During the XVIIth century, a Bengali poetical tradition emerged in the kingdom of Arakan. The main figure of this tradition is the court poet Ãlãol(?1607-1680) who composed adaptations into Bengali of texts originally written in medieval Hindi (Avadhi) or Persian. As far as now, six poems are known to be his compositions.
But the picture Ãlãol gives of his cultural milieu and the references he makes to some political events that he witnessed, and which would have more or less direct consecluences on his own life, and the mentions of characters related to the political and religious life of his time, can be very valuable to the study of XVIIth c. Arakanese social and political history.
Nevertheless, Ãlãol's texts don't claim to be historical chronicles, and in order to be able to apprehend properly the meaning and the historical validity of the datas present in his poems, it is absoluteiy necessary to understand these as expressed according to Ãlãol's poetical idiom and as assuming a specific function in the court poet's rhetoric, who is, on one hand, bound to the order of his current patron, and, on the other hand, always in search of a possible patron.
My point will be to define the nature of the datas concerning Arakan social and political history one can collect fiom Ãlãol's poems, and to raise few questions regarding fhe interpretation of those passages which constitute the emergence of the production context into the poetical text.
During the 17th century in Mrauk U, the capital of the Arakanese kingdom, two poets testify the emergence of a literature using Bengali language as a means of expression. These two poets are Daulat Kãjî who lived under the reign of Sirisudhammaraja(1622-1638), and Ãlãol whose literary activity extended from the reign of Satui:dhammaraja(1645-1652) to 1670-1671. Both Ãlãol and Daulat Kãjî , worked for individuals beionging to the Muslim nobility at the Arakanese royal court. In this paper I will focus on Ãlãol's works in the perspective of the use of the historical data collectable from the prologues to his poems.
Recent studies have shown how cosmopolitan was the kingdom of Arakan which was a very important place inside the Bay of Bengal commercial network, especially during the 16th and 17th centuries1. Available sources for the study of Arakanese history reflect the variety of the cultures encountered in this area, and historians have to deal with the multiple languages and literary genres to be able to cross-check the data they provide. Until now, most of the texts used by historians such as Persian, Tripuri and Arakanese chronicles or reports written by Dutch or Portuguese merchants were informative by nature; when using the term "informative" I mean that the main purpose of those texts was to convey a knowledge regarding the economical or political life in the area at this time. Alaol's works are poetical by nature, nevertheless few historical elements can be found in the sections revealing the context of production. The question regarding those data is: did the poet relate those events in order to provide the readers a knowledge regarding his contemporary life or do they play a part directly linked to his actual status as a court poet? This question is of vital importance if one attempts to use Ãlãol's poetry as a source for Arakanese history.
Historical data found in Ãlãol's texts can be divided into four categories: the poet's own life, his patrons, the king and the royal family and references to political events. As I am not a specialist of Arakanese history, I won't treat any subject directly dealing with political history and I will confine myself to questions regarding Ãlãol's biography. However, my approach will be as methodological as possible and the issues concerning the interpretation of the data of the poet's life are parallel to questions about the reading of other factual elements furnished by his texts.
First of all, I will present the life of Ãlãol according to what one can gather from the prologues to his poems. Then, I will raise a few questions regarding the studies carried out by historians of Bengali literature inspired by those prologues. Later I will talk about the structure of these passages and the rhetoric that shows through such an analysis. Finally I will give one example of how the understanding of the author's rhetoric can help a better understanding of the meaning of what seems to be factual data.
Life and Work of Ãlãol: Ãlãol's biography according to the data available in the prologues to his poems
Compared to the rest of medieval Bengati literature, one of Ãlãol's distinctive features is the rather detailed accounts of his life found in the prologues of his texts. Starting from the elements contained in those passages, many scholars attempted to sketch out his biography. Such depictions of the poet's own life, thoogh usually poor in content, are not so rare in medieval Bengali literature. It is traditionally placed after the vandana or hamd - or invocations to the gods in Hindu texts, or to Allah for Muslim authors -, just before the narration begins. The autobiographical part of the poems is called ãtmav 0 ttãnta (lit."own story") or kavira ãtmakathã (''poet's own story"), and because it ends with an introduction to the circumstances of the composition of the text, contemporary editors sometimes name this section pustaka utpatira kathã ("story of the creation of the book"). Inspired by the prologues of Persian mathnavis, Ãlãol developed this already traditional account in Bengali literature. In the Padmavati and the Sikiandarnama he followed faithfully the structure of the originals and substituted the eulogies of the poets' patrons, gurus or pirs, or current sovereign, with those of his time and place, and the poets' lives with his life.
