The Buddhist Tomb Tells the Story of Bakhtiyar Khalji's Devastation of Bihar and Bengal

Copious Buddhist primary sources narrate the story of Bakhtiyar Khalji's annihilation of Bihar and Bengal. They make for agonising reading.
The Buddhist Tomb Tells the Story of Bakhtiyar Khalji's Devastation of Bihar and Bengal

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The Buddhist Tomb Tells the Story of Bakhtiyar Khalji's Devastation of Bihar and Bengal
A Portrait of Desolation: Bihar and Bengal in the Aftermath of the Barbarian Bakhtiyar Khalji’s Jihad

BUDDHIST SOURCES REVEAL a comprehensive panorama of the barbarism of Bakhtiyar Khalji’s annihilation of this ancient, sacred Dhamma from the land of its own birth.

An undertaking accomplished without analysis,
Who would regard it as wise?
After worms have eaten,
Although a letter may appear, they are not skilled philosophers.

These words flowed from the gifted intellect of the towering Buddhist scholar, saint and monk, Sakya Sribhadra. Hailing from Kashmir, he still occupies a hallowed place in the annals of Bauddha-Dharma in Tibet. He is known there by the honorific Kha­che Panchen (‘the Mahapandita of Kashmir’). He was also the last Indian (Buddhist) Pandita to visit Tibet for a straightforward and now-familiar reason: Bakhtiyar Khalji had annihilated Bauddha-Dharma in front of his own eyes, in a manner of speaking.

What this Mahapandita witnessed when he visited Magadha in 1200, made him weep and the horrific experience impaled fear deep in his heart. His beloved Odantapura and Vikramashila monasteries were now piles of rubble and billows of smoke, completely under the control of the impure and cruel Mlecchas. These were ancient, revered sites of learning where he had once taught and preached Buddha’s Dhamma. Scared and saddened, he fled to the safety of that other great Buddhist centre, Jaggadala in northern Bengal.

Thirty-four years later, another pious and renowned Buddhist scholar and monk, Dharmasvamin arrived in India from Tibet after months of gruelling journey. He came to this sacred land carrying a profound dream. Of visiting all the cities and towns and villages sanctified by the footsteps of Gautama Buddha himself. He would go to the fabled Bodh Gaya where Buddha had attained enlightenment. Then he would visit all the Buddhist Viharas at Nalanda, Odantapura, Vikramashila and Jaggadala and study Buddhist philosophy at the feet of the prestigious masters whose venerated names he had read and heard about in the meditative quietude of the Himalayan heights in Tibet.

And when Dharmasvamin came here, he saw how his dream had been transformed into a live nightmare on the ground. All those Tibetan stories had become shattered ruins wherever he travelled in eastern India. Dharmasvamin got its first taste at Uddandapura or Odantapura. The battered remains of that once-fabled university was now the residence of a Turushka military commander. Likewise, nothing remained of Vikramashila, the other pearl in the necklace of Buddhist learning. All the eighty Viharas at Nalanda, now a mass of desolate wreckage, had long been abandoned. Only two were semi-functional, operating in fear, secrecy and with an earnest desperation born in the innermost recesses of the souls of the Buddhist monks who wanted to somehow preserve their cherished Bauddha-Dharma.

In fact, Dharmasvamin’s biography Upasaka Chos-dar is the most definitive first-hand account that narrates the fatal and permanent consequences of Bakhtiyar Khalji’s devastation of eastern India. The work tells this painful tale from the perspective of Bakhtiyar’s copious Buddhist and Hindu victims. The narrative is vivid, wrenching and heartfelt, and makes for agonising reading.

