Chinese Accounts Bengal had a close contact with China from time immemorial. This contact continued throughout the medieval period. Here Chinese Accounts, a very important source material of Bengal history, have been delt with in two sections: Ancient and Medieval.
Ancient A few Chinese travellers - who were Buddhist pilgrims - visited Bengal between the 5th and 7th centuries AD. They were in India to visit sacred places and search for authentic Buddhist religious texts. Their accounts of Bengal are however usually of a meager nature.
Fa-Hien The first Chinese pilgrim-traveller to visit India whose records have come down to us was Fa-Hien. He visited India in the beginning of the 5th century AD when he Imperial Guptas were ruling in India, including parts of Bengal. He left China in 399 AD and after an absence of 14 years returned to China. Towards the end of his travels he entered Bengal through the bordering kingdom of Champa, his destination being tamralipti (Tamluk, in modern Midnapore district, West Bengal), the famous international port of the time, from where he ultimately intended to go to Sri Lanka, the other Buddhist land, by the sea-route. However, before doing that he lived in Tamralipti for long two years, copying Buddhist sacred books and drawing pictures of Buddhist images. Fa-Hien does not record any details but only informs us that there were twenty-four Buddhist monasteries and a large number of monks at Tamralipti.
Hsuan-Tsang However, the next pilgrim whose records have come down to us gives us slightly more detailed information about Bengal in the second quarter of the 7th century AD when Harsavardhana was ruling in north India, shashanka in Bengal and Bhaskaravarmana in Asam. Hsuan Tsang came to Bengal around 638 AD. His account is an important source for Shashanka's history, particularly his hostility with Harsavardhana and also his religious policy. Hsuan Tsang has recorded several anti-Buddhist actions of Shashanka, he being a devotee of Shiva. However, there are historians who have questioned the veracity of Hsuan Tsang in this regard.
After travelling through northern India he came to Vikramashila mahavihara in Bihar, crossing the Ganges at Kajangala and travelling eastward till he arrived at the 'Kingdom of Pun-na-fa-tan-na', ie pundravardhana, the country being about '4000 li in circuit' [6 lis make a mile] and the capital being about '30 li round'. He found the country 'rich in all kinds of grain-produce' and thickly populated. The 'panasa' fruit (jackfruit of the region), which he found delicious and plentiful, drew his special attention. He further says about Pundravardhana: 'the people esteem learning. There are about twenty Sanggharamas with some 3000 priests; they study both the Little and Great Vehicle. There are some 100 Deva (ie Brahmanical) temples, the naked Nirgranthas' [ie the Jainas] are the most numerous. To the west of the capital 20 li or so is the Po-shi-po sanggharama ...the priests are about 700 in number; they study the law according to the Great Vehicle. Many renowned priests from Eastern India dwell here. Not far from there is a vihara in which is a statue of kwan-taz'-tsai Bodhisattva [Avalokiteshvara]. Nothing is hid from its divine discernment ... men from far and near consult (this being) with fasting and prayers'.
From there 'going east 900 li or so, crossing the great river' he arrived at the country of Kia-mo-lu-po' [[[Kamarupa|kamarupa]]] at the invitation of its ruler Bhaskaravarmana. From Kamarupa after travelling 1200 or 1300 li to the south, he arrived at the country of San-mo-ta-cha '(samatata) which according to him, was 3000 li in circuit and bordered on the great sea. Then he continues: 'The land lies low and is rich. The capital is about 20 li round. It is regularly cultivated and is rich in crops. The climate is soft and the habits of the people agreeable. The men are hardy by nature, small of stature, and of black complexion; they are fond of learning... There are thirty or so Sanggharamas with about 2000 priests. They are all of the Sthavira School. There are some hundred Deva temples... The naked ascetics called Nirgranthas are most numerous'. About '900 li or so' to the west from Samatata was the 'country of Tan-mo-li-ti' (Tamralipti). The country, according to him, was '1400 or 1500 li in circuit, the capital about 10 li' and it bordered on the sea. The land was low and rich, regularly cultivated and produces were abundant. The temperature was hot. The manners of the people were 'quick and hasty'. The people were hardy and brave. He found both Buddhists and heretics' [non-Buddhist] living side by side. There were about ten Sanggharamas, with about 1000 priests. Brahmanical temples were fifty in number. 'The coast of the country is ... in a recess of the sea; the water and the land embracing each other. Wonderful articles of value and gems are collected here in abundance, and therefore the people of the country are in general very rich'.
