Early kingdoms in Bengal

Between the seventh and thirteenth centuries, Bengal saw a number of independent kings and also came under the control of powerful dynasties such as the Pala and Sena dynasties.

In south-eastern Bengal, independent kingdoms such as those controlled by the Khadga, deba, Harikela, Chandra and Varman rulers had great influence.

At a glance: early kingdoms in Bengal

Western and northern Bengal

South-eastern Bengal

Shashanka Empire: 600-625 ADPala Dynasty: 756—1098 AD Independent kingdoms of :

Vanga: 6th century

AD Khadga: 7th century

AD Deva Dynasty: 8th century

AD Hrikela: 9th century

AD Chandras: 10th—11th century

AD Varman: 11th century AD

Sena Dynasty: 1098-1204 AD

The Empire of Shashanka

The first Bengal kingdom

Shashanka (c. 600 AD-625 AD) was the first independent king of ancient Bengal. Until he came to power, Bengal was ruler and he not only established the first Bengal kingdom, but also extended his political influence well beyond the boundaries of Bengal.

Extending political influence

Shashaqnka first established himself in Gauda, the north-western region of Bengal, and made kornosubora in Murshidabad his capital. He gradually extended his authority in Orissa, parts of Central Provinces as well as in Bihar, though his attempts to establish his authority further north lasted for only a short period.

However, the most important contribution of Shashanka in the history of Bengal was that he defended the independence of the Guada empire against a very powerful northern Indian adversary, Harsavardhana.

For a king of Bengal, it was a great show of strength to have ventured into northern Indian politics. so he can be seen as the first important king of Bengal, who for the first time brought her into competition with other states for control of northern India.

In this sense, he was the forerunner of the aggressive northern Indian policy of the later Pala rulers such as Dharmapala and Devapala.  

Religious controversy

Shashanka was probably a follower of Hinduism. His main political enemy, Harsavardhana, was Buddhist. Therefore some writers close to Harsavardhana have depicted Shashanka as a persecutor of Buddhists. For instance, Hiuen Tsang, a famous Chinese tourist of the time, remarked that Harsavardhana was born to punish Shashanka, a hater of Buddhist religion. But evidence suggests it is not true that Shashanka persecuted Buddhists.

There was  for example, a flourishing Buddhist University at Nalanda where Hiuen Tsang himself studied for some time, as well as a number of Buddhist monasteries in Shashanka’s kingdom, including the Raktamrttika-Mahavihara near Karnasuvarna, the capital city of Shashanka.

The Pala Dynasty

Condition of Bengal before the emergence of the Palas: disorder

After the death of shashanka, there was a period when no one strong leader dominated and there were few kings who were able to rule for more than a year. Bengal also came under attack form foreign invaders. this state of lawlessness and disorder caused by internal as well as external forces lasted for more than an hundred years until the Palas took control of Bengal.

The period between the fall of Shashanka and the rise of the Palas has been described in some sources as matsyanyayam. This means complete lawlessness arising out of the absence of a strong ruling power capable of enforcing law and order.


Early kingdoms in Bengal

Gopala: bringing an end to disorder

This period of disorder was finally brought to an end by Gopala (c. 756-781 AD). He not only brought an end to a long spell of disunity and chaos in Bengal, but also established the Pala Dynasty, which successfully ruled Bengal for about four hundred years.

Gopala is said to have been elected by local people who wanted him to bring an end to the disorder in Bengal. Gopala did not disappoint. During his rule of about 25 years (c.756-781), he not only ended the matsanyayanm, but seems to have consolidated the rule of his dynasty to such an extent that his son and successor, Dharmapala, could embark upon a policy of expansion.

We do not have adequate sources to know about the details of Gopala’s reign, but some historians believed that he annexed almost the whole area of north and east Bengal, though south-east Bengal remained outside his control.

Dharmapala: the greatest ruler of the pala Dynasty?

The son and successor of Gopala, Dharmapala (781-821 AD), was the second and considered to be the greatest ruler of the pala Dynasty of Bengal. He not only consolidated his power in Bengal, but also extended his kingdom from Bengal to Bihar. It is possible that Dharamapala extended his sphere of influence as far as the north Indian region of Kanauj.

Dharmapala was a Buddhist. He is credited with the foundation of the Vikramshila monastery, which was one of the most important Buddhist seats of learning in India form the 9th to the 12th dentures AD. Somapura Mahavihara at Paharpur was also a creation of dharmapala.

He was equally enthusiastic in his patronage of the Brahmanical shrines. He followed a policy of religious toleration and mutual co-existence of different religions, which was one of the glorious legacies of Pala rule in Bengal.

A glimpse of Bengal under dharmapala is reflected in the accounts of Arab geographers and merchants like Sulaiman (died 851 AD), Ibn Khurdadhbeh (died 912 AD), Idrisi (born end of 11th century AD) and Masudi (died 956 AD), who mention that the king of Bengal was engaged in a struggle with the Rastrakutas (Balhara) and the Gurjaraj (Jurz).

