Read this article to learn about Bengal from earliest times to till 1202 A.D.
When the Vedas were composed, the Aryan habitations did not extended beyond Bhagalpur.
Bengal naturally did not find any mention in the Vedic hymns. It was in the Aitareya Brahmana, however, that there is an indirect reference to the people of Bengal.
It is mentioned that the peoples living on the frontiers of the Aryan dominions were dasyus among whom the people known as the Pundras were also there.
The Pundras have been identified, on the basis of epigraphic evidence, with the people of Bogra district in Northern Bengal. According to some scholars, there is a reference to Vangas in the Aitareya Aranyaka. But the identity of Vanga with Bengal has been questioned by many modern scholars.
There is, however, four clear references to the Vangas in the epics and the Dharmasutras. In the Bodhayana Dharmasutra there is reference to Aryavarta lying between the Himalayas and the western Vindhyas covering the riparian areas of the Ganges and the Jumna. This area was the most sacred of all. Next in sanctity was the regions covered by Malwa, East and South Bihar, South Kathiawar, the lower Indus Valley and the Deccan.
The outermost region which was outside the pale of the Vedic culture, hence not sacred, comprised Arattas of Southern Punjab and Sind, Vangas of Central and Eastern Bengal and the Kalingas of Orissa. The peoples of the first two regions referred to above has to undergo expiation if they would live in the places referred to in the last regions.
In the epics, however, the Vangas were no longer regarded as sacrileges and impure barbarians. In the Mahabharata Bhima is mentioned as making a whirlwind campaign in the land, later known as Bengal. After defeating and killing the King of Monghyr, Bhima attacked the King of Pundras who ruled over his Kingdom on the banks of the river Kosi.
Next he marched against the Kings of the Vangas and then brought to subjection the Kings of Tamralipti, Karvata and the rulers of Suhmas, the modern Hooghly district. There is also reference to Prasuhmas who are supposed to have lived in some regions in West Bengal in the neighbourhood of the Suhmas. In the Tirtha Yatra section of the Vanaparva of the epic there is mention of the sanctity of the river Kaiotoya which flowed past Mahasthangarh, i.e., Pundranagara in North Bengal.
In Jaina Acharanga-sutra the land of Ladha (Radha) in West Bengal has been described as a pathless country, inhabited by rude people who would set dogs on peaceful monks. In Jaina Upanga, however, the Ladhas and the Vangas have been classed as Aryans and latter have been mentioned as in possession of Tamalipti, i.e., Tamluk and the former in possession of Kotivarsha in the Dinajpur district. In Acharanga-sutra Ladha has been divided into Vajjabhumi and Subbha, i.e., Vajrabhumi and Suhma.
Reference to Suhma is found in the writings of the early Buddhist writers but not to Vanga. The first reference to Vanga in Buddhist literature is to be found in Milindapanha. References to Bengal as mentioned above lacked chronological arrangement.
During the historical period reference to a peoples by historians of Alexander is found in the name Gangaridai who as Pliny, Ptolemy and other classical writers mention as the people who occupied the country of the lower Ganges, and tributaries. Both the Jaina and Buddhist texts refer to the contemporaries of the Mauryas in Pundravardhana.
That Pundravardhana existed during the Maurya period is also testified by a Brahmi inscription discovered at Mahasthangarh in Bogra district. The Chinese pilgrims who visited India in the post Maurya period noticed Asokan monuments in different parts of Bengal.
The Periplus, Ptolemy’s Geography, Milindapanha and Nagar junikonda inscriptions give us some details about Bengal during the early centuries of the Christian era. Ptolemy refers to the city of Ganges and distinguishes it from Tamalites, i.e., Tamralipti.
From the fourth century A.D. it was possible to reconstruct the history of Bengal and its administrative division with fair certainty on the basis of distinct chronology. Well-known divisions of Bengal such as Gauda, Vanga, Radha, of course, varied in extent during this period.
