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The Ancient Period of Bengal

Our knowledge of Bengali life in this ancient period is fragmentary. Some descriptions of Bengali people, and some aspects of bengali food habits, culture, transportation, possessions, dress, society, religion, technology, literature, and arts are discussed in the respective pages. A brief outline of this period is supplied below.

History begins by definition in the historic period, the early phase is thus defined as the period from the beginning of the historic period (before the 5th century AD) till the Gupta period (ending in 550 AD). After the decline of the sarasvati-sindhu civilization, direct foreign trade with India restarted only in the centuries before the birth of christ, when trade with the Ptolemaic Egyptian ports (like Berenice, Nechesia, and Myos Hormos) allowed the Indians major benefits instead of the Arab intermediaries. The importance of the Indian trade increased in the first century BC when the Romans took over Egypt, and is underscored by Pliny's mention that the trade balance with India was draining the Roman empire, and in the laments of emperor Tiberius. In addition, in the maurya period, the trade route from eastern china through the desert and pamir, Afganisthan and Persia, all the way to the mediterranean was accessible to the major Indian empire. This contact increased during the saka and kusana period. In fact this foreign trade was the major reason for the continuing power struggles in western India. The eastern ports of Gange and Tamralipti find mention from the very first century AD; sounagoura (possibly wari/vaTeshvar near DhAkA with occupation dating back to at least 450 BC) is mentioned in the early second century AD, and trade with Tibet, Myamar, and the southeast asian states like suvarNadvIpa is attested from a later period. Because of all this trade, the period from the 2nd centuy BC to the 7th century AD found the rise of international cross-influence and a pan-Indian culture: in literature, in language, in the scripts, and in arts. Overall, even though Bengal was never as rich as the western and southern parts of the country, trade seems to have been an important component of the economy in addition to farming, which, of course, had been the mainstay since the prehistoric period. The society was basically feudal, and like elsewhere in India, the Gupta period is a golden age in Bengal, with trade and well-minted gold coins.

No doubt the Hindus, Jainas and Buddhists preachers brought the aryan influence to Bengal early in this period, in addition to the influence that came through the mauryyas and the shuGgas; and local religious traditions started becoming discernible in Bengal. However, the complete aryanization probably had to wait till the age of the Guptas who were Hindu but supported the Buddhists and Jainas as well. It is to be noted however that aryanization here refers to the introduction of the aryan caste system and hindu religious ceremony into Bengal; and was equally accepted by the hindus and majoity of the jains and buddhists leading family lives. The term is somewhat misleading as much of the hindu tradition all over India including Bengal and including some of the ceremonial structure and most of the pantheon of modern hindu gods largely traces its origins to non-‘aryan’, (dravidian and tribal) cultures as much as to the culture shared with other Indo-European people.

The golden period in Indian history was, however, not to last. The fall of Rome in 475 AD, the wrenching away of the chinese trade route by the Huns in the fifth century, and the rise of the Islamic power around the eighth century and them capturing the major western trading posts, and the slow decay of the eastern ports led to a major change in the economic and social landscape. The resulting fall in the centralized power, and the return to a more agricultural pattern led to the rise of insular and local identities. Coming on top of the advent of the foreign influences not only through trade but also directly with the Yueh-chi zaka kusana, Ahira (2–3 cent AD), huNa (5–6 cent AD), and gujar-gurjar turaSkas (7–9 cent AD), and this rise of the regional kingdoms in the second half of the 7th century, the regional characteristics started dominating, in religion, arts and language, changing economic structures gave rise to feudalism, and it is counted as the beginning of medieval times in Indian history.

So also in Bengal, After the fall of the Guptas, different small kingdoms arose, and, some bengalis spread out into the rest of India in search of fortunes. For example, the gadAdhara of vArendrI, who in the 10th century founded a small kingdom in belArI in South India under the suzerainty of rASTrakUTa kRSNa III was probably a descendant of these expatriates. However, in Bengal, except for shashAGka, no powerful kings arose here, but bengal was very much in the fray of North Indian politics. As opposed to the situation under harSavarddhana in the UP region, the increasing influence of brahminism in Bengal in this period precluded state support for buddhism and jainism, even though they were popular religions, and the buddhist vihAras started. The only exception were the possibly foreign origin khaD.gas.