From here he traveled northwest '700 li or so' and came to the country Kie-lo-nu-fa-la-na' (karnasuvarna) which according to him was 'about 1400 or 1500 li' in circuit, the capital being 'about 20 li'. He found the country densely populated; the householders being rich lived in comfort. The land was low and loamy, regularly cultivated with abundant and various produces. The climate was agreeable, and the manners of the people honest and amiable. Their love of learning was great. There were both believers and heretics' [Buddhists and non-Buddhists] in the population, the 'heretics' being 'very numerous'. There were ten Sanggharamas or so with about 2000 (according to Hwui Li 300) priests. There were fifty Brahmanical temples. 'By the side of the capital is the Sanggharama called "Lo-to-mo-chi". [Raktamrttika] with lofty towers ...'. From Bengal he wished to visit Siunhala but a priest of South India advised him not to go by the sea-route, which was full of dangers, and as a result he took the land-route and proceeded towards Orissa.
I-tsing In about 672 AD another Chinese pilgrim I-tsing visited Bengal. He resided at Tamralipti for there years and learned Sanskrit. I-tsing saw the ruins of an establishment, with only its foundations remaining, called the China Temple which should fall somewhere in the north Bengal region (Varendra) following the direction and distance from the Mahabodhi temple as given by him. I-tsing heard the tradition that some 500 years ago from the time of his visit a Maharaja called Shri Gupta built the temple for the use of Chinese priests. About twenty Chinese priests came at that time for pilgrimage and Shri Gupta was moved by the priests to give them the land and the revenues of about twenty-four villages as an endowment. This Shri Gupta may have been, according to some historians, the same as the Shri Gupta who founded the imperial Gupta dynasty.
I-tsing has also left an account of fifty-six priests who visited India and the neighborhood from China during the latter half of the seventh century AD. Of them the following are known to have visited Bengal.
Ta ch'eng-teng He resided at Tamralipti for twelve years and perfected his knowledge of Sanskrit. He then proceeded to Nalanda and Bodh Gaya and other Buddhist holy places.
Tao-lin His Sanskrit name was Shilaprabha. He also visited Tamralipti and stayed for three years to learn Sanskrit.
Tan-kuong He visited Bengal and died here.
Hiuen-ta He lived in Tamralipti for more than one year.
Seng-chi Seng-chi, in about the same time as I-tsing (ie 672-73 AD.), is known to have visited Samatata where Rajabhata, who may be identified with Rajraja-Bhata of the Khadga dynasty of southeast Bengal, was ruling at the time. According to Seng-chi he was a devout Buddhist. He used to make every day a hundred thousand statues of Buddha with earth, and read a hundred thousand shlokas of the Mahaprajnaparamita-sutra. He also used to take out processions in honour of Buddha, with an image of Avalokiteshvara at the front, and make pious gifts. In the city there were more than 4000 monks and nuns in his time.
Wou-Itsing He is also known to have visited Bengal.
Medieval The modern name 'Bangla' came to be widely used during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD) in its Chinese form 'Bang-ge-la', which appears for the first time in the Mingshilu for the sixth year of Yongle (1408) and in Shuyu Zhouzi Lu for the third year of Yongle (1405). In the earlier records of the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties 'Bangla' appeared in different forms: Pengqie-lo and Pengjiala. Pengqie-lo is mentioned by Zhao Rugua (1225) as a country of the west with city walls sixty kilometres in circuit whose people used white conchshells ground into shape as money and whose chief products were fine swords, tula cotton (velvet), and common cotton stuffs. Zhao gives the name of the capital as Cha-na-ji, which sounds like lakhnauti, the local popular name for Laksmanavati, the old capital of Bengal. (La)-cha(for 'kha')-na(for nau)-ji(for 'ti'), the name being corrupted in the process of signification.
By and large, the Chinese records give us reliable information, but sometimes due to various reasons names are mixed up and identities confused. For example names of kings like Ai (ngai) ya-si-ding, Saifuding, Ba-yi-zhi, Zhalalading and Nading are identifiable with Ghiyasuddin, Saifuddin, Bayazid, Jalaluddin and Nasiruddin respectively; but Bayazid and Nasiruddin were mistaken for envoys.
Exchange of missions (15th century) During a period of thirty-six years from 1404 to 1439 AD, hectic diplomatic and economic exchanges between Bengal and China are reported. The Chinese court received as many as fourteen missions from Bengal in 1404, 1405, 1408-9, 1414, 1411, 1412, 1414, 1418, 1420, 1421, 1423, 1429, 1438 and 1439, while they sent only four in return in 1412, 1415, 1420, 1422-23. Ghiyasuddin azam shah (1390-1410), the imaginative and farsighted statesman-ruler of Bengal, took the initiative to start the diplomatic exchanges with China. We have a very extensive picture of Bengal during the 15th century. In fact the Chinese accounts give the earliest reference to pandua as well as the names of the kings. The first mission from Bengal came to China in 1404, followed by one each in 1405, 1408-9, 1410, 1411 and 1412. The last mission of 1412 resulted in the dispatch of the first Chinese mission not only to Bengal but also to Jaunpur and Delhi, all of which must have been visited by boat. In 1414 Shihabuddin Bayazid Shah presented a giraffe to China. This was followed by a return visit by the Chinese. Fei Shin accompanied both these missions, but it is not clear whether his description of the Bengal court relates to the first or the second visit or both.