The first sections of the autobiographical part of the prologues where he mentions the place he came from, are always very similar. He sometimes uses almost the same verses in several poems2. After that, usually comes the section dealing with his arrival in Mrauk U (ben. Rosa0ga) and the salutary meeting with his patron - as we will see later, this is a very meaningful section regarding the rhetoric of his prologues. This also includes the description of the events which took place in Arakan in which he was involved. The last section describes the circumstances of the commissioning of the poem by the patron.
Before discussing the approaches of previous scholars while reconstructing the puzzle of Ãlãol's quite tumultuous life, I would like to add my own version of his biography.
At this stage of the analysis, my method to piece together his biography is the simplest: I render what he says, whithout trying to interpret or clarify the poet's own statements; in other terms, I will take the adage of medieval South-Asian copyists: yatha d000a0 tatha likhitam (lit."Written as seen").
Ãlãol's father was the "minister" (ben. amatya, patra) of the sovereign of the Fatihabad "'kingdom" (muluk), namely Majlis Kutub (Majlis Qutb). He used to stay in the city of Jalalpura situated in the country of Gau0a. One day, he was traveling by boat for business with his father, when Portuguese pirates (hãrmãd) attacked them. Ãlãol's father "became a martyr" after he died in the battle, while the poet survived. Wounded in the fight, he reached Mrauk U (Rosã0ga), where he was incorporated in the army as a "royal horseman" (rãjãsoyãra). These events are related in all his poems except Tohpha.
After a while, he met a member of the royal court called Magana who became his friend and protector. This very person ordered a translation into Bengali of the Avadhi poem of Muhammad Jayasi (frst half of the 16'h c.) called Padmavat. The poem Padmavati was composed during the reign of Satui:dharnmaraja (ben. Sadauma0dara, Pad. 113a) who ruled between 1645 and 1652. The poem contains a long eulogy of this king and his kingdom in fifty-two tristics. Ãlãol also stresses the bonds between Magana and the royal family.
Magana also asked Ãlãol to compose a poem on the theme of the love story between Sayf-ul-mulk and a fairy called Badi-uj-jamal, a tale from theThousand and one nlghts3. He tells us that a pir called Mahachum Saha (Sayph. 49a.4) once told the story during a gathering at Magana's place and, his protector, delighted by the story, wished this Persian love tale to be the subject of a poem composed in payara meter 5 in order to make it understandable to those who did not know Persian language. Magana passed away before Ãlãol could finish the poem which remained uncompleted for years. In the prologue to the poem, the author mentions extensively a period of regency after the death of Satui:dhammaraja but he does not make any allusion to the coronation of Candasudhamma.
In 1659, under Candasudhamma's reign (1652-1684), Ãlãol completed the poem Sati-Mayna o Lora Candra0i, the first part of which was composed by Daulat Kaji, another Bengali court poet of Arakan. This is the first poem that contains a colophon with a date given in the Hegira (1070) and Arakanese (1020) eras 6. This poem is an adaptation of a popular tale in the entire Gangetic valley. It tells the story of a queen, Mayna, who endures many austerities during the absence of the king, Lora, who went away to kidnap a beautiful princess whose husband, the king Vaimana, is unable to fulfill her desires. In the prologue to this text, Ãlãol only refers to the events preceding his arrival in Arakan without furnishing any new elements regarding his life since then – not with standing the commissioning of the poem itself by Choleman whom Ãlãol qualifies by the term mahapatra( Sat. 1.47a) or "prime minister".
Hapta paykar (or Sapta paykar), another translation from the Persian, but this time from a well known poem included in the Khamsa of Ni0ami Ganjavi (Caucasus,12th), was written by Ãlãol under the patronage of Sayid Mu0ammad Khan, a member of the king' s entourage 7. In the eulogy of Candasudhammaraja, the poet mentions the arrival of the mughal prince Shah Shuja' in Arakan (in 1660) 8, but he does not relate any incident connected to this event.
