History of Bengal
Gangaridai Kingdom, Vanga Kingdom,
Pundra Kingdom, Suhma Kingdom,
Anga Kingdom, Harikela Kingdom
Sultanate of Bengal
Bakhtiyar Khilji, Raja Ganesha
Pratap Aditya, Raja Sitaram Ray
Principality of Bengal
Zamindari system, Bengal famine of 1770
Swami Vivekananda, Jagadish Chandra Bose,
Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose
1947 Partition of Bengal, Bangladesh Liberation War
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Jyoti Basu
The history of Bengal includes modern day Bangladesh and West Bengal, dates back four millennia. To some extent, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers separated it from the mainland of India, though at times, Bengal has played an important role in the history of India.
The exact origin of the word Bangla is unknown, though it is believed to be derived from the Dravidian-speaking tribe Bang/Banga that settled in the area around the year 1000 BCE. Other accounts speculate that the name is derived from Vanga (Bôngo), which came from the Austric word "Bonga" meaning the Sun-god. According to the Mahabharata, a number of Puranas and the Harivamsha Vanga was one of the adopted sons of King Vali who founded the Vanga Kingdom. The Muslim accounts refer that "Bong", a son of Hind (son of Hām who was a son of Prophet Noah/Nooh) colonised the area for the first time. The earliest reference to "Vangala" (Bôngal) has been traced in the Nesari plates (805 AD) of Rashtrakuta Govinda III which speak of Dharmapala as the king of Vangala. Shams-ud-din Ilyas Shah took the title "Shah-e-Bangla" and united the whole region under one government.
Stone age tools dating back 20,000 years have been excavated in the state. Remnants of Copper Age settlements in the Bengal region date back 4,000 years. The original settlers spoke non-Aryan languages— they may have spoken Austric or Austro-Asiatic languages like the languages of the present-day Kola, Bhil, Santal, Shabara, and Pulinda peoples. At a subsequent age, peoples speaking languages from two other language families— Dravidian and Tibeto-Burman—seem to have settled in Bengal. Archaeological discoveries during the 1960s furnished evidence of a degree of civilisation in certain parts of Bengal as far back as the first millennium BC.
Bengal in early literature
Some references indicate that the primitive people in Bengal were different in ethnicity and culture from the Vedic people beyond the boundary of Aryandom and who were classed as "Dasyus". The Bhagavata Purana classes them as sinful people while Dharmasutra of Baudhayana prescribes expiatory rites after a journey among the Pundras and Vangas. Mahabharata speaks of Paundraka Vasudeva who was lord of the Pundras and who allied himself with Jarasandha against Krishna. The Mahabharata also speaks of Bengali kings called Chitrasena and Sanudrasena who were defeated by Bhima and Kalidasa mentions Raghu defeating a coalition of Vanga kings.
Hindu scriptures such as the Mahabharata suggest that ancient Bengal was divided among various tribes or kingdoms, including the Nishadas and kingdoms known as the Janapadas: Vanga (southern Bengal), Pundra (northern Bengal), and Suhma (western Bengal) according to their respective totems. These Hindu sources, written by Indo-Aryans in what is now Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, suggest that the peoples of Bengal were not Indo-Aryans. However, Jain scriptures identify Vanga and Anga in Bengal as Indo-Aryan. While western Bengal, as part of Magadha, became part of the Indo-Aryan civilisation by the 7th century BCE, the Nanda Dynasty was the first historical state to unify all of Bengal under Indo-Aryan rule.
The Vanga Kingdom was a powerful seafaring nation of Ancient India. They had overseas trade relations with Java, Sumatra and Siam (modern day Thailand). According to Mahavamsa, the Vanga prince Vijaya Simha conquered Lanka (modern day Sri Lanka) in 544 BC and gave the name "Sinhala" to the country. Bengali people migrated to the Malay Archipelago and Siam (in modern Thailand), establishing their own colonies there.
Though north and west Bengal were part of the Magadhan empire southern Bengal thrived and became powerful with her overseas trades. In 326 BCE, with the invasion of Alexander the Great the region again came to prominence. The Greek and Latin historians suggested that Alexander the Great withdrew from India anticipating the valiant counterattack of the mighty Gangaridai empire that was located in the Bengal region. Alexander, after the meeting with his officer, Coenus, was convinced that it was better to return. Diodorus Siculus mentions Gangaridai to be the most powerful empire in India whose king possessed an army of 20,000 horses, 200,000 infantry, 2,000 chariots and 4,000 elephants trained and equipped for war. The allied forces of Gangaridai Empire and Nanda Empire (Prasii) were preparing a massive counterattack against the forces of Alexander on the banks of Ganges. Gangaridai, according to the Greek accounts, kept on flourishing at least up to the 1st century AD.
