilled labourers and land­ holders, and attempts to trace their role in these religious practices. In the third section, I discuss religious consumption practices in relation to the household economy and the various networks at work in these practices. I then address larger theoretical issues about consumption practices. Each of these aspects – household economy, networks and theoretical issues – demonstrates that religious consumption practices are potential sites of historical, economic and social change.

The Books of Religion


Things One of the ways in which religious consumption practices were expressed was the custom of keeping accounts related to the expenditures incurred or anticipated for items required for reli­ gious activities. These accounts – labelled jay10 in the materials (a word of Persian origin) – are balance sheets arranged into two to four columns with various headings that list information such as the item, cost and price per unit, and the forwarded balance. Each of these headings is not always used; however, these account sheets always list the various items or commodities, along with their associated costs or volumes, required to undertake a desired religious activity such as a puja (worship of a deity), a harilut (distribution of sweets upon the birth of a child), a svastyayan (a ceremony to ward off evils and misadventures), food offerings and collective meals (bhojan), or an installation of an image of a deity (sthapan).11 In this section, I read through a number of these account sheets as ‘texts of consumption’ that illustrate consump­ tion patterns of religious practices. As will be noted, the account sheets list both required commodities and labour. While I refer to labour and labour costs below, I address this aspect more fully in the second and third sections. An account sheet from 1756 lists the items that make up the expenditures for a Durga Puja (Table 10.1). Unfortunately, the location of the puja is not mentioned. The account has two main headings: the items purchased and the total spent on each item (expenditures carried forward are occasionally provided). Most important for my purposes here is the breakdown of items included in the first column. This column includes a variety of costs spent on both commodities and labour. For example, the payment given to the priest is listed at one rupee, and the pay­ ment to the weaver (karikar) totals two rupees eight annas (or two and one-half rupees). Most of the costs, however, are associated with purchasing items from the market, such as sugar, oil, salt, molasses, tobacco and betel-leaf (pan) as well as more basic com­ modities such as rice and milk. The only durable item is an earthen pot. Its particular use is not specified here: it could function for holding water from the Ganges River, cooking or holding curd.


Samuel Wright

Many of these items (for example, betel-leaf, salt and tobacco) are contested sites of trade – a tension I address in the third section. All combined, this puja costs over 17 rupees. The full list of items with associated costs is shown in Table 10.1.12 The kinds of items listed in this account appear to be fairly Table 10.1. Durga Puja Expenses, ce 1756 (1163 San) Item Cannabis (siddhi) Painting work Spices, etc. Payment to weaver 1 measure of cloth Rice Legume Sugar and Confectionery Oil Salt Banana leaf Betel-nut Chillies* Milk* Betel-leaf Incense Gold Payment to priest Payment and tips to others Earthen Pot Tobacco Sun-dried rice Jaggery Lime Ghee Leaves (plates) Coconut Sitting mats

Total Cost

11 g., 4 c. 1 r., 8 a. 4 a. 2 r., 8 a. 10 a. 2 r. 8 a. 4 a. 10 a. 2 a. 2 r. 4 a. 6 a. 3 a. 1 a., 10 g. 10 g. (1/2 a.) 1 r., 1 a. 1 r. 6 a. 4 a. 1 a. 1 r., 4 a. 8 a. 3 g., 12 c. 4 a. 1 a. 2 a. 1 a.

The Books of Religion Betel-leaf Miscellaneous [Total]

331 1a. 2 a. 17 rupees 2 annas

Source: Pancanan Mandal, Cithipatre Samajcitra, 1953: 124-5. Note: Items with an asterisk (*) come under a sub-heading of ‘miscel­ laneous costs (hat kharac)’. No town/location is provided. As diacritics are not used in the essay, I have not provided the original terms in these tables. Interested readers should note that the original material contains many irregularities in its orthography and is extremely fascinating from a historical linguistic perspective. Abbreviations: r. (rupee); a. (anna); g. (ganda); c. (cowrie)

standard for puja functions in this period. A similar document from 1753 lists a number of items with the occasional bulk price for them. Again, however, the location of the puja is not speci­ fied in the document. This account is arranged into four headings: items, number of items, price per item and the total cost per item, although the different amounts associated with these columns are not always provided. The account catalogues a number of similar items found in the previous example. Here, however, it begins by listing two images of the deity (presumably Durga) at the cost of four rupees for the first and two rupees eight annas for the second. Other items are similar: rice (sun-dried), ghee, salt, sugar, various pulses, turmeric and betel-leaf. This puja account, however, also includes more expensive foods: goat (2.26 kg) and fish are pur­ chased for two and one-half rupees and one and one-half rupees, respectively. It also includes some cloth purchases in the form of a small strip of cloth, saris (both white and coloured) and woven fabric. The latter type of cloth is gifted to various people participat­ ing in the puja: the priest, the blacksmith and the scroll painter. The last person listed here may have been responsible for making the image of the deity since scroll painters often work with clay.13 The puja account also includes additional labour costs: the hiring of a musician at the cost of one rupee and a section of ‘miscel­ laneous costs’ that do not warrant detailing. The inclusion of this latter category is similar to the previous account sheet above in which a section was reserved for small expenditures or hat kharac


Samuel Wright

(literally, market expenses), such as chillies and milk. In total, this puja comes at a cost of just over ninety-four rupees – substantially more expensive than the first puja account discussed above. The complete list of items with their bulk and total costs (when given) is shown in Table 10.2.14 Table 10.2. Puja Expenses, 20 September 1753 (5 Ashvin 1160 San) Item Idol (pratima) Idol Strip of cloth Cloth for the householder Cloth for the blacksmith Cloth for the scroll painter [Strip of cloth] Lime Sun-dried rice Ghee Oil Rice Salt Pulses Legumes Pulses Peas Pulses Chick-pea Chick-pea variety Sugar Flour Banikasajja? Millet Yogurt Milk Earthen pot Goat



11 piece 1 piece 1 piece 1 piece 1 1 3 kathas 10 kathas 12 kathas 5 kathas (10 sers) 5 kathas 1 katha 5 kathas

8 a. 1 r. 12 a. 1 r., 4 a. 12 a. 12 a. 5 r. 6 -


4 r. 2 r., 8 a. 5 r., 8 a. 1 r. 12 a. 1 r., 4 a. 12 a. 12 a. 12 r. 3 r. 5 r. 12 r. 1 r. 8 a. 1 a. 1 r. 1 r. 8 a. 6 a. 6 r. 8 a. 1 r., 8 a. 2 r. 1 r., 8 a. 1 r. 1 r., 4 a. 2 r., 8 a.

The Books of Religion yanab? Betel-leaf Turmeric Betel-leaf Lime Fish Vegetables Plantains Musician Honey mixture Seating Miscellaneous costs Payment Sari Item Coloured cloth White cloth [Total]

3 pieces 3 pieces 1 piece 3 pieces

333 -

6 a. 4 a. 4 a. 1r., 8 a. 1 r. 8 a. 1 a. 1 r., 8 a. 1 r. 2 r. 1 r. 6 a. 5 a. 2 a., 10 g. 2 a. 2 a. 1 r. 4 r. 1 r., 2 a. 1 r. 3 r. 94 rupees 6 annas

Source: Pancanan Mandal, Cithipatre Samajcitra, 1953: 446-8. No town/ location is provided.

A later account from 1816 for a Durga Puja to be held in the village of Gopalpur (Hooghly) near Calcutta provides a list of required items. This account, titled ‘The expenses of an auspicious day,’ is arranged into two columns: item and total cost. Expenses that are carried over are also provided.15 The account lists a num­ ber of various cloths required, such as unbleached or new cloth, woven fabric and sirpa (sherpa?) cloth. As in the earlier account sheets, this one includes betel-leaf, sugar and confectionary, tobacco and sun-dried rice. The account also includes the cost of


Samuel Wright

payment to those conducting the puja and the cost of a musician (one anna each). Unlike the other two puja accounts discussed above, however, this account does not include a miscellaneous column for small market expenses. The total cost of the puja is given at just over one rupee four annas – far less than the other two pujas above. The complete list of items with associated costs is shown in Table 10.3.16 Other sorts of religious practices were occasions for purchas­ ing commodities in the market. In November 1786, a householder carried out a svastyayan ceremony in his house.17 This ceremony intends to protect against misadventures and other evils. As delinTable 10.3. Durga Puja, 1816 (Gopalpur, Hooghly) (1223 San) Item Cannabis Rice Plantains Sugar and Confectionery Incense, Resin, Vermilion Betel-leaf and betel-nut One Large Pot One Small Pot Cloth for the puja as a cover for the large pot New, unbleached cloth Expenses Carried Forward Sherpa cloth for the honoured worshipper Tobacco Payment for the puja Seats, rings and Honey mixture Sandalwood Flowers Musicians and others [Total]


1 g., 4 c. 1 a. 5 g. 10 g. 2 g., 8 c. 1 a., 5 g. 7 g., 8 c. 2 g., 8 c. 1 a. 4 a. 8 a., 13 g., 12 c. 8 a. 10 g. 1 a. 10 g. 5 g. 1 a. 1 a. 1 rupee 4 annas

18 gandas 12 cowries

Source: David Smyth, Original Bengalese Zumeendaree Accounts, 1823: 296.

The Books of Religion


eated in the account sheet, this particular svastyayan ceremony includes multiple instances of food offerings and collective meals that overlap but appear to be separate events: for five people over twelve days, for one person over fifteen days and for five people over thirteen days. Calculations for the cost of these activities are also included. For example, the calculation detailing food distribu­ tion to five people over twelve days reads:18 From 17 November to 28 November 1786: Food distribution for five people at the cost of two annas each over twelve days: 7 rupees 8 annas. Offerings: 1 anna each [per person per day]: 3 rupees 12 annas [Sub-total:] 11 rupees 4 annas

Similar calculations also represent costs related to the recita­ tion of the name of Chandi: ninety-six recitations at the cost of two annas each totalling twelve rupees.19 Other components of the activities surrounding this svastyayan ceremony include the use of various items for the ceremony: ghee, cloth and seating mats. The ceremony is led by a Brahmin individual who receives two rupees and includes various payments to other Brahmins for other activi­ ties such as performing the recitations of the names of Chandi (3 rupees).20 Items and costs are shown in Table 10.4. In May 1747, an account sheet recorded the installation of a Shiva linga in which money is raised for the occasion. The amount of money raised from various individuals is recorded. I discuss this aspect of the account sheet further below but I am interested here in the projected commodities needed from the market. The document is not entirely clear in parts. The account includes the items anticipated for the installation but appears to specify when a provisional list of the anticipated items was compiled; alternatively, these items could be unrelated to the installation. For example, required items (together with volumes) noted down on 30 and 31 May 1747, a full month before the installation, are:21 On 30 May:

Parboiled rice: Banana leaves: Sugar:

2 ser (1.8 kg)

5 [pieces]

1 chatak (58 grams)


Samuel Wright

Table 10.4. Svastyayan, November 1786 (1708 Saka)



Food distribution – 26 Karttik to 7 Agrahan Offerings 1 (naibedya) Name recitations Obeisance Name recitations of Chand Food distribution – 29 Karttik to 13 Agrahan Offerings Officiating Priest Ghee Seating Ring Honey mixture Cloth Offerings Food distribution for 12 Brahmins Payment Chandi recitation Name recitation Obeisance Fire Oblations Offerings Payment for readings and singing

Total Cost

12 days; 5 people

7 r., 8 a.

1 a. per offering 10000 times 1000 times 96 times (2 annas each time) 15 days; 1 person

3 r., 12 a. 3 r. 3 r. 12 r.


1 r., 14 a. 2 r. 4 a. 3 r. 3 r. 2 r. 12 r., 8 a. 3 r. 3 r. 8 r., 2 a.

1 r., 14 a.

100 times 1000 times 1000 times 13 days; 5 people; 2 annas per person 1 anna per person 4 r., 1 a.. 2 r.

Source: Pancanan Mandal, Cithipatre Samajcitra: 369-70. No town/loca­ tion provided.

Ghee: Flowers: Earthen plate:

5 gandas (1/4 anna) worth 5 gandas (1/4 anna) worth 2 pieces

The Books of Religion On the 31st: Parboiled rice: Sugar: Ghee: Flowers: Plantains: Earthen plate:


1.5 ser (1.35 kg) 1 chatak (58 grams) 5 gandas (1/4 anna) worth 5 gandas (1/4 anna) worth 15 [pieces] 2

In addition to private individuals, institutions were also en­ gaged in religious consumption practices. Accounts were also retained and used by temples and monasteries (maths) in track­ ing projected items needed for various functions. An available account sheet related to the founding of a math on 22 February 1820 specifies the quantities of various items needed for the func­ tion. Unfortunately, the location of the math is not provided. The list of required items is extensive. Some of the items are: twenty dhotis, two saris, ten bowls, one bell, one anklet, two maunds (74 kg) of rice, four sers (3.72 kg) of pulses, 2 sers (1.86 kg) of milk, 3 sers (2.79 kg) of ghee, one ser (.93 kg) of honey, twenty coconuts, three sets of firewood for religious sacrifices, four sers (3.72 kg) of yogurt and fifteen pitchers. The entire list of items is shown in Table 10.5.22 Table 10.5. Founding of a Math, 22 February 1820 (10 Phalgun 1226 San) Items Coloured cloth Seating mats Ring Cloth for the start of the puja Sari Cloth for the jar of holy water Cloth covering the ‘temple-shaped’ confectionery? Cloth for the Vritti Shraddha? Loincloth Canopy Silver


12 12 12 8 2 1 1 1 20 4 -

10 Seating 10 Ring Honey mixture 10 Bowl 3 Rajat Prithvi? 3 Gold coin pieces 3 Red lotus 1 Flagstaff 1 Flag material 3 Pennon 1 Bell 1 Anklet set 1 Fly-whisk 1 Discus? (cakra) 1 Wooden bull 2 maunds (74 kg) Rice 4 sers (1.8 kg) Legumes ¼ ser? (.2 kg) Ink Sugar Confectionery 1000 (leaves?) Betel-leaf ¼ ser? (.2 kg) Betel-nut 4 sers (3.6 kg) Curd 2 sers (1.8 kg) Milk [For the] Oblation 3 sers (2.7 kg) Ghee 1 ser (.9 kg) Honey 20 Coconut 2 [Illegible] 1 Curd, milk, clarified butter, cow’s urine and cow dung (panchagabya) Leaves of the mango, fig, banyan, peepal and ficus trees (panchapallab) Five gems (pancharatna) 2 sets Wood for the oblation 2 sets Wooden pegs 4

The Books of Religion Pitcher Pot Bath Small pitcher Earthen plate Small earthen basin Grass Dry wood Sasish?

339 8 15 1 8 8 -

Source: Pancanan Mandal, Cithipatre Samajcitra, 1953: 134-5. No town/ location provided.

Other documents also specify items required when celebrating the completion of an artificial pond or water tank. These tanks served multiple functions, such as the local fame of the benefactor, irrigation and revenue for the zamindar.23 An undated document details the items required for establishing a pond (pushkarni). A large number of items are listed in their required quantity such as dhoti (1), towels (12), silver-coloured image of the deity, fly whisk (1) and sun-dried rice (10 maunds or 373 kg). Another undated document in which various individuals are organizing the found­ ing of a tank in the Nadia district (likely Navadvip) lists some other items: four beds inclusive of carpets, canopy (1) and a good clock.24 These account sheets demonstrate that the extensive distribution of commodities within Bengal was crucial to religious consumption practices. This distribution was, in some cases, instigated by householders who were organizing these religious functions. Householders dispatched letters and deposited money so that goods were sent for their functions and guests travelled to their events. In a letter dated 16 August 1788, a householder named Devanath Mitra wrote to an unnamed individual inviting him to the installation of a Shiva linga in his house in Ambapara (Amrapara?). This person, as Devanath states, was also responsible for sending the sugar and confectionery that were needed during this ceremony. He says:


Samuel Wright

[This is written in] 1788. On 1 September, I will undertake the installation of a Shiva linga in my house. This is something I desire to do and have made arrangements. On 25 August, I shall go to my house after deposit­ ing the required instalment of money (kisti) [for the transport of goods]. If you could be present here [for the occasion] only then would the cer­ emony take place [to my liking]. Hence, I hope that you kindly consider this request of mine and are able to come to my house in Ambapara. I also politely ask you to accept this request and send the sugar and sweet globule confectionery (manda sandesh) of one ser each (.93 kg). I make this request on 16 August [1788].25

In April 1828, an individual named Govindacaran Das based in Rakhalgachi (Nadia district) wrote to an individual named Sridam Modak who was based 58 km away in Dharmada (Nadia district). In this letter – here termed an authority letter  – Govindacaran wants to confirm that Sridam will supply the necessary confec­ tionery for his harilut-samkirtan (a celebration of the birth of a child including the singing of songs). He says: To Sri Sridam Modak of Dharmada [in the Nadia district] … On the next full moon at my house in front of my Tulsi plant, there will be the auspicious event: a harilut-samkirtan. You have been given the order for five and one-quarter ser each (4.9 kg) of these confectioneries: sugar drop (batasa), sweet globules (manda), and jalebi; if not, please see to it. This was written on 9 April 1828. [Signed] Sri Govindacaran Das of Rakhal­ garh [Nadia district].26

These two letters indicate that trading and communication networks were crucial for the success of these activities by house­ holders. In the first case, Devanath is ensuring the arrival of his goods. He has specified that he has paid for some of the cost of the goods (or their transport) via a credit system from which the carrier will be able to move his confectionary. In the second case, Govindacaran relies upon local routes for the delivery of his goods across the Nadia district. Alternatively, Sridam will move the ingredients by a carrier and prepare the sweets at Govindacaran’s house in Rakhalgarh. Having specific items available for consumption at one’s func­ tion was, of course, an important part of a celebration. At an event

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in May 1753, two individuals, Balaram Sarman and Atmaram Sar­ man, recited the names of Vishnu and Durga for ten days (between 6 and 16 May) for a total of one lakh (100,000) recitations each. The document details the number of recitations that will take place per day, which ranges from 5,000 to 15,000. The food expenses for each day are calculated, and include coconut refreshments and pouches of pan (pan-khili):27 Rice (one ser or 0.9 kg)

Plantains (4 pieces)

Sugar (116 grams)

Ghee (29 grams)

Earthen plate (2 pieces)

Flowers (one plate’s worth?)

Pan pouches (2 pieces)

[Sub-total] Coconut Refreshments (for 11 days)


2 annas 5 gandas 4 gandas 1 anna 10 gandas 2 gandas 5 gandas 2 gandas 1 anna 8 gandas [over 11 days] 7 annas 2 gandas 3 rupees 7 annas 14 gandas

This section has examined in some detail the items that were consumed in religious practices in Bengal during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Admittedly, discussing the items consumed in these sorts of practices runs the risk of appearing as a simple catalogue of things; however, this sort of work is necessary as it has not been done for Bengal. Larger reflections on this data are presented in the final section of this essay. What can be said here, though, is that these account sheets and other documents provide detailed examples of the possible range and types of expenditures on items of consumption by households and religious institutions – areas that are under-examined and under­ theorised for this period in Bengal.

Persons The involvement of various individuals in religious activities, such as musicians, scroll painters, weavers, priests and unskilled workers – all specifically mentioned in the account sheets – indi­


Samuel Wright

cates that a major part of religious consumption practices was the consumption of time. In other words, these religious practices included consuming the time of individuals in the course of their paid or unpaid labour in these activities: the performance by musi­ cians, the officiating by a Brahmin priest, or tasks completed by the household staff or unskilled labourers, such as going to the market. Their relative place in the social hierarchy is expressed financially by the fact that fees paid to priests or musicians are represented as separate line items whereas money paid to those of a lower status is simply referred to as ‘tips’ (bakshish) and included as part of the miscellaneous costs.28 Theoretical considerations about what it means to consume time are discussed in the next section. Here, I am concerned with charting specific activities and the involve­ ment of individuals in religious consumption practices. A number of individuals serving in different roles were required as part of these religious activities. They were often recruited from the professional communities living in the surrounding areas. Rajat Datta has demonstrated that during the late eighteenth century, many towns in Bengal were composed of households that were not involved in agricultural production. Rather, individuals belonged to other professions: musicians, weavers, oil-pressers and confectioners, who constituted a majority of households in some areas. Not only did this mean that many in a given area were dependent upon the market for purchasing household items but also that religious activity would have been supported by the professional communities present in any given area that sold the required commodities and supplied the requisite labour.29 Most conspicuously, the account sheets discussed above dem­ onstrate that Brahmins played an important role in officiating and participating in these events. In the former as officials, they were paid for their services to facilitate as masters of ceremony and as priests; and, in the latter as participants, they received food and other gifts for consumption during these events. While available materials are limited, householders organizing these events were anxious about hiring Brahmins whom they deemed appropriate for their functions. For example, a letter written by a Sagararama­ das Datta in October 1788 implores an individual, known only as

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the son of Chaturtha Thakur, to send suitable Brahmins for his puja. Sagararamadas’ letter implies that the low quality of Brahmin priests in his area was general knowledge and that while the cus­ tomary practice was to hire from this community during religious functions, he did not wish to do so. His letter reads: In the Year 1788 – As you know, no Brahmins, of such stature [as you], stay here [in this town] who are suitable for performing my auspicious puja. Therefore, I humbly request that you come yourself or that you send someone suit­ able to perform the puja. I submit this request at your feet on 7 October 1788. . . . Again, it is said: [as] no other Brahmin stays here; you may send, in this regard, Bhavananda Thakur.30

Unfortunately, Sagararamadas does not specify the name of his town in the letter. However, it is a good example of the movement of people, not just commodities, in the course of arranging and undertaking pujas. This letter highlights the fact that the status of the officiating Brahmin priest at a puja affected its prestige. It also suggests that relying upon reputed priests who were connected to professional networks was the primary method through which householders selected Brahmin priests for their pujas. Travelling for their livelihood was not just within the purview of certain sections of society, however. Some individuals travelled for employment opportunities that were indirectly connected to religious activities and functions. A document from April 1734 details a widow, Haridasi, travelling from Joginidaha (Nadia district) to Asannagar (Nadia district) – a journey of 20 km east – for cleaning the cowshed of a householder, Harinarayan Mukho­ padhyay. The document provides the contractual details applicable to Haridasi, which includes gifts during puja. The contractual document is addressed to Harinarayan Mukhopadhyay of Asannagar and reads: . . . I am Haridasi, widow of the late Nibaran Mandal from Yuginida (Joginidaha). I shall work in your cowshed. Each month I shall receive one rupee (tanka) [as salary]. On auspicious days, one sheet of woven fabric [will be given]; and on puja one cut [cloth]. This arrangement shall be indefinite. I gave this written document on 13 April 1734.31


Samuel Wright

Two witnesses sign the letter: a Kenaram Mandal (probably a relative of her late husband) and a Haradhan Garai. One of the many important aspects of this contract is that it provides the salary level of individuals in unskilled positions and provides a small account of the life of a widow in early eighteenth-century western Bengal. In terms of the discussion here, the gift of cutcloth on pujas to Haridasi suggests that her involvement during pujas and on other auspicious days would be more extensive than merely cleaning the cowshed but might also include various household errands and duties. As a property owner, Harinarayan Mukhopadhyay probably held puja-related functions in his house during which various commodities, such as cloth and other gifts, are required and distributed. Another role of wealthy households and individuals during this time was hiring those who had become destitute or were otherwise unable to sustain themselves. Rajat Datta argues that during the famine of 1788 in Bengal, this role of the zamindars and other wealthy individuals had become extremely tenuous and led, in some cases, to the absence of any options for survival among the poorer sections of the population. This was particularly so in Rajshahi where ‘traditional sources’ of assistance to cultiva­ tors became unavailable to them due to widespread financial ruin among all sections of society.32 The form which these so-called traditional sources of assistance could take is demonstrated in a document written in 1694, termed a letter of self-sale. It highlights in stark detail the dependence of ordinary cultivators on wealthy individuals. The document is signed by an individual named Sanatan (alias Gopivallabh) Datta and his wife, Biba Dasi. The two of them travelled from Baniya­ janga (Mymensingh district) to the Nadia district (probably to the town of Ula) – a journey of approximately 300 km – to ‘willingly sell themselves’ to a Ramesvara Mitra for nine rupees. The letter specifies the reasons for this decision: ‘I and my wife, Srimati Biba Dasi, . . . overwhelmed by debt (karja) and lacking food, willingly sold ourselves in this place upon receiving an assurance of a ninerupee cash payment. This is signed on the 26 October 1694. . . .’33 Ramesvara Mitra was well known during this time and served

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as a kanungo or revenue officer under the governor of Bengal, Murshid Quli Khan. Importantly, Mitra sponsored the construc­ tion of a temple in Ula (Nadia district) that was completed in the same year that Sanatan and Biba travelled to Nadia and signed this document. This means that the completion of Ramesvara’s temple was very likely a significant public event that attracted attention from neighbouring regions, and may have been the reason that Sanatan and Biba selected him as a possible recourse in their pre­ dicament of indebtedness and starvation.34 Indeed, as discussed in the next section, the letter written by Sanatan was counter-signed by a number of other individuals from outside the Nadia district, which means that other people had travelled to meet Ramesvara. Undertaking religious practices like pujas required sufficient levels of funding to afford the necessary items and labour costs. In some cases, this resulted in a number of people pooling their resources to raise the required amount. This was particularly the case for Durga pujas after 1790 when, as Rachel Fell McDermott argues, land administrative changes prevented zamindars from funding the event solely by their own money.35 Sharing costs associ­ ated with other ceremonies, however, may have taken place earlier and for different reasons. For example, in 1749, approximately nine people contributed to a shared corpus of funds to undertake the installation of a Shiva linga. This installation appears to have been for a particularly important, though unnamed, person. The individuals involved contributed amounts ranging from 3 to 30 rupees; contributions also included payments in Arcot coins in addition to the sikka (or new) coins of Bengal.36 No information is available on the types of relationships these individuals had with the one organizing this installation of the Shiva linga in the above example. The practice of joint contribu­ tions could also be more formalized, even appearing coercive. David Smyth, writing in 1823 in Hooghly, explains how puja funds were raised in the village of Gopalpur (the expenses for this puja were discussed in the previous section): . . . [T]he payments are generally, in large Villages, collected from Ryots by the Gomastu’s issuing small slips of paper called ‘Dowl Khuzana [daul­


Samuel Wright

khazana37],’ which contain the name of the Ryot and the sum due by him, for the current Kist [installment]; and when the money is collected by the Paik [guard], it is paid over to the Gomastu, in the name of the Ryot, from whom it is levied.38

Smyth highlights the money economy surrounding the puja functions in which people participated. In this case, it involved individuals such as the guard (paik) of the talukdar as well as the agent who collects the debt amounts (gomasta) related to the dues (kist) payable by the cultivators or subjects (raiyat). The role of the agent in collecting payments is not surprising considering that these individuals were closely involved in money transactions, in general. For instance, two agents signed Sanatana Datta and Biba Dasi’s letter to Ramesvara Mitra.39 In the case of the puja in Gopalpur discussed here, the names of those in the village paying money for the puja were retained in a daily money account. Some of these accounts are available, which are provided by Smyth, and relate to money collected or promised on 11 July 1816 – approxi­ mately two months before the Durga Puja would commence. This money was collected in the name of the talukdar, Gaurmohan Raychaudhuri. The account sheet lists eight people (all men) who either paid directly or through an intermediary such as a family member. The account is arranged into four columns. The first col­ umn lists the names of the individuals. The other three columns detail the amount of money collected and the type of currency. In order, these columns are: 1. total amount, 2. newly minted coins, 3. mixed, other coins. The last column probably refers to the fact that various coinage systems were in circulation in this period in Bengal, as appreciated in the document discussed above from 1749 in which Arcot coins were collected for the installation of a Shiva linga. The total amount collected or promised in this daily account is seven rupees.40 In the section prior to this, I discussed the founding of two water tanks. In these examples, a ceremony took place in which a number of commodities were required. These tanks were not merely made at unplanned locations but were those at which local landholders or wealthy individuals had donated land for such pur­ poses. Moreover, these construction activities were predicated on

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work undertaken by various people, such as constables, cultivators and the staff of the landowner. For example, in the Yugsara admin­ istrative unit (Murshidabad district) in the village of Kathgarh, an individual named Narayan Modak gifted nine katha (about onesixth of an acre) of his land to one Bhavanisankar Sarman for the digging of a water tank. This land was donated on 27 February 1797 from a marshy field previously used for rice cultivation. The donation reads in part: . . . The employees and cultivators (praja) of my property inclusive of the aforementioned village [Kathgarh] shall show you the boundary [of the village] according to the proposal and the list of landed properties in the area as agreeable to the constable (kotwal). Having been offered this gift for digging a water tank, may you (along with your sons and grandsons) enjoy possession of this land with the utmost happiness. You are perma­ nently relieved from paying taxes on this land.41

In light of the earlier examples in which the founding of water tanks results in a celebration and ceremony, it is extremely likely that a similar ceremony took place here in Kathgarh. Again, this would require items from the marketplace, their delivery, and an engagement with the local community members to meet labour needs or for bringing people from other areas to perform specific roles during the function. This section has attempted to provide an account of how people were incorporated into or participated in religious consumption practices. While I have used terms such as ‘labour’, I have pur­ posely not used ‘labour market’ or ‘wage labour’ but merely noted that labour time was a cost incorporated into these account sheets just like costs associated with other items, such as ghee, sugar and peas; in other words, the time of musicians, priests or unskilled labourers was an item of consumption just like these food items – an issue I discuss more extensively in the next section. More broadly, this section has attempted to identify the agents of, and participants in, religious activities such as householders desiring certain functions, migrant labourers in search of a livelihood, and the mediators of these activities such as landholders, agents and priests.