Although Fei Shin gives us a very important description of the court of Bengal and of Chaina's trade with foreign countries, it is to the interpreter, ma huan, a Chinese Muslim, that we are indebted for a very detailed picture of Bengal's social and economic condition. He accompanied Zheng He's expeditions during 1413-15, 1421-23 and 1431-33. Of the travelogues by the three officials who accompanied the Chinese voyages on different occasions, the third being Gong Zhen, his is the most detailed. That is why all later works including the official History of the Ming Dynasty depended heavily on Ma Huan's works for notices on the countries abroad. His knowledge of Persian (and probably also Arabic), and keen sense of inquiry enriched his descriptions of the countries he visited. As a result, the matters reported by him differ from one country to another, so that in addition to the topography, travel routes and distances in his account of Bangla (Bang-ge-la), he gives such minute details as the calendar used, textiles and woollen products, four kinds of wine, crops, marriages and funerals, language, dress and ornaments, currency, merchandise, silk and silk cocoons, dancers and tiger-fighters, and so on. One suspects Ma Huan knew Bangla also.
Before reaching Pandua the Chinese mission passed through Chittagong where they changed over to small boats, and then sailed to sonargaon. Both were capital cities. Chittagong, a port city, was also the customs point for collection of taxes from incoming boats. The local king (or chieftain) sent his officers with presents, and over a thousand men and horses to welcome the Chinese envoy and the Assistant Eunuch Yang Min, in 1413 (1412-14), and the Vice-Eunuch Hou Xian in 1416 (1415-17). The large river port of Sonargaon was a walled city with tanks, streets, bazaars, and people engaged in all and sundry business.
Pandua was a walled city surrounded by suburban areas. The king's palace with all the big and small Yamens (government offices) were within the city. The city walls and suburbs were all very imposing, and the bazaars well planned; the shops of the same trade were set up side by side with their pillars in orderly rows, and were well stocked.
The Bangla Court 'According to Chinese evidence the royal palace was a huge white square mansion with nine halls and three gates. The pillars were plated with brass ornamented with figures of flowers and animals. The construction was of bricks set in mortar, with high and broad flights of steps leading up to it. The remains of these architectural structures still remain, the most remarkable of them being the eklakhi mausoleum which was probably a part of the main palace that was used as Durbar Hall; the other is the great adina mosque. Regrettably, the main structure of the palace with its high steps, nine halls, three gates, etc seems to have disappeared, leaving only parts of the raised mounds.
The floral carvings and animal figures on the palace walls mentioned by Fei Shin can still be found in the ruins of these historical sites. The Eklakhi Mausoleum and the Adina Mosque contain carvings of Hindu idols and other human figures, while in the Adina mosque carved lotus flowers are still visible.
Language, dress and ornaments' Within two centuries, the invading Turks had identified themselves with the local population and had adopted Bangla as their mother tongue. However, most of the elite knew Persian also. This is clear from the statement of the Chinese interpreters who were employed for their proficiency in Persian, which was the trade language of the Indian Ocean during the medieval period. Some of them seem to have known Bangla, as one can gather from the extensive and minute details they have given about Bengal during the fifteenth century.
The Chinese obviously met the aristocrats and traders in Bengal. Muslim men shaved their heads and wore white turbans, and long round coloured robes which were slipped down over the head. Coloured long dhutis or sarongs or lungis (called kerchief by the Chinese) used to cover the lower part. They wore sheepskin leather shoes, usually with a shallow face, and decorated with gold thread, some even having designs on them. All the elite used these items of attire, which were possibly of Central Asian origin. As a result, a foreigner was not able to know a Hindu from a Muslim. The womenfolk used to wear silk or cotton xarees (shadees). The rich ones wore earrings and necklaces of precious stones set in gold - a picture of affluence.
The rich and the nobles woke up in the morning to the tunes of sehnai and drums played by itinerant musicians who were treated with wine and tanka (rupee) after their performance. In the evening the nobles were entertained by dancing girls, performing in groups. The guests were given roast beef, mutton, rose water, and sherbet (sweet drink) of different kinds. After the banquet, areca nut was served but not wine. This does not mean that wine had no market. Four kinds of wine were produced; coconut wine, mahua wine (Bassia Lalifolia Roxb), date palm and rice wines. Most of it was perhaps for private consumption and export, but the Chinese did not import any of them.