Between 1662 and 1664 9, Ãlãol translated from the Persian a "treatise on practical moral" (ben. nitisastra) entitled Tohpha, originally composed in Delhi during the 14th century by Yusuf Gada a sufi who belonged to the Chishtiyya order. Ãlãol's protector was a man named 0ulayman (ben. Solayaman or Choleman) about whom he does not give any information regarding his functions at the royal court. No political events are related in this text.
Around 1670 10, probably the same 0ulayman commissioned the poet to finish Sayphulmuluk Badiujjamal, the poem started under the patronage of Magana. Here, Ãlãol says that 0ulayman was in charge of the "royal domain" (rajera vi0aya) and that he had under his orders thousands of men "bearers of firearms" (agni astra dhari)11. In this poem, he tells how he has been caught in the conflict between Shah Shuja' and Candasudhammaraja because a man called Mirza (ben. Mirja) accused him of a crime -though he does not indicate what was the fault he was said to have committed. He stayed fifty days in jail, lost his belongings but finally regained his freedom, but he and his family were penniless and "totally dependent on others' will” 12
The last poem13 to be known to us as one of Ãlãol's composition is another translation of Ni0ami's Khamsa: the Sikiindarnama or "Book of Alexander"14. His patron at that time was MajIis Nabaraja 15, who was a "mahamatya" (lit. "great minister"). In the prologue to this last poem, the mentions the conflict between Shuja' and Candasudhammaraja, adding further elements to his biography like his initiation to the Qadiriyya 0ariqa by the qa0i of Mrauk U (ben. rosa0gera kaji), Sayid Mas'ud Shah (ben. Saiyad Masaud Saha), or his teaching activity of literature (lit. "reading", pa0ha), singing and music (gita-sa0gita) to "the sons of very important people"16
Issues regarding some aspects of Ãlãol’s biography as depicted by previous scholars
The brief and somehow "telegraphic" biography of Ãlãol I have presented here according to the elements found in the protogues to his poems is an attempt to redefine the bases of the reconstruction of his life. My point now will be to discuss the way previous scholars worked to shed some light on the unclear passages of his biography, and on the missing elements then considered of crucial importance, like his birth and death places.
Ãlãol appeared in the scholarly field with the work of Abdul Karim (1871-19530 17 who collected and catalogoed hundreds of manuscripts, mainly of poems composed by Muslitn authors. His leitmotiv was the preservation of the literary heritage of Bengali Muslims by publishing papersl8 and editing texts of Muslim poets of the medieval period. He devoted many essays to Ãlãol, who according to him was one of the greatest Bengali poets of the medieval period. He and his disciple Enamul Haq, wrote the first, and so far, the only monograph giving a general overview of Bengali literary production in Arakan 19. Based on the study of the manuscripts collected by Abdul Karim in his native region - the area of Chittagon - they introduced the authors chronologically, from Daulat Kaji(under the reign Sirisudharmnaraja1622-1638) and Ãlãol , who are the only poets who composed in Mrauk U, to more or less datable poets who lived in the Chittagong area during the 17th c.
In the book, the authors claim that Ãlãol was born in Jobra, a village in the Chittagong area, where two places would be connected to his name: "Alaolera dighi"( Ãlãol's pond) and "Alaolrea masjid” (Ãlãol's mosque). This village is never mentioned in the texts and S. Mukhopadhyay suspects the authors of an overwhelming attachment to their native region 20. S. k Ahsan also demonstrated the erroneous nature of this statement 21.
Our point here is not to discuss the location of Ãlãol's birth place, but to question the actual need for contemporary scholars to speculate on these subjects for the investigation of which we do not have any reliable sources to work with. The only thing we know about Ãlãol's life prior to his arrival in Mrauk U is that he stayed in the western part of Bengal and that his father worked for Majlis Qutb, who probably was the bhuyan (landlord) whom Mirza Nathan mentions in the Baharistan-i-gha’ibii 22.