Samuel Wright

Consumption Practices The above two sections constitute some initial explorations into the ways in which the relationship between religious consumption practices and the market was constituted in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Bengal. Providing a number of specifics about this relation is important since it remains under-examined in previous literature, especially from the perspective of the regional archive. These materials also raise broader questions about reli­ gious consumption practices, and it is to this aspect that I now turn my attention. In the remainder of the paper, I examine reli­ gious consumption practices in four areas: consumption demand, the household economy, networks and consumption’s effects. Recent research has demonstrated a high demand for a num­ ber of commodities in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Bengal. While I cannot address the entire range of items in demand, presenting some picture of consumption and demand is essential before addressing religious consumption practices in the household economy. Consumption demand for both consumable and durable goods, in general, is expressed in a variety of sources from both urban and rural perspectives, and also includes the consumption of British manufactured goods.42 This demand can be appreciated, for example, in property inventories of deceased merchants and reports of stolen goods by shopkeepers. These lists are extensive and include items such as Chinese and French paint­ ings, decanters, swords, carpets, decorative plates, brass dishes, silk saris and trays for pan, as well as foods such as tobacco, sugar, pulses, turmeric, coconut and ghee.43 Most often discussed in previous studies when addressing con­ sumption is the consumption (from a decidedly trade-oriented perspective) of what has been called the ‘famous trinity’ of salt, betel-nut and tobacco.44 These are also useful points of entry into my concerns here. Salt was understood by some to be particularly sensitive to consumption demands from which a substantial profit could be realized in its trade.45 Writing in 1804, Henry Colebrooke states that the amount of salt consumed in Bengal and Bihar totals 40 lakh maunds (14,877 tonnes), which approximates to eleven

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pounds (about 5 kg) per year per capita (assuming a population of 30 million people); this constitutes a difference from contempo­ raneous France, for example, where he states that consumption is approximated to be nine pounds (about 4 kg) per year per capita. Colebrooke also states that salt is imported to Bengal from Samb­ her (Rajasthan) to meet the demand.46 The demand for tobacco, which was differentiated between inferior and superior qualities, was substantial enough to require that its superior qualities were sourced from Patna and outside Bengal in Chunar (south-west from Benares).47 The betel-leaf was also of vital commercial importance and its cultivation involved a form of specialized gardening. It was a site of contested trade (as was tobacco and salt) and was under near monopolies for its internal trade in parts of Bengal.48 While information about the demand for betel-nut is limited, the growing of it increased substantially from 1790 in small-scale farms in Chittagong and one might speculate that its demand was tied to that of the betel-leaf as they are consumed together.49 As remarked by P.J. Marshall, trade in these three commodities – salt, betel-nut and tobacco – could result in a profit margin of 75 per cent in the 1760s.50 The internal demand for sugar in the eighteenth century was also high and inversely related to the decline of sugar exports from the Bengal region. This domestic consumption demand was met by merchants directing sugar to towns throughout Bengal rather than for export.51 Also important to note is that the number of marketplaces (haats, ganjs, bazars) increased dramatically throughout Bengal from the second half of the eighteenth century, which were linked by a dense transport system of roads and rivers.52 Given the potential for profit in the trade of these commodities in response to demand factors, it is no wonder that disputations over trading privileges were frequent, particularly from 1757 to 1773, when the English East India Com­ pany and its officials were deeply interested in making profits from Bengal’s internal trade.53 Considerations regarding general consumption demand are im­ portant because when the movement of goods is framed solely in terms of production and trade (with an emphasis on cultivators and merchants), consumption practices and consumers remain vague


Samuel Wright

categories. Considerations about consumption raise a number of complex issues related to the household economy and household consumption habits; and, more generally, the role of the household in the study of economic history. While it has recently been argued that changes in the household economy should form the basis of economic history, it is premature to consider this question here.54 At the same time, the majority of documents examined in this essay reflect consumption patterns and priorities among house­ holders, and, thus, raise questions about the household economy and consumption habits that should not be ignored. Indeed, many of the documents examined in the previous sections relate to func­ tions taking place in homes and occasionally demonstrate the role of the householder in coordinating household spending. Taken together with the discussion immediately above, then, on general consumption, it can be seen that religious consumption practices (often taking place among households) involved consuming items that were contested in trade and available throughout Bengal. Most conspicuous in the account sheets and other documents considered in this essay is an extensive range of items desired by households that Sidney Mintz would term ‘drug foods’: the betelnut, the betel-leaf, tobacco, cannabis, jaggery and sugar.55 These foods find prominent roles in religious consumption practices and are listed in nearly every account sheet and document. A number of these items are exchanged as gifts, and convey certain social and cultural meanings when given.56 Specific accoutrements listed in the account sheets also accompany these drug foods: specialized trays (bata), for instance, crafted with separate compartments, were used to hold the betel-leaf, betel-nut and slaked lime.57 If salt is also included in this grouping – though technically not a ‘drug food’ – then religious consumption practices entailed consuming some of the most important and contested trade commodities of this period in Bengal. Other commodities listed in the documents are equally important. Chillies, for example, were new to north India in the eighteenthcentury, having been cultivated in the south and, by extension, would have been new to eastern India as well.58 Ghulam Husain Salim notes the extensive consumption of chillies in the Bengal

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diet in the 1780s, which were grown in small quantities in Lak­ shmipur and Chittagong during this period.59 The use of chillies in 1757’s Durga Puja (Table 10.1) is notable for its quick adoption and may represent a new development in the religious consump­ tion practices of this period. Textiles also played a significant role in religious consumption practices. A large variety of cloths were purchased for use: woven and cut cloth; small, cut fabrics; saris, unbleached and coloured cloths; woven cloth; dhotis; and calicoes (ambertees) all figure prominently. These textiles were given as gifts to the priests and proprietors of any function, and used for dressing the image of the deity and providing coverings for food and water. These items are in addition to standard food items, such as pulses, legumes, flowers and incense; also of note is the absence of tea and coffee. The use of commodities from betel-nuts to textiles suggests that religious consumption practices among households incorporated, or could potentially incorporate, conceptions of luxury. Available materials, however, make this statement more easily substantiated with respect to durable goods, such as bowls, plates and utensils – items that I have not discussed in much detail. Items of this sort were not merely used in religious functions but were also considered suitable for gifting and held value as personal prop­ erty. Three documents, in particular, demonstrate their varied use and meaning. A list of items from 1811 details the various gifts given to a number of Brahmin pandits. The list does not specify its location but includes the names of householders where each pandit resides or the name of the house in question such as the ‘house of Nyayalankara’. It catalogues the information under four columns: the pandit’s name, which is often incomplete; the gift given; the cost of the gift; and the family home of the pandit. The gifts are fairly uniform in range: plates, pitchers, cloths and pan trays. All of them are recorded as costing between one and three rupees. No mention is made as to why these gifts were being dis­ tributed.60 Another list compiled on 27 September 1792 from the town of Sagarya in the Bankura district catalogues twenty-eight items held under the care of a guard. Two witnesses sign the list in addition to the guard, which further stresses the perceived value


Samuel Wright

of this property and its required protection against theft or fraud. The list of items includes an armlet, a copper plate, an urn-shaped pot and a woven handbag. The guard overseeing these items signs the document after declaring that ‘twenty-eight items are kept in my care.’61 A final example demonstrates that these luxury items were also accepted as payment of rents or debts instead of cash. A document titled ‘Total realised credit deposits’ dated to June 1784 lists the items or cash collected by the town. Cash amounts range from one anna to six rupees. Items submitted for rent or debt pay­ ments are familiar items: pan trays, plates, fine cloths (amritis), brass plates and water-jugs. The list of items and money collected stretches over a large area of western Bengal, which demonstrates that the collectors or agents had large credit networks over rural and urban areas: seventeen cities are named and rent or debt is collected from over twenty-five individuals. The locations listed include urbanized areas of Calcutta (Kalikata) and Bhowanipur, as well as many rural towns, such as Krishnabati (Burdwan), Kaikala (Hooghly) and Jaynagar (24-Parganas).62 The importance of these three documents is twofold. First, they demonstrate that commodities used in religious consump­ tion practices were also used in other ‘secular’ areas of social and economic practices, namely, credit, gifting and storage. While this is not very surprising, it does mean, however, that some items used in religious consumption practices were particularly vulnerable to being used as symbols for displaying the wealth, tastes (or changes thereof) and the social or economic status of householders. Sec­ ond, the documents display the ‘social life’ of these objects, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay with reference to the work of Arjun Appadurai.63 For example, a decorative plate or a pan tray, in moving between various exchange and use contexts, is at vari­ ous points and times, a gift (both inside and outside the context of a religious function), part of the paraphernalia of religious prac­ tices (for example, holding sweets or fruit), a payment for rents and debts, a valuable to store or hoard, a thing to exhibit as a status symbol and something to purchase or sell.64 Taken as a group, the commodities discussed above from drug foods to bowls are de rigueur for the religious consumption prac­

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tices examined in this paper and, as a result, point to the ways in which the household economy was a determinant of the sup­ ply and demand of these commodities – although this statement requires further elaboration based upon additional materials. In general, however, because the account sheets and other documents examined above are nearly all related to household functions, they reflect not just the ability of households to purchase these items but their willingness and desire to do so. More subtly, as Jan de Vries reminds us, the twinned-acts of purchase and consumption by households was also instilled with the desire of households and householders to alter their notions of taste so that certain items could be purchased in the first place.65 The desire to undertake reli­ gious activities and related consumption practices are occasionally made explicit in the documents. Recall that at the start of his letter about a consignment of confectionary, Devanath Mitra says that, ‘On 1 September [1788], I will install a Shiva linga in my house. This is something I desire to do and have made arrangements.’66 Religious consumption practices by households, then, can be used as points of entry into consumption demands, habits and prac­ tices, in general. While it is difficult to do so given the current lack of evidence, the religious consumption practices examined here, taken on their own, stress the need for a more nuanced analysis of the nexus between material culture and consumer demand, and, therefore, the need to make consumption of equal importance, rather than secondary, to production and distribution concerns.67 A focus on religious consumption practices also allows reflection on the role of networks in them. The materials above demon­ strate that commodities moved due to the expressed wants and needs of householders and specific household activities; this in­ cluded householders moving money and sending letters to initiate shipments. While this is not surprising, it is a facet entirely unexamined when addressing trade in eighteenth- and nineteenthcentury Bengal – a lacuna that can obscure the reasons for the movement of commodities. As the documents show, householders initiated shipments of sugar and confectionery; and created or sustained local demand for items such as tobacco, cannabis, chil­ lies and betel-leaf in the course of their activities.


Samuel Wright

Apart from the movement of commodities, the movement of people must also be registered. Sanatan and his wife, Biba, for example, migrated due to debt and starvation. The reason why they chose the district of Nadia, however, is an important, if difficult, question. I would posit that religious consumption practices by Ramesvara Mitra, who established a temple in Ula in the same year that Sanatan and Biba signed their document, may be implicated in their decision to travel to Nadia. The founding of this temple would have necessitated various religious activities that were meant to display wealth, such as public food distribu­ tion and the travel of certain individuals such as Brahmin priests to Ula, who were required to perform certain functions in these activities. In fact, the letter that Sanatan and Biba sign is counter­ signed by a number of witnesses from various places outside Ula and the Nadia district, such as Khajurdihi (Burdwan), Santipur (Nadia), Guptapara (Hooghly), Kotalipar (Faridpur) and Khand (Burdwan).68 In the context of an already regionally diverse set of people, Sanatan and Biba’s long journey seems less exceptional. The widow, Haridasi, also migrated for employment and survival. Her contract includes language indicating that the household in which she worked valued the celebration of pujas and related occasions. This suggests that her decision to migrate to Asannagar to work in Harinarayan Mukhopadhyay’s cowshed may have also been based upon the displays of wealth by this household in the course of its religious consumption practices. The request made by Sagararamadas Datta for a suitable Brah­ min priest to travel to his puja also demonstrates a professional network of priests who moved within Bengal for livelihood pur­ poses in response to household needs. This professional, regional network of Brahmin priests might have supplemented or replaced more local networks. Similarly, Devanath Mitra asks not only for a shipment of confectionery but also that the person responsible for sending the consignment travel to his house to attend his installation of a Shiva linga. Devanath also informs the recipi­ ent of the letter that he has deposited an instalment towards the cost of the consignment of confectionery, indicating his reliance upon credit networks. Likewise, the letter by Govindacaran Das

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requesting confectionery asks the supplier, Sridam Modak, to send it. This indicates that Sridam or a confectioner travelled with the ingredients to Govindacaran’s house in Rakhalgarh to prepare for the harilut-samkirtan: transporting jalebis over 58 km from Dhar­ mada is not practical. In these three cases, each householder relied upon a communication network through which to send inquiries, express needs and confirm the status of orders. The movement of goods and people in the course of religious consumption practices demonstrates that these practices relied upon the success of multiple networks operating simultane­ ously: trade, professional, migration, credit and communication networks. Registering this ‘network regime’69 of religious con­ sumption practices is important because, as Caroline Levine argues, networks ‘allow us to refuse metaphysical assumptions about causality in favour of observing linkages. . . .’70 The import of Levine’s observation here is that religious consumption practices ought not to be defined in any singular manner (or made sense of through some crude ontology) except as through the ways in which these networks interact. As a result, religious consumption practices are potential sites of historical, economic and social change – rather than fatalistic – to the extent that these networks are used, altered or even discarded by householders in the course of them expressing certain wants and needs when undertaking religious practices as they conceive of them.71 That this network regime was present as demonstrated above, from at least the eight­ eenth century in Bengal, suggests that colonialism is only a minor consideration for making sense of religious consumption practices – although this statement needs more analysis. What seems cer­ tain, however, is that the network regime of religious consumption practices in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Bengal was not an outcome of colonialism, although it may have included specific networks forged by colonial officers in the period, such as trade or agent networks. Finally, the religious consumption practices examined in this essay also encourage larger reflections on consumption’s effects concerning the relation between a person and an item of consump­ tion. By raising concerns about the relation between a person and


Samuel Wright

an item, I am referring to the introduction of this essay in which I argued for the relevance of Bill Brown’s theory of things when dis­ cussing consumption. Others have also alluded to the possibility of consumption reshaping the relationship between a person and an item of consumption. At the conclusion of his ground-breaking study on the history of sugar, Sidney Mintz provocatively muses on the effects of such a transformation: ‘What commodities are, and what commodities mean, would thereafter be forever differ­ ent. And for that same reason, what persons are, and what being a person means, changed accordingly. In understanding the rela­ tionship between commodity and person, we unearth anew the history of ourselves’.72 Prefigured in these remarks, especially the last sentence, is an opening to critically assess the different forms of subject-object relations, in the sense argued for by Brown, that manifest in reli­ gious consumption practices. For Brown, consumption is part and parcel of how one engages with things in the world and has the potential to unsettle us in certain ways, particularly when it is interrupted. He argues that: ‘. . . we begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily’.73 For Brown, a breakdown or disruption in the function of con­ sumption forces one to relate to a ‘working’ object as a ‘non-working’ thing – a change that signifies a new or different subject-object relation between a person and an item of consumption.74 In this formulation, consumption has the potential to display the history of a person (to borrow Mintz’s idea) by serving as a marker for the types of relations that have existed between an item and a person; and thus, in recovering this relation history, tracing some part of the history of a person. In the religious consumption practices addressed here, items are consumed in the act of gifting, during food distribution and by contractual agreements; as well as, more perfunctorily, in the purchase for, and use within, various religious functions. I address a few of these examples below. First, consider the case of Haridasi

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and the wording of her contract to work in Harinarayan Mukho­ padhyay’s cowshed. Her work contract includes in-kind payments of cloth given to her on auspicious days and pujas. This in-kind payment only makes sense if an assumption is built into the con­ tract: that Haridasi does not hold a subject-object relation with respect to the type of cloth given during those times but rather stands typically in a ‘thing relation’ to the cloth given to her on these days. In other words, Haridasi’s contract is successful to the extent that it temporarily moves an item (cloth) from a ‘non­ working’ relation to a ‘working’ relation. Rephrased more bluntly, the contract serves to move an item from the category of thing to that of an object such that she can consume it. Recall that Haridasi received one rupee per month in 1734. While it is not possible to determine the quality of cloth she received at these times, the account sheet for the puja in 1753 (Table 10.2) specifies that the cloths gifted to the householder, the blacksmith and the scroll painter total 1 rupee; 12 annas; and 1 rupee 4 annas, respectively. In addition, the cloth purchased for the puja in 1756 totals 10 annas (Table 10.1). This means that the cloth given as in-kind payment to Haridasi could theoretically approach or match her monthly income. As a result, Brown’s arguments work in both directions: objects not only become things when they stop working but things become objects when they do. I would argue that this is precisely the reason that the language in Haridasi’s contract makes sense: it contractually anticipates a new relation between Haridasi and the gift of cloth, making her consumption of the item possible and the contract agreeable to her. Second, the account sheets and related documents discussed above contain various examples of food distribution. In the case of the religious functions organized by Devanath Mitra and Govindacaran Das in which confectionery is provided, these activities might perform similar functions, as in the case of Haridasi, of working rarely consumed food into the diet of those in attendance. As a result, the importance of the confectionery in these cases is that it not only fulfils the desire of the householder to serve it at his function but also that it enables the consumption of this particular confectionery by his guests, resulting in a rarified


Samuel Wright

subject-object relation between them and the confectionery. Indeed, in the case of Govindacaran’s letter, Sridam or his carrier/ preparer had to travel 58 km to reach the farmer’s house. This is not a local transaction nor a local movement of goods. At the same time, other acts of consumption may be framed differently. Serving pouches of pan and coconut at the recitation of the names of Vishnu and Durga, for example, suggests a different reading. The availability of these items is vital to prevent an inter­ ruption in the consumption of these items among the Brahmin priests in this specific context. In other words, supplying these items simultaneously reaffirms that the relation between these items of consumption and the Brahmin priests is a subject-object relation (in Brown’s sense) and acknowledges the risk of pan and coconut becoming ‘things’ for the two priests rather than objects, if they were absent from the function or not offered each day during the recitations. The discussion about consumption’s effects has so far discussed only material objects, such as cloth, pan, coconut, confectionery and sugar but it is also the case that the account sheets register the consumption of what might be termed immaterial items. Among the items of this sort, the consumption of time has repeatedly been demonstrated as something that is consumed when paying for labour in the course of organizing religious activities. This is not the place to enter into an extended discussion on what the consumption of time means. But, what is clear is that the inclu­ sion of the cost of work time in the account sheets is an expression of power in religious consumption practices. This is because the cost of the work time of musicians or priests is represented in these documents just like the cost of any other commodity, which indicates that the value of time worked (or anticipated) could be calculated and negotiated. That the calculation and negotiation of this cost takes place within certain power relations between householders and contractual workers hardly needs to be stated. However, if a discussion of religious consumption practices is to aim towards comprehensiveness, then questions of power need to be included. Before concluding this essay, two final issues must be addressed.

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First, the effect of colonialism on religious consumption practices is extremely difficult to gauge with any specificity. Given the limi­ tation of my data, conclusions of this sort must wait until more materials are located and taken into consideration. While general consumption practices in Calcutta, for example, changed due to the import of British manufactured goods, changes in religious consumption practices are more difficult to chart, especially if one wants to include rural contexts.75 One possible area of examina­ tion, however, is those items especially vulnerable to conceptions of luxury discussed above. Very tentatively, the information col­ lected here does not demonstrate a large effect of colonialism on religious consumption practices. This is not to argue that religious consumption practices are not sites of historical or economic change but rather to stress that instances of historical or economic change in these consumption practices are much more likely to be located in the ‘network regime’ of those practices that I discussed above. Second, it is equally difficult to determine the impact of the major famine of 1769-70 on religious consumption practices. Again, this is due to the lack of available material both from those specific years and the years immediately prior and after this period. Functions such as pujas, for example, could be arranged on meagre budgets, as seen from the puja of 1816 (Table 10.3) but again, available historical materials simply do not support larger reflections on this important question. The account sheets through which I began the discussion of religious consumption practices – what I am referring to as the ‘books of religion’ – present complex practices of consumption among households and institutions undertaken during religious activities in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Bengal. While regional source materials, as mentioned, are limited, they, nonetheless, do support an internal view of the economy in this period by focusing attention on local dynamics of household priorities, the movement of people and items, and consumption needs and patterns during this period. A very recent debate has arisen about whether region-specific economic studies based upon regional source materials are even feasible for eighteenth-century India. This study represents an attempt of this sort but it is also an


Samuel Wright

exploration, more generally, about how consumption might func­ tion as a point of entry into Indian economic history, and what sorts of questions and problems the ‘regional archive’ places before us.76

NOTES 1. I would like to thank Shweta S. Banerjee (University of Toronto) for many critical discussions with me about the ideas in this essay. 2. Thompson and Spencer, 1923: 34-5. I have not been able to find the original Bengali translated by Thompson and Spencer. I have replaced the term palki with palanquin in my reproduction of the poem. Thompson and Spencer do not give the original title of the poem (ibid: 34). 3. Halisahar is approximately 40 km north of Calcutta. 4. Brown, 2001: 4. 5. Appadurai, 1988: 5. 6. Haynes et al., 2010: 8-9. 7. For the phrase ‘regional archive’, see Hatekar, 2014: 313-14; Ghosh, 2015a: 1646. I refer to the debate around this ‘archive’ at the end of the essay. 8. Nambudiripad, 1955: 15. Some of the materials discussed below mention different types of coins (for example, Arcot coins), which has further influenced this decision. 9. Ghosh, 2015a: 1643-6. 10. Diacritics are not used in this essay. In a very few cases, I have chosen to include a word (though not properly transliterated) when it is important for my argument or is important for linguistic considerations. 11. The total cost of the various required items is calculated at the bot­ tom of the relevant column. This total is either carried over explicitly at the top of the next column or simply included in the next column’s total. At times, the accounts specify the total remaining money for a planned activity. All the accounts make use of specific coinage and counting methods. The cost of a commodity is given in this order: rupees, anna, ganda, and cowrie. The rupee and ganda are given in modern Bengali numerals whereas the anna and cowrie are given in base-16 numerals. In order to indicate that the cost of an item is given only in ganda and cowries, a small vertical line or curved line

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12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20.

21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29.

30. 31. 32. 33. 34.

35. 36. 37.


is written before the ganda unit number. In general, 4 cowries equal 1 ganda; 20 ganda equals 1 anna; and 16 anna equals 1 rupee; how­ ever, in one account sheet used in the essay, the cowrie is calculated as 16 to the ganda. Mandal, 1953: 124-5. On the Scroll Painting community (Patua), see Kramrisch, 1983: 114-16. Mandal, 1953: 446-8. Smyth, 1823: 296. Ibid: 295-6. Mandal, 1953: 369. Ibid. Ibid.: 96. Ibid.: 369-70. This recitation may have been for 1,000 times; how­ ever, I am unclear of the notation after this entry. It could simply be a way to mark the importance of such an activity during the ceremony. Ibid.: 412. Mandal, 1953: 134-5. Datta, 2000: 73, 156-7. Mandal, 1953: 135-7; ibid.: 125, respectively. Since these documents are undated, I do not provide them as tables. Ibid.: 127. Ray, 1990: 29. Mandal, 1953: 450. See Table 10.1. Datta, 2000: 189-90, lists, as an example, a number of various shops operating in Rangpur (Murshidabad district) in 1775, including grocers, a tobacconist and a general shop. Mandal, 1953: 127. Ray, 1990: 24. Datta, 2000: 311. Ray, 1990: 3. While the letter does not specify the location of this agreement, the document lists a number of people as witnesses. Two are from Nadia in Santipur and Ula. I select Ula as the most likely place since this is also where Ramesvara’s temple was constructed, see Bhattacharyya (1982: 112-13) for the temple inscription. McDermott, 2001: 175. Mandal, 1953: 412. Wilson, 1855: 130 defines this as ‘a memorandum given to the Ryot


38. 39. 40. 41. 42.


44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51. 52. 53.

54. 55. 56.

Samuel Wright by the native revenue-officer, specifying the sum due by him for the current instalments’. Smyth, 1833: 293. See Ray, 1990: 4. Smyth, 1833: 294. Mandal, 1953: 144. For the phrasing at the end of this document, see Wright, 2017. Information about consumption demand in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Bengal must be gleaned through studies on trade and the production economy; for examples, see Datta, 2000; Marshal, 1976; Mukherjee, 2013; and, an exception, Bowen, 2010. For a full list of these fascinating items, see Mukherjee, 2013: 70-2; Ibid.: 69-81 discusses additional items found in the sources, such as lists of seized cargoes, inventories of deceased individuals and inventories of the family members of the Nazim. Marshall, 1976: 138. Mukherjee, 2013: 50. Colebrooke, 1804: 22. Datta, 2000: 50. Ibid.: 48-9 in which the intricacies of cultivation are also discussed. Ibid.: 62. Marshall, 1976: 49. Datta, 2000: 43-4. Datta, 2000: 205-6; Mukherjee, 2013: 41-5. For a detailed treatment of this transport system, see Mukherjee, 2013: 147-87. These disputations have been studied extensively, for example, in Marshal, 1976; and frequently entailed the Nawabs of Bengal petitioning the Board of the Company. Mir Jafar, writing on 14 Septem­ ber 1764 to the Board of the Company, complained at length about injustices and lost revenue as a result of trade activities by Company officers and their private representatives within Bengal. He notes, in particular, that ‘the poor of the country, who always used to deal in salt, betel-nut, and tobacco, etc. have now been deprived of their daily bread by the trade of the Europeans (Imperial Record Depart­ ment, 1911: 338). Ghosh, 2015: 1645. Mintz, 1985: 99, 108. For pan as a gift and symbol of protection, see Sen, 1998: 83; and for sugar and confectionery, the gift of merchant Umi Chand on 29 April 1768 (Imperial Record Department, 1914: 263). Many other

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57. 58. 59. 60. 61. 62. 63. 64. 65. 66. 67.

68. 69.

70. 71.

72. 73. 74.


items in the account sheets such as utensils, dishes and cloth could be given as gifts as well (Sen, 1998: 71-2 and 180-1 n. 44). These trays were also referred to in imaginative verses of Bengali folk rhymes (Shahed, 1993: 149). Habib, 1999: 51-2. Salam, 1902: 21; Marshall, 1976: 107. Mandal, 1953: 142, which includes the name of the house quoted above. Ibid.: 407-8 with the quote on 408. Ibid.: 353-4. Appadurai, 1988. Variations that refer to the ‘commodity situation’ of an item as argued for by Appadurai, 1988: 13ff. de Vries, 1993: 117, who is engaging with arguments made by Jones, 1973. Mandal, 1953: 127 (quoted above). de Vries, 1993: 85-7, 102-3; Ghosh, 2015a. Of course, it must be borne in mind that the picture of the household as read here appears completely patriarchal. This is a result of the source material, which means that the discussion here can only be offered as a small piece (of an already limited area of inquiry) of the household economy and its activities for this period in Bengal. Ray, 1990: 4. This wording is meant to suggest affinity to the concept of ‘circula­ tory regime’ as formulated in Markovits et al., 2003: 2-3; a major difference here, of course, is that I am not arguing that things and people are transformed in their movements. Levine, 2015: 113 in which she is engaging with the ideas of Bruno Latour. An emphasis on householder conceptions of religious practices helps to side-step comparisons of these practices in the documents with their more formal, textual expressions. Mintz, 1985: 214. Brown, 2001: 4. Ibid. See also Brown’s remarks in (2015: 11-12): ‘. . . the double-ness of the commodity (divided into use value and exchange value) con­ ceals a more rudimentary distinction between the object and itself, or the object and the thing, which in fact sustains the success of the commodity (in other words, the success of capitalism)’.


Samuel Wright

75. For the interest in and consumption of British manufactured goods, see Bowen, 2010. 76. For this debate, see Ghosh, 2015a; 2015b; and Roy, 2015.

REFERENCES Appadurai, Arjun 1988. ‘Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value’, in Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 3-63. Bhattacharyya, A.K. 1982. A Corpus of Dedicatory Inscriptions from the Temples of West Bengal, c. 1500 A.D. to 1800 A.D. Calcutta: Nabhana. Bowen, H. 2010. ‘The Consumption of British Manufactured Goods in India, 1765-1813: A Prologue’, in Douglas E. Haynes, Abigail McGowan, Tirthankar Roy and Haruka Yanagisawa, eds., Towards a History of Consumption in South Asia. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 26-50. Brown, Bill. 2001. ‘Thing Theory’, Critical Inquiry, 28: 1, pp. 1-22. . 2015. Other Things. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Colebrooke, Henry T. 1804. Remarks on the Husbandry and Internal Commerce of Bengal. Calcutta; London. Datta, Rajat. 2000. Society, Economy, and the Market: Commercialization in Rural Bengal, c. 1760-1800. New Delhi: Manohar. Ghosh, Shami. 2015a. ‘How Should We Approach the Economy of “Early Modern India”?’, Modern Asian Studies, 49: 5, pp. 1606-56. . 2015b. ‘A Rejoinder to Tirthankar Roy’, Modern Asian Studies, 49: 5, pp. 1667-73. Habib, Irfan. 1999. The Agrarian System of Mughal India, 1556-1707. Second Revised Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hatekar, Neeraj. 2014. ‘Review of Prasannan Parthasarathi, Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not’, Economic History Review, 67: 1, pp. 312-14. Haynes, Douglas E., Abigail McGowan, Tirthankar Roy and Haruka Yanagisawa, eds. 2010. Towards a History of Consumption in South Asia. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Imperial Record Department. 1911. Calendar of Persian Correspondence: Being Letters, Referring Mainly to Affairs in Bengal, which Passed Between Some of the Company’s Servants and Indian Rulers and

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Notables, vol. I: 1759-1767. Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing. . 1914. Calendar of Persian Correspondence: Being Letters, Referring Mainly to Affairs in Bengal, which Passed Between Some of the Company’s Servants and Indian Rulers and Notables, vol. II: 1767­ 1769. Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing. Jones, Eric L. 1973. ‘The Fashion Manipulators: Consumer Tastes and British Industries, 1660-1899’, in Louis P. Cain and Paul J. Uselding, eds., Business Enterprise and Economic Change: Essays in Honor of Harold F. Williamson. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, pp. 198-226. Kramrisch, Stella. 1983. ‘Unknown India: Ritual Art in Tribe and Village’, in Barbara Stoler Miller, ed., Exploring India’s Sacred Art: Selected Writings of Stella Kramrisch. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 85-120. Levine, Caroline. 2015. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Mandal, Pancanan. 1953. Cithipatre Samajcitra. Santiniketan: VisvaBharati University. Markovits, Claude, Jacques Pouchepadass and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. 2003. Society and Circulation: Mobile People and Itinerant Cultures in South Asia, 1750-1950. Delhi: Permanent Black. Marshall, P.J. 1976. East Indian Fortunes: The British in Bengal in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Marx, Karl. 1906. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Edited by Frederick Engels. New York: The Modern Library. McDermott, Rachel Fell. 2001. Mother of My Heart, Daughter of My Dreams: Kali and Uma in the Devotional Poetry of Bengal. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Mintz, Sidney. 1985. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking. Mukherjee, Tilottama. 2013. Political Culture and Economy in Eighteenthcentury Bengal: Networks of Exchange, Consumption and Communication. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan. Nambudiripad, K.N.S. 1955. A Short History of Indian Currency. Poona: Continental. Ray, Mohit. 1990. Nadiyar Samajcitra. Kolkata: Pustak Bipani. Roy, Tirthankar. 2015. ‘Economic History of Early Modern India: A Response’, Modern Asian Studies, 49: 5, pp. 1657-66. Salam, Maulavi Abdus, trans. 1902. The Riyazu-s-Salatin: A History of


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Bengal by Ghulam Husain Salim. Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press. Sen, Sudipta. 1998. Empire of Free Trade: The East India Company and the Making of the Colonial Marketplace. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Shahed, Syed Mohammad. 1993. ‘Bengali Folk Rhymes: An Introduction’. Asian Folklore Studies, 52: 1, pp. 143-60. Smyth, David. 1823. Original Bengalese Zumeendaree Accounts, Accom­ panied by a Translation, Together with a Few Explanatory Remarks. Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press. Thompson, Edward J. and Arthur M. Spencer. 1923. Bengali Religious Lyrics, Sakta. Calcutta: Association Press/London: Oxford Uni­ versity Press. de Vries, Jan. 1993. ‘Between Purchasing Power and the World of Goods: Understanding the Household Economy in Early Modern Europe’, in John Brewer and Roy Porter, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods. London, New York: Routledge, pp. 85-132. Wilson, Horace H. 1855. A Glossary of Judicial and Revenue Terms. London: W.M.H. Allen and Co. Wright, Samuel. 2017. ‘The Practice and Theory of Property in Seventeenth-Century Bengal’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 54: 2, pp. 147-82.


