A brief historical survey of Sylhetis

The geopolitical situation of Greater Syhlet was as such that it was bound to be looked with interest in all periods of history - ancient, medieval and modern. Bordered by Khasi Jayantia Hills in the north and Cachar in the East, the place was regularly featuring in the strategic military objectives of all ambitious kingdoms and tribes, including British in recent times. Another river that passes through Syhlet and is having a beautiful name - Surma. According to old legends, in the 12th century, king Khetrapal dug up a canal from the river Barak and named it as per the name of his beautiful queen Surama. The word literally means - beautiful and pleasing.


After four hundred years when Iban Batuta, the Persian traveler came to India, he came to Syhllet and definitely sailing along the Surma. He observed the howar in the waters of Surma and named it as - Nahar-Ul-Azrak which translates as - blue-eyed river. He again sailed along Surma from Syhlet to Sonargaon to meet the Muslim saint - Shah Jalal - a meeting of historic interest and controversy, which took place in around 1307. In 1919, Rabindranath Tagore came to Syhlet by sailing through the Surma.



Ancient and Medieval Period:

The ancient name of Greater Syhlet was Srihattawhich in Sanskrit means - a prosperous center of trading. The reason was obvious - the well navigated Surma-Barak river, the position of the place and the ancient road which enters into Assam through Khasi-Jayantia Hills through present Dowki of Meghalaya. This road was of immense strategic importance in the defence of Cachar, Assam and Greater Syhlet. This was confirmed by Captain R.B Pembarton who termed Syhlet-Cachar frontier as a matter of military importance during British war with Burma (1765). It was these two routes - the Syhlet-Cachar frontier road and the Syhlet-Assam route through Jayantia hills that always was used by Manipuris during Burmese aggression and during partition and its aftermath - the present day Syhlleti settlers in Cachar and Meghalaya.

Ancient Tantric text Shaktisangam Tantra Joginitantra refersSyhlet as Silhatta. Other texts like Brihannali Tantra, Devipurana refers to Srihatta as one of the Tantric shakthipeeths. The patron deity of Srihatta was termed as Hattavasini - the goddess who resides in the prosperous marketplace. The history of Syhlet during the reign of Sultan was documented by Portugese historian D Barros who terms Syhlet as - Reino de Sirote.


In 1303-04 came in Syhlet one Sufi Mystic whose contact transformed not only the politics and society of Syhlet as a whole but became a landmark event in the whole peninsula in a much wider religion-cultural perspective. He was Muslim Sufi saint Shah Jalal. According to the the texts Suhail-e-Yemen and Gulzar-e-Arbar - Shah Jalal was either the son of a Sufi in Yemen or a Bengali of Turkestan implying that he could speak Bengali. When he was a child, he was given a handful of earth by his uncle and sent to Hindstan for propagating the Sufi Faith with the instruction that whichever place in Hindustan matches this earth completely in smell and colour, he should settle down for meditation and preaching. Accordingly, Shah Jalal entered Bengal somewhere between 1216 - 1220 (according to Ammer Khosrou's Afdalul Hawaade). Before entering Bengal he met Moin-Uddin-Chisti in 1192. While at Delhi, he met another towering Sufi saint Nizam-Uddin-Awlia and the great saint presented him some pigeons (*kabutar* in Perisan). He wandered and entered Syhlet (called Srihat in Persian) in 1303-04. And then the match happened - the earth of Syhlet in far corner of Bengal in Hindustan resembled the soil of Yemen or Turkestan. Shah Jalal settled in Syhlet with his 360 followers or awlias and the pigeons of Nizam-Uddin flew on the skies of Syhlet and Syhlleti language still called those pigeons as jalali kabutar.

Modern History:

Like all provinces of Bengal, Syhlet came under British influence but since then one integrating factor was there with, without and in spite of political and religion difference and that was the Bengali language. In spite of all historical upheavals, the language stood firm, strong, enriched and struggled in the artistic sense as well in the political sense and without this there is no unity except the unity of humanity.

In 1857, the Seapoy Mutiny triggered rebellion in Chittagong and there was a rebellion in Dacca once the native seapoys were de-armed by British. After that waves and waves of Language Movement. The cultural existence of the community depended on the language and what a glorious fight it was? Contemporary globalization realizing this ancient wisdom so painfully that language is not only an effective media for advertisement, for corporate aggression or for petty political gain but a mirror of our soul - the deepest lake of our subconscious where we know what we are.

