The key to Bengal’s rich sociocultural heritage lies hidden in history’s vaults of the Middle Ages and beyond. Unfortunately, today’s historiography is stuck in the colonial era thereby blurring our vision to a richer cultural past. It is no surprise that the print media so vividly attributes the Mughal conquest of East Bengal in the seventeenth century and the subsequent founding of the provincial capital at Dhaka as the beginning of the Bengali urban era. This fragmented view of history has done nothing but to mislead the population into a false sense of celebration of Dhaka’s 400 years of founding as a city or capital. Let us take a closer look at Dhaka’s true historic past.
Starting with the declaration of independence by Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah at Sonargaon in 1338 CE Bengal enjoyed two centuries of independence under the Sultanate rulers. From that period on in history Dhaka’s existence can be found as a small urban center. In a pre-Mughal era, around the beginning of the seventeenth century, Mirza Nathan writes in the much celebrated chronicle Baharistan-i-Gaibi that Dhaka was a small city located on the eastern banks of the Buriganga. According to it, the city stretched for several miles on both the north-east and south east sides of the present day Babu Bazaar. Many localities in old Dhaka bear Hindu names implying that traditional craft societies were well established as part of a coherent and elaborate urban culture in Dhaka. Hakim Habibur Rahman writes in Urdu in his book Dhaka Pachas Baras Pahele, that when Vikrampur used to be the capital of the Sena rulers in Bengal, a large settlement of Hindus grew up in the south of Dhaka. Some of these localities bore names such as: Lakhsmi Bazaar, Bangla Bazaar, Sutrapur, Jalunagar, Banianagar, Goalnagar, Tantibazaar, Sutarnagar, Kamarnagar, Patuatuli, Kumartuli, etc. The proximity of Dhaka from the then capital Sonargaon and its easy access through waterways made it a natural area for expansion of urban activities and commerce. The boundaries of pre-Mughal Dhaka were marked by the Ganges on the South and the Dhulai Khal (canal) to the East. Lack of accurate evidence makes it hard to determine the Western boundaries of the city at that time. Prior to the defeat of the Baro Bhuiyans (Great independent chieftains ruling Bengal) by the Mughal governor (Subedar) Islam Khan (1608-1613 CE) and establishment of Mughal provincial capital at Dhaka, there existed a prominent fort called the Dhaka Fort within the current premises of the central jail. The river port leading from the Dhaka Fortress was called Chandighat which was later renamed as the Chawkbazaar. A market strip ran all the way from the fort to this river port. During the hey days of Dhaka’s growth as a provincial capital, Islam Khan renamed it as Jahangirnagar, after his imperial master. For just over a century Dhaka remained a provincial capital with unabated economic and commercial growth.
Dhaka in the Sultanate Era
The close proximity of Dhaka to Sonargaon ensured that it remained tied with important administrative functions in the region during the Pre-Mughal era. In fact, Vikrampur was the capital of the Sena rule in Bengal, while Sonargaon and hence Dhaka was an important seat of their administration. In 1206 Bakhtiyar Khalji marched into Nadiya and drove Lakhsman Sena out sending him back to the Sena capital at Vikrampur from where he continued to rule Bengal. Sonargaon continued to be an important administrative center under the Senas. The Persian author Minhaz-i-Siraz writes in his book Tabkat-i-Nasiri that in 1260 CE Bengal was still ruled by the descendents of Lakhsman Sena. The city of Sonargaon also finds mention in his book due to its importance as an administrative center. Evidence of Dhaka being part of an important administrative center based on Sonargaon even as early as from the time of Sultan Fakhruddin is also found mentioned in two inscriptions prepared a century later. Written during the time of Sultan Nasir Uddin Mahmud Shah (1436-1459 CE) the inscription clearly establish that Dhaka was part of Iklim Mubarakabad (province Mubarakabad). The location of Mubarakabad has been ascertained by H. E. Stapleton which Dr. Ahmad Hasan Dani describes in some detail. Mubarakabad, according to him, was an important administrative center or province in Bengal. Inscriptions from the Sultani period mention two such provinces. One of these was Iklim Muazzamabad that stretched from the north-east of Sonargaon, from an area called Mahojampur all the way to the boundaries of present Mymensingh District; and the other was Iklim Mubarakabad. The inscription that records the name of Iklim Mubarakabad has been found on an old gateway in front of the Naswalla golley Mosque, in the Giridakilla neighborhood just west of the central jail area in Dhaka. Both the mosque and the gateway have been demolished but the stone tablet remains. The tablet mentions that the mosque was built in 1459 CE by the orders of the then Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah. The executive officer of the Sultan is mentioned as Khawja Jahan and the location has been mentioned as Iklim Mubarakabad. This means that in the middle of the fifteenth century Old Dhaka was something akin to the capital of Iklim Mubarakabad and the governor was one holding the title Khawja Jahan.
