Indian History Part 39 BENGAL RISING: Section II THE SENA DYNASTY

Jakarta, 15 April 2015

The Arrival of the Senas

Choraganga, the powerful king of Kalinga acceded to the throne in 1076 and almost immediately initiated an offensive campaign to increase the territorial holdings of his kingdom. Around 1080, or maybe a few years later, he conquered the extreme north of Orissa bordering the Pala territory. One of Choraganga’s chieftains, Samantasena, also called Samantadeva, and his son Hemantasena founded the principality of Kasipur (Kasian in Mayurbhanja area) holding on to a small territorial holding and wielding limited power.

There are many theories regarding the origins of this father-son team. The most believable is the one that claims that they originally belonged to Karnataka and Samantasena was a distinguished commander of many battles in South India. [It is not clear and cannot be varied as to which dynasty he served in the south.] However, the fact is that they called themselves Karnata-Kshatriyas in Kasipur and claimed descend from the mythical Virasena, said to have been the King of Dakhshinapatha. There seems to be some truth in the theory of their origin in the Kannada speaking region. There is verifiable information that the Palas had appointed many ‘foreign’ commanders to their army and some Karnatas are also mentioned in the records. Further, there is proof that a prominent Sena family existed in the Dharwar region around this time, although what happened to them or how they vanished from the area cannot be ascertained. [There is a distinct possibility that the Samantasena was a scion of this family.]

Samantasena was referred to as a ‘Rajaputra’ meaning the son of a king or a prince, indicating that he was in some manner connected to a royal family in his place of origin. There is a report that claims Samantasena as the victor in a battle against an unidentified adversary who had plundered the Radha territory. It goes on to state that he defeated an enemy in the southern quarter, which could be interpreted to mean that either he fought against the Cholas on the side of the Chalukyas or that he defended his territory against the Chola invasion of Bengal.

Hemantasena was given the title ‘protector of kings’, in records that are attributed to the reign of his son Vijayasena. This is obviously a reference to the fact that Hemantasena gave shelter to Surapala and Ramapala of the Pala dynasty after they had escaped from the prison in Varendra. Subsequent to this episode, around 1090-1100, Hemantasena’s son and successor Vijayasena raised himself to independent status. He wrested a large part of Bengal from the Palas and established the dynastic rule of the Senas. [The Sena dynasty is also named after the last common term in the names of all the kings, much like the tradition that has been followed in the case of the Pala dynasty.] He continued to maintain friendly relations with Choraganga of Kalinga, who is credited with an extraordinarily long rule of 71 years and by all accounts was undoubtedly a powerful ruler. The power and influence of Choraganga can be understood from the fact that immediately on Choraganga’s death Vijayasena invaded Kalinga and defeated his son Raghava. It seems that Raghava was permitted to continue ruling his kingdom as a feudatory of the Senas. However, this feudatory relationship was obviously tenuous at best.


Vijayasena was an ambitious king and although only third in the known dynastic line up, can be considered the founder of the Sena dynasty. He was married to Vilasadevi, a princess of the Sura dynasty. Vijayasena conducted successful campaigns against the kings of Gauda and Kamarupa, bringing them into the fold of his influence. He ruled for about 40 years, probably from 1095, and created two capitals for the kingdom—Vijayapuri, obviously named after himself, in West Bengal; and Vikramapuri, the name extolling his bravery, in East Bengal.

Vijayasena, the de-facto founder of the Sena dynasty is rightly considered one of the great Sena kings. He send a naval expedition westwards along the River Ganges against the Gahadavala king, Govindachandra of Kanauj. Along the way, this expedition invaded Mithila and defeated king Nanyadeva. Once again there is no indication of Mithila being annexed into the Sena kingdom but could have been reduced to the status of a feudatory. The result of the encounter with the Ghadavalas, the primary objective of the expedition, is unclear and it can be presumed that Kanauj was not fully defeated or conquered. The expedition should be considered a raid rather than a concerted invasion. Vijayasena was more successful closer to home, eventually capturing the whole of Bengal from the Palas. Subsequently he invaded Kamarupa (Assam) and exiled the ruling king Rayarideva. The Kamarupa records however refute this claim and state that Rayarideva resisted an attack of the elephant forces of Vanga. In any case, Vijayasena was unable to establish full control of Kamarupa even for a minimum period to consider this invasion a success. True to the Mandala concept, Vijayasena continued to perambulate the borders of his kingdom to extend and entrench his influence.

By the end of his reign, Vijayasena had established a powerful and influential kingdom. Like so many kings before and after him, he built a temple to leave his mark of greatness for posterity. In the case of Vijayasena it is noteworthy that the temple was for Pradymnesvara Siva in Rajashahi district, since this clearly marks the end of the Buddhist influence in Bengal and more importantly the virtual end of the Pala dynasty who were ardent Buddhists. The acclaimed poet Umapatidhara lived in Vijayasena’s court and wrote the famous eulogy, Deopara Prasasti, which gives details of the king’s reign, albeit in a slightly embellished manner. [Such embellishments are to be expected of all court poets, irrespective of the time and the kingdom involved, since they were dependent on the king’s largesse for their sustenance and had to glorify all actions of the king and all events in which he took part.] In 1158, Vijayasena was succeeded on the throne by his son Vallalasena, also referred to as Ballalasena.


