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Historians believe that Sylhet was a commercial center from ancient period and had people of Brahmin, Assamese, Dravidians, Arabs, Persian, and Turks background. It was a Brahmin kingdom and controlled by rajas. 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'.
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.
After the decline of the Brahmin kingdoms tribal people of mongols took control of Sylhet. The last chief to rule over Sylhet was Govinda of Gaur, or Gaur Govind as he is commonly known, of the Tepra tribe of Tripura and the Sylhet area became known as Gaur Kingdom.
According to legend, in 1301 Sheikh Burhanuddin, one of the first Muslim of Sylhet, had sacrificed a cow to celebrate the birth of his son. A crow snatched a piece of the dead meat and it fell from its beak into the temple of King Gaur Govinda (others say it fell in a Brahmin Hindu's house). Offended by this, as cows are holy for Hindus, Gaur Govinda had Sheikh Burhanuddin's hands cut off and killed his son.
Burhanuddin then pleaded to Shamsuddin Firoz Shah, the Sultan of Gaur, who sent an army under the command of his nephew Sikander Khan Ghazi but this army was defeated. Some say heavy rain and floods had stopped them.
In 1303 Shamsuddin sought help from Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, a highly influential sufi (dervish) in Delhi, India. Hazrat Nizamuddin requested Sheikh Makhdum Jalal ad-Deen bin Muhammad of Yemen, popularly known as Hazrat Shah Jalal, to aid Burhanuddin. Hazrat Shah Jalal came with 360 auliyas (followers) - including his baghna (nephew) Hazrat Shah Poran - and travelled to Sylhet with Sikander Khan Ghazi.
Knowing that Shah Jalal was advancing towards Sylhet, Raja Gaur Govinda removed all ferry boats from the Surma Nodi, thereby cutting off any means of crossing into Sylhet. Legend has it that Shah Jalal crossed the Surma Nodi by sitting on a Jainamaz (prayer rug). Upon reaching the opposite bank, he ordered the Azan (call to prayer) to be sounded, at which the magnificent palace of Gaur Govinda was shattered.
However, an inscription from Sylhet town, dated 1512-13, says that it was Sikandar Khan Ghazi who had actually conquered the town in the year 1303-4.
With Hazrat Shah Jalal's help, the Hindus were completely defeated and crushed by the Muslim Army. Shortly thereafter, Sylhet became the center of Islam in Bengal and was often referred to as 'Jalalabad' (after Hazrat Shah Jalal) during the era of Muslim Mughal Empire rule (1526 - 1803).
According to further legend, Shah Jalal was given some earth (mud) by his uncle and instructed to settle down where he finds the matching earth - this was destined to be Choukidhiki area in Sylhet. His disciples traveled and settled as far as Mymensingh and Dhaka to spread the teachings of Islam and converted people from Hinduism or Buddhism to Islam. Shah Paran settled in Sylhet, Shah Malek Yemeni in Dhaka, Syed Ahmad Kolla Shahid in Comilla, Syed Nasiruddin in the region of Pargana Taraf, Haji Daria and Shaikh Ali Yemeni. An expedition to Chittagong was led by Khwaja Burhanuddin Qattan and Shah Badruddin. An expedition to Sunamganj was led by Shah Kamal Qattani, whose shrine is located in the village of Shaharpara, Sunamganj.
Shah Jalal died in Sylhet in or around the year 1350. His shrine is located in the north of the city, Amberkhana, and is known as Dargah-e-Shah Jalal, or locally as Shah Jalal's Dargah sharif or mazar.
The dargah sharif contains some artifacts belonging to Shah Jalal, for example his sword and his robes. The graveyard of the dargah sharif is also the most sought after resting place for many prominent Sylhet people.
Shah Jalal is often mistakenly reverred as Hazrat or given the title R.A, both of which are misconceptual and incorrect in islam.
During the time of the British rule in India (1858 - 1947) the British East India Company became interested in Sylhet and saw it as an area of strategic importance in the war against Burma (to the east of Bangladesh). Sylhet became part of British control and administration and was governed as a part of Bengal.
On 23 June 1757 the British East India Company (BEIC) defeated Siraj-ud-Daulah, Nawab of Bengal, in the Battle of Plassey, near Kolkata, with the help of the treacherous Mir Jafar to establish their dominancy in India. In 1764 their military control was reaffirmed at Battle of Buxar when the BEIC beat the combined armies of Mir Qasim (Nawab of Bengal), Shuja-ud-Daulah (Nawab of Awadh) and Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II. The subsequent treaty gained them the Diwani, the taxation rights, for Bengal and Bihar.
In 1778 the BEIC appointed Robert Lindsay as "Resident (tax) Collector" of Sylhet.
Lindsay, an enterprising Scot, was determined to fill the Company's coffers. But at the same time he meant to look out for himself. Shortly after arriving in Sylhet, he started trading in elephants and limestone, and within a few years made a personal fortune. His dual role as trader and governor, however, stirred discontent. The Muslims of India were still smarting from their recent losses at British hands, and the Sylhetis in particular yearned for freedom.
