Shaista Khan

Shaista Khan Mughal subahdar who ruled Bengal for long 24 years (1664-1688) with a break for a little over one year in 1678-79. His tenure of office as a subahdar in Bengal was the longest. Of Iranian origin (son of Asaf Khan and grandson of Mirza Ghias Beg Itimaduddaula) his family was connected with the Mughal royal family. Nur Jahan (daughter of Itimaduddaula) and Mumtaj Mahal (daughter of Asaf Khan) were queens of jahangir and shahjahan respectively. Both Itimaduddaula and Asaf Khan held the position of wazir or Prime Minister respectively of Jahangir and Shahjahan.

The original name of Shaista Khan was Mirza Abu Talib. Jahangir, in the 21st year of his reign, gave him the title of Shaista Khan. Out of regard for his father and grandfather he was granted the rank of 500 from his childhood.

Shaista Khan received promotion one after another and was appointed subahdar of various provinces. In the reign of Shahjahan he attained fame as a great general. He became intimate with his nephew Prince Aurangzeb, when both of them worked together in the Deccan, particularly against Abdullah Qutb Shah of Golconda. After his accession to the throne aurangzeb granted him a higher rank and conferred on him the prestigious title of Amir-ul-Umara (chief of the nobles) in recognition of his services during the War of Succession. Shaista Khan was appointed subahdar of Bengal after the death of mir jumla in 1663.  

Shaista Khan


Shaista Khan was 63 when he first came to Bengal. He ruled Bengal with vigour, and in his administration he was assisted by his half a dozen gifted and able sons, each of whom held the charge of faujdar in one or more than one sarkar, so that one family ruled all divisions of Bengal, and ruled effectively. Contemporary historians have praised Shaista Khan for his administrative reforms, for putting down corruption among officials and giving relief to the people by abolishing illegal taxes. The administration had fallen into chaos after the death of Mir Jumla and during the rule of acting officials whose jurisdictions were not defined. Shaista Khan, therefore, exerted his energies in establishing discipline in the administration; by his connections with the emperor and his personality and strength of character the dishonest officers and the recalcitrant zamindars were overawed, so that it was easy for him to restore discipline in all branches of administration.

Shaista Khan's great fame in Bengal chiefly rests on his conquest of Chittagong. The famous seaport of Chittagong and the sarkar of that name was occupied by fakhruddin mubarak shah in the middle of the 14th century and since then Chittagong was under Muslim rule with occasional breaks when he areas was occupied by arakan or Tippera. But Chittagong had passed to Arakanese control before the Mughal conquest of Bengal. In the reign of Jahangir, subahdar islam khan chisti recovered the country up to the Feni river, which became the dividing line between Bengal and Arakan. Some of Jahangir's subahdars tried to capture Chittagong but failed. The Arakanese were noted for their skill in navigation and naval warfare, so the kings of Arakan never left the Mughal subahdars in peace. They sent naval expeditions to Bengal at intervals and plundered whichever part of the countryside fell on their route; at times they even attacked and devastated the capital city of Dhaka.

From the beginning of the 17th century the portuguese also started piratical activities after they had lost their trade supremacy in competition with the dutch and the english. The Portuguese pirates found asylum in Arakan, where the king employed them along with the magh pirates to plunder the enemy territory of Bengal. These raids continued for a long time, not a house was left inhabited on either side of the rivers lying on the pirates' track from Chittagong to Dhaka. The coastal districts became desolate, and according to contemporary historians 'they were swept clean with the broom of plunder and kidnapping, so that none was left to occupy any house or kindle a light in that region'. The pirates carried off Hindus and Muslims, men, women and children along with their property. The pirates sold their captives to foreign merchants, the Dutch, the English and the French and at the ports of the Deccan.

So, on reaching Bengal, Shaista Khan's attention was first drawn to the menacing attitude of the king of Arakan. For the restoration of peace, he had also to take action against the Portuguese pirates. The subahdar drew up a three-pronged policy to meet the situation: first, he reorganised the nawwara or the fleet of war-boats; second, he tried to win over the Portuguese to his side; and third, he tried to win over the Dutch company to help him or at least to neutralise them so that they could not assist the king of Arakan. The Mughal government in Bengal had already a large number of war-boats; Shuja had utilised the navy against Aurangzeb and Mir Jumla had utilised a strong navy consisting of more than 300 war-boats during his Kamrup and Assam campaigns. Shaista Khan reorganised the navy, the old boats were repaired and new boats were built in the dockyards of Dhaka, Jessore and other river ports. Crews were recruited and assembled, provisions collected and expert officers were chosen for higher posts. Within a year or so 300 vessels were got together, ready for naval warfare.