Early Middle Ages
The pre-Gupta period of Bengal is shrouded with obscurity. Before the conquest of Samudragupta Bengal was divided into two kingdoms: Pushkarana and Samatata. An inscription of Pushkaranadhipa (the ruler of Pushkarana) Chandravarman has been found in a cave in the Shushunia hills. Chandragupta II had defeated a confederacy of Vanga kings resulting in Bengal becoming part of the Gupta Empire.
By the 6th century, the Gupta Empire, which ruled over the northern Indian subcontinent had largely broken up. Eastern Bengal splintered into the kingdoms of Vanga, Samatata and Harikela while the Gauda kings rose in the west with their capital at Karnasuvarna (near modern Murshidabad). Shashanka, a vassal of the last Gupta Empire proclaimed independent and unified the smaller principalities of Bengal (Gaur, Vanga, Samatata) and vied for regional power with Harshavardhana in northern India. But this burst of Bengali power did not last very long beyond his death, as with the overthrow of Manava (his son), Bengal descended into a period marked by disunity and foreign invasion once more.
Pala Empire was the first independent Buddhist dynasty of Bengal. The name Pala (Modern Bengali: পাল pal) means protector and was used as an ending to the names of all Pala monarchs. The Palas were followers of the Mahayana and Tantric schools of Buddhism. Gopala was the first ruler from the dynasty. He came to power in 750 in Gaur by a democratic election. This event is recognised as one of the first democratic elections in South Asia since the time of the Mahā Janapadas. He reigned from 750–770 and consolidated his position by extending his control over all of Bengal. The Buddhist dynasty lasted for four centuries (750–1120 AD) and ushered in a period of stability and prosperity in Bengal. They created many temples and works of art as well as supported the Universities of Nalanda and Vikramashila. Somapura Mahavihara built by Dharmapala is the greatest Buddhist Vihara in the Indian Subcontinent.
The empire reached its peak under Dharmapala and Devapala. Dharmapala extended the empire into the northern parts of the Indian Subcontinent. This triggered once again the power struggle for the control of the subcontinent. Devapala, successor of Dharmapala, expanded the empire to cover much of South Asia and beyond. His empire stretched from Assam and Utkala in the east, Kamboja (modern day Afghanistan) in the north-west and Deccan in the south. According to Pala copperplate inscription Devapala exterminated the Utkalas, conquered the Pragjyotisha (Assam), shattered the pride of the Huna, and humbled the lords of Pratiharas, Gurjara and the Dravidas.
The death of Devapala ended the period of ascendancy of the Pala Empire and several independent dynasties and kingdoms emerged during this time. However, Mahipala I rejuvenated the reign of the Palas. He recovered control over all of Bengal and expanded the empire. He survived the invasions of Rajendra Chola and the Chalukyas. After Mahipala I the Pala dynasty again saw its decline until Ramapala, the last great ruler of the dynasty, managed to retrieve the position of the dynasty to some extent. He crushed the Varendra rebellion and extended his empire farther to Kamarupa, Odisha and northern India.
The Pala Empire can be considered as the golden era of Bengal. Never had the Bengali people reached such height of power and glory to that extent. Palas were responsible for the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet, Bhutan and Myanmar. It was during the Pala period Bengal became the main center of Buddhist as well as secular learning. Universities like Nalanda, Vikramshila and Paharpur flourished and prospered under the patronage of the Pala rulers. Dharmapal and Devapal were two great patrons of Buddhism, secular education and culture. The Palas had extensive trade as well as influence in south-east Asia. This can be seen in the sculptures and architectural style of the Sailendra Empire (present-day Malaya, Java, Sumatra).
The Palas were followed by the Sena dynasty who brought Bengal under one ruler during the 12th century. Vijay Sen the second ruler of this dynasty defeated the last Pala emperor Madanapala and established his reign. Ballal Sena introduced caste system in Bengal and made Nabadwip the capital. The fourth king of this dynasty Lakshman Sen expanded the empire beyond Bengal to Bihar, Assam, Odisha and probably to Varanasi. Lakshman was later defeated by the Muslims and fled to eastern Bengal were he ruled few more years. The Sena dynasty brought a revival of Hinduism and cultivated Sanskrit literature in India. It is proposed by some Bengali authors that Jayadeva, the famous Sanskrit poet and author of Gita Govinda, was one of the Pancharatnas (meaning 5 gems) in the court of Lakshman Sen.
