HISTORY: SINDH BEFORE THE ARRIVAL OF THE ARABS – Journal

Many facets of Sindh history are shrouded in mystery. One such aspect is the era before the advent of Arab rule in 711, when the region was under Buddhist and Brahmin rule.

The limited scholarship that has been done on the subject portrays Sindh as a highly developed and prosperous society at the time. Dutch scholar JE van Lohuizen-De Leeuw, in her 1981 essay “The Pre-Muslim Antiquities of Sind”, from the book Sind through the Centuries, states: “Sind [sic] seems to have been a wealthy country at this time, materially rich due to its flourishing trade and culturally rich due to its diverse religious patterns.

An effort has been made here to paint a picture of Sindh at the interesting time of the 7th and early 8th centuries AD, when, in the space of only 60 years, Sindh went through three major dynastic transitions, from Buddhism to the Brahman reign, then the Muslim conquest.

The Buddhist Rai Dynasty

The dawn of the 7th century saw the Buddhist Rai dynasty rule Sindh for several generations. The peace of the region was stirred in 626 CE during the reign of Rai Seharas, when, “All of a sudden an army of the king of Nimruz invaded his [Seharas’] country, entering the Makran,” reads The Chachnama, the oldest multi-genre chronicle of the time. It was translated into English from Farsi by Mirza Kaleech Beg in 1900, as The Chachnama: An Ancient History of Sind.

Although the Sindh army repelled the attack, they lost their king in the battle. He was succeeded by his son Sahasi II, who ruled Sindh from 626 to 652 CE, according to Dr. NA Baloch in his article “The Historical Era of Sindh”, published in Sindh Through the Centuries.

What was Sindh like before the advent of Islam to the region in 711 CE? Who were the Buddhist and Brahmin dynasties that ruled in the 7th century, before being displaced by the Arabs? Dr. Muhammad Ali Shaikh attempts to reconstruct an image from existing historical sources

It was around 642 CE when a Chinese pilgrim, Hsuan Tsang, visited Sindh and “found innumerable stupas” and “several hundred Sangharamas manned by about ten thousand monks”, says British historian John Keay in India: A History. Although Buddhism was the most dominant religion in Sindh, Hinduism was also present, with about “about thirty Hindu temples”.

Speaking of the people, the Chinese pilgrim observed that they “on the whole were hardy and impulsive and that their kingdom … was famous for its grain production, its cattle and its export of salt”, quotes Keay.

The first portrait of a ‘Sindhi’

One of the most important relics from the Buddhist era was discovered among the remains of a stupa near Mirpurkhas. About 18 centuries old, it is a plaque containing the portrait of a man, which most scholars believe was either the builder or the donor of the temple. Thus, it is considered by HT Lambrick, in his 1973 book Sindh Before the Muslim Conquest, as “the earliest known portrait of a Sindh inhabitant: possibly a prominent merchant of the second or third century AD. [CE].”

Describing the portrait, Lambrick said, “The figure wears a belt, necklace, and elaborate headdress which may have been a wig. It was painted ; the complexion was the color of wheat, with black eyes, eyebrows and mustache. One hand holds a small lotus flower, the other is carefully placed on a belt fold, which we can assume served as a purse.

The Brahmin ‘soft coup’

During the last years of the 28-year reign of Buddhist King Sahasi II, most affairs of state were entrusted to his most trusted Brahmin minister Chach. Chach came from a humble background, but won the king’s admiration and trust due to his merit, talent, and hard work.

“Having the full support and confidence of the King, his [Chach’s] personal authority over Sindh and its dependencies was absolute,” notes Lambrick.

Another person who enjoyed the king’s trust was his young queen, Suhandi. “Sahasi [was] entirely under the influence of his wife, who was evidently a woman of strong spirit as well as strong passions,” observes Lambrick.

An incident brought Chach and Suhandi closer together. Once Chach wanted to see the king about an urgent state matter. The king was resting in his palace with his queen. He granted audience to Chach in the presence of the queen, who “fell hopelessly in love with the handsome Brahmin”, writes Lambrick. Initially, Chach resisted Suhandi’s romantic overtures, citing his religious and moral limitations, but he eventually succumbed to the queen’s persuasions.

Outside of this romantic tale were the harsh political realities that may have compelled the two to favor an alliance. King Sahasi was childless. Suhandi feared that after her death, the kingdom would fall into the hands of her relatives, who would not only deprive her of her property, but perhaps even spare her life. Meanwhile, Chach realized that his position would be even more precarious than his. Therefore, the two may have formed an alliance to safeguard their personal interests.

