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Dr Thibaut D’hubert And Bengali Language and Literature in Seventeenth-Century Mrauk-U
By Dr Thibaut D’hubert — is Associate Professor South Asian Languages and Civilizations (SALC) and the College The University of Chicago, USA.
Our perception of cultural identities and their geographical location is often biased by arguments that treat modern nations as a timeless frame work, whereas the boundaries of modern nations actually conceal the different structures that predate the modern world. In this essay, I propose to study some aspects of the literary culture and history of Arakan in the seventeenth century, an area which has not been considered as a cultural and political unit of its own because of its interstitial geographical location between modern Bangladesh and Myanmar. My central concern will be the use of languages in this highly multicultural area and the formation of a literary corpus using one of these languages, namely Bengali. We will see that the Bengali language served as an intermediary between the local sphere and the networks of the Bay of Bengal, in which the kingdom occupied a place of growing importance.
The Kingdom of Arakan was located in the northwestern coastal area of modern Myanmar and, at the climax of its expansion at the end of the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth centuries, extended from Bassein to Chittagong (Leider 2002 and 2004: 503). In the last ten years, studies have dealt with the history of trade in the Indian Ocean, as well as the political history of the kingdom of Arakan during the Mrauk-U period (1433-1785). These have allowed us to raise new questions regarding the cultural background and functions of the agents participating in the Bengali literary milieu in Arakan during the seventeenth century. Before dealing with the status of the Bengali language in Arakan, it is necessary to give a general overview of the literary material available to us.
We have a very limited idea of the texts produced in the Arakanese language: Speeches of ministers and a few poems have been reproduced in later chronicles, but no corpus of Arakanese literary texts is extant.  Pali language and literature were studied in this Therävädin kingdom, but very few original works in this domain can be labeled as products of the Arakan court. [ Similarly, according to the historical records dealing with the fall of the kingdom in 1784, it seems that the Burmese king Bodawphaya (r. 1782-1819) was interested in Sanskrit scholarship in Mrauk-U and ordered the translation into Burmese of Sanskrit texts looted from Arakan (Leider 2006).
The most important testimonies to literary culture in seventeenth-century Arakan are found in the Bengali texts composed in Chittagong, which was part of the Arakanese kingdom from 1578 to 1666, and in the capital city of Mrauk-U (Ben. Rosäng). In Chittagong, the bulk of this literature was written by Muslim authors who settled in the rural areas around the harbor. The texts composed in the Chittagong area were concerned with religious matters such as the Jives of the prophets of lslam or Islamic doctrine and practices with a strong Sufi inclination. The authors do not claim affiliation to any Sufi order (tariqa) and their Persian and Arabic literary models are not precisely attributed. These texts were apparently aimed at newly converted Bengalis and provided them with the fundamentals of Islam.
The Bengali literature composed in the capital shows different features. The religious dimension is still present in the texts composed in the capital city but the focus is not on stories of the prophets and proper Islamic behavior. Rather, the authors gave more importance to ”Sufi romances” and they made direct references to famous tariqas (i.e., the Chishti:yya and the Qädiri:yya) which denotes their integration into supra-regional Sufi networks. The language of these poems is very scholarly and more sophisticated. Their Awadhi, Persian, and Sanskrit literary models are clearly mentioned, thus showing the acute consciousness the authors had of their activity as men of letters. Furthermore, the patrons of this literature were not only Sufis, but also members of the gentry. The Bengali literature of Mrauk-U is mainly represented by two poets, Daulat Käjl (fl.1622-38) and Äläol (fl. 1651-71), who worked under the patronage of Muslim nobles employed in the royal administration, and consists of translations of Awadhi and Persian texts into Bengali.
Among the authors who lived in the Arakanese kingdom during this period, Äläol provides the most vivid and complete picture of the aspirations of the Bengali literati of his time.  As we will see in the following pages, the nature of his oeuvre and the fact that he was first and foremost a poet-translator, when resettled in the context of seventeenth-century Mrauk-U, afford preliminary answers to explain the functions of the Bengali language in the cosmopolitan kingdom of Arakan.
In this essay I will first investigate the conditions behind the rise of Bengali literature in Mrauk-U. In the second part 1 will use Äläol’s biography and literary activity as a Jens for tracing the evolution of Bengali literary culture in Mrauk-U between the reign of Satui:dhammaräjä (r.1645-52) and Candasudhammaräjä (r. 1652-84). Finally, I will situate Mrauk-U in the larger cultural context of the Indian Ocean during the seventeenth century and I will focus on the role of the ”court poet” as a cultural mediator between the local power and the cosmopolitan networks of the ports around the Bay of Bengal.