Two British Colonies in a

Comparative Perspective

Georgia, Bengal, and the Colonial Production of

Raw Silk, 1730-1830

Roberto Davini

In eighteenth-century Europe, the commercialization of raw silks operated within a long-established, highly-competitive, and fast expanding market, linking scores of specialized production areas spread across the entire Eurasian continent. The competition was very active at all levels of the market. For the principal producing areas, the only way to maintain their market share was constant innovation, not only of techniques but also of labour skills and the working organization.1 In the eighteenth-century European market, the small kingdom of Savoy, in north-western Italy, was renowned for the perfection of its silk products. The products of Piedmont, the region of the kingdom where silk production took place, dominated all the European silk-textile centres from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century. The kingdom of Savoy had become a model for European silk experts by focusing on two specific phases of the silk-production cycle: silk reeling (winding the cocoons’ filaments off to form a silk thread called raw silk) and silk throwing (twisting one or more raw silk threads into a stronger thread to be employed in textile making).2 The Piedmontese reeling technology was very demanding with regard to the standardization of procedures. High-quality inputs


Roberto Davini

were essential for producing uniform threads. Therefore, before starting the reeling operations, the cocoons had to be selected and double and ‘bad cocoons’ removed; cocoons with overly thin fila­ ments also had to be discarded because they could not withstand the tension of the reeling and broke more often than the ‘good’ ones. As for the raw silk reeling, two women with two different and complementary functions had to work the reeling machine: the spinner who sat behind the basin in which the cocoons were boiled to soften the fibre, and the reeler who had to turn the reel and stop the operation whenever a break in the thread occurred. Contrary to the old methods by which four, six or even more threads could be worked at the same time, the reelers in Piedmont worked only two threads at the same time, each formed by two separate cocoon assemblies composed of the same number of cocoons, and made them cross each other so as to squeeze water from the threads, remove impurities, and render them more cohesive and rounded.3 Also notable was the working organization. The Piedmontese method would yield good results only if the work were organized under the same roof in the filature so that the spinners and reelers could be continuously supervised.4 Contemporaries attributed to Piedmontese technologies a uni­ versal capacity to upgrade local production.5 In fact, attempts to refine local technologies were pursued continuously, and trans­ fers of Piedmontese technologies had become a standard feature between the 1720s and the 1830s.6 In this article, I will deal with the transfer of the Piedmontese reeling technology to Georgia and Bengal. The Trustees of Georgia planned the transfer of the Piedmontese raw silk reeling technologies to Georgia in the 1730s; in 1769, the English East India Company decided to introduce it to Bengal. These two transfers of technology are part of the same historical process, as they are deeply interlinked with the British imperial and colonial projects of the eighteenth century besides representing attempts to solve the crucial problem that Great Brit­ ain had in procuring raw silks for her silk industry. They are two acts of the same drama. As I will show, they also represent two dissimilar instances due to the very different social and economic features of the two colonial contexts.

Two British Colonies in a Comparative Perspective


Raw Silk and the British Empire:

The Establishment of the Georgia Colony

During the time in which Robert Walpole was prime minister (1721-42), the British government and the Crown restructured the existing mercantile policies regarding the colonies, shifting from the earlier emphasis on the state’s fiscal profits from inter­ national trade (as reflected in the various Navigation Acts of the seventeenth century) to a new emphasis on the British colonies as suppliers of raw materials for the home industries.7 Under this mercantilist concept of a self-sufficient empire, the core function of a colony was to produce commodities that would obviate the need for the mother country to buy in foreign markets. In the early eighteenth-century European silk market, Great Britain was the only producer of silk textiles that did not produce raw silks. The cli­ mate was an insurmountable barrier to the cultivation of mulberry trees, and the development of raw silk production and its textile industry had to rely on costly imports, mainly from Piedmont, for the finest qualities of silk thread. Therefore, the colonies were seen as strategic for the development of the silk industry and raw silk production became a crucial element in the imperial projects of eighteenth-century Great Britain. In fact, the fortunes of the silk home industry and the colonies had been inextricably coupled since the John and Thomas Lombe brothers built their Piedmontese silk-throwing mill in Derby in the early 1720s. Aghast at the Derby experiment, in 1722, the Sauba­ dian, of which Piedmont was part, kingdom prohibited all exports of raw silk from the country as a means of reinforcing its monopo­ listic position in silk throwing.8 In the early 1730s, the Trustees of Georgia – a group of influential philanthropists in London – received a charter from the King George the second (George II) to constitute a colony in North America. The Trustees, aware that the Georgia experiment would have to depend on the parliament and the British public for funding and support, showed in their pro­ motional literature that they were keen to advance the production of raw silk in the colony to supply the British silk industry. The Georgia experiment became part of a new trend in British mer­


Roberto Davini

cantile policy, as it promised to provide rewarding work for both the Georgia settlers and the British thrown silk industry. Benjamin Martyn, the Secretary of the Trustees, in a pamphlet entitled Rea­ sons for Establishing the Colony of Georgia, argued optimistically that the development of sericulture and raw silk reeling in Georgia ‘will provide employment for at least twenty thousand people in Georgia (…) ; and at least twenty thousand more (…) here (…) in working the raw silk.’9 The Trustees recruited the brothers Paolo and Nicola Amatis, members of one of the most important families of silk merchants in Turin, to introduce the Piedmontese method of reeling in the colony and instruct the settlers there.10 The Amatis arrived in Georgia in 1733, together with Giacomo Camosso, an expert silk spinner from Piedmont, and his family. They soon started a mul­ berry plantation in the Trustees’ Garden in Savannah and built a small filature to teach the colonists the new method.11 On their part, the Trustees made the cultivation of mulberry trees com­ pulsory by colonial legislature and landowners were also required to have at least one female member of their family instructed in the art of reeling silk.12 It is worth noting that the first raw silks produced in Georgia by the Amatis brothers and their assistants passed all the tests in London. They were processed in Lombe’s mill in Derby and met the approval of a host of British experts. However, the quantities of raw silk shipped to England from the 1730s to the 1770s were always insignificant. Although the Trustees offered a great deal of financial, techno­ logical and educational support by granting high salaries, bounties and bonuses, procuring equipment and specialist literature, and institutionalizing apprenticeships, they recognized that these measures would be futile if the labour force was not inclined to work. Martyn argued that ‘in such a country as Georgia, a suf­ ficient quantity of silk might soon be raised to supply all Europe if there were hands enough properly instructed to carry on the work’ (my italics).13 He was underlining the key problem that the Trustees faced in carrying out the plan: namely, the recruiting and training of a large class of mulberry cultivators, silkworm rearers, spinners and reelers able to capitalize fully on the natural bounty

Two British Colonies in a Comparative Perspective


of Georgia. However, in Georgia, as in other British colonies in North America, settlers lived in an economy in which there was a great abundance of fertile, unoccupied land and a scarcity of human resources. This particular distribution of production fac­ tors complicated the relationship between employers and workers, making the latter rebellious and independent-minded.14 In 1741, Martyn noted that many settlers had arrived in Georgia with the idea that they would find there ‘the conveniences and pleasures of life without any labour or toil’. He further remarked that in the colony it was hard ‘to form [the settlers] into society and reduce them to a proper obedience to the laws. They always repine at the preferment of any of their body to be magistrates over them, and they think every regulation a grievance. (…) They live but to the present day, and are unwilling to labour for anything but an imme­ diate subsistence.’15 Furthermore, when burdened by too many rules and checks, the settlers could just choose to move elsewhere and find better opportunities in other territories, unoccupied land being extremely abundant. In 1752, an accurate census had located just 2,400 of the 5,000 men, women and children who had arrived in Georgia in the previous two decades. Three of every five settlers had moved away or died and had not been replaced by newcom­ ers.16 A further consequence of the scarcity of skilled labour was its high cost. Wages were usually very high in the colony. However, if high wages were granted to silk workers, the resulting higher price of the raw silk would make it less competitive in the English mar­ ket. In fact, in 1761, Lieutenant Governor William Bull precisely ascribed the failure of silk to develop into a profitable staple of the colony to the high cost of labour.17 The Georgia experiment ended in a complete failure. The death­ blow to the project of diffusing raw silk reeling in Georgia was inflicted by the introduction of the plantation economy and slavery into the colony in the 1750s.18 Although the colonial authorities did not lose hope for the development of raw silk production in their province and investments in the silk project continued in the 1750s, we can say that by the early 1760s landowners were able to secure much handsomer profits from cultivating staple crops mainly rice and indigo, on their lands by exploiting unskilled slave


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labour.19 Although raw silk that was as fine as the Piedmontese variety could, in fact, be produced in the colony, to adequately supply the home thrown silk industry with raw silk from the North American colony had proven impossible.

The Original Features of Bengali Raw Silk Production and Commercialization A new opportunity to solve the problem of finding a colonial supplier to the home country industry materialized in the late 1760s when the English East India Company became the domi­ nant political power in eastern India, a very different social and economic context from Georgia. Since the end of the sixteenth century, the Dutch and the English Companies had tried to import raw silk from Persia using the ports of the Safavid empire in the Indian Ocean.20 However, the political turmoil that characterized that area in the second half of the seventeenth century made the Companies’ plans unfeasible. In the meantime, commercial agents of the English and Dutch Companies had discovered the produc­ tive potential of Bengal.21 Robert Hughes and John Parker, the two English Company emissaries sent to eastern India to investigate the market situation in the lower tract of the Ganges River in 1620, reported that at Kasimbazar, the principal market for raw silk, raw silk could be bought ‘at least 20 per cent cheaper than any other place in India and is of the choicest stuff, wound off into what condition you shall require it, as it comes from the worm; where are also innumerable silk winders, expert workmen, and labour cheaper by a third than elsewhere.’22 Over the years, Indian textiles made with Bengali raw silks would become so famous as to induce the development of importsubstitution industries in those regions where the demand for them was high; for instance, a considerable quantity of sootees – a kind of mixed silk and cotton cloth previously imported from Surat – was manufactured in the textile centres of the Ottoman empire at the end of the eighteenth century; while in Surat, the sootees were made with Bengali raw silks, the Ottomans used the Italian ones.23

Two British Colonies in a Comparative Perspective


As for the production and marketing of Bengali raw silk, in a number of specialized villages scattered throughout the north­ western and north-eastern parts of the region, peasants cultivated mulberry trees on their lands, reared silkworms and reeled raw silk (putney). In Kasimbazar, the dadni merchants – a local community specialized in the commercial brokering between the producers and the exporters of raw silk and silk textiles – received cash advances (dadan)24 from Asian and European exporter merchants and distributed them to the village producers. Then, at harvest time, they collected raw silk from the peasants and brought it to the manufacturing centres (arangs) where the exporter merchants could have it rewound and sorted by local artisans before sending it to their home markets.25 Contrary to what happened in the Saubadian kingdom, in Bengal, during the Mughal and the nizamat period, the state was not directly interested in raw silk production.26 Also, the merchants and the bankers did not intervene in the organization of the peas­ ant labour, limiting their role to the marketing and export of raw silks.27 Finally, the significant property owners – the zamindars and taluqdars – were not directly involved in sericulture, preferring to collect taxes from the peasants on mulberry lands on behalf of the government, and duties on the internal circulation of silkworms, mulberry leaves, raw silk and silk textiles.28 Some zamindaris specialized in the production of raw silk, such as Lashkerpur on the eastern bank of the Ganges opposite Kasimbazar, or Muham­ madshahi to the south of Kasimbazar. The zamindars undoubtedly benefited from the production of raw silk.29 However, there is no evidence of their direct involvement in the raw silk production process. As far as raw silk was concerned, Bengali peasants were independent producers. Thus, within the institutional context of eighteenth-century Bengal, peasants made their economic choices without interfer­ ence from superior or external powers. In fact, they were the only economic agents in rural society to have an exact knowledge of the vagaries of seasonal rains and river floods, and of other ecological factors of production, such as the local system of collecting waters on the ground and the ratio between low and high lands, which


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had a crucial bearing on the productivity of cultivation. In other words, they were the only ones who could make economic predic­ tions and production strategies with an updated local knowledge of all the natural factors involved in the agrarian production, as is evident from agricultural manuals and collections of old rural sayings.30 The cultivation of mulberry trees, rearing of silkworms and reeling of raw silk required, as did other cash crops, a substantial investment of peasant resources. In Bengal, sericulture was an intensive activity requiring high amounts of capital and labour. The peasants harvested cocoons four or five times in a year. The mulberry trees were cultivated on the best lands and their culti­ vation was intensive, with all inhabitants of the villages involved. After having received advances from the agent of the exporter merchants, the peasants started the cultivation of the mulberry trees whose leaves the women and younger members of the village fed the silkworms. The ideal locations for mulberry tree cultivation were high, fertile lands close to peasant settlements and water reservoirs, to facilitate both the watering of plants and the transport of leaves from the plantation to the huts where the cocoons were reared. Thus, in making the decision to enter the silk sector, the peas­ ants had to take into consideration the fact that they were going to use a part of their best land – land that could be cultivated with alternative crops, such as rice or other commercial crops – and they needed an up-to-date knowledge of the benefits of produc­ ing silk compared to other possible choices. Benoy Chaudhuri has recently argued that, in general, it is possible to interpret the Bengali peasants’ decision to enter into or exit from the commercial sector as attempts to allocate their resources in the best possible way; in other words, as their attempts to improve their economic conditions.31 During the early colonial period, the Bengali peas­ ants repeatedly showed this capacity of bettering their economic conditions, entering into the silk sector when the price of other crops was low and abandoning its production as soon as other, alternative crops offered them more favourable opportunities. For instance, in the beginning of the 1780s, those peasants who in the

Two British Colonies in a Comparative Perspective


previous decade entered the silk sector because of the new English Company’s interest in their cocoons and the still high demand for putney, showed a capacity to allocate their resources in the best possible way and took, autonomously, the decision to exit from the silk sector. In 1780, due to the war with France and Ameri­ can colonies, a situation that also had repercussions in India, the English Company practically stopped investing in silk. Moreover, in the same period, in the northern regions of India, there was a scarcity of the production of rice and this led to a rise in the price of Bengal rice. In this situation, most of the mulberry cultivators reconverted their lands and began to cultivate rice.32 Finally, we must also remember that in early modern Bengal, the peasant village society was a stratified pyramid. At the bottom, there were peasants with not enough cattle-stock and, conse­ quently, very small plots of marginal lands. Above this section, there were those peasants – described in the English East India Company’s documents as ‘influential’ or ‘substantial’ – who owned the most fertile lands close to the villages and enough drawn-cattle to keep them cultivated. They were often the founders of the vil­ lages and belonged to the same caste; the mandal – the head of the village who usually negotiated the land rents with the zamindars’ intermediaries and the price of the crops with the merchants’ intermediaries – was often one of them.33 Sericulture and silk reel­ ing could take off only if supported by these peasant elites who could control the village labour force and the drawn-cattle reserve.

Bengali Traditional Raw Silk Reeling It is worth noting that evidence from the 1760s shows that the next stage of the operation, the reeling, was also under the control of the peasants, who, at this point, had two options. They could either have their cocoons reeled within the family networks by the women of the village, or have them worked into putney by the cat­ tani, the reelers who visited the village markets (hat) during the harvest season. Only after the cocoons were reeled into putney did the peasants deliver them to the merchants’ agents and only when the merchants had the putney rewound and sorted by the winders


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(nacauds) in the manufacturing centres (arang) could they know the exact value of what they had bought.34 In other words, the peasants had complete control over all the stages of production until the putney was delivered to the merchants. As for the reeling technologies, the Bengalis used simple tools to reel the cocoons. After having immersed a handful of cocoons in an earthenware basin full of hot water, the spinner gently stirred them to remove their gummy coating, drew out the ends of the cocoon filament, formed a thread, stuck it to a bamboo reel (nut­ tah) and wound off the raw silk (putney). Unlike in Piedmont, the Bengali spinners did not ensure that the number of cocoons that made up the thread was always the same for the entire reeling pro­ cess. Therefore, it was common to find threads of different degrees of fineness in the same skein, and export merchants had to rewind it on larger reels and separate its threads by their different quality.35 Under their long-standing, traditional organization, the peas­ ants had complete autonomy over the quantity and quality of silk that they wanted to achieve. They decided whether to obtain a fast-reeled coarse silk or a finer quality, achieved by slower and more accurate reeling. These decisions were influenced by fac­ tors that they were aware of: first, the quantity and quality of the cocoons, which depended mostly on meteorological factors that influenced both the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of cocoons; second, the market trends. They knew the demand of the different communities of raw silk exporters, one that varied in relation to the place where the silk was subsequently woven. In fact, although their reeling tools were simple, the peasants could produce several varieties of putney. Each silk textile centre had its weaving techniques and the Bengali raw silk producers had to take these requirements into account.36 For instance, in the district of Boalia, one of the leading silk-producing areas of eastern Bengal, the peasants produced a large quantity of coarse raw silk in the 1780s known as lahorei and multaney, to supply the silk cloth industries of Lahore and Multan.37 Among the many sorts of raw silk employed in the silk textile industry of Benares in the late nineteenth century, there was a variety called tanduri, imported from Malda. The Benares weavers produced brocade silk cloth,

Two British Colonies in a Comparative Perspective


kamkhwab, zarbaft and the most precious qualities of patterned pitambar, with the finest tanduri raw silks; this thread had very strong filaments that could withstand the tension they were sub­ jected to during the weaving of brocades.38

The English East India Company’s Experiment This production and marketing system was successful and produc­ tive, supplying the Asian and European markets with increasing quantities of raw silk until the mid-eighteenth century when the Court of Directors of the English East India Company, at the time the leading European exporter of Bengali raw silk, realized that the finishing necessary to make Bengali raw silk marketable in Eng­ land made this commodity too expensive and its use too limited for the English silk industry.39 There were two defects that made Bengali raw silk unsuitable for the English market: the presence of different sorts of threads in the same skein and the fact that the Bengali artisans did not cross the filaments of the cocoons when they reeled silk; thus, the thread did not possess the roundness and lightness essential to produce good thrown-silk (organzine).40 Therefore, when the Company gained political control of the province, the Court of Directors decided to drastically alter the traditional Bengali reeling technology to increase the sales of raw silk imported from Bengal. They thought that the introduction of the Piedmontese reeling machine, which performed the crossing of the silk filaments, and forcing artisans to work in the Company’s filatures, which permitted better control over their work, would solve all the problems that the Bengali raw silk had run into in the English market. In 1769, the Company contacted three managers – an Italian, a Frenchman and an Englishman – all well acquainted with the use of the Piedmontese reeling machine and the man­ agement of the filatures – and a group of experienced French and Italian reelers, who were to introduce and teach the new method of reeling to the native artisans.41 The outcome of the Company’s Bengali experiment can be considered satisfactory: vast quantities of low-quality raw silk were produced there from the 1770s to the 1830s. Mediterranean


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producers of lower quality raw silk anxiously watched the British experiment in Bengal. The first wave of panic was experienced in the 1780s in areas as diverse as Lombardy, the lower Rhone val­ ley, Calabria and Valencia when it became clear that the improved Bengali raw silks were driving the Mediterranean low-quality silks out of the London market.42 A similar wave of panic occurred in the late 1820s. The productive capacity of the English East India Company rose sharply between the early 1770s and early 1830s. In 1773, the Company had only four filatures (Kasimbazar, Boalia, Rungpore and Kumarkhali) with a productive capacity of 520 basins. In 1832, a year before the Charter of the Company reverted to the Crown, the Company owned a large number of filatures (the total number is not available but it was more than ninety), with a total production capacity of 12,039 basins; in addition, there were the 3,684 basins from the private filatures that the Company rented for a total production capacity of 15,723 basins in the early 1830s.43 The Company’s upgrading process, however, was only partially successful, as the quality of its silk products never matched the high standards of the Piedmontese raw silk. The reasons behind this partial failure are many, all of them related to the pre-existing conditions of production and marketing of raw silk with which the Company’s upgrading plans had to come to terms in attempting to implement the Piedmontese technologies.

The Role of the Pre-existing Conditions The introduction and spread of the Piedmontese reeling method involved a complete change in the pre-existing reeling technology and labour conditions of the Bengali peasantry. By the new and unfamiliar filature system introduced by the Company, peasants were supposed to deliver their best cocoons to the Company’s filatures. It has been argued that the Company was successful in controlling most of Bengali sericulture through a commercializa­ tion process imposed upon a subsistence peasant economy by making it dependent on usury capital. According to this interpre­ tation, from the 1790s onwards, the peasants were forced to sell

Two British Colonies in a Comparative Perspective


their cocoons to the Company’s agents at a very low price, a price that the peasants were compelled to accept because they had to pay increasingly higher land rents. The low price that the Com­ pany offered served its interests both in producing raw silk at the lowest cost and in keeping the peasants dependent on its agents, using a debt-bond created by the cash advances. Finally, a logical conclusion of this interpretation would be that the peasants had no alternative market relation except the one with the monopo­ listic and monopsonistic Company.44 However, any attempt by the Company’s servants to directly control the peasants’ labour was a failure. For the period covered by the present article, the Company was always faced with the problem of procuring cocoons for their filatures. In 1771, Boughton Rous, the Revenue Collector of Rajshahi, explained the reluctance of the peasants to sell their cocoons to the Company’s filatures by the fact that they received a higher price in selling their product as putney to the agents of the Indian merchants.45 According to him, the reluctance of the peasants depended on the fact that they could more efficiently employ the labour resources of their families by producing putney instead of cocoons.46 Moreover, the fact that putney was always in demand gave to the peasants the opportunity to speculate with the Company on the price of their cocoons, according to a kind of autonomous calcula­ tion of costs and benefits. The Company officials and agents soon experienced the speculative acumen of the peasants in negotiating the price of their cocoons. In the first experimental period, in the early 1770s, when the Company was trying for the first time to overcome the reluctance of the peasants to sell their cocoons, the Controlling Committee of Commerce suggested offering them the same price that they would have received if they had sold their production as putney. In July 1771, the Committee argued that ‘the chassars who rear the worms will always be ready to supply them at the market price of putney as their labour to bring them into that state is entirely saved and may be employed in rearing the worms and encouraging the growth of the Mulberry Plantations’.47 However, in a context with so many competitors interested in


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traditional silks, the decisions of the Committee gave exactly the opposite result. In fact, when the Company made a deal with the peasants at the beginning of the harvest season (bund) and offered advances regulated by a price for the cocoons that was equal to the one that putney fetched them, it did not yet know the real trend of the season. In actuality, during the last part of this harvest season, when more agents of the Indian merchants were ready to buy their putney and were offering higher prices for it, the peasants could start to speculate and ask the Company’s agents for a higher price for their cocoons. Thomas Pattle, the Resident of the Factory of Bauleah, wrote to the Committee of Circuit in November 1772 saying that one of the reasons for the rise in the prices of cocoons was precisely the decision taken by the Controlling Committee of Commerce the year before, arguing that it was sufficient to have someone in the village who was selling putney instead of cocoons to start the speculative trend.48 Undoubtedly, the peasants were playing on two tables, the old Indian market for traditional silks and the new one created by the Company’s demand. The advan­ tage of the peasants in dealing with the Company’s agents is also evident in a description sketched by the Commercial Resident of Malda in 1820. According to him, in every village, there were a certain number of peasants who did not accept advances from the Company’s agents because ‘Whenever there is still at all demand for silk in the Bazaar, the profits of these people are enormous.’49 In general, the Company was only able to secure the purchase of the majority of cocoons at each harvest. However, its servants were neither able to control the quality nor the price of what they bought. Where the demand for traditional raw silks was very high, the Company met with serious problems in procuring cocoons for its filatures. In the area around Kasimbazar, the Resident always had to take the price of putney into consideration before bargain­ ing for the price of cocoons through his intermediaries. In March 1817, the Resident of Kasimbazar explained to the Board of Trade the reasons why he could not exercise any effective control on the price of the cocoons.50 He said that he could not impose his price on his intermediaries because the price of cocoons in the arangs – the manufacturing centres in the countryside where the Resident had

Two British Colonies in a Comparative Perspective


his agents and his warehouses to store the cocoons – ‘invariably fluctuate according . . . to the degree of competition encountered from the contending interests of rival traders. . . .’51 He tried to con­ vince the Board that unless the factory intermediaries were paid a higher price, they would refuse to work.52 At the same time, his intermediaries, in a petition sent to the Resident, underlined the difficulties of working in an area where the traditional demand was so high: ‘Cossimbazar is a Putney Aurung where merchants and weavers equally purchase their thannah (warp) thread. We like others are obliged to consult the market and buy cocoons accord­ ingly.’53 To reach an agreement with the intermediaries and to be able to make an investment in raw silk for the March harvest, the Resident had to acquire more information about the situation of the local market and to compare the price of putney there with the cocoon price that the intermediaries had proposed to him. Thus, he wrote to the Board: ‘(…) the Resident and his Gomastah by frequent trials and enquiries (scilicet: on the Price of Putney and Tannah Thread) in the Aurung markets from time to time during the bund equally ascertain the sale value of the cocoons, and thus draw an estimated average for the entire Bund.’54 Moreover, this phenomenon was not limited to the neighbour­ hood of the Kasimbazar factory; in fact, it was typical of most of the factories that the Company had in the sericulture districts of western Bengal.55 For instance, in 1789, George Udny, the Resident of the Malda factory, wrote that ‘from the very great trade carried on in silk cloths (…) there is always a vast difficulty in procuring cocoons: the bussonas, or rearers of silkworms, finding it generally more advantageous to wind country silk themselves and sell it to the weavers, than sell cocoons to me’.56

The Prudent Political Economy of the English East India Company, 1770s-1820s In trying to understand the economic behaviour of the peasants in their dealings with the English Company as well as the obsta­ cles that its servants met in attempting to convince them to sell cocoons, it is crucial to underline the fact that in the early colonial


Roberto Davini

period in the Bengali sericulture districts, there was a relative scar­ city of labour in relation to the land available. This meant that the Company had less leverage in controlling the peasants. In Bengal, the incursions of the Marathas in the 1740s, the famine of 1768-9, and the intensive floods and famines of 1787-8 hit the silk production areas particularly hard. In 1769, the year that the Company decided to introduce the new method of reel­ ing cocoons, the famine had cut the agrarian population of Bengal by one-third.57 However, we must note that the recovery of the Bengali rural economy and society was impressive and by the 1820s, the demographic situation was completely reversed. We might ask what role the Company played in this process.58 In the pre-colonial period, while the use of force to settle the peasants in particular places might be considered by some rulers as an extrema ratio, a last resort to be adopted only in the face of explicit and evident peasant rebellions, the role of the state in Bengal in controlling the movement of peasants and enforcing on them any regulation had always been cautious, and informed by a policy of prudence. This was especially true in times of emergency, as was the case after scarcity, famine or depopulation brought about by wars.59 The English East India Company inherited this prudent approach. According to recent revisions, the recovery from the famines of the 1770s and 1780s was supported by pru­ dent policies of protection and inducement, such as low rents and cash advances (taqavi) adopted by the government. Moreover, even if the regulations introduced by the Permanent Settlement of 1793 conferred upon landlords great powers of eviction, they could not use them and had to adopt similarly prudent policies to limit the mobility of the cultivators or to attract new ones into specific areas.60 Limiting our observations to the silk areas, in the early 1770s, the Company’s servants were well aware of the fact that the de­ populated conditions of the Bengal countryside, caused by the famine, were a serious obstacle to their plan to transform Bengali sericulture. Some of the servants thought that it would be possible to exercise direct control over the peasants, and that the govern­ ment could ask for land from the zamindars and taluqdars in the

Two British Colonies in a Comparative Perspective


neighbourhood of the factories, move the peasants there, and force them to cultivate mulberry and rear silkworms.61 At the end of a long debate that involved both the Commercial Department and the Revenue Department, it was decided to set aside all these drastic solutions and, instead, heed the cautious suggestion of the naib diwan, Muzzafar Khan, who, in a letter written at the end of 1771, argued that any coercive measure applied to the present conditions of the countryside was destined to fail and would have the flight of the peasants from the fields as the only sure outcome. Khan concluded his remarks suggesting that ‘. . . the Cultivators of the Mulberry Plants and Breeder of the Silk Worms should be only encouraged and protected so that knowing their own inter­ est and (the) welfare (of the Company) to consist in this branch they would apply themselves with the greatest industry towards its increase and become plentiful and cheap. . . .’62 This suggestion of Muzzafar Khan was accepted in toto. There­ fore, in August 1772, the Committee of Circuit declared that to expand the mulberry tree cultivation and to make the peasants understand that the Company was seriously interested in that particular sector of the peasant economy, the government would introduce a fair policy of incentives from then onwards. In the regulations framed by the Committee of Circuit, it is explicitly affirmed that force would never be exercised to coerce the cul­ tivators to cultivate mulberry trees and sell the cocoons to the factories’ agents. In addition, the government would offer particu­ larly favourable rents to those who decided to enter the sericulture sector. So recites the Regulation of 1772: The lands employed in the culture of the mulberry plant require much labour, time and expense to fit them for that purpose. The poor labourer, who lives from hand to mouth and is allowed no remission in his rents can seldom afford either . . . we are of the opinion that if the ryots were enabled or encouraged to lay out their lands for this culture, it would contribute very essentially to the increase and cheapness of silk. Resolved therefore that it is opinion of this committee that an adver­ tisement should be published inviting the ryots to cultivate the mulberry plant, and, as an encouragement, thereto to declare that all new or waste lands laid out & improved for this purpose shall be held rent free for two


Roberto Davini

years; be taxed at half the price of the ancient grounds of the same pergun­ nah or village for the 3rd year, and in all succeeding years to pay the full rates; but with this express condition that they are to keep in cultivation the lands which they actually hold at the time by their original pottahs, whether laid out in mulberry plants or any other species of culture, and pay their usual rents without claim of deduction.63

This regulation contributed to the increase of mulberry tree cultivation over the 1770s. In 1789, in a similar situation of the decline of the cultivation of mulberry trees and of sericulture, in general – due to the unfavourable interregional and international situation at the beginning of the 1780s, and the floods and famines of 1787-8 – the Company again needed to persuade the peasants to return to sericulture and proposed the same regulations as in 1772. Most of the Residents and Collectors who were asked to report on the conditions of sericulture in their districts were convinced that mulberry tree cultivation had reached its maximum possible extension in 1780 to the implementation of the 1772 regulations. They understood the politics of incentive much better than before and suggested that favourable rents were not enough because, as the Regulation of 1772 had shown, sericulture was a costly activity and required a substantial initial capital investment, and, therefore, it was necessary that the government adopt not only facilitation as far as the rents were concerned but also cash incentives (taqavi).64 Given the depopulated conditions of the sericulture areas, any kind of physical or economic coercion could not be effective. The peasants were protected by the regulations and by the interest of the Company in increasing the production of raw silk. It is interesting to note further that the peasants were perfectly aware of the opportunities presented by the scarcity of rural labour, referring to it in negotiating their permanence on the lands with any external political power. Very often, the petitions that the peasants sent to the Board of Trade or the Board of Revenue warned that were the causes of their complaints not addressed, they would be compelled ‘to leave their place of abode’. This was a subtle threat that informed their dealings with external political powers, putting a structural limit to any attempt to use coercive methods. For instance, this extrema ratio, this last resource to be

Two British Colonies in a Comparative Perspective


chosen in particularly hard times, was taken into consideration by the mulberry tree cultivators and cocoon rearers of Lashkerpur in the 1790s. At the beginning of this period, the conditions of cocoon production were becoming unbearable for them. They accused the intermediaries of the factory of Bauleah of using any possible means to control them through debts, including having the mahajans, the village moneylenders, inserted in the official list of intermediaries working for the factory. This way, the mahajans, under the protection of the factory of Bauleah, could ask for higher interests on the advances for both the rice and cocoon harvests. The mahajans could also exact a higher agio (batta) on the kinds of rupees that the peasants received as advances. And, in the end, the Company’s intermediaries and the village mahajans could use physical force and confine the peasants to their houses if they did not give them their products.65 In 1791, the peasants petitioned the Collector of Murshidabad for protection and at the end of their petition, they wrote: ‘We have laid our grievances before you; if you will not hear our complaints, permit us to depart – We will go to another place; if we gain redress we will return, if not, we will never return to the country.’66 In other words, the theoretical threat of the Lashkerpur peasants to move elsewhere shows that in desperate conditions, they could at least plan a bit of strategy and, whenever possible, were able to turn the weakness of the colonial powers to their advantage.

