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Thibaut d'Hubert

Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, Middle Bengali became a major idiom of literary expression in the kingdom of Arakan. It is within the domain of this coastal kingdom, which then comprised the region of Chittagong in today’s Bangladesh, that Muslim subjects of the Buddhist kings started using the courtly vernacular that was previously cultivated by Hindu dignitaries of the Ḥusayn Shāhī sultans of Bengal. By the mid-17th century, which constituted a moment of economic prosperity and maximum territorial expansion, all genres of Middle Bengali poetry were represented in the corpus of texts written by authors living in the urban and rural areas of the kingdom. The many treatises on Muslim beliefs and meditative practices, the hagiographic literature, and the courtly romances testify to the formation of a local Islamic cultural ethos. After the Mughal conquest of Chittagong in 1666, local literacy was still cultivating standards set by authors of the Arakanese period such as Saiẏad Sultān and Ālāol. In Arakan itself, Bengali Muslim literature continued to be produced and transmitted until at least the first half of the twentieth century. A large number of manuscripts was collected in the first decades of the twentieth century and these are preserved in various institutions in Bangladesh. The Bengali literature of Arakan is characterized by its Indic religious idiom and Sanskritized poetics, but also by its complex intertextuality that reflects the region’s connections with north India and the Persianate trading networks of the Bay of Bengal. Up to the 2000s, the Bengali literature of Arakan has mostly been discussed within the framework of the national literary history of Bangladesh, but subsequently scholars have relocated this corpus within the cultural domain of the Bay of Bengal and the Islamicate literary traditions of South and Southeast Asia.


Theravada Buddhist polities in ancient Southeast Asia comprised kingdoms located in present-day Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. Theravada Buddhism became influential in mainland Southeast Asia in the 11th century. Little information exists on the economy of daily life during that period; existing records from 1100 until 1600 mainly deal with administrative and religious affairs, from which some information about the economy can be extracted. These mainland Buddhist polities are typically described as practicing “redistributive economic systems,” a term that Karl Polanyi used to refer to geopolitical entities in which the primary source of subsistence is agriculture, and an administrative center, usually located in the capital, collects revenue from taxes on agricultural production, trade, and other specialized activities that are owned or controlled by the central government or other designated authorities, such as religious orders. The redistributive model is contrasted with the market economies of maritime port polities such as those in insular Southeast Asia. This binary opposition is, however, overstated, as demonstrated by diversity found in mainland Southeast Asia, where some polities relied both on agriculture and maritime trade. Polanyi’s model does not satisfactorily account for the diversity of the Theravada Buddhist polities of Myanmar and Thailand. Some scholars from Redfield and Singer to Miksic have constructed more elaborate models including the orthogenetic versus heterogenetic spectrum, on the basis of Polanyi’s thought but which attempt to utilize polythetic rather than monothetic concepts and scalar rather than stadial classifications.