West Bengal is located in Eastern India and is one of major states of India. The history of Bengal includes Bengal as a whole, i.e. both West Bengal and East Bengal (now Bangladesh). The first mention of Bengal can be found in Mahabharata. Different dynasties have ruled over its region.
The history of Bengal goes way back to the period of Aryan invasion of India. Bengal is known as Gauda or Vanga in ancient Sanskrit literature. Some of the evidences excavated in various parts of West Bengal reveals information about the settlement and pre-historic stone implements. The region of Bengal was also known to the ancient Greeks and Romans as Gangaridai. Some scholars believed that the origin of name ‘Banga’ is derived from ‘Bong tribe’.
Origin of People in West Bengal
The Bengalees are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group who mainly lives in Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Jharkhand. They are not the descendants of Aryans. Some primitive settlers in this region were Kola, Sabara, Pulinda, Hadi, Dom and Chandala. There are anthropological and archaeological evidences to indicate that the Bengali-speaking people belong to several racial elements with different ethnic origins. There were three major racial elements which came together to form the Bengalee race. These were the Dravidians, the Mangolian tribes and the Aryans.
Some scholars also emphasise on the concept that people in Bengal are descendants of Homo-alpinus, which resided in the parts of Pamir and Taklamakan regions. The first scientific investigation on the origin of Indian people was done by Sir Herbert Risley. He was the first to trace the relation of the round head of Bengali people with Mongoloid characteristics. He considered these people as a common descendants of Dravidians and Mongoloid people.
His view was strongly opposed by RP Chanda who argued in favour of the Bengalee race originating from the Homo-alpinus type of people that came from the Pamir region and spoke in an Indo-European language.
Pre-historic Period in West Bengal
The pre-history of West Bengal includes the Palaeolithic period, Mesolithic period, Neolithic period and Chalcolithic period. These are discussed below:
Palaeolithic Period in West Bengal
There are 162 lower Palaeolithic sites in this state. The majority of the lower Palaeolithic sites have been reported from Radh plain and are located on the foothills, valley slopes and river banks. The tools in this region were mainly made by pebbles of quartz and quartzite. Some important sites are Egara Mail (Burdwan), Parihati,Mohanpur, Satbati, Tarapheni reservoir bridge (all in Midnapore), Nakbindhi, Patina,Jibdharipur (Birbhum), Jagannathpuri, etc.
A total of 41 sites of Middle-Palaeolithic period have been reported from West Bengal which are located in Bankura, Midnapore, Birbhum and Burdwan districts. The presence of flake tools mark the middle Palaeoliths of this region. A total of 10 Upper Palaeolithic sites have been found in West Bengal. These are in Midnapore, Bankura and Burdwan district. Upper Palaeolithic tools of West Bengal are characterised by backed blades, spear heads, etc and were made by green quartzite, chert, quartz, sandstone, etc.
Mesolithic Period in West Bengal
Only three sites, namely Birbhanpur in Burdwan district, Paruldanga in Birbhum district and Chamargora in Midnapore district have been excavated. Mesolithic sites of this region have yielded lithic (related to stone) collection of both non-geometric and geometric types. Artefacts include spears, scrapers, agricultural tools, etc and were made of quartz, quartzite, fossil wood, etc.
Neolithic Period in West Bengal
A total of 84 Neolithic sites have been identified in West Bengal. The nature and distribution of Neolithic records in West Bengal suggest two focal areas of Neolithic culture with opposite patterns of developments. They are the Himalayan foothills comprising Kalimpong and adjacent Sikkim state and the plateau fringe area comprising the districts of Midnapore, Bankura, Purulia, Burdwan and Birbhum. Neolithic tools with a distinct grey and pale ceramics are characterised the Neolithic culture of the plateau area whereas in Himalayan foothill area, Neolithic culture is characterised by Neolithic tools without ceramics.
Chalcolithic Period 20ited in West Bengal
In 1954-57, during the excavation done by BB Lal and Pandu Rajar Dhibi, the first Chalcolithic or Copper Age site was discovered on the bank of Ajay river in the East Bardhaman district of West Bengal. It dates back to 1600 BC. These discoveries revealed that the people of West Bengal had a clear idea about the importance of town planning and its formulation. They built well-planned towns. The roads were made of stones, gravels and clay with the combination of water. The streets were attached with small channels that drained the water to a common point.f i Pre-historic people used copper in making hand tools and implements, which were used for agriculture and hunting. Agriculture and trade was the strength of their economy. They cultivated rice and other such seasonal crops. Besides this, they tamed the domestic animals as a livestock and for milk. Pre-historic sites have been found concentrated in South-Western part of West Bengal.