Conclusion In eighteenth-century Bengal, unlike in Georgia, nature’s bounty went hand in hand with an impressive store of labour traditions, market institutions and cultural habits. This is a crucial point. In both cases, the broader machinations of the British politicians and economists who directed trade policy depended heavily on the willingness of a sufficient number of peasants and artisans to apply themselves to sericulture and raw silk reeling. However, in Georgia, the problem was convincing people who had no previous training to take up the cultivation of mulberry trees, silkworm rearing and raw silk reeling, while striving to establish their families and homes


Roberto Davini

in the New World, a social context without pre-existing artisanal traditions and market institutions. On the contrary, in Bengal, the pre-existing customs, practices and procedures of the primary producers, as well as the pre-existing marketing infrastructures and demand for traditional silks, represented a very complicated context on which to graft a new and alien technology. The introduction of the Piedmontese reeling technologies had a catalytic effect on the structure of the village society in Bengal, accelerating its pre-existing internal dynamics. The growth of the Company’s demand for raw silk brought about a tightening of the stratification of the village social structure in the late eighteenth century. Over the years, the ‘wealthier’ peasants could monopo­ lize the labour force of the weaker sections of the village: women, children and the landless. It is probable that until the 1770s and 1780s, the more prosperous peasants of the sericulture areas of Bengal were only able to recruit the labour force of their families to produce raw silk. From the scanty sources available, we under­ stand that a peasant family could cultivate only a limited extension of land and that the peasants rarely had to employ other workers to cultivate mulberry trees, rear silkworms or reel raw silk in the late eighteenth century.67 However, the increase in the English East India Company’s demand for cocoons influenced this origi­ nal organization of silk production, which progressively evolved from the 1790s to the 1830s. The more influential peasants who dealt directly with the East India Company’s agents were often the heads of their villages (mandals).68 As time went on, these mandals became the monopolistic controllers of the villages’ silk produc­ tion.69 A few crowned their ascent by becoming zamindars. Being more familiar with the rural market trends, they were in a position to decide the volume of cocoons that the village should sell to the Company and the quantity to be reeled into putney. Moreover, they could extend the mulberry tree plantations by employing poor peasants. They could also decide to rear more silkworms and reel more raw silk by using the women and children of the landless households of the villages. The Company acted more as a catalyst than a causal factor in all these social dynamics, whose features predated the colonial historical processes.

Two British Colonies in a Comparative Perspective


As for the Indian merchants and the marketing infrastructure, although the Company took control of the region, it had only a limited capacity to control the overland trade routes, and the peas­ ants and Asian merchants were well aware of this. The Company’s servants had learnt by experience the adverse effects of any attempt to monopolize the raw silk market in the 1760s when they tried to control raw silk and silk textile production by dealing with the peasants through their agents (gomastas) instead of the traditional local merchant intermediaries. The abandonment of the old traditional system of the procurement of goods through local merchant intermediaries and the carte blanche that the Company servants had given to their gomastas caused the disruption of the produc­ tion of raw silk and the flight of all the Asian merchants from the province. Desperate because of the loss of revenue and the scarcity of silver in circulation within the province, the two most signifi­ cant consequences of this monopolistic effort, the Company’s servants were forced to re-establish the old system of giving cash advances to the peasants using local intermediaries. With it came the need to leave the peasants free to accept or reject their offers and to trade with Asian merchants if they wished to do so.70 This policy informed those servants who subsequently dealt with the problem of the Indian merchants trading in Bengali raw silk and silk piece goods.71 Moreover, the merchants were well aware of the Company’s limited ability to control the overland routes and when its servants tried to tighten its grip, they could threaten to divert their trade to other districts, knowing the Company would lose substantial sums.72 Indian merchants, partly protected by the Company’s rule and obstructed by its interest in producing raw silk for the European market, continued to trade with the peas­ ants in traditional raw silk and to compete with the Company’s intermediaries from the 1770s to the 1830s. Their presence in the Bengal countryside represented an essential advantage for pro­ ducers in their dealings with the Company and an insurmountable obstacle in completing the integration of Bengali sericulture with the European market.73 Although the Company wanted to change and control the production and marketing of Bengali raw silk, the attempts that it


Roberto Davini

made in this direction aroused the reactions of the local popula­ tion and revealed its weakness. Literature has usually described the commercialization of the agrarian economies of the eastern regions of the Indian subcontinent and their integration into the modern capitalistic world economy of the nineteenth century as a process favoured by the colonial context, and driven by economic and political actors external to the rural world. Less attention has been paid to the historical conditions within the colonial context that determined the peasants’ reactions to metropolitan politics and capitalist economic interests. Contrary to the standard inter­ pretation, this study has underscored the autonomous role that the Bengali peasants had in commodity production for the colonial powers. In dealing with the difficulties that the Company’s servants met in their attempt to introduce and spread the new method of reeling cocoons, it has illustrated how the Bengali peasants took advantage of the presence of many competitors for their products and how the persistence of the traditional Asian demand for raw silk, as well as the interest of the primary producers in it, imposed serious limits on the Company’s plans.

NOTES 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16.

Zanier, 1994: 1-64. Zanier, 1993: 363-6. Zanier, 1994: 26-7. Chicco, 1996: chaps. 2 and 5. Zanier, 1994. Chicco, 1996: 73-99. McCusker, 1996: 358 Calladine, 1993; Chicco, 1996: 79. Martyn, 1840a: 210. Ibid.: 206; Chicco, 1996: 88-9. Holland, 1938. Bonner, 1964: 14 Martyn, 1840a: 210. Galenson, 1996: 137. Martyn, 1840b: 156. Range, 1947: 250.

Two British Colonies in a Comparative Perspective 17. 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23.

24. 25. 26. 27. 28.


30. 31. 32.

33. 34. 35.


Haywood, 1957: 456; McKinstry, 1930: 230; Chicco, 1996: 90. Marsh, 2007: 57-8. Ibid.: 88-9. Steensgaard, 1974; Steinmann, 1987; Ferrier, 1973. Prakash, 1978. Bhattacharya, 1969: 145. Kolkata West Bengal State Archives, Board of Trade (henceforth WBSA, BoT), Custom, Proceedings 21 January 1802. Letter from reporter general of external commerce to Board of Trade dated Bombay, 12 September 1801, enclosed in letter from the secretary to the Government in the public department dated Calcutta Council Chamber, 21 January 1802. Chaudhuri, 1978. Mukherjee, 2006. Davini, 2014. Mukherjee, 2006. Ray, 1979: 22; WBSA, Board of Revenue (henceforth BoR) (Sayer) Prcds. 1 April 1791, Letter form the Collector of Nuddea dated 8 March 1791; WBSA, BoR (Sayer) Letter from the Collector of Moorshedabad, dated 23 June 1791. Grant James, 1918: 197 and 383; WBSA, BoR (Sayer) Prcds, 22 August 1794, Letter from the Collector of Rajeshay (H. Cole­ brooke), dated 12 July 1794. Robb, 1992; Banerji and Majumdar, n.d.; Anon., n.d. Chaudhuri, 1998. WBSA, Board of Trade (henceforth BoT) Commercial (henceforth Comm.) Prcds, 22 July 1789, Letter from Jungypore (Mr. Lumsden Resident), dated 13 July 1789; WBSA, BoT (Comm) Prcds 29 May 1789, Letter from Coomercolly (Resident John Taylor), dated 26 Feb­ ruary 1789); WBSA, BoT (Comm) Prcds 29 May 1789, Letter from Bauleah (Resident Ch. Collinson), dated 12 February 1789; WBSA, Board of Customs Prcds, 7 October 1783, Letter form Patna dated 24 September 1783; WBSA, Board of Customs Prcds 20 October 1783, Letter from Governor General and Council, dated 14 October 1783. Marshall, 1987: 6-9; Ray, 1979, Ch. 3; Taniguchi, 1997; Gupta 1984; for a contrary view see Datta, 2000: ch. 2. Williamson, 1775: 15-18; Mukerji, 1903: 23. East India Company, 1836: 15-16; Geoghegan, 1880: 2-3; Davini 2009.


Roberto Davini

36. Yusuf, 1900: 37. 37. WBSA, BoT, Appendices to Commercial Proceedings, 17 December 1787. Prices current at Bauleah Aurung, 10 December 1787. 38. Yusuf, 1900: 39. 39. East India Company, 1836: i. 40. Poni, 1981: 385-423. 41. East India Company, 1836: x-xvii. 42. Moioli, 1981. 43. WBSA, Controlling committee of Commerce (henceforth CCC), Prcds, 20 November 1773, Letter from Cossimbazar, 2 November 1773; Reports and Documents, App. M, ‘Statement of the several silk factories in India, the property of the East India Company, as they stood in March 1832’, 215-18. 44. Mukhopadhyay, 1995: 211. 45. WBSA, CCC, Prcds 12 February 1772. Letter from the Supervisor of Rajshay to Council of Revenue at Moorshedabad, dated 5 November 1771. 46. Ibid. 47. WBSA, CCC, vol. 1, Prcds 11 July 1771. Letter to Cossimbazar. 48. WBSA, CCC, vol. 2, Prcds 18 November 1772. 49. WBSA, BoT Commercial (Comm), Proceedings 26 May 1820, Letter from Malda, 9 May 1820. 50. WBSA, BoT (Comm) Prcds 21 March 1817, Letter from Cossim­ bazar dated 11 March 1817. 51. Ibid. 52. Ibid. 53. Ibid. 54. Ibid. 55. Ibid. 56. WBSA, BoT (Comm) Prcds 24 February 1789, Letter from Maldah 18 February 1789. 57. Chaudhuri, 1976; for a contrary view see Datta, 2000: chap. 5. 58. Bose, 1993: 19-20. 59. Washbrook, 1988. 60. Bose,1993: 115-16; Datta, 2000. 61. WBSA. CCC, V.2, Prcds. 18 January 1772, Extract of a letter from the Honourable the Committee of Commerce to the Chief and Council of Cossimbazar, 21 December 1771 and sentiment of Chief and Council of Cossimbazar on it. 62. WBSA, CCC, V.2, Prcds 12 February 1772, Letter from the Naib

Two British Colonies in a Comparative Perspective

63. 64.


66. 67.

68. 69. 70. 71. 72. 73.


Dewan to the Council of Revenue at Murshidabad, Murshidabad, n.d., enclosed in Letter from the Council of Revenue at Murshidabad to the President and Council at Calcutta, Murshidabad, 11 Novem­ ber 1771. WBSA, Committee of Circuit at Cossimbazar (henceforth CCK), Prcds 25 August 1772, WBSA, CCK, Prcds 25 August 1772. WBSA, BoR Miscellaneous (henceforth Miscel), Procds 25 June 1789, Letter from Mr. Mercier, Burdwan, 6 February 1789; WBSA, BoR (Miscel), Procds 25 June 1789, Letter from Mr. H.H. Dowall, Rungpore, 26 March 1789; BoR (Miscel), Prcds 25 June 1789, Letter from the Acting Collector of Murshidabad, dated 29 March 1789; WBSA, BoR (Miscel) Prcds 25 June 1789, Letter from the Collector of Rajshay Mr. Speke, dated Calcutta 21 June 1789. WBSA, BoR (Miscel.) Prcds 14 January 1791, Complaints of the Ryotts belonging to the three shares of the Pergunnah Lushkerpore against the Merchants. Enclosed in Letter from the Collector of Moorshedabad, 11 January 1791. Ibid. WBSA, CCC, Proceedings 12 February 1772. Letter from the supervisor of Rajshay to Council of Revenue at Moorshedabad, 5 November 1771; WBSA, BoT Commercial, Proceedings 13 March 1789. Letter from Commercolly, 10 February 1789. Bhadra, 1987. Bhadra, 1988: 7. Mukherjee, 2006: xvi-xvii and 92-6; Khan, 1969: chap. 8. WBSA, BoT Custom, Proceedings 2 December 1796. Letter from the reporter of external commerce of Calcutta, 2 December 1796. WBSA, BoT Custom, Proceedings 3 March 1801. Letter from Col­ lector of Benares Custom House, 12 June 1801. Davini, 2017.

REFERENCES Archival Sources West Bengal State Archives, Kolkata (WBSA), Board of Revenue, Miscellaneous [BoR Miscel] , Board of Revenue, Sayer [BoR, Sayer] , Board of Trade, Commercial [BoT Comm] , Board of Trade, Custom [BoT Custom]


Roberto Davini , Committee of Circuit at Cossimbazar [CCK] , Controlling Committee of Commerce [CCC]

Published Sources Anon. ‘Khonar Bochon’, in Krishna Bhattacharya, ed. n.d. Borah Mihir o Khona. Calcutta: P.B. Das. Banerji, Sures Chandra and Girija Prasanna Majumdar, eds. n.d. KrisParasara. Calcutta: The Asiatic Society. Bhadra, Gautam. 1987. ‘The Role of Pykars in the Silk Industry of Bengal (c. 1765-1830). Part one’, Studies in History, 3, pp. 155-85. . 1988. ‘The Role of Pykars in the Silk Industry of Bengal (c. 1765­ 1830). Part two’, Studies in History, 4, pp. 1-35. Bhattacharya, Sukumar. 1969. The East India Company and the Economy of Bengal (from 1704 to 1740). Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay. Bonner, James C. 1964. A History of Georgia Agriculture, 1732-1860. Athens: The University of Georgia Press. Bose, Sugata. 1993. The New Cambridge History of India. III: 2. Peasant Labour and Colonial Capital: Rural Bengal since 1770. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Calladine, A. 1993. ‘Lombe’s Mill: An Exercise in Reconstruction’, Industrial Archaeology Review, 1, pp. 82-99. Chaudhuri, Benoy. 1976. ‘Agriculture Growth in Bengal and Bihar, 1770­ 1860: The Growth of Cultivation since the Famine of 1770’, Bengal Past and Present, January-June, pp. 290-340. . 1998. ‘The Process of Agricultural Commercialization in Eastern India During British Rule: A Reconsideration of the Notions of Forced Commercialization and Dependent Peasantry’, in Peter Robb, ed., Meanings of Agriculture: Essays in South Asian History and Economics. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Chaudhuri, K.N. 1978. The Trading World of Asia and the East India Company 1660-1769. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Chaudhuri, Sushil. 1975. Trade and Commercial Organization in Bengal 1650-1720. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay. Chicco, Giuseppe. 1995. La seta in Piemonte 1650-1800. Un sistema industriale d’Ancien Régime. Franco Angeli: Milano. Datta, Rajat. 2000. Society, Economy, and the Market: Commercialization in Rural Bengal c. 1760-1800. New Delhi: Manohar. Davini, Roberto. 2009. ‘Bengali Raw Silk, the East India Company and

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the European Global Market, 1770-1833’, Journal of Global History,

4, pp. 57-79.

. 2014. ‘A Global Supremacy: The Worldwide Hegemony of the

Piedmontese Reeling Technologies, 1720s-1830s’, in Ian Hisker,

ed., History of Technology, vol. 32. Bloomsbury: London.

. 2017. ‘The British East India Company and the Indian Market

in Bengali Raw Silks, c.1770-c.1840’, in Sanjukta Das Gupta and

Arun Bandopadhyay, eds., In Quest of the Historian’s Craft: Essays

in Honour of Prof. B.B. Chaudhuri. New Delhi: Manohar.

De Sousa, Fernando. 2005. ‘The Silk Industry in Trás-Os-Montes during the Ancient Regime’, Journal of Portuguese History, 3, pp. 1-14. East India Company, 1836. Reports and Documents Connected with the Proceedings of the East India Company in Regard to the Culture and Manufacture of Cotton-wool, Raw-Silk and Indigo in India. London: Printed by Order of the East India Company. Ferrier, R.W. 1973. ‘The Armenians and the East India Company in Persia in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Century’, The Economic History Review, 26: 1, pp. 38-62. Galenson, David W. 1996. ‘The Settlement and Growth of the Colonies: Population, Labor, and Economic Development’, in S.L. Engerman, and R.E. Gallman, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, vol. 1: The Colonial Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Grant, James. 1918. An Historical and Comparative Analysis of the Finances of Bengal; Chronologically Arranged in Different Periods from the Mogul Conquest to the Present Time, dated Calcutta 27 April 1786, in W.K. Firminger, ed., The Fifth Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the East India Company, vol. 2. Calcutta: R. Cambray. Gupta, Ranjan Kumar. 1984. The Economic Life of a Bengal District. Birbhum 1770-1857. Burdwan: The University of Burdwan. Hanway, Jonas. 1754. An Historical Account of the British Trade Over the Caspian Sea, vol. I. London: printed for T. Osborne. Haywood, Robert C. 1957. ‘Mercantilism and Colonial Slave Labor, 1700-1763’, The Journal of Southern History, 23: 4, pp. 454-64. Holland, James W. 1938. ‘The Beginning of Public Agricultural Experimentation in America: The Trustees Garden in Georgia’, Agricultural History, 12, pp. 271-98. Khan, Abdul Majed. 1969. The Transition in Bengal, 1756-1775: A Study of


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Saiyid Muhammad Reza Khan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Lopes, Cordeiro José M. 1992. ‘The Royal Silk Twisting Mill of Chacim (Portugal)’, Textile History, 23, pp. 177-98. Marsh, Ben. 2007. Georgia’s Frontier Women: Female Fortunes in a Southern Colony. Athens (Georgia): The University of Georgia Press. Marshall, Peter J. 1987. Bengal: The British Bridgehead Eastern India 1740-1820. The New Cambridge History of India, II.2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Martyn, Benjamin. 1840a. Reasons for Establishing the Colony of Georgia, with Regard to the Trade of Great Britain, &c; with some Account of the Country and the Design of the Trustees, London: n.p., 1733, now in Collections of the Georgia Historical Society, vol. 1. Savannah: The Georgia Historical Society, pp. 203-38. . 1840b, An Impartial Inquiry into the State and Utility of the Province of Georgia, London: n.p., 1741, now in Collections of the Georgia Historical Society, vol. 1. Savannah: The Georgia Historical Society, pp. 153-201. McCusker, John J. 1996. ‘British Mercantilist Policies and the American Colonies’, in S.L. Engerman and R.E. Gallman, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, vol. 1: The Colonial Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. McKinstry, Mary Thomas. 1930. ‘Silk Culture in the Colony of Georgia’, The Georgia Historical Quarterly, 14, pp. 225-35. Moioli, Angelo. 1981. La gelsibachicoltura nelle campagne lombarde dal seicento alla prima metà dell’ottocento. Parte Prima. La diffusione del gelso e la crescita produttiva della sericoltura. Trento: Libera universita degli studi, Dip. di Economia. Mukherjee, Rila. 2006. Merchants and Companies in Bengal: Kasimbazar and Judgia in the Eighteenth Century. New Delhi: Pragati Publi­ cations. Mukhopadhyay, Bhaskar. 1995. ‘Orientalism, Genealogy and the Writing of History: The Idea of Resistance to Silk Filature in EighteenthCentury Bengal’, Studies in History, 11: 2, pp. 189-226. Mukerji, N.G. 1903. Monograph on the Silk Fabrics of Bengal. Calcutta: The Bengal Secretariat Press. Prakash, Om. 1985. The Dutch East India Company and the Economy of Bengal 1630-1720. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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Poni, Carlo. 1981. ‘Misura contro misura: come il filo di seta divenne sottile e rotondo’, Quaderni Storici, 47: 2, pp. 385-423. Range, Willard. 1947. ‘The Agricultural Revolution in Royal Georgia, 1752-1775’, Agricultural History, 21: 4, pp. 250-5. Ray, Ratnalekha. 1979. Change in Bengal Agrarian Society c. 1760-1850. New Delhi: Manohar. Raychaudhuri, Tapankumar. 1953. Bengal under Akbar and Jahangir: An Introductory Study in Social History. Calcutta: AMC. Robb, Peter. 1992. ‘Peasants’ Choices? Indian Agriculture and the Limits of Commercialization in Nineteenth-century Bihar’, Economic History Review, 45: 1, pp. 97-119. Steensgaard, Niels. 1974. The Asian Trade Revolution of the Seventeenth Century: The East India Companies and the Decline of the Caravan Trade. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Taniguchi, Shinkichi. 1997. ‘The Peasantry of Northern Bengal in the Late Eighteenth Century’, in P. Robb, K.Sugihara and H. Yanagisawa, eds., Local Agrarian Society in Colonial India: Japanese Perspectives. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Washbrook, David. 1988. ‘Progress and Problems: South Asian Economic and Social History c.1720-1860,’ Modern Asian Studies, 22: 1, pp. 57-96. Williamson, George. 1775. Address to the Court of Directors, Together with his Proposals to them for Improving the Manufacture of Silk in Bengal, so as to Preclude the Necessity of Importing Raw Silk into England from Italy, Turkey, etc. London: n.p. Yusuf, Alì. 1900. A Monograph on Silk Fabrics Produced in the NorthWestern Provinces and Oudh. Allahabad: Government Press. Zanier, Claudio. 1993. ‘L’evoluzione delle tecniche di trattura e di torcitura della seta in Europa nei secoli XVII e XVIII: modello cinese o modello sabaudo?,’ in Simonetta Cavaciocchi, ed., La seta in Europa: Sec. XIII XX, Firenze: Casa Editrice Leo S. Olschki. . 1994. Where the Roads Met: East and West in the Silk Production Processes (17th to 19th Century). Kyoto: Istituto Italiano di Cultura, Scuola di Studi sull’Asia Orientale.


Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence Exploring the Processes of Textual Transposition in the Prologue of Alaol’s Padmabati* Anwesha Sengupta

The period between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries was one of increased circulation, and the travel of commodities, individuals, literary works and ideas in South Asia.1 Pluralism in literary works, in terms of the presence of words from different languages or the same language being written in multiple scripts, was a standard feature of this period. Literary compositions that were produced in this cultural milieu most often contained within them the richness of this vibrant environment. How can the move­ ment of these polyphonic literary compositions from one form to another be described in such a culturally plural environment? The word ‘translation’ is usually associated with the process by which a * This chapter has been derived from a portion of my MPhil disserta­ tion submitted at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, UK. I am grateful to my Supervisor, Professor Imre Bangha for guiding me on this project, and encouraging me to engage with this theme and giving me very helpful feedback at every juncture. I am thankful to Pro­ fessor Rosalind O’ Hanlon for her inputs and guidance. I am also grateful to Professor Thibaut d’Hubert for graciously reviewing my draft and pro­ viding insightful comments. Thanks to the editors, Professors Raziuddin Aquil and Tilottama Mukherjee, for giving me this opportunity. Thanks to Swagatam Sinha and Paromita Mukherjee for patiently proof-reading my drafts. Finally, thank you, Professor Mukherjee, for encouraging me to explore this field in the first place.


Anwesha Sengupta

text moves from one language to another. However, merely defin­ ing translation as the linguistic travel of a text is a rather simplistic definition in a complex environment. An interesting case in point is the seventeenth-century poet, Alaol’s Bengali translation of Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat, an Awadhi Sufi premakhyan composed in 1540. In the prologue of his translation, Alaol makes direct references to Jayasi’s Padmavat and states outright his intention of being a cultural mediator.2 However, in the process of translation, Alaol, on the one hand, provides a close literal translation of the source text in some parts and, on the other, smoothly interweaves elements from Persian court poetry traditions and Sanskrit poetic conventions. Jayasi’s Padmavat belongs to the genre broadly referred to as Hindawi Sufi narratives. Maulana Daud’s Chandayan (1379), Shaikh Qutban Suhravardi’s Mrigavati (1503), Jayasi’s Padmavat (1540), Mir Sayyid Manjhan Shattari Rajgiri’s Madhumalati (1545) are considered the four canonical texts of this genre, and they were composed in Awadhi-Hindi. This corpus of literature derives parts of its literary form from the twelfth-century Persian composer, Nizami Ganjavi’s Khamsa or five masnavi poems. It also incor­ porates indigenous elements regarding landscape description, imagery, motifs, protagonists and poetics. In this article, we shall examine the prologue of Padmabati to identify the various techniques with the help of which Alaol translates the Awadhi text and the subsequent trans-textual rela­ tions established by this multifarious approach. Furthermore, we shall discuss the parallel process of textual transposition that takes places in the two texts, Padmavat and Padmabati, characterized by the exercise of seeking equivalences of particular words and phrases.

Alaol and the Arakan Context What we know about the seventeenth-century poet Alaol is pri­ marily obtained from the prologue sections of his oeuvre where he provides autobiographical accounts. He was a Sufi initiate belong­

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


ing to the Qadiriyya order in the later stages of his life. Alaol was a polyglot and well versed in Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Hindi and Bengali.3 His role in Arakan has been described as one of a ‘cul­ tural mediator’.4 Most of the secondary literature on Alaol tends to highlight three important events of his life – first, the circum­ stances under which the poet was shipwrecked and taken as a slave to the Arakan kingdom (he was initially from Gaur in the western part of Bengal); second, his life in the Mrauk-U kingdom where he started from the humble post of rajasoyara or royal horseman and was then recognized for his talent by his first patron, Magan Thakur, who was a minister with the Mrauk-U; and third, in his later works, the unfortunate incident in which he was wrongfully suspected to be involved in the assassination of Shah Shuja, the Mughal prince who had sought refuge in the Arakan kingdom, and his subsequent imprisonment. Thibaut d’Hubert divides Alaol’s literary production into three stages. In the first stage (1645-52), his literary translations were drawn from the ‘cultural environment of Afghan Bengal’ in which he translated Jayasi’s Padmavat. The second stage (1652­ 60) was when the poet’s work drew inspiration from the cultural environment of the Mrauk-U where he composed the first part of Sayphumuluk Badiujjamal and completed Sati Mayna LorChandrani (1659), which his predecessor, the poet, Daulat Kazi, had begun. In the final stage, Alaol concentrated on the task of translating Persian masnavi poems. For example, he translated two works from Nizami Ganjavi’s Khamsa – Haft Paykar, which he named Saptapaykar (1660) and the first part of Eskandarnameh, entitled Sharaf-nama, which he called Sikandar-nama (1671). He also completed Sayphumuluk Badiujjamal at this stage.5 The Mrauk-U dynasty of Arakan remained in power between the mid-fifteenth and mid-eighteenth centuries. Although a Buddhist kingdom, it had a heterogeneous and cosmopolitan court that was multilingual with a sizeable Muslim population comprising Turks, Afghans and converted Muslims from Bengal due to its strategic position in the maritime trade network. The king appointed ministers from the Muslim community who had


Anwesha Sengupta

miniature or secondary ‘courts’ for themselves where they patron­ ized poets. Muslim poets other than Alaol in the Arakan included Daulat Kazi and Mardan.6 d’Hubert outlines the complex literary system that existed in Arakan. The languages used in the court of Mrauk-U included Persian, Bengali, Arakanese, Pali and Sanskrit, and he identifies the different spheres within which respective languages took pre­ cedence. The presence of Sanskrit literary traditions in Alaol’s work indicates the relevance of Sanskrit beyond literary brahmin circles. Bengali was spoken predominantly by the Muslim noblemen in the court and due to their patronage, Bengali literature flourished and several translation projects, mainly from Persian to Bengali, were undertaken.7 Genre of Padmabati

Padmabati was produced as part of the translation project that took place in the Arakan kingdom of Mrauk-U in the seventeenth century (Table 12.1). The two foremost participating poets were Alaol and Daulat Kazi. These Muslim poets translated works from Awadhi and Persian into Bengali under the patronage of some of the Muslim noblemen and dignitaries of the Arakan kingdom. d’Hubert categorizes their oeuvre as panchali literature or Bengali narrative poems, which were produced to be performed in sabhas or informal gatherings of noblemen. They were usually composed in the payar verse. The genre of panchali is the traditional literary form of Bengal but Alaol brought about a modification in this kind of poetry.8 These literary works were composed keeping in mind both performances as well as textuality. Survey of Existing Secondary Literature

There is much literature on the poet Alaol in Bengali but very few works have extensively examined Padmabati. Most of these writings have attempted to assess the contribution of Alaol to medieval Bengali literature and focus on the discourse of ‘Islamic influence’ on Bengal and Middle Bengali literature. This corpus is





Sayphumuluk Badiujjamal (second part completion)









Sayphumuluk Badiujjamal (first part)





162235/ 38


Daulat Kazi

Sati Mayna Lora Chandrani (incomplete)


Sati Mayna Lora Chandrani Alaol (which Daulat Kazi started)


Name of Literary Work10

Majlis Nabraja



Saiyad Muhammad Khan


Magan Thakur

Magan Thakur

Ashraf Khan

Yusuf Gada


Eskandarnameh (Persian)


Tale from the Thou- – sand and One night. (Arabic)

Tuhfayi nasa’ih (Persian)

Haft Paykar (Persian)

Meinsat (Awadhi) Sadhan Chandayan (Awadhi) Daud







Daud Jayasi




Tale from the Thou- – sand and One night. (Arabic)

Padmavat (Awadhi)

Meinsat (Awadhi) Chandayan (Awadhi)

Name of Patron Name of Source Text

Table 12.1: List of Translation works of Arakan (seventeenth century)9


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Bengal-centric and tends to look at Arakan only as a physical loca­ tion where some poets composed in Bengali and not as a cultural centre. Dinesh Chandra Sen in his work, History of Bengali (1911), makes an assessment of Alaol as the ‘Mohammedan poet’ who was well-versed in Sanskrit literary conventions and knowledge­ able about Hindu culture.11 Suniti Kumar Chatterjee in The Origin and Development of the Bengali Language (1926) also maintains a similar assessment where he says that Alaol’s Bengali version of Padmavat is ‘as Sanskritic in language as the works of any of his Hindu contemporaries’.12 Sukumar Sen in his History of Bengali Literature (1960), attempts to contextualize Alaol in the develop­ ment of Muslim literature in the Arakan region. By devoting a separate chapter to this region, he makes his approach less Bengal centric than his predecessors.13 The Czech Indologist, Dusan Zbavitel, in his Bengali Literature (part of the Wiesbaden Series of History of Indian Literature) discusses Alaol and Daulat Kazi as part of the ‘so-called Arakan School’ in the light of the influence of Bengali narrative and folk poetry tradition on their literary works. He also mentions that ‘both Daulat Kazi and Alaol proved their religious liberalism by composing Vaisnava padas.’14 A remarkable work of the early twentieth century is Arakan Rajsabhaye Bangla Sahitya (first pub­ lished in 1935) by Enamul Haq and Abdul Karim in which they extensively discuss the Arakan poets and also devote a chapter to Magan Thakur who was the patron of Alaol. It is one of the earliest works which attempt to look beyond the identity of the Arakanese as Magh raiders15 who frequently attacked Bengal, and describes the Muslim society and literary productions of the Mrauk-U king­ dom.16 In recent years, there has been a significant shift in approach and Alaol’s compositions are no longer seen as an extension or an aberration in the history of Bengali literature. The focal point has now geographically shifted to Arakan itself and recent research has tried to contextualize Alaol in his literary environment. Current scholarship, including works of scholars such as Sanjay Subrah­ manyam, Jacques P. Leider and Stephan Van Galen on Arakan, is based on sources in languages other than Bengali, such as Dutch,

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


Portuguese and Sanskrit (epigraphic sources). In these, Arakan has ceased to be seen from Bengal and been contextualized by its nexus of trade, cosmopolitanism, complex multilingualism and multi-religionism, where there is the coexistence of Buddhism and Islam.17 Another significant work on this theme is Arif Billah’s Influence of Persian Literature on Shah Muhammad Sagir’s Yusuf Zulaikha and Alaol’s Padmavati (2014) in which he identifies the various sources from which components of Padmabati have been taken. It is based on the premise that Padmabati was influenced by Farid­ ud-Din ‘Attar’s Persian literary composition, Mantiq-ut-Tayr or The Conference of the Birds (1177). In some capacity, Billah also discusses Jayasi’s Padmavat and its sources. His most significant contribution lies in the intertextual reading of the text.18 However, there is no engagement with the recent works on Arakan and the discussion on Jayasi’s Padmavat is also limited. Thibaut d’Hubert has contributed significantly to this theme. In his PhD dissertation (2010), he analyses the poetics of Alaol’s oeuvre with a synchronic and diachronic approach, examines the poet’s literary milieu and engages in depth with the processes of translation that can be discerned in his compositions.19 In his article, ‘Pirates, Poets and Merchants’,20 d’Hubert discusses the linguistic practices of the Arakan kingdom thoroughly and effec­ tively locates Alaol’s literary productions in the cosmopolitan environment of Mrauk-U and Chittagong, which were centres of the Indian Ocean trade network. In two other essays, he discusses the translation techniques employed by Alaol, connects it with the reading practices of the poet21 and explores the performative aspect of Alaol’s oeuvre.22 In this article, we shall extend his analy­ sis on translation by identifying two distinct parallel processes of translation that contributed to the creation of Alaol’s Padmabati.

