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Early History (3rd Century BCE-Beginning of 4th Century CE)

The early history of Bengal is obscure. The excavations at ‘Pandu Rajar Dhibi’ in Burdwan, West Bengal, although speak of a pre-Aryan civilization have revealed yet very little information about the political or socio-economic picture of the people. The Vedic literature beyond mentioning some ethnic groups such as the Pundras, Vangas, Suhmas etc gives us no idea about the general political condition. The existence of the Gangaridae of the Greek and Latin writers is still a legend. The recent archaeological excavations at Chandraketugarh in the north 24 Pargana District of West Bengal, and Wari-Bateswar– two villages in the Narsingdi District, and the earlier excavations at Bangarh and Mahasthangarh only suggest that Bengal had connections with the Mauriyan history at least from the 3rd century BCE. Although some archaeologists suggest that Wari Bateswar site, originally on the Bank of the old Brahmaputra, was probably the eastern limit of the Mauriyan empire, nothing more is yet known. Of the five occupational periods of Chandrakatugarh excavation remains, period III has been assigned by archaeologists to Kushanas (1st century BCE-2nd century CE) with some Greco-Roman affiliation, and the next two to Guptas and Palas respectively with little or conjectural information only. Sunga connections (2nd century BCE-1st century BCE) have also been suggested with terracotta figurines at Mahasthan, Bangarh and Gitagram in Murshidabad District, but all end in a guess-work and hypothesis.

The Gupta Rule (Beginning of the 4th Century CE-Middle of the 6th Century CE)

Bengal came to a better picture from the time of the imperial Guptas who ruled from Magadha (South Bihar). It has been known that during the rule of the second emperor, Samudra Gupta, Bengal came under the sovereignty of the Guptas at the beginning of the 4th century CE, and it lasted till the middle of the 6th century. Though very little is known about their activities in relation to Bengal during this period some important facts about the early geo-political divisions of the land


The Mahavihara of Paharpur

became clear thanks to the modern researches. These are the janapada divisions. The divisions marked by the river system, although not always clearly defined because of the changing nature of the courses, gave us a historical direction which regulated the history of Bengal till the time of the Mughals, and play a role even today. The earliest of these divisions as has been known from the contemporary literary and inscriptional references are the Pundravardhana between the Korotoya and the Ganges (western part of which later came to prominence as Varendra), the Vanga to the south of the Ganges, and the Samatata to it’s east between the Brahmaputra- Meghna including the Padma of the Ganges and the down-range of the Himalyays. To these divisions were further added in course of time the Gauda to the east and south of the Ganges overlapping perhaps the western part of Vanga and the western part of Pundravardhana, Radha or Ladhas (occasionally Uttar and Dakshin Radhas) on the west of Bhagirathi, a major channel of the Ganges to the sea, and Harikela to the east of the Brahmaputra, described by Chinese I-tsing in the latter half of the 7th century as the eastern limit of India. Gauda as a political entity emerges from obscurity towards the end of the Guptas, and is distinguished according to Brhat- Samhita of Varahmihir (6th century CE) not only from Pundra, Tamraliptika (part of Midnapur District), Vanga and Samatata, but also from Vardhamana. The Gauda kingdom founded by Xaxanka on the ruins of the Gupta empire had it’s capital in Karnasuvarna, now in the Murshidabad District of West Bengal. Although Vanga and Samatata, and Vanga and Harikela are sometimes considered by present day historians as ‘synonymous’, earlier historical writings including those of Lama Taranatha (early 17th century CE) who wrote with authority on the Palas and Chandras to be described hereafter indicate that they were distinct and separate.

But before Xaxanaka of Gauda we have the names of some petty independent rulers in the Samatata area, known from inscriptional sources.

