Indian History: Part 39 BENGAL RISING Part I THE PALA DYNASTY

Canberra, 11 April 2015

At the height of his power Harshavardhana of Kanauj had full sovereignty over Western and Central Bengal and also controlled some parts of the eastern kingdom of Kamarupa (Assam). Harshvardhana’s empire was already heading for ruin during the last years of his reign and his death accelerated the process of disintegration with local kings asserting their independence with alacrity. When the great Gupta Empire was breaking up and Harshavardhana was rising to power, two independent kingdoms were also asserting their power in Bengal—Samtata or Vanga and Gauda. Vanga consisted of the eastern and southern parts of Bengal and Gauda encompassed the whole of the northern and western parts. Folklore has it that the heroic Shashanka ruled the whole of Bengal, Orissa and Magadha prior to this division into two kingdoms.

Almost characteristically, there is scant information available regarding the events in the Bengal region for one century after Harshvardhana’s death. Around this time, Buddhism was the predominant religion in Bengal and tradition has it that king Adisura imported five Brahmins and five Kayasthas from Kanauj in an effort to revive orthodox Hinduism. Many notable families of Bengal trace their origin to this group of people from Kanauj. There is no authentic record that confirms the dates of the rule of king Adisura, but it is definite that such a personality, belonging to a local dynasty existed and ruled Gaur around 700. From this obscure bit of information the rest of Bengal history unfolds.

SECTION I

THE PALA DYNSATY

The chaos and anarchy that engulfed Bengal for almost a century after Harshvardhana’s death made the people elect a chieftain called Gopala to be their king, around 730-40. [This confirms that the Indian concept or belief that a king was necessary to ensure peace and prosperity was in active practice and also that as late as the 6th century kings could be elected by the people at their pleasure.] Gopala the newly inaugurated king extended the kingdom westwards and annexed Magadha (South Bihar). It is claimed that he ruled for 45 years, which is not verifiable through any other corroborative source. Some Rashtrakuta grants of the time inform that Gopala was defeated in battle by Vatasaraja, the Gurjara king of Rajputana. There is no mention of this in the records available in Bengal and it can be safely surmised that the defeat was only a minor episode in the broader sweep of history and did not have any lasting consequences.

The term ‘pala’ which is only an element in the name of Gopala and also found in the names of his successors provided a convenient name to call this dynasty—historians have always referred to this dynasty as the Pala kings of Bengal. Gopala was a confirmed Buddhist and founded a monastery at Uddandapura (modern Bihar Sharif) in Bihar.

Dharmapala

Dharmapala was the second king of the dynasty and there are claims that he ruled for an astounding 64 years. This is surely exaggeration, but there is proof to confirm that he did actually rule for 32 years. The Tibetan historian Taranath describes Dharmapala’s kingdom to have stretched from the Bay of Bengal to Delhi and Jullunder in the north and to the Vindhya ranges in the south. In addition he also states that Dharmapala also had a large number of vassal states in the periphery of his kingdom in the Punjab, the western hills, Rajputana, Malwa and Berar.

The claim of such a large Pala empire, that too created by the second king of the dynasty, is supported by the fact that Dharmapala dethroned Indraraja, the king of Panchala ruling from Kanauj and installed Chakrayudha in his place with the assent of neighbouring northern kings. This event took place around 800 and nearing the 32nd year of his reign as recorded in two separate plates. Dharmapala held court in Pataliputra, building the ruined city back to its old pomp and stature. The emergence of Dharmapala as the most powerful king of the time is clear indication of the visible change that the political climate was undergoing. The exercise of supreme power in North India was transferred from the Pratiharas to the Palas, at least for a period of time. Dharmapala was also an avid Buddhist and built the monastery of Vikramasila on a hill overlooking the River Ganges. The site of the monastery is considered to be at Patharghata in Bhagalpur district and it is stated that at its height it contained 107 temples and six colleges.

Devapala

Devapala the third king of the dynasty is considered by most historian to have been the most illustrious and powerful of the Pala kings. While his predecessors had concentrated on growing westwards, Deavapala’s interests lay to the east. His Senior General, Lausena, moved east and south, conquering both Kamarupa and Kalinga. At this time the Pratiharas and the Rashtrakutas were in temporary eclipse, which facilitated Devapala in taking undisputed control of a very large part of North India. He led his army as far as the banks of the Indus, the first and only time a king of Bengal achieved this feat. It has not been repeated anytime thereafter.

‘The reigns of Dharmapala and Devapala constitute the most brilliant chapter in the history of Bengal. Never before, or since, till the advent of the British, did Bengal play such an important role in Indian politics.’

