Item Details

Brahmanical Temples, Maṭhas, Agrahāras and a Buddhist Establishment in a Marshy and Forested Periphery of Two ‘Frontier’ States: Early Mediaeval Surma Valley (Sylhet and Cachar), c. 600 CE–1100 CE

Issue: Vol 6 No. 1 (2012)

Journal: Religions of South Asia

Subject Areas: Religious Studies Buddhist Studies Islamic Studies

DOI: 10.1558/rosa.v6i1.33


This article aims to understand the socio-economic and religious changes in early mediaeval Surma valley, and the role of Brahmanical and Buddhist religious institutions in effecting them. This valley was the most forested and marshiest part of Bengal. It received very heavy rains and was under substantial tribal influence. At the beginning of the period under study, it was a peripheral part of two fringe states. By the eleventh century ce a local state evolved, resulting from centuries of agrarian expansion. Brahmanical religious institutions played a very important role in effecting this transition. Well before the arrival of Islam in the eastern/north-easternmost sector of the Bengal delta, local society had devised its own ways to tame the jungle, cope with fluvial volatility, and cultivate rice, even in the marshy areas. These developments force us to question those historiographical models which explain the Islamization of eastern Bengal in terms of Islam being the ‘religion of the plough’ and ‘the harbinger of rice revolution’ in the region.

Author: Birendra Nath Prasad

View Original Web Page

References :