Of them the name of Vainya Gupta according to historical time-line comes first. We know from the Gunaighar grant of Maharaja Xri Vainyagupta, probably a schion of the Gupta family, that he was ruling Samatata from his capital at Kripura in CE 507-508 with the title Dvadasaditya. Kripura has not yet been identified, but Gunaighar has been. It is a large village, comparatively on a higher plane, in the present Devidwar Upazilla of Comilla District, and lies about 17.7 km north-west of Mainamati near the Gumati river, a tributary of the Meghna. Since the name ‘Kripura’ is very close to Tripura, the older name of Comilla, it is likely that it was situated somewhere within the district, if not Gunaighar itself. The place is now famous for pan (bettle-leaf) cultivation. The capital is known to have been equipped with necessary defence arrangements including a navy. Vainyagupta is known to have been a patron of both Hindu and Buddhist religious establishments a character of tolerance and liberalism which appear to exist in almost all the subsequent rules of Samatata.

Of the other rulers we have the names of Gopachandra, Dharmaditya and Samacharadeva preserved in six copper-plates. They do not seem to belong to the

same dynasty, but their whereabouts are little known except that they ruled from Kotalipara, now in the Gopalganj District of greater Faridpur.

Xaxanka and His Gauda ‘Empire’ (c. 606-637 CE)

Xaxanka occupies a ‘prominent place’ in the history of Bengal. Unlike the four kings of Samatata we have just mentioned he was more than a mere name in history. But our information about him is still scanty, and more conjectural. What has come out from the sources, mainly a seal matrix in the rock of the hill-fort of Rohtasgarh, and Banabhatta’s Harsa-Charita and the account of the Chinese pilgrim Hieun Tsang is that he rose from the position of a Xri-Mahasamanta, probably a vassal of the Guptas, to an independent ruler (c. 606-637 CE) described as the ‘first known king of Bengal’. Of his achievements are included the extension of his territory towards the west ‘far beyond the geographical boundary of Bengal’, and his successful sustenance against the Maukhauri and the Thaneswar rulers, the most powerful adversaries of the time. He has, however, been charged as a Œhaiva ruler with oppressing the Buddhists, and it was due to this oppression, according to Hieun Tsang, that Buddhism declined during his rule, to be rejuvenated again and coming to the full fruition during the rule of the Palas and their contemporaries in the Samatata.

During a century after the death of Xaxanka, Bengal had been in a period of matsyanaya or ‘practice of fishes’ meaning a time of confusion, in other words where might alone was the right. Out of such a situation the Prakritis (subjects or petty chieftains) choose Gopala, an able military personnel, destined to be the founder of a dynastic rule which lasted for over four centuries.

The Rulers of Samatata (c. 650-1150 CE)

Khadgas. Before the rise of the Palas (c. 756-1143 CE) and it seems immediately after the fall of Xaxanka about the middle of the 7th century Samatata saw the emergence of a chain of ruling dynasties, at least seven in number, which ruled the region for about five hundred years. Of them according to chronology the Khadgas comes first. The names of four of the Khadga rulers are known from three coper-plates of which two have been found at Ashrafur (47 km north-east of Dhaka), one in Mainamati, and an inscribed image at Deulbadi (22 km south of Comilla). The names as are mentioned in these sources are Khadgodyama, Jatakhadga, Devakhadga and Balabhatta. The names of Devakhadga’s wife as Prabhavati and son as Rajarajabhatta are also known from them. The first two plates were issued from the royal camp of Karmanta-Vasaka, identified with modern Barkamta or Chandina of Comilla District on the Dhaka- Chittagong highway, and the third one from Katakaœila (within the jayaskandavara (camp-city) of Devaparvata), now identified with the Mainamati Palace Mound on the left of the Dhaka-Brahmanbaria highway. From the the inscriptions it appears that Barkamta was their first capital, but the second and more important plage was

Devaparvata on the Ksiroda river, founded by the most powerful of the rulers Balabhatta. Ksiroda river was on the west side of Mainamati traces of which still remain on the west of the Rupban Mura.

A further information about the Khadga rulers is known from the Tippera copper-plate of Lokanatha which speaks of a line of feudatory chiefs under them.