We have found out one remarkable piece of document received from one American Mr. Norman Vickers, S/Sergeant of USAAF  Combat Cargo Groups who was in Syhlet during the second world war in 1944. The job of the squadron was to supply British 14th Army to in their attempt to retake Burma from the Japanese. We reproduce below the record of S/Sergeant Mr. Norman Vickers, courtesy Mr. Bill Bielauskas ( Bill's own page about the Combat Squadron ) and we thank Mr. Norman for the record and Mr. Bill for his kind permission to reproduce the same from his website maintained by Mr. Bill, namely -  http://web.archive.org/web/20010422144939/http://www.comcar.org/ , dealing with Combat Cargo Groups of USAAF.

U.S.A.A.F. Combat Cargo Groups of the Second World War

4th Combat Cargo Group, 14th Combat Cargo Squadron


S/Sgt. Norman Vickers

    We arrived at Syhlet, India late in Nov. 1944.  A 100 plane group of new C-46s divided into 4 Squadrons (13th, 14th, 15th and 16th) of 25 planes each.  The entire 4th Combat Cargo Group was on detached service to the British.  Our job was to supply the British 14th Army by air as they attempted to retake Burma from the Japanese.  All 14th Sq. personnel were airlifted to India in the C-46s.  As we landed we found both sides of the runway lined with British supplies.  It appeared that these supplies consisted mostly of 5 gal. "flimsys," (cans similar to our 5 gal, kerosene cans, but sealed shut, without a pouring spout) each can contained a food ration for one man for a week.  These "flimsys" were stacked as high as a man could reach from the back of a truck and extended almost the full length of the runway.

     We were housed in British 4 man Tropical tents.  These British Tropicals were square, made of a tan cotton cloth, quilted into a pad about 3/4" thick.  The center pole had two stops near the top.  The roofs were double layers with a foot of airspace between them, maintained by the stops on the pole & two separate wood tie-offs around the perimeter.  The walls were a single layer of quilted cloth and were often tied up to the tie-offs to allow air to circulate.  In this position they served as excellent water collectors, as it rained quite often.  The soft water was dipped out with our helmets for washing & shaving.  The floors were built up about one foot above the surrounding ground and covered with strips of a heavy gauge tar paper.  The British used kerosene lamps.  Our base maintenance personnel soon had our Squadron generators operating and wire strung so that each unit had electricity.

     Water was in short supply and foul tasting.  Ice was non-existent.  In an organization of squadron size there is a vast resource of design, engineering and manufacturing knowledge.  Nearby were British wrecked vehicle dumps.  Many parts of these vehicles were salvageable.  Intelligent men put their heads together and were soon building portable water purification & filtering units.  Also an ice-maker, from these scrap-piles. (It never did make ice but it made COLD water, great for cooling our beer ration! The purifier worked fine)

    This part of the country was flat & contained no large trees.  Most places had a straggly brush cover apparently used as firewood by the locals.  There was no running water within easy walking distance of Syhlet.  The village water supply was a huge dirt pool.  Rectangular, it appeared to be in excess of 100 X 150 feet.  I would guess the depth to be more than 20 feet.  It was rather precisely built with sloped sides and apparently sized to allow the periodic rain to prevent it from ever going completely dry.  Of course, the Monsoons would fill it to overflowing and actually they flooded the entire area.  The local's had no concept of sanitation.  They bathed, (with their clothes on) did the laundry and drew the drinking water from the same place.  No wonder they died by the thousands.  I took one look at the local's legs, which were covered with "yaws", (open, weeping circular sores) my bare feet never touched the ground in India.  We purchased "ducks" (heavy wooden platform shoes) to wear to, from and in the shower.

    The Hindu's and Moslem's in this area were poor to the point of destitution.  The only civilian vehicle's I saw were bicycle's and very few of them.  Of course, we were at a railhead so supplies could be transferred from train to airfield.  These trains were festooned with people, inside, outside, on top, etc.  The town, if you could call it that, consisted of a few mud buildings & some temporary bamboo structures.  I'm sure that ALL bamboo structures in this part of India are temporary.  The termites began eating the bamboo as soon as it dried out.  Of course there were stores, (stores sprung up wherever there were Americans).   From large (10 X 20) "emporiums " to little "doorway" shops.   All merchandise had three prices.  Low for the Indians, medium for the British and high for the Americans.