Syed Zain Al-mahmood, Journalist
The leading families of Sylhet were stalwart Muslims, descendants of a long line of warriors and reformers beginning with Shah Jalal, the 'Saint of Kunya' and his companions. Lindsay himself regarded the tomb of Shah Jalal as a potential hotbed of resistance.
Disaster struck the region in 1781 when a devastating flood wiped out the crop. The resulting famine killed almost a third of the population. Although Lindsay wrote to Fort William - BEIC's base in Kolkata - urging tax exemption, the locals blamed the British for failing to prevent the catastrophe. There was an uprising, led by brothers Syed Muhammad Hadi and Syed Muhammad Mahdi (known locally as Hada Miah and Mada Miah), sons of a prominent local family. In his memoire "Anecdotes of An Indian Life", Lindsay simply refers to the leader of the rebellion as "Pirzada" - literally, "son of a religious leader".
In 1782, Lindsay and his army faced the Pirzada's followers near the site of the famed Shahi Eidgah in Sylhet. The rebels, armed with swords and spears, were no match for the firepower of the British. Although they fought gallantly, the uprising was swiftly quelled and the Pirzada was killed in battle. In his book Lindsay recalls how he lived in fear of revenge attacks by the Pirzada's followers for as long as he remained in Sylhet.
In his autobiography Lindsay described in details the conditions of agriculture and manufactures. He reported that main attraction of Sylhet to the colonial government was chunam, rattan, elephants, fishes, timbers, betel nut, bamboo and so on. People from far flung districts used to come to Sylhet for fishes, timbers, betel nuts and bamboo. He described about the jungle state of Sylhet and presence of animals such as elephant, tiger, rhinoceros, leopard, deer, and wild fowl.
Robert Lindsay served in Sylhet for 12 years. By 1809, Robert Lindsay was back home in Britain leading a life of retired luxury. One day, while out riding, he spotted an Indian by the side of the road. On questioning, the man said he had arrived on a merchant vessel from Bengal. It turned out he was from Sylhet, and so Lindsay invited him to his mansion. The man, Syed Ullah, said he was looking for a Briton named "Lindsay". "When I told him who I was, he looked at me with hatred in his eyes. 'So it was you who killed Pirzada!'".
Syed Ullah had come to avenge Pirzada's death. Lindsay expressed regret and explained that he was doing his duty on that day. It is not clear how, but the wily Scot managed to gradually defuse the tension. After the two had made peace, Lindsay asked Syed Ullah if he could cook curry. The Sylheti man replied that curry was his specialty and he usually carried some spices with him. Lindsay requested Syed Ullah to whip up an "Indian" meal. Lindsay writes in his memoirs that his family members begged him not to eat anything cooked by the oriental man. His children's governess had apparently dreamt that a black man had poisoned the entire family. Lindsay, however, was unmoved. "Never was a curry better dressed,” he wrote in Anecdotes, "and never did I have a better meal."
This strange incident may have been embellished slightly by Robert Lindsay, but it is actually the first specific report of a Sylheti in Britain. It is all the more remarkable because it brings together several of the threads that run through the early part of the British Bangladeshi narrative colonialism, the sea, and curry.
Sylhet's maritime past has been all but erased. Ask a local man about the seafaring "Sarangs" of old and you are likely to get a blank look. But it was not too long ago that names like Ayub Ali Master, Surab Sarang and Chowdhry Sarang were household names in the Sylhet region. The name "Sarang Bari" (Mariner's Home) harks back to a forgotten era in Sylhet's history. Very rarely one meets an old-timer whose eyes will light up at the mention of those names. "Ahhh, those Jahaji (sailor) folk! They were brave men!"
Syed Zain Al-mahmood, Journalist
Until 1878 Sylhet was under the jurisdiction of Dhaka. In that year, Sylhet was included in the newly created Assam Province (located north-east of Bangladesh) and remained a part of Assam until 1947 when British India was divided into India, West Pakistan, and East Pakistan.
A devastating earthquake demolished almost the entire town on 12 June 1897 following which a modern and European model new town was built on the wreckage. Many new roads were constructed in the late 1890s and Sylhet became really connected to the other parts of the country with the establishment of an extension line of Assam–Bengal Railway in 1912-15. From the very beginning of the 20th century, the importance of Sylhet increased with the establishment of the tea industry.
In 1947, following a referendum, almost all of Sylhet became a part of East Pakistan, barring the Karimganj subdivision which was incorporated into the new Indian state of Assam.
The referendum was held on 3 July 1947 to determine whether Sylhetis wanted to be a part of East Pakistan or stay with Assam. A total of 546,815 votes were cast on 239 polling stations, and a majority of 43.8% voted in favour of East Bengal. There were protests regarding bogus votes, however, the referendum was acknowledged by Article 3 of the India Independence Act of 18 July 1947.
As a result of the referendum, Sylhet became part of East Pakistan and was included in the Chotrogram division.