R.C. Majumdar, ‘The Age of Imperial Kanauj’,

As quoted in Sailendra Nath Sen, A Textbook of Medieval Indian History, p.34

A grant issued in the 33rd year of his reign from Mudgagiri (Monghyr) proclaims Devapala’s victories and provides an indication of the extensive nature of his kingdom. He was a devoted Buddhist and ruled for 48 years.

Mahipala

In the second half of the 10 century, the ruling Pala king was ousted by a hill tribe called Kambojas whose raid was, at least initially, definitely oriented towards plunder, but changed during the course of the invasion to conquest and rule. This defeat of the Palas and subsequent Kamboja rule is commemorated in an inscription on a pillar at Dinajpur. The Pala king who was defeated and his position in the dynastic tree is unclear. However, around 978-80, Mahipala who was the ninth Pala king expelled the Kambojas and regained the kingdom. The fact that Mahipala was counted as the ninth of the dynasty means that the Palas were not obliterated after being overthrown by the Kambojas from their primary holdings but continued as a ruling family, perhaps overseeing only a minor principality.

Mahipala ruled for 52 years, an estimate that is considered accurate. Mahipala is also the best remembered Pala king and songs praising his rule are still sung in many parts of Bengal, especially in the rural areas. His rule was marked by two important events—the conscious revival of Buddhism; and the invasions of the Pala kingdom by powerful kings from other parts of the sub-continent.

Religious revival was marked by the mission of a group of holy men sent to Tibet in 1013, led by the well-known sage Dharmapala. Dharmapala was also the principle personality instrumental in restoring the status and reviving Buddhism, obviously with the ardent support of Mahipala. Buddhist revival was very clearly very close to Mahipala’s heart and an inscription at Sarnath near Benares, dated to around 1026 claims that Mahipala built Buddhist temples and monasteries and also repaired many structures that had fallen in disrepair. More importantly, the inscription at this place indicates that his Empire extended all the way to Benares in the west. This assumption is questioned by few historians, but in the absence of any contradictory proof or information, and considering that the Palas had been ruling parts even further west and north, there is a very high probability that Mahipala ruled the entire Gangetic basin from the Bay of Bengal to at least Benares.

Around 1023, Mahipala was attacked by the illustrious Rajendra Chola of the Southern Chola dynasty. The Chola records indicate that Rajendra first defeated the king of Dandabhukti (an area corresponding to Midnapore), named Dharmapala (not from the Pala dynasty); then conquered southern Radha (the Burdwan district area) ruled by king Ranasura; and then defeated the forces of Govindachandra ruling Vangala. Chola records indicate these three kings as being independent rulers, which if correct would mean that the southern parts of Bengal was not under direct Pala rule. It is conceivable that these three kings acknowledged Pala supremacy only in a perfunctory manner and therefore the Pala king was not ‘honour-bound’ to go to their rescue. Rajendra Chola then battled Mahipala himself and conquered northern Radha. Even though this defeat was a setback for Mahipala, it is certain that this invasion did not leave any deep impression on the Pala kingdom. Rajendra Chola’s northern adventure was nothing but a sweeping raid that spanned a vast area, without any aim to conquer and hold territory. The illustrious Chola was following the age-old tradition of kings, the search for wealth and stature through the subjugation of other rulers.

Towards the end of Mahipala’s reign he was attacked and defeated by the Kalachuri ruler, Gangeyadeva. The claim from the Kalachuri side is of the defeat of the king of Anga and the dates start to be substantiated by external sources at this stage. The Kalachuri claim is corroborated by the Muslim writer Baihaqui who states that when Ahmed Niyaltigin invaded Benares in 1034, the town was in the possession of a king called Gang, who was almost certainly Gangeyadeva. Since it has been confirmed that Mahipala controlled Benares in 1026, it can be ascertained that the Kalachuri-Pala encounter took place sometime between 1026 and 1034.

The timeframe of Mahipala’s rule coincide with the initial Ghaznavid invasion from the north-west. Later historians have levelled criticism at Mahipala stating that as a Buddhist king he kept away from joining the confederacy that the north-western Hindu kings were putting together to ward of the Islamic invasion. There is a hint of labelling Mahipala as being disloyal to ‘India’ in this criticism; and that if he had joined this alliance, the Muslim invasion could have been beaten back. Viewed dispassionately it is seen that the criticism is unfounded. At this stage in Indian history, Mahipala was obviously pre-occupied in containing internal dissent, having only reclaimed the ancestral throne few years earlier. Further, his kingdom itself was under the onslaught of two of the most powerful dynasties of the time—the Cholas and the Kalachuris—and therefore he could ill afford to send a military expedition to the far north to stem a Muslim onslaught that would have had no direct repercussions on his empire. It has also to be emphasised here that there was no concept of ‘India’ during this period. So Mahipala was only doing the right thing for the welfare of his kingdom and people by not dissipating his rather limited spare resources in futile military adventures, however exalted the aim. [It is also to be borne in mind that the exalted aim of fighting the ‘Islamic invasion’ is the invention of later-day historians, since the concept of Indian as a ‘Hindu’ nation itself is of recent origin.]