Theoretical Framework of this Study In this section, three theoretical lenses have been outlined with the help of which the prologue of Alaol’s Padmabati shall be sub­ sequently examined. Transtextuality, a concept expounded by French literary theo­


Anwesha Sengupta

rist, Gerard Genette, encompasses understanding a text through ‘textual transcendence’ or its ability to connect to other texts. Genette defines it as ‘all that sets the text in relationship, whether obvious or concealed, with other texts (emphasis added)’.23 He extends Julia Kristeva’s ‘inter-textuality’ and defines it as ‘a relationship of co-presence between two texts or among several texts’,24 which includes practices of quoting, allusion or plagiarism.25 Genette’s ‘trans-textuality’ effectively expands the scope of intertex­ tual interaction, and provides a better understanding of the nature of these interactions and dialogues.26 He identifies paratextuality, metatextuality, hypertextuality and architextuality as various other modes of textual transcendence, each of which is a useful entry point into the reading of Padmavat and Padmabati. Paratextuality is the relationship between the text and its paratext, such as the title, foreword, prefaces, etc. In the case of Padmavat and Padmabati, the prologue can be considered as a paratext to the larger narrative and the relationship between the two is pertinent to understanding the function of the ‘Stutikhand’ or the prologue. Paratextual elements in Padmabati also include the names of ragas and other performative clues in the text.27 Metatextuality is the relationship between the text and another text of which it speaks without necessarily mentioning it, often in the form of commentary. This is the relationship that Padmabati shares with Padmavat and we shall argue this further in the next section. Hypertextuality is similar to metatextuality as it also refers to a relationship between two texts where the earlier text is present in a later text. However, unlike metatextuality, it is not in the form of a ‘commentary’ and instead it is often present in a ‘transformed’ state. This relationship is present between both Padmavat and cer­ tain Persian masnavi narratives, and between Padmabati and the same or other Persian masnavi narratives. Architextuality is the relationship between the text and its clas­ sification, which is mostly implicit and often identified only by the reader or critic. Genette mentions genre as a type of architext and this relationship is significant because both the texts, especially Padmavat, contain characteristics similar to the other texts of the

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


Hindawi Sufi premakhyan genre. Therefore, transtextuality out­ lines the various trajectories through which polyphony is created within a text. Understanding Translation

Padmabati is a translation of Padmavat. However, this statement is inadequate to describe the relationship between the two texts, as ‘translation’, in essence, primarily signifies the linguistic travel of the text. The travel of the text from Hindawi to Bengali was complemented with other instances of travel that directly impacted the nature of the translated text. For instance, the text that was composed in sixteenth-century Awadh in north India travels temporally and geographically into seventeenth-century Arakan, which lies beyond the eastern frontier of the Indian subcontinent. Instances of travel can also be found within the source text, Padma­ vat, where the travel of Islamic concepts from Persian and Arabic into local vernacular of the north Gangetic plain, Hindawi, can be traced. When Padmavat is then translated, the same concepts travel from one vernacular to another, from Hindawi to Bengali. In such a structure, the question arises – what does translation mean in such an environment? A.K. Ramanujan in his short essay, ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation’, outlines three possible relationships between the text and its translation – iconic, indexical and symbolic.28 Iconic translation requires both the texts to be faithful to each other and in this category, Text 2 necessarily needs to retain the structure and content of Text 1.29 For indexical relation, the basic elements, such as the plot of Text 2, remain in an iconic relationship with Text 1, while other elements, such as imagery, poetic tradition and folklore, are incorporated from the local context of Text 2. In the case of symbolic translation, Text 2 has a minimal resemblance to Text 1 and it uses certain features of Text 1, such as characters, to say something completely new and even the exact opposite with the intention to subvert Text 1.30 If the relationship between Padmavat and Padmabati is analysed using Ramanujan’s categorization, we find that it is dominantly


Anwesha Sengupta

indexical. Instead of the chaupai-doha metre of Padmavat, the payar verse form, the standard narrative metre in Middle Bengali, has been used. In the prologue, several new sections have been introduced, such as panegyrics for the patron and the king, as well as the self-introduction of the translator. However, an indexical relationship, which requires a certain amount of indigenization by the incorporation of local elements, is not entirely adequate to describe the relationship between the two texts. In Alaol’s Padmabati, several elements from the Persian masnavi traditions are incorporated that are not present in Padmavat. These elements add to the process of localization, a supra-regional element which is in tandem with the agenda of the Arakan kingdom’s literary projects. Alaol employs several techniques of translation in Padmabati. In the prologue itself, instances of both literal translation and indexical translation can be found. Also, Padmabati assimilates from the Persian literary conventions in places that Padmavat does not. Thus, in this case, translation does not refer to the travel of a text anymore but the travel of concepts from one language to another. Equivalence

‘Equivalence’ generally means maintaining the same value of the word or phrase when it transfers from one language to another. This is also called ‘natural equivalence’ or ‘formal literal equiva­ lence’. However, this notion assumes that it is possible to produce the exact meaning in the target languages and that there is no hier­ archical relationship between the languages in question. When we consider Padmavat and Padmabati, two distinct sets of ‘equiva­ lences’ can be identified. In the first set, equivalents of the Islamic vocabulary in Arabic and Persian are being sought in Hindawi in the Sufi premakhyans; and in the second set, equivalents of the same words and phrases are being sought in Bengali when the text gets translated. In Padmavat, a ‘high language’ is translated to a vernacular and in Padmabati, one vernacular is being translated into another. What needs to be factored in is that Bengali, although a vernacular, was functionally a literary language and a language

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


of Islam in the cosmopolitan Arakan context.31 Similarly, Hindawi became the literary language of the Afghans as they were perhaps not too well versed in Persian.32 Even if the languages were com­ parable, it is not practically possible to produce exact equivalents in two languages.33 Therefore, what is perhaps more useful is to consider Eugene Nida’s concept of a ‘dynamic equivalence’ defined as follows ‘. . . A dynamic-equivalence (or D-E) . . . must clearly reflect the meaning and intent of the source. One way of defining a D-E translation is to describe it as the closest natural equivalent to the sourcelanguage message’.34 What is interesting to explore is whether, in case of Islamic vocabulary, the Bengali equivalents are a result of translation from the text in Hindawi or from the context where other Mus­ lim Bengali composers were already using Bengali equivalents to Perso-Arabic Islamic terms in their compositions. It must be clarified, at this juncture, however, that the texts themselves are not necessarily initiating this process of seeking equivalents. The process takes place across the other texts and treatises of that period.

Prologue of Padmabati The prologues of both Padmavat and Padmabati provide a the­ matic introduction to the texts. Aditya Behl describes the prologue of the Hindawi Sufi narrative as being ‘invaluable as a statement of aesthetic intention’.35 The prologue comprises two main constitu­ ents – a traditional and a dynamic one. The use of the conventional panegyrics of the Persian masnavi narrative style or the incorpo­ ration of Indian literary traditions (such as the classical Sanskrit style of invocation) or other contemporary vernacular and sectar­ ian traditions constitute the traditional component. The dynamic component comprises the elements that anchor the poem to the historical context in which it is composed. It provides information about the poet, his spiritual guides and the shah-i-waqt or the reigning emperor. This component is ‘dynamic’ because when the poem travels from one temporal and spatial


Anwesha Sengupta

context to another through translation, this part is often modified to include the new historical context. For instance, while translat­ ing the prologue of Padmavat, Alaol includes a description of the Arakan capital, Roshang, and praise of his patron, Magan Thakur and the then king of Arakan, Satuihdhammaraja. The dynamic component provides a template within which new information can be incorporated without disturbing the overall structure of the narrative. However, it is not always possible to distinguish between the two due to the presence of tropes in both components. In other words, what may seem like new information might, in reality, be a trope. This makes the apparently dynamic component traditional. Structure of the Prologue of Padmabati

The structure of the prologue of Padmabati is quite different from that of Padmavat. First, Alaol’s prologue, comprising 516 lines, is more than triple the length of Jayasi’s 168 lines. Second, the verses in Padmabati are not of equal length, and there are no clear demarcations of stanzas either unlike the prologue of Pad­ mavat. Debnath Bandyopadhyay’s critical edition indicates the corresponding stanza number in each verse but does not maintain it across the prologue as Alaol deviates significantly from Jayasi’s text. Both Bandyopadhyay and Abdul Karim’s editions demarcate the prologue into seven segments by its contents. The title of each section slightly differs in the two editions as they are introduced by the editors themselves (Table 12.2). While the first three sections, along with the seventh section, correspond directly or indirectly with the source text, the poet accommodates his immediate con­ text in the remaining three sections. Prosody of Padmabati

Padmabati has been composed in the payar verse form which Alaol himself states in his bhanita (form of poetic signature where the name of the composer is mentioned in the verse itself) – ‘sing­ ing his (Magan Thakur) praises, the humble poet Alaol, composes a rasa-filled payar verse’.36 Payar connotes both a metre as well as

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


Table 12.2: Section Division of the Stutikhand of Padmabati37 Titles in Debnath Bandyopadhyay’s Edition


Titles in Abdul Karim’s Edition



Section on Praises

Jagadisvar Stuti

Praises of the Lord of the World

Hajrat Chefat o cari Achhaber bayan

Words on the Prophet and his four companions

Rasul er Tarif

Praising Muhammad Praises of the four companions

Kabi paricay

Introduction to the Poet

Sheikh Mohammad Jayasir Paricay

Roshang barnana

Description of Roshangraj the Roshang or prashasti Mrauk-U

Magan prashasti

Praises of Magan (Thakur)

Magan prashasti Praises of Magan Magan Namer Significance Tatparja of the name of Magan

Atma paricay


Grantha­ pattirbiboron

Description of the origin of the text

Kahini sutra

Plot of the Story

Bishay sutra


Chari ashab Prashasti

Introduction of Shaikh Muhammad Jayasi Praises of Roshang

a type of literary composition. Bandyopadhyay is of the opinion that Alaol did not merely refer to the metre by using payar in his bhanita but also implied a kind of verse that can be recited and sung.38 As a metre, payar usually comprises rhyming couplets that have 8+6 morae in each line but in Alaol’s composition, we find the use of different variations of payar. The text is in the panchali form, which, in essence, is more of a performative genre than a literary one.39 d’Hubert identifies Alaol as a panchali vaggeyakara (panchali musical composer and writer) but in Padmabati, the


Anwesha Sengupta

poet deviates from the existing tradition of panchali poems by making direct references to the audience.40 As Padmabati was composed with the intention of performance at the sabha or the informal gathering of Muslim dignitaries, performative clues, such as the names of ragas (musical modes), can be found in the text. Such paratextual references occur in the pro­ logue as well. They are as follows: the Roshang barnana section is written in the tripadi form or a tripartite format, and it mentions Rag Dhanasi and Dirgha chhanda. In Debnath Bandyopadhyay’s edition, Rag Jamak chhanda is mentioned at the beginning of the Magan prashasti section while Rag Lachari and Dirgha chanda is mentioned at the beginning of the Kahini sutra section which is also composed in tripadi. Karim’s edition additionally mentions the Kharba chhanda in the Kabi parichay section.41 There is also a ‘mise-en-abyme’42 embedded in the prologue that describes the assemblies and performances taking place.43 Bandyopadhyay mentions three main ritis or styles of Middle Bengali panchali verses: barnanamulak payar or descriptive payar verse, which can be sung or recited; gitatmak lachari or verses that can be performed only with assigned ragas, and sangitmay pada or short verses that can only be performed through particular ragas and talas. Padmabati is composed primarily in the barnanamulak payar. While composing verses in lachari, Alaol uses the three-line format. He composes two kinds of lachari verses – laghu tripadi (each line comprises 6+6+10 morae) and guru tripadi (each line comprises 8+8+10 morae). Through the padas that he composes in this text, the poet displays his acute knowledge of Sangitashastra.44 What can be concluded from this is that one of the pos­ sible reasons why Alaol deviates from the stanza format of Jayasi is that it was not conducive for him to compose in a medley of metres and ritis in that format. Tracing the Process of Translation in the Prologue45

Similar to how Alaol combines different kinds of metres and ritis to compose the text, his process of translation also involves several different techniques. He describes the process as bhangiya kah-

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


or ‘saying after breaking it down’.46 This involves three processes – bujhan (to understand the meaning of the text), bhangan (to excavate the underlying essence of the text) and kahan (after hav­ ing understood the meaning, to compose a text for an audience).47 d’Hubert argues that the term bhavanuvada or the translation of essence, which has frequently been used to describe the process of translation in Alaol’s text, is inadequate. Instead, he notes that Alaol adopts a dynamic practice of translation, which was grounded on the reading practices of the poet.48 He examines several works of Alaol and observes that his methods of translation remain mostly constant throughout his life. d’Hubert identifies two forms of tex­ tual transposition – translation of the first degree, which indicates literal translation, and translation of the second degree, which includes thematic transcreation and narrative digressions.49 What is interesting is that these methods were so ingrained in the process of textual transposition that even when a very small segment of Alaol’s work is observed, such as the prologue, each of these can be illustrated in it. However, in the prologue, what can be perceived as a narrative digression, that is, the verses that have no equivalent stanzas in the source text, need to be quali­ fied further. Whether or not they can be seen as a ‘digression’ also needs to be probed. To understand the scope of this better, we have described three main approaches to textual transposition that can be discerned in the prologue. They are – literal translation, incor­ poration of verses and sections that are absent in the source text, and reproduction of verses from the source text in the form of a narration or commentary. The first approach, which is a literal translation or iconic transla­ tion, has been used extensively in the first section of the prologue. It is remarkable to find a near-verbatim translation that is aes­ thetically appealing, and yet composed in a poetic metre and style different from the source text. d’Hubert considers verbatim trans­ lation to be the reference point from which the ‘dynamic practise of translation’ is exercised.50 Alaol maintains even the repetitive occurrence of Jayasi’s kinhesi (He made/created) by using srijilek (He made/created) in a similar manner.51 This section primarily deals with the description of the Creator and his creation:


Anwesha Sengupta

Jayasi (stanza 1, lines 5-6)

He created the seven island landmasses; He made the fourteen parts of

the world

He created the morning sun and the nightly moon; He made constella­ tions with lines of the star.

Alaol: (verse 1, lines 9-12)

He created the seven worlds of the seven universes

He created the world in fourteen fragments.

He created the sun, the moon, night and day

He created lines of clearly visible stars.

Alaol begins the prologue with the Islamic salutation Hamad52 khodaye, bichmilya hibahama nirahim,53 which translates to ‘Praise of Allah (hamd-i-khuda) – in the name of Allah, the most gra­ cious, and the most merciful.’ This opening salutation can be typically found in any Muslim work but is absent in all the three versions of Padmavat to which I have referred. There is a stylis­ tic difference between the two texts in the manner in which the principle of duality is described in this section. While Jayasi often places two contrasting phrases next to each other, leaving the con­ nection to be made by the reader, Alaol expresses the connection more explicitly. For instance, kinhesi jiana sada saba chaha, kinhesi michu na koi raha (stanza 3, line 5)54 is translated into apana pra­ chare hetu srjilo jibana, nija bhaya drasaite s_rjilo marana (verse 3, lines 9-10).55 Another instance that illustrates this point is when Alaol translates a description given in stanza 4 of Padmavat and com­ municates the implied meaning: Jayasi: (stanza 4, lines 1-4)

He made incense, musk and grass; He created the bees and sugar.

He created the snake and placed poison in its mouth; He created the spell

that seizes the snake that bites.

He created the elixir of immortality that when drunk gives life; He cre­ ated poison that when taken brings death.

He created the sugarcane filled with sweet juices; He created the bitter

beli that grows abundantly.

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


Alaol: (verse 4, lines 1-4) He created pleasant scent to make heaven count And he created stench to make hell known He created sweet nectar to express His grace He created bitterness to express His rage.

In the second approach, Alaol makes significant additions to the text. These appear in the form of verses or poetic lines inter­ spersed within translations of particular stanzas or between verses that correspond with stanzas of the source text. It is possible that some of these additions were interpolations by later scribes. How­ ever, a consistent pattern can be discerned throughout in these extensions, which makes it more probable that the poet himself composed them. It illustrates the bhangiya kah approach that Alaol explicates. These additions appear in a manner that where a certain idea introduced by Jayasi is in a single line, it is spread over several lines in Alaol’s composition. The section that is entitled Hajrat chefat o chari Achhaber bayan in Padmabati contains most of these extensions where there is a discussion on Prophet Muham­ mad and his four companions. These verses are either explanatory or their function is to add new information to the text, Padmabati. Extract A: (this is an entirely new addition to Padmabati) (Padmabati, verse 11, lines 9-22) On that day in the light, the world became radiated The world was cleansed with the destruction of sins. It was dark, and the people were sinful He was the reason for the revelation of the holy every day. By pointing his finger, he broke the moon into two parts Whose head is covered with a string of cloud for nine dandas56 Who causes the forest deer to go Into the depth of the forest and return again. Whose shadow less body, the fly does not touch To sing whose praises the snake gains the power of speech I am foolish, and I will say some of his divine graces Whose praises have been said in the Qur’an. When the Creator will question the evil and good deeds Coming forward he will salvage my condemnation.


Anwesha Sengupta

Extract B: (this is an extension of the lines mentioned after translating

stanza 12)

(Padmabati, between verses 10 and 11, lines 11-20)

The four were one, and each was four, and they had the same action and


They had same words and same thoughts; they were in all travellers of

one path

Whoever distinguishes among the four

Will fall in awful hell and this will be his stigma

All the providences that the text of the Qur’an informs

To the misguided, it shows the way.

In the house of din (religion), the four are like four pillars

Whose greatness is so vast that it cannot be described.

The equivalent stanza in Padmavat to Extract B of Padmabati: (Padma­ vat, stanza 12, lines 6-9)

The four had the same views, same words; one way, and belonged

to the same community.

The one true word that they have said (kalima); with that He

was proved and both worlds read their words.

The Purana that bidhi (God) has sent; that book everyone reads;

And the people who have forgotten about God, hearing this go

back to the path of righteousness.

The strange allusions in Extract A are a collection of references to the Qur’an and the Hadis. The ‘splitting of the moon’ is a motif that is associated with the judgement day in Islam and this is referred to in Sura 54: 1-2 of the Qur’an.57 The ‘shadowless prophet’, ‘talking snake’ and the ‘forest deer’ are references to various other legends of the miracles of Prophet Muhammad, intended for high­ lighting his greatness. What we find in Extract B is that the same idea is being expressed in a more elaborate form. Another kind of ‘extension’ can be observed in the appearance of completely new sections that have been added to contextualize Padmabati in the Arakan environment. This practice is congru­ ent with the literary conventions of Sufi premakhyans where the prologues contain praises of the king, patrons and the selfintroduction of the poet who is composing the text. In this case, Alaol ‘domesticates’58 the text by adding sections on the capital

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


city, Roshang or Mrauk-U, a panegyric section on his patron, Magan Thakur and a section on himself. The section demarcated by Bandyopadhyay as ‘Roshang barnana’ is not just the description of Roshang as the name suggests but also contains praises of the ruling king. ‘Magan prashasti’ is a panegyric of the patron where the physical attributes, talents and qualities of the Magan Thakur have been extensively described. The Atma parichay section not only narrates the early life of the poet and the circumstances under which he reached Mrauk-U but it also discusses the two ideas of bachan (discourse) and prem (love). In the process of adding the new segments, however, certain existing tropes from other parts of the source text are often intro­ duced in a slightly modified form. For instance, while praising the king, Satuihdhammaraja, Alaol uses the same trope that Jayasi uses to praise Sher Shah Sur. Alaol’s praise of the king, Satuihdhammaraja: (pages 10 and 11)

When his elephant and army went, the earth would shake…

. . . His elephant is like the throne of Indra59

. . . He goes to the sound of the ‘dumdumi’60 in his glorious appearance

seeing which the clouds feel embarrassed.

Seeing the royal procession, they are filled with inadequacy, and they

shed copious tears through the rain.

As the horses and elephants proceed through the skies

The skies cover in dust

The rain cannot touch the ground, and the moon and stars become


The sun becomes hidden during the day.

Mountains become dust; the path loses its vegetation

The rivers become dry

While the first part of the army can swim, the middle walks

The last part is covered with dust.

Jayasi’s praise of the king, Sher Shah Sur: (stanza 14, lines 2-9)

When horses and elephants of his army moves across the world; the

mountain breaks and the dust flies.

The dust gathers like night and seizes the sun; people and birds return

to their shelters.


Anwesha Sengupta

The dust rises and spreads; as a result, only six parts of the world remains,

and the sky becomes nine parts.

The sky shakes, and Indra is scared; the Basuki snake 61 hides underneath

out of fear.

Mount Meru starts sliding down, and the seas dry up; jungles break and

disappear into dust.

While the vanguards of the army get water and grass of their share; the

rest of the army does not even get mud.

The fortress that no one can subdue, just by the movement of the offspring

of Sur gets pulverised.

Whenever the Lord of the world marches, who is Sher Shah-i Jaga Sur.

The manner in which Alaol portrays his patron resonates with descriptions that can be found in Persian ghazals and the qasidah.62 d’Hubert identifies it as nakha-shikha or the description from feet to head, which is inspired from the Sanskritic kavya tradition, as well as the Persian poetic tradition.63 Both while praising the king and his patron in Padmabati, Alaol resorts to this style. Alaol’s praise of the king By seeing his blessed face, people’s eyes would fill with joy

As his face was like a full moon.

His forehead was like the crescent moon, his smile filled with sweetness

His glance captivated the women.

His eyes were like the morning sun, and his skin was golden

And his feet were crimson like the lotus.

Alaol’s praise of his patron Dark skinned body and face like the full moon By seeing which my heart gets excited A beautiful Arakanese turban is tied around his head As if the moon has broken through the new clouds His forehead is like the crescent moon His expressive eyebrows are like the bow of ‘Kandarpa’64 The shape of his eyes is like the blue lotus His brief glances enthral women of the house His ears are more beautiful than a vulture’s beak His eyes and forehead are as beautiful and sharp as a bird’s The smile on his beautiful face is calm and controlled It expresses fondness and love

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


His teeth are like pearls, and his lips are like flowers His voice can be compared to the sweet call of the cuckoo His throat is well-formed like a conch shell His chest is beautiful and without blemish, his waist slenderer than a lion’s A divine-human form sculpted from a Sandalwood tree His arms are strong enough to destroy the might of his enemies His fists are soft and rosy like the lotus His fingers are as slender as the champak flower His fingernails are as white as a moon without blemish And his fist is as beautiful as a flowing river His thighs are as mighty as the lord of all elephants.

What can be observed is that the description of the physical attributes of the poet’s patron is more intimate than the descrip­ tion of the king. This is representative of the more direct allegiance that Alaol had with his patron. The description is not confined to qualities and virtues but entails a series of similes that physically describe the object of praise. The patron-poet love relationship that Julie Meisami describes, and which is implicitly present in Padma­ vat, is exemplified here.65 Meisami observes that in Persian courtly poetry and love poems, an analogy between the lover-beloved and divinity-worshipper relationship can be drawn.66 The fundamental virtue that links love and courtliness is loyalty.67 Meisami argues that this parallelism can also be seen in the patron-poet relation­ ship.68 Another extension is the passage that Alaol includes on bachan or poetic speech. Although absent in the prologue of Padmavat, a similar discussion can be found in Nizami’s Haft Paykar. In the prologue of Haft Paykar in the section, ‘In the praise of discourse, a few words of wisdom’, Nizami discusses sukhan or discourse.69 Although Alaol’s treatment in Padmabati is much less elaborate than Nizami’s, in essence, they are comparable. This extension establishes a hypertextual link of Alaol’s text with Nizami’s com­ position. Hypertextual links with other texts are also established in these extensions. For instance, Alaol describes the capital city’s prosper­ ity and how it drew visitors from all over the world. Although


Anwesha Sengupta

different in content, an instance of a city being described or nagaravarnana can be found in a text, Virsinghdevcarit (1607) belonging to seventeenth-century Orchha. The composer, poet Keshavdas, also uses the mise-en-abyme technique that we find in Alaol’s oeuvre where he describes his performance at the court of the Mughal emperor, Jahangir.70 The employment of such techniques where Alaol is drawing from various Persian sources as well as other north Indian texts raises questions on the Atma parichay section. This section is con­ sidered one of the very few sources from which we learn about the poet and his life. However, it is worth considering whether the passage highlighting his sufferings in a sea voyage can be seen as a trope itself. Motifs of suffering at sea or getting shipwrecked are recurrent tropes in the genre of Sufi premakhyan – whether it is in Jayasi’s Padmavat, Manjhan’s Madhumalati or Qu_tban’s M_rgavati.71 Each of these narratives expounds a hard journey by sea. Although it is possible that this particular incident did take place, in reality, it is also stylistically consistent with other tropes in the text. Thus, the motif of the journey functions as a trope in this text. The final approach that can be discerned is Alaol’s tendency to summarize Jayasi’s text. Both in the section Kabi parichay, where he talks about Jayasi and in the section demarcated by Bandyo­ padhyay as Kahini sutra, where he relates the crux of the tale, he narrates what is there in the source text rather than attempting to provide a translation of it. In fact, he makes several references to the physical text of Padmabati by using the word pustak (for example, on page 8, line 21). He also refers to Jayasi’s Padmavat, both regarding pustak (for example, on page 27, line 6) and punthi or manuscript (for example, on page 25, line 1).72 This is strikingly opposite to the Persian translations of Padma­ vat which makes no mention of Jayasi, such as in ‘Abd al-Shakur Bazmi’s Rat Padam.73 In the Kahini sutra section, Alaol does not deliver a literal translation of stanza 24 of Padmavat, which is also a summary of the narrative. Neither does he provide a plot summary of his text. Instead, he provides the summary of the actual storyline of Padmavat. Alaol makes several changes in the plotline towards the end of the text, which is not reflected in this

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


plot summary.74 This final approach, where the poet is making direct references to Jayasi and summarizing what is there in the text rather than translating it, establishes a distinct metatextual relationship between Padmabati and Padmavat.

Tracing Equivalences between the Prologues of Padmavat and Padmabati Having traced the different ways in which implicit as well as explicit textual context has been translated in the prologue, we shall now focus on particular words and phrases (which we shall hereafter refer to as ‘markers’) that are responsible for creating the apparent hybridity in the vocabulary of Padmavat and Padmabati. These words and phrases tend to make the text appear more syn­ cretic. The first marker is the word Puran, referring to a body of ancient tales and legends of Hindu theology and mythology.75 It can also mean scriptures in general. The second marker is a set of words and phrases that have been used to articulate the concept of divinity in the two prologues.76 The exclusive use of Puran highlights the absence of the word Qur’an in Padmavat. It is used instead of Qur’an in certain places of the text, as we shall illustrate. Similarly, the second marker com­ prising almost ten words to express the Creator also marks the absence of the more commonly used Islamic expressions for Allah – Khuda and Khaliq – in the same text.77 Aditya Behl explains this as a result of the process of translation, which takes place by look­ ing for equivalents from the existing theological vocabulary. For the Sufi premakhyan genre, he observes that many such words are taken from nirguna bhakti vocabulary to communicate Islamic concepts.78 However, this process does not imply a shift in religious ideology or necessarily the creation of a synthesized cosmology. Such a process essentially involves seeking what Eugene Nida calls ‘dynamic equivalence’. This form of translation also takes place in Bengal and the Arakan environment where there was a consider­ able Muslim population. Keeping this perspective, we shall illustrate that a definite pat­ tern of seeking equivalences can be discerned within both the texts

Puni Usmana pandita bara guni, likha purana jo ayata suni (S12, L4)

Bacan jo ek sunaenhi sanca; bhae parvana dunhu jag banca (S12 L7)

Jo purana bidhi pathva, soi parata giranth (S12, L8)










No equivalence

No equivalence


No equivalence

No direct No direct equivalence equivalence

No direct equivalence81




Ehi bidhi cinahahu karahu gianu, jasa purana maha likha bakhanu80 (S8, L1)

Kaithi M.S. Bhasa Lithograph


Awadhi (Agrawal)




Qur’an Puran (as a variant)82



Bengali 3




No direct No direct equivalence equivalence



No direct equivalence




Qur’an (V 11, P 7)

Qur’an (V 11, P 7)


Bengali 1 Bengali 2 (M.S./DB) (C.Ed/D.B)


Table 12.3: Equivalence Table locating the use of the words Puran and Qur’an (in order of occurrence)79

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


and can be seen as part of a more extensive translation exercise of articulating the Islamic discourse in the local language. Discussion on the Puran-Qur’an Equivalence Table

Juxtaposing the Bengali and Awadhi versions in the equivalence table serves the purpose of showing how the markers travelled from the source text to the translated text. Providing multiple variants of the same text is necessary as each text, whether it is a manuscript version or printed critical edition, is prone to having internal errors, loss of material and variations caused by interpre­ tation of scribes in the process of transmission. In addition, by choosing three different kinds of texts – the manuscript, lithograph and print edition of Padmavat, the markers can be observed as they travel across different mediums, scripts and periods of time. The role of the Kaithi manuscript version84 is to help determine whether with the change of script from Perso-Arabic (as seen in many of the early Padmavat manuscripts) to Devanagari (in the critical editions mentioned above) and Kaithi, the equivalent terms for certain marker words also change. The inclusion of the lithograph version of Padmavat 85 for my analysis is revelatory as it helps ascertain the extent to which words were being retained or modified till as late as the nineteenth century. In Table 12.3, we have referred to three versions of the Hindawi and the Bengali prologues. It is only for the ‘Awadhi (Agrawal)’ version that we have retained the context in which the marker is being used. In all other versions, we have shown the form in which the marker appears to make the table more readable. On the right, we have shown the variants that appear in the two columns (manuscript version and edited version) of Bandyopadhyay’s edi­ tion, as well as Abdul Karim’s edited version. Rows 2 and 3 reflect the occurrences in verse 11, which are part of the supplementary segments of Padmabati’s prologue. As we can see in the table, non-Islamic words frequently appear in the prologue of Padmavat. For instance, the term Puran appears thrice – once in stanza 8 and twice in stanza 12.86 In the line, ‘. . . in this way know Him and become knowledgeable; just the way


Anwesha Sengupta

it has been elaborated in the Purans . . .’87 in stanza 8, Purans can be read as a generic term for Holy Scriptures and not as a refer­ ence to any particular text. This word appears identically across all the six versions for this particular occurrence. In stanza 12, the two references to Puran are: ‘. . . after that, was Usman, who was greatly knowledgeable and virtuous; he wrote the Puran from the verses he heard . . .’ and ‘. . . the Puran that He has sent; that book everyone reads. . . .’88 The first mention refers to a particular scripture Qur’an in this case, and not scriptures in general. Here, Puran is describing the text which Caliph Usman commissioned to be compiled, which, according to Islamic tradition, was the Qur’an. In all three Bengali versions, Alaol chooses to revert to the intended meaning of the word, which is Qur’an, rather than preserve the equivalent term for Qur’an that Jayasi uses for these two occurrences. Only for the first occurrence, he maintains the word used by Jayasi, further confirming the fact that the term was indeed generic and did not denote the Qur’an. Intriguingly, if the poetic meter is considered, both Puran and Kuran (Qur’an) have the same number of syllables and identical endings. Thus, the choice of Puran over Kuran (Qur’an) here could not have been for the purposes of rhyme. At the same time, it is important to note that all three Awadhi versions retain Puran in some form.89 The second mention denotes a book and, yet again, instead of Qur’an, Puran is used in all three Padmavat versions. In the Bengali ver­ sions, Alaol seems to have used Qur’an in the same way that he did for the previous instance. However, Debnath Bandyopadhyay replaces Qur’an with Puran in his edited version. In the Bhasa version, Puran is spelt slightly differently from the other versions. It was probably a result of the direct transliteration from the Perso-Arabic to the Devanagari script. It could also be seen as the evidence of vocalization being transcribed where the last syllable of the chaupai half-line was prolonged, which was a common practice. In addition, there is an extra mention of the word Puran in line 7 of stanza 12.90 However, this can be inter­ preted as a misreading of the word parvan (proof), which appears in the other two Awadhi versions in this location.91 If we explore the other possibility of this being an attempt to translate terms

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


and concepts to a more indigenous form, Puran can mean either scriptures in general or the corpus of mythological texts. Tony Stewart mentions that the Vaishnava figure, Krishna Chaitanya of Bengal, equates the Bhagvata Puran with the Qur’an. Stewart describes this as an instance of deliberately creating a formal literal equivalence.92 A similar possible equation in Jayasi’s text raises two questions – whether Jayasi, too, implied the Bhagvata Puran, and whether Puran and Qur’an can be seen as an instance of formal literal equivalence. To probe the question of equivalence further, the translation of Puran in Alaol’s Padmabati needs to be traced. Interestingly, not only does the word Qur’an replace Puran in almost all the occurrences but it also appears in verses that are not direct translations of Padmavat but are part of Alaol’s extensions. In Alaol’s translation, Puran cannot be seen merely as a linguistic equivalence of Qur’an as both the words Puran and Qur’an appear in the Bengali versions (unlike in the Awadhi versions). The first instance where Puran occurs is in the context of establishing the formlessness of the creator. Here, all three versions read Puran. As discussed before, its usage in the Awadhi versions, in this con­ text, is more generic and means Holy Scriptures. Alaol’s usage, however (illustrated at the end of this paragraph), comes across more like the citation of a source than a reference to scriptures in general. This usage is entirely consistent with all the other occur­ rences of the terms Puran and Qur’an in this text. A pattern can be observed in the prologue of Padmabati where an event or concept is described and is then followed by the emphasis that it has been said so in the Qur’an. This is quite similar to the contemporary academic practice of citing sources. In the second instance, we find the theologically-accurate mention of the Qur’an as the text which Usman compiled. It further retrospectively highlights the fact that the use of Puran for this occurrence in Padmavat was, indeed, a deliberate lexical choice. The following lines are translated into English from the prologue of Padmabati and they show the way in which the terms Puran and Qur’an occur in the text. 1. Know the Lord like this and be wise In the way, the purans have explained this before.93


Anwesha Sengupta

2. For the love for him (Muhammad) the Lord created the world Lord himself has said so in the Qur’an. (Alaol’s addition) 3. I am foolish, and I will say some of his divine graces Whose praises have been said in the Qur’an.94 (Alaol’s addition) 4. Third was Ochman (Usman) the judicious who is the giver of the world Who compiled the words of the Qur’an into a book. 5. Whoever distinguishes among the four Will fall in the awful hell and this will be his stigma All the providences that the text of Qur’an informs.95 The two extra occurrences of the word Qur’an in the prologue of Padmabati (Rows 2 and 3) are Alaol’s additions and they have no equivalents in Jayasi’s Padmavat. In Karim’s edition, we find the word Puran used for Qur’an in the first instance of Alaol’s addi­ tion (Row 2). For the second instance, Karim mentions a variant manuscript where Puran appears yet again instead of Qur’an (Row 3). What needs to be noted about the nature of translation in the fifth appearance of Qur’an in Padmabati is that it is far more dra­ matic than the source lines in Jayasi’s text. Here we refer to the line ‘ehi bidhi . . .’ where while the Awadhi version implies – ‘the Puran that God has sent; that book everyone reads, and the people who have forgotten about God, hearing this go back to the path of righteousness’, the Bengali version denotes, ‘whoever distinguishes among the four, will fall in awful hell and this will be his stigma, all the providences that the text of Qur’an informs.’ The reversion back to Qur’an in Padmabati further highlights the Puran-Qur’an equivalence and strengthens the possibility of it being an instance of formal literal equivalence. However, considering other vernaculars in which such a translation takes place raises doubts about this possibility. In Umaru Pulavar’s late seventeenth- to early eighteenth-century hagiographic Tamil text, Cirappuranam, the Qur’an is equated to the Vedas.96 Vasudha Narayanan observes that this was a common practice in Tamil religious texts of that period. If we take this example into consid­ eration, we find that the Puran-Qur’an equivalence can be best described with Eugene Nida’s concept of dynamic equivalence.

