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History of Bengal

 

From the historical point of view, very little recorded, authentic information about the early ages of Bengal (originally comprising the entire west Bengal and modern Bangladesh) is available. The name Bengal is probably derived from Banga, one of the many names of this region.

Palas

Historical information about the Bengal region is available only from the Gupta period (320 - 520 AD). The Guptas ruled from Magadh (modern Bihar) which is considered to be the golden age of India. After the decline of the Guptas, the kingdom of Gour in Bengal came into prominence. The first known ruler of independent Bengal was Shashanka (ruled around 606 AD).

The death of Shashanka was followed by a period of political turmoil. In 750 AD Gopala was elected the king of Gaur. This led to foundation of the Pala dynasty in Bengal. Gopala (reigned between 750 - 775 AD) was succeeded by his son Dharmapala (reigned between 775 - 810 AD) who in turn was succeeded by his Devapala (reigned between 810 - 850 AD). Each of them consolidated the dynasty’s position in Bengal and the surrounding regions, making the Palas one of the most powerful dynasties during that period.

The rule of Narayanpala (reigned between 854 - 908 AD) witnessed the beginning of the dynasty's decline. Mahipala I's (reigned between 977-1027 AD) times saw a resurgence of the Pala powers. Though Mahipala I regained control of large parts of the territories annexed by foes, he was defeated by one of the Chola kings of from southern India.

A series of defeats and internal feuds weakened the Palas and consequently various independent kingdoms got established in Bengal. Under Rampala (reigned from1077 - 1133 AD) the re-establishment of the Pala hold in Bengal took place. Madanpala (reigned betwen 1143 - 1161 AD) is considered to be the last of the Pala kings.

Another important dynasty which ruled in Bengal during this period was that of the Chandras who ruled over the southern part of Bengal. Both the Palas and the Chandras were Buddhists.

Mallas

   
Towards the end of the 7th century AD, Raghunath or Adimalla founded the Malla dynasty. This dynasty ruled for a thousand years in the western part of undivided Bengal. The rulers where initially Shaivites, who later became Vaishnavites. The capital was shifted to Vishnupur under the reign of Jagat Malla who ascended the throne in 994 AD. The reign of Virhambir is considered to be the golden age of the Mallas. During their reign, the Mallas built hordes of terracotta temples in and around Vishnupur the ruins of which still stand.


A terracotta temple
of the Malla period
Senas

This dynasty originally hailed from Karnat. The first Sena king Hemantasena ascended the throne in 1095 AD and was probably a petty ruler under king Rampala. Since the Senas were Hindus, Hindu traditions became stronger and more widespread in their kingdom. Probably after Rampala's death, Hemantasena established himself as an independent ruler.Under his son Vijaysena (reigned from 1096 - 1159 AD) the Senas became a major power in Bengal. Ballalsena, who ascended the throne in 1158, seized Gour from the Palas. Laxmansena, the next ruler succeeded Ballalsena in 1179. His reign lasted almost 20 years, with his headquarters at Nabadwip.

By this time Northern India had fallen to the Turkish invaders from Central Asia. In 1203 - 1204 AD, Muhammed Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkish general, attacked Nabadwip. Laxmansena was defeated, but managed to escape. After his death, his sons Vishwarupsena and Keshavsena ruled over the kingdom.

The Deva dynasty, which ruled in eastern part of Bengal, was probably the last independent Hindu dynasty of Bengal. Their capital was believed to be in Sonargaon (near present day Dhaka).

The period of the Palas and the Senas witnessed the growth of Bengali language. Jaidev (12th century AD), the famous poet of Bengal, was one of the Pancharatnas (literally 5 gems) in the court of Laxmansena. Jaidev composed the Geeta Govinda, one of the first literary works in Sanskrit.

Islamic rulers of Bengal

The power struggle between the Turks and the Afghan invaders resulted in Delhi and northern India changing hands from one dynasty to another. This indirectly affected Bengal too. The rulers of Bengal were often subjugated by various rulers and dynasties of Delhi and northern India.
 
   
The early Sultans of Bengal ruled till 1282. This was followed by the rule of several successive dynasties. Iliyas Shah (reigned between 1342 - 1358 AD) founder of the Iliyas Shahi dynasty (1342 - 1412 AD), took complete charge of Bengal, and shifted the capital to Sonargaon (near present day Dhaka, Bangladesh). He was one of the independent rulers of Bengal. His son Sikandar Shah (reigned between 1358 - 1390 AD) built the subcontinent's largest mosque, the Adina Masjid at Pandua (near Gour).

The emergence of the Mughals in northern India had a strong impact on Bengal's political scenario. Babur was related to two legendary warriors – Taimur and Chengiz Khan. He invaded northern India and in 1526 AD and defeated the incumbent ruler Ibrahim Lodhi. Babur became the first ruler (1526 - 1530 AD) of the Mughal dynasty. After his death, his son Humayun became the emperor.

