History of Sylhet
History of Sylhet
Historians believe that Sylhet was an expanded commercial center from the ancient period, which explains its original namesake. During this time, Sylhet was probably inhabited by Indo-Aryan Brahmins, though ethnically the population would also have traces of Assamese. It has also been suggested that the Ancient Kingdom of Harikela was situated in modern Sylhet.
In the ancient and early medieval period, Sylhet was ruled primarily by local chieftains as viceroy of the kings of Pragjyotishpur. There is evidence to suggest that the Maharaja Sri Chandra, of northern Bengal, conquered Bengal in the 10th century, although this is a much disputed topic amongst Bangladeshi historians and archaeologists. This was a period of relative prosperity and there is little evidence to suggest this was marred by wars or feuds. Sylhet was certainly known by the rest of India, and is even referred to in the ancient Hindu sacred Tantric text, the Shakti Sangama Tantra, as ‘Silhatta’. The last chieftain to reign in Sylhet was Govinda of Gaur. Sylhet was previously a Hindu kingdom, controlled by the Rajas. One of the most renowned Bengali warriors was Shaikh Jalal of Sylhet, who entered Sylhet to battle against Raja Gaur Govind, with 313 followers, but the Raja had 100,00 men, which led to a hostile battle leading the Raja to be defeated, and the entire region falling to Shaikh Jalal (d. 1357).
The 14th century marked the beginning of Islamic influence in Sylhet, with the arrivals of Sufi disciples to the region. In 1301, Sylhet was conquered by Shamsu’d-Din Firuz, a Bengali enterprising governer. Shaikh Jalal was driven out by Mongol invasions. Sikander Shah rallied his army against Raja Gaur Gobind, due the fact that the Raja ordered a man to be killed for sacrificing a cow for his son. But Sikander Shah was defeated by the Raja. A messianic Muslim saint, Shah Jalal, arrived in Sylhet in 1303 from Mecca via Delhi and Dhaka with the instructions for aiding Sikhander Khan Ghazi in defeating Govinda of Gaur. Shah Jalal was also joined by Shah Paran (nephew) who was also a renowned Sufi saint, in their expedition. After the conquest of Sylhet, Shah Paran established a khanqah at Khadim Nagar in Dakshingarh Pargana, a few kilometers away from Sylhet town, where he started Sufi spiritual practices and activities. He played a significant role in propagating Islam and establishing Muslim rule in the Sylhet region. Ghazi was the direct nephew of Sultan Firoz Shah of Delhi. Under the spiritual leadership of Shah Jalal and his 360 companions many of the populous converted to Islam and began spreading the religion to other parts of the country. Shah Jalal died in Sylhet in or around the year 1350. His shrine is located in the north of the city, inside the perimeter of the mosque complex known as Dargah-e-Shah Jalal. Even today Shah Jalal remains revered; visitors arrive from all over Bangladesh and beyond to pay homage. Saints such as Shah Jalal and Shah Paran were responsible for the conversion of most of the populace from the native religion of Hinduism or Buddhism to Islam. Shortly thereafter, Sylhet became a center of Islam in Bengal. In the official documents and historical papers, Sylhet was often referred to as Jalalabad during the era of the Muslim rule.
The 17th century started the British rule in the Indian subcontinent. During the period the British East India Company employed Indian lascars which included Sylhetis. In the late 18th century, the British East India Company became interested in Sylhet and saw it as an area of strategic importance in the war against Burma. Sylhet was gradually absorbed into British control and administration and was governed as a part of Bengal. In 1778, the East India Company appointed Robert Lindsay of Sylhet, who started trading and governing the region, making fortune. He was over disregarded by the local Sylhetis and other Muslims. In 1781, a devastating flood struck the region which wiped out crops and killing a third of the population. The locals blamed the British for not preventing the greatness of the event, which led to an uprising, led by Syed Hadi and Syed Mahdi (known as the Pirzada). Lindsay’s army was defiant and defeated the Piraza in battle in Sylhet. For the next centuries thousands of young Sylhetis started to serve on British merchant ships, cooking curry for their sailors. The numbers of lascars grew during the wars, some ending up on the docks of London and Liverpool temporary, other however established themselves in the communities and married English women. In the next few years during the World War 2, many fought in the war and some were serving in ships in poor conditions, which led to many escaping and settling in London, opening Indian curry cafes and restaurants.
After the British administrative reorganization of India, Sylhet was eventually incorporated into Assam. It remained a part of Assam for the rest of the era of British rule. In 1947, following a referendum, almost all of erstwhile Sylhet became a part of East Pakistan, barring the Karimganj subdivision which was incorporated into the new Indian state of Assam. The referundum was held on 3 July 1947, there were a total of 546,815 votes cast on 239 polling stations, a majority of 43.8 per cent voted in favour of being part of East Bengal. The referendum was acknowledged by Article 3 of the India Independence Act of 18 July 1947. In 1971, Sylhet became part of the newly formed independent country of Bangladesh.
Sylhet has a “friendship link” with the city of St Albans, in the United Kingdom. The link was established in 1988 when the District council supported a housing project in Sylhet as part of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. Sylhet was chosen because it is the area of origin for the largest ethnic minority group in St Albans. In July 1996, the mayor of Sylhet, Badar Uddin Ahmed Kamran, signed the Twinning accord between Sylhet and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (home to around 40,000 Sylhetis at the time), with the mayor of Tower Hamlets late Albert Jacobs in London.