he Hussain Shahi (1493-1538) dynasty of Bengal were great patrons of Krishna’s bhakti literature, and the little-known financiers of possibly the first Bangla Mahabharata.
Indeed, the Bangla epic came to be composed soon after their chief general Paragal Khan’s conquest of Chittagong. The newly victorious Paragal Khan became interested in learning the epic and requested Kabindra Parameshwara to compose a suitable rendition in Bangla. The text, taking great cognisance of this endowment, begins with lengthy praise of the peaceful and benedictory rule of the Hussain Shahis in Bengal. The sultan is not only addressed as “a valiant warrior” and “a famed ruler”, but also called the Ishwara of Gauda and compared to Krishna (Sen 1911, p. 202)
The text was most likely completed during the reign of Chutti Khan (‘choto’ meaning junior), who much like his father continued to be a great patron. And, Srikarna Nandi was assigned as the poet. However, some scholars say that Paragal Khan and Chutti Khan’s Mahabharatas were in fact two distinct accounts. Nandi likened the prosperity of the Hussain Shahi rule with Rama’s kingdom, and praised him for upholding the Hindu codes of Sama-Dana-Danda-Bheda.
Patronage of Mahabharata
Recitations of the epic at the Shahi courts were also encouraged, and the nobles were active listeners. Indeed, Nandi noted that Chutti Khan had been inspired to sponsor the composition of the tale after intently listening to the Sanskrit recitation of the abridged Jaimini Mahabharata — Jaiminibharata — in his court. Historian Sukumar Sen argues that these courtly recitations, which had stopped altogether after the dissolution of the Pala dynasty, were revived during this period.
Another notable feature of the time was the composition of Krishna’s biographies. Maladhar Basu, who was granted the title Gunaraj Khan by Ruknuddin Barbak Shah (who preceded Hussain Shah), composed his immensely popular Srikrishna Bijay, a Bangla rendition of the final cantos of the Srimad Bhagavatam. Throughout the text, he chooses to sign as Gunaraj Khan, as is evident from one of his introductory verses:
Yashoraj Khan, also known as Damodar Sen, composed a similar narrative poem titled Srikrishnamangala, (Sukumar Sen 1960, p. 70) under the patronage of Hussain Shahi. This work, unfortunately, isn’t available anymore, but the essential information has survived through quotations in later 17th-century texts.
The authors, UJAAN GHOSH and AMRITA CHOWDHURY are graduate students of history and art history at Mcgill University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Views are personal.