Marathas have their icon in Shibaji Maharaj, Rajputs have their legend in Maharana Pratap, Assames have their hero in Lachit Barfukan who fought valiantly against the invaders to protect the sovereignty of their lands. But due to an unknown reason, the Bengalis’ are devoid of an iconic figure, a hero whose chivalry can be inspiring for the future generations.
In today’s article we follow the trail of the now lesser known Raja Pratapaditya, one of the Baro Bhuiyans, who independently reigned over 16th century Jessore and contributed much to the region’s evolution.
In the olden times, the marshy lands of Jessore were known as Yashohara, literally translating to “glory depriver.” The name was given believing that Yashohara would strip the glory of the olden capital of Bengal, Gaur (spread across present day Malda district, West-Bengal and Chapai Nawabganj, Rajshahi, Bangladesh), for itself.
It was Bikramaditya, Pratapaditya’s father( his original name was Sri Hari ) , who had established the township. Raja Pratapaditya was born in 1561, and at his birth a state seer (raj-jyotishi) predicted that Pratap would soon supplant his father. While Bikram did not kill the boy upon hearing the seer’s premonition, as would be the norm for the time, out of apprehension, Pratap was sent to Agra. However, Bikram met his destiny on the very road he took to avoid it.
At Agra, Pratap won the favour of Emperor Akbar with his ready wit and royal ways and was granted his father’s territory. Fulfilling the prophecy, Pratap then came back to Jessore and assassinated his entire family; but his uncle’s son survived – he was the boy who lived and will be important later in our story. Pratapaditya prospered immensely, building numerous forts and temples and rapidly expanding his kingdom centered in Yashohara. Ultimately, he declared himself independent of the emperor of Delhi .
He ruled over a Hindu kingdom in Bengal, which, at its zenith encompassed the districts of Nadia, North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas in West Bengal, as well as extending into modern-day Bangladesh from Kushtia district in north, Barisal in east and Sundarbans and Bay of Bengal to south.
Maharaj Pratapaditya built several forts. The principal fourteen of them were at Jessore, Dhumghat, Raigarh, Kamalpur, Vedkashi, Shibsha, Pratapnagar, Shalikha, Matla, Haidargarh, Araikaki, Mani, Raimangal and Chaksri. There were seven forts built by Pratapaditya in and around present-day Kolkata. They were at Matla, Raigarh, Tala, Behala, Salkia, Chitpur and Mulajor. Apart from these Pratapaditya had built a fort near present-day Jagatdal ( North 24 Parganas) .
Maharaj Pratapaditya’s army was divided into six divisions – infantry, cavalry, artillery, archers and elephant division. The infantry consisted of the Dhali and Raibneshe soldiers, under the command of Kalidas Ray and Madan Malla. Madan Malla belonged to Bagdi caste (Barga Kshatriya). In fact, the Raibneshe soldiers of Pratapaditya’s army were all Bagdi in origin.
They were brought from Mallabhum by Pratapaditya to strengthen his army because at that time Bagdi was one of the most important and capable warrior castes of whole Bengal. According to Bharatchandra, Maharaj Pratapadaitya had 52,000 Dhalis under his command. There were many Kuki soldiers in his army and the Kuki regiment was under the command of Raghu. A cavalry of 10,000 was commanded by Pratapsingha Dutta, assisted by Mahiuddin and Nurullah. The archers were led by Sundar and Dhulian Baig. There were 1,600 elephants trained for war. Apart from these Pratapaditya had a network of spies, under the command of Sukha.
A superb Military Genius and an able administrator, Maharaj Prataditya ensured a complete restoration of law and order. During his reign Pratapaditya made frequent visits to a navaratna temple located right beside the present in Satkhira, district of Bangladesh in a village called Damrail. Constructed in 1582 by Pratapaditya’s father, Bikramaditya, this temple is now literally in the middle of nowhere surrounded by paddy fields and shrimp hatcheries. Interestingly, it is believed that the main purpose of this temple was never for worship. Instead it is referred to as a samaj-mandir or a sabha-mandir. It was built as a meeting and consultation place for the locals with an assembly of nine sages. These nine wise men were referred to as nava-ratna or nine gems. Pratap supposedly held numerous shalish in the temple with the local people wherein he passed his judgement on various social and criminal matters. This point had quickly become a place of local congregation with much socio-political influence.
Being quite familiar with the terrain of his kingdom and the frequent raids by the Portuguese and Arakanese pirates along the coast of the Bay of Bengal, a military genius of the like of Maharaj Pratapaditya could have ignored the need of a strong naval fleet only at his own peril. Most of the Bara Bhuiyans of the time were well equipped in naval warfare and Maharaj Pratapaditya was no exception. Historian Radhakumud Mookerjee observed thus:
“But by far the most important seat of Hindu maritime power of the times in Bengal was that established at Chandikhan or Saugor island by the constructive genius of Maharaj Pratapaditya, the redoubtable King of Jessore. Numbers of men-of-war were always to be found ready for battle and in a seaworthy condition at that naval station. There were also three other places where Maharaj Pratapaditya built his shipyards and dockyards: these were Dudhali, Jahajaghata, and Chakasri, where his ships were built repaired and kept.”
