AA RAHMAN, Ph.D. (MIT)
Sil’oti– the “Sylhettans” – have been a sea-faring (now, air-plying), pioneering people. From times immemorial in antiquity. Right into our times. Unlike their land-bound neighbours, the Assamese, Tibetan, and the Indians. In this daring, pioneering, adventurous spirit and activity – they were like the other great seafaring people. Like the Vikings of the northwest of the Old World landmass. And the Bugis of its south-east. And, in the middle in between those two extremities – the Arabians of the Ancient times, including the Phoenicians of today’s Lebanon extended southward all along what was the Ancient Nabatea – in the north-western reaches of Greater Arabia. And the Arabs of today’s Yemen extended northward upward along Ancient Obairah and Greater Bahrain. And also like the Bugis-cognates Malay, the Chinese and the Arabs in the Middle Ages. All these seafaring peoples were great discoverers and romantic pioneers. Unlike the overpowering land-powers, the Mongols and the Aryans in Asia and Europe, and the Slavs. So were – and have remained – the erstwhile sea-faring, and lately “air-plying” Sylhettans. People are not cut and dry ready products. They evolved into a genetically mixed group with a distinct ethnic identity. So are the Sylhettan people. They grew out of a symbiotic and synergetic dynamic interaction between the ancient sea-faring Arabians – the southern Yemenites – and the land-bound Tibetans. Out of this interaction, they evolved as a genetic hybrid with an ethnocultural identity quite distinct from all their significant neighbors – the basically Dravidian and Aryan Bengali and Indians to their west and south, and the Mongoloid Assamese, Tibetan, Chinese and Burmese to their east.
Their homeland, now called “Greater Sylhet” ordinarily – and affectionately “Jalalabad” some time – was named “Qamaru” ( literally, “Moon” – meaning, the Moonshine Land), by the Ancient Arab sea-farers, who used to land here on their way to Tibet, and China, beyond. “Qamar”(“Moon” )- was, it seems, the Arab’s way of referring to the end of the earth, or extremity. Thus, the current Republic of Comoros – whose four islands were most likely the southernmost Arab travelers, including the famous Sindbad, might have reached – was also referred to as the “Qamaru”, from which in Latin script it became “Comoros” in French. So Sylhet’s ancient name was Qamaru – even after her liberation, it remained so for a while – until replaced through popular usage, by Sil’ot and Jalal-Abad, and included most of what more recently was seen as “greater Assam” vaguely defined – including current Meghalaya (“Shilong), Manipur, Cachar, and “Nagaland” Over time, ”Qamaru” was pronounced by the locally evolving hybrid population, as “Kamru”. This, at some point, was Sanskritised into “Kamrup” by an alien South Indian “Sen” family who had by guile and treachery had captured power in neigbouring Bengal, and thence, in “Kamru” as well. There was religious-communalist motivation behind such Sanskritisation. The illegitimate foreign rulers tried to create at least a veneer of “legitimacy” in terms of their own, Hindu, religion by appearing to uphold its scriptural language, Sanskrit. In return, the religion upheld their caste interest, and providing thereby a claimed “divine” sanction in favor of their usurpation of power, now exriced over the local, Buddhist masses of both the neighboring polities of Bengal and Qamaru(“Kamru”). Promoting Sanskrit had another sinister political purpose: to exclude the local masses from access to the discourse and communication of the politically dominant foreigners. It was this same purpose that would be the English occupation administration’s policy centuries later, of suppressing the local lingua franca of the native upper classes, e.g. Persian, and to some extent, Urdu, as well as the masses’ languages, e.g. Sil’otiin Sylhet, and real, folk- Bangla in Bengal – substituting them with English for higher administration and education, and a fake, so-called “SuddhaBangla” created artificially like the “Yeni-Lisan” (i.e. “New Language” ) “Turkish” or supposedly “Resurrected” “New Hebrew”. In all these cases of suppressing the natives’ naturally evolved or naturally adopted languages, sinister political motivation serving colonialist vested interests were at work, the result being turning the native upper classes and literati, literally overnight, into Illiterate” for official and practical socio-economic purposes – and excluding both them and the masses, from power, administration, education, and socio-economic upward mobility.
It was precisely this possibility that was dreaded by the Bengali, when, in the newly created Pakistan – paradoxically, on Bengali initiative – Urdu was imposed as the official language.
Notwithstanding the Sanskritisation of the name “Qamar” (“Kamru”) into “Kamrup” , the Sylhettan homeland – including its extended hinterland as far northeast as “Gua-hati” (presently Sanskritised for similarly communalist motivation as above), continued to be referred to as “Qamar” (“Kamru”) – even as late as after its Liberation by the Saint Shah-Jalal and his companions upon request from some oppressed Sylhettans. In the famous travelogue of Ibn Battuta who visited the place on his way to China, well after that, described the place by that name.
However, in reference to a certain miraculous event involved in the Liberation of Qamaru (“Kamru”) by the saint-warriors guided by Sha-Jalal, the liberated land gradually came to be known as “Sil-hat” (“Rock – move!”) – referring to a miraculous event that began the final campaign of liberating the land, wherein apparently the warrior-saint commanded a rock on the River Surma’s banks to move, whereby it moved and floated on the water, signaling the crossing of the river even without boats). The land came to be referred to, affectionately, also as “Jalalabad” (“Jalal’s Land”).