Although the Palas had declined into almost complete obscurity by the time Vallalasena came to power, the proverbial last nail in the coffin of the Pala dynasty was struck by his defeating Govindapala, the last know Pala chief, in 1162. [It could be said that he was the last of the Pala kings, but the territory under his control was so limited that he only had the status of a ‘chief’.] It is also believed that Vallalasena was the commander of the naval expedition that his father sent up the River Ganges and that he was responsible for the invasion and defeat of Mithila. His kingdom consisted of Vanga, Radha, Bagdi, Varendra and Mithila—effectively the whole of Bengal—and he assumed the title of Nihsanka-Sankara. Tradition has it that he ruled from three capitals; Gaudapura, Vikramapura and Suvarnagrama; although the authenticity of this claim is questionable. It is more likely that he camped in each of these places for extended periods and therefore records show them as ‘capitals’. An inscription on the banks of the River Ganges attribute Bihar also as part of his kingdom, although the duration of his control of this region is unknown.

Vallalasena was a man of learning—he is said to have mastered the Puranas and Smritis from his teacher Anirudha. He was also an author of repute, having written Danasaara in 1169. He died before he could complete his second book, Adbutasagara, which was duly completed by his son Lakshmanasena. He was married to Ramadevi, the daughter of Chalukya Vikramaditya VI. It is believed that he was responsible for introducing the social system known as ‘Kulinism’ in Bengal, although there are no corroborative records to establish this fact without any doubt. This attribution remains unauthenticated even today. Towards the end of his life he handed over control of the kingdom to his son Lakshmanasena.


Lakshmanasena started ruling the kingdom when his father was still the king and was formally crowned in 1178. His reign is celebrated in seven copper plates issued from different parts of Bengal, confirming the vast extent of the Sena kingdom by this time. During the early part of his rule, he resided in Vikramapura and later shifted to Dharyagrama. He divided Radha into two territories for administrative reasons, although the details of the division is sketchy.

Lakshmanasena was reputed to be a great military leader, having taken part in the campaigns against the Palas and the Kalinga king during the rule of his grandfather Vijayasena. After becoming king he conducted a successful war against the king of Kasi, Gahadavala Jayachandra. From 1183-92, Jayachandra has expanded his kingdom eastward, gradually reaching Bodh Gaya in Magadha. Lakshmanasena stopped any further Gahadavala expansion and it is obvious that he was victorious in the battle against Jayachandra. He also invaded and won a victory over the king of Kamarupa. [It is interesting that almost all kings of Bengal invade and win victories over Kamarupa, but none of them are reported as having successfully ruled the place for any length of time or claim annexation. The difficult terrain and the fierce independence of the local tribes may have been contributory factors in the Bengal kings failing to add Kamarupa as part of the larger Bengal Empire.]

Some Sena records state that he erected victory pillars in Puri, Kasi and Triveni (Allahabad). This is an obvious exaggeration—the pillar at Puri is understandable because of its geographic location, although the other two are difficult to believe. This is the only mention of Triveni in the annals of Lakshmanasena’s reign and therefore has to be considered an exaggeration made to establish the greatness of the king and not factually correct.

The Muslim Invasion

By the end of the 11th century, the major part of North India had been overrun by Muslim invaders. At this stage, Muhammad Bhaktyar Khalji, a Turkish officer, had conquered Bihar and was entering Bengal with a large army.

The Minhaj Story

A Muslim chronicler, Minhaj-ud-din, who accompanied Khalji on this expedition provides an account of the invasion of Bengal in his book Tabaquat-i-Nasiri.

He states that on the news of the Khalji advance, the citizens of the capital, Nadiya, fled from the city but the king continued to stay in the deserted city. Khalji entered the city with only 18 soldiers who were mistaken for horse traders, presumably by the guards and soldiers left in the city. They forced their way into the palace and Lakshmanasena, who was at his mid-day meal, fled through the back door of the palace and escaped to Vanga. Muhammad Khalji was able to declare himself the conqueror of Bengal without having to battle for the kingdom.

There are few fundamental flaws in this narrative. It is a fact that Nadiya was indeed captured by Muhammad Khalji, although whether or not it was the capital is debated. Prsuemably the king was in residence at Nadiya when the attack eventuated. However, the rest of the story is not credible and has to be considered a romanticised version of the events that took place, from a Muslim chronicler in the pay of the commander of the forces. The defeat of a Sena king would have been sufficiently important an event for it to be embellished to make the victor, a mere commander of Muslim forces, look really powerful. However, Lakshmanasena displayed exemplary courage, even if the description of a deserted capital city is to be believed in staying on and then withdrawing only when left with no choice. Throughout his long and distinguished reign, there is not even one instance of the king displaying cowardice in the face of adversity. Nadiya was lost to the Muslim invasion in 1202 and soon afterwards the entire North Bengal came under Muslim rule. The east and south of the kingdom continued to be under Sena rule.