Islam made its first appearance in Bengal during the 12th century when Sufi missionaries arrived. Later, occasional Muslim raiders reinforced the process of conversion by building mosques, madrassas and Sufi Khanqah. Beginning in 1202 a military commander from the Delhi Sultanate, Bakhtiar Khilji, overran Bihar and Bengal as far east as Rangpur, Bogra and the Brahmaputra River. Although he failed to bring Bengal under his control, the expedition managed to defeat Lakshman Sen and his two sons moved to a place then called Vikrampur (present-day Munshiganj District), where their diminished dominion lasted until the late 13th century.
The Deva Kingdom was a Hindu dynasty of medieval Bengal that ruled over eastern Bengal after the collapse Sena Empire. The capital of this dynasty was Bikrampur in present-day Munshiganj District of Bangladesh. The inscriptional evidences show that his kingdom was extended up to the present-day Comilla-Noakhali-Chittagong region. A later ruler of the dynasty Ariraja-Danuja-Madhava Dasharatha-Deva extended his kingdom to cover much of East Bengal. The end of this dynasty is not yet known.
Ilyas Shahi dynasty
Shamsuddin Iliyas Shah founded the dynasty. It lasted from 1342–1487. The dynasty successfully repulsed attempts by Delhi to conquer them. They continued to reel in the territory of modern-day Bengal, reaching to Khulna in the south and Sylhet in the east. The sultans advanced civic institutions and became more responsive and "native" in their outlook and cut loose from Delhi. Considerable architectural projects were completed including the massive Adina Mosque and the Darasbari Mosque which still stands in Bangladesh. The Sultans of Bengal were patrons of Bengali literature and began a process in which Bengali culture and identity would flourish. The Ilyas Shahi Dynasty was interrupted by an uprising by the Hindus under Raja Ganesha. However the Ilyas Shahi dynasty was restored by Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah.
The Ganesha dynasty began with Raja Ganesha in 1414. After Raja Ganesha seized control over Bengal he faced an imminent threat of invasion. Ganesha appealed to a powerful Muslim holy man named Qutb al Alam, to stop the threat. The saint agreed on the condition that Raja Ganesha's son Jadu would convert to Islam and rule in his place. Raja Ganesha agreed and Jadu started ruling Bengal as Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah in 1415 AD. Qutb al Alam died in 1416 AD and Raja Ganesha was emboldened to depose his son and accede to the throne himself as Danujamarddana Deva. Jalaluddin was reconverted to Hinduism by the Golden Cow ritual. After the death of his father he once again converted to Islam and started ruling his second phase. Jalaluddin's son, Shamsuddin Ahmad Shah ruled for only 3 years due to chaos and anarchy. The dynasty is known for their liberal policy as well as justice and charity.
Hussain Shahi dynasty
The Hussain Shahi dynasty ruled in the period 1494–1538. Alauddin Hussain Shah, considered as the greatest of all the sultans of Bengal for bringing cultural renaissance during his reign. He extended the sultanate all the way to the port of Chittagong, which witnessed the arrival of the first Portuguese merchants. Nasiruddin Nasrat Shah gave refuge to the Afghan lords during the invasion of Babur though he remained neutral. However Nusrat Shah made a treaty with Babur and saved Bengal from a Mughal invasion. The last Sultan of the dynasty, who continued to rule from Gaur, had to contend with rising Afghan activity on his northwestern border. Eventually, the Afghans broke through and sacked the capital in 1538 where they remained for several decades until the arrival of the Mughals.
In 1534, the Pashtun Sher Shah Suri, or Farid Khan – a man of incredible military and political skill – succeeded in defeating the superior forces of the Mughals under Humayun at Chausa (1539) and Kannauj (1540). Sher Shah fought back and captured both Delhi and Agra and established a kingdom stretching far into Punjab. Sher Shah's administrative skill showed in his public works, including the Grand Trunk Road connecting Sonargaon in Bengal with Peshawar in the Hindu Kush. Sher Shah's rule ended with his death in 1545, although even in those five years his reign would have a powerful influence on Indian society, politics, and economics. Shah Suri's successors lacked his administrative skill, and quarrelled over the domains of his empire. Humayun, who then ruled a rump Mughal state, saw an opportunity and in 1554 seized Lahore and Delhi.