Mahipala saved the Pala Empire and to a large extent restored its old glory against great odds, which is a highly credible achievement. He is rightly considered the founder of the second Pala Empire; his half-century rule still celebrated as a memorable period in the history of Bengal. [Considering the length of his rule; the fact that he recaptured the lost kingdom; re-established the glory of the dynasty; and engaged in propagating the religion of his choice with great success; it is surprising that he is also not listed as one of the greatest of the Pala kings. He justly deserves a place amongst the Pala greats.]

The Successors

The great Mahipala was succeeded to the throne by Nayapala who is mentioned as the king of Magadha in Tibetan records. At this time the Kalachuri king was Karna the son of Gangeydeva. Karna invaded Pala territory which resulted in a protracted war between the kingdoms. Nayapala finally managed to defeat Karna and peace between the warring dynasties was arbitrated by Atista, a Buddhist monk then residing at the monastery in Vikramasila. Around 1040-42, Nayapala send another Buddhist mission to Tibet led by the same Atista, who was a revered monk and missionary also called Dipankar Sijnana. At this time Tibetan Buddhism was firmly rooted in Bengal.

Nayapalas’ son Vigrahapala III who was married to Karna’s daughter Yauvansri defeated another Karna, the king of Chedi. Vigrahapala died around 1070 leaving three sons—Mahipala II, Surapala II, and Ramapala. Mahipala II, as the eldest, succeeded to the throne but was unsure about his capacity to rule. Almost immediately on becoming king he imprisoned his brothers to avoid their creating any alternative centres of power and/or vying for the throne. He was an indifferent and cruel ruler—a result of his incompetence and under-confidence—and the kingdom lapsed into misrule very rapidly. At this stage the kingdom was almost continually being invaded by other States, which weakened central control and facilitated the increase in power of feudatories.

Perceiving, rather shrewdly, that the Pala power was in decline, Divyoka the chief of the Chasi-Kaivarta tribe from North Bengal invaded the kingdom around 1074-75 and captured the throne after killing Mahipala II. Divyoka’s nephew Bhima became the king of Varendra, heralding the brief Kaivarta interlude in the history of Bengal. Bhima was followed on the throne by his brother Rudok and then by Bhima II. The rule by three successive kings of the Kaivarta family indicate the consolidation of power by the tribe. Contemporary writings indicate that Bhima II’s reign was prosperous and that the people were generally without any great trouble. However, this idyllic situation as not to last for long.

Ramapala

In the initial confusion of the Kaivarta take-over, Ramapala had escaped from captivity and started to travel around North and Central India requesting support from local kings and collecting an army to recapture the Pala throne. Ramapala was related by marriage to the powerful Rashtrakutas, his mother having been the sister of the Rashtrakuta chief Mathanadeva then ruling Anga, who provided him assistance in terms of financial resources and personnel. When he felt that he had gathered a sufficiently strong force, Ramapala attacked the old Pala kingdom—in a bitterly fought battle Bhima II was killed and Ramapala regained his father’s throne. A contemporary historical poem, found in Nepal, called Ramacharita written by Sandhyakara Nandi provides graphic descriptions of the battle, the killing of Bhima II, and the recapture of the kingdom.

Ramapala was a vigorous king, ambitious and daring, bent on re-establishing the power of the Palas and extending his territorial holdings after the debacle of losing the kingdom to a hill tribe. [This may also have been a reason why his elder brother who was inefficient imprisoned Ramapala in the first instance.] He conquered Mithila and North Bihar (modern Champaran and Darbhanga) and then moved towards East Bengal. This region was ruled by Yadavas called Varmans. Ramapala send his chief general Timgyadeva to annex Kamarupa, whose king Harivarman surrendered to the Pala general rather than fight and face destruction of the kingdom. In turn, Ramapala rewarded Timgyadeva by installing him as the governor of Kamarupa.