When Chandragupta I and Samudragupta were marching from victory to victory adding territory after territory to the Gupta Empire, Bengal was then divided into a number of independent kingdoms. In his campaign against Aryavarta, Samudragupta is known to have defeated Chandravarman and occupied western and southern Bengal.
North Bengal was also under Samudragupta as is evident from an inscription of- Samudragupta in which Kamrupa is mentioned as c tributary state of Samudragupta on the northern border of his empire. Samatata (East Bengal was originally a tribute-paying kingdom of the Guptas, but later on it was included in the Gupta empire.
Thus the whole of Bengal was a part of the Gupta Empire during the fifth century A.D. From a few copper plate inscriptions it is known that North Bengal comprised the Pundravardhana-bhukti and was under a governor appointed by the Gupta emperor. It is also known that in 507 A.D. Maharaja Vainyagupta ruled over Samatata and later became the Gupta emperor. Of course, the nature of the Gupta rule in Southern and Western Bengal is not known to us.
When as a result of the repeated invasions of the Huns and internal dissension the Gupta Empire became weak. Yasodharman made himself the master of the whole of Aryavarta. Advantage was taken of this situation by Southern and Eastern Bengal which tore off from the Gupta Empire and set up a strong independent kingdom there.
From epigraphic evidence the names of some of the kings of this kingdom have been found, these were Gopachandra, Dharmaditya and Samachardeva. Gold coins with the name of Samachardeva have been discovered. The kings of this dynasty were doubtlessly very powerful monarchs and Dr. R. C. Majumdar is of opinion that whole of South and East Bengal and part of West Bengal were under their rule.
In some other coins of this period have been discovered different parts of Bengal in which we come across the names of two more Kings, namely, Prithuvir and Srisudhanyaditya. But it is difficult to determine if all the Kings named above belonged to the same dynasty.
But there is no doubt that Gopachandra was the oldest of all these Kings. He is supposed to have ruled for at least eighteen years and Dharmaditya for three years and Samachardeva for fourteen years. According to Dr. Majumdar these three Kings must have ruled between A.D. 525 and A.D. 575.
However, our knowledge about these Kings and their rule, as also about their mutual relationship are not known to us, although the copper plate inscriptions of their time leave no doubt that they were very powerful Kings.
About the fall of this Kingdom no details are available. Kirtivarman VI, the Chalukya King, has been mentioned in his Prasasti, i.e., eulogy that he conquered Anga, Vanga, Kalinga and Magadha during the last quarter of the sixth century A.D. Chalukya invasion must have been, therefore, the reason for the break-up of the Kingdom although the rise of the Kingdom of Gauda must have been the major cause.
Kingdom of Gauda:
During the rule of the later Gupta parts of North and West Bengal were under them. It was at about that time this area came to be known as Gauda and although under the suzerainty of the later Gupta rulers, Gauda developed into a principality of great strength and fame, the Maukhari King Ishanvarman is said to have defeated the Gaudas and compelled them to take shelter on the sea coast. Obviously the invasion and defeat of the Gaudas was an episode in the prolonged enmity between the Maukharis and the Guptas, since Gauda was under the Guptas.
Sarvavarman and Avantivarman, successors of Ishanavarman, probably conquered parts of Magadha, and according to some scholars, it was after this that the Guptas left both Magadha and Gauda, and shifted to Malva. But whatever might have been actual history, upto the end of the sixth century, Gupta King Mahasenagupta’s rule extended over Gauda, Magadha and spread upto the Brahmaputra River.
But the prolonged hostilities between the Maukharis and the Guptas, invasions of the Chalukya from the South and Tibet from the north made the later Gupta, rulers too weak to keep control over Magadha and Gauda, and withdrew to Malava. Advantage of this political situation was taken by Sasanka who set up an independent Kingdom in Gauda.
Among the Kings of Bengal, Sasanka was the first fully sovereign ruler and he occupies a prominent place in the history of Bengal. The exact time and date when Sasanka had ascended the throne of Bengal is, however, not definitely known. In the Rohtasgarh inscription there is mention of one Sri Mahasamanta Sasanka. From this it is presumed that Sasanka was originally a Mahasamanta, that is, Feudatory Chief. But whether he was a feudatory under the Maukharis or the Guptas is not known.