Humayun died in January 1556. Around same time, Hemu, also called Hem Chandra Vikramaditya, the then Hindu Prime Minister-cum-Chief of Army, of the Sur dynasty won Bengal in the 'battle at Chapperghatta', killing Muhammad Shah the then ruler of Bengal. This was Hemu's 20th continuous win in North India. Knowing of Humanyun's death, Hemu found a God given opportunity to win Delhi for himself and rushed to Delhi to win Agra and later on Delhi, defeated Akbar's forces at both the places, and established 'Hindu Raj' in North India on 6 Oct 1556, after 300 years of Muslim rule, leaving Bengal to his Governor Shahbaz Khan.
Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors, defeated the Karani rulers of Bengal in 1576. Afterwards, Bengal came once more under the control of Delhi. It became a Mughalsubah and ruled through subahdars (governors). Akbar exercised progressive rule and oversaw a period of prosperity (through trade and development) in Bengal and northern India.
Bengal's trade and wealth impressed the Mughals that they called the region the "Paradise of the Nations". Administration by governors appointed by the court of the Mughal Empire court (1575–1717) gave way to four decades of semi-independence under the Nawabs of Murshidabad, who respected the nominal sovereignty of the Mughals in Delhi. The Nawabs granted permission to the French East India Company to establish a trading post at Chandernagore in 1673, and the British East India Company at Calcutta in 1690.
There were several independent Hindu states established in Bengal during the Mughal period like those of Maharaja Pratap Aditya of Jessore and Raja Sitaram Ray of Burdwan. These kingdoms contributed a lot to the economic and cultural landscape of Bengal. Extensive land reclamations in forested and marshy areas were carried out and intrastate trade as well as commerce were highly encouraged. These kingdoms also helped introduce new music, painting, dancing and sculpture into Bengali art-forms as well as many temples were constructed during this period. Militarily, they served as bulwarks against Portuguese and Burmese attacks.
Kingdom of Bhurshut
The Kingdom of Bhurshut was a medieval Hindu kingdom spread across what is now Howrah and Hooghly in the Indian state of West Bengal. Maharaja Rudranarayan consolidated the dynasty and expanded the kingdom and converted it into one of the most powerful Hindu kingdom of the time. His wife Maharani Bhavashankari defeated the Pathan resurgence in Bengal and her reign brought power, prosperity and grandeur to Bhurishrestha Kingdom. Their son, Maharaja Pratapnarayan, patronised literature and art, trade & commerce, as well as welfare of his subjects. Afterwards, Maharaja Naranarayan maintained the integrity and sovereignty of the kingdom by diplomatically averting the occupation of the kingdom by the Mughal forces. His son, Maharaja Lakshminarayan, failed to maintain the sovereignty of the kingdom due to sabotage from within.
Koch Bihar Kingdom
The Koch Bihar Kingdom in the northern Bengal, flourished during the period of 16th and the 17th centuries as well as weathered the Mughals and survived till the advent of the British.
The Burdwan Raj was a zamindari estate that flourished from about 1657 to 1955, first under the Mughals and then under the British in the province of Bengal in India. At the peak of its prosperity in the 18th century, the estate extended to around 5,000 square miles (13,000 km2) of territory and even up to the early 20th century paid an annual revenue to the government in excess of 3,300,000 rupees.
Around the early 1700s, the Maratha Empire led expeditions in Bengal. The leader of the expedition was Maratha Maharaja Raghuji of Nagpur. Raghoji was able to annexe Odisha and parts of Bengal permanently as he successfully exploited the chaotic conditions prevailing in the region after the death of their Governor Murshid Quli Khan in 1727. The expeditions resulted in Bengal becoming a tributary region of the Marathas for a period of time.
British East India Company
When the British East India Company began strengthening the defences at Fort William (Calcutta), the Nawab, Siraj Ud Daulah, at the encouragement of the French, attacked. Under the leadership of Robert Clive, British troops and their local allies captured Chandernagore in March 1757 and seriously defeated the Nawab on 23 June 1757 at the Battle of Plassey, when the Nawab's soldiers betrayed him. The Nawab was assassinated in Murshidabad, and the British installed their own Nawab for Bengal and extended their direct control in the south. Chandernagore was restored to the French in 1763. The Bengalis attempted to regain their territories in 1765 in alliance with the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II, but were defeated again at the Battle of Buxar (1765). The centre of Indian culture and trade shifted from Delhi to Calcutta when the Mughal Empire fell.
Establishment of English Trade in Bengal (1600–1700)
During British rule, two devastating famines were instigated costing millions of lives in 1770 and 1943. Scarcely five years into the British East India Company's rule, the catastrophic Bengal famine of 1770, one of the greatest famines of history occurred. Up to a third of the population died in 1770 and subsequent years. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 replaced rule by the Company with the direct control of Bengal by the British crown.