Buddhism, although in its final decline all over India, continued to flourish as the religion of choice in the Pala dominions during Ramapala’s reign. Ramapala led a long life, full of suffering in the early stages, and as king, almost continually campaigning to extend the holdings of the dynasty. His strength of character, sound decision-making skills, and resourcefulness is clearly visible in all the actions that he successfully initiated. During the latter part of his life he handed over the running of his kingdom to his eldest son Rajyapala, withdrawing from kingly duties. It is likely that Rajyapala predeceased him since records show that he was succeeded by another son Kumarapala on the throne. He handed over a kingdom in a much better shape than he had found it when he re-established Pala rule. After installing his son on the throne Ramapala committed ritual suicide by drowning in the River Ganges in 1120.

Eclipse and Downfall

The Tibetan historian Taranath writes that Ramapala was the last of his dynasty, which is technically incorrect since there is clear evidence of at least another five kings from the Pala dynasty—recorded in the Dinajpur Pillar—who ruled the kingdom. However, there is no doubt that he was the last powerful king of the dynasty, the successors being men of limited vision and stature. When Kumarapala came to the throne, the Pala kingdom encompassed the whole of Bengal, Bihar and Assam, a sizeable territory by any reckoning. However, the signs of decay and disintegration was already becoming visible.

By the time of Ramapala’s death, the outer layer of feudatories were already functioning with increased autonomy and it was not long before they declared independence. The Gahadvalas and the Kalachuris had started to make inroads into Pala territory from the west; and the governor of Kamarupa, Timgyadeva the old Pala general, was in open rebellion. Kumarapala was an inherently weak personality and died in 1125, completely overwhelmed by the troubles facing the kingdom, leaving it tottering at the brink of collapse. The next king Gopala III is supposed to have ruled for 14 years and then died an unnatural death, details of which are unavailable. He was followed on the throne by his uncle, Madanapala the youngest son of Ramapala, who tried to save the kingdom and the dynasty, but failed. [The fact that Madanapala was the uncle of Gopala III does not mean that he was an old man. It was common in the medieval times for kings to continue to have children well into their old age, as precaution to ensure that the lineage was continued even in the face of high infant mortality, attrition in war and even accidental deaths. So Madanapala would have been of a similar age to Gopala III or even younger!]

By the time Madanapala came to power and started to exert himself in an effort to regroup the power of the Palas, the empire and the dynasty were both almost on their death bed. There was on-going conflict with the Gahadavalas with Bihar changing hands at least twice; and the Kalinga king Anantavarma Chodaganaga had increased his power and could not be conclusively defeated, becoming a constant irritant and threat to the Pala kingdom. These continuous wars depleted the Pala treasury and also sapped the energy of the kingdom. However, the greatest threat to the dynasty emanated within Bengal itself—from the Senas of Kasipuri in Radha. In a severe battle at the banks of the River Kalindi in Malda district, Madanapala was defeated and had to surrender the territory of Varendri to the Sena king, presumably Vijayasena. Thereafter the Palas ruled only the Anga territory. Madanapala died in 1161 and is the last king of the Palas about whom detailed information is available. He could be called the last ‘known’ Pala king.

There is indication that a king named Govindapala was ruling the much diminished Pala territory in 1175 and while he could have been related to Madanapala, he is not considered a direct descendant of the great Pala dynasty. This Govindapala, for some inexplicable reason, titled himself the Lord of Gauda. Further, tradition has it that king Indrayumnapala was on the throne in 1197 at the time of the Muhammadan conquest of Magadha. After this defeat, the Palas fade into obscurity and is not heard of again in the context of the political history of the land that they ruled for nearly five centuries.

Bengal, Tibet and Nepal

Commerce and religion interlinked Bengal, Tibet and Nepal even though simmering tensions were almost always visible, predominantly generated by the desire for territorial power and influence. The Palas were always vary of Tibetan ambitions and Nepal invariably became the bone of contention between the two. Between the 7th and 9th centuries, Nepal was completely in the political shadow of Tibet while at the same time being under the Sanskritic influence and Buddhist missionary sway from Bengal. Essentially Nepal was the trade route between the two larger kingdoms and control over it was necessary to ensure dominance in commercial dealings. In 879 Nepal broke away from Tibetan hegemony and became more independent than before in its dealings with both Tibet and Bengal.

Tibet and Bengal shared close commercial and, more importantly, religious links. However, this did not prevent the Tibetans from invading Bengal a number of times and being counted as a source of constant threat by the Pala kings. The sporadic but concerted Tibetan invasions contributed to the weakening of Pala power and their subsequent collapse, both directly and indirectly.

