History’s muse: Shahabad

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Literally meaning ‘ a city or land of the emperor’,Shahabad is said to have got its name after the subjugation of the area by the Mughal dynsty founder, Emperor Babar, in 1529 following his victory over the Afghans. The name was also subsequently given to the Sarkar; that is, the revenue-administrative unit of the Mughals.

The name continued in both official and common parlance with respect to the district formed by the name, Shahabad, in 1787 under the collectorship of William Augustus Brooke who was, to use the acclaimed writer William Dalrymple’s famous book title, A White Mughal by virtue of marrying an Indian woman.

The region of Shahabad was originally a part of Magadh since the time of Emperor Ashoka. With the passage of time, Cheros and eventually Rajput migrants from Ujjain came to dominate the area.

The area was earlier a part of the Mauryan Empire as is evidenced by the Ashokan edict at Sasaram.

Going further back into antiquity, Ara – Shahabad’s principal city – is believed to have derived its name for Aryana (forest), the name said to have given to then forested region by the five sons of Pandu – the Pandavas, who are believed to have married Draupadi in these forests!

British explorer Alexander Cunningham, however, held that Ara’s original name was Aramnagar.

Buxar, another important place in Shahabad, is held to be a prominent Brahmanical site having two different accounts of its origin. One legend says that Buxar originally called Vedagarbha, meaning ‘womb of the vedas’. This name is attributable to the many resident holy men believed to have authored the Vedas in these parts.

The other legend traces Buxar’s name to a pond called Baghsar. Located near the Gaurishankar Temple, this tank was originally called ‘Aghsar’, or effacer of sin. The change in name is mired in an interesting legend: Sage Durvasa doomed Sage Bedisara to retain his form as a tiger into which bathing in the Aghsar pond and worshipping at the Gaurishankar Temple. And the spot, consequently, came to be called Vyaghsar or Baghsar; that is tiger tank.

Sasaram too takes its name from an interesting legend. The name Sahasram signifies hold your breath, a thousand toys or playthings! A certain ‘asur’, or demon, with a thousand arms is believed to have lived here. In each arm, he is said to have held a separate plaything!

In 1972, Shahabad district was bifurcated into Bhojpur and Rohtas districts with the district head-quarters at Ara and Sasaram, respectively. Rohtas district was further truncated in 1991 with the creation of Kaimur district with the headquarters at Bhabhua. In 1992, Bhojpur district too was divided with the creation of Buxar as a separate district. A town by the same name was made the district headquarters of the new district.

The districts in Shahabad contain monuments steeped in mythology and history. The area was once a stronghold of Jainism as is evidenced by several Jain shrines in and around Ara. For instance, the Jain temple at Dhanpura outside Ara was built in 1845.

A number of images of the Tirthankars Neminath, Rishabhanath and others have been discovered in the area. The find of the Kalpavriksha (tree) with a fine sculpture and the Dharma Chakra, excavated from Chausa near Buxar, points to the influence of Jainism in the 3rd Century CE.

Many of the Jain relics belonging to the period between the 3rd and 9th centuries are now served at the Patna Museum.

A large diaspora spread from the West Indies to Mauritius nearer home traces their roots to Shahabad from where they took nothing as indentured labour but a strong legacy of the Bhojpuri language and culture to metamorphose into a new identity and lifestyle where traditions from their Shahabad roots married varying influences. The forefathers of the father of Mauritius, the late Seewosagar Ramgoolam, belonged to Harigaon village in Bhojpur district.

Bhojpuri was first mentioned as a Bhojpuria language in 1789, the year of the landmark French revolution. Interestingly, our migrants from Shahabad absorbed a lot of French influences in Mauritius.

Incidentally, Shahabad’s first collector William Augustus Brooke was not Shahabad’s sole White Mughal. John Deane, who was Shahabad’s first collector at the end of the 18th century, had a Muslim wife by whom the Maula Bagh mosque was endowed. He died in 1817 and was buried in the outer garden of this mosque.

Two heroes of Indian history – Sher Shah Suri and Babu Kuer Singh – were Shahbad men. So, too, was the shehnai, maestro Bharat Ratna Bismillah Khan who was born in Dumraon which now falls in Buxar district.

Speaking of Dumraon, a big idol of Vishnu in the garden of the erstwhile local Maharaja is popularly called the image  of Bansura which probably belonged to the Gupta period.

Close to Dumaon, about 4 km away, lies a village which is also called Bhojpur. It derived its name from Raja Bhoj of Ujjain. He invaded and subjugated the Cheros who ruled these parets.

Bihia is remembered as the place where iron roller sugar mills worked by bullock power were introduce by the inventors,Messrs Thomson & Mylne, who were the grantees of the confiscated estate of Babu Kuer Singh.

A modern Shaivite temple at Baidyanath, about 9 km from Ramgarh, is acrually on the site where the remnants of an old shrine – a medley of sculptures – were discovered in 1882. Several sculpted obelisks and pillars were also found in the vicinity.