Dhaka during the Baro Bhuiyans (Great Chieftains)
The rule of the independent Sultans in Bengal ended in 1538 CE. The last independent Sultan Ghiyasuddin Mahmud Shah was defeated by Mughal Emperor Humayun. However, Mughal rule was not consolidated in Bengal by this defeat. Humayun’s occupation of Gaur lasted only for six months. Afghan ruler Sher Khan led a campaign against Humayun from Bihar and drove him out in 1539 CE. After this defeat Bengal enjoyed independence from Mughal rule for quite some time even though no central leadership emerged at this period. The region got divided into powerful landlords or zamindars who were commonly known as the Baro Bhuiyans or chieftains. They joined forces to put up resistance against the Mughals, which during the time of Emperor Akbar, was led by Isa Khan, Masnad-i-Ala. During the time of Jahangir the Mughal forces marched south from Tanda and on their way managed to subdue local landlords and bring them under their dominion. Isa Khan’s son Musa Khan was leading the resistance at this time and his last stronghold was at the Shita-Lakhya River and his seat of administration was in a place called Katrabo near Sonargaon. Musa Khan’s forces were stationed at an area called Nabiganj located close to the Hajiganj Fort on the eastern banks of the river. His naval fleet was stationed at the river Shita-Lakhya. The Mughal governor therefore, chose Dhaka which is close to Musa Khans stronghold, to strike at the forces of the Baro Bhuiyans and eventually establish Mughal rule in Bengal.
Proof of the existence of Dhaka as an important urban center in the pre-Mughal era is also evident by the existence of the Dhaka Fort built by the Afghans and local zamindars. After the occupation of Bengal, governor Islam Khan gave the charge of the two fortresses of Beg Murad Khan, located on the estuaries of the Demra canal, to Itimam Khan and Mirza Nathan. The existence of Dhaka Fort and the two additional fortresses in Demra indicate the importance of the region to the Baro Bhuiyans.
End of Independence and Mughal occupation
With the declaration of independence in 1338 CE Bengal became free from the rule of Delhi to be ruled by the Sultans. Bengali culture, education, literature and all branches of the society flourished at this period. During this time, the main administrative centers were located at Gaur and Lakhnawati on the West and Sonargaon in the East. Administrative units were located at Dhaka, Bagerhat, Jhenida Barobazar, Rajshahi-Chapainawabganj and various other places, evidence of which are found in the Sultanate period structures and inscriptions. After a long break of about two hundred and fifty years, around 1608 to 1610 the whole of Bengal fell under Mughal governor Islam Khan and its period of independence came to a decisive end. Bengal once again became a province of Delhi with a new name called Jahangirnagar, and a new provincial capital centered at Dhaka.
‘400 Years of Capital Dhaka’ a Slogan Defaming Dhaka’s true Heritage and History
From 2007 a few history and heritage based research organizations and social groups are trying to promote the slogan ‘400 Years of Dhaka City’ which they later modified a bit in to ‘400 Years of Dhaka as Capital.’ The history that this slogan promotes primarily assumes that there was hardly any urban culture that flourished in Bengal before the advent of Islam Khan 400 years ago and the founding of Dhaka as his provincial capital in 1610 CE. It promotes the view that Dhaka’s beginning and march forward as a prominent urban center of culture and heritage only started with Mughal intervention. For the last three years, these organizations are celebrating Mughal occupation of Bengal as the start of Dhaka’s cultural and historic beginning. The media and corporate marketing strategists have grabbed the opportunity to promote their products with the slogan as the buzz word. The result has been a public circulation of a wrong interpretation of history and misinformation to the common mass. Historic evidence gives concrete proof of the existence of an urban city life in Dhaka almost eight hundred (800) years ago and inscriptions from the independent Sultanate period indicate that about six hundred (600) years ago, Dhaka was the capital of Iklim or province Mubarakabad. It is unfortunate that we are severing the golden periods of Hindu and Sultanate rule of Bengal from our collective memory of the history and heritage of Dhaka and trying to establish it to a time frame 400 years later. The 400 years that we are rejoicing today in fact, was the time when our existence as an independent region was snatched from us by the Delhi based rulers – we were reduced to nothing but an outlying province. Perhaps we should be despairing rather than rejoicing at this event in history. Dhaka deserves the credit to stand as one of the oldest cities of human civilization that nurtured urban culture for a continuous period of eight hundred years. Unfortunately, many of us are severing 400 years of that glory and heritage. History will not pardon such a crime to the Bengali race.
 Abdul Karim, ‘Dhaka the Mughal Capital’, Dacca, Asiatic Society of Pakistan, p. 2
 Iqlim an administrative division into which the Muslim kingdom of Bengal was divided in the early period. Names of two iqlims, ie Iqlim Muazzamabad and Iqlim Mubarakabad are found in the coins and inscriptions of the Muslim sultans during the period ranging from the 13th to the early 15th centuries. There was another administrative unit called Arsah. Ziauddin Barani, a contemporary historian of Delhi refers to Bangalah both as an Iqlim and Arsah.
Though both Iqlim and Arsah denoted administrative units, their relation to one another cannot be definitely determined. However, it appears that Iqlim was a bigger unit than Arsah; the former may be equated with modern division, and the latter with a modern district. [Abdul Karim]
AH Dani, Bibliography of the Muslim Inscriptions of Bengal, Appendix to the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Pakistan, II, 1957; A Karim, Aspects of Muslim Administration, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Pakistan, III, 1958.
Md. Adnan Arif Salim Aurnab
Department of Archaeology