Another question is his dates of birth and death. As nothing can be firmly established from his texts, and as no exterior source gives us any clue regarding this question, the speculations of Enamul Ha resulting in the very precise dates 1607-1680 are very hypothetical. The only thing ascertainable is that he wrote the first poem known to us (Padmavati) under the reign of Satui: dhammaraja (1645-1652) and the last ones (Sayphul muluk and Sikandarnama) around 1670/1671. We should then confine ourselves to saying that he belongs to the bulk of the seventeenth century and that we are aware of a period of literary activity extending to twenty-five years, between 1645 and 1671.
The speculations around his biography seem to have been motivated mainly by two things: the need for Eastern Bengah intellectuals and scholars to stress the importance of Muslim authors of this region in the history of Bengali literature, and the enthusiasm caused by the autobiographical parts of Ãlãol's poems, data regarding the life of medieval poets being extremely rare.
Abdul Karim was an autodidact, and his point of view on this literature is very valuable for he witnessed the end of its popular use 23. Nevertheless, his approach was that of a scholar and he was deeply conscious of and worried about the harm caused to the texts by the popular editions published in Calcutta and Dacca 24. He often calls these editors "businessmen" (vyavasadar) and "people free from knowledge and wit" (vidya-buddhi-sunya loka). His scientific approach to medieval literature was partly in reaction to this commercial attitude of Muslim publishers from Calcutta and Dacca.
Most of Abdul Karim's essays on medieval Bengali literature start with a complaint regarding the neglect of scholars and more generally of the Bengali cultural elite for the texts composed by Muslim authors during the medieval period. Indeed, Harprasada Shastri (1853-1931), Dinesh Chandra Sen (1866-1939) and Nagendranath Vasu (1866-1938), who were the pioneers in the field of study and edition of medieval Bengali manuscripts, were all Hindus. Abdul Karim considered unfair the responsibility and the means given by the British to Hindu scholars to work on Sanskrit and Bengali Hindu texts and saw the dissolution of Muslim Bengali literature partly as a result of this phenomenon. The competition and the need to rehabilitate "Muslim literature" is omnipresent in his texts 25. This Hindu / Muslim dichotomy goes with another dichotomy West/Est Bengal: the Western part being the cradle of important Hindu movements such as Caitanism and the Eastern part, especially Chittagong, being the so called original center of Bengali Muslim culture 26.
In such a context, the location of the birth place of a poet as Ãlãol who is considered as the main contributor to this "Bengali renaissance"27 was a crocial question. His disciple Enamul Haq, followed in the steps of his master, but the political context changed with the creation of East Pakistan in 1948 and with the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. The issue then was less the competition between Hindu and Muslitn literature, than the constitution ofa Bangladesh identity in a nation building context.
The focus was then on the role of Ãlãol's poetry in the history of Muslim Bengali culture and the context of Arakanese literary production was considered as secondary: the exil of Bengali poets was understood as a temporary situation due to the tumultuous political context of Bengal after the arriving of the Mughals. The literacy activity of Bengali poets in Arakan was also regarded as a chance for Arakanese people who were thougtlt to be "culturally backward" 28.
Recent works such as J. P. Leider's PHD thesis 29 make possible the settlement of Ãlãol's work in a clearer historical frame. Without neglecting the importance of Bengali literature in Ãlãol's poetry and the impact of his poems on later Bengali poets, by doing research on this literature, my attempt is to depart from nationalist approaches and to study Ãlãol's poetry, in its Arakanese context, with a reflection on the cultural incidences of such a literary production in a kingdom that politically and economically was reaching the climax of its activity.
I mentioned earlier the lack of critical analysis of Ãlãol's prologues and the enthusiasm caused by the autobiographical elements wich they contain. In the following paragraphs, I will discuss the data provided by these passages according to Ãlãol's rhetoric.
Rhetorical speech versus informative discourse: toward a comprehensive reading of Ãlãol's prologues
At first sight, what is striking about the prologues of Ãlãol's poems is, on the one hand the reflection led by the poet on his literary activity and more generally on poetics, and on other hand the depiction of the context of production of his poems. The questions I would like to raise now are: why did Ãlãol relate his autobiography in five of his six poems? and how much credit can be given to the depictions provided by Ãlãol, considering the poetical nature of his texts and the material dependence to his patrons suggesting the use of a specific rhetorical discourse? In order to answer these questions, after analyzing the structure of his prologues, I propose to give one example of the ambiguity concerning a well established part of his biography revealed by the study of his rhetoric.