All of them mention Bengal’s flourishing sea-trade in the 9th and 10th centauries, in which the Arabs had a fairly dominant role. Hudud-ul-Alam, a Persian work (982-83 AD), records that Dharamapala (Dahum), did not regard anybody as greater than himself and had an army of 300,000.

Devapala: following the footsteps of his father

The third ruler of the pala Dynasty was devapala (821-861 AD), the son of Dharmapala, Devapala had a long reign and he proved to be a worthy successor of Dharmapala and, like him, made attempts to increase the influence of Bengal in the adjacent areas. He conquered a large area of northern India as well as Orissa and Kamarupa.

Devapala, a devout Buddhist, was a great patron of the religion and the famous Buddhist seat of learngin at Nalanda. He is known to have granted five villages to be endowed to the monastery built at Nalanda by Balaputradeva, the shailendra king of Java and Sumtra.

This shows Devapala’s friendly relationship with the rules of Buddhist kingdoms of South East Asia and the important position of Nalanda in the Buddhist world. Devapala was also the patron of Viradeva, whom he appointed to preside over the Nalanda monasteries.

Other Pala kings and the collapse of the empire

The period of pala dominance came to an end with the death of devapala, as later kings were weak and often fought amongst each other for the right to succeed. For the next hundred years, the Pala empire sharank in the face of foreign attacks, particularly by chandela and Kalchuri kings.

The reign of Mahipala I (995-1043 AD) brought back vitality and vigour and gave a second lease of life to the Pala Empire. He succeeded in recapturing lost territories in northern and western Bengal and restored Pala dynastic rule to a firmer footing.

Mahipala I captured a Place in popular imagination by his public welfare works and his name survived for a long period in ballads and folklore.

But Mahipala was not succeeded by strong kings, and after his death the Pala Empire once again began to decline. Foreign invasions led to the breaking up of the empire into small pieces and there was internal instability, including a rebellion known as the Kaivarta Rebellion in north Bengal.

Then, Ramapala (1082-1124 AD), succeeded in retrieving the position of the dynasty by recapturing northern Bengal and also extending his empire towards Orissa, Kamarupa and madhyadesha of northern India.

Ramapala tried to establish peace and discipline in Bengal and built Ramavati, the new capital, close toe modern-day Maldah. Much of what we know about Rampala comes from ramacharita, a biography written by Sanhakara Nandi, a poet of ancient Bengal.

However, the second lease of life which the Pala dynasty experienced under Rampala proved short-lived, and a series of weak kings were unable to prevent the collapse of the pala Dynasty.

Using the evidence

One of the most enjoyable parts of studying history is using information to argue a case. The text in the section tells us that Dharmapala was considered to be the greatest ruler of the Pala Dynasty. You are going to dispute this!

Prepare a speech lasting just one minute under the heading: Other Pala kings were much more important that dharmapala.

Make sure you find the right information to support your view.

The Sena Dynasty

The Sena Dynasty was established in Bengal as the power of the Pala Dynasty declined towards the end of the eleventh century. The Senas originally belonged to the Mysore to the Mysore region of South India, and they were Brahma-Ksatriyas (those who were Brahmanas (priests) first and became Ksatriyas (warriors) afterwards).

Samanta Sena: the founder

The founder of the Sena Dynasty in Bengal was Samanta sena, who first settled in Radha on the banks of the Ganges. However, as he did not actually establish a kingdom, he is not regarded as the first ruler of the sena Dynasty.

Hemanta Sena and Vijaya Sena: the first rulers

This honour belongs to his son, Hemanta Sena, who ruled as a feudal king under the Pala Emperor Ramapala. Hemanta Sena’s son, Jijaya Sena (1098 AD—1160 AD), at first also ruled as a feudal king under Rampala, but he gradually consolidated his position in Western Bengal and ultimately laid the foundation of the independent rule of the Senas.

Most probably, Vijaya Sena established his own supremacy in North and Norht Western Bengal by ousting the Palas sometime after 1152-53 AD. Vijaya Sena in also recorded to have extended his hold over Bihar in the west and Vanga (south-eastern Bengal) in the east. Vijaya Sena’s first capital was in Vijayapura and his second at Vikramapura in the Dhaka district.

Vallala Sena : Ends Pala Dynasty

Vijayasena was succeeded by his son, Vallala Sena (1160 AD—1178 AD). Since it was during his reign that the last pala ruler of Magadha, Govindapala, lost his kingdom, it is probable that Vallala Sena played a significant part in the downfall of the Pala dynasty. It is also known that during the lifetime of his father, Vallala Sena conquered Mithila.

Vallala Sena was a great scholar and renowned author. He wrote the danasagara in 1168 and started writing the Adbhutasagara in 1169 but could not complete it. Like his father, he was also a worshipper of Shiva. It is learnt from the Adbhutasagara that in his old age Vallala Sena left the responsibility of his son Lakshamana Sena. He and his wife spent their last days on the bank of the Ganges near Triveni.