Religion

All Pala kings were zealous Buddhists. They were liberal with their support to numerous monastic communities and for the upkeep of monasteries with patronage of the learned teachers heading them. Dharmapala reformed the religion although over the years his successors moved towards the Tantric form of Buddhist worship. By the middle years of the Pala rule the practice of Buddhism in Bengal was far removed from the one propagated by its originator, the ‘Enlightened One’. It had moved to a completely different space, with no connection to the original concept. The original version relied on a rationalisation of the human condition and was based on the observance of a code of ethics, which was considered inviolate. The trappings associated with conventional religion, its rituals and deities, were anathema and completely ignored. This idealistic situation could not endure for long and over a period of time Buddhism succumbed to the practices of the orthodox religion from which it was trying to separate.

By the time the Pala dynasty reached the zenith of its power, the Buddhist icons were indistinguishable from the Hindu idols. Buddhist religious practice had by now acquired all that was shunned by the Buddha himself and was far removed from the ‘Middle Way’ that he had preached. In Bengal it also came under Tantric influence. The Tantras originate from a collection of esoteric texts of unknown origin that elaborate and describe difficult practices, which provided the practitioner a chance to commune with divinity and to assume supernatural powers. Its rituals and disciplines are complex and secret. The practice of Tantric rites consist mainly of mantras (repetitive formulae); yantras (mystical designs); and mudras (finger postures).

The shift towards a Tantric-influenced worship in the Buddhist religion compromised whatever was appealing in the practice of that religion for the lay person. This proved to be counter-productive for the popularity of Buddhism in the long-term. Over a period of time it became difficult for the common man to differentiate between orthodox Hindu practices and that of the evolving Buddhism, directly contributing to the decline and eclipse of the religion in its last bastion in India.

Conclusion—The Importance of the Palas

At the height of their power, the Palas controlled a wide realm and enjoyed extensive influence across entire North India. As the predominant dynasty of the time, they were able to assert the right to reorder the affairs of North India to their own advantage. Bengal was no more at the periphery of Indian polity, but the core of politico-economic and military strength. Throughout their rule they held Magadha and Mungir (almost the entire Bihar), although Magadha was annexed by the Gurjara-Pratihara king, Mahendrapala, for a few years. The century between 780-890, which coincides with the combined rule of Dharmapala and Devapala, can be correctly assumed to be the most prosperous and greatest years of the Pala rule. The century is known for its marked intellectual and artistic activities and achievements.

This period saw the flourishing of two artists—Dhiman and his son Bitpalo (also called Vitapala)—who were painters, sculptors and bronze-founders of great repute. Some of their work is still extant and they are studied as two separate schools of Indian art in today’s contemporary art scenario. During the same period, Bhavadeva an exponent of the Brahmavidya system of philosophy, practiced and taught in the capital. Also, Madhava a well-known physician, produced commentaries on the tomes of Charaka (a great physician who lived around 175 B.C) and Susruta (considered the greatest surgeon of ancient time, who lived around 6th century B.C.). Unfortunately no buildings of the Palas survive for posterity, although a number of great tanks that the dynasty built in different towns in the central districts of the kingdom bear testimony to the involvement of the kings in projects of public benefit.

The Palas remain one of the most remarkable dynasties to have ruled a large Empire in India being the only royal line other than the Chalukyas to have reigned for nearly five centuries. Irrespective of the fact that there were two minor interludes when the Kambojas invaded in the 10th century and thereafter when the Kaivarta’s usurped power in the 11th century for a limited period, the Palas were at one time the foremost imperial power of medieval India. Although these two episodes of brief loss of power and kingdom were of minor importance in their immediate aftermath, they diluted the strength of the dynasty and also demonstrated to the feudatories that the great Palas could be defeated. The perception of Pala invincibility, which was one of the pillars of their dynastic strength, was removed.

Like every other dynasty in Indian history, and even in world history, the Palas vanished from the scene not in a blaze of glory, but in a rather timid manner, gradually becoming irrelevant to the broader political developments, holding on to an ever-decreasing geographical territory, becoming targets of rising and ambitious kings in the neighbourhood, and finally becoming a memory amongst the people. The golden days are remembered in folklore and song as are the faults and foibles of the lesser capable kings. This is the eternal law of the world as it moves on inexorably.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2015]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

One Response to “Indian History: Part 39 BENGAL RISING Part I THE PALA DYNASTY”

  1. yes i have found it good…
    i hope you could make it some
    more discription on the
    topic, so as to cover up the topic
    with complet discription… such
    as e.g. political.administration. culture.
    religious..& art archetect
    …..thankyou..

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