Earlier this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Kashi Vishwanath Dham Corridor in Varanasi. Speaking about how Varanasi and the surrounding regions have endured the travails of time, Modi referred to several historical episodes including the battle between Salar Masud and Raja Suhaldev and the conflict between governor-general Warren Hastings and Raja Chait Singh. He also mentioned the contributions of historical figures like Rani Bhabani from Bengal.
The story of Salar Masud, also known as Ghazi Mian, and Suhaldev is a mix of history and myth. Ghazi Mian is believed to have acquired popularity as a warrior in the 12th century. He was the nephew of the 11th century Turkik invader, Mahmud of Ghazni, whose invasion of India is known as the moment when Islam entered large parts of the subcontinent. Interestingly, his tomb at Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh stands as a place of pilgrimage for a large number of Muslims as well as Hindus. In May every year, during the Urs festival at Bahraich, lakhs of devotees assemble at the dargah of Ghazi Mian, a majority of whom are Hindus. The worshippers of Ghazi Mian have strong faith in his magical powers. According to one popular account, one of the first people to experience a miracle at the shrine of Ghazi Mian was a Yadav woman, who on praying to him was blessed with a child. People with leprosy visit the shrine during the annual fair seeking cure, while there are others who visit the dargah to be “exorcised”.
The most comprehensive source of information about Ghazi Mian is the Mirat-e-Masaud (Mirror of Masaud), a 17th century Persian hagiography written by Abdur Rahman Chisti, a Sufi saint of the Chisti order.
Abdur Rahman opens his account by narrating how Masud himself had appeared in his dream and had inspired him to write the text. He narrates several episodes from Masud’s life as visions revealed from above. As noted by the Russian indologist Anna Suvorova in her work, ‘Muslim saints of South Asia:The eleventh to fifteenth centuries’ (2004), Abdur Rahman had also asserted that Masud was the disciple of Sheikh Moinuddin Chisti, the founder of the Chistiya order of Sunni mysticism.
As per the Mirat-e-Masaud, Mahmud of Ghazni received envoys from the Muslims of Ajmer in the year 1011 CE, asking his support for the Hindu kings who were infringing upon their rights. Thereafter, Mahmud sent his forces to Ajmer under the command of Salar Shahu, who defeated the kings and subjugated the regions adjacent to the city. As a reward, Mahmud gave his sister in marriage to Salar Shahu. Masud was born out of this marriage in 1015CE. The Mirat-e-Masaud then suggests that even as a child Masud displayed outstanding qualities of a military leader and was the favourite of his uncle. He accompanied Mahmud in all his campaigns, including the celebrated expedition to Somnath in Kathiawar. “It was Masud who supposedly persuaded his uncle to demolish the famous idol of Somnath – a deed repeatedly glorified as a great feat in Persian poetry,” wrote Suvorova. “With the demolition of Somnath begins the legendary career of Masud as an invincible warrior,” she added.
Masud arrived in Multan as a 17-year old head of the Afghan army and after having subjugated it made for Delhi where he spent almost half a year. He moved through Meerut and advanced towards the southeast into Awadh, first to Kannauj, and then to Satrikh where his father, Salar Shahu, joined him. Satrikh became the headquarters of the Afghan army and it was here Salar Shahu died in 1032 CE. Advancing his aggressive campaigns, Masud on the way destroyed several temples and converted many to Islam . It was at Bahraich, where in the course of a battle in 1034 CE between Masud and a local king by the name Suhaldev that the former was wounded by an arrow and succumbed. Since he died fulfilling his duties as a warrior, he became a martyr and earned the honorary nickname ‘Ghazi Miyan’ or master warrior for faith.
Ironically, even though Abdur Rahman wrote in lavish details about Masud’s role in Mahmud’s invasions in India, the Ghaznavid chronicles do not mention him at all. However, a cult of Masud was already in existence long before the Mirat was written. The 13th century Sufi poet and scholar Amir Khusrao is known to have mentioned him in his writings and the 14th century Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta had supposedly visited his shrine at Bahraich along with Sultan Mohammad Bin Tughlaq. Mughal emperor Akbar is known to have made a land grant in 1571 CE for the sake of maintaining Ghazi Miyan’s shrine. Several ballads praising Ghazi Miyan were already in existence long before the Mirat was written. Consequently, historians are of the opinion that Abdur Rahman adopted the existing cult of Ghazi Mian and referred to it as his own genealogy.
Historian Shahid Amin in his exhaustive account of Ghazi Mian, titled ‘Conquest and community: The afterlife of Warrior sait Ghazi Mian’ (2016) noted “it was the express desire of Abdur Rahman to reign in the multiplicity of popular accounts couched, perhaps as ballads- for demotic tales are invariably cast as verse narratives- within a historicist hagiography”.