Lakshmana Sena: disintegration of the dynasty

Lakshmana Sena succeeded his father in 1178, though he had already shown great skills as a warrior during his father’s reign, defeating the king of Gauda and Varanasi (Kasi) nad makgin expeditiona against Kamarupa and Kalinga.

Kakshmana Sena’s reign was famous for remarkable literary activities. He himself wrote many Sanskrit poems and completed the Adbhutasagara, which was started by his father. His court continued renowned poets like Jayadeva, the author of Gitagovinda, Dhoyi, the composer of Pavanduta and sharana. Lakshmana Sena was famous for his exceptional qualities and generosity.

He, however, became too weak to control the administration of his empire towards the close of his reign. During this time, there signs of disruption and disintegration within his kingdom. A number of independent chiefs seized power in different parts of the sena kingdom, which broke its solidarity and paved the way for its decline.

However, the major blow to Sena rule came when the Muslim ruler, Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khaliji, advanced into Bengal and defeated Lakshamana sena at Nadia in 1204 AD. Lakshama Sena Lost control of north and north-west Bengal and for the final two years of his life he ruled only east Bengal.

After the death of Laksmanasena in 1206 AD, his sons Vishvarupa Sena and Keshava Sena tried to restore Sena power, but it was the death of their father which really marked the end of Sena rule in Bengal.

The independent kingdoms of South-East Bengal

Until the rise of the Sena Dynasty, the whole of Bengal did not come under one central rule. Though powerful kings mentioned earlier, such as shashanka nd dharmapala, consolidated their power in western and northern Bengal, they were more interested in extending their rule further north in India than in the rest of Bengal. So until the arrival of the senas, a number of independent kingdoms existed in south-eastern Bengal.

As early as the first half of the sixth century AD, south-eastern Bengal saw the establishment of an independent kingdom, the kingdom of Vanga.

In the second half of the 7th century AD, when the later Guptas captured power in Gauda (western Bengal), south-eastern Bengal was controlled by the khadga kings. We know about three generations of Khadga kings who were ruling Samtata(Comilla-Noakhali area), with their capital at Karmanta-Vasaka (identified with Badkamta near  Comilla).

South-eastern Bengal emerged as a kingdom of considerable size and strength under the Deva Dynasty in the 8th century AD, with its capital at Devaparvata (probably a city in the Mainamati-Lalmai area). Four generations of rulers (shantideva, Viradeva, Anandadeva and Bhavadeva) ruled Samatata and they were contemporaries of the early Pala kings, who controlled northern and western Bengal and Bihar.

The Devas were Buddhists, and under their patronage the Mainamati area rose to prominence as an important Buddhist cultural centre. The remains unearthed through archaeological excavations at Mainamati prove the existence of a few Buddhist Viharas (Buddhist religious and educational establishments)—namely, Shalvan Vihrara, Ananda Vihara and Bhoja Vihara, built by the Deva rulers near their capital city of Devaparvata. The Deva rule lasted from around 740 AD to 800 AD.

In the 9th century AD, south-eastern Bengal was dominated by the kingdom of Hrikela, which may have controlled the area from Chittagong to Comilla. The first independent ruler of this kingdom was Kanti Deva, but we know little about him or his descendants.

The Chandras followed the Harikela rulers, and from the beginning of the 10th century AD five generations of Chandra rulers (Traillokyachandra, Srichandra, Kayanachandra, Kalyanachandra, Ladahachandra and Govindachandra) ruled for about 150 years (c 900-1050 AD). Their empire embraced a large area in Vanga and Samatata, comprising the whole of southern and south-eastern Bangladesh and extending as far northeast as Sylhet area.

Their capital was at Vikrampura in present-day Munshiganj district. The Chandras were powerful and could match the power of the contemporary Palas of northern and western Bengal. Srichandra was the greatest ruler of the dynasty and under his vigorous rule the Chandra kingdom expanded into Kamarupa (Assam).

In the last quarter of the eleventh century AD, the Varman dynasty, taking advantage of the Kaivarta rebellion in the pala Emore, established their independent rule in south-eastern Bengal. Five generations of the Varmans ruled for less than a century (C 1080-1150 AD) before they were toppled by the senas. However, we know only about four of these rulers-Jatavarman. Harivarman, Samalavarman and Bhojavarman. The Varmans were Hindus and their capital was also at Vikrampur.

The rules of south-eastern Bengal commanded the sea trade through the vast coastal area of the Chittagong-Comilla region. The accounts of the Arab merchants and navigators, written between 9th and 11th century AD, contain evidence of a flourishing sea trade in the coastal area of south-eastern Bengal, specially through the port, which the Arabs called ‘Samandar’, identified with the area near present-day Chittagong.

We also have evidence of boat-building industries during the period. The picture of a flourishing sea-trade emerges very clearly, and there in no doubt that the area was very wealthy. The rulers were wealthy enough to issue silver coins, large numbers of which have been found across south-east Bengal.

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2 comments for “Early kingdoms in Bengal

  1. Monash
    August 12, 2015 at 5:24 AM

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