But the fact that Mahasenagupta of the later Guptas was in possession of Gauda and Magadha during the sixth century A.D. raises the presumption that Sasanka was a feudatory under the Guptas. In 595 A.D. Mahasenagupta took refuge in the court of Prabhakarvardhana. The name of the mother of Prabhakarvardhana was Mahasenagupta. From this it is inferred by some that as a result of the Kalachuri invasion Mahasenagupta took refuge at the court of Thaneswar that is his sister.
However, it is generally agreed that it was from the ashes of the Gupta Empire that the independent kingdom of Gauda took birth. Sasanka was in endless struggle with the Maukharis of Kanauj and the kingdom of Kamrup. This also points to the conclusion that it was as the successor to the Guptas that Sasanka was locked in a continuous struggle with the houses of Kanauj and Kamrup. Some historians are of the opinion that the name of Sasanka was Narendragupta and he was a scion of the Gupta dynasty. But this opinion is unacceptable to most of the modem historians.
Bana and Hiuen T-Sang have described Sasanka as the king of Gauda and his capital has been named as Karnasuvarna. But the actual site of his capital has not been determined. It is supposed to be a place now called Rangamati, six miles away from Behrampore.
Before the rise of Sasanka the Mana dynasty became a powerful independent kingdom between Midnapore and Gaya district in Bihar. Later this dynasty occupied Orissa. Sasanka defeated Shambhujas or his successor and occupied Dandabhukti that is Midnapore, Utkal, i.e., Orissa, and Kangod, i.e. South Orissa. The kings of Sailotbhava dynasty accepted the overlordship of Sasanka and continued to rule over Kangod, i.e., South Orissa.
The kingdom of Vanga, comprising south and eastern Bengal also recognised the supremacy of Sasanka. But nothing can be definitely said about this. Sasanka did not only make Gauda an independent and sovereign country but extended its dominions upto Ganjam towards the south, the whole of Bengal, Magadha and Varanasi. When Sasanka proceeded against the Maukharis, the Pushyabhutis of Thaneswar opposed him, for the Mukhari king Grahavarman was the son-in-law of Prabhakarvardhana.
Sasanka had a friend and ally in Devagupta of Malava. Devagupta was inimically disposed towards Grahavarmana. As Sasanka proceeded against Kanauj after having conquered Varanasi, Devagupta also was on his march against Kanauj. In the meantime Prabhakarvardhana had died and his eldest son Rajyavardhana was on the throne of Thaneswar.
The joy of succession to the throne was soon marred by the news that Grahavarman, husband of Rajyavardhan’s sister, Rajyasree, had been defeated and killed by Devagupta who put Rajyasree in a prison. Rajyavardhana placed the charge of his kingdom in the hands of his brother Harshavardhana and proceeded against Devagupta and for the release of Rajyasree.
Sasanka in the meantime also was on the march for Thaneswar. In the encounter between Rajyavardhana and Devagupta, the latter was defeated and killed but as he was proceeding towards Kanauj he met Sasanka on the way. In the battle with Sasanka Rajyavardhana was defeated and killed.
The defeat and death of Rajyavardhana at the hands of Sasanka gave rise to various conflicting stories. Among these one mentioned on Bana’s Harsha Charit and Hiuen T-Sang’s narrative deserves mention. According to Bana Sasanka invited Rajyavardhana to his camp and finding him alone killed him. In Hiuen T-Sang’s narrative it is mentioned that Sasanka on the advice of his ministers invited Rajyavardhana to his camp and done him to death.
It was because he was advised that so long as an honest and pious king like Rajyavardhana would be alive there would be no prospect for the greatness of the kingdom of Gauda. In the inscription of Harshavardhana it is mentioned that Rajyavardhana lost his life in the camp of his enemy in order to keep truth. From such conflicting statements it is difficult to find out the truth.