Socio-economic Scenario Pandua was the centre for production as well as marketing. At least six varieties of fine cotton as well as woollen fabrics are mentioned, of which bafta, shanbaft, makhmal, sakelat (Persian scarlet stuff), sof (wollens, camelot of Arabic origin) are of Central Asian origin, while pachadi (or pachada), jhimbartali, chautar were definitely produced locally or in the adjoining areas of Bihar. Another variety, which may be some kind of coarse cotton, was also available in black. Most of these fabrics were exported to China. It is not clear if Bengal produced silk-floss from cocoons. However, silk fabrics like silk embroideries and kerchiefs, ie sarees and dhutis, were manufactured here. Some kind of coarse silk, a weave of ramie and silk was also manufactured.
The Chinese describe the finest variety of paper, as being made from the bark of the mulberry tree of which there was abundance in Malda and North Bengal. The excellent quality of this paper caused some of the Chinese travellers to confuse it with white cloth due to its glaze and smoothness.
The lure of Chinese silver and gold was too great for other Asian nations who vied with each other in carrying on trade with China. The Bengal court was competing with Calicut (Kozhikode), Hormuz, Aden and Dhofar (Zufar) in sending all sorts of items to China, as presents and also for open sale. In this race Bengal was ahead of many others. The Pandua court imported satin fabric, coloured taffeta, blue and white porcelain, musk, vermillion, quicksilver, grass mats, copper coins. Gold and silver used to be accepted as payment for commodities in excess of the exchanged amount. Bengal used to export muslins like milk-white bafta, pearls, precious stones, horses, horse saddles with gold and silver work on them, opaque vessels with gold engravings, broadcloth (sakelat), woollens named sof (ie camelot, mentioned as sakalata-kambala in the Mangala literature), rhino horns, cranes' heads, kingfisher's feathers, crystal sugar, frankincense, black coarse cotton cloth, cotton velvet, parrots, parrot beaks, coarse rhubarb, gharuwood, sesame oil (or incense), catechu, ebony, sapanwood, areca nut and pepper. It is apparent from the list that many of the items imported like pearls, frankincense, broad-cloth, woollens and pepper were for re-export from Pandua. An efficient network of traders backed by royalty ensured smooth operations.
Many of the ship-owning merchants acted as royal envoys also. Said Mohammad, whose status and rank is not known, served five Sultans and from 1409 to 1420 was the chief envoy to China. The vicissitudes in the capital did not affect his fortunes.
The initiative in forging an alliance between the two states was taken by Bengal because it reaped tremendous benefit from trade with China. Bengal's muslin was a hot favourite with the Chinese, both for its civil and military uses. Even a part of the salaries of the officials used to be paid with muslin; muslin was also accepted as tax payment in China during this period.
In the market places of Pandua, both inside the walled city and in the suburbs, one could confront traders of different places and nationalities, including the Chinese, jostling with one another with pouches full of silver coins, each weighing about 11.19 grains and measuring 3.75 cm (according to Chinese reports, which mention weights and measures identical with those of the period found in our museums). These businessmen included people of both dark-skinned and fair races. Their investments in business could be as high as ten thousand gold coins or more. Once a bargain was struck, they would never go back on their word. The street-markets contained all kinds of establishments - bathing places, wine-shops, food and sweetmeat shops, and so on - all arranged in neat order. The customers and traders, therefore, could entertain or cool themselves in any manner they liked.
cowrie was the money for the poor. Shiploads of cowries used to be conveyed from the Maldives to Bengal and Orissa. The cowries were sold by weight. In 1350, one silver coin fetched as many as 10,520-odd cowries.
On the streets of Pandua the children enjoyed tiger shows in which the animal used to be unleashed in the open in the presence of spectators; it would then squat on the ground and roar and pounce when struck with the owner's whip. They would simulate a fight and then the owner would put his arms into the tiger's mouth without being hurt. However, one would suspect that the animals used were cubs of panthers or some similar species and not tigers. In any case, this is the earliest example of something approximating a circus performance in India.
Pandua as seen by the Chinese during the early 15th century was a place which developed from a small hamlet to a capital city with a military garrison, and then into a commercial, manufacturing and trade centre. Its population comprised royalty, indigenous people, and foreign nationals from the west, some settled and some remaining a part of the floating population. [Abu Imam and Haraprasad Ray]
Bibliography PC Bagchi, 'Political Relations between Bengal and China in the Pathan Period', Viswa-Bharati Annals, I, 1945; Feng Chengjun (ed), Xingcha Shenglan Jiaozhu (Overall Survey in the Starry Raft by Fei Xin, 1436), Reprint, Taipei, 1970; Feng Chengjun (ed), Yingyai Shenglan Jiaozhu (Ma Huan's Overall Survey of the Oceans Shores, 1433), Reprint, Taipei, 1970; Haraprasad Ray, Trade and Diplomacy in India-China Relations: A Study of Bengal during the Fifteenth Century, New Delhi, 1993.