As I have already mentioned, the prologues are always structured in the same way that is as following 30.
a) Eulogy of the king (or queen);
b) Eulogy of the patron (related to his function at the royal court);
c) Autobiographical part:
1. Depiction of the place he came from (Fatihabad);
2. Attack of the Portuguese pirates, death of his father, arrival to Rosa0ga;
1. Eulogy of the patron (as Ãlãol's protector);
2. Depiction of the patron's court and ordering of the poem;
1. Comments on literary composition and poetics;
2. Concluding vers (es) of the prologue.
This is the basic structure of the prologues, but, regarding the content of section I, one can divide Ãlãol's poems in two groups. Pad, Sayph 1 and Sat. present strictly the same events, but Sayph. 2 omits the attack by the Portuguese and the arrival in Rosa0ga, which is understandable as these events have been narrated in the first prologue, and replace it with the arrival of Shuja' and the poet's confinement resulting in the loss of his belongings. In Sik the author mentions both of those events.
This pattern shows how calculated is the presentation of all the elements of his life, and the regularity of this passage is a sign of a well designed rhetorical speech. In the first two sections, Ãlãol gives the assurance of his respectable origins - he is the son of a "minister" and belongs to a milieu of "people keen on gatherings, refined in their speech and devotion" 31 - which is echoed in 2.2, where he describes briefly the atmosphere at his patron's court. Then, the adventurous episode of the Portuguese attack involving his father's death and his arrival in Mrauk U wounded and forsaken, amplifies the eulogy of his protector's generosity. This technique is used twice in the Sik where he ads his confinement and presents his protector as the one who saved him and his family from total impotence.
Section 3 that is sometimes (e.g. Sayph. 2) interlaced with 2.2, is made to show the skills of Ãlãol as a poet and how competent he is to fulfill the task he has been assigned 32.
Ãlãol's prologues are not purely informative, and the data contained in these passages are not to be read as a legacy for future generations regarding his contemporary life. They have a well defined aim directly linked to the poet's current preoccupations: enabling him to find his next patron in order to earn his livelihood. Chronicles and reports I mentioned in the introduction that I called "informative" also correspond to a specifc rhetoric and it is also necessary to take it in account, but the aim of such texts is usually ideological and the impact expected is on a wider timescale. Here, the author seems to use factual events in order to convince people facing him while reciting his poem, people liable to provide him with material needs. The immediate and non ideological character of his rhetoric in these passages makes it different from the one occuring in informative text.
Let's now see how the awareness of Ãlãol's rhetoric can redefine what we know about his biography. It is commonly accepted that the first protector of Ãlãol was Magana. In Pad he writes:
kahite aneka katha du0kha aipanara / rosa0ge asiya hailun raja- achoyara //
bahu musalmana saba rosa0ge baisanta / sadacari kulina pa00ita gu0avanta //
sabe k0pa karenta sambha0a bahutara / alima olama bali karenta adara //
mukhya pa0esvarira amatya mahajana / satyavadi jitendriya0hakura Magana //
bhagyodaya haila mora vidhi parasana /du0kha nasa hetu tana sa0geta milana //
aneka adara kari bahula sammana /satafa po0anta anna vastra dana //
madhura alape vasa haila mora mana / tana gu0a sutra haila grivate bandhana //
"I feel much pain telling my story. Arrived in Rosa0ga, I became royal horseman.
Many Muslims live in Rosa0ga; they are honest in their conduct, noble [by birth], erudite and endowed with qualities.
Every one provides favors and converses much [with me]; learned men call [me] scholar and show affection.
The great man who is the first queen's minister is the lord Magana, an adept of truth and a defeater of his senses.
Touched by destiny, my good fortune rose, [and] for the sake of annihilation of grief [I was to] meet with him.
Showing much affection and respect [to me], he constantly took care of me with gifts of food and garments.
By his sweet speech my heart has been subdued, and the garland (lit.string) of his qualities has been tied to my neck."