Further, that in order to tarnish the character of Sasanka who was the enemy of Rajyavardhana and Buddhism; it is possible that Bana, the Court panegyrist, and Hiuen T-Sang might have exaggerated the incident. That Sasanka behaved in a treacherous manner is not mentioned in any one of the narratives. For all this, the modern historians are reluctant to stigmatise Sasanka as a treacherous killer of Rajyavardhana.
On hearing the news of the death of Rajyavardhana, Harshavardhana as we know from Harsha Char it, promised to clear the earth of Gaudas, otherwise he would burn himself to death. Thereafter he proceeded with a large force against Sasanka, but on the way he came to learn that his sister Rajyasree had fled from the prison of Devagupta and taken shelter in the Vindhyas. He left the charge of his army to Bhadi, his General, and left in search of Rajyasree.
In the meantime Bhaskarvarman of Kamrup being fearful of the growing strength of Sasanka entered into a friendly alliance with Harshavardhana. Whether Harshavardhana succeeded in defeating Sasanka in any battle is not mentioned anywhere except in Manjusreemulakalpa, a Buddhist book, in which it is mentioned that Harshavardhana defeated Sasanka.
In this book the reference has been made in the nature of forecast. Further, the statement of Hiuen T-Sang that Sasanka oppressed the Buddhists; cut the Bodhi tree, constructed a Hindu Temple by the side of Bodh Gaya as a result of which sins he died of various diseases is also to be found in Manjusreemulakalpa.
It is difficult, according to modern historians, to accept these as true. These were nothing more or less than the prevalent stories among the Buddhists. There is a significant reference in the Buddhist books, that Harshavardhana did not receive proper respect in the barbarian country under Sasanka and returned.
This statement does not show that Harshavardhana was successful against Sasanka. Further, there was not a single word in Bana’s Harsha Charit about Sasanka’s defeat at the hands of Harshavardhana. This significant omission is enough to prove that Harshavardhana was not successful against Sasanka.
That Harshavardhana was not much successful against Sasanka is also proved by three inscriptions of Sasanka himself. One of these inscriptions is dated 699 A.D. which show that he was in possession of his territories till 619 A.D. In that inscription it is mentioned that a king of the Sailotbhava dynasty of South Orissa was feudatory of Sasanka.
According to Dr. R. C. Majumdar, till his death in 637, Sasanka’s dominions comprised Gauda, Dandabhukti, Magadha, Utkal, and Kangod. Thus even if Harshavardhana remembered his oath of clearing earth of the Gaudas within a limited number of days he could not do any harm to Sasanka.
Sasanka was a worshipper of Siva. Even if it is agreed that he was not tolerant of other religions, his oppression of the Buddhists was not borne out by facts. Hiuen T-Sang’s account gives out this truth. For, from Hiuen T-Sang we come to know that Karnasuvarna and in other parts of Sasanka’s kingdom he saw Buddhism prevalent. If Sasanka oppressed the Buddhists, how could Buddhism could be found to exist in all parts of his dominions including his capital?
Estimate of Sasanka
In the history of the Bengalees and Bengal, Sasanka occupies a place of respect. It was he who for the first time mooted the idea of a Bengali Empire in the Aryavarta and his idea was largely successful during his life time. He made Gauda independent from the overlordship of the Guptas and made it a sovereign state.
He spread his authority all over Bengal including Dandabhukti, i.e., Midnapore, as also over Magadha, Utkal, Kongod, Baranasi. For a time he staked his claim over Kanauj and Thaneswar, but was not successful. Harshavardhana could not do him any harm during his life time. Sasanka was a diplomat of no mean ability.
He entered into friendly alliance with Devagupta of Malava against Maukharis of Kanauj. The portrayal of character of Sasanka in Buddhist books and Hiuen T-Sang’s account is not the correct picture of his character. Modern researches have revealed some aspects of Sasanka’s character which are at variance with those given out by the Buddhist books and Hiuen T-Sang.