Acharjee, Jahar (ed.). 2006. History, Culture and Coinage of Samatata and Harikela, Vol. 1. Agartala: Rajakusum Prakashini.
Alam, Shamsul, et al. 1999. ‘Sylhet and its Evolving Geographical Environment.’ In Sharif Uddin Ahmed (ed.), Sylhet: History and Heritage: 73–82. Dhaka: Bangladesh Itihas Samiti.
Appadurai, Arjun. 1977. ‘Kings, Sects and Temples in South India, 1350–1700 AD.’Indian Economic and Social History Review XIV(1): 47–73.
Appadurai, Arjun, and Carol Breckenridge. 1976. ‘The South Indian Temple: Authority Honour and Redistribution.’ Contributions to Indian Sociology 10(2): 191–93.
Aziz, Muhammad Abdul. 1999. ‘Economic History of Sylhet: Ancient Period.’ In Sharif Uddin Ahmed (ed.), Sylhet: History and Heritage: 383–95. Dhaka: Bangladesh Itihas Samiti.
Basak, R. G. 1919–20a. ‘Tippera Copper Plate Grant of Lokanatha: The 44th Year.’ Epigraphia Indica XV: 301–15.
— 1919–20b. ‘The Five Damodarapura Copper Plate Inscriptions of the Gupta Period.’ Epigraphia Indica XV: 113–45.
Bhattacharjee, J. B. 1991. ‘Land Grants, Land Management and the Nature of Social Formation in Ancient Srihatta.’ In his Social and Polity Formations in Pre-Colonial North-East India: The Barak Valley Experience: 18–40. Delhi: Har-Anand Publications in Association with Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd.
Bhattacharya, A. 1998. ‘Trade Routes of Ancient Bengal.’ In A. Dutta (ed.), History and Archaeology of Eastern India: 200–12. Delhi: Booksand Books.
Bhattacharyya, Dinesh Chandra.1930.‘A Newly Discovered Copperplate from Tippera [The Gunaighar Grant of Vainyagupta: The Year 188 Current (Gupta Era)].’ Indian Historical Quarterly 6: 45–60.
Bhattacharya, G. 1993. ‘An Inscribed Metal Vase, Most Probably from Chittagong.’ In A. J. Gail and G. J. R. Mevissena (eds), South Asian Archaeology 1991, Proceedings of theEleventh International Conference of the Association of South AsianArchaeologists in Western Europe held in Berlin 1-5 July 1991: 323–38. Stuttgart: Verlag.
— 1996. ‘A Preliminary Note on the inscribed Metal Vase from the National Museum of Bangladesh.’ In D. Mitra (ed.), Explorations in theArt and Archaeology of South Asia: Essays Dedicated toN. G. Majumdar:237–46. Calcutta: Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Govt. of West Bengal.
Bhattacharya, P. 1913–14. ‘Nidhanpur Copper Plates of Bhaskaravarman.’ Epigraphia Indica XII: 65–79.
— 1927. ‘Two Lost Plates of the Nidhanpur Copper Plates of Bhaskaravarman.’ Epigraphia Indica XIX: 115–25.
— 1931. Kāmarūpa-Śāsanāvalī. Rangpur: Sahitya Parishad.
Bhattasali, N. K. 1945. ‘New Light on the History of Assam.’ Indian Historical Quarterly XXI: 19–28.
Bouillier, Veronique. 1991. ‘Growth and Decay of a Kanaphata Yogi Monastery in South-west Nepal.’ Indian Economic and Social History Review 28(2): 151–70.
Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2011. Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism. Leiden and Boston: E. J. Brill.
Chakrabarti, D. K. 1992. Ancient Bangladesh: A Study of Archaeological Sources. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Chakravarti, Ranabir. 1990. ‘Monarchs, Merchants and a Maṭha in Northern Konkan, c. 900–1053 A.D.’ Indian Economic and Social History Review 27(2): 189–208.
— [2000] 2002a. ‘Appendix.’ In Niharranjan Ray et al. (ed.), A Sourcebook of Indian Civilization: 546–650. Hyderabad: Orient Longman.
— 2002b. Trade and Traders in Early Indian Society. Delhi: Manohar.
— 2008. ‘Agricultural Technology in Early Medieval India (c. A.D. 500–1300).’ Medieval History Journal 11(2): 229–58.
Chattopadhyaya, B. D. 1990. Aspects of Rural Settlements and Rural Society in Early Medieval India. Calcutta: KP Bagchee.
— 1993. ‘Historiography, History and Religious Centres: Early Medieval North India, circa A.D. 700–1200.’ In Visakha N. Desai and D. Mason(eds), Gods,Guardians and Lovers: Temple Sculptures from North India, AD 700–1200: 33–47. Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Company.
— 1994. The Making of Early Medieval India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
— 2003. ‘Reappearance of the Goddess or Brahmanical Mode of Appropriation: Some Early Epigraphical Data Bearing on Goddess Cult.’ In his Studying Early India: 172–90. Delhi: Permanent Black.
— 2004. ‘State Perception of the “Forest” and the “Forest” as State in Early Medieval India.’ In B. B. Chaudhury and Arun Bandopadhyaya (eds), Tribes, Forests and SocialFormations in Indian History: 23–37. Delhi: Manohar.
Chowdhury, Abdul Momin. 1999. ‘Tenth Century Sylhet: Reflections on the Paschimbhag Copper Plate of Srichandra.’ In Sharif Uddin Ahmed (ed.), Sylhet: History and Heritage: 632–43. Dhaka: Bangladesh Itihas Samiti.