The farthest north-eastern reaches of the inhabited hinterland of Qamaru (“Kamru”) continued to be, occasionally, referred to as “Kamru”, and, in the parlance of the Hindu priestly discourse, by its Sanskritised form, “Kamrup”. Today there remains only a Hindu temple called “Kamrup” – notoriously dreaded for its rituals of human sacrifices by Hindu priests and associated worship of genitals, in offerings to the “Kam” (sexual passion)-deities. Even the city where that is located is no longer called ”Kamrup”. Instead, the city – now the capital of Assam – is called “Gua-hati”, derived from the Old Sil’otiterms of Persian origin, “Gua” ( Betel-nuts”) “has” (“existence”, “availability” – and hence, “market-place”) . The name “Gua-hati”, then, is a Sil’oti word, meaning “betel-nut market”.
Like with the name of “Sil-hat” (“Sil’ot” in popular pronunciation) itself, with the Sil’oti name for that extended far north-eastern reaches of her hinterland, Gauhati also, there have been attempts of Saskritisation by the same communalist vested caste-interests. They, under British colonial patronage, promoted the Sanskritisation drive and tried to popularise the distortion of “Sil-hat” (“Sil’ot”) to “Sri-hatta” (“Sri” being an honorific for Hindu caste-bred, “hatta” meaning “market”), as they did to popularise distortion of “Gua-hati” into “Gau-hati” (“Gau” being the Cow worshipped by the Hindu lay and offered to the priestly upper caste). This kind of policy of communalist cultural distortion is not uncommon – it continues till today: note examples, e.g., “Sinhala” turned into “Sri Lanka”, only recently, “Mirer-Sarai” and “Isa’s-Dihi” into “Mireshwarai” and “Ishwardi” during Calcutta-Babu petty-bourgeois ascendancy during the British colonial period, and right now hundreds of place names, including famous Allahabad and Agra, are being changed into “Hindu”-sounding newly invented names by the ultra-reactionary caste-communalist government in India.
But, how in the world, did Persian come into the picture in naming that rather far off the tail-end of the Sylhettan hinterland, much closer to China than Persia over two thousand miles away? Well, Persian influence came to Sylhet, via Southwest Chinese kingdoms of Yunnan, ruled by Arab Syyed-Sharifs like Na salu ding (actually, “Nasiruddin”!- broken down into syllables as it can be pronounced in hinese), who were invited to China from Turkish Bukhara where the official language was Persian. As much as via Persian-speaking sultanates of Delhi and Bengal ruled by Afghan, Turco-Afghan or Arab-Afghans like the seemingly Syyed-Sharifbloodline of KarraniSultans, a branch of whose descendants were invited into Sylhet and were bore as sultans of Sylhet at one point.
All people’s ethnic identityevolves, ultimately, out of three shared elements –genetic origins (“race”), communication-media (“language”), and value-system (“religion”). While not all those belonging to a particular ethnic group necessarily belong to the same race, speak the same language or adhere to the same religion – the identity of the group, however, is always woven out by the characteristic elements of the shared race, language and religion of the dominant majority of those belonging to the group. The Sylhettans are no different. While there are racial, linguistic and religious minorities amongst Sylhettans, the Sil’oti identity is defined by the vast majority of Sylhettans’ racial background (Tibeto-Arab/ Mongoloid-Semetic), language (Sil’oti – hybrid language), and religion (predominantly Orthodox-Sufi Islam). This does not exclude Sri Chaitanya or SuranjitSen, from being Sil’otion religious grounds, nor exclude the Khasiya or Persian Shi’a origin’s Prithimpasha nawabs on linguistic or racial grounds. But in general, what would identify Sil’oti as a collective people separate from all others in the world, would be the unique combination of those three elements that no other groups dominant majority would have anywhere. Any individual who might lack one or other of these three elements of unique group identity, yet identifies himself/ herself with the broader ethnic group, would still be of the group, as long as he remains loyal to the group’s collective and follows its culture in general. Much like Italian Catholic Australians are Australians nevertheless, even though the dominant majority who define the Australian identity are Protestant Anglo-Saxons.
Another example to clarify this further would be that of the late HRH Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen’s late husband. He was from Greece, where the language is Greek, and religion is Orthodox – but was as much English as any – as he adopted and adapted to the collective identity of the vast majority of the English people derived from their genetically inherited tendencies, their common language (English), and the Anglican Protestant religion.
The Queen herself speaks French at home, and is German by racial ancestry – but is very much English – to the point of being probably the most loved English monarch ever, as adopting and adapting common basic elements of identity of the vast majority of the English people.
Same with any minority in any ethnic group, ir ethnically defined nation – so with Sil’oti people, as much as the Bengali as a nation. The individual who adopts and adapts to the socially pervasive culturally expressed fruits of the three basic ethnographic elements – race, language and religion – becomes as much a member of the identified group, despite any divergence therefrom in individual life, but the aspects of his individual difference is not to negate, nor moulds the group’s collective identity. This is the golden principle and reality as the key to individual freedom and the group harmony, peace and progress.