During that period the Mug Pirates from Arakan (Present day Myanmar) and Portuguese Pirates created a havoc in the coastal Bengal area. They were involved in abducting people from this region for slave trade. It’s said, the villagers used to be kidnapped from their settlements by the pirates, their hands used to be drilled and a then a thin cane stick used to be inserted to hold them together for putting into the holes of the pirate ships for transportation to far off lands.
Maharaja Pratapaditya ensured the total rout of these pirates through his massive naval presence in these areas.
Battles with the Mughals
Though initially Maharaja Pratapaditya was a vassal of the Mughals, and got the decree from Emperor Akbar yet he decided to declare himself an independent King of the region under his control. He tried to inspire the other Bengali Chieftains also for the rebellion against the foreign rule, however all of them were not ready at that time to throw off the yoke of Emperor Akbar’s reign. But Maharaja Prataditya defied the Mughal Rule , declared himself a sovereign King and started to mint his own coin and use his own insignia on his banners .
This engaged the Emperor and Akbar ordered his Generals to subdue the rebel of Bengal . A large Mughal contingent consisting of 1,000 cavalry, 5,000 matchlock men and a number of tried and experienced officers, such as Mirza Makki, son of Iftikhar Khan, Mirza Saifuddin, Shaikh Ismail Fathpuri, Shah Beg Khaksar and Lachhmi Rajput, and a fleet consisting of 300 men-of-war, besides the war boats of new vassals like Musa Khan and Bahadur Ghazi, was selected for the war. The Mughal forces were under the command of Subadar of Bengal Islam Khan’s brother Ghiyas Khan or Inayat Khan, while the fleet and artillery were under Mirza Nathan, son of Ihtimam Khan. Another force was sent against his son in law Raja Ramchandra of Bakla at the same time so that he might not come to the assistance of Jessore.
Maharaja Pratapaditya and his son Udayaditya fought valiantly to ward off the attack. There is a colloquial lore that 12 of the Mughal Amirs were killed during the campaign and got buried in a place called “ Baro Omra r Kabar” ( Burial Place of 12 Amirs) within the land of Pratapaditya’s Kingdom .
Battle of Kagarghat
where Pratapaditya prepared himself to fight a second time from a new base near the confluence of Kagarghat canal and the Jamuna. The Mughals began the battle by an attack on the Jessore fleet (Jan 1612) and compelled it to seek shelter beneath the fort. But their further advance was checked by the heavy cannonade of the Jessore artillery. A sudden attack of the Mughals completely defeated the Jessore fleet and they fell upon the fort with the elephants in front, thereby compelling Pratapaditya to evacuate the fort and retreat. His valiant army strategist Rudraditya was forced an exile after being captured during this war.
After his defeat, Raja Man Singh requested Lakshmikanta ( foster son of Basanta Roy, Prataditya’s Uncle ) to ascend the throne, but he refused. Instead, Bhavanand Majumdar, who had been in the service of Maharaj Pratapaditya as a Brahmin boy, was given the throne, and he subsequently became the founder of the Nadiya Raj family
After the fall of Pratapaditya, the Mughal army ransacked Jessore. Srish Chandra Basu quotes historian Tapan Kumar Ray Choudhuri,
“Plunder and rape appear as the concomitants of Mughal campaigns, and even a sensible man like Mirza Nathan boasts of his ruthless exploits. Udayaditya’s (Pratapaditya’s son) failure to satisfy this officer’s lust for gold drew upon the head of the Jessore people a terrible vengeance. He threatened to show what is meant by looting, and true to his words, wrought such havoc that he became an object of terror to the people of the country. Yet, to be sure, Mirza Nathan was more humane than his brother Murad who during a Jessore campaign bought as captives four thousand women, young and old, stripped of their clothing.”
For 13 years , Maharaja Prataditya fought to keep land of Bengal independent defying the Mughal Emperor . He rebelled against the throne when Akbar was in power and was an independent king till Jahangir’s force quelled his rebellion. It’s said, though he was chained and caged and was being transported back to Delhi for his trial by the Emperor , the Mughals couldn’t take him alive . He committed suicide near Benaras .
In the early 1900s(1903 to be specific ) Sarala Devi, a leading Nationalist leader of Bengal wrote that Pratapaditya was a Bengali Hero because he “Stood up alone against the might of the Mughal Emperors to defend Bengal’s independence. In the past, the 2nd day of Durga Puja – the Ashtami was also known as Birashtami – the day to pay homage to the brave and valiant. This day was propagated by Sarala Devi as the day when Mothers would be encouraged to understand the ideals of Motherhood, to nurture brave and heroic sons and thus the Prataditya Utsav started in Bengal .
This brave chivalrous son of Bengal has gone to oblivion, got buried under the pages of history and hardly gets recalled by the educated elite of present day Bengal courtesy the so called historians who glorified tyrants, religious bigots like Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan as the epitome of Indian resistance against the Britishers .
Time has come to revisit our own history, time has come draw inspiration from our own ancestors who fought for this land, land of Bengal and its our legacy which we have inherited. Time has come to reclaim the old glory of the Bengali race and Maharaja Prataditya is the best ever example Bengalis can look up to for the chivalry and resistance against oppression .
Jai Ma Jashoreshwari …….