|History of South Asia
History of India
|Stone Age||before 3300 BC|
|- Mehrgarh Culture||7000–3300 BC|
|Indus Valley Civilization||3300–1700 BC|
|- Late Harappan Culture||1700–1300 BC|
|Islamic Rulers||1206–1707 AD|
|- Delhi Sultanate||1206–1526 AD|
|- Deccan Sultanates||1490–1596 AD|
|Vijayanagara Empire||1336–1646 AD|
|Mughal Empire||1526–1707 AD|
|Maratha Empire||1674–1818 AD|
|Durrani Empire||1747–1823 AD|
|Sikh Empire||1799–1849 AD|
|Company rule in India||1757–1858 AD|
|British India||1858–1947 AD|
|Partition of India||1947 AD|
|Afghanistan • Bangladesh • Bhutan • India
Maldives • Nepal • Pakistan • Sri Lanka
|Coinage • Dynasties • Economy
Indology • Language • Literature • Maritime
Military • Science and Technology • Timeline
The history of Bengal includes modern day Bangladesh and West Bengal, dates back four millennia. To some extent, the Ganga 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 or Bengal 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) colonized 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.
Remnants of Copper Age settlements in the Bengal region date back 4,000 years. Stone tools provide the earliest evidence of human settlements. Prehistoric stone implements have been discovered in various parts of West Bengal in the districts of Midnapur, Bankura and Burdwan, and also at Sagardighi. But it is difficult to determine, even approximately, the time when people using them first settled in Bengal. It might have taken place ten thousand years (or even more) ago. 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 beginning of the first millennium BC, perhaps even earlier. The discoveries at Pandu Rajar Dhibi in the valley of the Ajay river (near Bolpur) in Birbhum district and in several other sites on the Ajay, Kunur and Kopai rivers have thrown fresh light on Bengal's prehistory. Pandu Rajar Dhibi represents the ruins of a trading township, which carried on trade not only with the interior regions of India, but also—possibly indirectly—with the countries of the Mediterranean.
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 civilization 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 counter attack 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 counter attack 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.
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 sixth century, the Gupta Empire ruling over the northern Indian subcontinent was largely broken up. Eastern Bengal became the Vanga Kingdom while the Gauda kings rose in the west with their capital at Karnasuvarna (Murshidabad). Shashanka, a vassal of the last Gupta Empire became 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 beyond his death, as Bengal descended afterwards into a period marked by disunity and foreign invasion.
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 recognized 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, Orissa 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 centre of Buddhist as well as secular learning.Universities like Nalanda, Vikramshila and Paharpur flourished and prospered under the patronage of the Pala kings. Dharmapal and Devapal were two great patrons of Buddhism, secular education and culture.But such cultural Renaissance as virtually took place in Bengal under the Palas came across of a withering phase under the Sena rulers who were not only Hindu revivalists rather neglected the Budddhist centres of learning including the universities.The Sena ruler Ballal Sen even forced the reconversion of the Buddhists and Yogis to caste-based Hinduism. 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 twelfth 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, Orissa 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 believed 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.
The muslim invasion of India (including Bengal) came in the early 13th century. The invaders under the leadership of Ikhtiar Uddin Muhammad Bin Bakhtiyar Khilji, defeated the Sena king Lakshman Sena at his capital, Nabadwip in 1203 or 1204. The Deva dynasty — the last Hindu dynasty to rule in Bengal — ruled briefly in eastern Bengal, although they were suppressed by the mid-fourteenth century.
During the early Muslim period, the former kingdom became known as the Sultanate of Bengal, ruled intermittently from the Sultanate of Delhi. The chaotic shifts in power between the Pashtun and Turkic rulers of that sultanate came to an end when Mughal rule became established in Bengal during the sixteenth century.
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's death in 1556 led to the accession of Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors, who defeated the Karani rulers of Bengal in 1576. Bengal became a Mughal subah 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.
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 June 23, 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.
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 Orissa) 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 nineteenth and early twentieth 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. Nineteenth 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'.
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 Subhash 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 recognized 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.
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. East Pakistan (East Bengal) later 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 India. However, culturally and sociologically, the two segments of Bengal share considerably more than just a single language. Bengal (both West Bengal and Bangladesh) is now one of the most densely populated regions of the world. 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 the 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.(Ref. Dr.Sailen Debnath, 'West Bengal in Doldrums' ISBN 978-81-86860-34-2; & Dr.Sailen Debnath, ed. Social and Political Tensions In North Bengal since 1947, ISBN 81-86860-23-1)