Ratas. Khadgas were followed by the Ratas of whom again we have little knowledge except that originally they were vassals of the Khadgas, and later snatched power from them establishing their capital at Devaparvata itself. The founder of the Rata dynasty was Nrpa Jibadharana Rata. Two of his successors were successively Xridharana Rata and Baladharana Rata. In the Kailan Plate of Xridharana Rata (found in Kailan village near Comilla, now in the Barura Upazilla) Devaparvata has been styled as sarvatobhadraka probably because of it’s square or rectangular plan with four gates facing the cardinal points, or because all it’s great temples within the countryards of it’s monasteries were cruciform in shape spreading their arms in all four directions. The city is stated to have been encircled by the river Ksiroda ‘as if by a moat’, and poetically described as a ‘wild beauty of enchanting environment and happiness of nature’ with both banks adorned by ‘cluster of boats’.

Devas. Immediately after the Khadgas and reigning for about half a century (c. 700­ 750 CE) there were another dynastic rule in Samatata titled Devas. Their names are found in three copper-plates of which two are from the Salban Vihara and the third one originally from the Ananda Vihara but now preserved in the Asiatic Society library of Kolkata. The two viharas are the largest so far discovered in the Mainamati area and constitute the largest monastic structures in Bengal before the Somapura Vihara at Paharpur. The names of the rulers as have been discovered from these plates are recorded as Xri Œantideva, his son Viradeva, and Xri Anandadeva, his son Xri Bhavadeva. Coins in their names have also been found abundantly in the excavated Salban Vihara. It is not known what was their relation with the Khadgas, but the portrayal of the rulers as ‘great warriors’ and their adoption of the title of the Khadga kings as Xri Bhangala Mrgankasya on the seal of their plates below the Dharma Chakra emblem, prove that they overthrew the Khadgas and took power from them. The similarity in the construction system and design of the great three viharas viz. the Salban Vihara, the Ananda Vihara and the Bhoja Vihara, and the construction of a multitude of ‘other civil and religious buildings’ including the famous ratnatraya shrines of Kutila Mura and Rupaban Mura all within a circle of about 1-2 km perimeter in the Mainmati plateau establish ‘beyond doubt that this was indeed the capital site of the Deva dynasty, the Devaparvata of the Khadga rulers’ retaken by the former. The Anandadeva copper-plate further informs that the powerful ruler owning the plate built an alternate capital named Vasantapura, still unidentified, after the invasion of ‘a strong enemy force’ before the 39th year of his reign.

Dattas (?). The Chittagong plate of Kantideva introduces into another line of kings who ruled over the Samatata area in the 9th century CE. The plate refers to three generations of a Buddhist family. Bhadradatta, his son Dhanadatta and the latter’s son Kantideva of whom only the last named one is known with royal titles. It is likely that they were the successors of the Deva dynasty, and if it was so the time period of the Deva rulers must have been more to include some part of the latter half of the eighth century also. The Bhadradatta family is known to have ruled a region known as the Harikela, generally identified with Sylhet and the eastern region of Samatata including Chittagong. Since the copper-plate was issued from Vardhamanpura, still unidentified, it has been suggested that this could be the capital of this line of rulers. The reference in the Chandra records that they (the Chandras) captured power from the Harikela Kings represented at the present state of knowledge only by Kantideva make him the predecessor of the Chandra kings whose rule is clearer than any of the other dynastic rules in the region.