Chowdhury, Sujit. 1991. ‘Bhuvan Tirth: A Cult Spot on the Hilltop.’ In J. P. Singh and G. Sengupta (eds), Archaeology of North-Eastern India: 160–66. Delhi: Har-Anand Publications in Association with Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd.
Davidson, Ronald M. 2004. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Eaton, Richard M. 1984. ‘Conversion to Christianity among the Nagas, 1870–1971.’ Indian Economic and Social History Review 21(2): 1–44.
— 1994. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
— 2001. ‘Who are the Bengal Muslims? Conversions and Islamisation in Bengal.’ In Richard M Eaton, Essays on Islam and Indian History:249–75. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
— 2009. ‘Shrines, Cultivators, and Muslim “Conversion” in Punjab and Bengal, 1300–1700.’ Medieval History Journal 12(2): 191–220.
Fergusson, J. [1863] 2001. ‘On Recent Changes in the Delta of the Ganges.’ QuarterlyJournal of the Geological Society 19(1-2): 321–54; reprinted in K. R. Biswas (ed.), Rivers of Bengal: A Compendium: 184–228.Calcutta: Govt. of West Bengal.
Geddes, Arthur. 1982. Man and Land in South Asia,edited with an Introduction by A. T. A. Learmonth et al. Delhi: Concept Publishing Company and Indian Council for Social Science Research.
Gupta, Chitralekha. 1997. ‘Aspects of Rural Settlements in the Light of Nidhanpur Copper-Plate Inscription.’ In C. P. Sinha (ed.), Art, Archaeology and Culture of Eastern India, Dr. B. S. Verma Felicitation Volume: 151–57. Patna: Bihar Puravida Parishada.
Gupta, K. K. 1967. Copper Plates of Sylhet, Vol. 1 (7th–11th Centuries AD). Sylhet: Lipika Enterprises.
Gupta, K. M. 1927–28. ‘The Bhāṭerā Copper Plate of Govindakeśavadēva.’ Epigraphia Indica XIX: 277–86.
Hall, Kenneth R. 1992a. ‘The Temple-based Political Economy of Angkor Cambodia.’ In Nicholas Tarling (ed.), Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Vol. 1: 229–39. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
— 1992b. ‘Buddhism as an Economic Force in Pagan Burma.’ In Nicholas Tarling (ed.), The Cambridge History of South East Asia, Vol. I: 240–45. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hoque, M. M., and Seema Hoque. 1997. ‘Ancient Human Settlement Pattern of Bangladesh: A Preliminary Study.’ Journal of Bengal Art 2: 283–300. Dhaka.
Hunter, W. W. [1879] 1990. A Statistical Account of Assam, Vol. II. Delhi: Low Price Publications.
Imam, Abu. 1999. ‘Ancient Sylhet, History and Tradition.’ In Sharif Uddin Ahmed (ed.), Sylhet: History and Heritage: 173–201. Dhaka: Bangladesh Itihas Samiti.
Jha, D. N.2000. The Feudal Order: State, Society and Ideology in Early Medieval India. Delhi: Manohar.
Karashima, N. et al. 2010. ‘Maṭhas and Medieval Religious Movements in Tamil Nadu:An Epigraphical Study.’Indian Historical Review37:217–34.
Khan, Akabar Ali. 2001. Discovery of Bangladesh: Explorations in the Dynamics of a Hidden Nation. Dhaka: University Press Limited.
Khan, Ayub. 2006–2007. ‘New Lights on Gunaighar Copper Plate of Vainyagupta (6th Century AD) of Eastern Bengal.’ Journal of Bengal Art 11-12: 131–41.
Kulke, Hermann. 1995. ‘The Early and Imperial Kingdom: A Processural Model for Integrative State Formation in Early Medieval India.’ In Hermann Kulke (ed.),The State in India 1000-1700:233–62.Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Ludden, David. 2003a. ‘Investing in Nature around Sylhet: An Excursion into Geographical History.’ Economic and Political Weekly 38(48): 5080–5088.
— 2003b. ‘The First Boundary of Bangladesh on Sylhet’s Northern Frontiers.’ Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh 48(1): 1–54.
Misra, R. N. 2005. ‘Beginning of Śaiva-Siddhānta and its Expanding Space in Central India.’ In Sadananda Das and Ernst Furlinger (eds), Sāmarasya: Studies in Indian Arts, Philosophy, and Interreligious Dialogue: 275–306. Delhi: D. K. Printworld.
Morrison, B. M. [1970] 1980. Political Centres and Cultural Regions in Early Bengal. Jaipur: Vikash (Indian edition).
Nandi, R. N. 1976. ‘Origin and Nature of Śaivaite Monasticism: The Case of Kālamukhas.’ In R. S. Sharma (ed.), Indian Society: Historical Probings: 190–201. Delhi: Peoples’ Publication House.
Nath, R. M. 1949. The Background of Assamese Culture. Shillong: A. K. Nath Publications.
Nicholas, Ralph. 2001. ‘Vaisanvism and Islam in the Environs of Rural Bengal.’ In Rafiuddin Ahmed (ed.), Understanding Bengal Muslims: 52–70. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Prasad, Birendra Nath. 2006a. ‘Cultural Communications in Early Medieval India: Some Preliminary Observations.’ Prajna Bharati, Journal of the K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute, Patna, 12: 27–49.
— 2006b. ‘Tantric Buddhism as Sacralised Samanta Feudalism in Early Medieval India.’ A Review of RonaldM. Davidson’s Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement, Social Science Probings 18(2): 147–49.
