The History of Ancient Bengal


Jul 07, CANADA (SUN) — An excerpt from A Thousand Year Old Bengali Mystic Poetry by Hasna Jasimuddin Moudud, in two parts.

It is not easy to give a historical account of ancient Bengal. There is very little recorded history of the land, language, and its people. The history of Bengal is one of the most complex in the world.

The territory inhabited by Bengal-speaking people goes beyond the boundary of Bengal, which stretches from the Himalayas in the north to the Bay of Bengal in the south, from Brahmaputra, Kangsa, and Surma in the east to Nagar, Barakar and Suvarnerekha in the west. The majority of people in the western areas are Hindus, while in the east Muslims predominate. Although there are strong feeling towards Bengali and Bangladeshi nationalism, broadly speaking the term Bengal designates the Bengali-speaking area.

In most characteristic feature of the Bengali landscape is its vast river system which characterizes the Bengali people and their literature. Among the main rivers the Ganges and the Padma are the two most important and these are referred to in many literary compositions, including the carya poems. Bengal was famous in ancient times for river and sea crafts. The arts of navigation, boat building and maritime warfare developed because of the many rivers and the long seacoast. Bengal carried on a large sea trade mostly through the ancient seaport of Tamralipta. River and sea voyages are often characterized in Bengali folklore and literature, particularly in the Manasa and Chandi poems composed later than the caryas.

Being situated in the extreme east of India, Bengal served as the connecting land link between the sub-continent, Burma, South China and the Malay Peninsula and Indo-China. Bengal not only acted as intermediary in trade and commerce but also played an important role in the cultural association between the diverse civilizations of South East and Eastern Asia. An inscription in the Malay Peninsula of the fourth or fifth century A.D. records the gift of a great captain Buddhagupta, who was probably Bengali. It is also said that it was a Bengali prince, Vijaya, the Pala period. There is an affinity between the scripts used on Javanese sculptures and the proto-Bengali alphabets. The influence of ancient Bengal was of Tibet and China.

Diverse civilization and cultures met in the Bengal delta. Various races entered India during pre-historic times through the North West of the Indian sub-continent and lived there until they were driven further east. Bengal continually attracted people from outside.

There are many accounts and references which point out that the ancient people of Bengal were different in race, culture and language from the Aryans who compiled the Vedic literature. The original inhabitants of Bengal were non-Aryan. Many linguists and anthropologists believe that the early tribes of Bengal were Dravidian, but belonged to a separate family1.

The early history of Burma and Thailand tells us that before the arrival of Tibeto-Chinese tribes, these countries were inhabited only by Mon-Khmer people. Dravidians from Bengal and Kalinga migrated there and became the ruling race. Later, when non-Aryan Indians assimilated the Brahmic culture they introduced the Sanskrit language and traditions as well. It is interesting to note that a Bengal Tribe, the Gaudas, and a royal family, the Palas, were considered to have an oceanic connection.

Lying at the crossroads of South-East Asia, South Asia and Central Asia, Bengal attracted people from the early civilizations of the fertile crescent: Central Asia Arabia, China and Europe, as well as from India and karnataka .the people of Bengal are composed of diverse racial element: Northern Indian Aryan longheads, Alpine shortheads, Dravido-Munda longheads and Mongolian shortheads. The presence of a Negroid element has been traced among the Nagas of Assam but not among the Bengali people. We find dialects of the languages spoken within Bengal from ancient times: the Austric (Mon -khmer and Kol), the Dravidian, the Sino-Tibetan or Tibeto-Chinese and the Indo -European (Aryan).

It used to be accepted that the Brahmins and other high castes of Bengal were descended from the Aryan invaders who imposed their culture upon the primitive barbarian tribes of Bengal. Although we know very little of pre-Aryan Bengali civilization, it is now generally held that the foundations of the agriculture -based village life, which is also believed to be one of the foundations of Indian civilization, were laid by the Nishadas or Austric -speaking peoples of Bengal. According to Dr. S. K.Chatterji, the Austric tribes of India belonged to more then one group of the Austro-Asiatic section, i.e. to the kol, the khasi and the mon-khmer group. They brought with them a primitive system of agriculture. The Nishada were succeeded by the Alpine race, who form the main element of the present-day Bengalis The ideas of karma and transmigration, the practice of yoga, the concept of the divinity of Shiva, Devi and visnu, and the ritual of puja as opposed to the Vedic ritual of home, all these are thought to be per-Aryan .the cultivation of rice and some important crops such as coconut, tamarind, and betel leaf and nut, the Hindu dress of dhuti, marriage rituals with vermilion and turmeric, and many other customs have come to us from our pre-Aryan ancestors.