Chandras. The Chandras whose unbroken rule of about 150 years from c. 900 CE to

c. 1050 CE, the longest in the history of a dynastic rule in eastern Bengal constitute a glorious epoch of Bengal history ranking only after the imperial rule of the Palas and the Senas of the time. The story of their friendly relations with the Palas, coupled with their struggle against the Gauda and Kamrupa prove their strength and power and the extent of their dominion. Originally they rose from a small principality in Rohitagiri (Lalmai), but gradually they established themselves in the entire Samatata including Harikela (Sylhet) in the north-east and Chandradvipa (Barisal) in the south. Their capital was at Vikrampur, now in the Munshiganj District. The history of the dynastic rule has been traced by the discovery of five copper-plates, three of which from Mainamati, and one each from Sylhet and Dhaka. From the inscriptions of these plates the names of five rulers have been deciphered with certainty, beside the names of two of their ancestors Purnachandra and Suvarnachandra whose ascendancy could not be established. The names of the rulers chronologically are Trailokyachandra, Xrichandra, Kalyanchandra, Ladahachandra and Govindachandra. The rulers although were devout Buddhists appear to have a learning towards Brahmanical religion. The discovery of some land grants in favour of ‘Ladaha Madhava’ (Visnu) and the installation of Ladahachandra’s favorite deity Vasudeva by himself in a temple now identified with Charpatra Mura in Mainamati-Devaparvata speak of their regard for the religion and their patronage to it. Devaparvata although no longer was their capital, it still remained by all indications an important city under them till the end of their rule.

Varmanas. Chandra kings were succeeded by a new Brahmamical dynasty, the Varmanas whose origins are not clear and traced variously to the north of the salt Ranges in the Punjab, to Kalinga in Orissa and to Radha, the probability being more in favour of Kalinga. The four names of the rulers found in their copper-plates of the

last three rulers are chronologically Jatvarmana, Harivarmana, Œamalvarmana, and Bhojavarmana. The period of their rule has been estimated from the end of the 11th century to the middle of the 12th century, to be more specific between the years c. 1080 to c. 1150, when they were driven away by the expanding Sena rule. Like their predecessors the Chandras, the Varamanas were liberal in religious views and granted land to Buddhist temples and devotees.

Towards the end of the 12th century CE and the beginning of the 13th we hear from Burmese and Arakanese sources of another kingdom, named ‘Pattikera’. This is confirmed by the discovery of a copper-plate of king Rana Vankamalla Harikeladeva and a large number of silver coins bearing the Pattikera legend and the ‘bull and triratna symbols’ in the Mainamati excavation finds. In the copper-plate (dated 1220 CE) king Harikeladeva has been mentioned as ruling from Pattikera, his capital, now suggested to be a place in the outskirts of Devaparvata, the former capital of the Devas, and also probably of the Chandras. According to the plate Pattikera was ‘adorned with forts and monasteries’.

The Rule of the Imperial Palas (c. 756-1143 CE)

Of the Palas we have much more information than any of other contemporary or near contemporary rulers. Their janakabhu (ancestral home) was at Varendri, a smaller area included in Pundravardhana. The names of 17 rulers have been discovered from inscriptional sources, and they have been put comfortably in a lineal chronology. Gopala, the founder of the dynasty, emerged as has been noticed out of matsyanaya and put his efforts to consolidate the dynasty in a period of about 25 years time (c. 756-81 CE). He assumed power at a comparatively older age, and after his death was succeeded by Dharmapala his son through his wife Deddadevi. Dharmapala was the greatest of the Pala rulers. He ruled for forty years (c. 781-821 CE) and during this long time put his dynasty in a consolidated position to establish a dynastic rule which lasted through ups and down till the middle of the 12th century (c. 1143 CE). The greatest contribution of the Pala rule, beside their being a great power in eastern India, was to their religion Buddhism and it’s associated culture. The number of Buddhist establishments including monasteries they erected were many and in an overall assessment put them as great patrons of architecture. Following the collapse of the Gupta power, Buddhism started to gain an ascendancy again, and rose to it’s climax in the Pala rule, of which the erection of the Somapura Vihara, one of the greatest monastic establishments in the world must be looked upon as an evidence.

Although zealous to their religion, the Palas were munificent to Hinduism also as is known from the erection of Brahmaical temples in different parts of their empire including Pundranagara. It may perhaps be an exaggeration to say that the Palas extended their sway upto Punjab in the West, the Deccan in the South and Assam in the east as is recorded in different inscriptions, but the fact that they ruled for hundreds

of years in a vast tract of unsettled historical geography at once place them in the most glorious period of Bengal history, and ranks them amongst the greatest ruling dynasties in Northern India.

