Risana Malik, Rashna Munawar, Hiram Reynolds, Don Tran, Two Travelers and the Bay of Bengal

Risana, Malik Munawar, Rashna Reynold, Hiram Tran, Don 2014-04-25


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Interview Participants
Two travelers and the Bay of Bengal.
Historically, the Bay of Bengal has played a significant role as a religious center and a cultural and political junction for world exchanges. We plan to look at two travelers and their connections to the Bay of Bengal, why they came, and what they found.
One of the most famous Buddhist pilgrims of the seventh century was the Chinese monk Xuanzang. He traveled to India during the early Tang period, probably with the financial support of Buddhist merchants. Buddhism was closely associated with the Tang merchant class at the time.
part from the historical connection of the Buddhist South Asian roots, Xuanzang was also motivated by Indian Buddhist text, many of which he translated from Sanskrit to Chinese, such as the Heart Sutra. The fact that Xuanzang studied Sanskrit texts at institutions at institutions like Nalanda and Vikramshila, and his visits to numerous Buddhist monasteries throughout north Bengal indicate the predominance of Buddhism around today during his time.
These are among many of his experiences chronicled in the great Tang records of the western regions, Which is compiled during his lifetime.
Due to Xuanzang’s travels, Chinese Buddhists obtained greater understanding of South Asian culture. He was one of the few bilingual Chinese monks, and his work in bringing Sanskrit Buddhist texts to China made him famous as the Tripitaka master of the Tang Dynasty, the Tripitaka being the Buddhist scripture. The knowledge he shared also opened up trade and connectivity between China and the Bay.
However, the dominance of Buddhism around the Bay of Bengal did not last. Trade, migration, and conquest from the Arabian peninsula from the 10th century onwards gave Islam a stronger foothold in Asia. With the declining Mongol Empire came greater conflict around the Silk Road, making the sea a safer trade route, and giving Islam easier passage to the Bay of Bengal by sea.
The reopening of the silk Road by the 14th century though gave a certain Moroccan traveler the chance to become the most famous tourist of Dar al-Islam, this new “abode of Islam”. Ibn Battuta’s primary reason for traveling was to discover the Muslim world. Beginning with his pilgrimage to Makkah in 1325 he moved across the middle east, the Eurasian steps, Central Asia India and China—across the continent. Like Xuanzang before him, Ibn Battuta’s travels were motivated by religion and intercultural exchanges. He was a believer of Sufi spirituality, and his travel accounts, while ethnographic in nature, are also filled with prayer and premonitions. On the other hand, his appointment in the court of Mohammad Bin Tughlaq, ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, was what eventually enable him to visit Bengal in the first place.
It was during a diplomatic trip to China that he detoured to Sylhet to meet the renowned Sufi saint Shah Jalal. While Ibn Battuta spent more of his time in the Delhi court, it was in Bengal that he found Islam, particularly Sufism, to have a more widespread following. He also found Bengal breaking away from the Delhi-based rulers to become a sultanate in its own right, the beginnings of the Illyas Shah dynasty. It is interesting to see that even with the decline of Buddhism so many centuries before, Bengal was still holding its own as a new religious and political hub. In the seven centuries between Xuanzang and Ibn Battuta’s observations, The most remarkable aspect of the Bay of Bengal is that it evolved to stay exactly where it was, in a position of religious and cultural significance.
This says a lot about the region, as well as the people, thoughts, and systems that it drew in, be they Mahayana monks or Sufi saints. The fact that it was fertile ground for radically different ideas over such a long span of time hints not just at the adaptability of the Bay to new global orders, but at its resilience as well. Now here is Prof. Brian Hatcher of Tufts University.
BH
Eastern India in the eighth, ninth century, and 10th-century was a really productive region for Buddhism, and was exporting a lot of Buddhist tantra and things like that that up. The Tibetan scholars were coming down and getting it and the Buddhist travelers were going from Bengal up into Tibet, and places so it was really a kind of epicenter for a lot of innovation in Buddhist ritual and practice and philosophy, and everything, not to mention material culture with universities and all of that. Then of course that comes kind of to an end with the arrival of Islam and the closing of those monasteries in Nalanda, etc.
BH
That’s an important, obviously that’s the high road of Buddhism to originally have gotten out of, if you will, “gotten out of” South Asia and onto the Silk Road and across the deserts and into Central Asia and out to China, Korea, etc., and so that was the great Highway if you will.
