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bengal6th-9th century

Probable location of Bengal during 6th-9th century

Bengal, West Bengal, East Bengal, Bangāl, Banga — too many names to describe a region in eastern part of India — right? Or is it different parts of the land probably defined by the same name in different periods? The question is critical, answer of which has to be simple. We want simplicity.

Thing is, ancient Indian historical texts refers to many places like Dravida, Karnat, Maharashtra, Panchal or Magadha, but the name of Banga or Bangāl is rarely mentioned. Ancient texts found in eastern part of India talk about Anga, Magadh, Gandhār and Kalinga but no Banga. Check the list of names of 16 Mahajanapadas (3rd — 6th century BCE); there is the name of Anga, but no Banga! (neither Kalinga). The map that accompanies this article has been prepared during British rule. There of plenty of references of Banga in our mythological texts; but its difficult to determine their time. When historians say that the history of Anga, Magadh or Kalinga is the history of Banga, that leads to the question — was there any region called Banga in ancient India at all?

First consider the name ‘Banga’. Shaktisangamtantra, a Tantric text, compiled around 7th century tells that the land spread between the sea and the river Brahmaputra is called Banga (Ratnākaram samārabhya Brahmaputrāntagah Shive\ Bangadesho mayā proktah sarbasiddhipradarshakah)

But does that territory lie on the eastern shore of the river or west? The Tantra text doesn’t clarify that. The description given in the copper plates of Lakshman Sena (12th century) supports a conclusion that the eastern part of Brahmaputra including the area called Vikrampur is ‘Banga’ and this was probably stretched till the Bay of Bengal. But the 6th century text Kurmabibhāg by Barahamihir mentions difference between Samatata (near sea-shore) and Banga!

Second name we may discuss is Vangāla \Bangāl (Bôngal). The earliest reference to this is found in the Nesari plates of 805 AD) of Rashtrakuta Govinda III. This plate names Dharmapala as the king of Vangala. Pala era (8th-12th century) was before Sena’s. Was Vangāla the earlier name of Banga? Again, Thirumalai inscription of Rajendra Chola I of the Chola dynasty, who invaded Bengal in the 11th century, mentions Govindachandra as the ruler of Vangālaadesa. Also the Goharva inscription of Chedi king mentions “Bangāl”. Interesting to find the same name in records of southern rulers and Turkish sultans who invaded this part of land much later. Abu’l Fazl (16th century) in his Ain-i-Akbari tells that the original name of Bengal was Bung, and the suffix “al” came to be added to it from the fact that the ancient rajahs of this land raised mounds of earth 10 feet high and 20 in breadth in lowlands at the foot of the hills which were called “al”. From this suffix added to the Bung, the name Bengal arose and gained currency.

Also interesting is, the inscription of Vijjal, the Kalchuri descendant, differentiates between Banga and Bangāl. Abhidhan Chintamani by Jain Harichandra has a line, “Bangastu Harikeliya”. This Harikel must not be Bangāl — that is proved from other texts like Dakarnava. Therefore we may imagine Banga and Bangāl could be separate regions in this part of land. During Shah Sujah’s regime, the tract between Rangpur and Brahmaputra was known as Bangālbhum. True that Bangāl doesn’t find mention in the record of Iban Batuta or De Barros, but Gastaldi’s map of 1560s shows the presence of Bengālā. Shall we conclude that there was a city name Bangālā near the sea, from which the name of the region was derived later.

Well, Rampal-text of Shrichandra supports separate existence of Banga and Bangāla. This text and Chinese monk Yijing’s account proves separate existence of areas called Harikela, Banga and Chandradwipa. In addition, if we consider Lakshmansena’s plate and some other texts of that period, we may conclude that the tract between Vikrampur and eastern side of Brahmaputra was known as Banga or Harikela between 7th-13th century. Mahabharat and Brihatsamhita determines ‘Samatata’ — the sea shore’s exclusion from this region. Bangāl was located in the sea shore — also Samatata. Probably both were outside the boundary of Banga?

bengal5th-6th century

5th-6th century AD

Vijjala’s inscription tells us that the borders of Banga and Bangāla didn’t merge till 12th century. Even Rāda and Varendra were separate. Islamic texts written in 13th-14th centuries also support this view. First reference of Subah Bangāla stretched from Srihatta located in current Bangladesh to Purnia and Kankjol in current Bihar\Jharkhand is found during Mughal emperor Akbar’s (1556–1605) regime. In 1593, Capture of Orissa and Medinipur by Raja Man Singh, Akbar’s lieutenant brought Medinipur under Mughal rule. But Medinipur and Hilji was not included in Bangāla subah. Cooch Behar was independent state and Chattagram was under state of Arakan. Well, by the time Shahjahan and his son Aurangzeb established their rule in eastern part of India, the borders of Bangāla were expanded much beyond their previous limits — finally creating a large powerful state called Banga or Bangāl.

The name of Bengal is permanently associated to the geography extended over current Bangladesh and West Bengal by British ruler, but its boundaries were continuously redefined till very recent time, even after independence.

This ‘sudden’ inclusion of discussion on ancient geography in the history of literature series may surprise readers. But history of Bengali literature cannot be understood unless we have knowledge of its changing geographical boundaries. Even if we deny mythical references, historical records show constant changes in boundaries among the eastern states like Magadh, Pragjyotishpur\ Kamrup, Samatat, Banga, Suhma, Kalinga, Utkal — as a result of expanding of kingdoms by all powerful rulers through the ages. So at some point of time, part of today’s northern Bengal (probably till the border of Dhaka in current Bangladesh) was under the state of Pragjyotishpur (which falls mostly in current Assam), while in the middle ages Koch Hajo’s (bifurcated eastern part of Koch kingdom) independent state expanded till Guwahati. Similarly parts of southern Bengal was ruled by the kings of Kalinga and Ganjam at different points of time, but in 7th century AD a Gour (current Malda, Murshidabad in West Bengal) king named Sasānka, who was a descendant of a Kamrup dynasty, established a large eastern empire expanding his rule till Utkala and Magadh regions. Before the rise of Hindu Sasānka, the region named Gour was under Buddhist Magadh kings. These changes not only lead to bloodshed and war (even GI patent debates in recent times), but also striking cultural intermingling and shared linguistic and literary heritage among the states of current Assam, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal. Reason ownership of the Buddhist Charyāpada texts or the poets Vidyāpati and Jayadev remains an issue of critical debate.

map bengal1853-2

Bengal as in 1853