Shaista Khan took steps to win over the Firingis (Portuguese) to his side, for he realised that the mainstay of the Arakanese navy were the Portuguese sailors with their superior ships and firearms. He sent lucrative offers to the Firingis of Chittagong through their brethren living in Hughli, Loricol (25 miles south of Dhaka) and other places. He offered them service, rewards, and what is more important, a settled and secure life. Shaista Khan also called the Dutch chief of Hughli to his presence and told him plainly that as they gained much profit from their trade in Bengal they should participate in the expedition against Arakan with their own ships. As the Dutch chief could not give a positive reply without approval of the Dutch Governor General of Batavia (Jakarta), Shaista Khan sent an envoy to Batavia in a Dutch ship. The envoy Khwaja Ahmed was given instructions to tell the Dutch Governor General that if the Dutch did not help the subahdar in his enterprise, all their trade would be stopped in the whole Mughal empire.

All preparations being complete, Shaista Khan chalked out a plan for conquering the island of Sandwip first. The base of operation against Chittagong was Bhulua, but it was a base for a land force, whereas Arakan was primarily a naval power. Chittagong was to be attacked both by land and sea. So a base for the fleet was necessary, and Sandwip was an ideal naval base. Shaista Khan ordered his naval officer to attack Sandwip, which he did in November 1665; Dilawar Khan, the ruler of Sandwip, a former runaway sailor of the Mughals, and then 80 years old, fought with valour and skill, but he was defeated. Sandwip was occupied and brought under Mughal administration. In the meantime the Firingis of Chittagong also came over to the side of the Mughals. Luckily for the Mughals, a feud had then broken out between the Magh ruler of Chittagong and the Portuguese of that place. To escape from the wrath of the Arakanese king, the Portuguese fled from Chittagong with their families, ships and artillery; they took shelter with the Mughal commandant of Bhulua (Noakhali). Shaista Khan received and honoured the Portuguese captain, who was given a cash reward of Rs 2000/- and monthly pay of Rs 500/-, and his followers were also enlisted in the Mughal service with suitable pay and allowances. The Dutch Governor General of Batavia also assured Shaista Khan of his company's help. They closed their factory at Mrohaung, capital of Arakan and withdrew their staff and diverted their ships from Arakan to other places. The Dutch company sent two ships to Shaista Khan, to be used in his Chittagong expedition. But Shaista Khan achieved victory over the Arakanese at Chittagong before their arrival.

After all preparations were over, Shaista Khan sent his long-planned Chittagong expedition in the last week of December 1665 AD. The overall command was given to his son bujurg umid khan , while Ibn Husain, the admiral, was given command over the navy, and the subahdar himself took up the responsibility of supplying provisions. The army and navy started simultaneously, one by land and the other by sea, keeping close contact with each other. The land force had to cut their way through the jungles. There was a great naval battle in the sea and then in the river Karnafuli; the Mughals with the aid of the Portuguese came out successful. The Arakanese navy being defeated, their sailors fled and some of them took shelter in the fort. But the fort of Chittagong was besieged and captured on 26 January 1666. Buzurg Umid Khan made a triumphal entry into the fort the next day, and Chittagong was annexed to the Mughal empire. It became the seat of a Mughal faujdar and with the emperor's permission Chittagong's name was changed to Islamabad. The conquest of Chittagong caused indescribable joy throughout the country, mainly because the people became safe from the plunder, oppression and tyranny of the Magh-Portuguese pirates. Another important result of the conquest was the release of thousands of kidnapped and enslaved Bengali peasants who now returned to their homes and joined their families. Peace was restored in the area and, consequently, agriculture, trade and commerce flourished.

Shaista Khan also put down the rebellious chiefs of the neighbouring hilly states, who raised their heads after the death of Mir Jumla, taking advantage of the chaos during the administration of the temporary rulers. The Raja of Kuch Bihar sent a letter of submission promising to pay tribute as soon as he heard the news of the arrival of Shaista Khan at rajmahal. Iradat Khan, son of the subahdar, reoccupied Kamrup; Bahadur Khan of Hijli was confined and he purchased his liberty by paying a huge sum. The Rajas of Jaintia and Tippera also offered submission and sent presents including elephants, and the hilly state of Morang (west of Kuch Bihar and north of Purnea) also offered submission and promised to pay tributes.