In this extract, we get the impression that Magana is the first protector of Ãlãol who does not mention the existence of any other benefactor before him. Let's now compare these verses with a passage taken fiom the prologue of Sati Mayna o Lora Candra0i:
katheka apana du0kha kahimu prakasi / raja asoyara hainu rosa0gete asi //
srimanta choleman maha gu0avanta /prra desi gu0i paile adara po0anta //
maha hara0ita haila paiya ahmare / anna vastra dane nitya po0anta sadare //
"I openly told some griefs of mine. Arrived in Rosa0ga I became royal horseman.
The noble Choleman is a great [man adorned] with qualities; when he acquires a stranger endowed with qualities, he respectfully takes care of him.
He became most joyful when he obtained me; constantly he affectionately took care of me with gifts of food and garments."
Once more no transition is formulated to articulate his arrival in Rosa0ga and the meeting with the benefactor. This is related to the rhetoric mentioned above: the patron has to be introduced as the protector par excellence. Without the mention of the name of the current king, it would be impossible to define any chronological order between both of these texts. It is then inappropriate to claim that Magana was the first patron of Ãlãol, because no outside source can lead us to such a conclusion and, submitted to an analysis taking in account the general rhetoric of the poet, the text itself does not contain this statement.
As my previous analysis tends to demonstrate, autobiographical parts of Ãlãol's poems are organized according to a specific rhetoric that has to be aknowledged when we try to interpret the factual data used to build his speech. That's why I want to stress on the precautions that are to be taken when using a text which content is not informative in the field of historical investigations. With the issues I mentioned concerning Ãlãol's biography my attempt was to show how dependent on the current necessity of the court poet are what seem to be positive data found in the poems. The problematic is the same for data regarding his patrons, the royal family or any political event: in order to be scientifically valid they have first to be replaced in the poet's rhetorical flame and, when possible, cross-checked with other sources.
Until now, Ãlãol's literary production has often been anecdotically mentioned by historians as a proof of the Muslim presence at the Arakanese court during the 17th century. As we noticed in the introduction, different historical characters and events appear in the prologues to Ãlãol's texts, and the study of those elements would certainly help clarifying a few points of the Arakanese history during this period.
In my paper only factual data have been mentioned. Some of those data as the autobiographical elements or the names and functions of Ãlãol's patrons could not be cross-checked with any other source, but some others such as the arrival of Shuja' and the royal successions are found in different texts.
One can assume that a precise and methodical parallel study of the titles and functions of Ãlãol's patrons as he depicted them and of what is found in the Arakanese chronicles could enable us to have a better idea of the status of this Bengali speaking nobility of Mrauk U.
But Ãlãol's texts are above all a priceless source for the cultural history of the kingdom. The choice of the translations and the references to other texts made by the author inside the poems provide us with the actual availability of Persian, Sanskrit and Avadhi literature in 17th century's Mrauk U. The variety of Ãlãol's cultural references and his statement concerning his teaching activity also raise the question of the education of this nobility. All his works reveal a concern for educating his patrons and their court, as well as an attempt to forge an original, literary taste by choosing Persian themes and expressing them through a very Sanskritic poetical idiom in a Bengali metrical frame. Through his references to Sanskrit literature and poetics one can assume that he had been in contact with Brahmins and bouddhist scholars, which encourages further studies regarding Sanskrit scholarship in Mrauk U.
Many informations regarding the religious life can also be gathered from his poems. All the texts he translated circulated in Sufi milieus either as meditative material (e.g. Padmavati, Sati Mayna o Lora Candra0i) or as doctrinal hand book (Tohpha). Ãlãol himself was initiated to the Qadiriyya Sufi order.
The perspectives of studies are numerous and the material abundant, yet all his
poems have not been critically edited. By now, only Sikandarnama, Padmavati, Sati Mayna o Lora Candra0i and Tohpha have been scientifically edited. Sayphulmuluk and Hapta paykar are still to be done. As far as I know, no English translation of his poems exists and very few papers dealing with Ãlãol are available in this language 33.
This paper was submitted at "Arakan History Conference", Bangkok 23.11 - 25.11.2005, organised by the Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand.
(Draft only. Please don't quote)