Religiously derived Identity-markers
The religion that colours the Sil’oti identity and underlies its value-system – Islam of the meticulously Orthodox (unlike the Syncretic in Bengal), and yet softer Sufi, inclination (unlike the rather harsh Middle Eastern “fundamentalist” brand) – came to Sil’ot, from three possible directions. Via the sea, from the southwest, with teachers of Islam arriving to the Sylhettan coastlines by the seas (“haor”s – literally, “sagar”, i.e, “sea”) : There existed no continuous land-mass to the south of Sylhet in those times, most of Bangladesh that lies to the south-west of Greater Sylhet, simply did not exist then, and would have been under water, with only some islands like today’s Chan-pur (probably, Chinese “Shan-fur” – “God’s Lake”, i.e. island in “lake”-like seas, made station by God’s men, on their way to Qamaru (“Kamru”/ Sylhet), and from there on southward journey towards “Shatt-maqam” (“coastal station”), eventually locally pronounced “Chattgam”, on further journey to China up to what is now Canton.
There might have been many small island between the Sylhettan sea-coast until deeper sea meeting the ocean (Arabic, “Bahr”). That meeting point of the Sylhettan sea-like “haor”-“lakes” seas, studded with such many islands which over time increased in size and joined together forming the marshy delta that emerged as Bangladesh – and the deeper ocean – probably came to be known as “Bahri-Sahel” (“Ocean-coast” – “Sahel”, Arabic for “Coast”), over time abbreviated to “Bari-sal”.
Islam, tempered with the Prophet’s merciful approach compared to silk-like softness underlying the future Sufi tendencies of Sylhettan Islam, had arrived to Sylhet this via-the-seas route, – most likely touching some of these then-probably-unhibited-islands – right in his own times.
That started with the first Muslim mission to Chinasent by the Prophet himself, under his maternal uncle Abu Waqqas. Apparently, some with him stayed back in Sylhet, probably teaching Islam, and moved on to Manipur, and probably further – Yunnan of southwest China.
The second route of Islam to Sylhet was by land, from Arabia, Persia, Bukhara, Afghan lands, via Greater Sind including Gujrat, northern India, and Bengal.
The third possible route could have to have been to and from China’s Yunnan, originally from Bukhara, via western, northern and central China.
Sylhettan people, like themselves as evolved by hybridisation into a distinct people – came to have a distinct and highly refined language of their own, evolved over centuries, out of a hybridisation of a number of languages. To start with, the hybrid ‘Sil’oti’ language – and it is not a distorted, “funnily mispronounced dialect” of Bangla – germinated out of Old Arabian and Old Tibetan deriving from Old Chinese dialects. This basically Tibeto-Arabian Sil’oti language was enormously enriched by integrating elements of layer upon of interacting other languages they came in contact with on large scales – including, Persian, Pushto, and more recently, medieval Bangla, and Urdu, and even a word or two of English origin (“Alfet” – a somewhat pejorative Sil’otiword for forelocks of a man’s hair, the word deriving from “Albert Cut”, which was fashionable amongst some Westernised youngsters in earlier mid- 20th century, in imitation of King Albert).
Out of all these robust elements evolved the hybrid Sil’oti language as a higlyrefind language of its own as a vehicle of a high culture given to great sensitivity to reverently polite communication, much higher than other neighbouring cultures.
The influences from Yunnan of China came via northern strip of Burma, and mainly via Manipur, a close cognate of Greater Sylhet, and seen as a well-loved dependency thereof, until latter half of the 20th century – so much so Sylhet was represented in cultural forums, also by Manipuri Dance. The influence from Bukhara and Afghan lands came via Multan-centred Greater Sind, including medieval Gujrat, and thence further, via the Gangetic Plains. Saint-warrior Shah-Jalal himself – though of Arab, Yemenite Syyed-Sharif origin, had his maternal grandfather Syyed-SharifJalal’uddin “Surkposh” was settled in Bukhara, and Shah-Jalal came to Sylhet via Gujrat, and the Delhi Sultanate. Like the Saint-Royal Advisor Amir Khusro of the Delhi sultanate, had invented the Urdu language out of elements of Hindustani, Arabic, Turkish and Arabic to serve as a means of communication of Muslim armies with the local Hindustanis – Shah-Jalal also is reputed to have invented the Ful-nagri (”Flower-Civilisation”) script (later popularly referred to as “Sil’oti”-nagri), combining elements of Indian-Brahmi’s most likely Gujrati form, and Arabic script already adopted and adapted for Persian used as official language in both the Delhi and Bengal Sultanates on his chivalrous band’s way to Qamaru (“Kamru”), later known as “Sil’ot” and “Jalalabad”, after him as the Liberator.
But that great script – almost killed off by deliberate colonial language policies of both the British and Pakistan governments, and being pushed into still-birth in its incumbent rebirth, by seemingly similar colonial vested interests from other quarters – is a different story. Hopefully, to be told in the next article, soon.