Gradually indigenous tribes, such as the Vangas, Sumahs, sabaers, Pulindas, Kiratas and Pundras, were brought into the framework of Aryan society by classifying them as Kshatiyas. It must have taken many centuries before the Aryans from the midland and the people of Bengal were brought under a rigid Aryan society .An increasing number of high class Aryans arrived in Bengal during the early centuries of the Christian ear, including followers of Brahminism and jainism .The essential features of Aryan society were present in Bengal by the fifth century A.D.

The little we know of the earliest period of Bengal is found by studying Vedic literature, Braahmin scripts composed in Sanskrit from 1500 B.C to 600 B.C the land known as Bengal finds no proper mention in the Vedic hymns. Rather, Some deprecatory references indicate that the primitive people in the Vedic hymns in Bengal were different in race and culture form the Vedic beyond the boundary of Aryandom and who were classed as 'dasyus', which in Bengali means robbers. Among these people we find mention of the pudras. Pundranagara, the ancient capital of Bengal, was located in the Bengal. An old Brahmi inscription discovered at Mahastangar in Bogra further proves the existence of Pundranagara. In the other classic, the Aitareya Aranyaka, the name of the Vangas, an early Bengal tribe has been traced. Because Bengal was different in race and culture from the Aryans who compiled the Vedic literature, it was not given the importance which it deserved.

The first clear references to the Vangas occur in the ancient epics and the Dharmasutras. In the great epic Mahabharata the Vangas and the Pundras are referred to as well-bred Kshatriyas, while the people of the Bengal sea coast are referred to as Mlechchas or untouchables. The Bhagavata Purana classes them as sinful people while Dharmasutra of Bodhayana prescribes expiatory rites after a journey among the Pundras and Vangas. Jaina writers of the Acharanga-sutra describe the land of the Ladhas in West Bengal as a pathless country inhabited by a rude people who attacked peaceful monks. However the Jaina authors of the epic Prajnapana includes the Vangas and Ladhas as Aryans while Dravidians rank as Mlechacchas or barbarians. The earliest Buddhist literary reference to Vanga is contained in the Milinda-panho. The Milinda-panho mentions Vanga as a maritime country where trading ships came from various parts of the world.

The bodhayana Dharmasutra divides the land into ethnic and cultural divisions which were held in varying degrees of esteem. The holiest was Aryavarta, followed by Arattas, the pundras, the Sauviras, the Vangas and the Kalingas. The regions inhabited by these people were regarded as outside the Vedic. Culture. People who lived among these local folks even for a short period were required to go through sacrificial rites. In the epic Vanaparvan we find more detail of the topography of Bengal during the epic age. We also learn that the poets of Northern India held Bengal in esteem.

In Tirtha-yatra of the epic Mahabharata, the Karatoya, Padma and Bhagirathi, the lower parts of the Ganges became recognized as sacred places. In Bhishma-parvan the Bengali kings heroically face attacks from the Pandus or conquerors of Upper India. There is a lively description of the encounters between the Pandus and the 'mighty ruler of the Vangas. Wgile some of the Bengal kings fought on elephants, others rode on 'ocean-bred steeds of the hue of the moon.'4

Kautilya's Artha-Sastra, from the end of the fourth century B.C., describes the fine quality of silk and other crafts made in Pundra, Suvarnakudya and Vanga or Banga. The oldest Indian treatise on the training and diseases of elephants, the Hastyayur Veda, ascribed to Pala Kapya, is a Work compiled during the Sutra period (600-200BC). Its author is described as a man from 'where the Lauhitya (Brahmaputra, a river in Bangladesh) flows towards the sea', which implies that Bangladesh is near the mouth of Ganges.5

Dated history begins only in 326 B.C., when the warriors of the Gangaridai and the Prasioi resisted the threatening onslaught of Alexander, who gad advanced to the Hyphasis and was eager to penetrate deeper into the interior of India, Bengal. We do not possess any detailed information about the social and political history of Bengal before this event although we can guess that there was an organized society and people before the advance of Alexander in Bengal. Greek and Latin writers refer to the ancient people of Bengal as the Gangaridai or the 'people of the Ganges region.' Historians of Alexander refer to the Gangaridai, a people who lived in the lower Ganges and its tributaries.