It is within this mythical world of Ghazi Mian that Suhaldev emerges. The latter is believed to have been the eldest son of the king of the Bhar community, from which emerged the Pasi community, a Dalit caste group of the region. Popular history of the region identifies him by several names including Suhaldev, Sakardev, Sahardev, and Suhildev. In contemporary print culture, however, he is referred to as Raja Suhaldev.
Professor Badri Narayan in his book, ‘Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron politics and Dalit mobilisation’ (2009) explained that people who worshipped Ghazi Mian, perceive Suhaldev as the king of a local tribe, a tyrant and oppressor of the people he ruled over, most of whom were Muslims. As per the popular story, when Ghazi Mian arrived, “all people went to him with the request to save them from the oppression of Suhaldev. Very reluctantly he agreed, and a very fierce battle ensued in which both Suhaldev and Ghazi Mian were killed.”
Narayan wrote how in recent years Hindutva forces have been appropriating the local myth of Ghazi Mian and Suhaldev and reinterpreting it to suit their own ideologies. “The hero of that myth, Suhaldev, who was the king of the Bhar-Pasis, a Dalit caste, is being given a warring identity and being projected as a saviour who fought against a foreign invader (Ghazi Mian) who tried to despoil Hindu- or synonymously Indian- religion and culture,” he wrote. In 2001, the Maharaja Suhaldev Sewa Samiti was formed in Bahraich in 2001. On May 2, 2004, it organised the first five-day celebration in memory of Maharaja Suhaldev.
In February 2016, then BJP president Amit Shah hailed Suhaldev as a national hero and unveiled his statue at Bahraich. Days later, the Indian Railways started the Suhaldev Express from Ghazipur and in 2017 the Uttar Pradesh government announced its plans to install a statue of Suhaldev at Lucknow.
Narayan explained that the Hindutva forces had two objectives in appropriating Suhaldev as one of their own. “The first is to appropriate the Pasis into their political fold, while the second is to extend and construct a Hindu history against Islam and mobilise Hindus under their fold.”
Another historical episode cited by Modi in his Kashi speech was about the first governor-general of Bengal Warren Hastings fleeing the city in 1781. By the late 18th century, Benaras had declared independence from the Nawab of Awadh. In 1771, Maharaja Chait Singh succeeded to the throne of Banaras with the help of British authorities. Two years later, the Maharaja transferred the domain to the East India Company under the control of Hastings.
When faced with the need for resources to fight the Mysore War against Hyder Ali, Hastings pressed Maharaja Chait Singh to make additional revenue payments and supply troops in 1778 and 1779. When Singh failed to comply, Hastings marched to Benaras with his troops to confront the king. Hastings is known to have put up at Kabir Chaura area in Madho Das garden. He first sent a letter to Maharaja Chait Singh asking him to comply with the Company’s orders. When the latter responded stating that he had already been in compliance and that he would not supply any more revenue or troops he was put under house arrest. A few British soldiers were deployed at the Raja’s fort at the Shivala Ghat.
At this point, supporters of Maharaja Chait Singh from across Benaras poured in large numbers at the fort. A small regiment of the king’s soldiers were dispatched from his Ramnagar fort as well. A skirmish erupted between the British troops on the one hand and the Raja’s forces and his large number of supporters on the other. As they fought, the Raja managed to escape from the fort through a window facing the Ganges.
Several of Hastings’ men were killed in the conflict and, left with no other option, the governor-general was forced to retreat. Popular narrative goes that he left hurriedly at night for the nearby Chunar Fort riding an elephant. The incident is believed to have given rise to the popular saying in Banaras: “Ghode par haudah, hathi par jeen, Kashi se bhaga Warren Hastings”.
In his speech, Modi also highlighted the role of Rani Bhabani from Bengal in the development of the city. Bhabani was married to Raja Ramkanta Ray, the zamindar of the Natore estate in Rajshahi (present day Bangladesh). After the death of her husband in 1748, the zamindari passed on to the hands of Bhabani, making her one among the very few women zamindars of the time. For the next four decades, Bhabani is said to have managed the estate of Natore with utmost efficiency.
Newsletter | Click to get the day’s best explainers in your inbox
Bhabani is remembered most for her philanthropic efforts. She is known to have built several schools across Rajshahi district and offered a number of scholarships. She is also believed to have built more than 350 temples and guesthouses across different parts of the country, and invested heavily in roadways and water tanks. The Shiva Temple at Mammi Kalkikapur in Dasuria, Raghunath Temple at Mandapukur of Naogaon District, the Char Bangla Temples in Murshidabad are a few among the several temples in undivided Bengal built by the queen.
Bhabani is also known to have built the Durga Kund Mandir in Varanasi. She also desired to build a Kashi in Bengal and, consequently in 1755 a complex consisting of a dozen temples was built in Baronagar in Murshidabad by her.
🗞️ Subscribe Now: Get Express Premium to access our in-depth reporting, explainers and opinions 🗞️