     All menial labor was done by the local people.   Mess-hall duty, laundry, area clean-up and personal servants.  We soon learned to go to town, select items that we wanted without saying anything, then return to camp and ask our "basha boy" to purchase it for us.    It was usually less than half price and you know that he took his cut along the way.

     A popular item was a mattress pad.  Our British bunks were of what appeared to be a rectangular mahogany frame laced with a coarse rope, on the diagonal.  The rope stretched and had to be constantly tightened.  The issue mattress was less than 2" thick and the bed soon became a torture rack.   We added pads until the bed was usable.  These mattress's were made of wildly colorful cloth and we looked like a bunch of Gypsy's as we threw our mattress into the plane for our next move.

     We were paid in Rupees.  When we exchanged our American money for Rupees in Karachi we paid 33 1/3 cents per Rupee.  When we left the country the British gave us 30 cents per Rupee.  I'm sure it was a common practice worldwide to "stick it to Uncle Sap" at every opportunity.

Submitted By Norman Vickers, 14th Combat Cargo Squadron, 4th Combat Cargo Group-June 1999

After the great war, Syhlet went to East Pakistan when partition of India came into a political reality in 1947. In 1971, there was that glorious struggle by the people of East Pakistan which culminated into the formation of independent country Bangaldesh. In that Great Struggle which the people of the country fought with extreme courage also witnessed the Nazi barbarism by the invading Army of Pakistan which has no parallel in history. The situation was slowly appraching a climax and the Indian Army intervened and people of India stood behind  it. It was a desparate fight by the tyrant(s) and when morning of Freedom approaches, the shadow of tyranny vanishes. It was the night of darkness, it was the long night of terror when suddenly we discovered, in the rapine and killings of the doomed armies of West Pakistan - Humanity sometimes take holiday from being human.  It was no melodrama - it was the gunshot what mother's heard when their sons were lined up by the frontyard pond from where morning azan or bell-sound of prayer used to come, it was the cries of sisters which brothers-mothers-fathers heard when they were violated. It was the night of darkness and it was the night of historical histrionics. It was the worst of dreams and the worst of reality. It was the End of Hope and the begining of a New Begining. The  fight by the people was a fight for civilization, it was a life and death fight for one's soul and after a long, long night of Darkness and dried blood and tears, Freedom came.

Those of Syhlletis who were already out of Syhlet prayed for the deliverance, waited for it and cried with tears of joy as well with the tears of agony for lost ones who perished in the struggle. We cried for those sisters who were victims of a barbarism, we pray with shivering may never be repeated. We saw tyranny, we endured it, we fought it to death and finally defeated it  with our LIfe and survived. The  futile Teutonic dream of enslaving people came to an End. They saw from Karimganj, from Silchar, from Agartala, from Shillong from elsewhere - the Indian fighters flying and the soldiers crossing and they glued their ear and soul to the radio and telefunken messages to witness those moments of history, uttered some 27 years ago by one Prime Minister in another historic night in the history of the subcontinet - which comes rarely in history when the soul of a Nation finds utterance.

The struggle and endurance was a struggle against de-humanism, against  strangulation of soul of a community, of erasing its tongue - the language - the Bangla-Bhasa. The fight for the land, the language and the soul became one - martyrs sang for their motherland irrespective of religion and creed and passed onto history  a unique contribution and a new dimension too.

After more than a quarter century, we are passing onto a New Order with new problems and new horizons. In spite of all history and with it, the bond is that of language - of our mother-tongue which we all speak - whatever passport we carry, whatever prayer we pray, whatever forgetfulness we nurture. We are delighted to quote the opening sentences from  http://web.archive.org/web/20010422144939/http://www.moulvibazar.com/  where the visionary reminds - Forget not a Thing of it. It is another way of verbalizing the ancient wisdom whcih history of all countries radiate in spite of momentary epilepsies - Those who forget history are condemned to relive it.

Around a century after the first partition of Greater Bengal the musings of the greatest of singer of the language,  Rabindranath still sounds so prophetic, so concise and so relevant :


We have  found none other than these eight lines more befitting than to point where the vector of History points to.