Bara-Bhuiyans, The or twelve territorial landholders were the local chiefs and zamindars who put up strong resistance to the Mughals during the time of akbar and jahangir. The term Bara-Bhuiyans means twelve territorial landholders. But who were these bhuiyans could not be identified accurately for a long time. In fact, during the interregnum between Afghan rule and the rise of Mughal power in Bengal, various parts of Bengal passed to the control of several military chiefs, bhuiyans and zamindars. They jointly, and more often severally resisted Mughal expansion and ruled their respective territories as independent or semi-independent chiefs. There was no central control, or if there was any, it was nominal. In such circumstances many bhuiyans raised their heads. Taking the whole of Bengal into consideration, the number of bhuiyans must have been many more than twelve.
One group of scholars says the term Bara Bhuiyan does not necessarily mean exactly twelve bhuiyans, the term was applied loosely to mean many. As number twelve was sacred to the Hindus, these scholars examined traditions from scriptures to find out in which of the cases the number twelve was used. They applied the term Bara-Bhuiyans to those who fought for the freedom of their motherland. This view was later modified by another group of scholars to say that only those bhuiyans who fought against Mughal aggression were known as Bara-Bhuiyans. Even the fighters against the Mughals were many more than twelve, so this group also failed to identify the Bara-Bhuiyans.
In recent years, the question of identification of the Bara-Bhuiyans has been studied afresh and they have been identified quite satisfactorily. Modern scholars have found that the Bara-Bhuiyans flourished during the chaotic period of Afghan rule and the period of the conquest of Bengal by the Mughal emperors Akbar and Jahangir. So the Bara-Bhuiyans received proper treatment from the Mughal historians, Abul Fazl, the author of the akbarnamah, and Mirza Nathan, the author of the baharistan-i-ghaibi. Both of them used the numerical word ithna-ashara (twelve), to denote the Bara-Bhuiyans; it means that the word 'Bara-Bhuiyan' was not a vague term, rather it gives the exact number of the bhuiyans. They also categorically say that the twelve Bhuiyans (Bara-Bhuiyan) were people of bhati and they rose to power in Bhati. But the identification of Bhati has not been satisfactorily ascertained.
On the basis of the confusing statements of the European writers, previous scholars also were in confusion about the identification of Bhati. The Bara-Bhuiyans fought against the Mughals in the reigns of emperors Akbar and Jahangir, and they were compelled to submit within a few years of Jahangir's accession. So Bhati of the Bara-Bhuiyans may be identified with the help of the Mughal histories, mainly the Akbarnama, the ain-i-akbari and the Baharistan-i-Ghaibi. In Bengal the word Bhati generally means low lying region and the entire low-lying area of Bengal is Bhati. It is a riverine country, and most of it remains inundated for more than half of the year; the mighty rivers theGanges, the Brahaputra and their numerous branches wash and water the whole of eastern and southern Bengal.
Modern scholars have, therefore, suggested that different low-lying areas of Bengal should be identified with Bhati. Some say that the whole of the low-lying tract from the Bhagirathi to the Meghna is Bhati, some others include in Bhati Hijli, Jessore, Chandradwip and Bakerganj. Keeping in view the theatre of warfare between the Bara-Bhuiyans and the Mughals, and on the basis of the details of the warfare as given in the Akbarnama and the Baharistan-i-Ghaibi the limits of Bhati, where the Bara-Bhuiyans flourished and rose to power, may be determined as the area bounded by the river Ichamati in the west, the Ganges in the south, the kingdom of Tippera in the east and Alapsingh pargana (in greater Mymensingh) stretching northeast to Baniachang (in greater Sylhet) in the north. So the low-lying area of the greater districts of Dhaka, Mymensingh, Tippera and Sylhet, watered and surrounded by the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna and their numerous branches constituted Bhati in the days of Akbar and Jahangir. The Bara-Bhuiyans rose to power in this region and put up resistance to the Mughals, until islam khan chisti made them submit in the reign of Jahangir.
Mughal historians, Abul Fazl and Mirza Nathan, state the number of Bhuiyans as twelve, but it should be remembered that the Bara-Bhuiyans of the time of Akbar were not the same as those of the time of Jahangir, because some died in the intervening period. For example, Isa Khan, who fought against Akbar, died in his reign and was succeeded by his son musa khan, who took up leadership in the reign of Jahangir. Some parganas changed hands in the meantime; for example, chand rai and kedar rai were zamindars of Vikramapura and Sripur in the reign of Akbar, but in the reign of Jahangir the family was probably extinct, so that the parganas were found in the hands of Musa Khan. After the Mughal campaign in Bhati, as found in the Akbarnama, the following list of the Bhuiyans may be drawn up: (i) Isa Khan Masnad-i-Ala, (ii) Ibrahim Naral, (iii) Karimdad Musazai, (iv) Majlis Dilwar, (v) Majlis Pratap, (vi) Kedar Rai, (vii) Sher Khan, (viii) Bhadur Ghazi, (ix) Tila Ghazi, (x) Chand Ghazi, (xi) Sultan Ghazi, (xii) Selim Ghazi, (xiii) Qasim Ghazi.