During shashAGka, the buddhists were probably actually persecuted, and some religious artifacts destroyed. But, three things need to be stated in this context. First, brahminical hinduism in the early period was very strongly against religions like buddhism which did not follow its rituals, and often explicitly criticized all ritual as meaningless or worse. Buddhists were considered inauspicious and their houses unclean. Many kings and kingdoms tried to expel them. Second, destruction of religious property in the ancient world was not uncommon; through the ages it was indulged in by such great rulers as puSyamitra Sunga, srI harSa of kashmir, pulakeshI II, subhAta varmaNa of the parmars, mahendra varmaNa, and rAjendra cola. The aims were varied: it was sometimes political as when at the end of the 12th century the malva parmars destroyed the jain temples and mosques for arab traders in the trade dominated chalukya gujarat, it was sometimes symbolic as when the rashtrakutas sent elephants to mow down pratihara temples in the 10th century, it was sometimes economic as when harshadeva of kashmir decided to appoint deva utpATana nAYakas to loot hindu and buddhist temples at the end of the 11th century, and it was sometimes religious like karnataka jaina temples being taken over by the shaivaites who destroyed the original and put idols of shiva in it. As shashAGka was fighting the buddhist harSavarddhana, the motives mght not have been entirely religious vengeance. Third, it seems that traditional stories of extreme religious intolerance such as the one about the southern shaivaite king srimaravarman killing 8000 jains on a single day in late 7th century are not told about this reign, even though only accounts by religious and political opponents of shashAGka have survived to date.

In general, vaishnava hinduism was on the rise among the populace. Trade seems to have further reduced and currency devalued (even during shashAGka, land is being valued in cowries, not gold dInAra or silver drahma). In fact, during the last hundred years, metal currency disappeared. The trading post of tAmralipta is hardly ever mentioned after this period; Mithila, which used to be touched by eight trade routes earlier, now does not seem to be mentioned at all. Most urban centers seemed to be in decay, and the land turns rural with increasingly small holdings from the pressure on land. But the state still seems rich.

Following this period, much of Bengal was ruled by the palas for about four hundred years (8th-11th century AD). Stories of gopAla's election, dharmapAla's conquests, the kaivarta revolt, and mahIpAla's popular policies fill Bengali folklore. However, during this period, trade seems to have further reduced and the region became mainly agricultural, though traders still seem important personages in the society. The capital keeps shifting in this agricultural society: at various times it was in pATaliputra, mudgagiri, rAmavati, vaTaparvataka, vilAsapUra (haradhAma), sahAsagaNDa, kAJcanapUra, and kapilavasaka. The feudal structure became more ornate along with increased bureaucracy. Poverty becomes apparent in Bengal at least in some selections from carYAgIti (10th-12th cent AD) and saduktikarNAmRta (11th-12th cent. poems collected in 1206 AD). Even though the pAla and candra states were mahAyAnI buddhist (as was the first kamboja ruler) in name and in deed at least till the early 11th century, the society in all of Bengal (excepting, naturally, those of the buddhists who had renounced the worldly life and lived in the saGghas) followed the brahminical class division; but was quite tolerant. Land grants to buddhist organizations are found alongside those to brahmins. The buddhist vihAras at nAlanda, vikramashIlA, odantapurI and sAranAtha flourished. Bengali language and literature rose to prominence in this period.

When however the sena and barman kings (12th-13th cent A.D.) came from the south (karNATa and probably kaliGga respectively), replaced the pAla and candra dynasties respectively, and established a strict hindu (but otherwise similar) regime much more characteristic of their home regions (since the time of andhra-sAtavAhana period though the times of pallava-cola-cAlukya) and north India than Bengal of that period, the tolerance reduced and the caste system became very rigid and the influence of buddhism reduced, and to some extent was forcibly reduced. This intolerance extended to the extant kamboja kingdom as well. The documents of this period reflect that the lower castes are not even mentioned in the royal edicts. The trading class no longer seems socally respectable, beaureaucracy seems to have reached new heights and feudal lords becomes very powerful. This is the period when Bengal developed its own brahminical tradition, rules and laws.

Islam also started spreading slowly, especially in the magadha region. When the turkish invaders started coming in to bengal, the society was ill-prepared to deal with the threat. The slow corruption of the sena era and its religious rigidity had made it inflexible, slow, poor, and too dependant on fatalism and astrology; to the extent that the horse-riding swift-moving turks were almost seen as the inevitable future brought about by kalki, the last incarnation of viSNu.

But, Bengal, by this time had a self-sufficient village agrarian economy, almost no long distance trade, a feudal system and a distinct regional identity, its own language and script, artistic and cultural styles, and distinct religious tradition. The vedic rituals were weak and knowledge based philosophies were less important, emphasis was rather on the very physical feelings and aesthetics. This, in turn, led to a very humanistic religious streak, a bigger recognition of property rights of women, and a coupled rise of the romantic and physical aspects of the lore of rAdhA and kRSNa, and the slow but steady rise of the cult of feminine shakti which played such an important role during the medieval period ushered in by the Turkish conquest.

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