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INDRAJIT HAZRA
POX INDI KA

Indrajit Hazra is a writer and journalist. His latest book is 'Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata' (Aleph)

Zafar Khan Ghazi, my choice as great-great-great...grand-dad

Tribeni is some 90 minutes north of Calcutta

've made it a kind of personal, secret project to trace back my roots to something grand. As a student of non-history, I have the advantage of picking up threads I like and leaving those that I didn't. In some circles, this kind of research into one's family history is called 'bakwaas', 'utter fiction', and 'bull shit'.

The surname 'Hazra', I was told by my grandmother (Praise Be Upon Her) via my grandfather, was a title given to a 'commander of a hazaar/thousand'. In the jumping logic typical of my family, I was made to understand that we were originally from eastern Afghanistan, brought to Bengal via modern Rajasthan by some HR chap of Sher Shah Suri's army during Suri's five-year rule from 1540 to 1545.

Suri seemed an extremely inviting connection to have in my family history. But there was a problem in my narrative. Suri a.k.a. Farid Khan was an early 16th century Pathan from Hisar in modern Haryana. And the Haz(a)ras — from the Hazara ethnic group in the modern Afghanistan-Pakistan region — don't really get along with the Pathans. (When in Kabul in 2009, I tried to get friendly with a taxi driver telling him that I was a Hazara/Hazra from India, the chap replied, "Please don't say that to people here. Hazaras are like — how do you say in India? – low caste." I proceeded to quickly say that I'm a Bengali from eastern India and kept my mouth shut the rest of the taxi ride.)

But despite this glitch — and the fact that Hazras are, according to what I had been told by my grandmother (Praise Be Upon Her) via my grandfather, 'Ugra (savage/unreconstructed) kshatriya' Hindus — I thought I'll keep up this story because Sher Shah did get people as far west as Afghanistan to help him extend the Grand Trunk Road from Chittagong in eastern Bengal to Kabul. And then, of course, he must have promoted some of them to be 'commanders of a thousand', right? Many of these 'Hazras/Hazaras' settled down in western Bengal, married Bengali women and started getting their eyes 'widened' to the point of becoming almost indistinguishable from indigenous Bengalis.

Now, after much thought though, I've decide to junk the Sher Shah Suri connection.

On Christmas Day, an unnaturally cold December morning, I was in the town of Tribeni, some 90 minutes north of Calcutta. I had read about the mosque built by Zafar Khan Ghazi and the adjoining dargah where Zafar-saab is buried. The masjid, built in 1298 within a century of Delhi Sultan Qutbuddin Aibak's (of Qutb Minar fame) military general Muhamad Bhaktiyar's takeover over Bengal in 1204, is the oldest existing surviving Muslim structures in Bengal.

Next to the grey expansive Bhagirathi-Ganga river, indistinguishable from the grey expansive sky if it wasn't for the sub-skyline of Kalyani town on the other bank, I stood transfixed looking at the blackstone wall of the Ghazi dargah. The Archaeological Survey of India has done a fabulous job of rehabilitating what was once ruins. Going into the gate, one enters a serene ground where in the distance you see the masjid.

ut it's the dargah near the entrance that draws you in like a siren. Like a giant installation inside Tate Modern in London or the Museum of Modern Art in New York but far more bestowed with history, the roofless, two-compartment dargah was as much a show of power as it was of hardlined beauty. Built on top of a destroyed late-Sena dynasty (1070-1230 AD) temple, the dargah is a mix of red brick and grey stone slabs, the latter still bearing chiselled Hindu freizes that include figures depicting the das avatars, some re-fitted upside down to make a political point.

I took my boots off and entered the shrine. There was one Bengali man who was quietly putting a green chadar on one of the tombs while I hovered like an alien on Earth struck by the quiet beauty of the planet I was visiting.

I then proceeded towards the startlingly symmetrical mosque, passing a gardener under the giant peepal tree snipping the hedges. The Ghazi mosque once had ten domes – similar to the much bigger one better known in photos of the Babri Masjid – but now only six survive. I am not religious, but aesthetics overwhelmed me as I stood in front of this glorious structure next to the river in the interiors of central Bengal.

The stone inscription in Thuluth Arabic calligraphy reads: "Zafar Khan, the lion of lions, has appeared, by conquering the towns of India in every expedition, and by restoring the decayed charitable institutions. And he has destroyed the obdurate among infidels with his sword and spear, and lavished the treasures of his wealth in [helping] the miserable." That's when I decided that Zafar Khan Ghani would be a good, worthy ancestor to have.

So there you have it. The Hazras, their origins twisted by the gravitational tugs that only history is armed with, are ancestors of Zafar Khan Ghani, one of the earliest Muslim rulers of Bengal who declared independence from the Delhi Sultanate in a region that would become home to the second largest ethnic Muslim community in the world after the Arabs: the Bengalis.

I just have to tie up one loose end. I'm not a Muslim Bengali. But I'm sure I'll figure out something to cover that.

 
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