Dharmasvamin quickly realized that the venerated land of Gautama Buddha had been mauled beyond recognition by the Turushkas. In his fairly extensive journeys, it was common for Dharmasvamin to witness menacing bands of strangely-dressed Muslim soldiers freely indulging in loot and extortion. In fact, Dharmasvamin was himself a victim of this Muslim brigandage on one occasion. Here is the scene described by Dharmasvamin’s biographer, George Roerich:

Two [Muslim] soldiers were in the ferry boat, which was taking Dharmasvamin across the Ganga…They demanded gold from him. Being a simple person or a simpleton, Dharmasvamin threatened to report them to the king, forgetting that Hindu and Buddhist kings were at this time unable to protect themselves, much less their subjects. This threat made the Muslim soldiers wild and they snatched away the begging bowl of Dharmasvamin. Two Buddhist lay passengers tried to assuage the Muslim soldiers by offering them precious things, but the soldiers replied, “We do not want your wealth; we want this Tibetan.” The matter was eventually compromised by Dharmasvamin offering a Pana [typically a gold coin]…Had the fellow passengers not intervened, Dharmasvamin would have been carried away as a slave, and Indian history would have lost this important source-book.

The brutal light that hundreds of such heartless incidents shines upon the patented nature of the Islamic conquests of infidel Hindustan and their ensuing consequences for Hindus need not be elaborated. However, in this specific context, it is clear that Bakhtiyar Khalji’s savagery singlehandedly eliminated Bauddha-Dharma in India forever by uprooting all the physical spaces that fed and nurtured it and by mass-slaughtering the monks and scholars who kept it alive. Bakhtiyar’s genocide was impelled by a more fundamental doctrinal reason encapsulated in a single word: But, or Vigraha or Murti (translated incorrectly as ”idol“).

The Muhammadan historian [was] indifferent to distinctions among idolaters… The multitude of images used in mediaeval Buddhist worship always inflamed the fanaticism of Muslim warriors to such fury that no quarter was given to the idolaters. The ashes of the Buddhist sanctuaries at Sarnath near Benares still bear witness to the rage of the image-breakers. Many noble monuments of the ancient civilization of India were irretrievably wrecked in the course of the early Muhammadan invasions. Those invasions were fatal to the existence of Buddhism as a…religion in northern India, where its strength resided chiefly in Bihar and certain adjoining territories. The monks who escaped massacre fled, and were scattered over Nepal, Tibet, and the south. After 1200, the traces of Buddhism in upper India are faint and obscure.

AFTER THIS, BAKHTIYAR KHALJI pushed deeper into Bengal and ejected the Sena ruler, Lakshmanasena from Navadvipa, devastated it and then conquered Gaur, razing temples and monasteries on an industrial scale. He built a new capital a few miles from the thoroughly ruined Gaur and named it, unimaginatively, as Lakhnauti. For the next two years, he settled down there to consolidate his fairly extensive conquests.

A major “administrative” measure of this consolidation involved the demolition of the few “idol-temples” that had still remained standing. In the typical fashion of victorious Islamic invaders, he built mosques and madrassas on their ruins using their debris. In record time, the entire region was bursting with masjids, madrassas, mazhars and khanqahs. His amirs followed his lead by sponsoring and building more Islamic seminaries and colleges. These “praiseworthy endeavours” thoroughly endeared him to the bigoted Islamic clergy which saw these institutions as proof of Bakhtiyar’s zeal for Islam, for converting the infidels, for Islamising the whole of Hindustan.

A little-known fact of the Muslim history of India is that Islam gained the maximum number of converts during Bakhtiyar’s reign. In fact, the contemporary Bangladeshi poet, the late Al Mahmud in his gushing Bakhtiyarer Ghora (Horses of Bakhtiyar) paints Bakhtiyar Khalji as a great hero of the Muslim conquest of India. This is what Islam permanently does wherever it is victorious.

For the next three centuries, Bengal firmly remained in the Islamic thrall and would never regain its lost Sanatana character. From Lakhnauti, the name reverted to Gaur. Humayun rechristened it as Bakhtabad, named in Bakhtiyar’s honour. In a later period, it was renamed as Jannatabad.

At various points in its prolonged history, the fortunes of Gaur underwent several upheavals but the Islamic character that Bakhtiyar Khalji had imposed upon it became permanent.


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