The Senas (c. 1097-1223 CE)

The Senas were the last of the independent dynasties who ruled over the whole of ancient Bengal comprising all the early janapadas. Towards the close of the 11th century when the Pala empire was shaken by the revolt of the Samantachakra during the reign of Mahipala II (c. 1075-1080 CE) they started to rise to power gradually supplanting the Varmanas in south-eastern Bengal and pushing out the Palas from northern and western Bengal to south Bihar. They were of external origin and came to Bengal from Karnata in south India, the Kanarese speaking region of the modern Mysore and Andhra pradesh. It is mentioned in the Sena records that they were Brahma-Ksatriyas meaning Brahmanas first and Ksatriyas afterwards. Samantasena is the first historical figure of the dynasty who settled in Radha on the bank of the Ganges as an ascetic. His son Hementasena possibly succeeded in gaining some footing in the region. The title of Maharajadhiraja attributed to his son Vijaysena who ruled for more than sixty years (1097-1160 CE) proves that it was under him that the Senas were already in power and firmly established. His dominion is stated to have comprised of Kamrupa, Kalinga, Mithila, Kausambhi and Gauda. Vikrampur near Dhaka was one of his jayaskandhavaras from where he issued all his land grants, now important source for the history of his reign. His son Vallalasena who ruled for about 18 years (c.1160-1178 CE) is credited by tradition as having introduced the practice of ‘Kulinism’ (a system of nobility among the Brahmanas, Vaidyas and Kayasthas). His ill-fated son Laksmansena was the last of the important rulers of Sena dynasty. His rule of 28 years (c. 1178-1206 CE) known from his own inscriptional and other sources of the time depict him as a ruler of peaceful pursuits. He himself was a poet and some of his verses are preserved in Saduktikarnamrta, an anthology of Sanskrit verses composed during his reign. His court was graced by a number of famous poets such as Jayadeva, the author of Gitagovinda, Sarana, Dhoyi the author of Pavanaduta, and probably also Govardhana. It was, however, unfortunate of Laksmansena that when it was under his rule the Senas reached their glorious period of history both politically and culturally, it was also under him that the dynasty came almost to it’s close bringing not only the end of the Buddhist- Brahmanical rule in Bengal but also ushering a new period of history marking the end of the ancient and the beginning of the mediaeval in India as a whole. The actor of this final drama was Ikhtiyaruddin Muhammad bin Bukhtiyar Khalji, a young Turk and a brilliant strategist under the command of Muizuddin bin Sam, the Ghorid ruler in Delhi. Ikhtiyaruddin according to Minhaj the author of Tabaqat-i- Nasiri, invaded Nudia, the camp-city of Laksmansena, on a fateful summer day in 1204 CE suddenly and captured it driving the old ruler out of the city. Laksmansena

fled towards the east and probably spent the rest of his life there. Two of his successors, Viœvarupasena (c. 1204-1220 CE) and Kesabasena (c. 1220-1223 CE) who held precariously for a few years more on the eastern part of the empire soon faded in history.

The history of Bengal from the legend of Gangaridae to the early thirteenth century although with little information at the beginning may be said to have formed as a whole a glorious chapter of it’s journey. Although quite a few of it’s rulers came outside from what is now known as Bengal, most of it’s ruling dynasties including those of the Palas and the Samatata rulers originated in the soil of the country and played a dominant role in shaping the political and cultural destiny of the land. That most of the rulers of these dynasties were religiously tolerant and patrons of architecture is testified by their land grants to the opposing communities for religious purposes, and the erection of temples and monasteries within the same precincts. Architecturally the period was so glorious that the temples and monasteries of the time received not only enthusiastic acclamation from the writings of the contemporary foreign travellers but also was responsible for spreading it’s influence to South-East Asia where some of the great extant examples stand today as a proud reminiscence of their predecessors in Bengal.

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