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


A similar equivalence can be observed if we examine the terms used to express concepts of divinity. In Padmavat, the creator has been referred to as kartaru in the first stanza and, subsequently, the terms bidhi and gusai have been used. Expressions like gusai or karta or alakha can be traced as Nath yogic terms used as vehicles to convey Islamic concepts. Such a usage is not unique to this text and can be found in other Sufi texts of this period.97 It is interest­ ing to note that the word dia, which is a close form of dev, occurs while the creator is being invoked. The word dev exists in both Sanskrit and Persian but with opposite meanings – it means a god in Sanskrit and a demon in Persian. Jayasi uses the same word in two different contexts, thereby using it both as a Sanskrit as well as a Persian word. There is a more extensive selection of words in the prologue of Padmabati to express the Creator than there is in Padmavat. The use of the word niranjan in Padmabati is significant as it reflects that Alaol was incorporating the local religious vocabu­ lary of Bengal. A similar usage of this term can be found in an eighteenth-century treatise of Ali Raja (a Sufi pir from Chittagong) called Agama. Along with niranjan, several other words that Alaol uses can be found here – . . . in the beginning space, the prime mover and creator (Karata)98 alone existed. The Stainless One (niranjan) was a creamy essence in the thick of the enveloping universe of bleak inertia (tama guna). When the one called Stainless (niranjan) rent the interior of the orb, he transformed into Lord Ishvara. Forms (akara) began to differentiate within that universe and the unitary formless (nirakara) metamorphosed into seventy-one forms.…99

Conclusion The discussion so far reveals two parallel processes of translation in Padmabati. The first process involves translating the text from Hindawi to Bengali for a population unfamiliar with north Indian languages. The second process involves the implicit exercise of transporting Islamic terms from Arabic and Hindawi to Bengali by the use of equivalent terms. Interestingly, although the entire segment of Padmavat between


Anwesha Sengupta

stanza 1 to 10 has been predominantly translated literally in Pad­ mabati, in no instance do we find an exact equivalent for the terms used to describe the Creator. The only three exceptions are - ek kartaru (Padmavat, stanza 1, line 1), dhanapati (Padmavat, stanza 5, line 1) and bidhi (Padmavat, stanza 12, line 8). Instead of trans­ lating from Hindawi, he seems to be drawing from an existing set of terms that were being used in contemporary Bengali texts as Bengali equivalents of Arabic-Islamic terms. However, while translating the word Puran, Alaol directly transports it without any modification in the first instance (stanza 8, line 1), which is part of the literal translation segment. In all other instances, Alaol consis­ tently replaces Puran with Qur’an. In other words, his translation delivers the implied meaning of Jayasi’s text. There is no mention of the word Qur’an in any of the three versions of Padmavat. The purpose of such an exercise was initially imagined to be one that ‘simplifies’ the Islamic discourse into a more comprehen­ sible language for the new devotees.100 However, this theory has been vehemently refuted by scholars like Aditya Behl, Francesca Orsini and Shantanu Phukan who argue in favour of the Sufi premakhyans being complex mystical texts.101 Torsten Tschacher has argued that even the practice of creating equivalences in the vernaculars cannot be seen as a ‘simplification’ process but rather a self-conscious endeavour to be able to express the complex Islamic discourse in the regional language of the bilingual or multilingual Muslim population in India.102 What we would like to add to this existing discussion is that examining the prologue of Padmabati is quite useful in under­ standing the inner dynamics of the source text, Padmavat. Alaol often chooses to translate not what the text explicitly states but the underlying meaning that it holds or, in fact, the corpus of texts with which Padmavat has a hypertextual relationship. By translat­ ing the text verbatim at places and, at the same time, including the various points of departures in the translation, Alaol’s version is not merely a sincere reflection of the original text but also one of the earliest in-depth interpretations of Padmavat. His wideranging approach to translation contributes in expanding the concept of translation itself in the early modern period. In fact, a

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


literal translation or even a bhavanuvada of Padmavat into Bengali would not have done justice to the translation of a text that itself is rich in inter-textual references to other Sufi premakhyans or Persian masnavi poems. An analogy can be drawn between the expansions of Alaol in the prologue section and the opening section of a classical musical ensemble. In the alap, although there is the scope for improvisa­ tion in the form of bistar to communicate the rasa of the raga, it is delimited by the musical scope of the raga. In Alaol’s composition, too, the source text, Padmavat, which he expands, can be seen as the delimiting raga and the extensions as the improvisation that transfers the rasa to the rasik.

NOTES 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

11. 12. 13. 14. 15.

16. 17.

De Bruijn and Busch, 2014: 1-4. d’Hubert, 2014 b: 60-1. Khan, 2013: 47-8. d’Hubert, 2014 b: 49-52. Ibid.: 62-63. Chowdhury, 2004: 164-5. d’Hubert, 2014 b: 53-7. d’Hubert, 2015: 428-36. Source for constructing the table (d’Hubert, 2014 b: 47-73; Arif Billah, 2014: 342; Sen, 1960: 150-1) Here, I have not listed the padas or short poems composed by the two poets or works like Alaol’s treatises on music called Raga-tala­ nama. Sen, 1911: 632. Chatterji, 1926: 210. Sen, 1960. Zbavitel, 1976: 195. This was a term frequently used in Bengal to denote the BuddhistArakanese people. There is a popular Bengali saying magher muluk, which translates to ‘the land of the Maghs’ but implies a situation of total statelessness. The notion that they were raiders originates from the constant territorial tussle between Bengal and Mrauk-U. Haq and Karim, 1993: 17-142. Gommans and Leider, 2008.

428 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41. 42.

43. 44. 45.

Anwesha Sengupta Arif Billah, 2014. d’Hubert, 2010. d’Hubert, 2014 b: 47-74. d’Hubert, 2014 a: 59-76. d’Hubert, 2015: 423-45. Genette, 1997: 1. Ibid.: 1. Ibid.: 3. d’Hubert also suggests the approach of ‘trans-textuality’ in the con­ text of reading Alaol’s work. See d’Hubert, 2010: 358. d’Hubert, 2015: 431. Ramanujan, 2004: 131-60. Text 1 is the text in the source language while Text 2 is the text in the target language. Ramanujan, 2004: 156-8. d’Hubert, 2014 b: 53. Alam, 1998: 318. Pym, 2010: 27-8. Nida, 2004: 136. Behl, 2012: 30. Bandyopadhyay, 1985: 1-27; Karim, 1977: 1-14. Bandyopadhyay, 1985: 27. Ibid.: 50. d’Hubert, 2015: 424. Ibid.: 425. Karim, 1977: 11. This term is usually used to connote an image that contains a smaller version of itself within itself. Here, d’Hubert is using the term to describe how the performance of the text in the sabha is described in the text and that this description would, in turn, be performed in the sabha. d’Hubert, 2015: 430. Bandyopadhyay, 1985: 46 -50. In order to refer to the lines in the prologue of Padmavat, the stanza number and line number have been indicated – for instance (stanza 13, line 5 or s.13, l.5). Unless otherwise stated, all such mentions are references to V.S. Agrawal’s critical edition of Padmavat, which is the main text from which I have translated. In order to refer to the lines in the prologue of Padmabati, I have indicated the verse number and the page number as there are no clear stanza divisions

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence

46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51.

52. 53. 54. 55. 56. 57. 58. 59. 60. 61. 62. 63. 64. 65. 66. 67. 68. 69. 70. 71. 72.


in the text. Unless otherwise stated, all such mentions are references to Debnath Bandyopadhyay’s critical edition of Padmabati, which is the main text from which I have translated. Verse numbers are applicable only for the first eleven verses where they correspond to stanzas in Padmavat, for instance (verse 9, p. 5 or v. 9, p. 5). The line numbers have only been mentioned in the extracts when necessary for purposes of comparison. d’Hubert, 2015: 434. d’Hubert, 2014 a: 68-9. Ibid.: 67. d’Hubert, 2010: 356-65. Ibid.: 70. In the first four stanzas where Jayasi describes the various mani­ festations of the Creator, he begins every line with the verb kinhesi (except in the first line and the dohas). ‘Hamd’ is an Arabic word which means praise. Although the editor has spaced the words wrongly, I have retained it here to demonstrate how it appears. Translation: He created life which everyone desires eternally; He cre­ ated death such that no one remains. Translation: He created life to demonstrate His greatness, to make people fearful of Him, He created death. Danda is a measure of time. Ali, 1946: 271. Venuti, 1995: 1-42. Both passages mention Indra but in different kinds of metaphors. It is a kind of drum that was used in battlefields. Basuki is a mythological snake that is believed to support the Earth. Gignoux and Ghaybi, 2004. d’Hubert, 2010: 408. It refers to the mythological Lord of Love. Meisami, 1987: 10. Ibid.: 23. Ibid.: 24. Ibid.: 27-8. Meisami, 1995: 23-30. Busch, 2015: 255-6. de Bruijn, 2012: 162-5. The following couplet has both the references: ‘Now be informed about the book (pustak),


73. 74. 75. 76. 77. 78. 79.

80. 81. 82. 83.

84. 85. 86. 87. 88. 89.


Anwesha Sengupta Which is the scripture (punthi) composed by Sheikh Mohammad called Padmabati’ (Bandyopadhyay, 1985: 8). Abidi, 1962: 4. Bandyopadhyay, 1985: 8-27. Platts, 1884: 236. The second set of markers has been discussed very briefly in this article. These are Arabic words that are used in the Persian masnavi nar­ ratives and in Islamic discourses in general. Behl, 2002: 96. D.B = Debnath Bandyopadhyay, A.K. = Abdul Karim, C.Ed. = Critical Edition, M.S. = Manuscript, S = Stanza, L = Line, V = Verse, P = Page Number, ‘Awadhi (Agrawal)’ = V.S. Agrawal’s critical edition of Padmavat, ‘Kaithi M.S.’ = British Library manuscript of Padmavat in Kaithi script, ‘Bhasa lithograph’ = lithograph version of Padmavat written in the Devanagari script (1880), ‘Bengali 1’ = the left column in Debnath Bandyopadhyay’s critical edition which retains the orthography of the manuscript version, ‘Bengali 2’ = the right column in the critical edition where Bandyopadhyay provides the edited version of the manuscripts, ‘Bengali 3’ = the version given in Abdul Karim’s critical edition. Translations of these lines are given in the discussion. This means that the Bengali version is not a literal translation of the Awadhi one in this section. This is mentioned in the footnotes in Abdul Karim’s edition (Karim, 1977: 9). This section is also not a literal translation, so the line which con­ tains Qur’an is not an exact equivalence of any stanza in Padmavat. However, the verses in Padmabati and Padmavat are comparable since they are both about the four companions of the prophet. Jayasi, 1743. Dayala, 1880. Only in the Lithograph version, it appears four times. Agrawal, 1961: 7. Ibid.: 10. The Lithograph version contains Purana with a different spelling. Instead of iqjku which appears in the two other versions, this version contains iqjk.kk. Dayala, 1880: 8.

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


91. The possibility of a misreading arises as parvan and Puran tran­ scribed in the Perso-Arabic script look similar. 92. Stewart, 2001: 279. 93. Bandyopadhyay, 1985: 4. 94. Ibid.: 7. 95. Ibid.: 8. 96. Narayanan, 2000: 90. 97. Orsini, 2014: 414-23. 98. Emphasis has been added to illustrate the usage of words similar to Padmabati. 99. Stewart, 2001: 277. 100. For instance, Eaton, 1974: 117-27; Roy, 2014: 80-3. 101. Orsini, 2014: 418. 102. Tschacher, 2014: 195-211.

REFERENCES Abidi, S.A.H. 1962. ‘The Story of Padmavat in Indo-Persian Literature’, Indo-Iranica, 15: 2, pp. 1-12. Agrawal, Vasudev Sara]n, ed. 1961 (rpt. 2013). Padmavat, Malik Muhammad k_rta mahakavya (mul aur sanjivani vyakhya). Jhansi: Sahitya Sadan. Alam, Muzaffar. 1998. ‘The Pursuit of Persian: Language in Mughal Politics’, Modern Asian Studies, 32: 2, pp. 317-49. Ali, Abdullah Yusuf,  ed. 1946. The Holy Qur’an. Birmingham: Islamic Propagation Centre International. Arif Billah, Abu Musa Mohammad. 2014. Influence of Persian Literature on Shah Muhammad Sagir’s Yusuf Zulaikha and Alaol’s Padmavati. Dhaka: Abu Rayhan Biruni Foundation. Bandyopadhyay, Debnath, ed. 1985. Padmabati, Dvitiya Kha]n]da. Kolkata: Pa]scimabanga Rajya Pustaka Par_sat. Behl, Aditya and Wendy Doniger. 2012. Love’s Subtle Magic: An Indian Islamic Literary Tradition, 1379-1545. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Behl, Aditya. 2002. ‘Premodern Negotiations: Translating between Persian and Hindavi’, in Rukmini Bhaya Nair, ed., Contemporary Textual Politics in Translation, Text and Theory: The Paradigm of India. New Delhi, London: Sage. Busch, Allison. 2015. ‘Listening for the Context: Tuning in to the Reception of Riti Poetry’, in Francesca Orsini and Katherine Butler


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Schofield, eds., Tellings and Texts: Music, Literature and Performance in North India. World Oral Literature Series. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers. Chatterji, Suniti Kumar. 1926. The Origin and Development of the Bengali Language. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press. Chowdhury, Mohammed Ali. 2004. Bengal-Arakan Relations, 14301666 A.D. Kolkata: Firma K.L.M. d’Hubert, Thibaut. 2015. ‘Patterns of Composition in the Seventeenth Century Bengali Literature of Arakan’, in Francesca Orsini and Katherine Butler Schofield, eds., Tellings and Texts: Music, Literature and Performance in North India. World Oral Literature Series. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers. . 2014b. ‘Pirates, Poets, and Merchants: Bengali Language and Literature in Seventeenth-Century Mrauk-U’, in Thomas de Bruijn and Allison Busch, eds., Culture and Circulation: Literature in Motion in Early Modern India. Brill’s Indological Library, vol. 46. Leiden: Brill. . 2014a. ‘Bhangiya kahile tahe ache bahuras: Madhyayuger kavi Alaoler anuvad-paddhati’, Bhabnagar, 1: 1, pp. 59-76. . 2013.‘Alaol’. Encyclopaedia of Islam, 3rd edn. Brill Online Reference Works. Accessed on 2 May 2017. http://referenceworks. . 2010. ‘Histoire Culturelle et Poetique de la Traduction Alaol et la Tradition Litteraire Bengali au Xviie Siècle a Mrauk-U, Capitale du Royaume d’Arakan’. Ph.D. thesis, École Pratique des Hautes Études. Dayala, Raghubara, ed. 1880. Padmavata Bhasha: yaha prasiddha kahani Raja Ratnasena aura Padmavata ki hai. Lucknow: Navalakisora Press. De Bruijn, Thomas and Allison Busch, eds. 2014. Culture and Circulation: Literature in Motion in Early Modern India. Brill’s Indological Library, vol. 46. Leiden: Brill. De Bruijn, Thomas. 2012. Ruby in the Dust: Poetry and History in Padmavat by the South-Asian Sufi Poet Muhammad Jayasi. Leiden: Leiden University Press. Eaton, Richard, 1974. ‘Sufi Folk Literature and the Expansion of Indian Islam’. History of Religions, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 117-27. Ganjavi, Ni]zami and Julie Scott  Meisami, eds. 1995. The Haft Paykar: A Medieval Persian Romance. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Genette, Gérard. 1997. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree.

Trans-textuality, Translation and Equivalence


Translated by Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky. Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press. Gignoux, Philippe and Bizhan Ghaybi, 2004 (updated 2012). ‘Homo­ sexuality in Persian Literature’, Encyclopædia Iranica. Accessed on 2 May 2017.­ iii Gommans, Jos and Jacques Leider, eds. 2002. The Maritime Frontier of Burma: Exploring Political, Cultural and Commercial Interaction in the Indian Ocean World, 1200-1800. Leiden: KITLV Press. Haq, Enamul and Abdul Karim, eds. 1993. Arakan Rajsabhaya Bamla Sahitya (1600-1700). Muhammad Enamul Hak Racanavali, vol. 2. Dhaka: Bangla Academy. Jayasi, Malik Mu]hammad. 1743. Padmavat of Jayasi (in Kaithi script). British Library, London. M.S. Add. 5594. Karim, Abdul, ed. 1977. Alaoler Padmabati. Chittagong: Ba>ngla Sahitya Samiti. Khan, Muhammad Mojlum. 2013. The Muslim Heritage of Bengal: The Lives, Thoughts and Achievements of Great Muslim Scholars, Writers and Reformers of Bangladesh and West Bengal. England: Kube Publishing Ltd. McGregor, R.S., ed. 1993. Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Meisami, Julie Scott.  1987. Medieval Persian Court Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Nair, Rukmini Bhaya, ed. 2002. Translation, Text and Theory: The Para­ digm of India. New Delhi, London: Sage. Narayanan, Vasudha. 2000. ‘Religious Vocabulary and Regional Identity: A Study of the Tamil Cirappuranam’, in David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence, eds.,  Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia. Gainesville: University of Florida Press. Nida, Eugene. 2004. ‘Principles of Correspondence’, in Lawrence Venuti, ed., The Translation Studies Reader. 2nd edn., New York, Abingdon: Routledge. Orsini, Francesca and Katherine Butler Schofield, eds. 2015. Tellings and Texts: Music, Literature and Performance in North India. World Oral Literature Series. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers. Orsini, Francesca and Samira Sheikh, eds. 2014. After Timur Left: Culture and Circulation in Fifteenth-century North India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


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Orsini, Francesca. 2014. ‘Traces of a Multilingual World: Hindavi in Persian Texts’, in Francesca Orsini and Samira Sheikh, eds., After Timur Left: Culture and Circulation in Fifteenth-century North India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Platts, John T. 1884. A Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English. London: W.H. Allen and Company. Pym, Anthony, ed. 2010. Exploring Translation Theories. 2nd edn. London: Routledge. Ramanujan, A.K. and Vinay Dharwadker, eds. 2004. A.K. Ramanujan: Collected Essays. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Ramanujan, A.K. 2004. ‘The Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation’, in A.K. Ramanujan and Vinay Dharwadker, eds., A.K. Ramanujan: Collected Essays. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Roy, Asim. 1983. The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Sen, Dinesh Chandra. 1911. History of Bengali Language and Literature. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press. Sen, Sukumar. 1960. History of Bengali Literature. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi. Stewart, Tony K. 2001. ‘In Search of Equivalence: Conceiving MuslimHindu Encounter through Translation Theory’. History of Religions, 40: 3, pp. 260-87. Tschacher, Torsten. 2014. ‘Can Om be an Islamic Term? Translations, Encounters, and Islamic Discourse in Vernacular South Asia’, South Asian History and Culture, 5: 2, pp. 195-211. Van Galen, Stephan. 2008. ‘Arakan and Bengal: The Rise and Decline of the Mrauk U Kingdom (Burma) from the Fifteenth to the Seventeenth Century AD’, Ph.D. thesis, Leiden University. Venuti, Lawrence. 1995. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Trans­ lation. London: Routledge. Venuti, Lawrence, ed. 2004. The Translation Studies Reader. 2nd edn. New York, Abingdon: Routledge. Zbavitel, Dušan. 1976. A History of Indian Literature, series editor Jan Gonda, reviewed in Bengali Literature. Modern Indo-Aryan Lite­ ratures, vol. 9, Fasc. 3. Weisbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.


Representation of Women in the Mangalkavyas Swarnali Biswas

This chapter explores the representation of women, both divine and human, in the vast corpus of Mangalkavyas, roughly com­ posed in and covering the period from the fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries in Bengal. The primary texts are Manasamangal, Chandimangal and Dharmamangal. It is important to mention that my analyses of literary depictions of women in this article may or may not reflect the actual condition of women in early modern Bengal. However, these provide entry points in try­ ing to decipher and gauge norms and values in the period. The study and re-evaluation of literature by and on women has received much attention in the world of academic scholarship in recent years. There have been some fascinating works on women in early modern Bengal highlighting their condition, and their representation in the literature, society and politics during the period. Even though there have been noteworthy works on this area, ‘a scholarly sense of the entire domain awaits development’.1

Manasamangal Poets and Patrons

I would refer to the Manasamangal composed by three authors, Bijay Gupta (ce 1494), Biprodas Pipilai (ce 1495-6) and Ketakadas Ksemananda (mid-seventeenth century). Bijay Gupta, the poet of Padma Puran, was a resident of the Phulasri village of the Bakar­


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ganj (Bakla, located on the eastern coast) district, and the text was probably composed in ce 1494. Another poet, Biprodas Pipilai, was the son of a Brahmin named Mukunda Pandit. He resided in the village of Nadura Batgram and composed Manasamangal in around ce 1495-6 when apparently Manasa, the Snake Goddess who is the main deity of Manasamangal, ordered him to do so in a dream. The most popular of the Mangal poems was Ketakadas Ksemananda’s Manasamangal in the mid-seventeenth century. He was a Kayastha and the son of Sankar Mandal. He resided in the taluk of Balavadra until his death. After Balavadra died leaving his three young sons, his taluk fell into the hands of a man called Prasad who was their tutor. Sankar Mandal had to flee with his family due to the oppression of Prasad who became the new diwan of the village. Sankar took shelter under a person called Nilambar in the village of Jaganathpur and from there he went to Raja Bishnu Das’ brother Bharmalla who gave them shelter and three villages.2 Historical Context

The popularization of the cult of Manasa indicates the immediate concerns of human beings who lived in forest areas infested with wild animals, which led to the conception of such deities.3 During Alauddin Hussain Shah’s reign ce 1494-1519, two major works on Manasa by Biprodas Pipilai and Bijay Gupta were composed, and both of them refer to him as the ruler of Gaur. The texts of Mana­ samangal also suggest acceptability and mutual respect between the two communities of Hindus and Muslims.4 Also, it shows the fusion of Islamic and Hindu cosmology and worldviews.5 The Mangalkavyas accommodated new superhumans, like the pirs and cultural elements from the ‘foreign Muslims’.6 They also highlight one of the salient features of pre-modern Bengal, which was, according to Sushil Chaudhury, the development of a compos­ ite culture, and the harmonious relationship between Hindus and Muslims.7 In Ketakadas Ksemananda’s version (mid-seventeenth century), a copy of the Qur’an along with other charms was kept in the iron chamber prepared to protect merchant Chand’s son Lakhinder from the wrath of Snake Goddess Manasa.

