Despite the tendency to equate today’s Bangladesh with the eastern part of ancient Bengal, this vibrant and growing nation owes much to substantial parts of other ancient provinces and kingdoms of the medieval Indian sub-continent.
Sylhet, with its own distinctive history, which owes much to Assam and its tribal origins, has, perhaps, continued to be better connected to its own distinctive heritage.
Not least because so much of the often high achieving diaspora of that part of Bangladesh has achieved so much in the international community.
But another significant part of Bangladesh has suffered, we might say, a somewhat more chequered history, which seems to have involved the significant loss of a great deal of its own heritage, and unquestionably rich traditions, Hindu, Buddhist, Animist, Muslim, and Christian.
The ancient Kingdom of Arakan, a significant part of which now forms a large piece of modern Bangladesh, north of the Naf River (today’s border with Myanmar/ Burma), has always had a somewhat troubled history.
The Rakhine people, who, today, form a significant part of the population of the Chittagong division, especially the Cox’s Bazar district, derive their “tribal” identity from the name of the kingdom.
But, although the majority of tribally Rakhine people continue to adhere to their Buddhist traditions, there remains a significant minority of the population who have not only Hindu, Christian, and Animist roots, but also Islamic ones. This certainly dates, in origin, back to the eighth century, and, most probably, even back to the seventh century and the lifetime of the Prophet.
The name, Arakan, apparently derives from a Pala word, Rakkhapura, which means, quite literally, “the land of Ogres.”
This may be due, at least in part, to the reputation of the Kingdom that, from the 10th century until the conquest by Burma in about 1784, and subsequent annexation by the British in about 1824 for piracy and lawlessness, may help to explain the name.
In fact, pursuing Shah Suja, the exiled brother of Aurangzeb in about 1660, the governors of Bengal had repossessed the lands between Chittagong and the Naf river. In 1760, these were the former Arakanese lands that were to be ceded to the English East India Company, in part, but surely, to act as a buffer between turbulent Bengal following the defeat of the Mughals at the battle of Plassey in1757 and partly, no doubt, between Bengal and the continuing aggression of the Kingdom of Burma.
So unsettled were these lands that were ceded to the Company that, at first, they showed little or no interest in them. Although they included the ancient cities of Chakoria and Ramu, not until late in the 18th century had they begun to realise its potential value for agriculture and fishing.
The Burmese were so brutal in their invasion of what remained of the lands of Arakan south of the Naf, that the area, most of which is now known as Cox’s Bazar, became populated by refugees from that Burmese invasion into lands that had not been truly governed for nearly a century, becoming, instead a hide-out for Arakanese and Portuguese pirates.
By the time the other European nations developed their own interest in these lands around the Ganges basin and delta towards the end of the 16th century, Portugal had had a presence, and serious trading activities, for nearly a century. As the other Europeans, especially the English, began to muscle in on the opportunities, there were already many men of Portuguese origin along the coast of the area. Some had developed domestic arrangements, and others were simply seeking the fortunes that it was well known were possible, but which seemed to elude them.
Marginalised, some turned to piracy, often associating themselves with other coastal sea-faring communities along the largely uncontrolled coastlands and offshore islands.
However, amongst these refugees and freebooters there had existed, for close on a thousand years, a community of largely Arabic origin, a community that, unlike the mainly Buddhist tribal Arakanese, and mainly Roman Catholic Christian Portuguese, were mostly, if not all, Muslim.
It is often said, today, that the Rohingya who inhabit these coastal lands of Bangladesh and Myanmar, once Burmese and Arakanese, are mostly “illegal migrants,” with Bengal identified as their origin.
It is not, however, anything as simple as that.
In Chittagong stands the shrine of the Persian Sufi, Byazid Bostami. Whether or not he ever actually visited the port city, he was born early in the ninth century, and there is little doubt that the shrine in Chittagong was erected about the end of that century, almost certainly by Arab traders and settlers living there.
We also have a report of a late eighth century wreck of an Arab trading vessel on the coast of what is now Cox’s Bazar. Such a shipwreck would not be surprising in view of the great trading heritage thereabouts.
We have every reason to believe that Arab traders had frequented the coast and its ports, including Ramu, certainly from before the lifetime of the Prophet, because there is no doubting that this represented a great part of the trading access to ancient China and the Himalayan empires from time before the Common Era, of which the routes from the coast into China, formed a large part of the trading routes.
Shipwrecked traders and merchants would almost certainly have settled in these lands, and, whilst Ramu is also famous for its ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples, we may also expect, some day, to find a site for a mosque somewhere in the area.
Muslim settlers, therefore, we may safely assume to have formed a group within the Kingdom of Arakan, and the lands that formed that Kingdom.
Who were the original inhabitants, that much maligned group, the “indigenous people” of these lands? It is hard to say.
Despite the gap in evidence of any occupation by the “out of Africa” migrants of about 50,000 years ago, between sites excavated in Kerala and evidence in the Andaman Islands, it does seem reasonable to suppose that they may have been the first humanoids around.
There is, of course, better evidence for more recent occupation. The Rakhine are themselves about as indigenous a people as we can determine, which date their earliest settlement of the lands to about the fourth millennium BCE.
They may well have originated from either deeper into the Himalayan range, or possibly even deeper into central Asia, and are said to have set up what is known as the Dhanyawadi Kingdom, late in the fourth millennium BCE. From this kingdom the Rakhine claim to be able to trace a lineal succession of 227 monarchs.
This first dynasty fell early in the fourth century CE, probably at the time that the great Gupta Dynasty were their closest neighbours to the west, and replaced by the Waithali dynasty.
Early in the eighth century CE, the Laymro succeeded, and lasted for about six centuries, to be replaced by the somewhat notorious Mrauk U rulers, famously known as the “Pirate Kings.”
The lands north of the Naf had come under the rule of the Waithali dynasty early in the ninth century. This was probably a Hindu regime, but with strong Buddhist connections, which had developed in the region, possibly even from the sixth century BCE time of the Buddha himself.
It was, of course, the Mrauk U dynasty who probably justified the name of the “Land of Ogres.” Perhaps the most infamous of the rulers of that dynasty, renowned throughout the region as pirates and trouble-makers, was King Sanda Thuddhamma, who, in 1660, was overlord of perhaps the largest area of any Arakanese ruler, reaching from west of Chittagong to the Irrawaddy River.
In 1660, he offered refuge and support to Prince Shah Suja, the brother of Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal Emperor. However, when the Prince arrived with his huge treasure, his thousand palanquin entourage and his family, including his daughter King Sanda Thuddhamma lusted after both treasure and daughter; rape and pillage of the Mughal entourage followed.
The dynasty lasted, however, another 120 years before being overwhelmed by the Burmese king, and Arakan ceased to exist. North of the Naf river had become, truly, a land of ogres!