The Bengal Dynasties: An Overview
Before entering into the history of Bengal’s warrior kings, an outline of its main dynasties will help to create the context.
Today’s non-Bengali Indians cannot have much understanding of the sheer size and importance of the Bengal kingdoms. To begin with, the British imposed partition of Bengal – a prelude and harbinger of the catastrophic partition of India barely 40 years later, broke up this vast territory. East Bengal was twice as big as West Bengal, so after 1947 two-thirds of Bengal passed outside the purview of Indians.
Moreover, the Bengal kingdoms were considerably bigger than the West Bengal and Bangladesh of today. For example, all of India’s plains northeast was part of Bengal, and the Bengal kings dominated the mountain kings and tribes. Another example: large parts of eastern Bihar and Orissa were included in the Bengal sphere of influence.
Our delineation of the Bengal dynasties is based on http://www.bengalweb.com/hist/wbenhis1.html .
Before 300 AD
Before this period, little is known of the Bengal dynasties, a problem that is hardly unique to this region.
320 – 520 AD: The Guptas
The Gupta dynasty was centered in Bihar, and Bengal made up its eastern territories. The Gupta period was the Golden Age of India: it is sad that we have to look back 1500 years for our Golden Age, but from the 8th Century to the middle 20th Century, our country has had a history unfortunate in the extreme. Future historians will undoubtedly consider the 15 centuries as India’s Dark Age. And at that we are better off the Egyptians and the Mideast including Iraq, whose golden age lies back 23+ centuries and more.
520-750 AD: An Interregnum
Following the decline of the Guptas, Bengal became a land of warring kingdoms. From the chaos arose the Guar kingdom, which became the foundation of the Pala Dynasty, one of the great Indian dynasties known to history.
750 – 1160: The Palas
The first of the great uniquely Bengal dynasties, the Palas were Buddhists. Unfortunately, 150 years into their reign, the Palas began to decline. A short period of revival [Mahipala I 977 – 1027] notwithstanding, by 1160 the kingdom had split into independent parts and was its end.
1095 – 1260: The Senas
The first of the Sena kings may have been a petty ruler owing allegiance to the Palas. The Senas were Hindus, and Hindu traditions came to supplant Buddhist ones. The dynasty lasted till 1260, when the Muslim kings of Delhi attacked Bengal. The Palas and Senas represent what may be considered the classical age of Bengali culture.
Other Dynasties of the period
We should not think of the dynasties above as sole, unitary rulers of Bengal. Other, less powerful dynasties coexisted with the main dynasties, giving or withdrawing their allegiance depending on the strength or weakness of the king.
Other important dynasties were the Mallas of West Bengal, who ruled for 10 centuries, and the Devas of East Bengal.
1260 – 1576: The pre-Mughul Muslim Period
For the next three centuries, various Turk and Afghan rulers of North India, based at Delhi, fought over Bengal. Dynasties changed many times.
1576 – 1717: The Mughul Period
Akbar brought Bengal under the purview of the Mughals. Till 1717, governors appointed by Delhi ruled the region, now a province of the Mughul empire.
1717 – 1765: The Nawabs
For this short, 40-year period, the independent Nawabs of Murshidabad ruled Bengal. Theoretically the Nawabs took their orders from Delhi. The Mughul empire, however, quickly fell apart after the death of the sixth and last Great Mughul, Aurangzeb, and the Marathas gained the ascendancy. Bengal was too distant for the Marathas to control.
Nonetheless, Bengal as a power in India was about to pass into the dust of the ages.
1765 – 1947: Company and Empire
This was the British period, and the “dynasties” ruled from London. The first dynasty was that of the East India Company’s governor-generals. After 1857 the British Crown assumed direct rule; the second British dynasty was that of the ruling kings and queens who controlled Bengal – and India – through their viceroys.