Representation of Women in the Mangalkavyas


Interestingly, some of the versions of Manasamangal also depict a picture that is quite the opposite of the view of a prosperous and peaceful early modern Bengal. Poet Ketakadas Ksemananda had to leave his ancestral village due to oppression by its diwan. This oppression of peasants by landlords, accountants and revenue offi­ cers can be found in the writing of authors of other Mangalkavyas from as early as the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The image of an unstable environment and anarchy in Bengal is depicted in the eastern Bengal ballads mainly composed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.8 We find mention of the town of Saptagram or Satgaon along with Triveni as a spiritual centre in Biprodas Pipilai’s version and the presence of immigrant Muslims of Central Asia. Sapta­ gram was already an administrative and trading centre from the mid-fifteenth century and continued to be the focal point for mer­ chants of foreign origin through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.9 Plotline

The narrative of Manasamangal starts with the story of the ori­ gin of Snake Goddess Manasa. It focuses on Manasa’s fight with Chand, a merchant who was a supreme devotee of Shiva, to obtain worship from the humans and Behula’s (wife of Chand’s young­ est son, Lakhinder) struggle with Manasa to save her husband’s life when he was killed by a snake by her order. At the end of the story, Behula wins over Manasa who restores not only Lakhinder’s life but also the life of his six brothers who were killed by God­ dess Manasa. On Behula’s persuasion, Chand agrees to worship Manasa, which leads to the founding of her cult. Manasa’s Identity Linked to Male Characters

According to Mandakranta Bose, the evolved forms of goddesses in Hindu religions were connected to ‘a male figure as his mother or his wife or his daughter that suggests that her identity rests on the relationship with males.’10 In the narrative of Manasamangal,


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this strategy is employed to link Manasa’s identity with males, both human and divine. Manasa is called as ‘Jagatgauri’ (a sage and hus­ band of Goddess Manasa) and ‘Mandodari’ in Bipradas’ version.11 The first one signals her status as the wife of Jaratkaru and later, her separation from her husband shows how the narrative subjugated her independent identity by linking it with either her father or husband. Interestingly, her sufferings that Biprodas Pipilai and Bijay Gupta focus on mainly concern her relationships with males. She is in agony due to her conflictual relationship with God Shiva who could not keep her with him due to the wrath of his wife, Chandi. She was unable to keep her husband, Jaratkaru, in a conjugal rela­ tionship with her. She had a hostile relationship with the merchant Chand in order to obtain his worship. All these failures reflected the aspirations of a woman in a male-dominated society where her achievement rested on being an obedient and legitimate daugh­ ter, ideal wife and nurturing mother, and from seeking devotion from a male devotee. Manasa does not excel in all these roles even though she is co-opted into the framework of patriarchy. Subjugation of Manasa’s Agency

The narrative (all versions) subordinates Manasa’s agency to male authority. One such instance is in Biprodas Pipilai’s Manasamangal where Manasa seeks the help of her father, Shiva, to save the snakes who were eaten by Garuda, the vaahan (carrier) of Vishnu. Manasa’s incapacity to rescue her kind even with her supreme powers makes her position subservient to Shiva. In Bijay Gupta’s rendition, Manasa asks for Shiva’s permission so that Aniruddha and Usha (celestial dancers who danced before God Shiva and other gods) could be born as Behula and Lakh­ inder. Shiva warns Manasa not to cause any pain to them or he would disown her as his daughter. In another version, Manasa asks Shiva to curse Usha and Aniruddha so that they could be born as Behula and Lakhinder. The need for male supervision over women or their dependency on the ‘goodwill of men’ is also stressed in the narrative.12

Representation of Women in the Mangalkavyas


Another incident where Manasa’s power is subverted is during Behula’s arrival in the assembly of gods presided over by Shiva. Manasa was compelled to restore life in Lakhinder’s body as Behula secured the patronage of Shiva and other gods. Incorporation of Goddess Manasa into Domesticity

Manasa’s incorporation into the fold of patriarchy continues to take place in the narrative (all versions) by ascribing to her the status of a wife and mother. Shiva tricked a saint named Jaratkaru13 into marrying his daughter, Manasa.14 This act of bringing Manasa into the fold of marriage indicates the process of domestication of the goddess. According to Lawrence Babb, there is a tendency to domesticate the potentially destructive power that females embody in both Hindu and religious symbolism.15 According to Susan S. Wadley, the Hindu goddess who marries transfers the control of her sexuality to her husband. Here, by marrying off Manasa, the narrative tries to control her mysterious, destructive powers and her sexuality, at the same time. Manasa fulfils the purpose of marriage through the birth of a son, Astik. Susan S. Wadley notes that ‘the fulfilment of the mar­ ried woman’s roles occur when she becomes a mother, especially mother of a male child’ as the child symbolizes the ‘sexual func­ tioning’ of the female that is both acceptable and desirable. This also guarantees the survival of the family and community, and reinforces the social order.16 ‘Motherhood is subsumed with wifely duty’ as it is demanded from the wife that she produce sons.17 Therefore, Manasa conforms to the roles of a wife and mother even though she does not exhibit any wifely virtues or nurturing or protective maternal qualities in her representation. She never negates marriage or motherhood and thereby does not threaten the social order. By assigning her this role, the chroniclers have bound her within the domain of domesticity. I also argue that the text balances Manasa’s husband, Jaratkaru’s powerlessness with his power to bless her with a son18 without whom the goddess would have been unable to become a mother. The narrative subtly trans­ fers the power of procreation and reproduction to the male, and


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denounces the feminine power of fertility for which Manasa is also worshipped.19 The Image of the Vulnerable and Powerless Manasa

Scholars have emphasized Manasa’s qualities of being powerful, selfish, proud, cruel and vindictive. Apart from the power-hungry, negative image of Manasa, which we are well-acquainted with, a weak and helpless image of her also arises from the narrative. In Manasamangal, Manasa laments the collapse of her marriage where her vulnerability is quite visible. Her weak and vulnerable aspect is palpable in Bijay Gupta’s version where she is unable to breastfeed her children due to a trick by Chandi. She is desperate to save her eight children and goes to Shiva to ask for his help.20 This incident puts forward the mother Manasa seeking help for the survival of her sons. Shiva acts as the protector who saves his grandchildren by turning a sea into milk. Manasa is represented as a powerless and helpless mother dependent on endorsements from the male. Predominance of Caste and Gender in Manasamangal

Manasa does not rebel against the caste and gender hierarchy, which are the organizing principles of the patriarchal Brahmani­ cal system. Her acceptance among the upper classes as their deity rests upon the sanction from an upper caste male, which is reflected in the main plot of the story. This validation from the upper-castes was necessary for a society dominated by a gender and caste hierarchy. Shiva came in the guise of an old Brahmin, and the untouchable chandal accepts his verdict on Manasa as a powerful deity.21 In another version of Manasamangal by Biprodas Pipilai, when Manasa takes it upon herself to promote her worship among lower caste shepherds in the disguise of an old Brahmin lady, she receives a different treatment than her father, Shiva. The shepherds call her rakshashidaini or a ‘demon-witch’ when she reveals her identity. Finally, Manasa uses tricks to compel them to worship her.22 The

Representation of Women in the Mangalkavyas


response received by Manasa is not unusual as women who are perceived as ‘malevolent’ or having ‘destructive powers are often pushed towards the periphery of social space’.23 Appropriation of Manasa into the Brahmanical Order

The undercutting of Manasa’s autonomy is explicit towards the end of the text at least in Bijay Gupta’s version. She obtains her position in the midst of higher gods and goddesses who are worshipped by the elites of the society. In the Padma Purana of Bijay Gupta, Chand is convinced by Chandi, Manasa’s arch-enemy to worship Goddess Manasa. Chandi says to Chand that she and Manasa are the same entities and not different beings.24 Manasa’s victory comes at the expense of her independent identity. Her merging with Chandi or Bhagavati, a central goddess of the Hindu pantheon and the consort of Shiva, not only subordinates her identity as a goddess but her independent self is lost. Chand does not submit to Manasa; he only agrees to worship her when he is convinced that both the goddesses form a single entity. Sexuality, Power of Persuasion and the Agency of the Pativrata Woman in Manasamangal

In Manasamangal, Goddess Manasa plots to snatch the powers of Sankar Garari who is also known as Dhanantari Ojha. Dhanatari Ojha was merchant Chand’s friend and possessed the supreme knowledge of restoring life after death.25 In the narrative Ojha used his powers to restore Chand’s ‘Guyabari’ which was ruined by Goddess Manasa. Manasa knew that she had to kill Ojha to compel Chand to worship him but could not do so as he knew how to revive the dead. So Manasa meets Kamala, Ojha’s wife, in the guise of a milk woman and suggests her to seduce her husband to know how he can be killed by a snake and how to snatch away his powers of reviving the dead.26 In Bijay Gupta’s version when Kamala’s sexual seduction fails she recounts the story of a pativrata (a wife who is virtuous, faithful and devoted to her godlike hus­ band) woman to earn her husband’s trust and persuades him to


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reveal to her the secret of his death.27 In Biprodas Pipilai’s version Kamala’s use of sexual seduction is emphasized more than her use of persuasive language.28 The story that Kamala tells is of a pativrata woman, who takes her ill husband to a prostitute.29 On her way, she collides with Sage Matanga who is tied to a stake on false allegations of theft. The saint, hurt by the collision, curses her husband to die at sunset.30 The pativrata woman takes an oath that if she were a pativrata, then the sun would never rise. Unable to console the woman, the gods send Anusuya (she is the wife of sage Atri and one of the great pativratas in Indian tradition) who assures her that she would bring back her husband’s life and cure him of his illness.31 She tells her to let the sun rise and put an end to the world’s misery. This tale is present in both the Garuda and the Markandeya Puranas.32 The story is about the ‘misuse of power’33 where no censure is made of the oppression of the wife who uses her power to prevent the sun from rising; she does not try to bring her husband back on the right track. The injustices heaped on the wife are glossed over by the veneration of patidharma (service and duty of a wife towards the husband) and the glorification of the powers of a pativrata woman. She makes the universe suffer due to mistreatment by her husband and later by the sage. Anusuya, on the other hand, controls the situation through her tactfulness and virtue. The story also shows her as ‘ready to honour and help other women, who are following the right path’.34 Both Kamala and Anusuya’s power is recognized because it has its foundation in the patriarchal system. Anusuya seems to exercise authority and she uses persuasive language to convince the other woman. The gods seem to rely on her due to her skills of persua­ sion and wisdom over the power earned by the pativrata woman through her single-minded devotion to her husband. Sanaka and Behula: The Two Role Models of Manasamangal

According to Manashi Dasgupta and Mandakranta Bose, Sanaka is the ‘idealised mother-wife’35 who obeyed her husband’s com­

Representation of Women in the Mangalkavyas


mand36 even though it led to the death of her six sons and later her youngest, Lakhinder. I argue that she was not a timid spectator of her husband’s faults and criticized him verbally or otherwise. In Bijay Gupta’s narrative, the oppressed Sanaka walks out of Chand’s house.37 In Biprodas Pipilai’s version Sanaka becomes angry when she hears criticism of Manasa. She tells Chand that it is due to his arrogance that everything is ruined.38 Sanaka is represented as a role model for women in all the ver­ sions of Manasamangal. But she was accused of adultery by her husband in Bijay Gupta’s version. When Chand returned home after several months, he saw young Lakhinder and doubted Sanaka’s chastity. Sanaka proved her innocence by presenting a letter which was written by Chand stating that his wife was preg­ nant with his child before he left for the voyage. I argue that even though Sanaka embodied all womanly qualities that made her an ideal woman yet her depiction is not free from gender bias and she is also viewed as being fickle and unfaithful in one version. Behula’s assertiveness and aggressive behaviour are far from the helplessness of her mother-in-law, Sanaka. Behula acts as the protector of Lakhinder even before her marriage to him. When Lakhinder was travelling to Ujani to marry Behula, he saw Manasa and her snakes and died of fear. Behula goes to Manasa’s abode to convince her to revive Lakhinder. Manasa is uncooperative and refuses to help. Here, Behula exhibits violence and aggression, which is unexpected for a woman. In Bijay Gupta’s version, she cuts off her breasts and is about to cut her throat.39 In Biprodas Pipilai’s version, too, she demonstrates the same aggression to compel Manasa to listen to her plea.40 Manasa gives her magical waters to reinstate life in Lakhinder’s body so that he could marry her. Behula also prays to Manasa to make her disfigured body beautiful because she feared that Lakhinder would not marry her. Therefore, it is evident from the narrative that physical beauty in a bride was expected.41 Behula’s character has to give many tests due to her transgressions (Behula sailed on a boat with her dead husband Lakhinder and stepped out of the traditional sphere of women. Her chastity is questioned because she danced seductively


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in the assembly of gods to please Shiva and other gods so that they help her to bring back her husband to life.) and she was repri­ manded (Behula went on an unchaperoned voyage with her dead husband’s body and she danced alluringly before the gods.) by her mother-in-law, Sanaka, and her husband, Lakhinder. However, she shines in the role of a pativrata, which is above all social, moral and physical considerations, requirements and norms. Behula stands as a model to be emulated by women for her devotion to her husband and her family.

Chandimangal Poets and Patrons

Mukundaram Chakravarti composed Chandimangal in the late sixteenth century. A Brahmin by birth, he lived in a village near the Burdwan district in the eastern plains of the Rahr. He eventually left his home and settled in the western part of the Rahr prob­ ably because of the oppressive Muslim governor in his locality. He received patronage from a Brahmin ruler, Bir Bankura Ray,42 of Brahmanbhum in the Medinipur (Midnapore) district and his son and successor, Raghunath Ray, and wrote his literary work. Historical Context

According to Chittaranjan Dasgupta, Chandimangal might have indicated ‘real political processes’,43 like the clearing of the forest by Kalketu (low caste hunter – protagonist of the Kalketu-Phul­ lara story) in the area of the western Rahr where the poet lived. Mukundaram Chakrabarti also mentions Zafar Mian, a leader of 22,000 Muslim workers. He might have drawn this theme from ‘the culture of his own time’ where Muslims cleared forests under a charismatic pir.44 During Mukundaram Chakravarti’s period, ‘leaders from lowborn, “tribal” peoples had become kings on the agrarian frontier below the Chota Nagpur plateau.’45 According to Hitesranjan Sanyal, there is a similarity between the story of Kalketu’s estab­

Representation of Women in the Mangalkavyas


lishment of Gujarat by Chandi’s grace, and the emergence and growth of frontier principalities in south-west Bengal, which came into prominence in the sixteenth century.46 In the Kalketu-Phullara story of Chandimangal, Kalketu was a base born hunter who became king by the grace of Goddess Chandi. Following Chandi’s order, Kalketu also constructed a temple for her worship. According to Hitesranjan Sanyal, late sixteenth cen­ tury text Akbarnama mentions Hamir (Malla Raja) as a powerful prince of Mallabhum (Bankura). Prabhat Kumar Saha argues that this Hamir was none other than Bir Hambir and he introduced the worship of Mrinmoyi in Bishnupur (Mallabhum’s capital). God­ dess Mrinmoyi commanded him to build a fortress, which came to be known as Bishnupur. Hitesranjan Sanyal suggests that the Mal­ las flourished due to the grace of Goddess Mrinmoyi. According to Chittaranjan Dasgupta, images of this goddess were kept in all the strongholds of the Malla kings, and this practice of installing god­ dess images for protection was visible in the south-western Rahr region even before the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This also highlights the goddess tradition in Bengal where the goddess in her martial form was associated with the attainment of politi­ cal power by the rulers, and the protection and prosperity of their kingdom.47 Mukundaram Chakravarti’s patron, Raja Bankura Ray, the ruler of Brahmanbhum of Midnapore, was a devotee of a god­ dess named Joychandi Thakurani. In the Dhanapati-Khullana-Shripati (the first story of Chandimangal is Kalketu-Phullara and the second one is DhanapatiKhullana-Shripati story), Mukundaram Chakravarti mentions a merchant, Dhanapati, was sent by the king or raja Ujain to trade with Sinhala. Trade between Sri Lanka and merchants from Bengal continued throughout the sixteenth century.48 Mukundaram des­ cription of the Bengali merchant’s activities correspond with that of the Bengali merchants of the sixteenth century who were ‘local collectors and distributors in this trade’ and depended on foreign trade. Their long-distance trade was limited to minor ports and trading commodities that were marginal in importance.49 Mukundaram Chakravarti mentions the port of Satgaon or Saptagram where Dhanapati loads his boats with merchandise.


Swarnali Biswas

Satgaon was an emporium of trade throughout the sixteenth cen­ tury.50 He depicts Hindu and Muslim artisans living in mohallas (quarters). Contemporary Portuguese accounts indicate the divi­ sion of mohallas and streets by the nature of merchandise sold there.51 Plotline

In Chandimangal, there are two distinct stories. In Chandimangal, there are two distinct stories which are Kalketu-Phullara story and Dhanapati-Khullana-Shripati story. In the Kalketu-Phullara story, the story is of the building of a kingdom by a poor hunter, Kalketu, by the grace of Chandi and his rescue by her from imprisonment by the king of Kalinga. In the Dhanapati-Khullana-Shripati story (also called Banik Khanda), Chandi helps Khullana against her co-wife, Lahana and later, when she undergoes an ordeal to prove her chastity before a community of merchants. Chandi also saves merchant Dhanapati (Khullana’s husband) and his son, Shripati, from the king of Sinhala who imprisoned them due to Chandi’s trick. Chandi’s worship was established. Merchant Dhanapati who refused to worship Goddess Chandi earlier, agreed to worship her and therfore Chandi’s worship was established among the humans. Subordination and Eroticization of the Goddess

The Chandimangal begins with the myth of the creation of a universe where Niranjana, the primordial man, creates the three worlds. Narayani is the creation of the god himself. The anthro­ pomorphic form of the goddess is the reflection of man’s desires. The female body has been traditionally viewed as a sexual object and in these narratives, there are innumerable examples of this objectification. As scholars have noted, ‘the determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure’.52 Narayani, as the name suggests, is linked to a male god (Niranjan) and is also depicted as ‘soft-spoken’,53 which reflects the process of her domestication. Her nature, speech and physical appearance are created and controlled by an active male agency.

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Chandi as Sati: The Ideal Wife

The identification of Chandi with Sati and Parvati, both consorts of Shiva, firmly entrench the goddess within the domain of domes­ ticity. In the narrative, Sati has been viewed as an ideal wife who gave up her life as she could not bear the insult of her husband, Shiva, by her father, Daksha. Her self-sacrifice at Daksha’s yajna (a ritual sacrifice with a specific objective) is the highlight of the story.54 Her character does not show any agency during her mar­ riage with Shiva. It is Narada who advises Daksha to marry off Sati to Shiva.55 Sati’s only act of rebellion is to go to her father’s sacrifice without Shiva’s permission.56 Her act of destroying herself is the only destructive thing that she does but she is not vested with powers to destroy anything but herself. Sati does not assume any terrible form during her self-destruction, and does not break away from her demure, docile, devoted image.57 Agency of Parvati, Female Objectification and Female Stereotypes

In the story of Parvati and Shiva, Chandi (both Chandi and Par­ vati are the same goddess) is located within the domestic sphere as the daughter of Himalaya and Menaka, and the wife of Shiva. The image of the young and blossoming Parvati generates an erotic and visual impact.58 Like Sati, Parvati, too, does not have any say in her marriage, which is fixed by her father. Moreover, Shiva remains oblivious to Parvati’s glamour and beauty, and is aroused by her only when Kama, the god of love, hits him with his arrows.59 Gauri, is instead, the passive object that arouses the desire in a man through her physical presence.60 She is unable to use her sexuality to her own satisfaction or to allure Shiva. She only contains the desire of Shiva61 induced by Kama. The gods conspire to bring Shiva and Parvati/Chandi closer so that a son Kartik, is born to kill the asura (divine beings who are malevolent and are constantly at war with the gods), Taraka, who defeated Indra in battle. Hence, Parvati’s marriage to Shiva is to fulfil an aim that would reinstate the social order by the birth of


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a male offspring who would slay an asura and restore the rule of the gods. In the text, Parvati is depicted as someone too delicate to per­ form austerities. She is a girl who needs protection and care both inside and outside the boundaries of the household.62 However, Parvati embodies ‘ultimate devotion’ towards Shiva even before their marriage, as she turns into an ascetic, not for her spiritual upliftment but to attain him. This subverts the practice of tapasya that female ascetics did for religious and spiritual purposes.63 Also, the performance of such austerities further entrench her within the family and household structure. An ideal wife was to worship her master as her God and was to have no other religious obli­ gation other than him.64 By sacrificing food, comfort, riches and shelter for Shiva, Parvati emulates the role of the ideal wife. Subversion of the Power of Female Fertility

In the story of Shiva and Parvati, Parvati or Gauri creates a doll out of her body-dirt. On seeing the doll, Shiva animates it and Ganesh is born. Gauri is deprived of the ‘life-giving’ power of feminine energy even though the gods want her to be the mother of Kar­ tik. In Kartik’s case, too, Shiva plays an important part. Parvati is merely the one who evokes lust in Shiva but is considered unfit to bear his ‘seed’. Parvati does not rear Kartik who is brought up instead by Krittika, Rohini, Mrigashira, Arda, Purnarvasu and Pushya, and then given back to Gauri.65 According to Kunal Chakrabarti, the female body is ‘extricated of the birth-giving and nurturing subjectivity of motherhood’.66 The birth of a son is one of the duties of a wife and the birth of a male child becomes the validation of wifely existence. Therefore, Gauri fulfils the role of a wife by becoming the mother of Kartik and Ganesh but she is barred from the experience of giving birth and from motherhood. The appropriation of the goddess in the domestic sphere and her subjugation is completed by identifying her with Sati and Parvati whose portrayals follow the notion of the subordination of the feminine and the belief in male superiority.67

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Chandi, the Remover of Distress

I have already mentioned before the link between Chandi and political authority, and the protection of territory and fortress. Chandimangal was mirroring the prevailing tradition of the god­ dess and the protection she provided. Chandi acts as a defender of Kalketu, the hunter, Dhanapati, the merchant and his son, Shripati. She saves Kalketu by terrorising the king of Kalinga in his dreams and fights a battle against the king of Sinhala when Shripati was imprisoned68 like his father. According to Tracy Pintchman, the destructive aspect of the goddess is represented by terrible forms, and this can have both positive and negative meanings.69 Chandi assumes a terrible form, and her image is linked to blood and vio­ lence. She uses her powers to protect her devotees and, hence, they are not considered malevolent. Different Images of Chandi

One of the images that strike the reader in Chandimangal is Chandi’s Kamale Kamini incarnation. This form, where an alluring woman devours and vomits out an elephant sitting on lotus petals, symbolizes bad luck. Both the merchant, Dhanapati and Shripati, his son, saw the image and were imprisoned by the Sinhala king. The goddess is both alluring and menacing. Her image commands awe and generates anxiety and fear among the spectators. In the story of Kalketu and Phullara, Chandi assumes the form of an attractive sixteen-year-old woman. She transgresses the role of an ideal wife by leaving her home and when asked to return, retorts that she can protect herself.70 She defies the social conventions set for women and asserts her independent selfhood. However, this selfhood is undermined by the narrative. She is ashamed when Kalketu reminds her that chastity is an essential virtue of women and gives the example of Sita in the Ramayana who had to undergo an ordeal to prove her chastity. On the other hand, Chandi is also depicted in the role of a spokesperson for patriarchy. She admonishes Lahana, Dhanapati’s wife, for tortur­ ing her co-wife, Khullana and for her unwomanly comportment.71


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Dhanapati gave her the responsibility to take care of Khullana72 but she did not. Therefore, she violated the tenets of patidharma, which demands the ultimate surrender of the wife to her husband’s wishes. Subversion of Feminine Power by Male Authority

Chandi wants to punish Dhanapati, Khullana’s husband, for kick­ ing her pot. She sinks all six of his ships, but does not kill him because it would be a ‘sin’ to go against Shiva.73 She is afraid of being reprimanded by Shiva. This puts Shiva in a position of authority and makes Chandi subordinate to him. Even when he is absent, Shiva’s powers seem to be all-pervading. Here, too, Chandi acts as the responsible wife and restrains her actions. The narrative limits Chandi’s agency by making her subservient to Shiva’s wishes. Another incident where feminine power is subjugated is when Chandi appears at the house of Kalketu as a teenager. Chandi also complained to Phullara (Kalketu’s wife) about her co-wife, Ganga’s insults, and her husband’s violence and indifference towards her. She says that her miserable married life had turned her into Kali. This subverts the very essence of the form of Kali, the goddess of death who is linked to crematoriums. She is wild, independent and unattached even as the wife of Shiva. The narrative hints at the process of the ‘taming’ of Kali that began from the tenth and eleventh centuries, and was mostly noticed in eighteenth-century Bengal.74 By identifying Kali with Chandi, the text transforms the former into a helpless and suffering wife who fits perfectly with the norms of the ideal wife. The goddess’ agency is subjugated by the narrative when Chandi appears before Dhanapati in the form of Ardhanarishvar, i.e. half-Parvati, and half-Shiva fused into one form.75 He bows to this incarnation of Chandi. Chandi’s independent entity is, thus, compromised. She becomes a part of Shiva and derives legiti­ macy from his presence. Shiva’s existence elevates her status. Even though the narrative celebrates Chandi, it ends up disregarding her as a distinct being.

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Women’s Role in Chandimangal

According to David Curley, ‘the masculine and feminine gender roles were imagined as multiple and ranked within each gender form’ in Mukundaram Chakravarti’s narrative. The roles are gen­ dered because the more powerful roles are more masculine.76 According to Curley, women characters of Chandimangal shifted to new roles that were normally assumed by men and this was an ‘important aspect of their agency.’77 For instance, whichever role Phullara assumes, be it ‘buying and selling’, ‘giving bhet’ or receiving benefactions, these are all consid­ ered feminine in comparison to Kalketu’s undertakings. Though the narrative depicts women shifting to tasks which were ordi­ narily performed by males, the dominant positions were almost always assumed by the latter. Often, Phullara, shifts roles (more feminine one) not by choice but by the order of her husband who is always performing a comparatively masculine one. The author­ ity of entrusting someone with a part rests in the hands of the male characters. In Mukundaram Chakravarti’s narrative, Phullara seems to draw no agency from the economic functions that she fulfils in her household economy. Apart from Phullara, Dubala, Lahana’s maid-servant, also seems to have financial responsibili­ ties in the household with a connection to the outside world. Puberty, Marriage and Sexuality of Women in Dhanapati-Khullana-Shripati Story

The narrative registers discomfort regarding the marriage of a woman to a man who is already married because the co-wife is always envious of the younger wife and co-wives are apparently vile. At least one of the female characters seems to express such sentiments in the text. Khullana’s mother, Rambha, admonishes her husband, Lakshapati, when he fixes the marriage of their daughter Khullana with the merchant, Dhanapati, who already had a wife.78 The narrative justifies the marriage of pre-pubertal girls. Women are viewed as keepers of the honour of men and it was necessary to control their sexuality for ensuring lineage purity or caste purity.


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Puberty was seen as ‘dangerous’ and, thus, a pre-pubertal marriage is recommended by a Brahmin in the text to maintain the ‘purity of caste’.79 The Brahmin warns Lakshapati that a girl of ‘twelve years’ should be married off immediately before she begins to menstru­ ate because once she attains puberty, she will lose her fear of men and might sexually desire them. If that happens, then Lakshapati and his ancestors would be doomed for eternity.80 These verses not only sexualize a girl child but also portray women as having ‘sexual incontinence’.81 The sexuality of women is viewed as a social con­ cern and, hence, it is the father’s social obligation to see that he gets his daughter married before puberty. The text notes that due to the inherent fault in women’s nature, they might fancy men of low birth or caste. It then refers to the problem of the mixing of castes, which would pollute not only the family but the entire society.82 All this highlights not only anxieties towards women’s sexuality but also those regarding social position and caste purity. The Malevolent Power of Sati

Khullana is compelled to wear a garment of jute (because Lahana was envious of her co-wife Khullana) that barely covered her upper body and roam around in the wilderness. Her unprotected state invites violation, so she is asked to take a trial by fire by the council of merchants to prove her chastity. She passes the test success­ fully with the help of Chandi. Khullana seems to indirectly derive a powerful agency from this oppressive practice and is feared by the merchant community. She is transformed from a victim into a woman who is not only an ideal pativrata but can also inflict curses and, hence, harm her oppressors. The merchants fall at her feet and beg her forgiveness because they accepted and fear her powers.83 The power to curse was closely associated with the sati­ mata84 tradition, according to Lindsey Harlan.85

Dharmamangal Poets and Patrons

Rupram Chakrabarti’s ancestral village was in Srirampur (south­ west Bengal) but he left it to study.86 A local Brahmin chief of

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Gophum,87 Ganesh Ray provided shelter and patronage to him, and he started composing Dharmamangal.88 There is a debate regard­ ing the year of composition of this poem. Some scholars’ say it was written between ce 1639 and 166089 whereas others argue that it was composed in ce 1662-3.90 Another poet of Dharmamangal is Ghanaram Chakrabarty who lived in the Kukura Krishnapur vil­ lage in the Kaikhar pargana. Bardhaman’s Maharaja Kirtichandra Rai was his patron. The text was completed in ce 171191 Manikram Ganguly composed the third text analysed here. He was a Kulin Brahmin, and his birthplace was the Beldiha village.92 There are many dates (for the text) suggested by different scholars. We will take the date suggested by Jogeshchandra Sen Bidyanidhi, which is ce 1781 because according to many scholars the text has some English words. Historical Context

According to Kumkum Chatterjee, none of the versions of Dharma­ mangal refers to political power in terms of the ‘Mughal political culture’ and remains embedded in ‘local concerns’.93 In Dharma­ mangal, Lausen (Lausen, the main protagonist of Dharmamangal, was son of Ranjabati and Karnasen. Karnasen was the raja of Mayna and subordinate chief under the ruler of Gaur. It was through Lausen that God Dharma established his worship on earth) rose as a subordinate of the king of Gaur under a centralized author­ ity just as the Burdwan Raj rose in 1680 under the Mughals.94 He annexed different small kingdoms and formed marriage alliances with the daughters of rulers like the Burdwan Raj, and conquered many principalities such as Senbhum, Gopbhum, Chandrakona and Brahmanbhum.95 The Mallas who were the ruling dynasty of Mallabhum during the sixteenth century (eastern part of Bankura) has similarity with Ichai Ghosh, one of the protagonist in Dharma­ mangal. According to Hitesranjan Sanyal, the Mallas claimed to be Kshatriyas but the popular belief say that they were of Bagdi or Mal origin (lowest rung of Hindu society). Hitesranjan Sanyal argues that their power and prosperity was because of the grace of Goddess Mrinmoyi who is the presiding deity of Mallabhum. In Dharmamangal, Ichai Ghosh of Dhekur belonged to low caste


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(goala) and became powerful because of the support of Goddess Chandi/Bhavani who protected him from Lausen’s attack. Another similarity was that both Mallas of Mallabhum and Ichai Ghosh in Dharmamangal lost their connection with the lower strata of society.96 The Malla Rajas began to promote Gaudiya Vaishnavism which had puranic rituals. The common people from lower rungs who earlier participated in Indradhaj and Gajan festival organized by the Mallas could not connect with Vaishnavism anymore. In Dharmamangal, Ichai Ghosh of Dhekur worshipped Bhavani in its puranic form and lost the support of the lower rung of society unlike his rival Lausen who was a devotee of God Dharma (pri­ marily worshiped by lower castes). Dharmamangal also shows Goddess Chandi/Bhavani (in Dharmamangal, Goddess Chandi is called by other names such as Bhavani. They are the same goddess with different names) as a martial figure and acting as the protector of the kingdom of Ichai Ghosh, ruler of Dhekur. Ichai Ghosh, in Dharmamangal, becomes powerful and invincible because Chandi or Bhavani gives him three arrows and a boon. Lausen and Kalu dom (belonged to an untouchable jati and was appointed by Lausen as the general of his army because of his military prowess) were unable to attack Ichai’s (Dhekur) kingdom until they drove the goddess away from her temple. The rise of this Sakta deity occurred in a transitional phase when power was shifting to the English from the Mughals, accom­ panied by economic and social upheavals, such as the Maratha invasions and famines. The political elite continued to worship the goddess under changing circumstances. The Maratha bargis who aspired for a successful campaign in Bengal worshipped Durga in the autumn. In 1757, under Nabakrishna Deb, a Durga Puja was arranged to celebrate the victory of the English over Sirajuddaula.97 The need for a power that could protect, and save added to the popularity of goddess worship. Plotline

In Dharmamangal, Ranjabati is a dancer in Indra’s assembly who is cursed and sent to the human realm. The first part of the story

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deals with the impotence of Karnasen, Ranjabati’s old husband, Ranjabati’s worship of God Dharma and sacrifice for the birth of a son, and Lausen’s birth. The second half of the story deals with Lausen and his brother, Karpur’s adventures on their way to Gaur. He conquers many lands by force and by marriage alliance. In the final part of the story, the raja of Gaur, under the influence of Mahmud (Mahmud is the evil minister and maternal uncle of Lausen. He is one of the main antagonists of Dharmamangal), asks Lausen to make the sun rise in the west to show that he is a real devotee of Dharma Thakur (the main deity of Dharmamangal. The exploits of God Dharma are written in Dharmamangal). Lausen gives up his life, which pleases Dharma. The sun rises in the west and the worship of Dharma is established. Goddess in the Domain of Domesticity, as a Martial Mother and Her Subordination

In Dharmamangal, Chandi is the consort of Shiva, and the mother of Ganesh and Kartik, who resides in Kailash. Bhavani (another name of Goddess Chandi) asks permission from Shiva to go to the human realm and receive offerings made by her devotees in the month of Ashvin. All the three poets of Dharmamangal (Rupram Chakrabarti, Ghanaram Chakrabarty and Manikram Ganguly) locate her within a private world, under the control of a husband. The roles of wives and mothers are given more prominence because of their significance in the life of women.98 Therefore, the imitation of the socially-desirable roles of wife and mother by Bhavani ‘enforces the assumption of such traits by mortal women.’99 By confining Bhavani to the domestic sphere, her ‘terrifying’ or ‘threatening’ power is controlled. The text shifts its focus from the transcendental force of the goddess and transforms her image into that of an obedient and docile housewife. Chandi has multiple traits in the text; she is both benign and fierce. However, there seems to be no discordance with her fero­ cious image as the narrative tames her destructive power, locates her in the domain of domesticity and assimilates her warrior-self into the rubric of motherhood. She becomes a warrior when she


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acts as the protector of her devotee. She appears in front of her devotees in the form of Durga who is a remover of distress as well. For instance, when Gaureswar (Gaureswar is the ruler of Gaur. Lausen’s father Karnasen is a subordinate chief under this ruler) comes with his massive army to conquer Simul (Gaureswar) and marry Kanara (Kanara is the daughter of the King of Simul. She later married Lausen who was sent by the ruler of Gaur to capture Simul so that he (ruler of Gaur) could marry Kanara) by force. The princess evokes Goddess Chandi. She prays to Bhavani to save her and fulfil her desire to marry Lausen. Chandi calls her ‘daughter’ in the narrative and fights a battle100 against the army of Gaur. She marries Kanara to Lausen.101 In another incident, the king of Gaur sends both Lausen and Kalu dom to conquer Ichai Ghosh, the ruler of Dhekur. Ichai Ghosh belonged to a goala jati (low caste). Ichai Ghosh becomes invincible as the goddess blesses him.102 Bhavani rejoins Ichai Ghosh’s beheaded (Ichai Ghosh’s head was restored to him because of the boon he received from goddess that no one could kill him by severing his head) body. Here, the mother-child relationship between Ichai Ghosh and Bhavani is discernible.103 After Ichai dies due to a plan of the gods, Bhavani completes his last rites herself. Though the goddess is portrayed as possessing the supreme power of the gods, yet she is controlled and regulated by overarch­ ing patriarchal norms in the narrative. Let us take the example of Ichai Ghosh’s fight with Lausen. Unable to kill Ichai Ghosh, the gods send God Brahma who was Bhavani’s brother-in-law. Bhavani fled seeing Brahma because as a married woman she is not suppose to come face to face with her brother-in-law. The god­ dess abides by societal norms and imitates the appropriate conduct expected of a married woman. She is not a free agent even though her powers are superior to other gods. She is bound by social codes and, hence, maintains order. In the same incident (during the fight between Ichai Ghosh and Lausen), she assumes a terrible form after the death of Ichai Ghosh when Narada teases her for being so violent and bloodthirsty. She reaches Mount Kailash chasing him. In the presence of her husband, Shiva, she pulls her veil over her head and assumes her mild form.104 In some versions of