This period also saw the rise into prominence, of Sher Shah Suri (alias Farid Khan, 1472 - 1545 AD), an Afghan who slowly established himself as the ruler of what is today the territory of Bihar. He defeated the king of Bengal, Muhammed Shah in 1534. In 1537 he attacked Gour and ransacked the city. In 1539 AD the Humayun marched towards Bengal to quell Sher Shah. However he was defeated by the latter at Chausa. In 1540 AD, Humayun was again defeated by Sher Shah Suri at Kannauj and went into exile.

Sher Shah captured Delhi and Agra and established control over a vast region extending from Bengal in the east to the Indus river in the west. His reign lasted from 1540 AD till 1545 AD. Sher Shah Suri’s successors ruled Bengal upto 1553 AD.

By 1554 AD the Suris were torn apart by internal conflicts. Taking advantage of this, Humayun invaded and captured the cities of Lahore and Delhi, but died in 1556 AD. Humayun was succeeded by Akbar, who defeated Dawood Khan Karnani of Bengal's Karnani dynasty (1564 - 1576 AD). After this incident, the entire region of Bengal passed into the hands of governors appointed by the Mughal emperors. These Governors ruled Bengal till 1716 AD.


Adina mosque
(Gaur,West Bengal)



The valiant Sher Shah Suri

   
Murshid Quli Khan, became the governor of Bengal in 1717 AD. This was the beginning of a new phase in Bengal's history, marking the advent of independence from the authority and control of Delhi rulers. He shifted the capital of Bengal from Dhaka to Murshidabad (northern part of modern west Bengal), declared himself the nawab and paid only a nominal allegiance to the Mughal Emperor. Murshid Quli Khan had built the magnificent Katra Masjid. After his death in 1725 AD, he was buried below the steps of the same mosque.

Hazarduari palace,
Murshidabad

 
Murshid Quli Khan was succeeded by his son-in-law Suja-ud-Din (1725 - 1739 AD). He was a charitable, just and impartial ruler, who greatly patronised learning, art and culture. Suja-ud-Din died in 1739 AD and was succeeded by his son Sarafraz Khan. (1739 - 1740 AD).The latter was a brave man but of religious temperament. His brief career ended in 1740 AD when he was defeated at the battle of Giria on 9th April 1740 AD by Alivardi Khan.

Alivardi Khan (1740 - 1756 AD), who was earlier the Governor of Patna, became the Nawab by defeating and killing Sarfaraz Khan in 1740 AD and ruled for 16 years thereafter. Though an efficient ruler, he had to face continual attacks by the Marathas and rebellion by the Afghans. To attain peace, he allowed many concessions to the Marathas. He maintained good relationships with the Europeans but did not allow them to increase their military presence. Siraj-ud-Daula (1756 - 57 AD), Alivardi’s favourite grandson ascended the throne after him.

Nawab Siraj ud Daula
   
The young nawab faced a two-pronged problem: the increasing ambitions of the British and the conspiracy of his disgruntled relatives who were allied with the bureaucrats He tried to encounter these by first relieving his maternal aunt, Begum Ghasiti, (a scheming and intriguing person) of her wealth and slashing the powers of Mir-Jafar, the Commander-in-Chief (Bakshi) of the royal army. On the 24th May 1756 AD Siraj occupied the Cossimbazar factory of the British. He went on to occupy Calcutta in June 1756 AD. Next he went to Purnea, Bihar to quell the rebellion of his cousin Shaukat Jang, also a contestant for the throne. Taking advantage of this turbulent situation, the British re-conquered Calcutta in February 1757 AD and struck a secret deal with Mir-Jafar. When the British captured the French factory at Chandernagore, the French sought help from Siraj. The final showdown between Siraj-ud-Daula and the British army, commanded by Robert Clive, took place at the fields of Plassey, a tiny village, located midway between Calcutta and Murshidabad. Owing to an act of gross betrayal by Mir Jafar, Siraj was defeated on 23rd June 1757 AD, and subsequently killed. Mir-Jafar ascended the throne of Bengal.

Lord Robert Clive
   
Mir-Jafar (1757 - 1760 AD and 1763 - 1765 AD) was merely a puppet and also an incompetent ruler.The British replaced him with his son-in-law Mir-Qasim in 1760 AD, on account of non-payment of dues. Mir-Qasim paid the dues off but was planning to become independent. He shifted his capital to Monghyr in Bihar and tried to organize his own army. The British defeated Mir-Qasim in the Battle of Buxar in 1764 AD. After a gap, Mir-Jafar regained the crown, but died shortly afterwards. He was followed by a number series of Nawabs who were merely puppets in the hands of the British.

Note: The history of Bengal and Calcutta after this period is inextricably linked with the general history of India. Therefore please do refer to the other articles in the history section of our website.

Mir Jafar – the epitome
of treachery
 

 

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