The classical scholar Diodorus locates the nation of the Gangaridai, whose king had four thousand elephants trained and equipped for war, beyond the Ganges. It may be reasonably inferred from the Latin and Greek scholars' accounts that at about the time of Alexander's invasion, the Gangaridai were a very powerful nation. The accounts of the periplus and ptolemy indicate that during the early centuries of the Christian era the whole of deltaic Bengal was organized into a powerful kingdom. From the fourth century A.D. onwards the epigraphic records show chronological periods such as the Gupta, early post-Gupta, Pala and Sena ages, which give us some idea. The Brihat-Samhita of Varahamigira from the sixth century A.D. distinguishes North, Centerland Eastern Bengal. In the seventh century A.D., a Gauda King had his capital at Karnasuvarna near Murshidabad.

The discovery of terracotta figurines of the Sunga period at Mahastangarh proves that the city of pundrabardhana continued to flourish even after the fall of the imperial Mauryas who ruled over India before Alexander came.

Fragments of a huge image, the pedestal of which bore an inscription was discovered in Silua, Noakhali, belong to the second century B.C. The inscriptions of the age of Samudragupta disclose the existence of new kingdoms. The establishment of the Gupta empire marks the end of the independence of the various states that flourished in Bengal at the beginning of the fourth century A.D.

When the Mauryas ruled over the greater part of India, the upper region of Bengal also came under their rule. Chandra Gupta Maurya established his rule in 321 B.C. After the Mauryas the Guptas ruled India as well as the upper part of Bengal, which was identified as Pundrabardhan. The Gupta kingdom was founded by Chandra Gupta in 321A.D.A stone inscription from the period of a Gupta king, Samudra Gupta, refers to Samatat and Pushkaran as two independent states. While Samatat referred to East Bengal, Pushkaran meant West Bengal. At the end of the Gupta reign two independent kingdoms were established in Bengal: Samatat and Gaura. Around 606 A.D. Shasanka became the ruler of Gaura and succeeded in uniting many parts of Bengal into one kingdom. During his reign Bengal became known as an independent country, but after his death it disintegrated into smaller states. From the period of Shasanka, Pundra, Gaura and Vanga became three important regions of Bengal. Next were the Pala kings, who originally came from Karnataka, and ruled between the eighth and twelfth centuries; they first ruled over Varendra and then gradually brought Vanga and Magadh under their rule. The Sena rulers succeeded the Palas, who originally came from Karnataka. Both the Pala and Sena rulers used the title 'King of Gaura' although they ruled entire Bengal.

The name Vanga or Banga was abhorred by the Aryans who succeeded the Senas, and avoided by the Palas and Sena rulers, but it became the sole identity of Bengal under Muslim rule. When Bakhtiar Khilji, a Turk, conquered Bengal in 1204 it became known as Banga and Gaura. Ilias Shah established full control over all the provinces of Bengal and became known as the Sultan of Bengal; he founded Sonargaon as his capital. During the period of the Mughal emperor Akbar Bengal became known as 'Subah Bangla' and the Europeans who came to India at that time called the land Bengala which eventually became Bengal. British Bengal consisted of five divisions which took the boundary of Bengal up the Himalayas in the north, including Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim, the Bay of Bengal in the south, Chittagong and Assam in the east and Bihar and Orissa in the west. In 1905 Bengal was divided and East Bengal and Assam Province were created. Even after the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the eastern Province of Pakistan was known as East Bengal until 1956. In 1971 East Pakistan finally became a totally independent country. This is the history of Bangladesh, which took a thousand years to become an independent identity.


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