BH
And so again we think of Islam coming in from the northwest and heading east, then Bengal was going to be a place where Buddhism’s thrives, and in similar ways to Islam, Buddhism will put its roots down. And Islam does of course become inculturated in Bengal very deeply, and that process of inculturation is the stuff that’s generated a lot of scholarship over the years. A lot of terms have been used like syncretism, and hybridity, and all of that.
BH
The idea of a kind of merger of Islamic practice and belief with local Hindu practices, if we want to even call them Hindu or even folk practices—storytelling, song, ritual, meditative beliefs, spirituality….
BH
The flexibility of Islam coming in and being able to make connectivity with local cults, religious practices, the figure of ‘holy man’ and devotional figures that rang true to Bengalis already, meant that Islam had a way of kind of inserting itself into the local picture, that made it meaningful rather than alien. You have the importation of the Islamic administrative frameworks, and revenue and taxation and all of that, and then structures of landholding, and revenue collection in relation to all of that, so Islam is connected with that. The establishment certainly of a material culture vis-à-vis the building of mosques and shrines becomes very important.
BH
Well, it’s the river certainly, it’s also just the history, if you will of the spread of Brahmanical culture, which kind of generally over a period of a couple, well, three millennia, basically comes from northwest to southeast, so if you think of the Indo-Aryans coming in through present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, and making their way down in to the Gangetic heartland (this is the middle of the sixth century BCE). And then from there Brahmanical culture spreads east through what we think of as Bihar…
BH
With Battuta you get a kind of observer, who’s traveling through and making copious and very detailed observations. And then Babur obviously has got very different things on his mind….
BH
Islam as a tool, well, perhaps,* you know, rulers were often trying to establish their authority vis-à-vis, whether it’s the ruler in Delhi or the Caliph in Baghdad, rulers are always trying to establish a mosque and have the daily prayer said in the name of the ruler.
BH
*This is but a selection of the author’s response to a question regarding the use of Islam as a political tool, and was abbreviated for the purposes of the video essay but may not capture the nuances of the speaker’s response.
BH
For further purposes of documentation please see the full transcript of his response to this question below. However, please note this disclaimer that even the full response to this question in isolation from the full interview may not fully capture the subtleties of the speaker’s opinions.
BH
[Interviewer: Would you be able to speak for a minute on how Islam specifically was used as a political tool during the 14th through the 16th centuries? So specifically that would be covering Battuta’s up through Babur’s time [two of the foci of the original product].
Yeah as a political tool… again, a little bit outside my primary area of expertise, so I’d want to be really careful I’d feel better having that question go to someone like Professor Jalal than myself. Particularly when you say “political tool” I’m not sure if you see it doing a certain job already in your mind? That is, you have the importation of the Islamic administrative frameworks, and revenue and taxation and all of that, and then structures of landholding, and revenue collection in relation to all of that, so Islam is connected with that. The establishment certainly of a material culture vis-à-vis the building of mosques and shrines becomes very important, right, and then those mosques and shrines become important anchors in the landscape, the religious landscape for Islamic faith and devotional practice, so I think what you find, and Eaton again discusses this, is the regionalization of Islamic architectural forms. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable thinking about it in terms of a tool, it’s really a more of a symbiosis where the implantation of mosques and dargahs and things like that begins to take on the coloring of local architecture. The atshallah style—the Bengali thatched roof style—that becomes a normative figure in design for mosques, the use of terra cotta ornamentation, etc. These are very distinctive Bengali things that Islam articulates itself through. So, I would say Islam as a tool, perhaps, you know, rulers were often trying to establish their authority vis-à-vis, whether it’s the ruler in Delhi or the Caliph in Baghdad, rulers are always trying to establish a mosque and have the daily prayer said in the name of the ruler, right, so there are certain things that reflected the authority of Islam in an area, but I don’t know too much more about the details of Islamic political rule to be able to talk.
BH
BH
Yeah I think I take your point, we think of religion being used for legitimation in certain processes, right, instrumental purposes or whatever, but I think in some ways, in terms of the lived experiences of people in Bengal it seems to make sense to ask how Islam was able to find a foothold and establish connectivity and then itself becomes shaped by the local environment.]
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