— 2008a. ‘Major Trends and Perspectives in Studies in the Functional Dimensions of Indian Monastic Buddhism in the Past One Hundred Years: A Historiographical Survey.’ Buddhist Studies Review 25(1): 54–89.
— 2008b. ‘Monarchs, Monasteries and Trade on an “Agrarian Frontier”: Early Medieval Samataṭa-Harikela Region, Bangladesh.’ South and Southeast Asia: Culture and Religion 3: 160–77.
— 2009. ‘Royal Endowments in Favour of Brahmanical Temples in Early Medieval Bihar: A Study in Some Inscriptions.’ In C. P. Sinha (ed.), The Journal of theBihar History Congress 2: 109–113.
— 2010a. ‘Patronage and Societal Linkages: Buddhist Monasteries in Early Medieval Bihar and Bengal.’ Paper presented at the ‘International Conference on Buddhist Heritage–Gujarat’, 15-17 January, M. S. University, Baroda.
— 2010b. ‘Marsh, Rice, Religion: Environmental and Religious Changes in Early–Medieval Surma-Barak Valley.’ Paper presented at the ‘International Conference on Environmental History and Politics With Special Reference to Northeastern India’, organized by Department of History, Assam University Silchar, in collaboration with Association of South Asian Historians for Environmental History (24-26 February 2010).
— 2010c. ‘Votive Inscriptions on the Sculptures of Early Medieval Samataṭa–Harikela: Explorations in Socio-religious History.’ Religions of South Asia: 27–43.
— 2010d. ‘Nālandā Mahāvihāra in its Archaeological Landscape: Archaeology of Religious Transformation in Early Medieval Bihar.’ Paper presented at the Twentieth World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions, University of Toronto, 15-21 August 2010.
— (ed. with an Introduction). 2011a. Monasteries, Shrines and Society: Buddhist and Brahmanical Religious Institutions in India in their Socio-Economic Context. Delhi: Manak Publications.
Qanungo, S. B. 1999. ‘Political History of Sylhet: Ancient Period.’ In Sharif Uddin Ahmed (ed.), Sylhet: History and Heritage: 383–95. Dhaka: Bangladesh Itihas Samiti.
Rahman, Sayeed–ur.1999.‘River Surma.’ In Sharif Uddin Ahmed (ed.), Sylhet: History and Heritage: 91–101. Dhaka: Bangladesh Itihas Samiti.
Ray, H. P. 1986. Monastery and Guild: Commerce under the Satavahanas. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
— 1987. ‘Bharahut and Sanchi: Nodal Points in Commercial Exchange.’ In B. M. Pande and B. D. Chattopadhyaya (eds), Archaeology and History: Essays in Honour of A. Ghosh: 621–29. Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashana.
— 1994. ‘Kanheri: The Archaeology of an Early Buddhist Pilgrimage Site in Western India.’ World Archaeology 26(1): 35–46.
Rhodes, Nicholas. 2006. ‘Harikela Coins—An Attempt towards a Chronology.’ In Jahar Acharjee (ed.), History, Culture and Coinage of Samatata and Harikela, Vol. 1: 55–77. Agartala: Rajakusum Prakashini.
Sanderson, Alexis. 2009. ‘The Śaiva Age—the Rise and Dominance of Śaivism During the Early Medieval Period.’In Shingo Einoo (ed.), Genesis and Developmentof Tantrism: 41–348. Tokyo: Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo.
Sawant, Reshma. 2011. ‘Buddhism in a Regional Perspective: A Glance at Early Historic Vidarbha.’ In Birendra Nath Prasad (ed. with an Introduction), Monasteries, Shrines and Society: Buddhist and Brahmanical Religious Institutions in India in their Socio-Economic Context: 84–114. Delhi: Manak Publications.
Sircar, D. C. 1959–60. ‘Dhulla Plate of Srichandra.’ Epigraphia Indica XXXIII: 134–40.
— 1965–66. ‘Inscriptions from Mandar Hill.’ Epigraphia Indica XXXVI: 303–306.
— 1967–68. ‘Paśchimabhāga copper plate of Śrīcandra, Year 5.’ Epigraphia Indica XXXVII: 289–304.
— 1973. Epigraphic Discoveries in East Pakistan. Calcutta: Sanskrit College.
— 1983. Select Inscriptions Bearing on Indian History and Civilization (Vol. II): From the Sixth to the Eighteenth Century. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Sontheimer, G. D. 1994. ‘The Vana and the Kṣetra: The Tribal Background of Some Famous Cults.’ In G. C. Tripathy and H. Kulke (eds), Religion and Society in EasternIndia: 117–64. Delhi: Manohar Publishers.
Spate, O. H. K., and A. T. A. Learmonth. 1967. Indian and Pakistan: A General and Regional Geography. London: Methuen.
Stein, Burton. 1977. ‘Introduction’ to the special issue on South Indian Temples, Indian Economic and Social History Review XIV(1): 1–9.
Talbot, Cynthia. 1991. ‘Temples, Donors and Gifts: Patterns of Patronage in Thirteenth-Century South India.’ Journal of Asian Studies 50(2): 308–340.
— 2001. Precolonial India in Practice: Society, Religion and Identity in Medieval Andhra. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Tarafdar, M. R. 1995. Trade, Technology and Society in Medieval Bengal. Dhaka: University Press Limited.
Willis, Michael. 2009. The Archaeology of Hindu Ritual: Temples and the Establishment ofthe Gods. Delhi: Cambridge University Press.