A centre of rice cultivation as well as fine cotton called muslin and the world's main source of jute fibre, Bengal, from the 1850s became one of India's principal centres of industry, concentrated in the capital Kolkata (known as Calcutta under the British, always called 'Kolkata' in the native tongue of Bengali) and its emerging cluster of suburbs. Most of the population nevertheless remained dependent on agriculture, and despite its leading role in Indian political and intellectual activity, the province included some very undeveloped districts, especially in the east. In 1877, when Victoria took the title of "Empress of India", the British declared Calcutta the capital of the British Raj.
India's most popular province (and one of the most active provinces in freedom fighting), in 1905 Bengal was divided by the British rulers for administrative purposes into an overwhelmingly Hindu west (including present-day Bihar and Odisha) and a predominantly Muslim east (including Assam) (1905 Partition of Bengal). Hindu – Muslim conflict became stronger through this partition. While Hindu Indians disagreed with the partition saying it was a way of dividing a Bengal which is united by language and history, Muslims supported it by saying it was a big step forward for Muslim society where Muslims will be majority and they can freely practice their religion as well as their culture. But owing to strong Hindu agitation, the British reunited East and West Bengal in 1912, and made Bihar and Orissa a separate province. Another major famine occurred during the second world war, the Bengal famine of 1943, in which an estimated 3 million people died.
The Bengal Renaissance refers to a social reform movement during the 19th and early 20th centuries in the region of Bengal in undivided India during the period of British rule. The Bengal renaissance can be said to have started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1775–1833) and ended with Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), although there have been many stalwarts thereafter embodying particular aspects of the unique intellectual and creative output. 19th century Bengal was a unique blend of religious and social reformers, scholars, literary giants, journalists, patriotic orators and scientists, all merging to form the image of a renaissance, and marked the transition from the 'medieval' to the 'modern'.
- See also: Freedom fighters from Bengal
Bengal played a major role in the Indian independence movement, in which revolutionary groups such as Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar were dominant. Bengalis also played a notable role in the Indian independence movement. Many of the early proponents of the freedom struggle, and subsequent leaders in movement were Bengalis such as Chittaranjan Das, Surendranath Banerjea, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Prafulla Chaki, Bagha Jatin, Khudiram Bose, Surya Sen, Binoy-Badal-Dinesh, Sarojini Naidu, Aurobindo Ghosh, Rashbehari Bose and many more. Some of these leaders, such as Netaji, did not subscribe to the view that non-violent civil disobedience was the only way to achieve Indian Independence, and were instrumental in armed resistance against the British force. During the Second World War Netaji escaped to Germany from house arrest in India and there he founded the Indian Legion an army to fight against the British Government, but the turning of the war compelled him to come to South-East Asia and there he became the co-founder and leader of the Indian National Army (distinct from the army of British India) that challenged British forces in several parts of India. He was also the head of state of a parallel regime named 'The Provisional Governmeent of Free India' or Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind, that was recognised and supported by the Axis powers. Bengal was also the fostering ground for several prominent revolutionary organisations, the most notable of which was Anushilan Samiti. A large number of Bengalis were martyred in the freedom struggle and many were exiled in Cellular Jail, the much dreaded prison located in Andaman.
Partitions of Bengal
In the 20th century, the partitions of Bengal, occurring twice, has left great marks on the history and psyche of the people of Bengal. The first partition occurred in 1905 and the second partition was in 1947. As partition of British India into Hindu and Muslim dominions approached in 1947, Bengal again split into the state of West Bengal of secular India and a Muslim region of East Bengal under Pakistan, renamed East Pakistan in 1958.
The partition of Bengal entailed the greatest exodus of people in human history. Millions of Hindus migrated from East Pakistan to India and thousands of Muslims too went across the borders to East Pakistan. Because of the coming of the refugees, there occurred the crisis of land and food in West Bengal; and such condition remained in long duration for more than three decades. The politics of West Bengal since the partition in 1947 developed round the nucleus of refugee problem. Both the Rightists and the Leftists in politics of West Bengal have not yet become free from the socio-economic conditions created by the partition of Bengal. These conditions as have remained unresolved in some twisted forms have given birth to local socio-economic, political and ethnic movements.
East Pakistan (East Bengal) rebelled against Pakistani military rule to become independent republic of Bangladesh, literally "Land of Bengal", after a war of independence against the Pakistani army in 1971. West Bengal remains a part of the Republic of India.
- List of rulers of Bengal
- History of India
- History of Bihar
- History of Tamil Nadu
- Political history of medieval Karnataka
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