Published on 6th May, 2023, in Times of India.
When we talk about Bengal, we speak of its partition. The eastern part became Muslim Bangladesh, the western part became communist West Bengal. It almost seemed as if Hinduism had been wiped out in this eastern corner of India. Yet, this is where Hinduism was defined and refined a hundred years earlier.
In the 19th century, one group of Bengali intellectuals saw Hinduism in need of reform. They spearheaded Hindu reform movements which opposed child marriage and promoted widow remarriage and women’s education. This was the Brahmo Samaj group led by men like Raja Ram Mohan Roy who coined the term Hinduism in the early part of the 19th century.
Opposing this were the Sanatanis who believed everything in Hindu scriptures was perfect and did not need any change. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee coined the phrase “Vande Mataram” while Chandranath Basu invented the word Hindutva. This tension between reformist Hinduism and conservative Hindutva spread across India and continues till today.
A hundred years before that, in the 18th century, Bengal was the place where the British empire began, with the defeat of the local nawab, in the Battle of Plassey, by the East India Company, who was funded by a local Jain banker Jagat Seth.
To celebrate the victory, the local zamindars, who were eager to please the English, created the first public Durga Puja celebrations, where the new rulers of the land were invited. Until then, Durga Puja celebrations only took place privately within royal courtyards of local landlords.
A hundred years before that, in the 17th century, Bengal was one of the richest Mughal provinces, famous for its cotton, silks and handicrafts. It was a source of great wealth to the Mughal empire. Eventually, the governors of Bengal became semi-independent as the nawab of Murshidabad.
During the Mughal times, Bengal was connected towards its south to Jagannath temple in Puri, Odisha. To the north, it was connected to Vrindavan. This popularised the Gaudiya Vaishnava movement, based on the ideas of a saint called Chaitanya who popularised public dancing and singing, and the practice of vegetarianism. His followers distinguished themselves from other fish-eating Brahmin families of Bengal who worshipped Shakti, and Muslims, of course.
Before Mughal rule began in the 16th century, the Bengal sultanate marked the Eastern frontier of the Islamic world. It was well connected with Malaysia, Indonesia and China. During this time, the river Padma shifted, exposing vast amounts of new cultivable land. This is where many Sufi saints migrated and established colonies, teaching new farming techniques to marginal communities, which explains the high Muslim population in the region which later came to be known as Bangladesh.
What is unique about the Bengal sultanate is that although Arabic was the religious language and Persian was the official court language, it promoted the local Bengali language. This gave rise to vast amounts of Bengali literature, some focusing on Hinduism, others focusing on Islam. There was composition of Baul poetry, which is both Sufi as well as Bhakti, mixed with Buddhist tantra, originally in a proto-Bengali language called Abahattha.
In the 15th century, we find the composition of Krittibas Ramayana, which presents Ram in a devotional light. We find the composition of many Mangal Kavya, of folk deities such as Mansa, Chandi, and Dharma Thakur. We also find epics like Nabivamsa that presents Islamic stories using local metaphors.
Even Ram and Krishna are seen as the older prophets of Allah before the arrival of Muhammad. This Bengali Muslim imagination was purged in the 19th century, when Muslim intellectuals travelled to Europe and discovered the idea of ‘pure’ Islam, free of all local influence.
While for a long time, Bengal was controlled by Muslim sultans, we do find pockets where Hindu kings ruled such as the Mallabhum kingdom. As per folklore, the Rajput king from Kanyakubja was once on his way to Puri, with his wife. En route, in Bengal, his wife experienced labour pains. Since he could not take the wife along with him, he abandoned her in the forest. And she delivered the child alone. The child was discovered by local tribal people. Brahmins realised the child had marks of kingship and he was chosen as the local raja.
The Mallabhum kings established the unique Bengali form of architecture, based on terracotta art. The roof is characteristically sloped like a thatched hut (the chala). So a temple can have many such roofs. This typically Bengali architecture inspired even Mughal kings to create the ‘Bangla-roofed’ cupola over their thrones.
Before the Muslims came to Bengal, in the 13th century, it was ruled by the Sena kings. The Sena kings invited Brahmins from Mithila, Kashi and Kanyakubja. These were the Kulin Brahmins. Then there are the semi Brahmins such as the Kayastas and Vaidyas. These became the aristocrats, the landed gentry who introduced the caste system into the Gangetic delta.
In the Sena period, we find images of Vishnu being carved in Bengal. On one side stands Lakshmi holding a fly whisk, on the other side of Saraswati holding a lute, indicating how a great king is patron of luxury and art.
One of the earliest Bengali literature we have is Kanha’s song, attributed to a woman, identified as Lilavati, whose tongue was cut off because she was smarter than her husband and her father-in-law but who expressed herself through writing.
At the early part of the Sena reign, in the 11th century, the Cholas invaded Bengal, to claim the title of “kings whose rule extends up to Ganga”. They took back statues of Shiva. The new Bollywood films PS-1 and PS-2 talk about these Tamil kings.
Even before the Sena rule, over 1,000 years ago, from the 8th century to 11th century, Bengal was a Buddhist state, ruled by Pala kings, who patronised Tantrik Buddhism. The Pala kings established the famous monastery of Nalanda where students from China would come to study Buddhist texts. This was the time India was connected to Tibet and even to the Tang dynasties of China, and the kingdoms of Indonesia and Cambodia.
As per legend, the founder of the Pala dynasty was locally elected to end ‘matsya nyaya’ or ‘fish justice’ meaning anarchy, that existed in Bengal after the fall of Shashanka, a Hindu king who murdered the elder brother of the famous Buddhist king Harsha-vadhan. Shashank established the Gauda state and the Bengali calendar, around the time Islam rose in Arabia.
Vedic and post-Vedic period
Before Shashank, Bengal was part of the Gupta empire and before that the Mauryan empire. We have images from Chandraketugarh, where there are images of women wearing fabulous jewellery. But in the Chandruketugarh images we find a more secular world, a world of affluence. There was a booming agricultural economy. But more importantly, it was a mercantile economy of people making fabrics, jewellery, jute and sugarcane.
Perhaps it is in this Bengal region that sugar was transformed into cheeni or crystallised sugar. This went to China, which made it a major export.
As per Vedic literature, a rishi called Dhirgatama was found floating on a banana trunk by King Bali. He was invited to make the queen, Sudheshana, pregnant. She gave birth to three sons who established the kingdoms of Anga, Vanga and Kalinga in the eastern end of the Gangetic plains. This is the earliest information we have about Bengal.
As per historians, the word ‘banga’ is probably an Austro-Munda word. It is a name for the Sun god, from which the word Vanga came into being. This suggests a pre-Vedic Munda origin. Local Munda women who married AustoAsiatic rice-farmers who came to India from Southeast Asia. In a world obsessed with Aryan (male) immigration to India from the northwest, we forget the equally powerful Austo-Asiatic (male) immigration from the southeast.