An Appraisal of Lakshmanasena as king

Lakshmanasena was an enlightened and revered monarch and therefore it is difficult to believe the account of the people fleeing the capital Nadiya and leaving their king alone to face an invasion. Although his predecessors were Saivites, Lakshmanasena became a practising Vaishnavite, although this shift did not alter the status of Hinduism as a whole in the kingdom. [Again the reasons for this shift in allegiance is lost with the passge of time.] He was also a distinguished poet and author, completing the text commenced by his father as mentioned earlier. He also wrote some verses that were incorporated into the book Saduktikaranamrita that was compiled by Sridharadasa. Lakshmanasena’s court was graced by two famous poets—Jayadeva who authored the still read epic poem Gitagovinda; and Dhoyi who wrote Pavanaduta in imitation of Kalidasa’s famous book, Meghaduta. In addition, it is authentically claimed that Halayudha, the chief minister of the kingdom was himself a writer of great repute.

A separate era that was in use in Bihar, which starts somewhere between 1108 and 1119, is believed to have been established after the Sena rule and is associated with Lakshmanasena. During Khalji’s invasion Lakshmanasena is reported in the Muslim chronicles to have been 80 years old. The contradictions that exist regarding the actual date of birth of this illustrious king makes it difficult to fix the ‘Lakshmanasena Era’ of Bihar with any accuracy. In any case, since this era obviouslt became defunct rather quickly, it is of very limited import in the broader sweep of the history of the region.

Lakshmanasena died a few years after the Khalji invasion and Sena defeat. The Muhammadan writers of the period unanimously state that Lakshmanasena was a king of exceptional personal qualities. The Sena dynasty and especially its king was universally respected by all other dynasties of India. The Muslim chronicles describe Lakshmanasena as the spiritual head of the entire country, referring to him as the Khalif (Caliph). This attribution is a bit far-fetched since there were other contemporary dynasties of equal stature in the north, west and south of the sub-continent and therefore could be considered a bit of an exaggeration based on misunderstanding of the ground reality. [It could also be that the Muslim writers were as yet not fully conversant with the spread of the sub-continent and had not yet come into contact with the great dynasties of the South.] However, repeated mention of the generosity of Lakshmanasena cannot be discounted as pure myth and must be considered true. The picture that emerges is that of a benevolent and gracious king who ruled with genuine concern for the welfare of his people.

The Decline of the Senas

By the last decade of the 12th century the gradual disintegration of the Sena kingdom was visible in all sorts of ways. In 1196, Dommanapala, no relation of the illustrious Pala dynasty, declared an independent kingdom in the Khadi area that was part of the Sena kingdom. Internal dissent and external invasions had weakened the edifice of empire and the Senas were in decline. Lakshmanasena was succeeded by Viswarupasena, who ruled only for a short period of 14 years. The chronicle of Minhaj confirms that in 1226, Viswarupasena successfully defended his kingdom against an invasion by Ghiyas ud-din, then ruling Radha, and defeated him in battle. He was succeeded by his younger brother Kesavasena to the throne and although the length of his rule is uncertain, Kesavasena seems to have managed to hold the kingdom together.

In the absence of any Indian records, once again Minhaj comes to the rescue in providing details of Kesavasena’s rule and military deeds. Malik Saif-ud-din had send an expedition to Vanga in 1231-33 but Kesavasena repulsed this invasion. It is further stated that he was victorious over the ‘Yavanas’, which was a common term that was used to encompass all ‘foreigners’. There are no details available to confirm the exact identity of these foreign invaders. From the Minhaj chronicle it is certain that the Senas ruled at least till 1245, but it is more likely that they were ruling until 1260.

In keeping with the tradition of vagueness in Indian history, the Senas inexplicably vanish from the scene in the later-half of the 13th century. The repeated and sudden disappearance of illustrious dynasties without any tangible reason that can be clearly analysed being apparent are difficult developments to understand and reconcile. The departure of the Senas from the geo-political scene is also one such episode in Indian history. The last mention of a Sena king is that of a king called Madhusena ruling a small part of Bengal in 1289, although whether he belonged to the once great Sena dynasty cannot be accurately ascertained.

The Senas ruled for a relatively small period in the history of Bengal, but is an important landmark because they broke the stranglehold that Buddhism had in the region and reintroduced Hinduism. All Sena kings were Brahminical Hindus and championed orthodox Hinduism, cultivating the religion for posterity. The Sena rule was also the high watermark of developments in Sanskrit literature in Bengal. It can be said that the Sena era was a golden one for Bengal, almost like the calm before the on-coming storm of Islamic conquest.

© [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 Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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