People of Bengal Part-1

Principal Investigator
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
The growth and history of Bengal and its people were intertwined not only with the history of the Indian subcontinent but also with the growth of present-day South Asia. Bengal was one of the earliest Aryan colonies in the Indian subcontinent and included modern-day West Bengal and Bangladesh as well as parts of Orissa, Bihar, Assam, and the present-day Northeast. ‘Banga’ or Vanga was first mentioned in the Aitereya Aranyaka and frequent references to the land of ‘Vanga’ are found in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. People of ancient Bengal are said to have originally belonged to various tribal communities – North Indian Aryan Long Heads, South Indian Dravido-Munda Long Heads, Alpine Short Heads, and Mongolian Short Heads. These communities mingled with each other, and both the Bengali culture and the Bangla language were a result of this grand synthesis. The Modern Bengali language that we know today is a result of several evolutionary changes in the Vedic Sanskritic language (from colloquial Magadhi Prakrit to Magadhi Apabhramsa to Ancient Bangla to Medieval Bangla to Modern Bangla). Although there is very little recorded information about the early ages of Bengal, as we travel through the pages of history, we discover the rise and fall of various kingdoms. Even though accurate historical information about Bengal is available only from the Gupta period, the Gangaridai and Prasioi empires seemed to have existed in ancient Bengal in the deltaic region of the Ganga, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna rivers around 400 BC which coincided with the Indian campaign of Alexander the Great. The Gupta period was known as a period of immense religious tolerance and this period also saw a lot of development in the art of sculpture. Many janapadas (small kingdoms) flourished as the Gupta empire faded away, some of which were Gour, Vangala, Varendri, Summa, Samatat, Radha, Pundra, Harikel, Tamralipta, Kajangala, and Banga. The unified polity of Bengal saw the rise of her first independent king in the form of Shashanka, who ruled approximately between 590 and 635 CE. His capital was located at Karnasubarna near Rajshahi, Bangladesh in present-day Murshidabad. With the rise of the Pala dynasty under King Gopala Pala in 750 CE, the golden age of Bengal was established. Bengal under the reign of Dharmapala and Devpala has been regarded by historians as a period of political genius. The Pala-s were Buddhists and the most venerated Buddhist monk and scholar, Atish Dipankara Srijnana (980-1053 CE) carried Buddhism to Tibet during this period. This was also the time when the earliest form of the Bengali script originated from the Brahmi alphabet of the Ashokan inscriptions and subsequently from the spoken Laukika or Apabhramsa-Avahatta, which “can be rightly called proto-Bengali” (Sen 1960, 8). The Caryapada (or the Carya songs) is the earliest literature composed in the earliest form of the Bengali language. Sukumar Sen (1900-92) writes in History of Bengali Literature (1960) that even though the language of the carya songs is vernacular, it is also something of a literary language at the same time (Sen 1960, 4-5). The Sena dynasty headed by Vijayasena supplanted the Pala-s towards the end of the eleventh century during the rule of Mahipala II. The Sena-s were Brahma-Kshatriyas, originally from the south of the Indian subcontinent and went all out to restore the identity of the Brahmins and introduced Kulin Pratha (the practice of Kulinism), which was a social reform system that allowed Kaulinya Brahmins to assert social and religious superiority over people belonging to other races, communities, or religions. Vaishnavism also flourished under the rule of the Senas and Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda is an exemplary example of this. During the Middle Bengali period (1350-1800), Brajabuli was popularised by Vidyapati and his Vaishnava songs. Muslim rule was established in parts of Bengal with Bakhtiyar Khilji’s conquest of Lakshmanavati. With the advent of the Turkish invasion and the massive looting and destruction of temples and seats of learning that followed, Bengal received a massive blow as “intellectual activities were extinguished for about a couple of centuries” (Sen 1960, 34). From the debris of the “Dark Centuries” which followed the Turkish invasion of Bengal in the thirteenth century, a new Bengali people emerged in the Chaitanya period which began in the sixteenth century and saw an all-around development in the social, cultural, and religious fronts in Bengal and Orissa. Led by Sri Chaitanya, this period saw the rise of the Gaudiya Vaishnavism Movement, Samkirtan (singing the name of god together), and the assertion of the right to public worship. Many folk forms seemed to exist in rural Bengal alongside the Muslim rule on one hand and the rise of Gaudiya Vaishnavism on the other. Some of these which exist to date were Brotokatha, recitals of the Kasidasi Mahabharata, Alkaap, Gambhura, and Manashar Gaan. Murshid Quli Khan became the first Nawab of Bengal and served from 1717 to 1727 while Muhammad Siraj-ud-Daulah (1733-57), the last Nawab of Bengal seized Calcutta and came to power in 1756. This coincided with the expansion of the British settlement in the Indian subcontinent. With the visit of Job Charnock, an administrator with the British East India Company, Calcutta was established by merging the three villages of Kalikata, Gobindapur, and Sutanuti in 1756. With the French as his allies, Siraj-ud-Daulah caused the Black Hole Tragedy of Calcutta in 1756 cost innumerable British lives. The British answered to this with the Battle of Plassey led by Robert Clive in 1757 that marked the victory of the East India Company over Siraj-ud-Daulah and his French allies and decided the fate of Bengal. Calcutta became the centre of administration and commerce and was the capital of British India from 1722 to 1911. Bengal was marked by a period of extreme uncertainty in the eighteenth century after the defeat of Siraj-ud-Daulah and was marked by repeated attacks from the Marathas (from 1741 to 1751, referred to as Bargir Hungama), and the great Bengal Famine of 1770 which is popularly referred to as Chhiattor-er Monnontor. During this time, the only relief came in the form of the devotional poems of Ramprasad Sen (1718-75) who was a Shakta Bengali poet, Bharatchandra Ray Gunakor’s (1712-60) Vidyasundar, and Dasharathi Ray’s (1806-57) Panchali or narrative poems remarkable in their religious sentiments and musical quality. A new class of Bengalis or a new middle class emerged towards the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. Sukumar Sen states that “some of the nouveaux riche came forward as supporters of the new quasi-literary and cultural trends that emerged in Calcutta and in the other townships along the Hooghly” (Sen 1960, 147). The eighteenth century was also marked by the introduction of the printing press in Serampore, the publication of the first Bengali grammar book by Nathaniel Brassey Halhed called A Grammar of the Bengali Language in 1788, and the establishment of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784 among others. Some notable literary and intellectual figures of the eighteenth and the early nineteenth-century Bengal were Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838-84), Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-73), and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-91) – all of who ultimately led to the Bengal Renaissance that is said to have finally ended with Rabindranath Tagore in the twentieth century.