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For the breed of cat, see Bengal cat; for the tiger, see Bengal Tiger.

Bengal (Banga, Bangla, Bangadesh, or Bangladesh in Bengali) comprises a region in the northeast of the Indian subcontinent, today divided between the independent country of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal.



The history of Bengal divides naturally into periods depending on the religion of its rulers.

Early History

Bengal became a political entity in the 6th century, with the first recorded independent king of Bengal - Shashanka - reigning around 606.

The first Buddhist Pala king of Bengal came to power in 750 in Gaur by election. The dynasty's most powerful kings, Dharampala (reigned 775 - 810) and Devapala (reigned 810 - 850) united Bengal and made the Pala family one of the most important dynasties in ninth-century India. Internecine strife during the reign of Narayanpala (reigned 854 - 908) and administrative excesses led to the decline of the dynasty.

A brief revival of the kingdom under Mahipala I (reigned 977 - 1027) ended in battle against the powerful, South Indian Chola kingdom. The rise of the Chandra dynasty in southern Bengal expedited the decline of the Palas, and the last Pala king, Madanpala, died in 1161.

The Malla dynasty emerged in Bengal in the seventh century, although they only rose to prominence in the 10th century under Jagat Malla who moved his capital to Vishnupur . Unlike the Buddhist Palas and Chandras, the Hindu Mallas worshipped Shiva, although they later converted to Vaishnavites. The Mallas built temples and spectacular religious monuments during their rule in Bengal.

Under the Sena dynasty, which ruled from 1095 to 1260, Bengali emerged as a distinct and important language in northern India, and Hindu practices began to seriously displace older Buddhist practices.

Muslim Rule

The Turkish invasion of India (including Bengal) came in the early 13th century. The invaders seriously defeated the Sena king Laxmansena at his capital, Nabadwip in 1203 (1204?) The Deva family - the last Hindu dynasty to rule in Bengal - ruled for a brief period in eastern Bengal, although they were suppressed by the mid-fourteenth century.

During the early Muslim period, the former kingdom became known as the Sultanate of Bangala, ruled intermittently from the Sultanate of Delhi. The chaotic shifts in power between the Afghan and Turkish rulers of that sultanate came to an end when Moghul rule became established in Bengal during the sixteenth century.

In 1534, the Afghan Sher Shah Suri, or Farid Khan - a man of incredible military and political skill - succeeded in defeating superior forces of the Mughals under Humayun at Chausa (1539) and Kannauj (1540). Sher Shah went on the offensive, and captured both Delhi and Agra, and established the most powerful Bengali kingdom that would ever exist, stretching far into Panjab. Sher Shah's administrative skill showed in his public works, including the Grand Trunk Road connecting Sonargaon in Bengal with Peshawar in the Hindu Kush. Sher Shah's rule ended with his death in 1545, although even in those five years his reign would have a powerful impact on Indian society, politics, and economics.

Shah Suri's successors lacked his administrative skill, and quarrelled over the domains of his empire. Humayun - who ruled then a rump Mughal state - saw an opportunity and in 1554 seized Lahore and Delhi. Humayun's death in 1556 led to the accession of Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors, who crushed the Karani rulers of Bengal in 1576 and ruled through governors. Akbar exercised progressive rule and oversaw a period of prosperity (through trade and development) in Bengal and northern India.

Bengal's trade and wealth so impressed the Moghuls that they called the region the "Paradise of the Nations" in their times. Administration by governors appointed by the court of the Mughal Empire court (1575 - 1717) gave way to four decades of semi-independence under the Nawabs of Murshidabad, who respected the nominal sovereignty of the Mughals in Delhi.

When the British East India Company began stiffening the defences at Fort William (Calcutta), the Nawab, Siraj Ud Daulah, at the encouragement of the French, attacked. Under the leadership of Robert Clive, the British troops and their local allies seriously defeated the Nawab at the Battle of Plassey (June 23, 1757) when his soldiers betrayed him. The Nawab was assassinated in Murshidabad, and the British installed their own Nawab for the Bengal, and extended their direct control in the south. The Bengalis attempted to regain their territories in 1765 in alliance with the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II , but suffered defeat again at the Battle of Buxar (1765).

The center of northern Indian culture and trade shifted from Delhi to Calcutta with the breaking of the Mughal Empire. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 triggered the end of Company rule and the direct control of Bengal by the British crown.

British Rule

A centre of rice cultivation as well as fine cotton called muslin and the world's main source of jute fibre, Bengal, from the 1850s became one of India's principal centres of industry, concentrated in the capital Kolkata (known as Calcutta under the British, always called 'Kolkata' in the native tongue of Bengali) and its emerging cluster of suburbs. Most of the population nevertheless remained dependent on agriculture, and despite its leading role in Indian political and intellectual activity, the province included some exceptionally undeveloped districts, especially in the east. In 1877, when Victoria took the title of "Empress of India", the British declared Calcutta the capital of the British Raj.

India's most populous province (and one of the most active provinces in freedom fighting), Bengal underwent partition in 1905 by the British rulers for administrative purposes into an overwhelmingly Hindu west (including present-day Bihar and Orissa) and a predominantly Muslim east (including Assam). Indian nationalists saw the move as a means of sowing disunity within the Bengali population united by language and history; and following a violent agitation, the British reversed their partition decision in 1912.


As partition of British India into Hindu and Muslim dominions approached in 1947, Bengal again split along much the same lines as in 1905, into the Indian state of West Bengal and the region of East Bengal under Pakistan (later renamed East Pakistan in 1958). East Pakistan (East Bengal) later rebelled against Pakistani military rule to become independent republic of Bangladesh or literally "Bengal Land" following a war of independence against the Pakistani army in 1971.

Bengal has experienced two devastating famines costing millions of lives, in 1770 and 1943. But the resilient people of Bengal have been able to rise above such disasters to rebuild their land in the fashion the Nobel Laureate Bengali poet Tagore described as the "Golden Bengal".

See also: Bangladesh, Bengali language, Bengali cuisine, Music of Bengal, West Bengal

Last updated: 02-07-2005 05:59:02
Last updated: 02-28-2005 17:17:35