Shaista Khan promoted trade and commerce, encouraged trade by the European companies, and to safeguard their interests he made roads and rivers safe from robbers. He granted the European companies privileges according to the terms of the imperial farmans. But sometimes the European companies abused their privileges and their factors and sailors indulged in private trade, which was prohibited by the imperial farman. So sometimes friction arose between the Mughal port and custom officials and the European companies, particularly on the demand and payment of duties.

The emperor encouraged expansion of trade, because trade, particularly export trade, brought in money. But the local Mughal officers tried to exact local duties like rahdari (transit duty) which were not provided for by the imperial order. On the other hand the companies also misused the concessions given to them by the farman. The company's boats were allowed to pass on production of dastaks (pass) issued by the company's officials, because concessions were allowed to the companies, but the boats often carried goods under their protection that did not belong to the company but to the private trade of their servants. There were also instances when the companies evaded payment of part of their duty by under-valuation of their cargo. Shaista Khan, being an able and experienced officer, enforced strict discipline in trade and this became the target of criticism and opposition of the European companies. During the second term of his office, the English company actually waged war against the Mughal government in Bengal. Shaista Khan did not yield to their illogical demands and they were expelled from the country. Later, however, the English were restored to their former position and settlement by a new subahdar, ibrahim khan. The English records blame Shaista Khan for his avarice, but actually the English traders (and also other European companies) themselves were responsible for abusing the privileges provided by the imperial farman, and violating the law of the country. On the other hand Shaista Khan, like other provincial subahdars and officers, also indulged in private trade, but it was internal trade and not export trade.

Shaista Khan was a great builder. He built a number of mosques, tombs and secular buildings in the capital city of Dhaka and outside. Important among his constructions are: (a) The chhota katra, built in about 1664, meant for visiting merchants, wayfarers and visitors. There is a small single-domed mosque within its enclosure, which displays considerable architectural taste. Shaista Khan drew up a grand plan for building a palace, a mosque, and a great band (embankment), called poshta, along the river Buriganga (Budiganga), extending from Mitford to Lalbagh. The katra and the mosque are extant in ruins. In the courtyard of the Katra there is an old single-domed square tomb. It is believed that the tomb is that of Champa Bibi, a daughter or a concubine of Shaista Khan; (b) A three-domed mosque with corner towers on the Buriganga near mitford hospital (now called Sir Salimullah Medical College Hospital); (c) Shaista Khan made additions to lalbagh fort (named Aurangabad fort after the name of the emperor Aurangzeb), the construction of which was started by Prince muhammad azam but could not be completed by him. The tomb of Bibi Pari (Fairy lady), was built by Shaista Khan within the walled enclosure of the fort. bibi pari, also known as Iran Dukht, is said to have been a daughter of Shaista Khan who was betrothed to Prince Muhammad Azam, but she met a premature death. Shaista Khan spent lavishly on the construction of the tomb of his beloved daughter, by importing costly building materials from north India. The tomb is a very fine specimen of the architecture of Dhaka and of the time of Shaista Khan; (d) His name is also associated with some other mosques in and around Dhaka, like the Chawk Bazar Mosque, satgumbad mosque and the Khizrpur mosque on the bank of the Lakhya, not far from Narayanganj.

Contemporary and later historians have praised Shaista Khan for his superb generalship, his administration of justice and promotion of the welfare of the people. They have also emphasized on his liberality, charity and religions pursuits. He was also a poet and a scholar. His building activities provided models for his age. He was also praised because in his time the price of grain was extremely low, so much so that rice was being sold at the rate of 8 maunds per rupee. While leaving Dhaka, he caused the following inscription to be engraved on the western gate of the city 'Let him only open this gate who can show the selling rate of rice as cheap as this'. The contemporaries described him as the model of excellence. [Abdul Karim]

Bibliography JN Sarkar, (ed.) History of Bengal, II, Dhaka, 1948; JN Sarkar, History of Aurangzib, III, New Delhi, 1972-74; A Karim, History of Bengal, Mughal Period, Rajshahi, 1995.