Vedic Period in West Bengal
There is clear evidence through archaeological research that there was a highly developed culture in Bengal before the Aryan settlement. There is no reference to Bengal in the Rigveda. Some references indicate that the primitive people in Bengal were different in ethnicity and culture from the vedic people beyond the boundary of Aryavarta and the people who were classed as Dasyus (Pundras).
Scriptures suggest that Bengal was divided into many small kingdoms. These kingdoms were Vanga (Southern Bengal), Pundra (Northern Bengal), Suhma (Western Bengal), Anga, Harikela and Samatata kingdoms. The Mahabharata speaks of Bengali kings who were defeated by Bhima. Kalidasa mentions that Raghu defeated a coalition of ‘Vanga’ kings.
Post-Vedic Period in West Bengal
Post-Vedic era starts from the time when the Aryans settled on the land of Bengal. Subsequently, the 16 Mahajanapadas were consolidating themselves in the Post-Vedic period. The term “Janapada’ means ‘the foothold of a tribe’. These were the 16 great nations which are quoted in Buddhist text called Anguttara Nikaya. These Janapadas are also mentioned in Mahabharata. These 16 Janapadas are Anga, Kosala Kashi, Magadha, Videha, Malla, Chedi, Vatsa, Kuru, Panchal, Matsya, Surasena, Asmaka, Avanti, Gandhara and Kamboja. Out of these 16, the Anga and Magadha were sited in Bengal and symbolise the Post-Vedic era in Bengal. These two are mentioned in Atharvaveda
There were various ancient kingdoms/dynasties in West Bengal. Some of these are discussed below:
Vanga Kingdom The Vanga kingdom was an ancient kingdom during the Post-Vedic period on the Indian sub-continent, which originated in the region of Bengal. It was referred by epic Mahabharata. Its contemporary neighbouring states included Suhma, Anga, Pundravardhana, Samatata or Harikela. In Mahabharata, it was referred that Vanga army was skilled in handling war elephants and they sided with the Kauravas. The boundary of the Vanga kingdom was formed by the Padma and Bhagirathi river in the West, North and East and the South was bounded by the Bay of Bengal. The founders of Angas, Vangas, Kalingas, Pundras and Suhmas shared a common ancestry. They were all adopted sons of a king named Vali or Bali, born by a sage named Gautama Dirghatamas. There is a little bit of information about Vanga.
Anga Kingdom in West Bengal
Anga was an early kingdom covering parts of Bengal and modern central Bihar state. Its capital was Champa (formerly known as Malini). Anga rulers were all descended from King Bali. According to the Mahabharata, Duryodhana made his friend Karna King of Anga. The Ramayana mentions Anga as the place in which Lord Shiva burned Kamadeva, the god of love to death.
Pundra Kingdom in West Bengal
It was an Eastern kingdom located in West Bengal. This group of people was led by King Pundravardhana who had his territory from North Bengal to the land which is now under Bangladesh. Pundra, referred to as a realm of Bharata Varsha or India, belonged to the warrior Kshatriya tribes. The Pundra dynasty did not conform to the Vedic culture of the period. One of the legendary leaders of Pundra dynasty was Paundraka Vasudeva. He united the three regions, i.e. Pundra, Vanga and Kirata and further entered into an alliance with Jarasandha of Magadha.
Suhmas Kingdom in West Bengal
The earliest reference to the Suhmas and their country is found in the Acharanga Sutra of the Jainas belonging to the 6th century BCE. Regarding the origins of the Suhmas, there are many traditional and mythical stories recorded in the early texts. In the Mahabharata, it is stated that the Suhmas originated from Suhma, the son of Bali. Suhmas were spread over a large territory which included parts of the area covered by the modern districts of Burdwan, Hooghly, Midnapore, Nadia, portions of Murshidabad and also of 24-Parganas, i.e. extending upto the sea. In other words, the land lying on West of the Bhagirathi extending upto the sea was included within the territorial jurisdiction of the Suhma country wherein lived the Suhmas.