In the Baharistan-i-Ghaibi, the names of Musa Khan and his 12 zamindar allies are as follows: (i) Musa Khan Masnad-i-Ala, (ii) Alaul Khan, (iii) Abdullah Khan, (iv) Mahmud Khan, (v) Bahadur Ghazi, (vi) Sona Ghazi, (vii) Anwar Ghazi, (viii) Shaikh Pir, (ix) Mirza Mumin, (x) Madhav Rai, (xi) Binode Rai, (xii) Pahlwan, (xiii) Haji Shamsuddin Baghdadi.
The patriotic Bhuiyans, who resisted the Mughal conquest, were famous as Bara-Bhuiyans or twelve Bhuiyans, but in both the above lists, there are thirteen names. Actually they were thirteen including the leader, and in fact both Abul Fazl and Mirza Nathan, while referring to the Bara-Bhuiyans, wrote, 'Isa Khan made the 12 zamindars of Bengal subject to himself', and elsewhere Mirza Nathan wrote 'Musa Khan and his 12 zamindar allies'.
The Bara-Bhuiyans gained strength during the chaotic conditions prevailing in eastern Bengal following the disruption of the two-hundred-year old independent sultanate in 1538 AD. sher shah conquered gaur, the capital of Sultan ghiyasuddin mahmud shah and placed the city under his governors, but could not consolidate his power throughout Bengal. There are examples of at least three rebellions against him by the supporters of the supplanted ruling dynasty. In fact, the riverine tract of Bengal was always a headache to the central government. To solve the problem, Sher Shah divided Bengal into a number of smaller units, because, he thought, the rulers of smaller units would not have the power to rise against the central authority. The decentralisation had its demerits also. If the rulers of smaller units had not the power to rise against the central government, they had also no power to oppose the rebels. That Sher Shah's policy of decentralisation had this bad effect is proved by the several rebellions in eastern Bengal against him. The Afghan historians described this state of affairs by using the term Muluk-ut-tawaif, which means disorder, chaos and disintegration.
The chaotic condition did not end with the foundation of an independent Sur dynasty under Shamsuddin Muhammad Shah Ghazi and other Afghan ruling dynasties. During this period, Taj Khan Karrani fled from the court of Adil Shah (Adali) at Delhi, came to Bengal and plundered and looted the country at will. He joined his brother Sulaiman who was serving in Bengal and became strong in Bengal politics. Later he accepted service under Ghiasuddin Bahadur of the Sur dynasty and still later laid the foundation of the Karrani dynasty. Even after the fall of daud khan karrani, and occupation of the capital tandah by the Mughals, khwaja usman and his brothers, having been expelled by Raja mansingh from Orissa, came to Bengal.
Traversing through satgaon and bhusna they came to Bukainagar (in modern greater Mymensingh district) and carved out an independent kingdom for themselves. It is evident that after the fall of the independent sultanate (1538 AD) and particularly after the decentralisation of administration by Sher Shah, a chaotic condition and disruptive forces prevailed, particularly in eastern Bengal in the region of Bhati; and during this period of chaos, the Bara-Bhuiyans gained strength and rose to power. The Bara-Bhuiyans were heirs to the two-hundred-year long independent sultanate of Bengal.
The Bara-Bhuiyans were not the scions of any royal family, they were zamindars or landholders. They were patriots who with courage and valour resisted the Mughal advance for long three decades. After 1612 when Islam Khan Chishti forced them to submit, the term Bara-Bhuiyans survived only in popular tales and ballads. [Abdul Karim]
Bibliography NK Bhattasali, 'Bengal Chiefs Struggle for Independence in the Reign of Akbar and Jahangir', Bengal Past and Present, XXXV-XXXVIII, 1928-29; MI Borah (tr), Baharistan-i-Ghaibi of Mirza Nathan, 1936; JN Sarkar (ed), History of Bengal, II, Dhaka 1948; Satish Chandra Mitra, Joshohar Khulnar Itihas, II, (in Bangla) Calcutta, 1965; Abdul Karim, History of Bengal, Mughal Period, I, Rajshahi, 1992. H Bereridge (tr), Akbarnama of Abul Fazl, III, Reprint, 1993.