The story goes that when the king fell terminally ill, with the help of Chach, Suhandi called the sick king’s sympathizers and his close relatives from the capital of Alor to the palace. There she held them and they were all finally put to death. In their place, Suhandi and Chach appointed courtesans who swore loyalty to the queen. Suhandi declared Chach the king’s deputy during the king’s illness. After the king’s death, Suhandi married Chach, who ascended the throne, marking the transition from Buddhist to Brahmin rule in the region.

Although Alor had already been pacified, Chach’s rise to power prompted rebellions from governors and attacks from neighbors. Under these circumstances, Chach “had to prove his right to rule, and it took him two or three years,” writes Lambrick. During the trial, “he conquered the capital and the metropolitan region by a mixture of force, fraud and the influence of the widow of his former master”.

Proto-Pakistan?

The Kingdom of Sind in the 7th century AD, as the map shows, comprised most of the Indus Valley, excluding its northern part. After ascending the throne, as Chach waged wars, he invented a new way to mark out the borders of his kingdom, planting trees suited to those surroundings.

“In the north, we learn, it [Chach] reached ‘Kashmir’,” observes Keay, based on the account given in The Chachnama. “Even though it was not the valley of Kashmir but the territory of Kashmir, which then extended to the plains of Punjab, he must have entered the foothills of the Himalayas, because he marked his border by planting a chinar, or plane tree, and a deodar, or Himalayan cedar; both native to the hills.

“Heading west, he claimed Makran, the coastal region of Balochistan [sic], where he planted date palms,” Keay continues. It was in this context that “the Kingdom of Chach lacked only ancient Gandhara in the northwest to qualify as proto-Pakistan”, writes Keay.

Internally, the kingdom was divided into four provinces governed by governors, in addition to the central territory directly governed by the monarch. The territories of two provinces included present-day Sindh, while the other two included what is now Punjab. The provinces of Sind were Brahminabad, which covered “central Sind east of the Indus as well as the whole of lower Sind and possibly the Cutch”. [sic]”, and that of Sehwan (Siwistan) included “the modern districts of Larkana and Dadu, and possibly Las Bela”, notes Lambrick.

Of the provinces of Punjab, Askaland “corresponded roughly to the state of Bahawalpur and part of the adjoining districts of Punjab, and the province of Multan would appear to have extended at least to the Salt Range, for it is said to have bordered Kashmir”. Lambrick describes.

Important cities included the capital Alor (near Sukkur), the port city Debal (near present-day Karachi), Nerun (Hyderabad), Brahminabad (in present-day Sanghar district), Sehwan and Multan.

Chach proved to be an able administrator and ruled the country for about 40 years. It may sound strange, but the Arabic chroniclers of Chachnama highly valued him, prompting Keay to observe that “for an infidel, Chach would be highly valued by Muslim rulers”.

Estate of Chach and Raja Dahar

Chach had two sons, Daharsiah and Dahar, by Queen Suhandi, and a daughter, Bai, by another woman. Upon Chach’s death, his brother Chandar initially succeeded him, but eventually power passed to his youngest son, Dahar.

Dahar was also a brave man and a capable administrator who ruled for about 13 years. However, his morals were compromised when he allegedly “ceremoniously” married his half-sister to escape the prediction of an astrologer, who said that his half-sister’s husband would rule his kingdom.

This immoral act on his part sent shockwaves through the kingdom and even his older brother took up arms against him, leading an expedition against Dahar. But he fell ill and died camped outside the fort of Dahar.

Commenting on this, the eminent Hindu scholar Dayaram Gidumal, states in the introduction to Mirza Kaleech Beg’s English translation of The Chachnama: “The king [Dahar] was undoubtedly a greater sinner. It was he who, on the advice of a credulous minister, celebrated his marriage with his own sister, to prevent the fulfillment of a prediction. The marriage was not intended to be consummated and, in fact, it was not consummated; corn [the] unholy ceremony nevertheless alienated from Dahar not only his brother but all the best and bravest men in the land.

The king’s estrangement from the people played a key role in the Arab victory in 711 CE over Sindh, a land that had in the past repelled several Arab attacks. This ended the Brahmin dynasty and power was transferred to the Arabs.

A Note on Sources: Three main sources on the history of this period are accounts given by Chinese and Arab travellers, archaeological finds and three books on the subject, namely The Chachnama, the Tarikh-e-Maasumi and the Tuhfatul-Kiram. The oldest of these is the Chachnama, and various scholars have attached varying importance to its contents.

The writer is a former Vice-Chancellor of Sindh Madressatul Islam University and was a Fulbright faculty member/scholar at American University in Washington DC. He tweets @DrMAliShaikh. He can be reached at [email protected]

Posted in Dawn, EOS, February 6, 2022