From Istanbul to Dhaka
Reema Islam Weekend

From the Sufi saints of Bengal to the Sultanate, the Turks have had a long list of influences on our history. As Babur established the Mughal Empire with his obvious Turkish roots, he set into motion a merry exchange of cultures that makes the Turkish language, their cuisine and their culture all the more familiar to our senses.


Testimony to an old allegiance of Bangladesh with the people of Turkey lies on one of the busiest roads of Dhaka. Kemal Ataturk road in Banani pays homage to the respect we have had for the Turkish people and in more recent times the roots certainly lay in Nazrul’s open admiration for Kamal Pasha and his liberal ways of seeing a new Turkey. The poem 'Kamal Pasha' was composed by Kazi Nazrul Islam towards the end of 1921, which emphasizes the influence Mostafa Kamal Pasha’s leadership, who had overthrown the feudal sultanate and turned Turkey into a secular and modern republic, had on the rebel poet. Nazrul was particularly impressed by the way Kamal Pasha had pulled out fundamentalism from the Turkish society while encouraging the women to give up their veils. He wondered why such reforms in Turkey could not be replicated in India and Bengal. The Turks however lay claim to a much older association with our cultures and have been infiltrating the Indian subcontinent for as long ago as the 1st century BCE. (before common era)

The Shakas were a famous clan in Ancient India and have been generously mentioned in many writings including the Mahabharata. Many people tend to forget that these were the Scythians who settled in the Western parts of India, after driving out the last of the Greeks, from the middle of the 2nd century BCE till 4th century CE. The Scythians are thought to have originated from Anatolia around the 7th century BCE, a region that also includes a large part of modern day Turkey. The Shakas were eventually defeated by the Gupta Dynasty, which also ruled a part of our modern day Bangladesh. Thus the Turks have somehow been a part of the fabric of our history for a longer period, a fact often overlooked.

The Turks eventually struck back and truly made an entry through Bakhtiar Khilji who rang in the arrival of the Islamic Sultanate period of Bengal and a new era of rule. Defeating the Sena Dynasty in 1203-1204 CE, Khilji took over most of Western Bengal, as the Eastern parts remained with the Deva dynasty. They were the last Hindu dynasty to rule over Bengal and eventually their exit is not clearly documented, as Balban, another Turk took over and established Islamic rule with an iron hand. He is buried in Lakhnauti or the Gour region of West Bengal (bordering Bangladesh and Kolkata) and the Turks thus remained in India, Bengal and our history.

Thankfully though, one of our most influential Turks was the least blood thirsty of them all and spread the word of peace, love and devotion to mankind. The Sufi saint Hazrat Shah Jalal is said to have moved to Sylhet to spread Islam. Born in 1271 CE, in Konya, Turkey, ancient texts have often mentioned his birth in Turkestan, or the land of the Turks. Shah Jalal’s father was a poet, contemporary to Jalal al-din Rumi and Shah Jalal being a student of this great Sufi philosopher, chose to spread the concept of Sufism, making his base in Eastern Bengal. The famous traveler Ibn Battuta met this docile saint and noted how he lived in a cave with a goat that provided him with milk, for cheese and yoghurt. Tall, slender and fair skinned, Hazrat Shah Jalal was possibly our first Turk to be eventually naturalised a Bangladeshi!

Interestingly enough, the Turks were great at integrating in to any new culture as they wanted to spread their claim over more land and its people. This meant that they adopted the language of the locals, making additions to it by interjecting some of their own words, a practice that has lead to embellishment of the Hindustani spoken today. The reference to Hindustani is the conglomeration of languages Hindi- Urdu, with many other local influences. This language was mainly shaped during the rule of the Turko-Mongol Mughals and took over from vernacular Sanskrit and the Khariboli spoken in Delhi at the time. The syntax of Turkish and Hindustani is similar and towards the end of the Mughal rule in the 18th century, this took over as the standard court language from Persian. The Turks of course did not have much of an influence on Bengali save for the remnants of their presence in words like halwa, badam, maidan, tava, to name a few.

Many credit the Persians for culinary influences like the samosa, pulao and even the zarda but the heavy Turkish-Persian influence is sidelined as most people tend to associate the Mughals more with the Persians and their Turkish roots are often overlooked. Minor practices like our use of rose water to purify a religious event or in food to make it more fragrant was also an Ottoman ritual. It is possible that they did the same in Persia, but it is hard to define whether we were more influenced by the Turks in these cases.

A part of the poem written by Kazi Nazrul Islam is an insightful look at the impact the Turks had on the winds of change India was experiencing at a time when revolution was around the corner:

Brother Kemal, the desperate son of a frenzied mother 
Has gone furious; so the devils' dens are full of hue and cry 
Looking for self-protection everywhere; 
Kemal, what a wonder you've worked! 
Ho Ho Kemal, what a wonder you've worked! 

Reema Islam

Reema Islam works at Jovago, the global hotel booking platform. Her main interest lies in archaeological heritage conservation & working with communities that live around a heritage site. Reema raises awareness about Bangladeshi archaeogy through articles in the US magazine Archaeology & other foreign & national publications.

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