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Dharmamangal, Shiva tames her by the use of sweet words105 or by criticizing her actions and comportment. When Lausen kills Ichai Ghosh, Bhavani grows ferocious at this sight and takes her kharag (sword) to kill him. Lausen escapes her wrath by reminding her of her role as a mother. He tells her that Kanara, his wife, is her ardent devotee and daughter. Bhavani had given her in marriage to him. Therefore, if she slays Lausen, then Kanara would become a widow and live a life of misery. Bhavani immediately withdraws and blesses him.106 This puts her in the model of an ideal mother who would do anything for her children. These qualities and emotions ‘reflect social values of the period and act as a model for the later idealisation of women’.107 Alternative Paradigms

An alternative paradigm (to the conventional pativrata paradigm) is offered by Chandi or Bhavani herself when she appears before Lausen as a young woman to test him. Lausen tells her that associa­ tion with asati woman is a sin and cites many examples of men who lost their way by involving themselves with these fallen women.108 He glorifies and preaches the ideals of patidharma to Chandi.109 Chandi puts forward a counter-discourse of women110 where examples of Draupadi, Tara, Mandodari, Kunti, Anjana, Satyabati and Radha111 are provided.112 All the women referred to in this section, at one point or the other had relations with more than one man outside socially-acceptable circumstances. Moreover, Draupadi, Tara and Mandodari did not endure their sufferings uncomplainingly or silently; they opposed their husbands vocally. The goddess mentions these women who voiced their dissent against patriarchal hegemony, and reveals the ambiguity regarding women, both divine and human, in the cultural tradition.113 Marriage, Sexuality of a Child Bride, Religious Obligation of a Married Woman and Appropriation of Female Fertility

In Dharmamangal, Ranjabati is married off to Karnasen, the raja of Mayna, at the tender age of twelve. Like Khullana of Chandi­


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mangal, she marries before reaching puberty. The text seems to support both the pre-pubertal marriage and sexual intercourse of a child-bride with an old man. Ranjabati was married to the old Karnasen by the ruler of Gaur in the absence of Mahmud, Ranjabati’s brother. He is the only person who objected to this marriage and called Karnasen ‘atkurir’ childless. However, the narrative makes him the arch-enemy of Ranjabati and her sons, Lausen and Karpur, and silences his dissent. In Dharmamangal, Ranjabati went unchaperoned to Chapai to worship God Dharma. Her venture to Chapai was not criticized by her husband Karnasen because she was worshipping God Dharma to bear a male child and also she took permission from him before leaving for Chapai. Ranjabati was indirectly fulfilling the duty of a wife which was to give birth to a son. The narrative emphasized worshipping gods and serving her husband as Ranjabati’s only religious obligation. Therefore, she is not criticized for travelling unaccompanied unlike Behula (Manasamangal) and Khullana (Chandimangal) whose husbands were either dead or far away when they ventured outside their households. Dharmamangal hints at the process of appropriation and transformation of female power (of fertility and reproduction) by men.114 Ranjabati had to consummate her marriage with her impotent husband, Karnasen, to achieve her desired aim. Dharma makes Karnasen temporarily young and virile so that he can impregnate Ranjabati. Also, in this act, Ranjabati has no control over her sexuality. She fails to seduce her husband who is aroused only when he is hit by the arrows of Kama. In contrast, Ranjabati is aroused just by seeing the old man.115 Their intercourse was meant for the birth of a son, and Ranjabati thereby fulfils the duty of a wife and the societal expectations from a woman. Patidharma is defined as the worship of her husband by a wife. A husband is considered the primary repository of a woman’s hap­ piness.116 Serving him was apparently equivalent to the happiness found in heaven. In Swarg Arohan Pala, a part of Dharmamangal where the main characters (such as Lausen and Ranjabati) return to heaven, when Lausen proposes that Ranjabati should come along with him to the abode of Dharma, she politely declines by point­

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ing out that her only dharma is towards her husband. The feet of her lord is baikuntha (paradise) for Ranjabati; none is greater than her lord and master.117 However, in one version of Dharmamangal, Ranjabati accepts this proposal after initial hesitation.118 She, thus, exercises her agency to choose spirituality over patidharma in this recension. Kanara, the Warrior Princess and the Virtuous Woman

Kanara, the daughter of King Haripal of Simul, rejects the king of Gaur’s marriage proposal as she decides to marry Lausen instead. She combines both heroism and virtue in her character. Unlike Ranjabati, Kanara shows agency by choosing her partner.119 She receives divine sanction from Goddess Bhavani herself. Kanara defends herself in the battle with the army of Gaur. The narra­ tive, thus, also presents women in the battlefield, primarily the domain of the male. Even though Kanara fights a battle and rides horses, her character never ceases to follow the patriarchal norms of society. She vows to marry Lausen or commit suicide if she fails in her mission. In Ghanaram Chakrabarty’s version, Goddess Bha­ vani gives her guidelines about the proper comportment to follow in front of Lausen. Kanara is advised to speak keeping her head bowed and with folded hands.120 She, like other women, is taught to be ‘culturally silent’.121 Kanara is advised to act in a reserved manner by speaking in a low voice and by lowering her eyes. As a woman, she should not occupy more space because ‘space means power’.122 In Manikram Ganguly’s version, the combat between Kanara and Lausen is described as a romantic encounter of two lovers.123 The narrative brings out the tenderness in her character. Kanara’s marriage with Lausen transforms and tames her war­ rior side and amplifies her feminine attributes such as docility, obedience, shame (lajja) and fear, which fits with the image of a would-be bride. Kanara’s role of a kulabadhu (virtuous wife of a prestigious fam­ ily) and that of a warrior clashes when she wants to kill Lausen’s maternal uncle, Mahmud, who attacked Mayna in the absence of Lausen. She defends the kingdom along with her maid, Dhumshi.


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Goddess Bhavani criticizes Kanara because her head was uncov­ ered and her hair was messy (when Kanara tries to kill Lausen’s maternal uncle).124 She tells her not to kill her relative because she would then have violated her family honour as a bride. As a married woman, she had specific obligations, which she was expected to perform. Therefore, her role as a kulabadhu precedes her warrior-self. Kalinga, the Sati in the Battlefield

Kalinga was Lausen’s first wife who was given the responsibility (at least in Rupram Chakrabarti’s version) of his kingdom when he went to Dhekur.125 Women of the Turko-Mongol tradition used to enjoy such power and authority. There are many instances of both senior and junior elite women who ‘took over positions of public authority at several junctures’. For instance, the Mughal emperor, Akbar, gave the charge of Delhi to his mother, Hamida Banu Begum, when he left to suppress a conspiracy at Kabul.126 Mahmud tricks by sending a fake head of Lausen to Mayna and all the wives of Lausen choose to immolate themselves. The text depicts sati as an act of glory. It also suggests that women who are pativrata become sati happily whereas it is the asati or unchaste women who mourn or fear such an act. It is God Dharma who saves them. Kalinga enters the battlefield after Kalu dom, Lausen’s military commander, is killed by a conspiracy. She is dressed as a man (raut) but retains the signs of a married woman – sankha, shona and sindur127 (conch shells, gold and vermilion). By keeping the mark­ ers of her marriage intact, Kalinga’s transgressive move is contained by the institution of marriage. In medieval societies, elite women sported male attire to enhance power and authority, and reduce the gender perception of women as the deficient and weaker sex.128 On the battlefield, Kalinga passively endures bitter words ad­ dressed by other soldiers in the battlefield and Lausen’s maternal uncle Mahmud to her. When surrounded by infidels (the word used in the texts – both Rupram Chakrabarti and Manikram Ganguly – is jaban which means infidels), she commits suicide to preserve the

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honour of her jati and kula. The notion of bodily purity of women is highlighted in this section of the poem. According to Manda­ kranta Bose, ‘A woman must remain pure, and her “purity” must be defined in terms of the roles and actions that hold their rela­ tionships within their immediate families.’129 Kalinga is portrayed as a kulabadhu though she steps into the battlefield in male attire. Lakhya, the Virangana

The wife of Kalu dom, Lakhya’s dominant trait is service towards Lausen and his kingdom Mayna in the narrative.130 Her sense of service to the kingdom and the royal family exceeds that of her hus­ band who shows fear and lack of responsibility in the story. Lakhya combines both military prowess and feminine qualities.131 She is portrayed as a virtuous woman who never strays from the path of truth and dharma. She is not tempted by the gifts and promises made to her by the enemy (a man named Patra who belonged to the enemy camp led by Lausen’s maternal uncle Mahmud) camp132 and is steadfast in her duty. Lakhya sacrifices her husband and her sons to keep her oath of fealty to Lausen. She emulates the model of a virangana (a woman who manifests the qualities of heroism). Lakhya seems to exercise power during battles but in her relation­ ship with Kalu, is subservient to her husband. In both Rupram Chakrabarti and Ghanaram Chakrabarty’s version, Kalu dom uses physical force to punish Lakhya for her un-wifely conduct. Lakhya tries to wake her husband by slapping him for which she was threatened she would be defaced and her hair was pulled. In another instance in Rupram Chakrabarti’s version, she was pulled by her hair and tied to a tree when she forbids Kalu dom to act upon his brother’s words who tells him to cut off his head so that Kalu dies leaving the kingdom of Mayna unprotected.133 Interestingly, Lakhya does not face any threat to her chastity or bodily purity in the battlefield unlike Kalinga. Her enemies are quite fearful of her. However, her bravery, aggression and willingness to fight in battle seem to diminish after Kalu’s death. She also endorses death to be the ultimate destiny for a pativrata woman whose husband is no more. The text shows Lakhya’s transformation from an asser­


Swarnali Biswas

tive, aggressive and strong woman to a helpless and fragile one after her husband’s death. It reveals a woman’s power was dependent on her relationship with a man, however, weak the latter might have been.134 Deviant Women, Libidinous Wives and the Issue of Mutilation in Dharmamangal

During Lausen and Karpur’s (Lausen’s brother who went with him on his military campaign) march to Gaur, they stop at Jamati. The women of Jamati are depicted as having an insatiable sexual appetite and their independent status is criticized with severity. The Manusmriti or Manava Dharma Sastra (200 bce) is a religious and legal text on Brahmanical Dharma in Hinduism, written by a male author who used the eponym Manu (this person might be an amalgalm of many authors). Many stringent laws for women are found in Manusmriti, the independence of women is deemed unwanted. They are supposed to be under the control and pro­ tection of a father, brother, husband or son to maintain order in society, which is also reiterated in the narrative of all versions of Dharmamangal.135 It is understood that women’s sexual desires threaten a man’s ‘physical vitality’ and ‘spiritual discipline’, espe­ cially the renunciation of sexual desire.136 A woman’s sexuality is deemed to be so uncontrollable and irresponsible that she might put sexual pleasures before the well-being of her family.137 Naini, a married woman in the narrative, is ready to harm her family mem­ bers for the physical pleasures of a man other than her husband and kills her son in a fit of rage. Lausen is approached by Naini for sexual pleasures which he rejects. In order to take revenge on Lausen for rejecting her, Naini accuses him of murdering her son. Lausen is imprisoned due to Naini’s false allegations, and he pun­ ishes her by cutting off her ears and nose.138 Golahat’s queen, Suriksha’s portrayal is almost the same as Naini’s. Both these women are rebels and do not conform to the rules and norms of society. They put their pleasure before marriage or their chastity. Suriksha engages in a contest of wits with Lausen and outwits him with her last riddle, which will test Lausen’s

Representation of Women in the Mangalkavyas


virility (purushya). She commands respect for her knowledge of the shashtras or sacred texts. Language commanded power and prestige, and it could reverse or subvert hierarchies.139 However, the Dharmamangal undermines this agency and power by making Lausen victorious with the help of Goddess Parvati. In Manikram Ganguly’s version, Lausen accepts his defeat before Suriksha, and requests her to let him and his brother, Karpur, pass. Naini and Suriksha are primarily punished for adultery. The cutting off of Naini’s nose is also significant because it is consid­ ered to be a symbol of honour. Therefore, the victim is stripped off her honour, rendered powerless and left disfigured.140 Suriksha’s nose was cut off by Karpur, Lausen’s brother. The authority for facial mutilation lay in the hands of men who used it as a weapon to punish transgressors and control the sexuality of women. The poems endorse such violence against women.

Conclusion In this article, we have briefly discussed the layered and ambiguous representation of goddesses and mortals in some of the Mangal­ kavyas. We saw how these goddesses were represented and how they were appropriated into domesticity while their independent identity was compromised or often subjugated. Despite possessing supreme power, they depended on the goodwill of male gods or men and used seduction to accomplish their goals. They some­ times criticized the patriarchal norms, and sometimes became the agents and upholders of patriarchy themselves. However, with­ out the propitiation and benevolence of the Goddess Chandi or Bhavani, it was impossible for the protagonist male or female to win a battle on his/her own. This reversal of gender roles defies preconceived notions that warfare is a male domain. This sense of ambiguity prevails in the projection of mortal women characters, too. Their initiatives saved their lovers and husbands; they did everything only for their partners. There are contrasting characters who are either chaste wives or sexually-deviant women. The men seem to rely on their women for their position, wealth and protection. Women played important roles not only within the walls


Swarnali Biswas

of their homes but also in the growing commercialized world of early modern Bengal. Therefore, the depiction of women characters in the Mangal­ kavyas brings to the fore the ambiguities and contradictions of early modern society in Bengal. The representation of goddesses and mortal women was varied, complex and sometimes positive but also misogynistic at times. However, what is striking is the many number of times that they were portrayed as the main pro­ tagonists.

NOTES 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27.

Bose, 2000: vi-xii. Ibid.: 6; also see Bhattacharya, 1970: 350. Das Gupta, 2014: 147-61. Bhattacharjee and Thomas, 2013: 238-9. Eaton, 1994: 267. Tarafdar, 1965: 17-18, 164-6, 233-5. Chaudhury, 2013: 16. Roy, 2011: 119-20. Chatterjee, 2013: 1456. Bose, 2010: 14. Gupta, the publishing date of the twelfth edition is not mentioned: 9. Dasgupta and Bose, 2000: 151-9. Pipilai, 2002: 80. Gupta: 23. Pintchman, 1997: 203. Ibid.: 210. Bose, 2010: 71. Pipilai, 2002: 44. Ibid. Gupta: 32-5. Ibid.: 52. Pipilai, 2002: 59. Bose, 2010: 44-5. Gupta, n.d.: 245. Gupta, 2005: 77-8. Ibid.: 78. Ibid.: 80.

Representation of Women in the Mangalkavyas 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41. 42. 43. 44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51. 52. 53. 54. 55. 56. 57. 58. 59. 60. 61. 62. 63. 64. 65. 66. 67.

Pipilai, 2002: 102. Gupta, 2005: 80. Ibid.: 81-2. Ibid.: 82. Aklujar, 2000: 56-7. Ibid.: 60. Ibid.: 61. Dasgupta and Bose, 2000: 148-58. Bose, 2004: 108. Gupta: 101. Pipilai, 2002: 124. Gupta, 2005: 191. Pipilai, 2002: 176. Gupta, 2005: 192 Sen, 1975: Introduction. Chatterjee, 2013: 1447. Chaudhury, 2013: 9. Curley, 2008: 47. Sanyal, 1982: 7. Chatterjee, 2013: 1445-6. Arasaratnam, 1987: 224-7. Ibid.: 10. Pearson, 1987: 77-8. Ray, 1998: 14-15. Mulvey, 2003: 44-53. Chakravarti, 2015: 7. Ibid.: 16. Ibid.: 11. Ibid.: 14. Ibid. Mulvey, 2003: 44-53. Chakravarti, 2015: 193. Chakravarti, 2009: 20. Ibid.: 21. Chakravarti, 2009: 221. Ibid.: 223. Shah, 2012: 77-90. Chakravarti, 2015: 29. Chakravarti, 2009: 237. Khanna, 2000: 109.


466 68. 69. 70. 71. 72. 73. 74. 75. 76. 77. 78. 79. 80. 81. 82. 83. 84.

85. 86. 87. 88. 89. 90. 91. 92. 93. 94. 95. 96. 97. 98. 99. 100. 101. 102. 103.

Swarnali Biswas Chakravarti, 2001: 102. Pintchman, 1997: 198. Chakravarti, 2015: 71. Ibid.: 148. Ibid. Chakravarti, 2015: 203. Gupta, 2005: 60-79. Chakravarti, 1975: 308. Curley, 2008: 7-10. Ibid.: 53. Chakravarti, 2015: 135. Chakravarti, 1993: 579-85. Chakravarti, 2015: 134. Bose, 2010: 67. Chakravarti, 1993: 579-85. Chakravarti, 2015: 212. Satimata was what a pativrata should be yet she was more than the ideal of pativrata. She was autonomous and a powerful family protector. She attains the powers to influence her protégés through both boons and curses. Harlan, 1994: 138. Cakrabarti, 1986: Introduction. Sukumar Sen suggests that the name of the village is Eral; Sen, 1940: 129. Ibid., Introduction. Sen, 1960: 129. Curley, 2008: 148. Bhattacharya, 1940: 752. Ibid.: 752-60. Chatterjee, 2009: 106. McLane, 1993: 125. Sanyal, 1982: 17-20. Ibid.: 21. Chatterjee, 2013: 1448. Bose, 2010: 44. Ibid. Chakrabarti, 1986: 253; Chakrabarty, 1962: 457. Ibid.: 235-59.  Ibid.: 277-91; Ghanaram Chakrabarty, 1962: 514-44. Ibid.: 577-69.

Representation of Women in the Mangalkavyas 104. 105. 106. 107. 108. 109. 110. 111. 112. 113. 114. 115. 116. 117. 118. 119. 120. 121. 122. 123. 124. 125.

126. 127. 128. 129. 130. 131. 132. 133. 134. 135. 136. 137. 138. 139.


Rupram Chakrabarti, 1986: 277-91. Ghanaram Chakrabarty, 1962: 514-46. Rupram Chakrabarti, 1986: 577-91; ibid.: 514-46. Dasgupta and Bose, 2000: 149-59. Chakrabarti, 1986: 100. Chakrabarty, 1962: 156-7. Ibid.: 160. Rupram Chakrabarti, 1986: 100. Shah, 2012: 77-90. Ibid. : 77-90. Lerner, 1986: 220. Ganguly, 1960: 96. Shah, 2012: 77-90. Cakrabarti, 1986: 368. Ganguly, 1960: 602. Chakrabarti, 1986: 239; Chakrabarty, 1962: 417; ibid.: 370. Chakrabarty, 1962: 465. Sen, 2000: 298. Ibid. Ganguly, 1960: 402. Ibid.: 344. In Rupram Chakrabarti’s D harmamangal (ce 1639-60), Lausen, before going to Dhekur for a campaign, told Kalinga to look after Mayna and its people like her sons. Also, he requests her to treat her co-wife, Kanara, as her own sister and to take her along wherever she goes. Lal, 2005: 207. Chakrabarty, 1962: 640. Gabbay, 2011: 45-63. Bose, 2004: 107. Ganguly, 1960: 844. Hansen, 1988: WS 25-WS 33. Chakrabarty, 1962: 606. Chakrabarti, 1986: 335; Chakrabarty, 1962: 617. Ganguly, 1960: 539. Bose, 2004: 103-16. Pintchman, 1997: 206. Ibid.: 205-6. Chakrabarti, 1986: 148-58; Ganguly, 1960: 223-42. Leslie and McGee, 2000: 10-13.


Swarnali Biswas

140. Erndl, 1991: 82-3.

REFERENCES Aklujar, Vidyut. 2000. ‘Anasuya a Pativrata with Panache’, in Mandakranta Bose, ed., Faces of Feminine in Ancient, Medieval and Modern India. New York: Oxford University Press. Arasaratnam, Sinnappah. 1987. ‘Ceylon in the Indian Ocean 1500-1800’, in M.N. Pearson and Ashin Das Gupta, eds., India and the Indian Ocean 1500-1800. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Bhattacharjee, Sukalpa and C. Joshua Thomas. 2013. Society, Repre­ sentation and Textuality: The Critical Interface. New Delhi: Sage. Bhattacharya, Ashutosh. 2000 (rpt). Bangla Mangal Kabyer Itihasa. Calcutta: Arctic Prints. Bose, Mandakranta and Sarika Priyadarshini Bose. 2013. A Woman’s Ramayana: Candravati’s Bengali Epic. New York: Routledge. Bose, Mandakranta, 2004. ‘Confrontations, Transgression, and Sub­ mission Ideals of Womanhood in the Manasamangala’, in Jacqueline Suthren Hirst and Lynn Thomas, eds., Playing for Real History: Role Models, Religion, and Gender. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Bose, Mandakranta, ed. 2010. Women in Hindu Tradition; Rules, Roles, and Expectations. New York: Taylor and Francis Group. Chakrabarti, Rupram. 1986. Dharmamangal, ed. Akshay Kumar Kayal. Kolkata: Bharbi. Chakrabarty, Ghanaram. 1962. Sri Dharma Mangal, ed. Pijush Kanti Mahapatra. Calcutta: Calcutta University. Chakravarti, Kavikankan Mukundaram. 2015. Chandimangal, tr. Edward M. Yazijian. London: Penguin Books. Chakravarti, Kunal. 2009. The Politics of Subordination: Transformation of the Goddess and Worship of Durga in Bengal. New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru University. Chakravarti, Uma. 1993. ‘Conceptualizing Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State’, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 28, no. 14, pp. 579-85. Chatterjee, Kumkum. 2009. Th e Cultures of History in Early Modern India: Persianization and Mughal Culture in Bengal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. . 2013. ‘Goddess Encounters: Mughals, Monsters and the Goddess in Bengal’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 47, issue 5, September, pp. 1435-87.

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Chaudhury, Sushil. 2013. ‘Identity and Composite Culture: The Bengal Case’, Journal of Asiatic Society Bangladesh, vol. 58 (1), pp. 1-25. Clark, T. W. 1955. ‘Evolution of Hinduism in Medieval Bengali Literature Shiva Candi Manasa’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 503-18. Curley, David L. 2008. Poetry and History: Bengali Mangal Kavya and Social Change in Pre-colonial Bengal. New Delhi: Chronicle Books. . 2008a. ‘Battle and Self-Sacrifice in a Bengali Warrior’s Epic: Lausen’s Quest to be a Raja in Dharmamangal’, in Ralph W. Nicholas, ed., Rites of Spring: Gajan in Village Bengal, New Delhi: Chronicle Books. Das Gupta, Nupur. 2014. ‘Environs and Cults: Tracing the Root of Socio-Psychological Paradigm of Folk Existence in Deltaic Lower Bengal’, Journal of Anthropology and Archaeology, vol. 2, no. 1, June, pp. 147-61. Dasgupta, Manashi and Mandakranta Bose. 2000. ‘The Goddess-Woman Nexus in Popular Religious Practice: The Cult of Manasa’, in Mandakranta Bose, ed., Faces of the Feminine in Ancient, Medieval and Modern India, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Eaton, Richard M. 1994. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier 1204­ 1716. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Erndl, Kathleen M. 1991. ‘The Mutilation of Surpanakha’, in Paula Richman, ed., Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of Narrative Trad­ ition in South Asia, Berkeley: University of California. Gabbay, Alyssa. 2011. ‘In Reality a Man: Sultan Iltutmish, His Daughter, Raziya, and Gender Ambiguity in Thirteenth Century North India’, Journal of Persianate Studies, vol. 4, issue 1, pp. 45-63. Ganguly, Manikram. 1960. Dharmamangal, ed. Jayanta Kumar Dutta and Sunanda Dutta. Calcutta: Calcutta University. Gupta, Bijay. n.d. Padmapuran, ed. Basanta Kumar Bhattacharya, 12th edn., Kolkata: Bani Niketan. Gupta, Sanjukta. 2005. ‘The Domestication of a Goddess: Carana-tirtha Kalighat, the Mahapitha of Kali’, in Rachel Fell McDermott and Jefferey J. Kripal, eds., Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Centre, in the West. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. Hansen, Kathryn. 1988. ‘The Virangana in North Indian History: Myth and Popular Culture’, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 23, no. 18, pp. WS25-WS33. Harlan, Lindsay. 1994. Religion and Rajput Women, New Delhi: Munshi­ ram Manoharlal.


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Khanna, Madhu. 2000. ‘The Goddess-Women Equation in Sakta Tantras’, in Mandakranta Bose, ed., Faces of the Feminine in Ancient, Medieval and Modern India. New York: Oxford University Press. Ksemananda, Ketakadas. 2005. Manasamangal, ed. Bijan Bihari Bhattacharya. Calcutta: Sahitya Akademi. Lal, Ruby. 2005. Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World. New York: Cambridge University Press. Lerner, Gerda. 1986. The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press. Leslie, Julia and Mary McGee, eds. 2000. Invented Identities: The Interplay of Gender, Religion and Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. McDermott, Rachel Fell. 2001. Mother of My Heart, Daughter of My Dreams: Kali and Uma in the Devotional Poetry of Bengal. New York: Oxford University Press. McLane, John R. 1993. Land and Local Kingship in Eighteenth-century Bengal. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press. Mulvey, Laura. 2003. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. New York: Routledge. Pearson, M.N. 1987. ‘India and the Indian Ocean in the Sixteenth Century’, in Ashin Dasgupta and M.N. Pearson, eds., India and the Indian Ocean, 1500-1800. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Pintchman, Tracy. 1997. The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publication. Pipilai, Biprodas. 2002. Manasamangal, ed., Achinta Biswas. Calcutta: Ratnabali. Ray, Aniruddha. 1998. Adventurers, Landowners and Rebels: Bengal c. 1575-c. 1715. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal. Roy, Tirthankar. 2011. ‘Where is Bengal? Situating an Indian Region in the Early Modern World Economy’, Past and Present, no. 213, pp. 115-46. Sanyal, Hitesranjan. 1982. ‘Literary Sources of Medieval Bengali History: A Study of Few Mangalkavyas Texts’, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Occasional Paper No. 52, pp. 1-22. Sen, Nabaneeta Deb. 2000. ‘Eroticism and the Woman Writer in Bengali Culture’, in Mandakranta Bose, ed., Faces of the Feminine in Ancient, Medieval, and Modern India. New York: Oxford University Press. Sen, Sukumar. 1940. Bangla Sahityer Itihasa, vols. 1-2. Calcutta: Ananda Publishers Limited. . 1960. History of Bengali Literature. Calcutta: Sahitya Akademi.

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. 1975. Kabikankan Birachita Chandimangal. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi. Shah, Shalini. 2012. ‘On Gender, Wives and Pativratas’, Social Scientist, vol. 40, nos. 5-6, pp. 77-90. Tarafdar, M.R. 1965. Husain Shahi Bengal 1494-1538: A Socio-Political Study. Dacca: Asiatic Society of Pakistan.


Bengal Vaishnavism

Early Years and Organization

Ananya Roy Choudhury

We have looked at parts of the vast literature on Vaishnavism in Bengal in this article. In particular, we have tried to analyse the crucial role of Sri Chaitanya (ce 1486-1534). His personality and spirit had a considerable impact on the organization of the movement unlike the fake perception that his immediate disciples were really responsible for the structuring of the sect. The ambi­ guities in the ideas and practices of Bengal Vaishnavism are also discussed here. Besides, the devotees’ perceptions about women, and whether Vaishnavism played a role to change and uplift their social status require re-examination. The attitude of Vaishnava leaders differed but, on the whole, Vaishnava literature highlighted quite a conservative outlook towards women. This study is primarily based on Chaitanya’s biographies written by Krishnadas Kaviraj, Vrindavan Das and Jayananda. Some of the later authors, such as Narahari Thakur, Narottam Das Thakur and Nityananda Das, also give valuable insights in their texts. Vaishnavism emerged in Bengal under the Hussain Shahi dynasty, which was established in ce 1493. The region witnessed an era of peace though there are instances of confrontation with local governments in Chaitanya’s biographies. However, it is also true that without the establishment of a stable polity, the movement might not have gained such a territorial extension. There are tales of the zamindars’ hostility to Vaishnavism while, on the other hand, we also find mention of the initiation of the Malla king, Raja


Ananya Roy Choudhury

Birhambir, into the sect, as we shall see later. Mughal rule perhaps also contributed indirectly in organizing Bengal Vaishnavism as a sect. The paths to Vrindavan and Puri were laid open, and the new sect expanded along these new routes.1

The Position of Chaitanya in Bengal Vaishnavism In eastern India, especially in Bengal and Orissa, Sri Chaitanya created a stir through his bhaktiprema (love devotion to Krishna) that affected a large number of people. Some give the credit for sustaining the faith to six Vrindavana gosvamins who produced a large number of religious scriptures, thus providing stability to the movement. Here, we will discuss Chaitanya’s role in sustaining and organizing the movement. Was Chaitanya an organizer of his faith? According to Edward C. Dimock, Chaitanya was neither an organizer nor a theologian. His interest was in the realization of the immediate presence of God.2 Perhaps Chaitanya did not affect the organization of the movement directly but some of his initiatives provided the most significant organizational impetus to the movement. Here, the question also arises as to how Chaitanya was perceived by his devotees and did it help the movement to organize itself by any means? Ascribed Godhood of Chaitanya

Chaitanya was ascribed Godhood within his lifetime. This was a unique feature of Bengal Vaishnavism. He was looked upon as Lord Krishna himself. Later on, the Vrindavan gosvamins deviated from this belief, probably because it was a challenge to the faith that Krishna was the supreme God.3 However, the Bengali devotees always felt an affinity with the movement by believing Chaitanya to be Krishna. Krishnadas Kaviraj writes that the Krishna and Balarama of Vraja, pleased by the world, have taken the form of Lord Chaitanya and his associate, Nityananda. They have illumi­ nated the whole world by preaching bhakti.4 Chaitanya’s childhood is sometimes compared with that of Krishna, as we shall see later.5

Bengal Vaishnavism


Again, Krishnadas writes that Chaitanya trespassed through the houses of Navadvip with his friends and ate by stealing: Sishu sob laiya para porshir ghore Churi kori drobbo khay mare balakare.6

Krishnadas’ lines remind one of the well-known tales of Lord Krishna stealing milk and butter from people’s houses. The biographers have given Chaitanya a kind of ‘Godhood’ and this is maintained even in the modern age. However, it is notable that they did not give the status of Lord Krishna – the supreme deity – to anyone other than Chaitanya who was present among them and by seeing him the devotee could feel a sense of affinity with Krishna. This helped other devotees to experience a direct contact with one they believed to be God. Nam-Samkirtana Meetings

Though Chaitanya himself was more immersed in his deep emo­ tional ecstasy, some of his initiatives deeply affected the movement and the people surrounding it, thus giving an impetus to the organizing initiatives. Of these, the ideas of kirtana gatherings were of primary importance. Scholars of Chaitanya Vaishnavism have attributed great significance to these. Ramakanta Chakra­ varty writes, ‘The kirtana songs violated untouchability with impunity. However, the movement was not directed against the aristocracy, rich men and Brahmins were called upon to join it.’7 This was a new contribution to bhakti, and its continuance as a sect after Chaitanya distinguished the Bengal Vaishnavas as possessing a unique characteristic. The biographers of Chaitanya have given examples of how the kirtanas emerged from the deep emotional ecstasy (bhava) of Chaitanya. Vrindavan Das, in his Chaitanya Bhagavata, described the first bhava and kirtana of Sri Chaitanya after he returned from a pilgrimage to Gaya. He started taking the name of Hari and devotees gathered around him. After this episode, biographers have given many instances of