Beyond the Muslim (90%), Hindu (7%) and Buddhist (less than 1%) population which constitute the vast majority of Sylhetis, there are also more than 100,000 indigenous people - making up 1.5% of Sylhet Division’s population. The main ethnic groups in Sylhet are Khasi, Manipuri, Garo, Patro, Bishnupriya, Tripura and Santal. They are spread out throughout Sylhet and generally live below the poverty line.
As a result of the 1971 Mukhtijuddho (Independence War of Bangladesh) East Pakistan became the newly formed independent country of Bangladesh - and Sylhet became it's third major city after Dhaka and Chotrogram.
Located on the banks of the Surma nodi, Sylhet has a growing population of 500,000 people while also having a high population density. It is surrounded by Indian states of Meghalaya in the north, Assam in the east, Tripura in the south and the Bangladesh districts of Netrokona, Kishoregonj and Brahmanbaria in the west.
The area covered by Sylhet Division is 12,569 km², which is about 8% of the total land area of Bangladesh.
A number of great personalities like Rabindranath Tagore, Poet Nazrul, Mahatma Gandhi, Moulana Mohammad Ali, Moulana Shaokat Ali, Hossain Shahid Suhrawardy, Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Haque and Manik Bandopadhyay visited Sylhet on different occasions.
Iqbal Siddiquee, Journalist
During the 1983-84 period Greater Sylhet was divided into four new districts or zillas:
On 1 August 1995 Sylhet was declared as the 6th division of the country - 'Sylhet Bibhag' or Greater Sylhet. This new division along with Barisal, Chittagong, Dhaka, Khulna, Rajshahi, and Rangpur makes up the whole of Bangladesh.
Sylhet Bibhag is commonly referred to as just 'Sylhet'. This can arouse confusion, specially amongst non-Sylhetis since the city is called Sylhet, a district (zilla) is also called Sylhet and now the division (bibhag) is also called Sylhet!
Greater Sylhet is made up of four districts and has 12 upazillas (subdistricts), 35 thanas/upazillas (sub-districts), 323 union parishad, and 10,185 villages. It has approximately 10 million people, which is less than 7% of the total population of Bangladesh.
Sylhet Sadar is the largest of these twelve upazillas.
On 9 April 2001 Sylhet city was upgraded into City Corporation having been a municipality since 1878, i.e. for 123 years. However, the Sylhet municipal board itself was established eleven years earlier in 1867.
Seven years after gaining Corporation status, on 31 March 2009, it was granted metropolitan city status along with Barisal.
Metropolitan city, or metropolis, is a term generally used to represent a large urban city. By becoming established as a metropolis in 2009, Sylhet became acknowledged nationally and internationally as a center of economic, political and cultural importance to Bangladesh.
The main economic development of Sylhet Bibhag is carried out by British Bangladeshis, commonly referred to as 'Londoni'. Over 95% of the bengalis in Britain come from the Sylhet region and they invest largely to the development of Sylhet.
During the fiscal year of 2005-06, the flow of remittances increased by 25 % to $4.8 billion, mostly from expatriates of Sylheti origin living in the United Kingdom with significant contributions from expatriates in the United States. That amount was expected to increase to $5.5 billion in 2007, with the government's attention toward supervising and monitoring banks.
The construction industry in Sylhet is currently booming, with many shopping centres and apartments being built to luxurious standards. The skyline of the city is mainly dominated by large buildings of western-style shopping malls, which has been the largest investments made by the expatriates. There are many new restaurants and stores, often themed on those found in London, which have been established to cater to the visiting Sylheti expatriate population and the growing Sylheti middle classes. These include, Garden Tower in Uposhohor, the London Mansion, Sylhet Millennium, Blue Water (named after Bluewater Shopping Complex in the UK), London Fried Chicken (from Perfect Fried Chicken) and Tessco (misspelt from the original Tesco).
New hotels have been established, the Rose View Hotel (in Uposhohor) and the first Apartment-Hotel and resort in Bangladesh, called Grand Sylhet (near Osmani International Airport), are both the only five-star hotels in the city.
But,new matters of concern are awaiting the people here. The geologists and other scientists say the Sylhet region falls within the most earthquake prone zone of the country. During the last 150 years three major earthquakes (surface-wave magnitude larger than 7.5 on the Richter Scale ) have occurred in this area. But local people are not that aware of the seismic status of the region. Since the last catastrophic earthquake occurred in 1918, very few people remember it.
The experts clearly say a strong earthquake affecting a major urban centre like Sylhet may result in damage and destruction of massive proportions and may have very long term consequences for the entire country. Like most major urban centres in our country, Sylhet has grown tremendously in the last few decades due to unabated migration from the smaller towns and rural areas. As a result, the city has developed in an unplanned way with little consideration for proper town planning norms. Moreover, about 80 per cent of the buildings were constructed without following the building code.
Iqbal Siddiquee, Journalist
In order to foster greater cultural and commercial tie many cities across the world will link up and become 'Sister cities' or 'Twin towns'. This is usually a community led partnership though support are also provided by the government.
May Allah bless Sylhet and our People. Ameen.
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