Harikela Kingdom in West Bengal
Harikela was a kingdom in ancient Bengal encompassing much of the Eastern regions of the Indian sub-continent. There are numerous references to the kingdom in historical texts as well as archeological artefacts including silver coinage. Arab traders recognised Harikela (known as Harkand in Arabic) as the coastal regions of Bengal in the early period. In 10th century CE , Harikela rulers were defeated by Chandra rulers.
Samatata Kingdom in West Bengal
Samatata was an ancient Indian region in South-Eastern Bengal. Its earliest reference is found in the Allahabad Prashasti. Samatata boundaries were well defined by the mountains of Tripura and Arakan in the East and the Meghna (the combined waters of the Padma, Meghna, and Brahmaputra rivers) in the West. Not much is known about this kingdom. It was ruled by Buddhist kings in the late 7th century. Chinese travellers like Xuanzang and Yijing and Roman geographer Ptolemy mentioned about this kingdom in their writings.
Gauda Kingdom in West Bengal
Gauda kingdom was a Hindu power during the late classical period on the Indian sub-continent, which originated in the present-day region of Bengal. The citadel of Gauda served as the capital of the Gauda kingdom.
King Shashanka, first created the separate political entity in a unified Bengal called Gauda. Shashanka was a strong ruler who developed Bengal’s architecture and calendar. He is famous for oppressing Buddhist communities and driving them out of Bengal. Shashanka’s capital Karnasuvarna is now known as Murshidabad.
It was during the rule of Shashanka that Bengal witnessed a flourishing period. | After his death, Shashanka was succeeded by his son, Manava who ruled only for eight months.
Nanda Dynasty in West Bengal
The Nanda dynasty originated from the region of Magadha in ancient India during the 4th century BCE and lasted between 345-321 BCE. At its greatest extent, the empire ruled by the Nanda dynasty extended from Bengal in the East, to the Punjab region in the West.
The rulers of this dynasty were famed for the great wealth which they accumulated Jaina, Buddhist and Puranic sources stated that the Nanda Kings were nine in all. Mahapadma Nanda and Dhana Nanda were famous rulers of this dynasty.
Mauryan Dynasty in West Bengal
It came into existence in 322 BCE when Chandragupta Maurya established his rule around Magadha. The Mauryan empire was one of the world’s largest empires in its time, and the largest ever in the Indian sub-continent including Bengal. The empire was expanded into India’s Central and Southern regions by the emperors Chandragupta and Bindusara. Entire region of Bengal came under the Mauryan empire. After the Kalinga War, the empire experienced nearly half a century of peace and security under Ashoka.
Gupta Dynasty in West Bengal
The Gupta Dynasty (320 to 550 CE) was an ancient Indian empire, founded by Srigupta covered much of the Indian sub-continent including Bengal. A portion of Northern or Central Bengal have been the home of Guptas at that time which is evident from the writings of Buddhist Monk Yijing of around 690 CE. The Poona copper inscription of Prabhavati Gupta, daughter of Chandragupta, describes Maharaja Srigupta as the founder of the Gupta dynasty.
Ghatotkacha was a pre-imperial Gupta King in Northern India, the son of Maharaja Srigupta, who started the Gupta dynasty. He ruled from 280-319 CE.
Chandragupta I was a major king of the Gupta empire around 320 CE. As the ruler of the Gupta empire, he is known for forging alliances with many powerful families in the Ganges region.
Samudragupta was the ruler of the Gupta empire and successor to Chandragupta I. His empire included whole Bengal and Assam. He was the third ruler of the Gupta dynasty who ushered in the Golden Age of India. He was perhaps the greatest king of Gupta dynasty.
Chandragupta II was also known as Vikramaditya and was one of the most powerful emperors of the Gupta empire in India. His rule spanned 380-415 CE during which the Gupta empire reached its peak.
Malla Dynasty in West Bengal
It came into existence in 694 CE. The Western district (Bankura) in modern day West Bengal was once known as Mallabhum, the land of the Mallas. The Malla kings ruled the Western provinces of Bengal from the 7th century and their dynasty can be traced to this date. Some prominent Malla kings are Adi Malla (694-710), Jay Malla (710-720), Benu Malla (720-733), Kinu Malla (733-742), Indra Malla (742-757), etc. Mallabhum was the kingdom ruled by the Malla kings of Bishnupur. Their last king Kalipada Singha Thakur became the king of Mallabhum in 1930 and ruled till his death in 1983.
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